It’s been too long since I’ve written here on The Homeless Adjunct blog, but I am back and ready to move forward. The silence was caused by a particularly hard year of never-ending job searching. Two of my three adjunct teaching jobs disappeared, leaving me with barely 30% of what was already a poverty level income. I suspect that this has had something to do with my outspokenness on the issue of adjunct labor abuse, but as those of you working on contingency contracts all know far too well — there is simply no way to definitively prove such retaliation. And after a year of falling victim to the severe trauma that we adjuncts are always facing, I have gotten myself back up, and have determined that I won’t let myself be silenced by poverty, or fear. While it has certainly proven to be an effective tactic, it can only be effective if we allow it to take our spirit along with our income. It’s pretty clear that this is a Braveheart moment, where I either continue to fight against tyranny — and the corporatized university is a tyrannical institution — or I let them win.
And thanks to the Scottish warrior blood in my veins, I choose to fight.
Since many people have kindly asked, I should also say that my co-producer, Chris Labree, and I are putting together a fundraising campaign shortly, to help us raise the money we need to get the remainder of the film shot, and into post-production. So, you’ll be hearing a good bit on these pages about how that’s going. You’ll also be reading about some of the people we’ve already interviewed, and the issues we’ll be addressing in the film and in the book.
So, since my last article, what’s been happening in higher education? Tuitions are continuing to increase. Student loan debt is continuing to increase. Administrative jobs are continuing to increase. Use of low-wage adjuncts is continuing to increase. Presidential salaries are continuing to increase. But the quality of education is plummeting.
Yes, more people are talking about the terrible situation in academia. But the focus still seems to be skewed. The myth of the “lazy tenured professor” still gets bandied about by too many people as if it were a truth. For profit “information delivery” methods are on the rise. MOOCs proliferate, despite plenty of research that points out the serious flaws in
this “model”. The game plan seems clear – destroy the teaching profession, then blame those educators still struggling against all odds to teach, hold them responsible for the systemic failures. Then replace a system which focused on the social good of education with a for-profit model run like an edu-factory. There is a reason that billionaires like Bill Gates have bought into education – and its the same reason that Gates owns over a half million dollars worth of Monsanto stock. Factory farming and factory-ed have the same goal: profit. And not for you or me. Certainly not for our children. But for Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates and the other 1%-ers who have muscled their way into ownership of the “education industry”. And, I will say it until I’m blue in the face (and yes that’s another Braveheart reference): Education is NOT a for-profit endeavor, any more than medicine should be. It is a social good, and must be treated as such. Teachers are professionals and know more about the complexities of educating individuals than the “Instructional Designers” and curriculum technicians who are doing their best to take over.
An article from outside of academia caught my attention the other day. It’s an interview from Salon.com with Jaron Lanier, long seen as an internet visionary. Lanier has grown more than a little concerned about the ways in which the internet has become a driving force for inequality and, sees it at the root of the destruction of the middle class. He points to several professions – artists, musicians, journalists – whose livelihoods have all but disappeared. His new book Who Owns the Future continues his war on digital utopianism and his assertion of humanist and individualistic values in a hive-mind world. But Lanier still sees potential in digital technology: He just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society, eroding professions and, in exchange, throwing bonbons to the crowd.”
The idea of this erosion of professions is what caught my attention the most. He warns that internet technology has been destroying the middle class by destabilizing jobs – by both shrinking the pool of possible jobs, and then creating instability in the few jobs available. Instability comes in two ways: job instability (part-time, contract work has been replacing full-time work) and the low wages and lack of benefits that go with such part-time jobs.
While the last 20 years of academia have seen these two destructive practices
aimed at the professoriate, it hasn’t been until lately that the threat is driven by the internet — in the case of academia, in the form of MOOCs that are now looming enormous, casting monstrous shadows over the college campus. The MOOC model, from the standpoint of the professoriate, is an entirely exploitative one. The professor designs a class, has lectures and other media support shot and “canned” — and then the university, or the MOOC itself owns that material. It OWNS the intellectual property of a professor who has trained for, on average, a decade for advanced degrees, who has taught for years and developed skills and abilities. And, once that particular area of scholarship is canned — who needs the professor, ANY professor, anymore?
