Over the weekend, I came across Douglas Dowland’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Academe Breeds Resentment.” My first thought, petty though it may be, was how much I resent the term “academe.” As a late-to-the-party PhD candidate with 15 years under my belt as a higher education administrator, the term just smacks of elitism. Is it any wonder that the public rolls its eyes and questions our public purpose when we talk about ourselves in niche language that’s just close enough to colloquial (academy, anyone?) that the average layperson can “get it” and its exclusive tenor? Yeesh.
Dowland argues, if I may employ my own academic speak for a moment, that the neoliberal condition has taken a concerning toll on academic culture. He writes:
“Opportunities for resentment only increase as new academics attempt to position themselves in a virtually nonexistent job market, as established academics are increasingly ranked, and as budgets are slashed in the name of the latest managerial mantra.”
Sure. I can get down with that. After four years of coursework while working full-time, and now the muddle and strain of slogging through a dissertation, my colleagues affectionately refer to me as a benevolent nihilist. And, yeah, higher education’s commodification has had real effects not just on faculty culture and experience, but on American society writ large. It’s unsettling if you think about it for a minute, and downright frightening if you allow yourself to linger. Dowland suggests that the faculty needs to move beyond resentment, a sentiment which hobbles, isolates, and drains the power from those who fall under its spell. Solidarity is the tonic, the healing space in which we can all see one another as humans engaged in collective struggle.
Today, more than 75% of all faculty are contingent, and more than 60% of full-time faculty members are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. The majority of those faculty are in their prime earning years (between the ages of 36 and 65), they are more ethnically diverse than tenured faculty, and more than half are women. And indeed, the working conditions of the contingent faculty writ large should give us pause. More than 50% earn a salary at or below the federal poverty level. Using the median pay per three-hour course, $2,700, and factoring in preparation time, the average full-time contingent faculty member earns approximately ten dollars an hour.
Dowland, I can’t help but note, is a white, male, tenure-track professor, albeit a junior faculty member. I can posit that he’s writing from that junior faculty lens in observing the behavior of his senior counterparts. Having worked in the ranks of the contingent faculty and watched that model chew up and spit out some of the brightest folks I know, however, I’m okay with resentment. And anger. Because the problem, though it’s quaint to think so, isn’t the toll of pursuing a life of the mind, or the spiraling of academic critique into petty gossip. The problem is that there is no one faculty. It’s not just a perception of powerlessness.
Dowland writes, “In academe, it is easier to be a gatekeeper than to be an innovator.” Gatekeeping requires power. So does innovation. If Dowland’s version of the faculty seeks solidarity, the onus is on those who enjoy access to the tenets of academic freedom and faculty governance–yes, even despite the inequities within that rusty and antiquated model–to leverage that power and start lifting.