Image: shed stencil 2 from "HANDS: A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-Century Sources" by Jim Harter.
Just before Thanksgiving I attended the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I’ve belonged to that learned society for 12 years and missed only two annual meetings, one because of the birth of my daughter and the other because I was avoiding academia. My yearly calendar used to be attuned to the whims of its call for papers, deadlines for grants, job listings, and annual conference.
Over the years, I haven’t thought much about what my participation in this group means to me. It granted me the ability to present, to register at the employment center, to review papers for sections, and to have access to the AAR’s journal. Membership was just a thing I was supposed to have. Additionally, I didn’t analyze what the association’s responsibilities are to me as a member. Does my learned society owe me anything because of my yearly dues?
I think so. Yet I now find myself interrogating the relationship between disciplinary associations and their members. What do we do for learned societies? What do they do for us? What are their responsibilities to their membership?
Those questions were foremost on my mind as I agreed to chair a new task force for the AAR on contingent faculty members. Once again, I headed to the annual meeting, but now I had a green ribbon affixed to my nametag declaring visibly that I was on an academy committee. I was always ambivalent about the conference name tag even without that ribbon; the focus on institution chafed. Usually I don’t wear the stupid thing so I can’t be dismissed before I’ve spoken a word. This year was different because I was attending with the explicit goal of talking about contingent labor at a leadership workshop, on panels, and in the task force meeting. The ribbon made me legitimate, and I hated it more, not less.
Being chair made me visible and approachable, which meant many religious studies scholars wanted to tell me how the AAR should handle questions of contingent labor. What should the organization do for members who are adjuncts and full-time lecturers? What can be done on the larger problem of the adjunctification of academia? Would lobbying against contractual labor even be a possibility? Initially, I welcomed their comments. I wanted feedback. What I received varied in utility. Opinions ranged from practical (collect data! reduce membership fees!) to not-so-practical (unionize all departments!) to action-oriented (shame departments about labor!) to burn-it-down (wait, what are we burning again?!).
By email, direct message, Facebook threads, tweets, and casual conversations, I faced an onslaught of this is what the learned society should do about contingent labor. What practices can the AAR adopt to help members who happen to be in contingent positions? Can the AAR influence how departments and their institutions treat contingent workers? Some advice was less tactful: This is what you should do was interspliced with judgments about whether I could actually do anything at all. No one directly called me an AAR stooge; they just implied it. Concern and anxiety drove much of the talk. We must do something transformed neatly into: The AAR must do something.
These conversations started to wear on me. I don’t enjoy being told what to do, but it wasn’t just that. In a leadership workshop at the annual meeting, I listened to department chairs nonchalantly discuss their reliance on contingent labor. As I tried not to fidget, I realized that what was wearing me down was the assumption that a disciplinary association could fix all that ails us. Suggesting what a learned society must do about contingent labor is often a tactic to pass the buck. We can’t fix this problem, so it becomes another problem for the learned society to magically solve. Look away from your own department or institutions. Place the blame elsewhere. Someone else is always responsible.
Again, I ask: What can learned societies really do? What power do they have to effect change? What is actually within their reach? These are not omnipotent organizations, despite the attempts to suggest they are. Their resources are finite as are their spheres of influence. What they should do doesn’t neatly fit with what they can do.
This is not to defend the inaction of learned societies on the issue of contingent labor, but rather to contextualize the possibility of action and recourse. I will admit my own skepticism about the AAR’s efforts to tackle contingent labor, but I refuse to let that skepticism keep me from working toward reform.
Still, I was frustrated by the many well-meaning folks who offered pie-in-the-sky suggestions about the nature of the modern university, the lack of appreciation for the humanities, the threats to tenure, and the place of religion in everyday life. All of those issues matter, and they are also connected in intimate ways. I get that and I empathized. But bringing up those issues in a discussion of contingent labor derails that discussion. Yes, I agree that the life of the mind is important, but how does that relate to contingent labor’s impact on religious studies scholars and scholarship? How do the conditions of labor affect our field of study? Maybe derailing was easier than reflecting on how you actually benefit from the adjuncts teaching in your department or evaluating whether your program really should train more graduate students.
By asking what the learned society could actually do about this issue, I forced myself to think about what AAR has control over (and what it doesn’t), and how much control it can exert over its members. What changes to membership dues, annual meeting fees, travel grants, and journal access could help out religious studies scholars who happen to be contractual workers? What can be changed quickly to make the annual meeting less of a financial burden for adjuncts? And what would the association’s long-term goals be to accommodate contingent faculty members? I’m unsure what these goals should be; this is part of what the task force needs to figure out. Reduced membership dues and annual meeting fees, access to online journals and databases, travel grants are likely first steps. If we start with the possible, maybe then we can tackle goals that seem more far-fetched and harder to reach.
What I learned at the annual meeting is that the AAR staff are committed to addressing contingency in religious studies, but I’m less sure that the members are. Both the leadership workshop and the panel on contingency had small audiences. The audience for the panel was contractual laborers, AAR staff, and the members of the task force. The only tenured professor present was on the task force. Does the paying membership of the AAR care about contingency? I don’t know. I hope so. What can a learned society do about contingent labor if its members don’t care? I’m not sure I want to find out.