BY EVA SWIDLER
Guest blogger Eva Swidler is an environmental historian on the undergraduate liberal arts faculty at Goddard College and the Curtis Institute of Music. She also researches and writes in the fields of labor studies and political economy.
Academic freedom is all the rage in newspapers these days. Are protests at speaking events on campus violating the mission of the university to promote debate and critical thinking? Are demands for trigger warnings really a refusal to hear challenging views? Are faculty who participate in the creation of “safe spaces” coddling rather than educating students? An article on some aspect of these speech issues seems to hit the headlines and the op ed section at least weekly. But perhaps the single most important issue of academic freedom today, namely the impact of the rise of contingent faculty on college courses and on the institution of higher education itself, seems nowhere to be found in the pages of newspapers.
Even a vigorous series of trigger warnings issued by a professor takes just a few minutes of a class session, but the shaping of topics, readings, assignments and classroom discussions that results from the contingent employment status of an instructor lasts all the hours, days, weeks, and months of a course. As my September–October Academe article, “Can the Adjunct Speak?” argues, this should be academic freedom topic number one.
In a co-authored piece in the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom a couple of years back, Jan Clausen and I enumerated some of the many ways in which the widespread use of adjuncts impacts and undermines many different meanings of academic freedom. Dependent usually upon a single chairperson’s good will and positive student evaluations for the constant approval and re-approval of their teaching contracts, contingent faculty, (who form a majority in this country), speak and teach strategically, both on and off campus. The repercussions of this situation range from the obvious classroom consequences to less obvious results, including for instance the undermining of meaningful faculty governance and a retreat from the role of public intellectual.
The Modern Language Association invited my co-author and me to present a follow up to that article on a panel at their convention in Vancouver in January of 2015; as I wrote that paper and then edited it for publication in Academe, I pondered some more submerged yet equally powerful effects on academic freedom resulting from the increasing precarity of the professoriate. I wondered whether the trope of the disruptive and slightly embarrassing adjunct might be part of a divide-and-conquer construction of tenured and tenure track faculty as respectable and dignified, in contradistinction to the ragtag and troublesome adjunct. Are adjuncts in fact part of disciplining securely employed faculty to not be disruptive? After all, if those tenured faculty do in fact disrupt, well…maybe they aren’t actually suitable members of the responsible class of the tenured. Maybe they really belong in the adjunct underclass.
I also explored the intellectual and academic consequences of the economic reality of adjunct labor. Though surely not receiving the kind of coverage that trigger warnings are getting, in the last year or two there has been some media discussion of impoverished adjuncts, dramatically dying without health insurance, or (more grindingly and less glamorously) partaking of government assistance programs at higher rates than the general American public. A connection of those economic dots to the work that adjuncts do, and what that connection means both to students and to the public, has yet to be made in any widespread way. Adjuncts juggle courses at multiple campuses, do other kinds of additional paid work altogether to supplement their teaching, and rarely have the money to attend conferences. The precious time and energy to research and write and give papers have become unaffordable luxuries. Are rights to speech real when the economic ability to employ those rights is lacking? And what are the cultural consequences of the absence of these intellectuals from the entire last generation of scholarship? Are these not best conceived of as issues of the academic freedom of the faculty as a body, along with individually expressed speech constrictions such as adjunct self-censorship?
The next time someone asks me what I think about bans on trigger warnings and safe spaces as a defense of academic freedom, here’s what I plan to reply: let’s focus on secure employment for the roughly 75% of American college faculty who are off the tenure track as a lot more important for those who are concerned about open discussion and vigorous debate, both on and off campus.
Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.