“We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore.”

Yippee!  Rebecca Schuman is back from maternity leave and writing at Slate again. This makes me happy because Rebecca is a) prone to say exactly what everybody else familiar with academia is thinking, but too polite to put into words for any publication whatsoever and b) hilarious.  This new essay explains the kinds of comments that appear whenever someone complains about adjunct working conditions, and apparently the comments that appeared there are exactly the kinds of comments she mentions in the article.

Actually, I’m going to have to take Rebecca’s word for that because life’s too short to read the comments.  Indeed, I made the mistake of reading the comments on my last Vitae article and got incredibly depressed for about a day and a half by all the self-destructive tendencies on display there.  Never again.  Yet I now know thanks to Rebecca that some tenured people like me enjoy telling our adjunct colleagues in comment sections all around the Internet how supply and demand works.

Well, fellow tenured people, allow me to explain supply and demand to you:

1.  If there is a large supply of people willing to do the same thing that you do for a lot less money and no benefits, then profit-maximizing employers will tend to replace the more expensive people with the less expensive people in order to balance their budgets. 

Even if somehow manage to hold on to that job, working conditions will gradually drift towards the level of the least compensated among us, not the best.  What’s that you say?  You think you’re special?  You do research?  Tell that to every professor at a public university in North Carolina:

Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, introduced a bill Thursday that would require all professors in the UNC system, regardless of research obligations, to teach at least eight courses per academic year to receive their full salary.

I bet the vast majority of adjuncts in that state already teach that load.  If 76% of the faculty doesn’t have the time to do research already than your average Republican legislator is thinking, “Why not the rest of the faculty too?”  As long as we accept the idea that it’s OK for our adjunct colleagues to toil away with four or more courses and no living wage, we don’t have a leg to stand upon when they inevitably try to do this to the rest of us.

2.  If anybody in the world with a computer and an Internet connection can teach our classes instead of us, then our wages will tend to go down as the supply of labor goes up.

Yes, I’m talking about online courses, and no I’m not saying that all online courses are bad.  What I am saying is that if the supply of potential labor increases, more workers will chase a limited number of jobs.  If more workers chase a limited number of jobs, compensation will tend to go down over time.

I know, your online course is terrific.  I actually believe that.  You probably put lots of effort into it and do things online that nobody can do in a face-to-face setting.  That’s great, but how long will your online class remain yours?  What happens if your next dean, or your next President or your next Governor doesn’t give a hoot about educational quality?  What recourse do you have?

I’ll tell you what recourse you have:  You can go find another line of work, just like all those adjuncts you’re currently ignoring.

And don’t think the fact that you only teach face-to-face makes you immune.  If an online class and a face-to-face class are taken for the same credit, then most students will tend to drift to the easiest, lowest cost option and your job will disappear right out from under you.  Which kinda brings me to…

3.  If a machine can do the same work that you can do, your employers will substitute your labor with those machines because this cuts down on their demand for labor, which in turn decreases costs.

I hate to channel Tom Friedman*, the Kevin Carey of 2001, but the same forces that have outsourced accountants and X-ray technicians will inevitably lead to the outsourcing  of college professors as long as this is deemed academically acceptable.

Come to think of it, this is exactly what makes Kevin Carey so incredibly dangerous.  Again, so that I can circumvent having to read any more of his book than absolutely necessary, let me outsource this point to Audrey Watters’ and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s IHE review of the End of College that you’ve probably already read by now:

“Bowen had previously been skeptical of the idea that technology could fundamentally change higher learning. Based on his new research, he wrote, ‘I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time.’” Rather than question the wisdom of sudden conversions based on single studies, Carey wonders, why didn’t colleges immediately hop on board and begin embracing what he calls “a golden opportunity to charge students less money without sacrificing the quality of instruction”?

If the quality of expensive face-to-face higher education is indeed the same as in a MOOC then an awful lot of us faculty are royally screwed.  We can explain why it isn’t until we’re blue in the face, but if we lose this argument then tenure will mean nothing because students will indeed migrate to the University of Everywhere just like Carey wants them to do and we won’t be able to do anything to stop it.

