This article appeared in Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy, ed. Peter C. Herman (New York: State University of New York Press) 2000.
It's a beastly rough crowd I run with. No doubt about it, junior faculty are getting out of shape and out of hand... Even to the enemy of our enemies, it seems, we look something like a cross between Johnny Rotten and Cotton Mather: just take the Sex Pistols' political tact and respect for authority, toss in the Puritans' good cheer and sense of rhythm, and presto, you've got Rotten Mather, assistant professor of English, thirty years old and not to be trusted.1
On April 2, 1997, I came home to find an unopened certified letter on my kitchen table. My roommate was staring at it like it was a dead rat. He’d signed for it, which made me unhappy. “Never sign for someone else’s certified mail,” I told him. I never sign for certified mail myself, unless I know what’s in the envelope. Of course, I knew what was in this envelope. I’d been anticipating its arrival for about three days. It was a notice of nonrenewal for my position as “founding faculty member and Professor” at Arizona International Campus (AIC), a new experimental non-tenure campus of the University of Arizona (UA)
In less than ninety days I’d be unemployed, a grim prospect under any circumstances, but after moving from New Haven, Connecticut to Tucson, Arizona to accept this job with the understanding that the original one-year contract would be renewed on a multi-year continuing basis, it was a shock to find myself stranded thousands of miles from my support networks without a penny of savings. There had, in fact, been no warning. Neither the Provost of AIC, Celestino Fernández, nor the Director of the Academic House within which I worked had ever given me either oral or written notice that there was a problem with the performance of my duties. I was the only faculty member whom Provost Fernández declined to provide with a written evaluation letter. When queried, Fernández claimed that the terms and conditions under which I was hired stated he was not required to provide a reason for my nonrenewal. This was news to me. I’d never seen the terms and conditions under which I was hired.
There’d been rumors flying among the faculty for a couple of weeks, but there were a lot of rumors at AIC. I’d thought that nonrenewal was a distant possibility for a little over a month, but the first confirmation that I was in serious trouble came on 27 March, when Fernández canceled my scheduled evaluation meeting. He cancelled it for no reason I could understand. He was there. I was there. We met. And he told me that he was not going to talk to me about my evaluation. I asked if there was a problem. He said if I didn’t know what the problem was, he wasn’t going to tell me. He asked me if there was anything else I wanted to talk about. I told him I didn’t have anything to talk about except my evaluation, and I couldn’t understand why he was withholding it. He again refused to discuss it. That was, without a doubt, the most surreal conversation I’ve ever had. Other folks have listened to it and they agree it’s surreal. I’ve got it on tape. In Arizona, you’re allowed to tape a conversation even if the other parties don’t know you’re doing it. If they ask you, you’re supposed to tell them. Fernández didn’t ask. I’d been told to tape the meeting by a colleague on the UA main campus faculty, who was suing over a tenure decision. She’d been sure of the worst. She was wiser than I, and she was right.
Though the rhetoric of “shared governance” had permeated the promotional materials on AIC, Fernández ruled the campus with an iron hand. With only seven faculty members, all on one-year contracts, he didn’t have much opposition. We were isolated from the faculty on the main campus both because of our distant location (about fifteen miles from the mothership) and because many UA faculty were suspicious of the non-tenure campus, so we weren’t welcomed into the UA community as colleagues and didn’t have access to main campus support networks. Furthermore, there’d been a concerted effort to keep us in the dark about our status—we’d been promised an opportunity to take part in drafting the terms and conditions of faculty employment at AIC, but somehow neither the opportunity nor the terms ever actually materialized.
From the beginning, mine had been the voice raised in faculty meetings to ask questions about the structure of the institution, the workload of the faculty, the resources which would be made available to us. In some cases, I was backed up by others, but I’ve never seen a more cautious and fearful group of faculty—for good reason. My own decision to speak out was the result of a combination of an outgoing nature, sheer stubbornness, and the realization that of all of that small group of the faculty members, I was the one least likely to be devastated by the loss of my job, even if there was retaliation and I was fired. After all, I trained in graphic and web design, so if necessary I could find employment outside the academy. And I didn’t have a family to support. I’d like to quote, now, from a memo I wrote to the faculty on February 28, 1997 since it offers the most succinct explanation of the problems at AIC in its first year:
Administrative hostility to faculty criticism is nothing new in academia. What is new is that this criticism is taking place in an environment in which faculty have none of the protections of the tenure system, and in which—despite promises to the contrary—no system of due process or academic freedom has yet been installed. For example, all faculty are currently on one-year contracts as "Professor" (non-tenure eligible)," a position which guarantees no right to expectation of continuance from year-to-year. Renewal occurs at the sole discretion of the chief administrative officer—i.e., Dr. Fernández—and faculty have the right to appeal only to the same administrative officer who denied them renewal in the first place. Until notice of renewal is given in writing, no faculty member can rest easy. At any time until we receive a written notice of renewal we can be dismissed, with only 90 days notice. And though multi-year contracts were advertised last year and this year, it appears that in actuality, none will be forthcoming.
