Vulnerability, Contingency, and Advocacy in Higher Education

Jesse Stommel

I find myself increasingly unwilling to rest on my own privilege. In August of 2013, I accepted a tenure-track position at University of Wisconsin-Madison. From 2013 – 2015, I worked in the Division of Continuing Studies, advocating for lifelong learning and what I call the “public digital humanities.”

In my previous position, I was Faculty and Director of a new Digital Humanities degree program at Marylhurst University, a small liberal arts institution in Portland, OR. I had taken the job with the belief that it would be my career for 10 years or more. It was a full-time position with benefits, not tenure-track but within a system that was described to me as “tenure-equivalent.” My colleagues seemed collegial, the campus was lovely, and the students are some of the best I’ve worked with in my 15 years of teaching.

Ultimately, though, I discovered that my position was, in fact, deeply contingent. As the financial woes of the institution mounted, the mistreatment of faculty, and especially adjunct faculty, increased. What I discovered was that as people got scared for their own welfare, they began to more tightly guard their perceived territory, whether administrative or scholarly. The work I value most — collaboration and interdisciplinarity — suffered and was at times even actively discouraged. The treatment of adjuncts was downright appalling. Tears were not unusual at committee meetings.

This was the environment in which I wrote my proposal for this MLA 2014 panel. My goal in this piece is to unsettle assumptions about how academia should operate in the wake of widespread exploitation of contingent laborers. For me, every aspect of higher education is either suspect or somehow implicated: hiring practices, administrative bloat, disciplinarity, traditional academic publishing, double-blind peer review, the notion of a terminal degree, and the tenure system itself. Too much of the system is designed to defend the status quo and reinforce the mistreatment of a 75% majority (AAUP) of the academic labor force. This is, quite frankly, not healthy for any of us, whether on the tenure-track or not.

In December 2012, the academic journal I founded, Hybrid Pedagogy, hosted a Twitter chat about “The State of Higher Education and Its Future.” During the discussion, I tweeted: “We need more tenure-track & full-time faculty willing to advocate for their colleagues & students. #highered needs more bravery.” Within a couple days, the tweet had been retweeted 41 times and favorited 10 times, which is telling, calling attention to the need for not only adjunct faculty, but full-time faculty, to rise up in active resistance. The best pedagogues take risks, and we need curricula, hiring practices, and protections for contingent faculty that encourage those risks.

During another Twitter discussion, I tweeted: “Higher education pushes out the exact wrong people. Those wrong people are about to rise up. We need more right leaders of wrong.” Educators need advocates and need to be advocates. We can’t just notice the problems, but must take specific action to solve them individually and institutionally. There are various stakeholders in this conversation (including students, administrators, and faculty), various folks we need in the room as we make and implement strategies for resisting the spread of business models for education that rely insidiously on contingent labor. And full-time faculty must be willing to take risks in support of their adjunct colleagues and students. In many cases, this kind of advocacy looks less like marching, writing, or speaking, and more like listening.

Throughout Fall 2013 and Winter 2014, Hybrid Pedagogy published a series of articles focused on our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always lead to opportunity. In the first article from the series, “A Lecturer’s Almanac,” Katie Rose Guest Pryal offers a harrowing account of her experiences as a contingent laborer, a litany of seemingly mundane grievances, the collective weight of which becomes quickly oppressive. Tiffany Kraft, in her article “Adjunctification: Living in the Margins of Academe,” describes her experiences in “extreme adjuncting,” hoping with her story “to tip the elephant in the room.”

From its beginning, one of the goals of Hybrid Pedagogy has been to create these sorts of conversations, which build bridges across systemic divides in education, making connections to facilitate productive action. The issue of academic labor is deeply interwoven with any project that attempts to promote good pedagogy. We simply can’t create an environment that enables student agency as long as our educational institutions do not support the agency of teachers.

Our work in the humanities is a scholarship of resistance, predicated on our being humans, not mere cogs in a machine. We need to support (financially, politically, and emotionally) the faculty most passionate about teaching and learning, while making alliances across disciplines and between community college teachers, K-12 teachers, contingent faculty, tenure-track faculty, academic staff, and students. Being tenure-track doesn’t mean we should wait seven years to speak out on adjunct labor conditions. We need to take risks and speak out now. The current hierarchies and political economies are becoming, more and more, at odds with a humanist ethic. We must make the humanities — and higher education — viable for the digital age in ways that value the work of teaching and learning. The bravery we need right now is to champion the people doing that work.

The text of this talk is drawn from a motley crew of sources. Parts of it appeared in a co-authored article by myself and Lee Skallerup Bessette, her voice inside of mine, and my voice in hers. This story can’t be told by one person, and not by a small panel of people, but only by a cacophony of voices, a gathering together — of sounds, of ideas, of intentions. Some of this work is loud, a rage against the dying of the light, and some of it is quieter like the space between this sentence and the next. This work is not and can never be faceless. We no longer have the luxury of resting on the privilege of our own anonymity. Real bodies — bodies that ache and bruise and die — are doing this work, fighting in classrooms, online, and at institutions — institutions that don’t always fight for them.

So I can’t give this presentation by myself. As a single body. These words require many more voices than just my own to make them go.

Chuck Rybak writes, “The emo­tional ter­rain of the higher ed work­place, or any workplace for that matter, is real. How we treat people mat­ters.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom writes in “Dude, Where’s the Race in Your Class Analysis of HigherEd?,” “Many of our most strident debates of highered’s labor system do not speak as eloquently about how that labor system intersects with institutional racism, if they speak about it at all.”

Sean writes in “Collaborative Peer Review,” “I am an orphan of the academy. Beached on the sand at the M.A., employed only ever as an adjunct instructor at two-year colleges, generally looked at askance in the heady company of academics, I am the horse that didn’t make the derby.”

And Brian Croxall at MLA in 2009: “I’m sorry that I can’t be delivering these comments in person.”

What scares me most are my deeply contingent colleagues — adjuncts, staff, and students — who aren’t or soon won’t be able to deliver their comments in person for more distinctly physical reasons, because their bodies — all our bodies — are fragile. Limbs break. Organs give way. Cancers go untreated. Bile and pus and blood refuse to be contained. This is our humanity, the humanity our talks about labor must acknowledge.

And it isn’t that we should build harder and harder armor around ourselves. Advocacy should not look like an impenetrable phalanx. Just the opposite. We must work together, and not just from a place of politics or administration. This is as much about how we are made professionally vulnerable by the corporatization of education, as it is about how making ourselves even more vulnerable — by taking risks and being honest — will help us find a way forward. We need to actively ensure that academia is a safe place for the contingent among us to speak openly about their professional lives without fear of losing their livelihood. We need to gather together in number so our pedagogies and politics can be safely laid bare.

I recently tweeted, “If bigger and bigger bits of our ‘wellbeing’ is what makes it go, I suddenly feel like all of education is contingent.” This in response to a blog post by Kate Bowles, “Irreplaceable Time.” In that post, Kate describes the physical burden of academic labor and what it has literally wrought upon her own body. She describes “the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust.” And she concludes, “you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.” If we’re contingent, we labor. If we’re tenure-track, we labor. And rarely are we called on to labor for each other’s mutual benefit.

As I write this, Kate Bowles is my hero. Tiffany Kraft is my hero. Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Lee Skallerup Bessette are my heroes. They’ve said to me what I can’t always say to myself. We must be brave. But we must also take care. “What we need,” Kate writes, “is the courage to put work itself at risk.” For her — for myself — I will, if necessary, fight to the death of my own tenure.

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