Friday, November 10, 2017

Liminalia: On (Professional) Academic Work and the Historical Construction of a Professional & Administrative Unit at the University of Minnesota in Light of the Recent Effort of Contingent and Tenure-line Instructors to Organize as One Faculty

In an October 2017 essay, titled “Why adjuncts should quit complaining and just quit” in Inside Higher Education, Claire B. Potter writes, “Perhaps per-course adjuncts are right to be angry at not being offered the full-time jobs that clearly should be available, but it is also possible that many may feel more trapped than [they] actually are.” Potter’s claims about the empowerment possible by quitting academic work have been well rehearsed. In another recent piece, “Contingent No More,” Maximillian Alvarez describes the “acute, unsustainable crisis” in higher education and imagines robustly engaged work “storm[ing] the castles of our disciplines” and “only cit[ing] the work of non-tenured scholars.” Both of these pieces take a perspective that identifies the powerlessness of the contingent academic as the problem with contemporary academic work.[1] Perplexingly, these lines seem little informed by critiques such as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s in “The University and the Undercommons,” which explores the possibility of a practice of work in/for the undercommons that refuses the terms of power, refuses to “take arms against a sea of troubles”; and Roderick Ferguson, who examines how the power (via student protests and student movements) and empowerment (through the racializing discourse of excellence) of minority students was managed by the university and articulated to the state. Moten and Harney and Ferguson all also make something of Kant’s reading of the conflict of faculties and of Derrida’s reading of Kant, and though I won’t be dealing with these texts in as much detail here as I would wish to, they are very much at the forefront of my mind. I wouldn’t want to have begun citing Potter’s line had it not so evidently—the line “that many may feel more trapped [they] than actually are”—demonstrated how ignoring the experience of powerlessness (linked in Moten, Harney, and Ferguson, to experiences being minoritized) leads in a straight line to administrative logics that frame the problem of academic work as a matter of career.

tracking regulation regulatory experiences regulative work regulation time
at the outskirts right before the end right after all signs pointed to reason being the regulator

a sense that the powerlessness described in experiences of difference, dissent, non-existence, and contingency in the university was there, was it not, not just because these experiences were captured, devalued, rendered powerless, but because there is

a kind of regulatory process bent around powerlessness too
that writes powerlessness as its own experience, not just as an absence of power

Kant, in The Conflict of the Faculties: “The reason why this faculty, despite its great prerogative (freedom), is called the lower faculty lies in human nature; for a man who can give commands, even though he is someone else’s humble servant, is considered more distinguished than a free man who has no one under his command.” (29)

James Siegel’s 1981 line from “Academic Work: The View from Cornell”—
“notions of absence arising within work”—comes into view here
as that which a view that equals death protects from

Siegel writes: “When one has risked total immersion in the view and won, that is, held back, the view is established as the place of death. The view is valuable precisely for being the place of death, the site where death may be safely located, because that place is not ‘here’, not the university. The particular myth of suicide at Cornell, however, indicates that, though the view itself suggests death, to become mythologized something more is needed. One also needs a notion of ‘academic pressure’ or some equivalent. The availability of suicide, the bridges and Cornell for mythologizing depends on looking at the view from the standpoint of work. From there, the interest in the view is an interest in creating a place to which notions of absence arising within work can be expelled, as we shall see.” (78)

Situating death on the outside, establishing work’s relation to it—so that academic work

is perpetually on the side of life. Into this scene, contingency and its images of the living death of academia

assure, among other things, that death is still a view outside of academic work, a view

that protects academic work from an interrogation, a saying of what it is.

Kant, again, in “On the Power of the Mind to Master its Morbid Feelings by Sheer Resolution,” concluding with an example of not being able to master through resolution, describes his “inability [Unvermögen] to maintain unity of consciousness in his ideas”: “And the result of this pathological condition is that when the time comes for me to connect the two, I must suddenly ask my audience (or myself, silently): now where was I? where did I start from? This is a defect, not so much of the mind or of the memory alone, as rather of presence of mind (Geistesgegenwart).”

Kant writes “absence arising within work” as the opposite of presence, a being “with it,” but “presence of mind,” Geistesgegenwart is also a temporal figure—gegenwart, an index of the present, of “of today.”

For him—and for who else?—unity of consciousness is the imperative against which absence is registered.

