Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Cozy Catastrophe: The Dystopian Turn in Public Education

            To provide a brief introduction, I gave this talk at a session of this year's MLA, for a panel with the initial title of "The New Material Circumstances of Academia."  In a sense, the talk represents my current liminal position within academic life, reflecting not only on my present position, but also on my activism as a graduate student.  It's still a little rough, but worth putting up on the blog.

            Perhaps, to enter into this talk, I should mention the origins of the title.  The term “cozy catastrophe” is used to describe a subgenre of science fiction novels, written in the mid-twentieth century.  Exemplified by the work of John Wyndham, this work imagined any number of catastrophes that killed millions, but nonetheless, left the protagonists of the novel relatively unscathed.  Those individuals would then go on to build some kind of future, attempting rectify the conditions that created the catastrophe in the first place.  That gap, the space between catastrophe and roughing it in the wilderness, struck me as somehow apt to describe how the transformation of public college education is narrated.  To give a concrete example, in the middle of my time as a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, the president of the system described the schools as an enormous graveyard.  That catastrophist language can be seen not only at the top of the system, but in the language of the day to day activism of those who operate within the university system, primarily in the form of the blogs and other publications of countless graduate and undergraduate activists.  Our system of ‘education’ is in ‘crisis’ and is about to reach the level of catastrophe.

            At the same time, the vast majority of us producing this writing remain in the system with some relative comfort.  This applies not only to the tenured faculty, who have job security and access to benefits, but to most of us who participate in the academic side of daily university life. It certainly applies to life as an adjunct as well. Our troubles, as real as they are, rarely fit comfortably into the narrative of catastrophe, and instead are defined by the grey reality that Leon Trotsky argued constituted middle class life.  We look for better employment, worry about paying for insurance and our school loans, and fret over our lack of a meaningful retirement fund.  Most of us are concerned about the kind of education that we are providing, and feel a keen sense of regret about the corner cutting that frequently occurs while teaching in multiple institutions without access to offices or many other resources.  These are real concerns, but the language of crisis does little to help us understand those issues.  At best, the language creates an excitement absent from those grey reality of daily life, and inspires us to become active in the politics of our campus. At worst, and more often, it creates the logic for inaction, to keep our noses down and focused on the next day.

            However, the language certainly captures something of the intensity of the transformation.  As Wendy Brown notes in her 2015 talk on the topic, the university is undergoing a substantial transformation in its governance structure.  Moving from what she calls the corporate structure of the university that existed through most of the 20th century, the university has broken away from the previous system of shared faculty governance and has become a system that reflects the processes of neoliberalization and financialization.  That system now shifts the system of governance away from the disciplinary concerns of its faculty members and gives that control to a wide array of administrators, who govern the university based on a variety of matrixes that classify and individuate faculty members, and judge their worth on grants, rankings systems, and other markers of excellence.  The system moves from the holistic, vertically integrated structure of corporate capitalism into the fragmented, market driven system of the present. At the other end of the system, the one that Brown leaves unremarked, is a vast collection of adjuncts, who take the unwanted work off the hands of the financialized tenured faculty, and more significantly, give the university a workforce that no longer has the kinds of economic and academic protection that were promised under the guise of ‘shared governance.’

In that sense, our positions as adjuncts are a key linchpin in the reshaping of the governance structures of the university.  We provide the flexible, and instrumentalized labor that allows for the small grouping of the neoliberal professoriate to escape from the dreary labor of introductory classes, and more significantly, we provide a labor force that is even more flexible because of our relative precarity.  In a sense, the new precariat is an updated, and far less disciplined version of Marx’s old concept of the mobile army of the unemployed.  For ourselves, these years are frequently experienced as a kind of waiting room, a space to make a living and to remain within the academic setting as we try to apply for other jobs, jobs that are increasingly unavailable, but nonetheless often define the horizons of our professional life.  To look at the system from this perspective, we find ourselves examining the system that Brown describes, but a system that looks radically different than the system of self-marketing and self-promotion that she describes in her talk.  Instead, we find a process that does not emphasize excellence, but is defined by checking off boxes, filling competency requirements, and moving students through conversations that they frequently see as distractions to their real educational goals.  More often than not, we represent the effort to continue the hollowed-out functions of a liberal arts education, the old belief in a broadly educated citizenry.  We are the grey apparatus that allows for excellence, but is excluded from that possibility ourselves. 

