Just You Wait Henry Higgins!

by P.D. Lesko

Eliza Doolittle sputters in response to yet another petty humiliation: “Just you wait, Henry Higgins!”

As the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. To whit, I have heard faculty off the tenure-track pinpoint the exact day when that meal will be served. It’s the day when students, parents, voters, politicians etc… realize that 70 percent of college faculty are getting the short end of, well, everything. When that happens, look out! Just you wait, Henry Higgins!

Sadly however, I think Americans are as unaware of the plight of part-time faculty today as they were in 1990. So why aren’t part-timers able to spin their own message? Why can’t they seem to whip up a tsunami of attention and support? After all, they’re highly-educated people; they teach public relations, marketing, labor relations, and writing. Wouldn’t you think people with such skills could get Americans to focus on the “adjunct problem?” Yet here we sit, no closer to the reckoning today than we were decades ago—hundreds of thousands of Eliza Doolittles waiting to throw slippers at the Henry Higgins that is higher education.

The answer isn’t pretty. To begin, according to a recent job satisfaction study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, out of 500 job categories, teaching scored among the most highly-rated jobs in terms of overall job satisfaction. Thus, while studies document an adjunct faculty job satisfaction “gap,” compared to the job satisfaction ratings of those at the bottom of the job satisfaction list, part-time faculty job satisfaction levels are stellar.

Next, higher education has dropped off our mainstream media’s journalistic radar. The number of mainstream newspapers with weekly coverage of higher education has been reduced to a few usual suspects. In the EU, higher education gets daily coverage in scores of national newspapers. So, as higher education is reduced to a supplement in the daily diet of Americans, the plight of part-time faculty becomes even less likely to make the cut when editors decide what is news.

The final reason that faculty off the tenure track haven’t managed to capture the spotlight and shine it onto their issues has to do with the fact that since the early 90s, tenure-line faculty have spoken out on behalf of their non-tenured colleagues. For example, SUNY’s Dr. Peter D.G. Brown, has taken on both the union and the institution on behalf of the college’s 8,000 part timers. Dr. Eileen Schell, Associate Professor of Writing and Writing Program Director at Syracuse University, has focused her research and writing on labor issues that impact faculty off the tenure-track for over a decade. Dr. Cary Nelson stepped into the spotlight on behalf of adjunct faculty when he published Manifesto of a Tenured Radical in 1997. This reliance on the tenured consiglieri has been a double-edged sword.

Why? When tenured faculty frame the national discussion of what it is faculty off the tenure-track want and need, part-time faculty end up disempowered. Then, what happens when adjunct activists disagree with the advice of their tenured consiglieri? Adjunct activists have been attacked in print and online by their tenured friends for suggesting faculty off the tenure-track need to chart a course different than that suggested by some of the current tenured consiglieri.

The last reason is somewhat obvious, but tenured faculty in the humanities (the discipline from which many of these tenured consiglieri have sprung) shouldn’t be relied upon to explain part-time faculty woes to America. Yearly, tenured and tenure-line faculty in the humanities cram MLA panel discussions aimed at developing strategies to better communicate to the rest of America the need for humanities research and teaching. Yet, we regularly read pieces such as the one published in February 2009 in The New York Times: “In Tough Times the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/books/25human.html?_r=1). Sigh.

So who’s going to make sure that the day of reckoning comes—that Henry Higgins gets what’s coming to him and Eliza Doolittle gets her due? I don’t know. Of one thing I am certain, however. Faculty off the tenure-track must star in their own higher education drama. Until they speak for themselves and shape the research and national discourse surrounding their own exploitation, it will be impossible to whip up the tsunami of attention and support necessary to make any truly substantive changes in how temporary faculty are hired, evaluated, valued, rewarded and compensated.

To quote Henry Higgins: Damn! Damn! Damn! DAMN!

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