Academic Freedom for All Academics

Academic freedom is something we talk about a lot these days, what with Salaita and Dreger and Wisconsin and all. Less often talked about is the academic freedom of the new faculty majority. When contingent faculty’s academic freedom is talked about, it’s talked about as if precarity were the only obstacle to untrammeled academic autonomy, though the nouns in the first sentence make clear that such is not the case. And as converting roughly 70% of the professoriate into secure, well-paid positions is at best a long and difficult job, equating academic freedom with tenure is not only false, but makes academic freedom for the majority seem doubly hopeless.

But academic freedom for the 70% is not hopeless. Whatever else academic freedom means, it means the freedom to teach, to serve, and to write. Eliminating some of the double standards that serve to define contingent faculty a priori as inferior would not only be just, it would advance academic freedom for the academy as a whole.

Academic freedom, in a nutshell, is academic freedom. Part of academic freedom is being able to teach courses in your area of expertise. This is a matter of personal academic freedom, for to love ideas and be forbidden to teach all but a few is agonizing. But it is also a matter of academic freedom for the academy itself. A world where nearly three-quarters of faculty have little to no say in curricula or the courses they teach is a world of creeping mooc-ification, a world in which Pearson and other entities push ever more often for ever more automated “teaching,” or, as they would call it, “content delivery.” It is the world we have. If faculty — including contingent faculty — are to have academic freedom as teachers, then tenure-stream faculty need to work towards a blind peer-reviewed or other merit-based system for proposing new courses so that all faculty can have a chance to teach texts and ideas they love. And, as James Donahue and others have argued, not only should TS faculty at least occasionally teach gateway courses as well as established advanced courses, contingent faculty should have the chance to teach such advanced courses as well as introductory ones. This will, of course, involve thinking of ways to judge the merits of a person’s actual teaching record rather than relying on the way someone was tracked X number of years ago based on their potential as it was perceived then. In return for this effort, the academy will become a place where the majority of faculty are able to stay fresh instead of being wrung dry and who can teach material that they love and communicate that love to students — particularly impressionable first- and second-year students choosing a major. For the humanities at least to be strong, students need to major in the humanities, and that means they need to take courses during their first years of college that are something more than paint-by-numbers affairs taught by people who have taught the same course over and over and over for the last decade or more.

Academic freedom also means being able to serve. Of course, many contingent faculty serve already. This fact is obscured because “service” is wrongly defined as that kind of service that TS faculty do. Adjuncts and NTTs also serve — their service is only often of a different kind. Mentoring and tutoring, teaching the courses no one with any clout wants to teach, doing all their own grading — all this is service, but it is often given no credit because it is focused on students rather than on clan and clique. But contingent faculty deserve also to know and have a say in what is going on in the university outside of their classroom. Too few colleges and universities allow contingent faculty to sit on committees. Faculty governance has been eroded in part because the definition of “faculty” has been narrowed by too many to mean only the TS few. Contingent faculty should not be required to serve, but that is no reason they should not be allowed to serve. At institutions with some sort of merit pay system, contingent faculty should receive merit pay for service. With the prospect of even a little merit pay before them, many more contingent faculty would be willing to serve. Even without merit pay, many contingent faculty are still willing to serve. Let us, for otherwise committees are merely echo chambers.

Academic freedom means also the freedom to write. This means (as I said before) that funding for good projects should go to good projects no matter the status of the faculty members proposing them and that conference funding should be open to those who need it. Allowing contingent faculty, if only occasionally, to teach courses in their area of expertise would also help contingent faculty to use their teaching time as research time the same way that TS faculty do. And despite recent critiques of the peer review system, the academy needs more blind peer review, not less, in order to give contingent faculty a better chance of being published. Further, let’s place more value on writing that people actually read — faculty who publish in The L.A. Review of Books, for example, should receive some reward for that achievement besides the Review’s $100 check and a slap on the back. We cannot expect students and the public to value the academy in general and the humanities in particular unless we do more to value those who bring the academy to the public. All this advances academic freedom for the individual, but also for the academy, because an academy that does not value knowledge creation or circulation except when it comes from the correct caste does not really value knowledge and is not much of an academy.

In important ways, academic freedom is not created or granted by administrators. Academic freedom is what happens when professors teach, serve, and write. Let us unite to do just that. Contingent faculty need TS allies to help create the changes outlined above, but TS faculty also need contingent faculty to be their allies because the university has for long now been a battleground and an ever-shrinking army is guaranteed to lose the fight.

14 thoughts on “Academic Freedom for All Academics

  1. VERY welcome and sensible piece! I would point out, though, that putting contingent faculty on committees and the like WITHOUT compensation is putting them on an unequal footing with every full-time member of the committee, for all of whom institutional service and governance are compensated within the salary. It is also implying that academic service is, or can be viewed as, some kind of hobby rather than the crucial work it is.

  2. Thanks for including my thoughts on the matter!

    I also have complicated thoughts about service, but a pretty simple solution: compensation. In particular, contingent faculty should be allowed to earn course release credits for service and administrative work, just as tenure track faculty are so eligible.

    The sad thing is, in my department (and many others), adjuncts are allowed – even encouraged – to pick up various kinds of service work that are outside of their contractual duties and for which they are not compensated. And too often, this is sold to them as “good experience.”