            The experience of being an adjunct at a community college only intensifies that process.  Like most community colleges within the California system, Irvine Valley College is designed to move students from its hallways to the hallways of the California State University or University of California systems.  That matrix becomes the most significant instrument of measurement for the success of the college, and Irvine Valley College features it prominently in its advertisements.  Just as significantly, the college reminds its students of this goal every day, through a myriad of posters offering advice on how to transfer to a variety of universities.  In addition, Irvine Valley College promises to streamline finishing at the transfer institutions, offering to check the boxes off any number of university requirements.  This is particularly true of the classes that I teach, introductory writing classes.  These classes are largely seen by my students as a somewhat tedious hurdle to jump over, and are looked upon with little enthusiasm.  This, obviously, is not very surprising, but is nonetheless important to restate because it provides a concrete, if banal, example of the tension between the instrumentalization of college requirements and the complex and recursive process of learning to write.  Our students are continually presented the intellectual work of the university as a series of hoops to jump through, and the unsurprising result is that the students frequently view the work as a distraction to other concerns.

            The mirror image of that situation is ours as adjuncts.  We are disconnected from the communities and institutional histories that define our workplaces, and are only tenuously tied to the institutions themselves through temporary offices, and our classrooms.  Most of us our committed to our students, but are limited in our commitments by our fragmented complex of workplaces.  It’s something I find myself thinking about quite a bit, while waiting for class in the adjunct office at IVC.  It’s clear from the imagery of the office space that there is a long running struggle within the college.  The office is festooned with satirical images of the college administration, and points to efforts on the part of the faculty to both unionize and protect its academic freedoms.  They also point to a series of far more basic, if still significant, struggles, the need for classrooms free of ants, simple cleanliness, and other necessities.  We also have a faculty union that is in communication with us, at least on email.  But my knowledge of the struggles of the institution don’t move much beyond my recognition of the traces of the struggle.  Despite my substantial involvement in the graduate student union at UCI, I haven’t taken the trouble of contacting my union representatives, or gotten a sense of how the union works.  I don’t even really know most of my ostensible colleagues beyond the vague recollection of a few faces and short conversations.  My primary engagement with the college remains with my 20-50 students, and doesn’t substantially go beyond this.

            Nothing that I’ve said is terribly shocking, and has been regularly reported on in the pages of the Journal of Higher Education along with a variety of other publications.  It’s been discussed in the academic blogs of Chris Newfield, amongst others, and has been extensively discussed on the blogs and other informal publications of adjunct faculty members.  The explosion of adjuncts has been seen as the mirror image of the explosion of upper administration in the fight against the privatization of public education.  Within this context, not only can the adjunct speak, but has a polyphony of voices.  Those voices are not central to the conversation about the transformation of the education system, but it would be a substantial exaggeration to say that they have been ignored.  Instead, they have been an ongoing thread of marginalia that enters the mainstream of academic conversation through irritated responses on the part of tenured faculty and administrators, through apologies with those with academic security, and through informally distributed articles that catch the attention of larger media. Frequently marked as abject, the voice of the adjunct has been significant, while certainly not central, point of conversation within academic life.  If the construction of a voice was the main point of political intervention to transform the marginalized existence of adjunct life, that intervention would have already occurred. 

            The issue is probably apparent to most of you.  Adjuncts have voices, often quite eloquent ones, but we have very little social power within our institutions, and the reasons for that are quite simple. We are disconnected from the meaningful social relationships of academic life, and are just as disconnected from each other’s lives.  Perhaps, at a more powerful level, we are given very little incentive to be invested in the futurity of the institutions that we work at.  We are, after all, supposed to be in the process of looking for jobs, of grasping for the ring of a tenured track position, or some sort of work somewhere else.  In this sense, our very alienation precludes us from being able to maintain an investment in the defense of the public university, a university not only accessible to all, but committed to a critical engagement with the world.  Such an investment would, by necessity, need to be both collective and move beyond the concern of the classroom, and involve thinking about the larger context of the educational process.  In this sense, the terms ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ obfuscate the problem, which is tied to this very successful process of hollowing out, instrumentalizing, and restructuring the university.   The terms ‘crisis’ and ‘catastrophe’ imply systems out of control and moments full of meaning, where we find ourselves in an opposite situation, one in which we are structurally encouraged to disinvest and not to find meaning.  In short, we find ourselves in the opposite condition of the tenured faculty, not a part of a collapsing system of governance, but the alienated, disconnected labor of the new system.

            To change that, we must in some way transform our relationship to these institutions, but the creation of the forms of collectivity to enact that transformation are daunting for the very reasons they are needed.  Organization takes time, intellectual and emotional labor, and above all, a long-term investment in the process, all of which are difficult to create amongst us.  Despite our exclusion from the forms of excellence that defines the neoliberal professorate, an exclusion we share with our tenured colleagues at the community college level, we are still shaped by the individualizing disciplinary processes that define them.  We, after all, continue to look for an entrance into tenured work, we attempt to publish, and establish ourselves as worthy scholars.  Our labor intensely depends on one another, but that social aspect of our labor is occluded from us, and is difficult to build upon.