And for whom is Los Halos’s refrain “You should have known by now” [in the 7 minute 11 second song of the same name, which repeats, with increasing volume, this line] the absence in perpetuum arising in work?[2]

an absence as notable as

a non-tenure-track line

a throughline

inured lines

Dwelling around Siegel’s passing idea of “notions of absence arising in academic work,” this paper inquires about experiences of powerlessness in academic work[3] that are regulated not just by university administration but by administrative academia. I look at one of the employee units at the University of Minnesota, written into PELRA (Public Employees Labor Relation Act) and thus state law in order to find terms for thinking about how this conflict between contingent professional academics (a classification of instructional employees) and academic administrators (which includes low-level administrators, as well as provosts, deans, the football coach, and the president) rather than the issues or even the division of faculty defines the problem of academic work. I cite Potter’s and Alvarez’s articles because they demonstrate the extent to which discourse around contingency deflects rather than interrogates the problem of academic work—that is, intellectual work, the work of the lower faculty, freedom, the presence of mind, that which is taken as not pertaining to contingent faculty, depicted as “unfree” in relation to their working conditions in the contemporary university.[4]

It’s okay with people if contingent work is not a site of academic work, a non site for academic work, even if this implies the being-ill of those who are compulsively working there,
maybe per course adjuncts are right to be angry but there is also a question
of whether they have a right to be there.

In her 1994 essay, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date,”[5] Hortense Spillers, reflecting on Harold Cruse’s 1967 book Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, interrogates the question of what to do, the question of the responsibility that the black intellectual faces, insofar is it dictates or is symptomatic of the framing of the problem of academic work. She asks, “Can we say more clearly now, after his example, perhaps because of it, what the problem is that constitutes a “crisis” for the African-American creative intellectual at the moment” (429)? The crisis of the African American intellectual is not what I am taking up here, but I find that Spillers’s articulation of the problem that constitutes this crisis asks a similar question about the right to be.

Spillers’s “saying” in this essay is necessarily not a “seeing”; proceeding through a reading of Althusser and Balibar’s Reading Capital, Spillers describes the “real-concrete” of knowledge production which cannot be seen but is a sighting in order to “expose the primary non-dit—not said—of African American intellectual work, ironically, and that is its right to exist not only within the “real totality” of its natal life-world but within the “real-concrete” of knowledge production, of which one of its key sites in American society is the academy, mainstream and otherwise” (456). In exposing this not said, Spillers alludes to the significance of “saying” not just as an assertion but as an articulation of the institutional, administrative codes that define this right.

She proceeds to interrogate the question that is asked of African American intellectuals: “The ‘real-concrete’ question, then, that is posed to black creative intellectuals—What will you do to save your people?—and its thousand and one knee-jerk variations, is, therefore misplaced. It seems to me that the only question the intellectual can actually use is: To what extent do the ‘conditions of theoretical practice’ pass through him, as the living site of a significant intervention? In other words, as it passes through “I,” what alterations of its properties does the “I/eye” perform?” (456).

Spillers describes this process of alteration, a regulatory process bent around “necessary reflection” before it articulates the contradiction of condition/intervention.[6]

It is literally today the eye (the mind’s eye) of the university which sees what exists in the field defined by a theoretical problematic.[7]

Since writing my proposal for this paper, the years-long anti-unionization battle waged by the University of Minnesota against faculty organizing with SEIU ended with a decision by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in favor of university administration.[8] In January 2016, organizing faculty petitioned the State Bureau of Mediation Services to move selected contingent instructional classifications from the Professional & Administrative Unit, the unit constituted by all those employees of the University of Minnesota who do not fall into another unit and generally speaking characterized as having semester or 9-month contracts, into the faculty Instructional Unit, which the university argued, is governed by the tenure code and the tripartite mission of the university (research, service, teaching).[9] In September 2016, after weeks of hearings throughout the spring of 2016, in which university administration sought explicitly to diminish the work done by contingent faculty by pursuing a line of argument that began and ended with idea that the tenure code manifests an idea of integral responsibility, equally inclusive of teaching, research, and service, the Bureau of Mediation Services ruled that the selected contingent faculty (roughly 1200 people) did share a community of interest with the approx. 1800 instructional faculty and that they should proceed to an election as a combined unit. Following this ruling, the university administration, with the support of faculty organized against unionization operating under the name MNExcellence, appealed this decision, taking the case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where it was overturned.

According to the text of the Court of Appeals decision, the issue at stake was whether the BMS, a state agency, had the authority to make a decision about the classification of university employees, which, according to the legal text, could be established through two conditions: 1) whether the contingent titles under questions had already been assigned or (2) whether there were “significant” changes to these positions.

