Monday, April 25, 2016

Further thoughts on the non-space of the university

At an institutional event today—a forum on unionization sponsored by the faculty senate and the MN Daily—I was reminded of what institutional space does. It frames a debate around the terms of those who represent power but appear as the market, as if those terms were somehow simply “there” to be represented. This is common enough and easily perceptible as the structure and effect of capitalism, but within an institution, such as the public university, where this phenomenon also sits as subject to a critique of power/knowledge, to behold it is yet another thing. This is a comment about incivility, on the one hand—it’s a comment about the space not being able to hold, within the terms it had established, a challenge to this frame itself. In this regard, it’s possible to see the apparent contingency of the event being called to an end before I got a chance to ask my “question” as far less contingent than that. I was about to ask a fairly “civil” “question” (the discussion, it had been stressed, should be considerate and should be civil, as should the Bureau of Mediation Services hearings, which had taken place in the preceding week), but also to call into question the terms that were being put forth, including the terms of civility (from which I also feel myself excluded, as someone who has been identified as too angry or as too aggressive, in tone, which I also feel amounts to my exclusion from the BMS hearings). The fact is, incivility is not an appealing position for unionization, either. The question, my question—How is it that a union could address and be critical of the changes in the public university in the past ten to fifteen years?—is always to be balanced against needing to appeal to individuals’ self-interest, in other words, strategically needing to validate the concerns expressed by both Aaron Sojourner and Joel Waldfogel about the compression of salaries, for example, when Waldfogel’s salary is over three hundred thousand dollars. So this is the point at which my civil question turns uncivil, and I hope that in writing about it, I can also attempt to do some further work on understanding the “work” of contingency in the university.

I have come to use the phrase “contingent faculty” to identify those who work in a position “without guarantee” at the university. This can include non-tenure-track faculty who are already included in the faculty instructional unit but don’t have tenure positions (term assistant professor, contract assistant professor). Here, contingency is seen as a politicized term, which many of these people may not identify with, due to the closeness of their standing to the tenure line and their disinclination to instead identify with those perceived as being still below, or of a different type of employee altogether. This group below, at the University of Minnesota, is understood as part of the P&A category (Professional & Administrative) and what I am writing to address is the unchallenged claim that held at tonight’s event, which was that these two groups of employees—tenure-line faculty and P&A instructional (“professional”) faculty—have separate interests and are distinct groups.

Waldfogel put forth this claim by initiating a distinction between tenure-line faculty and contingent faculty on the basis of research work, that contingent faculty teach “to eat” (and he has sympathy for anyone in this position and hopes they can find a way to get better terms) but that this is fundamentally different from what faculty do. He cited his own “research” study on those who supported the University of Oregon unionization and found that those who had a greater interest in research were less likely to be supportive of unionization. It’s easy to see where the argument goes, but I was struck by this formulation: “More productive, less supportive.” He went on to cite how just like other “amenities” that can be used (like the sports facility and new recreation center) to attract graduate students, amenities are need to bring in research faculty and unionization would be less appealing to those folks.

In my question turned uncivil, I would say, the only difference between my productivity and yours is that yours is paid for and supported by the institution, including this pathetic “research” study put forward to us tonight, which confuses effect for cause and is blind to the conditions of production.

I do research, I publish peer-reviewed articles, and I have a press interested in reviewing a book manuscript for which I will receive no “course release” to work on, no sabbatical to take, and no institutional grants to apply for. The people who are invested in maintaining this distinction, even at a very minimal level, are those who directly benefit from not having to share the responsibility of doing the work done by these employees. These are tenure-line faculty who can afford to “not get” the difference between the way that contingent labor is valued and the way their own is (acknowledging that there are still many who do get it). Is there much of a difference between the elitism espoused by Joel Waldfogel and the structure of this institutional space (the forum event itself) in which such a difference could go unchallenged? I wonder, tonight, how many more of such things I can sit through—the annihilating feeling of no one objecting to these terms (except, thank you, Michael Goldman). Waldfogel called the “method” of his research study “hogwash,” but its terms still stood. His measure of productivity was challenged but its ontological presuppositions were not and do not tend to get challenged even by faculty members in my own department (all of whom claim to be concerned about contingent faculty): the fact that within the university, the adjunct occupies the position, according to the definition in Merriam-Webster of being “added or accompanying in a subordinate capacity.” This is further qualified, in Merriam Webster, as “attached to a faculty or staff as a temporary or part-time member.” It is in this light that the stakes of Waldfogel’s phrase, “more productive, less supportive” emerge. In the humanities, productivity’s more familiar name is publication. The “more supportive, less productive” side, in contrast, is not, in actuality, another side, it is an included aspect of this productive labor, in all of the ways that are described in Marx and taken up by Silvia Federici, Selma James, and other Marxist feminists. Of course, this makes apparent the investment in the invisibility of this work. The way in which the reality-effect of the two sets of separate interests flickers and blinds.