Arizona law changed last year, and it seems now that no oral contracts are binding, and so it does not matter that Dr. Fernández led each faculty member hired in spring of 1996 to believe that we would be employed beyond the first year, or that he assured us that the sole reason for starting us with one-year contracts was that he could not get us multi-year contracts at our current salaries through [Arizona Board of Regents]. Under current conditions I may do an excellent job in every area of responsibility (teaching, service work, mentoring, recruitment), and still not have an expectation of re-employment. When the power to renew a contract is so arbitrary and it is in the hands of one man, from whom no one representing faculty can demand accountability, it is surely unreasonable to expect that it will be exercised fairly and dispassionately. What is the mechanism at AIC which protects dissent or secures academic freedom?...
The larger issue here is not whether my own contract will be renewed.... What concerns me more—and will continue to concern me whether I am employed by AIC or not—is the fact that AIC promises one thing, and apparently is content to deliver another. I came to AIC a believer in the notion that tenure could be replaced, and the tenure system improved upon, by an alternative structure which guaranteed due process and academic freedom. But now I have my doubts that such a structure is possible or, more precisely, that those who advocate the abolition of tenure ever intended to create such an alternative structure.
My fellow faculty members may or may not vocally join in my complaint about AIC's policies. Everyone has their own reasons for speaking out or for keeping silence. But I do know that there is not a single full-time faculty member, except for the two who started in January, who has not shared his or her concerns over the lack of due process and academic freedom with me and with other faculty members and/or students behind closed doors. It is our dedication to AIC's mission that enforces silence on these matters outside of the walls of the institution, but it is the Damoclean sword which hangs over us all that keeps us mute in our own corridors. Dr. Fernández may decry the traditional division between faculty and administration, but he does his best to foster that split by refusing to grant faculty real power or any measure of autonomy, instilling in his professors a fear of retaliation for criticism, apparently reneging on his promise of shared governance, and failing to communicate directly with us when he perceives there to be a problem.
I’m sure that Fernández expected me to quietly disappear—he’d survived a long time on the UA campus as an unpopular administrator and was locally famous for involvement in scandals and for high-handed decision-making. Terminating my employment must have seemed to him like business-as-usual, consolidation of power, a chilling warning to those under his direct control. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead I waged a successful campaign for reinstatement, using the Internet as an organizing tool to mobilize support within the profession. I possessed a wealth of documents to back up my position, and though the outgoing President of UA, Manuel Pacheco, turned down my first appeal, the combination of pressure generated by publicity, support from the Chair of the Faculty Senate, Jerry Hogle, and the timely (and welcome) appointment of a new President, Peter Likins, worked in my favor and a reinstatement agreement was reached at the end of October, 1977. Fernández stepped down as Provost in July of 1998, returning—ironically enough—to the tenure-track position he’d never given up in the Sociology Department of UA. He currently earns about $140,000 a year—I understand that he got a $10,000 raise this year. I’m sure Sociology is thrilled to have him back.
One of the unintended results of my Internet campaign was that I briefly became a national poster child for the tenure system. Though tenure, at least in regards to my problems at AIC, was never the immediate issue (the position was non-tenure-track from the outset), it was and is certainly an issue on the mind of just about everyone in the profession. Friends and colleagues forwarded me various posts from electronic discussion lists where my situation was the topic of conversation. Though most folks deplored the conditions of my nonrenewal, there were a number of academics who said (in crude paraphrase): “That’s what you get when you take a non-tenure track job.” As if I deserved it. As if I had a choice. As if, today, any of us do.
I was offered the position at AIC after three years on the market, and I’d applied for over 80 positions each year. I received my Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University in 1991. If I’d gone on the market then, I’d likely be tenured today; most of my friends are. At that point, the cachet of a Yale degree still gave an applicant an edge in the market. But my then-husband had finished his Computer Science Ph.D. in 1989, and had accepted a position in Washington, DC at a cool $50,000 a year. No starting salary in the humanities could possibly match that and I was still working on my dissertation, so we moved to DC together. I taught part-time at George Mason University and at University of Maryland at College Park and I took a job at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, working first in their oral history department and then in their multimedia center. I kept the job at the Museum even after finishing my dissertation— it was in DC and the pay was far better than a university job would have been. But in 1992 I went on the academic market seriously because teaching and research were what I’d always wanted to do.
When I went on the market, I was “armed” initially with a book contract (and, as the years passed, a published book) out of Cambridge University Press.2 I had strong recommendations from well-respected Yale professors and, later, from other well-known scholars. I had peer review article publications, anthology chapters, and had started my own interdisciplinary journal, Viet Nam Generation, which had become known as the journal of record in the field of Viet Nam war and Sixties studies. I’d begun as a teaching assistant in 1984, and I’d been teaching my own classes since 1986 always with excellent evaluations. In 1993 I received a Networked Associate Fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, where I built the Sixties Project and ran a popular listserv called SIXTIES-L. In short, I should have been—from what all of my mentors told me—a prime candidate for a job.