    • A. I agree about compensation, as I said. I am worried that course releases would involve the further exploitation of part-timers, though.

      B. I am glad that you point out that many contingent faculty take on a service burden already. Many TS faculty are so out of touch with reality that they think “not contractually obligated” means “something I don’t do.” The exploitation of contingent faculty in the way you describe is despicable. However, I prefer to be allowed to make my own choices, rather than being excluded altogether. And of course, see A.

  3. All good, but what about our job security when something we say or write riles someone with more power (nearly everyone)? To ignore that is to do us all a disservice. Without job security academic freedom depends on either the whim of our boss or on the mobilized solidarity of the academic community to defend each of us every single time we are threatened. Unfortunately, there are very few places where that situation presides as of now.

    • I don’t recall saying a word against job security in this piece. I am all for more job security. I am, however, arguing that for contingent faculty, precarity is far from the only obstacle to academic freedom.

  4. “We cannot expect students and the public to value the academy in general and the humanities in particular unless we do more to value those who bring the academy to the public.”

    I believe in the entire debate of late- including Wisconsin- this is perhaps the first statement I have seen that approaches the heart of the issue of diminishing academic freedom. I recently visited Wisconsin, and made a point to talk about this issue with UW faculty, non-academic professionals, skilled and non-skilled laborers.

    First of all, I think we need to talk about freedom without the qualifier of “academic”. If we are going to be successful in protecting academic freedom, we must do so in a manner that protects everyone’s freedom. The civil rights movement was not labeled the “African American” civil rights movement, even though, very deservedly, it had much to do with extending civil rights to African Americans.

    Fact of the matter is, academia is but a tiny fraction of the total workforce. Almost all the remainder of that workforce, save those who work for themselves, are subject to vastly reduced freedoms when they are on the clock. So, when they hear about the issue of “academic” freedom, most are inclined to either ignore it, or scoff at it. Why? Because from 9 to 5, they are told what to do, when to do it, and very often what to wear, what to say/ write, what not to say/ write, when to eat, use the bathroom or do something as mundane as make a phone call.

    The disconnect, nowadays, between academia and the general public is as profound as it has ever been. And to be frank, in my interviews with the lay public, the vast majority believe we have it far too easy and that the recent uproars concerning academic freedom amount to someone demanding they be served a little cheese with their whine.

    I am not saying I concur. As an academician generally, whether inside or outside of the traditional university setting, I have always worked my tail off- usually putting in 12 hour days, six days a week. But let’s face it, I clock in & clock out when I choose (for the most part), I wear what I want, eat when I want, go to the bathroom when I choose and make a phone call without notice. I also choose my line of research, and so I basically define my own job.

    We need to argue for everyone’s freedoms when they are on the clock- not just our own. The battle, and war, are already lost if that continues to be the approach.

    • I agree that we need to argue for everyone’s freedoms. I think, though, that part-time adjuncts are treated worse than almost any other workers. The incredibly low pay, long hours, stints without work while being, in many places, ineligible for unemployment, the ulcerous stress of wondering if you will get a job next semester … it’s awful. Perhaps worst is being treated like a dirty Kleenex by everyone, and the terrible loneliness. I’ll never forget being a part-time adjunct. I have had a lot of crummy jobs. I’ve cleaned my share of urinals. I’ve busted my ass to serve coffee to entitled pricks. I once had a job where my boss gave me a Christmas “gift” of a tin of flavored popcorn that she had eaten part of. And I don’t know that in any of those jobs I was treated worse than I was treated as an adjunct.

    • Thanks for writing this. We should, of course, fight for ourselves, especially our contingent majority, in this matter, but also say forthrightly that we are for free speech on the job for all workers (academic freedom for all if you will) and “just cause” job security after a reasonable probation (not 6 years!) for all workers as well. Then we can look most working people in the eye and ask for solidarity for our fights on campus. (and I predict we can often get it)

      • If we examine the plight of the American worker generally, we have lost a lot. “Right to Work” states are those where an employee can, for example, be dismissed “without cause”- although some rudimentary rules must be followed in so doing.

        While Obama is to be applauded for the healthcare law, it’s really just one piece of a much more complex labor puzzle. A worker’s bill of rights is long overdue. Federal legislation along these lines would correct many problems, for all.

        State institutions, like universities, answer to the electorate. The Wisconsin situation should not have been unexpected, and Gov Walker’s victories will be repeated in other states, sooner than later. The only permanent fix to state’s powers in these matters is to enact federal legislation- and for that- you will need a broad base of support.

        The point I am making is, I believe it is a no-win scenario for academia, just as it has been for the entire labor force, absent federal mandates.

        • Thanks for your comments, but as a labor educator I must correct your first sentence. Right to work has nothing to do with just cause dismissal rights (or their opposite, as in most jobs, at-will-employment). Though they may appear in the same states and certainly are both anti-worker and anti-union. Right to work, so called, has to to with banning legally any union contract clause that forces bargaining unit members (people covered by the contract) to pay something (dues or fees) to the union for the services they are getting in bargaining, grievance representation, etc.

  5. Pingback: “Not Contractually Obligated” | ACADEME BLOG

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