I would go on to say: see here, your productivity is the result and real abstraction of so much other productivity. And this is probably obvious to a number of people in the room. It’s not the “market,” it’s the politics of the university. What’s less obvious, though, is what all the silence is about. Why didn’t I just say—I was right in front of the microphone when it was called done—oh, I’m sorry, I’ve got this question and I really just have to ask it? We’ve all been here, and we’ve been waiting, and we’ve heard enough from you. Silence, complicity (the past participle of adjungere, “to link up, join, add, attach”), “civil” guilt. This is also an a/effect of the terms in which it was all framed. The adjunct is included; she is invited to speak, so long as it’s in these terms; she can stand in line for the microphone, to ask her question, but her turn will never come. She will never get to decide about the terms of productivity, even though, ontologically, she is committed to that productivity. I think when we say that tenure-line faculty “don’t get it,” this is what I we mean, even though it’s often offered as an excuse or justification for this lack of understanding.

I can’t help but think of this “not getting it” in those terms that Brecht uses in explaining his dissatisfaction with how Mother Courage (in his 1938 play Mother Courage and Her Children) was received by audiences. He was disappointed that by and large, audiences felt empathy for Mother Courage (Anna Fierling), who killed, or let die, her three children, in her blind drive to profit off of the war. Brecht was disappointed that audiences empathized with her conflict rather than that they able to perceive that she “didn’t get it.” I often think about that difference when it is described (empathetically) that faculty “don’t get it.” Can Mother Courage be seen differently for not getting it, for not perceiving her life is contingent upon the death of her children? As Rei Terada describes in “Repletion: Masao Adachi, Landscape Film and Real Abstraction,” this distinction is also apparent in thinking about real abstraction, that “understanding real abstraction by definition departs from the sensory experience of real abstraction rather than being constituted in it.” Brecht’s dissatisfaction with the reception of Mother Courage can be seen in this way; it’s no wonder that he gives up on experience. He would have to in order to want to insist upon Mother Courage’s not-getting-it. If, in Terada’s model, understanding real abstraction can be seen as constituted by the sensory experience of real abstraction, not-getting-it is already inside all of that. Not-getting-it isn’t a transcendental position that fails to think outside itself; not-getting-it is the condition in which real abstraction is experienced, sensorily, by contingent faculty. It is a different kind of failure.

Although “contingency” is a term that is located, philosophically, opposite to necessity, perhaps as Merriam-Webster again, “happening by chance : affected by unforeseen causes or conditions : not patently necessary : unpredictable in occurrence or outcome,” contingency bears traces of the same kind of dependence that comes up with the term “adjunct”: “dependent on, associated with, or conditioned by something else.” Etymologically, this goes further, through an association with “touch,” as the present participle of contingere “to touch on all sides.” Contingency is a position whose associated sensorial experience is one of being touched on all sides by not-getting-it, so that one’s merely being the effect of this is equivalent to one’s annihilation, or feeling of being destroyed, even when “included.” It’s not just about the visibility of the work done by these faculty, although I often come back round to that; it’s about the way in which these positions form the basis of a critique of the institution of the university that does not in turn continue to valorize the uncritical linking of power/knowledge.

Last week in the BMS hearings, a senior lecturer in the Carlson School of Management testified, via his experience on the faculty senate, to the percentage of courses taught, across the university at each level (from 1000-level courses to 8000-level courses), by non-tenure-track faculty. Beginning with 1000-level classes, this number was over 50%; even at 8000-level courses, the number was still around 39%. The university maintains a quoted standard that no more than “25%” of courses should be taught by non-tenure-line faculty. These are courses that should be taught by tenure-line faculty; that they are not illuminates the extent to which the university is underfunding departments with enrollments that exceed their faculty teaching capacity. Where does this divestment in teaching come from? It does not come from “the market,” even if the market were some kind of veritable Mississippi, dividing the campus in two; it comes from the political investment in the financialization of the university, its professionalization, and its optimalization of profit (plus everything else and all that). No one can get out of it, but can you feel “dead” to it even as you are touched on all sides? That space that is most appropriated, most exploited, most alienated? How do you not-valorize that space?

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