My job-seeking history is enough like others that I will not go on at length about it. I will say, though, that I endured the same sort of mistreatment at MLA that many have described— interviews that were clearly not serious, or where everyone except the unsuccessful candidates knew that the job already belonged to someone else. By 1996, when I received the job offer from AIC, I was separated from my husband (and his salary), living in poverty in New Haven where the glut of unemployed and under-employed Ph.D.s made finding even part-time work almost impossible, trying to make a go of running a small press, earning a little money building web sites on the side, and looking for a full-time teaching job continuously. That year’s applications seemed, once again, to have borne no fruit. When I received a late March phone call from AIC requesting an on-campus interview, I had just declared bankruptcy.iAccording to the American Association of University Professors, in 1995 52% of full-time professors have tenure. An additional 20% are on the tenure-track. That means that 28% of the full-time positions (almost 1 in 3) are non-tenure track. And it’s worse now than it was in 1995. Part-timers now make up about 42% of instructors nationwide,3 so that means that over 55% of the jobs on the market (and the percentages will likely continue to grow) are never going to lead to tenure and most of the available non-tenure jobs aren’t even going to lead to full-time employment. So when AIC called, I was thrilled—tenure or no tenure, it was a full-time job. I didn’t have the luxury of being picky.
This volume focuses on the way “shifts in the material conditions affecting the academy have influenced the theory and praxis of the Next Generation.”4 The story above outlines some of the material conditions of my environment. The next section underlines how these conditions, and conditions which preceded them, have affected my theoretical stance and the manner in which I practice my trade.
Peter Herman is quite right in placing me in the Next Generation, since I did receive quite a bit of my theory second- and third-hand, albeit in two of the hallowed sites in which that theory evolved. Paul de Man died the year that I arrived at Yale Graduate School. I did try taking a course from Harold Bloom, but fled after several sessions convinced me that a student of African American literature would have a hard time finding his classroom a hospitable environment. Because I’d come from the UC Santa Cruz American Studies Department (a hotbed of theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s), I was already familiar with a good deal of feminist and some literary theory, some of which did come from the source. My dissertation director at Yale, Robert Stepto, is, of course, a theorist, and through the African American studies courses I took, I was introduced to the work of Houston Baker and Skip Gates and Cornel West. I actually picked up most of the rest of my theory outside of the classroom, in conversation with other grad students, who pointed me to books I’d never heard professors mention. That was how I came across Derrida, Barthes, Bakhtin, and learned Eco and Calvino were more than good novelists.
I bought anthologies on semiotics and deconstruction, on literary theory in general, and devoured them with avid excitement. I found psychoanalytic criticism and then tried to lose it, though it’s dogged me lo these many years. In the American Studies program at Yale, theory seemed to be something that one absorbed through one’s own reading, and then brought back into the classroom for various purposes—among them, of course, intimidating other grad students who didn’t know theory. (I was sure, the first year I was at Yale, that I must be stupid because I didn’t know what “heuristics” meant or what a “hermeneutic circle” might be. By the next year, I’m sure that I similarly terrified other students because such terms had been absorbed into my vocabulary so completely that the definitions went without saying.)
In short, my education in theory at Yale was random but voracious, carried out in the company of my peers, and almost entirely outside (or parallel) to the institutional structure except in my African American studies courses. The truth was that most of my professors at Yale weren’t interested in “theory.” It would have been a different story, I’m sure, if I’d been a Comparative Literature student, but in American Studies I found that interest and competence in theory were certainly not required of faculty members. Those of our generation who were “taught theory” are, in my experience, rare, even at elite schools. I think instead that most of us had few or no committed theory teachers, learned theory largely on our own from books, and brought those books back to the classroom where at least some of us engaged in “visceral, if not vicious, rejection”5 of our own teachers’ work. And because what moved us were books, we tended to use those books when we later put our own classes together, accounting, perhaps, for Peter Herman’s claim that we seem to use the same books our teachers did, rather than rejecting those teachers.
I can best be specific about my theory and praxis by quoting a few passages from the introduction to my book, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma — an introduction in which my references might be listed as a pedigree, in order of their appearance: Alice Miller, Gregory Bateson, Terrence Des Pres, Elie Wiesel, Philip Halle, Valerie Smith, Joan Cocks, Gerald Graf, Michel Foucault, Daniel Goleman, James Young, Timothy Luke, Jean-Paul Sartre, James William Gibson, Harry Haines, Chaim Shatan, Émile Beneviste, Paul Fussell, Roland Barthes, Joan Scott, Jorge Luis Borges, Judith Herman, Andrea Dworkin, Claudia Tate:
... I believe that "cultural-political theory inquires primarily into consciously lived life" and that such an inquiry "makes its major moves back and forth between some individual train of thought or action or sensibility and the larger, collective political and cultural world." Any act of cultural criticism, in this estimation, ought to be a self-conscious act—one in which the critic acknowledges her choice of subject has meaning, and that a choice of subject is itself always open to interpretation. As Des Pres observed, "There are always, for any subject under the sun, worldly conditions to be met—social, political, cultural—when asking: Why this event? At some point, also, one must ask: Why me?" I have attempted to make this question—Why me?—integral to my approach.