Under state labor law, the P&A unit (11) “consists of all academic professional and administrative staff positions that are not defined as included in an instructional unit, the supervisory unit, the clerical unit, or the technical unit,” and the Instructional Unit (8) “consists of the positions of all instructional employees with the rank of professor, associate professor, assistant professor, including research associate or instructor, including research fellow, located on the Twin Cities campuses.”

Unlike the Instructional Unit, state labor law does not list those job titles that fall within the P&A classification, which is well over 100. Ostensibly a question about authority or jurisdiction, the Court of Appeals presented a conflict between contingent faculty and the university administration as a conflict of the faculties: both between state and university (as two faculties) and as a division internal to the faculty (between who counts as faculty and who doesn’t). In centering public discourse on questions of what defines faculty (implicitly denying contingent faculty the right to exist as faculty), the university administration as well diverted attention from the intense conflict of interests captured in the very structure of the P&A unit.

Against those, on the side of organizing faculty, who felt, optimistically perhaps, that the Court of Appeals decision did not uphold or corroborate the University administration’s elitist definition of faculty as defined by the tripartite mission of the tenure code, I find that this is the line around which the case was resolved and the right to exist drawn, and yet I read this obfuscation as further indication of the avoidance of the absence that arises in academic work and therefore of the problem of academic work.

In this key sentence, from the Court of Appeal’s decision, the administration’s influence in interpreting state labor law is evident: “Rather, it supports our conclusion that academic and professional instructional staff who are not faculty members and are also not civil service employees are plainly designated for Unit 11.” In state labor law’s description of Unit 8, the instructional unit, it is noteworthy that the term “faculty” is never used. In the above sentence, when the Court of Appeals writes “who are not faculty members,” it steps outside of its interpretation of state labor law, which makes no comment on who is or is not faculty. Using the University Policy on Tenure rather than Regent’s Policy on Employee Classes to further read state labor law,[10] the Court of Appeals adopts an equation between faculty tenure code and the instructional unit that speaks in excess of what it is required to make a determination about the extent of the authority of the BMS.[11]

In saying that the court upholds this distinction, we see that this distinction, like other “foundations” is extra-juridical—as Derrida notes at the end of “Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties,” just as he gets to the figure of the mochlos as “something, in short, to lean on for forcing and displacing” (19)—but in seeing its “saying” of the separation of faculties, there is a capacity to register or articulate an experience of powerlessness, which I read as internalization, a “passing through.”

to the extent that temporal absence is a process of internalization
by pooling you should have known by now 
contingent labor forms in these pools and the whole idea is to extract it so slowly
and to spool, as it were, semester-long, and only the sound of drool can be heard,
so slowly according to the demands of clock time so that the work both appears as academic work
and contains within it its destruction as academic work, an enclosure of its powerlessness

In “Re-Shaping the Faculty: Emergence and Development of ‘Permanent-Contingent’ Roles through the Lens of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory,”[12] Oleksandr Tkachenko and Karen Seashore Louis describe the emergence of contingent faculty as a subset of the Professional & Administrative Category at the University of Minnesota. Of their study, they claim, “it provides a cautionary observation about the way in which decisions that are made to solve temporary inconsistencies or perceived anomalies in large higher education settings may accumulate in ways that could not have been anticipated” (149). These “temporary inconsistencies” refers to a narrative that begins by locating a need for the P&A classification, in order both to allow create a category for workers with “duties enhancing” the teaching, research, and service “functions” of the University. So in order to provide a place for the classification of other “professional academics” and “academic administrators,” the University administration in 1980 pursued the P&A classification which subsequently became written into the state labor law of the University of Minnesota.[13] This pooling, or “accumulating,” described by Tkachenko and Seashore, as a resolution to “temporary inconsistencies or perceived anomalies” refers not to labor power but to the ways administrative decisions accumulate. Tkachenko and Seashore claim that labor itself, the work force, was not supposed to pool: “As of 1980, the P&A category comprised 214 employees; that number was not expected to rise significantly according to the author of the recommendations.” In 2017, the number of P&A employees is estimated at around 6,000.

