Writing, Academia and Freedom

Silence Won’t Protect You by Kelly J. Baker

On Poverty by Alison Stine

Confronting the Conditions of Contract Faculty by Melonie Fullick

I read quite a bit about higher education these days and the news I frequently come across is sobering to say the least. There are multiple areas of concern: rising tuition fees and students with obscene levels of debt, increasing reliance on adjunct faculty who are above all underpaid for work loads which lack both security and status, and institutions that are run more like businesses rather than centers of learning (if that is what they should in fact be). These are the topics I am most likely to encounter in my circles of contact.

Two recent reads speak to these concerns from different angles and the third points to the issue of solidarity and privilege and how these play out both within and outside the academy.

Melonie Fullick (@qui_oui on Twitter) provides a handy recap of panel discussion on the casualisation of higher education teaching in Canada and a few other countries. This is helpful because it teases out a number of different aspects of the whole package of dilemmas posed by the widespread use of faculty whose jobs lack stability and often adequate compensation.

Describing specific CAF working conditions and their effects: While contract faculty jobs are precarious and underpaid, so is an increasing amount of work in the current economy; the “big picture” is the decline of stable work that provides livable wages, and how that gap affects people’s lives. At the same time, when people hear the words “university professor” they tend to think of privilege. So it’s important to communicate in detail how, for contract faculty, precarious conditions combine with low institutional status and lack of professional support, leading to financial and health problems, low morale and burnout. None of these things is in the best interests of students or those teaching them, thus they’re not in the best interests of universities, either.

A second aspect that stood out for me was the conversation around solidarity and who can and will support whom under which circumstances and the conundrums that many casually employed faculty face in daring to speak out against lousy work conditions. There are very real risks involved.

Depending on context, it can be difficult for contract faculty to participate in organizing because often naming the problem means becoming the problem, which brings the very real possibility of losing access to jobs in the future.

And this is precisely where Kelly J. Baker picks up the baton and takes the conversation a step further and names the future of academic freedom as concurrent risk in the current higher ed climate. What she documents in her article lends heft to Fullick’s suggestion that naming the problem is often tied to becoming the problem, particularly for adjunct faculty.

Academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity, and simplified messages. Your speech is protected if your words fit neatly with the university’s brand, if your institution chooses to stand with you, or if your university cares about your tenure.

In conclusion, Baker leaves no doubt as to the necessary course of action:

If you care about academic freedom, then you should care about all of those who lack academic freedom. You should stand with them and support them. Use your academic freedom, while you still have it, to make academia a safer space for everyone or lose it in your silence. Use it to include more voices and protect more people. Don’t try to save your own academic freedom, but try to save it for all of us. That’s the only way it will continue. Silence nor complacency will save us from the increasing adjunctification of higher education, the corporatized university, the growth of the administrative class, or the continual devaluation of teaching. The neoliberal university will grind us down until there’s nothing left. Choose solidarity. Choose academic freedom for all scholars. Stand together.

Your silence won’t protect you, but solidarity might.

Alison Stine’s piece ‘On Poverty’ comes at us from a very different place – outside the academy, from coal mining country where lack is tangible reality. In describing her personal decision stop teaching in an adjunct position because she could no longer afford to continue, she writes:

Then I was offered a section, and when I asked how much it paid—because I have to pay a babysitter for my young son—I was only told by the (male, white) department head: “We have adjuncts who will do it at any price.”

As disgusting as this statement is, it’s true. And it means that only writers with working spouses or families who support them, or who have independent wealth, can teach. And that most college English Departments—we’ve long known this, but don’t seem capable or willing to do anything about it—run on exploitation.

But this is only a part of the picture. What Stine further laments and draws our attention to is the poverty we are likely creating in writing as an art as it becomes the domain of the well-off and academic.

I also believe that contemporary literature’s heavy focus on the professor class is a detriment not only to writers’ lives but also to the work being produced.

It reinforces the damaging message that the only lives worth writing (or reading) about are the ones professors lead…

…There are other voices beyond professors. Other kinds of lives, other struggles that are real, vividly imagined, and deserving of time. One of the ways of validating lives is by allowing them space to speak, by setting up your conference or your contest in a way that supports writers who are poor and less connected, in a way that actively looks for them.

This is why we need to look carefully at where we are and who we are when we are speaking up and out and on whose behalf. It may well be the case that our best work is not speaking at all but creating space for someone else’s voice.

The experiences and imaginations of the poor are as rich as those of anyone born into privilege or tenured as a professor. Sometimes, imagination is all we have.

We are not poor out of lack of hard work. We are not poor because we “want it less.” We stay poor because of institutionalized sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and classism.

We stay poor because doors stay closed.

Stine reminds us all that freedom is not a given and that some, many in fact, lack the freedom to simply change. The nudge that I received from ‘On Poverty’ was that I have a choice. I can choose solidarity or not. And solidarity requires more than admiring so many beautiful problems. It requires self awareness, perhaps in the form of recognizing my own forms of privilege for starters. Solidarity requires listening first and creating space. Solidarity means I need to open doors for and with others wherever possible.

I am fascinated by higher education. I love being able to ‘hang’ with my PhD friends on social media and feel welcomed in their conversations. Yet these reads encourage me to go deeper, to look at who’s speaking and what are we really talking about and ultimately what my choices convey about my priorities in these spaces. Keeping our conversations open and routinely asking ourselves who is not present moves us in the direction of solidarity. I wish I had a better, tidier conclusion. In the end there is more work ahead. Work that demands consciousness and fortitude and engagement. Not tidy, necessary.



2 thoughts on “Writing, Academia and Freedom

  1. As someone drawn to the interconnectedness of life, I really enjoyed this piece, connecting the articles, academia to non-academic life, to yourself, and more. It’s a great read.

    As one who “became the problem” and has been kept at arms length by my former institution, I know all too well what and why contract faculty fear. But this isn’t about me because I have been giving other opportunities in other fields. One of my biggest concerns when I was chair was the security of my faculty especially my adjuncts. Their needs (Maslow needs) weren’t being met, and I was powerless to meet them. The only tangible option I had was solidarity with them. I spoke up and out often on their behalf, so they wouldn’t have to risk their income. I was able to make real connections on their behalf up to a certain level (my dean), but beyond that, no luck. At a certain level, the view skews the vision, people become lines on spreadsheets, and holding onto power is more important than empowering the staff, faculty, and students. All that being said, I wouldn’t change a thing. Solidarity is the solution. The work will be arduous. The systems and the powerful will work to silence or marginalize those who speak out. Yet, the work will always be worth it because the work is for the people around us. And as you know, I fully believe that the people are worth it every gosh darn time.

    Thanks for being you, Sherri! Keep raising your voice and opening minds. You matter, and I am blessed to know you.

    1. Thank you, Kris, for sharing your experience. Considering the degree to which we grant #higherEd such importance on many levels of society, it never fails to amaze me how these very institutions become excellent reproducers of exploitation and oppression. Call me naive but I just don’t get it. I am glad to know that in your role that you sought to counter those dynamics in real ways.

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