I believe that the responsibility of the cultural critic is to present a continuous challenge to the assumptions upon which any communal consensus is based—to insist that nothing go without saying. When cultural critics seek to expose and then question the rationales for specific community practices, we situate ourselves in opposition to dominant discourse. We question our own beliefs, and the beliefs of others. We appeal to people's "good sense," and we measure our success by the amount of argument we generate. We actively work towards the breakdown of consensus, at which point, "assumptions that could previously be taken for granted become one set of theories among others, ideas that you have to argue for rather than presuppose as given." Such a process is not infinitely reductive, nor does it promote the notion that all theories are equally valid.
Unlike the most playful of the deconstructionists, we do not seek to prove that there is, finally, no solid place to stand. We have moved beyond the discovery of the reductive power of the question "why"? Every human being possesses a core set of beliefs rooted in faith. Cultural critics seek to establish a mode of discourse in which each person can first uncover and acknowledge his or her beliefs, and then test them, compare them to the beliefs of others, understand their implications, and modify them to reflect a changing understanding of the world. Our end goal is a community based on the full and informed participation of all its members—a community where difference is not only accepted but cherished because it provides us with new frames of reference and new ways of understanding ourselves.6
Completing my dissertation in the midst of the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was well aware that my position as an unapologetic feminist, a Marxist, a semiotician, and an African Americanist automatically guaranteed I’d be under suspicion as an ideologue in the classroom, an enforcer of that rightist bogeywoman, “political correctness.” It’s that laundry list of appellations that makes me a “theorist” on the contemporary scene. To expand on the Gerald Graff quote embedded in the above excerpt,
...theory is what breaks out when the rationale for the community's practices is no longer taken for granted, so that what could formerly "go without saying" becomes an object of dispute, a dispute, moreover, that may lead to no final resolution. Once consensus breaks down, assumptions that could previously be taken for granted become one set of theories among others, ideas that you have to argue for rather than presuppose as given.7
So I suppose you can see why I always find myself in trouble. The supporters of what once was consensus don’t seem to much like having to argue for their position. While feminists, Marxists, semioticians and African Americanist scholars (among others) are all used to justifying their stance, providing supporting evidence, and defending themselves against all challengers, contemporary conservatives tend to view criticism as persecution and to see themselves as disempowered by the mere existence of contrary views.8 Graf’s definition of “theory” (though I think it is absolutely correct) is so broad here as to make it absolutely necessary for an academic to be specific about what kind of theorist she is—a problem which Cary Nelson underlines in his recent comment about the job market: “Departments occasionally advertise for specialists in theory and talk of teaching courses in theory, a conversation in which phenomenology, deconstruction, narratology, postmodernism, and other bodies of theory all seem more or less interchangeable, but in the 1990s the universal category has widely been abandoned for more specific searches and courses.”9
In other words, while the conservatives will refuse to make a distinction between theorists (they’re all bad), hiring committees are specifically concerned with filling positions based on quite narrow areas of specialty. Of course, there are usually conservatives on hiring committees and they will, assuredly, take “anti-theory” positions, which means that they will oppose the creation of job slots specifically for feminists, Marxists, etc., and they will oppose the filling of “neutral” slots with persons who take those theoretical approaches. And since the granting of a tenure line is such a rare thing in institutions today, and the field of applicants is so wide, it’s likely that few theorists will be hired into “neutral” slots because there will almost always be conservative faculty who oppose their appointments vocally enough to tip the scales against them. As I’ve come to learn, hiring is the result of a great deal of intradepartmental compromise—a system in which the least controversial candidate often gains the job over the most excellent candidates.
Contemporary graduate students—particularly in literature—are indeed being trained in “theory.” But they’re likely learning it in a class taught by a part-time or non-tenure-track faculty member, unless they are at one of the elite institutions which house the leading lights of theory—the profession’s “stars.” The work of the previous generation of activists (many of them also theorists) has served as a wedge to open the humanities—and, particularly, the literary profession—to previously underserved groups, benefiting those who work in feminist studies, ethnic studies, and post-colonial studies a great deal, while shaking the previously solid foundations of the traditional world of mostly white, mostly male humanities scholars. Annette Kolodny, however, points in her recent book, Failing the Future, to the fact that though more women and people of color are receiving Ph.D.s than ever, there hasn’t been much change in the makeup of the full-time faculty as “the percentage of full-time faculty members remain overwhelmingly white and male.”10 White men comprise 58.9% of the faculty, white women 27.9%. Minority professors make up about ten percent of the faculty combined and “were more likely to be squeezed into the lowest echelons of academe.”11 Though recipients of the Ph.D. are growing more diverse, they aren’t getting hired into full-time or tenure-track jobs in proportion to their presence in the population. Instead, they’re filling the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed, and the balance of power is maintained.
