Hope’s temper

Hope must be tempered by the complex reality of the times and viewed as a project and condition for providing a sense of collective agency, opposition, political imagination, and engaged participation. … Hope expands the space of the possible and becomes a way of recognizing and naming the incomplete nature of the present.

(Henry Giroux, 2004)

The Adjunct Project is one of the most important outcomes of the recent US summit on precarity in higher education. Behind it is an impressively simple plan: invite academics who work without tenure to create a cloudsourced data collection project about their pay and conditions.

Data is the central nervous system of higher education. Without it, there are no key performance indicators, no reporting, no ranking schemes, nothing for auditors to audit. If the tenured to non-tenured ratio is reaching a tipping point in the US, as Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority suggests, then this tipping point is quantitative, not impressionistic. Colleagues without tenure have two choices: rely on their employers or their labour unions to collect the data on how close we all are to the lip of the waterfall—or collect it themselves.

So I really love this pragmatic exercise of hope. Every time I drop in to have a look, there are others exploring the spreadsheet at the same time as me. It may not be viral in the sense that the magnificently nutty double rainbow video went viral, but I feel that Lee Bessette is right when she says that it’s “as viral as you can go in academic circles“.

The reason higher education has a low bar for viral is interesting. It isn’t because we lack the capacity for sudden fannish enthusiasms, or that we’re missing the infrastructure and connectivity to pass these around our networks.  It isn’t that we’re a small global workforce either.  The easy explanation is that we’re each too busy buffing up our personal resumes to achieve collective impact on anything. But that’s not especially true either: levels of collegiality and trust among peers are still very high even in demoralised workplaces. We know how to work together.

But Lee has touched on something else about higher education workers that’s relevant to the future of The Adjunct Project: we’re parochial. Despite the global intellectual horizons of our disciplines, when it comes to the meat and potato stuff of how our institutions are run, and on what terms, we don’t typically look beyond our local situations to appreciate how much we have in common with others working in higher education around the world.

When I wrote about hourly-paid academic work last week, for example, I was asked why I had used the American term “adjunct” instead of a dinky-di (look it up) Australian one. In Australia, as it happens, we typically describe short-term stop-gap hiring either as “casual” or “sessional”, and neither “contingent”, “adjunct” or “precarious” are in wide use.  But we’re obviously talking about the same thing: the emergence of a two-tier system on which the whole set-up depends, in which the conditions granted to one group are driven by the need to keep the cost of teaching to a stripped-bare minimum, and the conditions granted to the other are driven by competitive recruitment policies aimed at hiring and hanging on to academics who will drive up the research quantum. It’s not rocket science.

So fair enough, the local terms we use are the dry ground on which we try to achieve the best working conditions that we can, and at one level I’m sympathetic to the idea that professional Strine (look it up) is what we need to tackle our own problems in Australia.

But we all need to be careful in retreating to go-it-alone parochialism on the future of higher education—not just those of us in smaller education markets.  Our expanding ability to work across national borders without leaving home, empowering as this can be for student learning, also significantly increases the capacity of our institutions to source their casual teachers at the best rate they can get on the world market.

This means that we need to think beyond the goal of managing local solidarity between tenured and non-tenured workers. And those of us outside the US also need to understand how to get beyond “playing at being American”, as John Caughie put it in 1990 about the experience of watching US television from somewhere else. Playing at being American is an idea that slides across easily to the practice of joining the global conversation on higher education. We fall for the idea that we’re all included, until those awkward moments when it suddenly becomes clear that the doors have closed, and we’re out in the hallway again. Josh Boldt, for example, who designed the Adjunct Project, calls it “the beginning of a national movement by the people, for the people”—and I think in fairness, this is also the best way to view the New Faculty Majority initiative for now.  But, you know, ouch.

So I’m a huge fan of the Adjunct Project, but I also think that the problems it’s been set up to address are rapidly escaping the scope of any national movement. Next week we’re expecting a different project to collect data on the Australian casual academic experience, and the critical issue is that these initiatives need to be combined.  The financial and ethical challenges facing higher education are already complicated, and now ed tech is accelerating the prospect of “race to the bottom” hiring on a grand scale.  To get ahead of this, and to produce coherent arguments about quality working conditions that don’t fall back on either technophobia or xenophobia, we need to settle quite quickly on some common aims for sharing data, ideas and ideals on the global problem of the academic precariat.

As both Henry Giroux and JFK (yes, the American one) tell us, hope works best when it’s tempered with a realistic sense of what can be achieved. So we need the data on the adjunct/casual experience, and we need to understand university budgets, government funding, and the challenges to long-term sustainability of a traditional industry currently losing control of both its product and its market. This tempering process, tough as it is, is what makes for real, social hope, and not just escapism—wherever we are.

(And all this is a long answer to the Plashing Vole’s recent question about the hope of international worker solidarity in traditional manufacturing industries, for whom international labour supply is a given.  We have significant infrastructural advantages over other workers when it comes to international cooperation. What stops us getting it together?)

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