Perhaps commenting on the atopia of administrative power in 1980, Derrida describes a nostalgia for the University that Kant imagined. Describing a letter that Kant received from The King of Prussia, which “reproached him for abusing his philosophy by deforming and debasing certain dogmas,” Derrida writes, “Among us, perhaps, in 1980, there may be some who dream of receiving such a letter, a letter from a prince or sovereign at least letting us locate the law in a body and assign censorship to a simple mechanism within a determined, unique, punctual, monarchical place. For those who dream of so reassuring a localization…” (3). In the absence of this localization, Derrida claims, that he holds, comes from being able to locate the “value of responsibility.” In the absence of this, Derrida describes a being-ill “doubtless more grave than a malady or a crisis.” A being-ill “that we lack the categories for analyzing.” And he claims that it is the seeming “powerlessness” of this code [of responsibility, philosophical, political, hermeneutic], the “im-pertinence of the code” that is “at the source of this being-ill” (Derrida, 4)

“But we feel bad about ourselves, who would dare to say otherwise? And those who feel good about themselves are perhaps hiding something, from others or from themselves.” (Derrida, 4)

In 1980, the University of Minnesota sent a letter to the P&A Unit/Itself, just as in 2017, the state Court of Appeals sent a letter (a decision) to the university, one that affirmed the value and responsibility of the university. This later letter cannot be read without the former—the former, concerning the nature of academic work.

The 1980 letter said: Please don’t tell anyone you exist/dream of “so reassuring a localization.” Signed, the professional administrators. This was the first conflict over the “academic” nature of work and then it was written off. Today, the professional and administrative unit hides the “academic” investments of the university and this internally divided group—the “professional academics” and the “academic administrators”—perform its regulatory work, around powerlessness and power, respectively.[14]

Every act of creation and destruction by the university is invested in diminishing regulative experiences of powerlessness—experiences of difference, of work, of contingency, of non-existence—that fall outside of (the limits) of reason, which gets coded as the tripartite mission, the capacity for “unity of consciousness.” In his 1982 essay, “The Limits of Professionalism,” Samuel Weber describes how “the services rendered by the professional draw their ‘value’ not from the usual exchange procedures of the market, but rather from the specific social needs they claim to fulfill” (27). He claims that the professional attempts to “distinguish himself from the businessman, on the one hand, and from the worker, on the other” (27). Weber goes on to describe how professionalism exploited the creation of a “corresponding passivity and dependence of the layperson” (28), claiming that “the culture of professionalism drew much of its force, its ‘social credit’, credibility, from the cultivation and exploitation of anxiety” (28).

So there’s your “being-ill” totally delinked from the experience of code,
a being-ill related to the production of need
the residual, ambivalent, obdurate:

I’m told professional academics are professionals, not academics—contingent, adjunct, non-tenure-track, a variety of classifications obscures while relying on the academic nature of their work.[15]

So it’s a “being-ill” that is an experience of having found a code hidden within
saying how what passes through you is this view, the pooling,
a being-ill. I can’t say what goes on for those who
see this view of the contingent academy, like Claire B. Potter, the tenured radical,
as a site of death in order to
secure the feeling that academic work can be still is vibrant, vital.

But Siegel, Derrida, Kant: none of them were talking about this kind of academic work either, exactly,
about how the conflict of the faculties is itself the place
“to which notions of absence arising within work can be expelled”
and there within how making it about
who is faculty and who not
colludes with those for whom the position of contingent labor represents the “death” of the academy,
whether in terms of the devaluation of teaching, or the defunding of liberal arts departments, or the shutting down of lines, or the very working conditions of those who work academia contingently
whereas sighting the necessary reflection of the field on its objects
implies a being-ill, the feeling that academic work
should not—for why ever should it have?—feel sustained by academia, by the university,

just as, you should have known by now


This essay was presented on Thurs Nov 2, 2017 at UC Irvine's University Thought/State Reason Conference, November 2-3, 2017. I was grateful for an opportunity to present this writing, even though I felt like the presenting of them was itself a demonstration of its failure. These thoughts come from and are inspired by the organizers working with SEIU that I have had the opportunity to work with and faculty at the University of Minnesota who have been involved in organizing work, especially Anne Burkhardt, Filiberto Nolasco Gomez, Nazir Khan, Rica Highers, Isuru Herath, Rahhel Halle, Matt Pollari, Mary Pogatshnik, Sumanth Gopinath, Eric Van Wyk, Amy Livingston, Anna Kurhajec, Irene Duranczyk, Mark Borrello, Jason Stahl, and Mindy Kurzer. Analysis of the P&A situation vis a vis the faculty unit also came out of conversation with Travis Workman and a 500-word version of this was also to be published in the as-yet non-existent newsletter of MN Academics United.

[1] These readings bolstered by Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the Name of Love” and subsequent writings on the ideology of the love of creative work.

[2] Los Halos, “You Should Have Known By Now,” Los Halos (2003), 7 minutes, 11 seconds, consisting only of an increasingly louder refrain “You Should Have Known By Now.”

