The following is the fifth, and final, essay in a series on “the contingent campus”, or the problem of adjunctification and precarious academic employment.
“Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior?”
You read that correctly. “Do you accept Jesus as your political Lord and Savior?”
When asked to write on the topic of the contingent campus, this question, from Marcus Borg’s and Dominic Crossan’s book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem (2009) kept playing over and over in my head. As a Christian, albeit a heretical one, I have answered in affirmation to a very similar statement numerous times. I have affirmed my belief in Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior so many times that this statement has become something rather rote to me, a formulaic response to a question that should, given my belief in the consequences of its truth, elicit more of a reaction from me.
Substituting the word “personal” with “political” in this question, however, thoroughly disrupted my cognitive monotony. Thinking on the radical shift in my reaction to this seemingly benign substitution of words kept bringing me back to the tense relationship between the personal, the political, and the professional. All three of these descriptors call on those who invoke them to acquire a particular register, follow a specific code of behavior, and embody an ethos unique to that plane of interaction.
Now think about applying the same tactic to the issue of contingency in academia. I am afraid this issue will raise almost as much discomfort as any religious confession. Bring up the issue of contingency with a bunch of academics, and you would imagine you had openly asked them about their sexual preference. Suddenly, everyone gets very uncomfortable because the participants feel you have moved the conversation from the professional space to a political and, more yet, a personal space.
“Contingency in the academy… it’s nothing personal. It is a matter of business.”
“Why do you have to make everything so political?”
“You must remember to be professional… do not make personal attacks.”
How many times have I heard such rebuttals to my concerns about contingency on campus? Many times I’ve heard similar sentiments from the mouths of well-meaning, supposedly progressively political, tenured faculty. But no matter how many times I have heard these responses, each time I hear them, the wounds feel again fresh. I often stand aghast at the cognitive dissonance between their words and their actions, or inaction.
How is that the same tenured faculty preaching against systemic injustices the world over are so willingly complicit in the continued exploitation of their contingent colleagues? How can they in good conscience teach about liberation theology, write about social justice, or even read from the Hebrew prophets? How can they sport free-trade products and publicly denounce corporations who refuse to pay their employees a living wage and not see those in need in their very midst?
Joseph Schwartz enumerates some possible reasons that the majority of tenured faculty have failed “to engage in overt, sustained protest at the radical expansion in casualized faculty labor” in his article “Resisting the Exploitation of Contingent Faculty labor in the Neoliberal University: The Challenge of Building Solidarity between Tenured and Non-Tenured Faculty .”
Schwartz posits that some tenured faculty’s belief in meritocracy, an academic system which rewards research productivity and promotes scholarly self-interest, “the decline of Marxist and other forms of left-wing social science since the 1980s, combined with a greater emphasis on ‘discourse’-driven forms of inquiry in the humanities and social sciences” are possible reasons for the “failure of many tenured faculty to comprehend fully the transformation of the political economy of higher education” (505). Schwartz wryly suggests that many tenured faculty “could benefit from a short primer on the political and economic transformation of late capitalism that engendered the proletarianization of academic labor” (509).
Forty years of systematic defunding of public higher education has brought us to a point where a majority of faculty within higher education are classified contingent. The jaws of the neoliberal university continue to swallow the untenured whole and will continue to do so until the entire faculty (tenured and untenured alike) stop it. Many tenured faculty have acquired such ranks in a rather precarious academic environment today due to their professional acumen and their ability to avoid political risks in the academy.
The rise of the solipsistic research scholar has contributed to the artificial divide between the tenured research scholar and the non-tenured teaching scholar. And yet when the contingent masses speak up, our political and professional concerns are lamented as merely personal attacks. We have dared to bring the personal into the hallowed realm of the political and the professional.
But, to echo the sentiments of second wave feminists, … the personal is political.
In “What Political Theology Could be,” Vincent Lloyd and David True attest “the professional can feel personal.” I agree and would add that the professional can feel personal because, like the political, it is personal. While the various spheres we navigate between may be governed by discrete rules, the effects of those rules on all persons cannot be anything other than personal. While we pay homage to such abstract concepts of the political, the professional, and the personal, much like we do to the separation of the so-called church and state in the political arena, there is very little separation between them in as they play out in individual’s lives.
The political action of states to defund their state universities and the professional response of said universities to hire armies of part-time faculty to avoid hiring full-time faculty (to avoid paying for benefits) personally affects the personal lives of thousands of contingent faculty members as well as hundreds of thousands of students.
My previous professional status as a contingent faculty member dictated and defined the most personal aspects of my life, my energy, my time, my health, and my income. Whether we call these actions political or professional, the effects, if they involve people, are always personal.
So I ask you a loaded question. Is the contingency issue political, professional, or personal?
And I answer in the affirmative, yes.
Kate Daley-Bailey received her A.B. (2001) and M.A. (2004) degrees in Religion from the University of Georgia. She has taught Religion courses at the collegiate level for the last ten years at Georgia State University, Georgia Perimeter College, and the University of Georgia. As of 2014, she left adjunct teaching and has taken a full-time academic advisor position in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Georgia.