Image: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
A few months back, the academic Internet briefly exploded over a row between a group of adjunct activists and Jason Brennan, a tenure-track professor of business and philosophy at Georgetown University.
It started when Brennan published a brief series of thoughts on National Adjunct Walkout Day on the blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians (which I am pretty sure is a social network for writers of Ayn Rand fanfiction who also adopt hospice cats). His thesis was one we’ve heard plenty of times before: “Adjuncts are victims of their own bad choices.” Here’s the paragraph (typos included) that launched a thousand irate Twitter quips, or at any rate the hashtag #ProfessorGEICO:
“Adjuncts are people who played what they should have known, and in most cases did know, was a risky game, and lost. They are not like sweatshop workers in the third world who have no better options. They are more like formerly rich people who understand statistics, but who decided to bet the house in Vegas anyways. When they lose – even though they lose in a corrupt in unfair system – it’s hard to feel sorry for them. After all, they knew (or should have known) what the risks were and how bad the system is, and they played anyways. Further, there’s no reason why they have to wallow in adjunct poverty. They could just quit at any time and get a perfectly good job at GEICO.”
To most who are acquainted with the travesty of academic labor, Brennan’s post was a cause for a brief itch to copy edit, a rueful sigh, and a quick check of the calendar for the upcoming union vote. But my colleagues at PrecariCorps — a nonprofit that provides assistance to contingent faculty with financial difficulties — were feeling punchy that day. So they decided to make Brennan’s dispatch into a meme. A publicly available photograph was procured. Hastily fonted text was overlaid. “How Not to Help Adjuncts 101” was declared. The gauntlet was thrown.
Brennan, understandably amused and emboldened by his new notoriety, parried back with the following analogy, meant to illustrate the peril of personal “bad choices” in a manner that even feeble adjunct brains could understand:
“Imagine in downtown Falls Church there’s a restaurant called Bob’s Steak or Poopburgers. Bob is a wonderful cook, but also a corrupt and nasty jerk. When you order a sandwich, there’s a 20% chance you’ll get a delicious steakburger, or an 80% chance you’ll get a foul poopburger. Now, if such a restaurant existed, I’d say Bob’s a real jerk. Still, I wouldn’t feel bad for the 80% of his customers who get the poopburger. They could just get up and walk away, and go to any of the other fine restaurants in Falls Church, such as Pizzeria Orso. No one’s making them eat the poopburger. If they eat the poopburger, that’s their fault. I can say that even if I think poopburger restaurants are bad and should be outlawed.”
The next punch wasn’t really a punch — it was just a link for Brennan’s edification to a piece from October 2014 on the Huffington Post about the myth of academic meritocracy, the idea that good people (who make “good choices”) get good jobs. Here was Mary Grace Gainer, a good person who had made good choices, argued author Leo Gerard, but like so many other casualties of the rapidly corporatizing academy, she was struggling.
That’s when the situation escalated. Brennan and a few of his friends decided the way to shut the whole argument down would be to “fisk” Gainer’s CV — to pore over her credentials with their superior tenure-track eyes, pinpoint her every misstep, “refute” them one by one, and authoritatively decree that her travails were simply the meritocracy at work.
(Here is a terrific rundown on The Philosophy Smoker about the issue. And Lee Kotner assembled a comprehensive Storify on the resulting Twitter debate, during which I apparently put one of my infant daughter’s bedtimes to excellent use and participated excessively.)
The whole kerfuffle was the worst kind, because it was both trite and enraging.
It was trite because, whenever I (or others) write about adjunct labor, self-satisfied types are always kindly volunteering to explain to me all about supply and demand, meritocracy, and bad choices (which are somehow identical to the choices others have made with different outcomes). Their lectures are usually directed at my own personal credentials and struggles, even if what I have written about adjunct labor has nothing to do with my own choices, supply and demand, or merit. The Twitter argument was also enraging because the disgrace of faculty pay exists independently of Mary Grace Gainer’s individual merit, or her alleged bad choices regarding supply and demand.
Indeed, every time I see an institutional critique of the corporatized university and its labor casualties that dares to be written by, or about, one of those casualties, it’s met by personal attack. Gainer’s CV fisk was one of the most egregiously down-punchy I’ve seen, but I’ve had a few lobbed my own way over the years as well. How exactly is informing someone that she didn’t go to Princeton (a fact of which she is usually aware) a valid explanation of the wholesale and widespread devaluation of college instruction? Obviously it’s enraging, and I get re-enraged every time I am unwise enough to read the comments below one of my own articles.
But maybe academic labor activists should feel buoyed rather than enraged, because this kind of rhetoric is so obviously and shrilly clambering to avoid the actual subject at hand, which must mean that the opposition has exactly zero valid defenses of the institutional status quo. For as long as those apologists can deflect back to an individual — to her individual shortcomings and her individual bad choices — that individual, rather than the institution, becomes the topic of conversation. The conversation no longer has to be about why it’s acceptable for expensive institutions to pay highly qualified faculty a wage less than that earned by a McDonald’s janitor. (At McDonald’s, at least the cheap food explains it.)
Again and again, I’ve seen activists try — and I’ve tried myself — to go back to the real issue, and all we get in response is the Atlas Shrugged Crash Course in Bootstrap Capitalism.
So hold on to your dollar-sign brooches and get ready to have your mind blown: Literally every adjunct in the world knows how supply and demand works. Agitating on behalf of better pay and treatment is not a result of ignorance. If anything, the current state of academic labor is a stellar example of why supply-side economics is unethical, and why “meritocracy” is an empty word that lucky people use to justify their luck. Kein Sieger glaubt an den Zufall, said Nietzsche. No victor believes in chance.
Yes, it is a shame that so many adjuncts are willing (in the same way that anyone else with a low-paying job is “willing”) to work so hard for such low pay. But that does not excuse those wages for a second. The arbitrary gesticulations of the Invisible Hand do not justify the general devaluation of a liberal education. It is that devaluation that has been, and continues to be, a choice.
So the next time your fingers are itching to let some down-and-out job-market casualty know how the free market works, use those fingers instead to do something else you’ve been meaning to do, like learn all the chords to “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. The blessed free market may enable the exploitation of nearly 1,000,000 workers, all of whom are being paid less and less to deliver a “product” that somehow keeps getting more expensive. But that doesn’t excuse that exploitation. So sure, go ahead and talk about someone’s weak CV, her bad life choices. Go ahead and make it personal. But know that when you do, you are intentionally shifting the conversation away from what it’s really about.