Young humanities faculty members feel the generation and “theory-gap” quite painfully in many institutions, and often work in an environment in which their scholarship is not only incomprehensible to their older peers, but regarded with suspicion and hostility. Even older peers who have some background in theory often think the Next Generation has gone too far. John Carlos Rowe, recently interviewed in The Chronicle for Higher Education, responds to a recent movement to return to “aesthetics” in the study of literature with the following:
Older scholars trained in high theory broke down the idea of universally shared literary standards, allowing younger scholars to import popular culture into the classroom. "Now overwhelmed by art forms they just don't get, senior professors take refuge in aesthetics, says Mr. Rowe. "There's an emotional appeal to it," he explains. "You hear again and again, "I entered this profession because I loved to read. Don't you love to read?'" His answer: "Sure I love to read. But there are limits to enjoyment."12
The situation is made even worse by the tendency of graduate students to ally with these young theory-trained professors, emphasizing generational differences. At my own institution, UA, which is a decent research university, I hear again and again from graduate students in the humanities that they are frustrated because the university allows them only one non-tenure-track faculty member on their dissertation committee, and they can’t find two tenure-track professors who will support their work (particularly if that work is very theoretical and/or rooted in popular culture). The few theory-oriented tenure-track and tenured faculty are swamped with grad students, but they are reluctant to turn these students away because they know that those grad students have few other options.
The bond between graduate students and young faculty in non-tenure-track positions deepens because graduate students—who are very smart people—can see the writing on the wall. They understand that in today’s market they are more likely to wind up as itinerant intellectual labor than they are to land that elusive tenure track position which provides them a reasonable course load and time for research. The exploitation of graduate student labor by universities is well documented in recent books by Cary Nelson, Michael Bérubé, and Annette Kolodny, as well as in Workplace, the journal of the MLA’s Graduate Student Caucus.13 The theory gap merely underlines the sense that the older generation has collaborated in pulling the temple down around its own ears. It seems no accident to many young scholars that just at the moment at which women and nonwhite scholars are making gains in real numbers, percentage of the labor pool, and in elite intellectual circles their power and power of the profession is being undermined by radical reorganization of the structure of universities and colleges. Kolodny states
Between 1995 and 2010... over 300,000 faculty are expected to retire, leaving vacancies in all fields across higher education. At the same time, in almost every discipline, women have been making "dramatic gains at the Ph.D. level," almost doubling "their share of the doctorates granted in English and increas[ing] their representation among foreign language degree recipients by just over half." As a result, especially in the humanities disciplines, the 1990s are certain to be the last decade in which tenured white males over fifty control what gets published and who gets tenured.14
Unfortunately, it may also be the last generation in which it is possible to be tenured. As Bill Readings argues in The University in Ruins, the corporatist contemporary university is a “bureaucratic system rather than … the ideological apparatus that the left has traditionally considered it. As an autonomous system rather than an ideological instrument, the University should no longer be thought of as a tool that the left will be able to use for other purposes than those of the capitalist state.”15 Bérubé and Nelson, too, focus on the corporatization of the university, it’s embrasure of what Readings calls “the techno-bureaucratic notion of excellence.”16
Nelson presents the case that the discipline which most ardently embraced theory is the discipline that also embraced corporatism:
English, I would argue, is the discipline most responsible for laying the groundwork for the corporate university. I refer to our employment practices. For English departments above all have demonstrated that neither full-time faculty nor Ph.Ds are essential to lower-level undergraduate education. What's more, we've shown that people teaching lower-division courses need not be paid a living wage. We can no longer claim that such courses have to be taught by people with years of specialized training.17
Everywhere graduate students and recent Ph.D.s look there is evidence that their elders have sold them out. One can find it even in the relatively staid Chronicle of Higher Education:
"English departments have been built on the systematic exploitation of teaching assistants and, more recently, part-timers," says James Sledd, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Texas at Austin. "But nobody does a damn thing about it because to challenge it is to challenge the whole economic system of higher education, which smells."
What really stinks, says Robert Scholes, a humanities professor at Brown University, is that literature scholars have no incentive to improve the situation. In fact, he says, they've got good reasons not to.