[3] I am indebted to Rica Highers and Filiberto Nolasco Gomez for their foregrounding of this experience as central to the work of organizing faculty and their understanding of the role of this in producing an analysis of the university. My discussions of organizing work at the University of Minnesota come out of our research and work together on the state of contingency and the structure of P&A classifications, especially during the Spring and Summer of 2017.

[4] For a recent piece that does deal with teaching the “neglect of justice,” see

[5] Hortense Spillers “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Post-Date” boundary 2, vol. 21, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 65-116. Republished in Hortense Spillers, 428-470. Spillers is referring to Harold Cruse’s Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, written in 1967.

[6] Spillers’s interrogation of the question asked about intellectual power moves from the key phrasing of Althusser and Balibar: “It is literally no longer the eye (the mind’s eye) of a subject which sees what exists in the field defined by a theoretical problematic: it is this field itself which sees itself in the objects or problems it defines—sighting being merely the necessary reflection of the field on its objects” (454).

[7] It is not surprising that sighting as the “necessary reflection of the field on its object” is tied up in the struggle for a right to exist. What is not the temporal present? The absence arising within work—what it means to be “not present” temporally—implies non-existence, either in past or future. But academic administration assigns, as it were, a place to this. Temporal absence quickly becomes historical absence of the kind Spillers writes about as the absence of space over time for the work of African American intellectuals in the academy. And this “passing through” itself—making the tension between contingency and necessary reflection—what kind of “absence within work” is this? If present is what exists, then temporal presentness, as Donna Jones describes in “Invidious Life,” has seemed to be beholden to this idea of substance.

[8] See the text of the full decision: of Appeals/Holiday Opinions/OPa161985-090517.pdf

[9] From Regents Policy: “Regular (tenured/tenure track) faculty are engaged in teaching, research, and service. Term faculty are engaged in one or more of these functions.” And “Academic professionals parallel faculty in having the requisite preparation and specialized knowledge in an academic discipline or field and in exercising independent professional judgment. These individuals may be engaged in teaching, research, service, and a wide variety of other professional functions within the University” (Regents Policy).

[10] Tenure Policy: ; Employee Definitions: Furthermore, it should be noted that the faculty tenure document is titled “Faculty Tenure” and is only once described within the document as a “code”; elsewhere referred to as a “policy.”

[11] From the Court of Appeals Decision: The first statement, issued in 1980, states that “[t]hese individuals are not engaged in full-time teaching and scholarly work, as are faculty, but rather are assigned to duties enhancing the research, teaching, and service functions of the University.” The second statement, issued in 2005, does not expressly contrast members of these classifications with faculty, but states that “[t]hese individuals may be engaged in teaching, research, service, and a wide variety of other professional functions within the University.”

[12] Oleksandr Tkachenko and Karen Seashore Louis, “Re-Shaping the Faculty: Emergence and Development of ‘Permanent-Contingent’ Roles through the Lens of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory,” International Journal of Higher Education 6: 1 (2017) 140-152.

[13] From the article (143): 1) Professional personnel whose appointments paralleled regular faculty. These employees were not supposed to perform full-time teaching and scholarly work as faculty, but were “assigned to duties enhancing the research, teaching, and service functions of the University.” 2) Administrative personnel who were envisioned to be involved in policy development and implementation, or in coordinating and supervising activities of the University. The intention was that matters related to P&A benefits, pay, and raises were to be covered by the same policies that applied to the faculty. The policy specified four types of P&A appointments: annual, fixed term, probationary, and continuous. Probationary and continuous appointments were parallel to tenure-track and indefinite tenure appointments available to faculty. As of 1980, the P&A category comprised 214 employees; that number was not expected to rise significantly according to the author of the recommendations.

[14] Talking about the removal of historic grain silos in order to make room for the construction of a new “sports bubble,” University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said: “But, at the end of the day … they become an attractive nuisance. We have urban explorers that think climbing the fences and going into those buildings is a good past time. I don’t want to own a grain elevator that somebody died in. I think the best thing to be done for several reasons is to take them down.”

Death is, over there.

I don’t want to own a university that someone has had the thought of death in.

a good past time, a letter of non-renewal, a “vague disquiet,” a “being ill.”

[15] Academic administrators capture the “academic” and carry it over, addressing faculty in anti-unionization messages as “dear colleagues,” shuffling the files of academic work out of departments and into the office of the provost. An analysis Yuichiro Onishi has begun to make about administrative labor in the Provost’s Office at the University of Minnesota, related to the Grand Challenges Initiative and the “Driven to Discover” Campaigns.

No comments: