Photo from opacity
Here's a devastating piece from anthropologist Sarah Kendzior about the links between the increasing use of poorly paid, badly treated adjunct faculty and the crumbling of the American university:
It is 2011 and I'm sitting in the Palais des Congres in Montreal, watching anthropologists talk about structural inequality.
The American Anthropological Association meeting is held annually to showcase research from around the world, and like thousands of other anthropologists, I am paying to play: $650 for airfare, $400 for three nights in a "student" hotel, $70 for membership, and $94 for admission. The latter two fees are student rates. If I were an unemployed or underemployed scholar, the rates would double.
The theme of this year's meeting is "Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies." According to the explanation on the American Anthropological Association website, we live in a time when "the meaning and location of differences, both intellectually and morally, have been rearranged". As the conference progresses, I begin to see what they mean. I am listening to the speaker bemoan the exploitative practices of the neoliberal model when a friend of mine taps me on the shoulder.
"I spent almost my entire salary to be here," she says.
And it only gets worse from there:
According to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced website revealing adjunct wages - data which universities have long kept under wraps - her salary is about average. If she taught five classes a year, a typical full-time faculty course load, she would make $10,500, well below the poverty line. Some adjuncts make more. I have one friend who was offered $5000 per course, but he turned it down and requested less so that his children would still qualify for food stamps.
Needless to say, adjuncts also have no benefits and slim prospects. Even while they're teaching an increasing share of the classes, they're largely locked out of the extremely expensive world of academic publishing, cutting off another route forward. I've known this was a problem for awhile, but this piece hits the nail on the head like no other I've seen.
Kendzior also points to the absolute hypocrisy of more entrenched academia in this regard ("I spent almost my entire salary to be here"). Among the most ostensibly leftist subcultures in the country, this is a group that has allowed the practice of paying their own younger colleagues slave wages to go largely unchallenged. This same subculture — despite concentrating on the ability to analyze damn near anything down to the most minute details — also seems unaware that it's gutting its own existence in the process. Many of tomorrow's thinkers aren't getting the chance to thrive because they're too damn worried about starving.
In my own stint in college (2001-05), I noticed this absolute cluelessness all too often. The same graying professors who would protest war in Iraq would turn right around and push for the end of the book rental system or another tuition hike. I remember one full professor, when asked how cash-strapped students were supposed to afford the latest tome, remarking "ask your parents for more money." Mine didn't have any, and I was far from alone.
Later, I would hear some of the same people wonder why academia had lost its cultural relevance. Few of them looked in the mirror.
To be fair, there were exceptions — teachers I still greatly respect — but they were in the minority.
The title of Kendzior's piece is "the closing of American academia," and she's right. Increasingly expensive education taught by impoverished faculty overseen by aging dons is recipe for eventual collapse.
So how can the university be saved? If it can't, what can replace it?