The more economically you can teach those writing courses—which is to say, the more students you can cram into them and the worse you can pay the teachers—the better off the literature faculty is. There's a real conflict of interest."18
In addition to hiring part-time professors on a per-course basis, institutions are employing a growing cadre of teachers who work full time but are not on the tenure track. Most of them have yearly or multiyear contracts, and their posts carry much less pay and prestige than do tenure-track jobs. Institutions' increasing reliance on non-tenure-track instructors is driven by cost. Universities facing budget difficulties can hire instructors for a small fraction of what they would pay tenured professors. Many instructors, particularly part-timers, get by without an office, a telephone, or even a campus mailbox. Most are not allowed to serve on faculty committees or apply for research grants. And if they are encouraged to participate in activities other than teaching, they typically are not paid extra to do so. Many full-time instructors have health insurance, but most part-timers do not. Worst of all,the longer they work in such positions, the slimmer their chances are of ever landing tenure-track jobs.19
And so on. Articles stating the problem aren’t hard to find. What is hard to find, however, are tenured faculty members who are willing to do anything about it. Aside from the usual suspects (Bérubé, Kolodny, Nelson, and a few others) the tenured members of the profession are largely silent on the issue. Most are not about to sacrifice their own salary or benefits to supplement the woefully underfunded folks off the tenure track. Part-timers and graduate students’ attempts to organize are often unsupported by the majority of tenured and tenure-track faculty members on campus, and sometimes—as in the well-documented Yale graduate student grade strike of 198520 — vehemently opposed.
As one might expect, I had a particular interest in the Yale strike, since it was my alma mater, and since the graduate student organization, GESO, was born in the Yale clerical and technical worker’s strike of 1985, in which I was active as a graduate student working to support the union. At that time, pro-union organizer though I was, I couldn’t see the connection between our work as teaching assistants and the “real” work done by the members of Locals 33 and 34. I remember trying to make a clear distinction between my position and theirs, trying hard not to “pretend” to be a worker, because back in 1984 it was still possible to think of graduate teaching as an apprenticeship, as a gateway into a profession that would keep me out of the working-class. That was 1985. Ten years (and a long job search) later it was hard for me to imagine that anyone could still believe that a Ph.D. — even a Yale Ph.D. — was a sure ticket to a tenure-track job. But it wasn’t hard for me to believe that the Yale faculty could turn on its own students with such viciousness. After all, I knew these people. As a student I’d been totally turned off by the contradictions between Nancy Cott’s and Margaret Homans’ claims to feminism and their pumps-and-pearls self-presentation, and I must admit that I got a small thrill of vindication from hearing about their censure of striking GTAs. The few faculty that stood against that wave — Michael Denning, Hazel Carby, David Montgomery — are admirable for the consistency between their scholarly work and their activism.
Species that eat their young have a hard time surviving unless, of course, they produce so many young that a few get away every time. Which seems to be the strategy of contemporary graduate programs in the humanities, and particularly in English. Literature in general, and theory in particular, has turned into, in Bérubé’s words, a “family drama of good rebel children and bad rebel grandchildren,”21 where the children-turned-parents seem to be content with the fact that their children will never achieve a standard of living equal to their own. (Similar, in some ways, to the diminished expectations of Generation X.) In conversation in the electronic world of LambdaMOO, a graduate student (let’s call her Piglet, though that’s not her “real” MOO name) says to me, “I keep noticing, for instance, that certain members of the faculty who have not yet retired are very suspicious of this thing called ‘theory,’ apparently because they don’t think they use it themselves.” Polarization is not just along lines of employment status—it’s generational as well, with the Last Generation (theorists and nontheorists) often aligned against the Next Generation. But the two-tiered system that has developed (privileged tenured faculty on the top level, underprivileged non-tenure track faculty and graduate students on the bottom level) is reaching critical mass, as demonstrated in the recent MLA election in which populist Cary Nelson was voted onto the 7-member Executive Committee of the organization. Nelson has articulated a lot of ideas for reforming the MLA, and now we’ll get the chance to see if he (and we) can put them into practice. But in addition to fighting the entrenched oldsters in the MLA, he’ll be battling the beast that is the corporatist university.
At Arizona International, the environment in which I’m working may well be the profession’s future:
Professors at AIC are true liberal arts educators: dynamic professionals dedicated to teaching. They're open-minded, current, and responsive. They offer global perspectives, know how to facilitate learning, and show connections between varied coursework. What's more, every professor takes the time to know you personally. They realize that you are not a number, but an individual with your own unique combination of talents and experiences. They help you adjust to college and provide the guidance and support that works best for you. And, AIC faculty are easily accessible to students and to the community.22
One of the reasons I became persona non grata at AIC was that I began to work with spreadsheets, calculating the number of tasks we were delegated, and the number of hours each would require in an attempt to figure out how many hours our work week would total. There were obvious problems from jump street. First, we were expected to spend 12 hours a week in the classroom, teaching. If one estimates a minimal two hours of preparation and grading time for every hour in the classroom, that already totals 36 hours. We were required to spend an additional six hours a week advising and mentoring, which brought us to 42 hours. And we were also responsible for “academic planning, program and curricular development and searches.” So that’d come to maybe another 2-3 hours a week.
Since college professors tend to work long hours, coming in under 50 hours a week wasn’t really too bad. Unfortunately it was impossible. Given the student-to-faculty ratio, if we were going to meet our commitment to giving individual attention to students, working out “Learning Contracts” with them, sitting on various review boards, doing community service projects, and so on, we were either going to have to hire double the current projected number of faculty, or we were going to be working over 80 hours per week. At faculty meetings and general meetings, I wound up asking a lot of questions no one could answer.
