Robert Scholes, the president of the Modern Language Assocation, has written a column in the MLA Newsletter ("Where the Elite Meet to Bleat En Suite") about faculty evaluation, tenure, and the "culture of excellence" that's permeating academia almost as quickly as it did corporate America. It's a good column, particularly relevant if, like me, you happen to work at a university ravaged by shallow managerialism and education-as-consumer-transaction run amok. (When you report to your first day of work and your president has distributed a letter that quotes from a book called Hug Your Customer... you're in trouble.)
But. In the midst of an otherwise earnest and lucid column, Scholes drops this little bomb:
In our doctoral programs we can detect other symptoms of the culture of "excellence." Aware of how fiercely competitive the profession has become, students are reluctant to finish graduate studies and have their loans fall due when they may not find positions remunerative enough for repayment. So they press for recognition as workers, not students, and for improvement in their working conditions.
Yeah, that's why graduate and adjunct laborers want recognition as workers - because they don't want to leave grad school. Not because they're doing the same (or more) work for a quarter or a fifth of the pay of full-time faculty; not because low wages force them to teach extra courses that then impede their progress towards graduation; not because they can't get jobs because the discipline is still producing almost twice as many Ph.Ds as it is tenure-track positions, and it's farming more and more of what used to be tenure-track positions out to those same underpaid adjunct laborers, in effect pricing itself out of existence. And of course, none of the teachers pressing for unionization and fair wages are postdocs who have already graduated. None at all.
This is the sort of comment I'd expect to see blithely dismantled over on Invisible Adjunct, if the IA were in English or foreign language instead of history and if she hadn't closed down her site back in March. (It's still worth visiting for its collection of insider critiques of academia's spiral of self-destruction.)
The worst part about Scholes's column is that he knows everything I just told you; indeed, he makes some of the same points just a few sentences later. How, then, can he imagine the push for graduate and adjunct labor recognition is about deferring graduation and not basic fairness?
Perhaps Scholes is framing the question the wrong way; maybe the real danger confronting academia is not hypercompetitiveness among scholars but a scarcity of jobs. Some professors fret that the lean job market is making graduate students prematurely professional - the horror! - but, as the Invisible Adjunct observes, the greatest problem facing graduates is their own deprofessionalization as the tenure-track positions that should be awaiting them - the positions that sustain a university and a profession - are downgraded and passed off to cheap adjunct and student labor. The only tragedy with grad student professionalization is that when they finally do graduate, there may not be a professional job left for them to graduate to.
That's why graduate student and adjunct unionization and labor recognition are so important; because if they succeed, if they take away that cheap alternative or at least make it less cheap, universities will no longer have the inexpensive, inexhaustible labor supply that's made the profession all but impenetrable for new scholars.
I realize this may be of little interest to most of my regular readers, that I may just be screaming into the ether, but I have to vent and by god that's just what NOT the Beastmaster is here for.