Lanier talks about what happened when digital photography overtook the old style of photograph development. He uses Kodak as an example. At one point they employed over 140,000 workers. Instagram, at the point it was sold for….about a billion dollars was it?….to Facebook, had 13 employees. THIRTEEN.
Digitizing does away with the need for the human. In the case of MOOCs, it is a scholarship killer. Education, at the university level especially, is the outgrowth of ongoing scholarship by the faculty. A lifetime of research, writing, speaking, engaging with other scholars in your field, produces not just the articles and books of each scholar’s work, but the classes – NEW classes, exciting never-before-given classes, which provide a furtherance of study and scholarship in a given area. By MOOC-ing college classes, an illusion of higher education is created. Nothing more. It’s “virtual” education in all the worst ways.
Remember when SAG and AFTRA did bloody battle with the film studios and TV studios in the early days of VCRs? When a whole new way of distributing the work of the actors and crew on films and TV shows offered tremendous increase in revenue….but not for THEM? Well, that’s what the MOOC model does in academia. The owners of the MOOC platform, the universities under contract with the MOOC companies — those are the beneficiaries of all this digitized “information delivery”. The shrinking career of the professor just got diminished even more. And, unlike the members of SAG/AFTRA, we have no union capable of providing significant pushback. The traditional educational unions have been nearly worthless – they haven’t been able to stop the casualization of the majority of university professors in the country, for instance. They’ve been notoriously short-sighted. Who is there to fight against the already-impoverished professoriate being MOOCed?
Lanier talks about the social contract that is being broken by the casualization of more and more areas of labor — he calls it the “informal” economy of our current employment situation. “We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them. Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that bargain that worked so well?”
This observation is certainly relevant to what he sees happening in the creative industries, and in journalism. But it is just as true in academia. The idea that if a person loves what they do — even if it takes a lot of work and dedication to do it — they don’t deserve to be paid a middle-class salary to DO it — is part of what fuels the disappearance of the scholar as a professional.
The problem is, as Lanier points out, that we are not living in an informal economy, simply suffering with the income of an informal hiring system. This informal, casualized labor situation puts far too many people, across all professions, into a terrible situation when they crash up against the formal economy we actually LIVE in — that’s the economy where you must still use cold, hard cash to pay for your housing, your utilities, your food, your healthcare.
“It was all a social construct to begin with, so what changed… is that at the turn of the [21st] century it was really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if we give away all the information services, but we make money from advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism. But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where people still participate in the formal economy. And it’s a kind of capitalism that’s totally self-defeating because it’s so narrow. It’s a winner-take-all capitalism that’s not sustaining.”
Think about the writing-for-free model that has taken over journalism. His point can be supported by the millions made by Arianna Huffington, while many of her writers worked for little or nothing. Yes, writing is one of what Lanier is calling the “pleasant” jobs — as is teaching (I didn’t say easy. But dedicated writers and educators alike see what they do as rewarding and important work.) Why should journalists or educators be working for little to no money, living at the edge of poverty, while the people at the top of this sort of economic structure are reaping enormous fortune? According to Lanier, this is a conscious breach of the all-important social contract that not only provides what he calls the “hump” of middle class citizens — that middle area surge on the economic chart where the majority of people fall — but that large, sustained middle class keeps the rest of the system going. Without it, the economy fails, as does democracy itself.
“We don’t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs…The way society actually works is there’s some mechanism of basic stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we can have a democracy. That’s the thing we’re destroying, and that’s really the thing I’m hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to everybody eventually.”
Technology will get to everybody eventually. Well, it’s already more than started in the professions he lists. Internet diagnosis and the silo-ing of medical treatment. Lawyers’ duties being unbundled, with online document reviewers being outsourced to other low-wage countries. Scholars being reduced to migrant status, teaching conveyor-belt classes with “common syllabi”.
We’re all screwed. And we’ll stay screwed if we keep struggling as individuals, or as separate classes of professionals. We’ve got to come together and rise up together – all workers, across all platforms and industries – and put our talents and our multiple intelligences to use for our own benefit. Stop giving our talents and abilities away to the Predator Elite, and start working together to figure out how to use our talents for each other. If all exploited journalists stopped writing; if all exploited artists stopped creating; if all exploited educators stopped teaching — what would these exploiters have? A great big bunch of nothing. No articles or news stories. No music, theatre, film, visual art. Empty classrooms and campuses.
The most exploited are the most necessary. We can never forget that.