However, we have a pair of obvious forms of organizations to try to develop this form of deliberate collectivity.  The first is the professional organizations that we can still join.  We have a space to discuss these issues within the MLA, and we can call upon that body to contribute to our struggles.  The first of those possibilities should not be ignored.  After all, we have the space to discuss these issues at the conference, and more significantly, to meet each other and reduce the isolation and alienation of our workplaces.  These aren’t insignificant factors, but if we think about the possibility of seeing these professional associations as a place to push a struggle forward, I’m considerably more pessimistic.  At the more immediate level, I’m skeptical of the ability to get the clear majority of these organizations to sign on to such an engagement.  While there are certainly a significant minority of tenured faculty members who are willing to contribute to such a struggle, I have not seen this commitment on the part of most tenured faculty.  As we have seen, tenured faculty often attempt to protect their own professional status through defending the distinction between themselves and adjuncts, either through inaction or through defenses of the system in the face of attempts on the part of precarious faculty to organize.  Tenured faculty have largely remained outside the fights for more rights on the part of precarious faculty, and have, on occasion, defended the systems that divest precarious faculty of rights.  However, even if it were possible to get such a commitment on the part of professional bodies, I’m equally skeptical of the efficacy of such bodies to affect change.  After all, their power primarily lies in the now gutted structure of faculty governance, and has less and less impact on the university.

The next obvious form of organization is forming a union, and this will take a bit longer to discuss because it is a more complex issue.  The possibilities of the project are significant.  After all, forming a union gives the workers the possibility of negotiating the conditions of their employment at the bargaining table with management, and gives those workers an ability to draw on the larger resources and expertise of a union structure.  Not surprisingly, there has been some real effort to begin this process, with attempts to organize at several institutions including the University of Minnesota.  Indeed, as I already noted, my own current employer has a relatively long standing contract that benefits both tenured and adjunct faculty.  Moreover, a few unions have seen entering the academic sphere as a real opportunity to increase their numbers and strength.  This work has played a role in improving our condition as workers, and such struggles can be used to fight for the public university as some of the struggles of the UC grad student union and the Chicago Teachers’ Union has shown.  While these fights have been uphill ones, both examples show that a contract fight can be used to create alliances in defense of a public education.

However, there are some real downsides to this process as well.  The most immediate downside is the often-brutal fights that are involved in creating a union.  Our current system for recognizing and creating unions heavily favors employers and the creation of unions often takes years and even decades.  Certainly, this has been the case at the University of Minnesota and the fight to organize the UC system took even longer.  Once that rather arduous task is completed, our entire system of contract negotiation is designed to facilitate contracts that are concerned with the economic concerns of employees as stakeholders, rather than to meaningfully transform the social relations of the industry where they work.  Both the initial NLRA and the additional restrictions placed on unions by the Taft-Hartley Act place emphasis on the sole control of the workplace remaining in the hands of management.  This restriction often places unions in the position of trying to gain as much as they can within the neoliberal strictures of the workplace, rather than challenging the structures of that economic system.  Indeed, most unions are both unaware of and are uninterested in challenging such systems, comfortable with living within the decaying system of business welfare capitalism and the long dead labor peace.

That situation places us in a bit of quandary.  The most obvious interventions into the system have significant drawbacks to them, and are structurally difficult to create and/or implement.  Furthermore, the effective privatization of the college and university structure has translated into a withdrawal of the always precarious public support for such institutions. Moreover, we are likely to see a withdrawal of federal funds from the public education system for at least the next four years.  Unfortunately, the democratic alternative has shown little interest in supporting liberal arts education, either.  It’s a situation in which I don’t see any easy solution, and is most likely going to be defined by a series of defensive responses to a multitude of attacks on the system of public education.  The question is then, how to build forms of cooperation and solidarity within a system that is designed to make us, as students, faculty, and staff, think of ourselves within the logic of the market.  Despite its problems, I see the formation of unions as a significant force within that process, but it’s a process that will involve challenges to the logic of the international unions as much as the university.  In addition, there needs to be pressure put upon professional organizations to demand more institutional support for those who teach an increasingly large portion of the classes, and would demand a transformation of those organizations, as well.  In each case, we need to recreate those institutions to deal with the present, a lengthy process that is impossible to imagine, at present, a final form.

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