Saturday, April 26, 2014

How to Talk to Adjuncts (if you're tenured)

This is my first attempt to generalize some guidelines for talking about people with less power than yourself, especially when trying to highlight an injustice that you, to some extent, are responsible for perpetuating.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a piece on how to talk about feminism if you're a guy (especially a straight white married guy).  It was a somewhat light response to a serious discourse problem - it's complicated if you want to talk about problems experienced by others, especially if you are of the group that has all the power and privilege. It's complicated, but it's also necessary. The four core rules are:
  1. It's not about you (don't make stories about the discrimination faced by women about how you, the man, feel about it).
  2. It's sometimes about you (men need to talk to men about rape, for example).
  3. It's always about them (don't erase women's voices from the conversation. Cite, link back, use privilege to amplify the voices of others and hopefully erode one's own privilege).
  4. Don't expect gratitude (A lot of male feminists want women to like them more, or to exempt them from critiques - the "not all men" defense - or otherwise, once again, making it about the wrong topic).
This week I wrote about adjuncts - the contingent labor force of academia. I think all these rules apply

I'm a tenured professor living in a nice house in a suburb of Chicago. My wife and I have two professional incomes. I've also been given a big platforms on CNN, the Chronicle, and beyond. I'm a straight white married man. My university is a great place to work. If adjuncts resent these facts, that is reasonable. I can't expect gratitude for noticing their difficulties. And most of all, I cannot make the stories about me.

Rule #2 applies too, though, as it's going to take tenure-stream faculty being part of the movement to achieve any kind of change. I  have some ideas of how that can happen; I have a criticism of the attempt to use hyperbolic metaphors to evoke sympathy. I think we need SHARED identification, not to use analogies to marginalized groups. I might be wrong though.

For the rest of the blog, I want to offer an example of how NOT to talk about adjuncts from a position of privilege, then give a critic my space to critique me. 

Matt Reed, aka @DeanDad on Twitter, wrote a blogpost on Inside Higher Ed in which he asked for ideas to get adjuncts to come to workshops. He wrote, among other things:
In a perfect world, of course, we’d have enough money that this wouldn’t be a problem. But this isn’t a perfect world. So within the fiscal parameters that actually exist, we’re trying to find a more effective way to reach significant numbers of adjunct faculty.
In my piece for the Chronicle, I talked about specifically this kind of language, saying, "We tut-tut and say it’s too bad, but then throw up our hands, blame the budgets, and let the system continue." Reed's heart is in the right place I guess. Most people's hearts are in the right place. But then when attacked on Twitter, he got defensive. He makes a huge amount of money overseeing a system in which adjuncts are exploited, but he wants to be the good guy.

Adjuncts online started criticizing him, asking him how dare he ask adjuncts to do anything given that Deans make 150K and they make 3K a class. Dean Dad responded defensively. Here are the tweets.

In fact, most Deans at Reed's school make 80-90K. If you are an adjunct making $3000 a class, the difference between 90K and 150K (both with benefits and job stability) is negligible. It's like when people making a million dollars a year complain that they shouldn't be seen as rich because they aren't making 10 million a year and real estate in NYC is so expensive. Getting defensive when you have the privilege and are being criticized for it doesn't help. It's also not right. Sometimes, you just have to take it.

When I was criticized, I tried to keep Dean Dad in mind. Below is a Storify of a critique from an adjunct. What I tried to do was to accept the criticism and not to get too defensive. I tried to remember - it's not about me. Don't expect gratitude.

The critic, Gordon Haber, wants me to use my platform to rage about the injustice, making the criticism that sure, while adjuncts are raging, people like me aren't. We, to use my own language, just "tut-tut." I can defend my piece, but his criticism isn't wrong. I'm doing something think-y rather than rage-y, even though I agree the injustices are worthy of rage. Maybe a stronger piece as my first step onto Vitae would have been better.

At any rate, it's not about me and I'll keep working on living up to my rules.

I'm letting Gordon Haber have the last word from his blog post, in which he writes.
Now, Perry is right. And he was gracious when I criticized him on Twitter. And he ends his piece by suggesting that tenured faculty make common cause with adjuncts, to which I say, “A fine idea but I won’t hold my breath.” But in the end I find it galling that here we have another academic launching a critique of labor issues in higher ed byparsing adjunct rhetoric.