If a student club that I'm going to co-advise has claimed an official movie, I'd better see it. So I did. And apart from the fact that even now I hate being mentally transported back to the social jungle of high school, I found the film surprisingly worthwhile, if only for the way it dramatizes power dynamics. The aptly named "queen of the universe," Regina George, terrorizes everyone throughout the film and when she is confronted in the climactic scene--a school assembly in the gym--she insists she's never victimized anyone. When the teacher Ms. Norbury asks, "How many of you have felt personally victimized by Regina George?", the students begin raising their hands until everyone is included--and then they are joined by the faculty, followed by the principal. Regina, of course, still doesn't get it.
I love this scene because it dramatizes a truth about power differentials: those with relative power and privilege are too often oblivious to the fact that they have it. Once in grad school, a professor asked us to consider the power differentials within our own classroom, a mix of MA and PhD students. After we discussed the usual--differences in class, gender, ethnicity and so forth--an MA student said, "You know, there's also that MA versus PhD student thing." All of us MA students (that was me then) nodded knowingly--"Oh, yeah, that thing"--while the PhD students looked at us blankly until one of them asked, "What MA/PhD thing?" These weren't clueless people by any means. It's just that when you're the one at the center of things, it can be hard to know there's a center at all, let alone that you're in it.
For the last few days I've been at a conference, and afterwards I thought about all this. One of my co-panelists analyzed the advice given to grad students in public venues such as blogs and books. Our culture is so hyper-individualistic, he argued, that we have difficulty conceptualizing "success" or "failure" as anything other than individual triumphs and disasters. (This point seems closely related to the "Just World Hypothesis" I posted about below.) If someone with a PhD fails to land a full-time position and must work as an adjunct, many would prefer to believe it's because that person is either an inferior scholar/teacher, or doesn't "want it" badly enough. Similarly, those who do have such positions often prefer to view themselves as more worthy, rather than recognizing that certain structural advantages (such as timing) may have factored in to their success. Combined with the individualistic blindness to increasing structural inequities, people in relatively privileged positions often project their own, necessarily idiosyncratic experiences onto others--people whom, frankly, they probably barely even know.
The result? Conversations like the one a friend of mine--a colleague from another institution, and an adjunct--had to overhear yesterday on the airport shuttle from our conference hotel. (She shared this with me.) They began by complaining about their teaching loads, wondered "how adjuncts do it," and then one professor insisted that "they" "like it that way," "they" don't want tenure track because "they" actually "prefer the freedom," "they" don't want to "have to" go to conferences or publish because it's exhausting" ... and, one of them added, "We're mostly adjunct now." (Side note: If you're using the vague pronoun "they," you just might be committing a fallacy of some type.)
My friend interjected that this is a "nice story, but complete fiction--most of us would love something stable, and we want time to publish." The professors stared at her briefly, then continued talking, ignoring her.
Rudeness aside, my friend was disturbed by their lack of structural awareness. If their institutions are now "mostly adjunct" (i.e., the majority of their classes are now taught by woefully underpaid part-timers who receive no benefits and have no job security), this is an administrative cost-cutting decision. It didn't happen in spontaneous response to the sudden emergence of a lazy crop of doctorates who prefer a poverty-stricken itinerant life of "freedom" to the "exhausting" work of publishing and attending conferences. No pack of new graduates descended upon admin en masse, demanding that they be given the opportunity to work for chump change and zero benefits so they can enjoy their "freedom," to which administrators replied, "Oh--thanks for the heads up. We were about to create a bunch of new tenure-track permanent positions with benefits and opportunity for professional growth, retirement, and stuff like that--but since it sounds like today's doctorates would really prefer to be 'free' from exhausting demands, maybe we should take a second look and while we're at at, we can realize some cost savings."
But I don't want to single out these particular "mean people," because the overuse of adjunct professors is part of a larger cultural and economic landscape--as is the too-frequent blindness of those with relatively more privilege. Most of those who work in the service economy are subjected to similar economic exploitation, as well as to the same hyper-individualistic culture that blames lower-paid workers for their own situation (while, by implication, valorizing the economically "successful"). And this is starting to happen across the board, not just in service industries.
Somebody close to me has been working part-time now for several years. This person doesn't want much--just a full-time job with benefits that pays the costs of an extremely modest lifestyle, with which this person is content. Twelve bucks an hour would do it. But despite being a fine employee, this person has been cobbling together part-time work for nearly ten years now. What's worse: it's difficult to get a predictable enough schedule from one part-time job to incorporate a financially necessary second part-time job. "We need our part-time workers to be flexible," insist the bosses. Final insult: This person and most of the part-time coworkers have specifically requested that they be moved to full-time positions when they become available. But when companies need to add more staff-hours, rather than moving their existing part-time workers into full-time jobs, they hire more part-time workers. Why? Because when the feds come to collect their data, they can look like "job creators."
We've all seen people who have blown certain opportunities, whether in academia or elsewhere, and I'm not going to argue that lack of success is always a structural problem. Sometimes people do make mistakes, and sometimes they pay the price. But it's equally blind to argue that lack of success is always an individual problem--and the way our culture is, we skew toward the second form of blindness.
"Mean people" (disentangling the gender assumptions of the movie title) exist everywhere, not just in academia. It's terrible what institutionalized greed is doing to our society. Things are made more terrible by the fact that our hyper-individualistic society often shifts our focus away from institutionalized greed and toward victim-blaming, leading to a kind of cultural blindness that we can find anywhere, not just on the airport shuttle bus as my friend experienced yesterday. These two professors aren't the only mean ones, and frankly, in the larger scheme of things they are probably pretty minor players.
What bothers me, though, is that as academics, we are the ones who are supposed to have studied power differentials and systemic structures. We are the ones who are supposed to know better. We should be the ones on the front lines arguing for economic justice for all--including, but not limited to, our underpaid adjunct colleagues. Because they are our colleagues, and we need to remember that.