What became clear over time was that the administration (in the person of Fernández) had promised then-President of UA, Manuel Pacheco, and the Arizona Board of Regents that he could accomplish a certain set of tasks with a limited amount of resources. He’d promised that individualized instruction would be cost-effective, “cognizant of, and… sensitive to, the needs of a free-market economy.”23 The new college was funded on the promise that it could be done on the cheap. But as Annette Kolodny points out again and again in Failing the Future, education is not cheap, and good education is downright expensive, though it’s an excellent long-term investment for the nation.
In a system where all decision-making is concentrated in the hands of administrators, though, and the faculty is stripped of power, job security, and, hence, academic freedom, it’s possible to continually increase demands on faculty workers and thus meet nearly impossible goals with heavily exploited labor—especially when there’s an enormous pool of unemployed academic workers hungry for jobs. Any jobs. This was the system Fernández was determined to create.
I didn’t start off at AIC wedded to the notion that tenure was an essential part of the university system. Like many other young Ph.D.s and grad students, I’d resented the tenure system for sheltering certain professors who didn’t seem to be accomplishing much useful work, or who were bad teachers. But what I learned in the course of my fight for reinstatement is that those in administration who support the eradication of tenure are not friends of faculty, nor advocates of education. They are corporatists whose interest is the bottom line, who resent faculty powers in university governance, and want to eliminate them from the decision-making process.
The elimination of faculty power is essential to the smooth operation of for-profit institutions like University of Phoenix, and traditional universities have begun to see the financial and organization advantage of hiring voiceless graduate students, part-time and contract employees over tenured faculty with rights to shared governance.
Among the ideas which have gained general currency in this environment are: 1) hiring part-timers instead of full-time professors; 2) emphasizing teaching instead at the expense of research; 3) relying on technology to allow fewer professors to teach more students. All three strategies will have long-term damaging effects on the university system and will undermine the ability of the university to serve the purpose for which it was created—educating students.
The drawbacks of part-timers have been detailed in numerous places, many of them mentioned already in this article. The emphasis on teaching (also widely discussed) is a way of wringing more classroom hours out of professors at the expense of work which advances the field and thus enriches the profession. And the reliance on technology is misplaced, as anyone who seriously explores the body of available educational software will be forced to confess. Not only is there a dearth of decent educational software, but purchasing, maintaining and upgrading software and hardware is often far more expensive than faculty salaries. And, as Kolodny points out, “An exclusively cost-driven dependence on computers and telecourses may instruct students in a subject: but only the professor with passion and disciplinary expertise can help students understand why a subject is important to think about and how to think about it.”24
If the above three ideas are placed fully into effect, their chief combined result will be to shut down intellectual production so that the current generation of scholars has neither the resources nor the time to augment the body of intellectual work upon which future generations of scholars and students would ordinarily expect to draw. Much as a factory can show short-term profits by neglecting its infrastructure or refusing to invest in new machinery, the university can show short-term profit by creating an environment in which professors are teaching under conditions which do not allow them to research or write.
Neither is a sustainable strategy, however. The machines will break down or need to be replaced, just as, eventually, we will notice that the materials we are using in our classrooms are outdated and obsolete. In both cases, the strategy puts those who choose it behind the eight ball, and recovery is doubtful. Under deepest suspicion today are scholars engaged in humanities research and writing, since the current emphasis in the corporatist university is on “practical” applications of knowledge. Theory, of course, is at the top of the list of “useless” activities in which humanities scholars engage.
To assert that one “does theory” in this time and this place is to stake a claim not only to a particular intellectual position, but to a set of political and even generational affiliations. Theory, though ostensibly popularized by the last generation, is actually not the tool of that generation, but of our own. Far, however, from dismantling the master’s house with the tools we’ve been handed, we find ourselves barred from the grounds and forced to watch while the house and its outbuildings fall apart before our eyes.
To carry the metaphor further, it seems to me that while we’re sitting out here in the cold, the folks who live in that house are pulling out the supporting walls and burning them in the fire in an attempt to keep warm. I am not hopeful about any of this. I can’t offer comforting words or neat solutions. My sense is that we stand at the division between an older university structure and some as-yet-undetermined new structure which, from all the signs, will not be an improvement.
As for me, I returned to a reorganized Arizona International College after a two-year appointment on the UA main campus. AIC has been relocated to the central campus, though plans are afoot to build it a new “co-campus” north of Tucson in cooperation with Pima Community College. Our survival depends upon whether we can increase our enrollment quickly enough to please the regents and the legislature and to convince them that we are “cost effective.” A widely-respected dean has replaced our unpopular provost, and this has greatly improved our working environment and boosted our morale. I’m on a three-year contract which (if we survive) I can reasonably expect to be extended for another five years. Terms and conditions of employment now protect me and my colleagues by specifying a process of formative and summative evaluations, and a twelve-month notice of nonrenewal at the termination of a continuing contract. This is the good news.
