At the 2014 MLA convention, I will present on the panel “Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia,” organized by the Community College Humanities Association. The panel is part of the presidential theme, Vulnerable Times, and I will speak alongside Steven Hymowech, Lee Skallerup Bessette, George Louis Scheper, Paul Lauter, and Stacey Lee Donohue. The following post offers a glimpse of my presentation’s content.
I find myself increasingly unwilling to rest on my own privilege. In August 2013, I accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m working in the Division of Continuing Studies, advocating for lifelong learning and what I call the public digital humanities.
In my previous position, I was a faculty member in and director of a new hybrid digital humanities degree program at a small liberal arts institution in Portland, Oregon. I had taken the job with the belief that it would be my career for ten years or more. It was a full-time, non-tenure-track position with benefits within a system that was described to me as “tenure-equivalent.” My colleagues seemed collegial, the campus was lovely, and the students were some of the best I’d worked with in fifteen 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 members, and especially adjuncts, increased. What I discovered was that as people got scared for their own welfare, they began to guard their perceived territory, whether administrative or scholarly, more tightly. 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 the 2014 MLA convention panel “Vulnerability and Survivalism of the Humanities in Corporatized Academia.” Parts of my abstract were adapted into an article written by me and Lee Skallerup Bessette. That article begins with the line, “Higher education needs more bravery.” Our goal in writing the piece was to stir the pot—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, 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 seventy-five percent of the academic labor force. This is, quite frankly, not healthy for any of us, whether on the tenure track or not. This will be the focus of my MLA presentation in January 2014, “Right Leaders of Wrong: A Revolution in Higher Education.” As Lee and I wrote back in April 2013, “full-time faculty must be willing to take risks in support of their adjunct colleagues and students.”
Throughout fall 2013, Hybrid Pedagogy, the journal I founded and direct, is publishing 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 Timperman, 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.”
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 was 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 body. She describes “the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust,” and she concludes, “[Y]ou 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. If we’re students, we labor. And rarely are we asked to labor for each other’s mutual benefit.
As I write this, Kate Bowles is my hero. Tiffany Timperman 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.
Bowles, Kate. “Irreplaceable Time.” Music for Deckchairs: Edtech, Risk, Planning and Precarity in Australian Higher Education. N.p., 24 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. “A Lecturer’s Almanac.” Hybrid Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc., 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Stommel, Jesse (Jessifer). “If bigger and bigger bits of our ‘wellbeing’ is what makes it go, I suddenly feel like all of education is contingent.” 24 Nov. 2013, 4:01 p.m. Tweet.
Stommel, Jesse, and Lee Skallerup Bessette. “A Scholarship of Resistance: Bravery, Contingency, and Higher Education.” Hybrid Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc., 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.
Timperman, Tiffany. “Adjunctification: Living in the Margins of Academe.” Hybrid Pedagogy. Hybrid Pedagogy Inc., 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2013.