Bad Times in Academia, Part IV

This is my fourth and final post on the academic job market and the future of college teaching as a profession.  Quick review:  in earlier installments I noted the devastation that came to academic employment via the crash of 2008; proposed that recovery from that crash will not restore the jobs lost, either across the whole economy or specifically in higher education; suggested that our professionis a moribund institution; and laid out some lines of action it (for instance, the Modern Language Association) would need to take in order to have a chance of rebuilding its market haven.

Now I switch to a far murkier question:  if workers in higher education were to abandon or drastically modify our century-long strategy of professionalization, what could we put in its place to control and improve the substance of chemistry, history, film studies, anthropology, and the other subjects we study and teach?  And to amend the conditions within we do that work, including good pay, benefits, job security, and so on?  The question is murky because historical precedents are few or nonexistent:  if you know of a profession that has dismantled the apparatus of admitting newcomers to its ranks, regulating their whole careers, and controlling the market for their services, I’d be glad to hear about it. *

With no histories of willful deprofessionalization from which to learn, the next best thing may be just to outline some ends and means, for debate.


A. Solidarity across all ranks and categories of academic workers.

Means:  1. faculty members support unionization of TAs and graduate students.

2. work toward one big union of tenure- and non-tenure-track workers, including adjuncts of all sorts;

3. work for repeal of the Yeshiva decision; pressure the NLRB;

B. Solidarity with other workers in higher education.

1. ally or fuse with unions of food workers, secretaries, and other staffers;

C. Solidarity with workers outside higher education.

1. ally with K-12 teachers;

2. ally or unionize with other professions, especially multi-tier ones like medicine;

D. Articulate and work for egalitarian and democratic socialist goals;

1. job security across ranks;

2. a universal retirement plan;

3. health benefits for all, leading to a single-payer system;

4, free higher education for all who want it;

5. sharply reduce the privatizating of education;

6. recreate universities as worker-controlled cooperatives.

Well, you see where this is heading.  Is there a chance of our setting out on such a path, in a bad time like the present? Hard to imagine, so accustomed are we to professional responsibilities and privileges consolidated through the 20th century, the time of Fordism.   But such arrangements by no means inevitable.  The reorganization of capital since 1970 suggests how vulnerable they are to market forces.  Radicals have long noted that they are neither egalitarian nor democratic.  Perhaps we could begin reimagining them along socialist lines?

*  The subject is murky for a lesser reason, too:  our professional apparatus comprehends nor just daily work, but the making and certifying of knowledge–the knowledge on which the authority and the monopoly of a profession rest.  Our bodies of knowledge and our privileged work arrangements are mutually embedded.  Those who teach are supposed to do research as well, thus contributing to the body of knowledge put to use in professional services.  The two main organizational forms of the academic profession–the department and the professional organization–fuse research and practice.  Would the department have to go, if we scrapped the professional model?  Would organizations like MLA gradually exfoliate their job market activities, and become pure learned societies?

–Richard Ohmann

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