The bad news is that the workload, from my current calculations, continues to be unrealistic given the liberal arts curriculum and the personalized plans of study we advertise. The gender imbalance is still evident in the current composition of administration and faculty. As the sole nontenure college on a campus where the faculty is strongly committed to supporting tenure, we continue to be an isolated island and a target for hostility rather than the recipients of collegial support.
Most AIC faculty would like to see the college converted to a tenure-based system, but we are not hopeful about the outcome of any tenure-seeking effort. Since this is Arizona (well known for its hostility to labor), a real faculty union seems unlikely to evolve, though the graduate students at UA, like elsewhere, are fighting for their rights. I can’t offer comforting words or neat solutions. As a college, we mirror in microcosm the divide between an older university structure and some as-yet-undetermined new structure which, from all the signs, will not be an improvement.
October 28, 2002: The President of The University of Arizona, Peter Likins, “disestablished” Arizona International College in November of 2001. Our contracts, he promised, would be honored for their duration. It is clear, however, that any pretense that Arizona International College’s full-time, senior, non-tenure-track faculty are somehow “equivalent” in rank to tenured faculty has been summarily dismissed. The University has refused to even consider the notion that Arizona International College faculty have “lines” that might reasonably be expected to relocate to other departments. This occurs in a climate in which which The UA, like other state institutions, is hurting for money—a climate that is not likely to change any time soon. It would, however, be a case of weeping crocodile tears were I to lament AIC’s passing too loudly: at root, the college made promises to students and faculty that were impossible to fulfill. The bottom line is that one can’t provide a quality liberal arts education to students on the cheap, even by grossly exploiting the college’s faculty.
- Michael Bérubé, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (NY: Verso) 1994: 43.
- Kali Tal, Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (New York: Cambridge University Press) 1996.
- “Contracts Replace the Tenure Track for a Growing Number of Professors,” Chronicle of Higher Education (12 June 1998), http://chronicle.com/che-data/articles.dir/art-44.dir/issue-40.dir/40a00101.htm
- Peter C. Herman, ed., “Introduction,” in Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy (NY: SUNY Press) 2000.
- Kali Tal, Worlds of Hurt: 5.
- “Why Theory,” Gerald Graff, Left Politics and the Literary Profession, Lennard J. Davis & M. Bella Mirabella, eds. (NY: Columbia U Press) 1990: 23.
- See, for example, the journal Academic Questions, produced by the National Association of Scholars, in which articles claim, over and over, that the universities have been taken over by the left and that conservative scholars are being driven out of the profession, attacked and silenced. Michael Bérubé argues: “For this is a new American conservatism that regards any opposition as de facto ‘oppression,’ just as it regards all criticism as de facto censorship, and it is accordingly outraged not to have rooted out its widespread and principled liberal-left opposition in universities, even though so much of its opposition has crumbled elsewhere. Conservative attacks on academic life, then, should be understood as the consequence of conservatism’s failure to achieve among the academic American intelligentsia the kind of hegemony it has enjoyed in American economic and social policy, not to mention the federal judiciary. But there is one novel element about the anti-academic attacks of the 1980s and 1990s: American conservatives have now been alerted to the strange posthumous career of Paul de Man, with the result that deconstruction—and therefore, ‘theory’ in general—can now be vilified by the right as an academic form of Nazism.” Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (NY: Verso) 1994: 67).
- Cary Nelson, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (NY: NYU Press) 1997: 16.
- Annette Kolodny, Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (Durham: Duke U Press) 1998: 71-72.
- “Wearying of Cultural Studies, Some Scholars Rediscover Beauty,” Scott Heller, Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 December 1998: A15.
- Cary Nelson, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (NY: NYU Press) 1997; Michael Bérubé, The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs and the Future (NY: NYU Press) 1998. Annette Kolodny, Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (Durham: Duke U Press) 1998; Workplace: http://www.workplace-gsc.com/workplace1/workplace.html.
- Annette Kolodny, Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century (Durham: Duke U Press) 1998: 100.
- Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Boston: Harvard U Press) 1996: 41.
- Ibid.: 54.
- “What Hath English Wrought: The Corporate University’s Fast Food Discipline,” Cary Nelson, Workplace 1:1 (Feb ’98): http://www.workplace-gsc.com/features1/nelson.html
- “Bad Blood in the English Department: the Rift Between Composition and Literature,” Alison Schneider, 13 Feb 1998, Chronicle of Higher Education, A14.
- “Scholars off the Tenure Track Wonder If They’ll Ever Get On,” Robin Wilson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 June, 1996. Special Report: A12.
- For full coverage of the strike see Michael Bérubé, The Employment of English: 37-64 and Cary Nelson, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical: 194-216.
- Michael Bérubé, Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics (NY: Verso) 1994: 221.
- Arizona International Campus: The New Choice for College Education, promotional pamphlet.
- New University in Pima Country: A Report of the Community Advisory Committee to Manuel T. Pacheco, President, The University of Arizona and for Consideration by the Arizona Board of Regents, The University of Arizona, July 1994.
- Kolodny, Failing the Future: 35-36.