Contingency, Collaboration and the Justification of the Humanities

In 2003 the adjunct faculty at Keene State College, where I work, reached a tentative agreement on their first contract that was subsequently approved by the college’s Board of Trustees and ratified by the union membership. The first contract, the result of many years of work, court cases and appeals in front of the labor relations board, offered an 18.8 percent retroactive salary increase. The new contract also established a process for arbitration of contract disputes, just cause for dismissal, appeal rights for non-reappointment or non-renewal of contracts, as well as other benefits and protections. Moreover, the organizing effort had the support of the full-time faculty union at Keene State College.

In my years as chair of one of the largest department at Keene State College I spent a good deal of time fretting over the challenges of working in a system that depends so heavily on contingent labor. Surely many of the privileges I enjoy as a tenured faculty member are entwined with the willingness of the administration to retain adjunct faculty at wages that are far below the minimum recommended salary by professional organizations. And I’ve worked closely to create new opportunities to collaborate with adjunct colleagues while recognizing that collaborations around courses and curriculum too often make available opportunities that only magnify the lack of compensation for such work. Too, a few years ago, I was a member and chair of the Modern Language Associations’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR) when we began setting recommended minimum salary for adjunct faculty members on an annual basis. More recently I’ve been working with adjunct faculty colleagues in a new first-year writing program and in an American Studies program that draws on the expertise and experience of adjunct faculty.

And so I took special notice of a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education by Philip E. Lewis, Vice President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Lewis’ missive, “Curing What Ails Liberal Education,” is a rejoinder to Andrew Delbanco’s response to the so-called crisis in the humanities, “A New Day for Intellectuals” (The Chronicle Review 13 February). In addition to calling into question Delbanco’s characterization of scholarship in the humanities-the “theory-driven decline thesis”-Lewis points to the value of seeking collaboration with colleagues across schools and divisions rather than merely making the standard humanistic argument that students need more humanities.

But his target is really the organized contradictions of the academic workplace. Earning the public trust-in other words, arguing persuasively for the necessity of humanistic reflection and inquiry-requires nothing less, argues Lewis, than generating “a principled understanding of the appointment of responsibilities among tenure-track faculty members and their less-privileged part-time or adjunct colleagues, coupled with a sharply upgraded status for that army of nontenure-track teachers” (B18). Lewis concludes that the current “relegation of adjuncts to second-class academic citizenship is a toxic structure far more disabling for the enterprise of the humanities than concessions to theory have ever been for humanistic scholarship.”

It would be helpful to think through more carefully how members of a profession like ours justify our work, especially today, when many of the high-minded defenses of the humanities no longer ring true in an academic system that is increasingly dependent upon radical inequities. How do intellectuals working in the humanities justify to the public-and to those people who represent the public, like boards of trustees or senior academic administrators-why we deserve the rights of control over our intellectual work different from the control that society and employers exercise over other occupations?

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