By the way, who’ll be teaching students at the University of Everywhere (assuming those students have even contact over the Internet with any faculty at all)?  Adjuncts, of course.  That may explain in large part why Rebecca ends her piece with this warning:

Academics in all disciplines would do well to tame their sanctimony about the “lesser” spirit sciences, lest they find themselves on the business end of the next collapse.

She’s talking about interdisciplinary warfare.  I’m talking about inter-class warfare.  Tenure-splaining supply and demand to adjuncts who just want to put food on the table is fiddling while Rome burns.

To try another analogy, we faculty are facing the “Independence Day” scenario here, people.  The aliens control our supply.  The aliens control our demand.  If we can’t get together and change that scenario, not even Will Smith will be able to save us from extinction.

*  The problem with Tom Friedman is not that he is a lousy reporter.  Face it, people:  The World Is Flat was WAY ahead of it’s time.  The problem with Tom Friedman is that he thinks the changes he describes in The World Is Flat are all unquestionably good things for a society as a whole no matter how many livelihoods they happened to destroy.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Clay Shirky (@cshirky)

    I think everything here is correct except the headline: faculty can in fact be consumed by our petty differences. Indeed, nothing is likelier.

    What you are suggesting is perfectly sensible: we tenured elites, who benefit from a dualized labor structure that has pushed off most painful secular adjustment to our students and non-tenured colleagues, should voluntarily make ourselves worse off in the short term, in a bid to create a system with long-term stability. It’s a good idea. I just can’t think of a profession where it has ever happened.

    To take the comparison I find most apposite, the recording industry people have had the upper hand since 2001, when they won the right to dictate the terms of any legal distribution of music, and they have managed to destroy themselves anyway, by continually fantasizing that they can preserve the economics of the old system. We will do the same thing, because even given our nominal skill at considering all the angles, we are unable, by virtue of training, socialization, governing structure, and compensation, to conceive of making common cause with adjuncts.

    The adjuncts will win anyway, as well they should — there’s no reason they should put up with a system that is more arbitrary in hiring than Hollywood casting and more abusive to junior employees than a law firm. However, since adjuncts are one of the major tools for preserving our perqs (the others being the lecture/section pattern, rising tuition, and financialization of payment), their victory will destroy the system they think of themselves as reforming.

    So I am willing to bet that the future have described here as a jeremiad will turn out, within ten years, to be merely correct. The likeliest scenario, in my view, is that the public and legislators, only now becoming aware of the degree to which tenured faculty has regarded teaching as an unpleasant chore to be outsourced, will reward institutions that regard teaching as their central concern. (You can see this with the Obama Administration’s emphasis not on research universities but community colleges.) Many of these institutions will use the very mechanisms you explain here to offer acceptable education at lowered cost. (If the GA Tech MS in Computer Science has a lifetime value of a mere $10,000, it is worth it.)

    Conveniently for the people designing such systems, there is a pool of highly educated and experienced teachers for whom being paid $25,000 to teach four courses a year would be an _upgrade_. The loss of our monopoly on degree granting will turn the people we have systematically abused into the competitors they should be, since we have no plans, and will never willingly develop such plans, to integrate them as peers into a system designed to allow us to capture their surplus labor value.

    I know we are supposed to be smart, here at college, but I will tell you, talking to my tenured peers, that almost no one believes that the scenario you describe is coming. We deserve every bad thing that happens to us, though, knowing us, we will still find a way to shift most of our suffering onto other people.

    1. Jonathan Rees


      I’m going to go with the United Mine Workers of America. The scene is the early 1930s. John L. Lewis (the man with the largest eyebrows in American history) is annoyed that his organizers can’t make any headway with the so-called “captive” mines of Western Pennsylvania – the coal mines owned by large steel companies. He therefore decides to organize the steel companies. Miners’ dues basically paid for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which would later become the United Steelworkers of America. Indeed, the UMWA basically started the entire CIO because they were forward-thinking and the selfish old dudes running the American Federation of Labor were only worried about themselves.

      I agree that most professors are a lot more like the AFL than they are the CIO. The same thing goes for the rest of the society. I can’t teach American Labor History anymore because it never makes the ten person minimum for the course to go forward. So not only do I agree that that kind of sacrifice is rare, I understand that nobody hears about it because this whole narrative of self-sacrifice is perceived as being somehow un-Americam.

      However, it doesn’t always only happen in movies. People > Technology.

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