The brief moment of tenure in American universities

Befitting the title and the subject of this post, I’ll try to be brief. Stanley Aronowitz, in his 1998 essay on faculty working conditions called “The last good job in America,” tells us the following:

“Organizations such as the American Association of University Professors originally fought for tenure because, contrary to popular, even academic, belief, there was no tradition of academic freedom in the American university until the twentieth century, and then only for the most conventional and apolitical scholars. On the whole, postsecondary administrations were not sympathetic to intellectual, let alone political, dissenters, the Scopeses of the day. Through the 1950s most faculty were hired on year-to-year contracts by presidents and other institutional officers who simply failed to renew the contracts of teachers they found politically, intellectually, or personally objectionable.

For example, until well into the 1960s the number of public Marxists, open gays, blacks, and women with secure mainstream academic jobs could be counted on ten fingers. And contrary to myth it wasn’t all due to McCarthyism, although the handful of Marxists in American academia were drummed out of academia by congressional investigations and administrative inquisitions. The liberal Lionel Trilling was a year-to-year lecturer at Columbia for a decade not only because he had been a radical but because he was Jew. The not-so-hidden secret of English departments in the first half of the twentieth century was their genteel anti-Semitism. For example, Irving Howe didn’t land a college teaching job until the early 1950s, and then it was at Brandeis. Women fared even worse. There’s the notorious case of Margaret Mead, one of America’s outstanding anthropologist and its most distinguished permanent adjunct at Columbia University. Her regular job was at the Museum of Natural History. She was a best-selling author, celebrated in some intellectual circles, but there was no question of a permanent academic appointment. Her colleagues Gene Weltfish and Ruth Benedict, no small figures in anthropology, were accorded similar treatment.”

(pp. 207-208)

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Testimonials of precarity in American academia

I’m about to post a few things about precarious jobs and political responses to precarious jobs in French higher education, but before I do that, I wanted to call a bit of attention to this fragment of a personal narrative of precarious work in American higher ed, which I came across by chance in an old story on Inside Higher Ed:

I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without discovering Inside Higher Ed, but I’m very glad I finally have. This is clearly a hugely valuable resource and I appreciate it very much. I’ve been adjuncting @ 2 institutions for just 1.5 years now, after teaching as a grad assistant for 2, and am actively trying to figure out where the hell to take my career. The article here, as the others, and especially the dialogue in the comments are hugely valuable to me, not least because they just make me feel less alone in my outrage over the “white-collar Walmart” set-up, as another commenter coined.

I looooooooooooove teaching, like crazy, and I don’t even want a PhD. It took me 9 years to complete my BS and MA altogether, I’m 36, and I’m tired. I just want to work & learn with students about textual meaning-making, and do my best to arm ’em with those literacies that will best empower them to get what they need/want.

Before this gig, I’ve been a waitress for going on 20 years, a job I loved, but needed to get out of, due to a chronic injury and a certain amount of going stir crazy within its intellectual limits. Teaching gives me everything I love about waiting, without the arthritis, crazy hours, and bathroom-cleaning. The only seriously huge glaring problem, of course, is that waiting tables, I can and have pulled in a pretty comfortable, lower middle-class income, and get health insurance and a frickin’ 401k.

Something’s gotta give, certainly. I have every confidence that somehow, I’ll make a career that works enough to avoid true abject poverty when I retire, and I’m even more positive that I will find a way to have fun while I do it. I knew what I was getting into, job-wise, when I went for the MA. But I’ll tell you what, if I hear one more tenured/tenure-track faculty at my 4-year institution cluck sympathetically at me about how awful it is that the life of an adjunct is so hard, but take absolutely no advantage of their position to advocate for any change in our treatment, I will lure them to the bar I still work at on the weekends, so I can throw a beer at them on my own turf.

(Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to link directly to a comment on Inside Higher Ed, but if you scroll around you can find the original.)

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Nietzsche’s Niche: Kirp on the University of Chicago

I was just reading Christopher Newfield’s interesting 2003 book review on university-industry relations when I noticed that he mentioned a chapter by Kirp on the University of Chicago. The following rather florid (occasionally insulting) prose is interesting — at least to me — because it proceeds from remarking that the university is a bastion of self-congratulatory self-reflexive discourse to commenting on a major contradiction in the university’s labor relations. In other words, it points out the conundrum of a university that bills itself as deeply devoted to rigorous education while also having faculty who are primarily hired for research and who teach as little as possible. This means, as Graduate Students United knows well, that there are a lot of underpaid grad student and adjuncts who depend on teaching while being written out of the institutional self-image.

But I’m getting ahead of the textual excerpt I wanted to present. Although it doesn’t always manage to be an accurate description of the university, it compensates by being entertaining and at times outrageous. (Outrageousness being nothing to sneeze at when it comes to desanctifying institutional self-images.)

The University of Chicago is more self-absorbed—more precisely, self-obsessed—than any other institution of higher learning in America. Its animating myth was manufactured by Robert Maynard Hutchins, the institution’s pivotal president and promoter non pareil. “It’s not a very good university,” Hutchins declared, “it’s only the best there is.” Never mind Oxford or Berkeley. Harvard and Yale may fill the corridors of power, loyalists say; in the domain of ideas, Chicago rules. Nowhere else is the “Ivy League” a term of derision—the land of academic “Jay Leno-ism,” it is called, a reference to its veneration of big-name professors derided at Chicago as “dying elephants.” A passing remark made long ago by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead is recycled as if it were gospel: “I think the one place where I have been that is most like ancient Athens is the University of Chicago.”

Three-quarters of the faculty live within a mile of the campus in the enclave of Hyde Park, a hothouse of learned chatter and salacious gossip set apart, by design, from the bombed-out inner-city landscape, peopled mainly by dirt-poor blacks, which surrounds it. The fact of isolation, it is said half-jokingly, is why the university’s athletic teams are known as the Maroons. The Chicago tribe takes pleasure in furious disputations about everything from monetarism to metaphysics. While Harvard preens, Chicago navel-gazes, turning out bookshelves’-worth of histories and biographies, faculty committee reports, student newspapers, broadsheets, and websites devoted to itself. There are several hundred listings in the “introductory” bibliography of the university’s history that the campus librarians have prepared.

Seemingly everyone is an amateur historian, mining the past for ammunition that can be used in the present. “No episode was more important in shaping the outlook and expectations [of higher education in the decade following the Civil War] than the founding of the University of Chicago,” writes Frederick Rudolph in his benchmark history of American higher education. It is “one of those events in American history that brought into focus the spirit of an age.” When John D. Rockefeller launched the university with a gift of $2.3 million, he expressed the hope that an institution situated far from the tradition-bound East Coast would “strike out upon lines in full sympathy with the spirit of the age.” Although Chicago is a great school, in this respect Rockefeller would be disappointed. The dominant trope, observes Dennis Hutchinson, professors of law and longtime dean of the undergraduate college, is that “at Chicago we’ve always done ‘X,'” meaning whatever is being advocated at the moment.

There is another, less frequently acknowledged tradition in Hyde Park, a willingness on the part of the university’s leaders, including Hutchins and William Rainey Harper, the founding president, to do whatever has been necessary to raise money for a chronically cash-starved school. Among its past ventures are a junior college and the nation’s biggest correspondence school; in 1998 it attached itself to, a for-profit business school.

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