Class and Culture

Originally published in New Labor Forum in Spring/Summer 2001.

Efforts by the American Historical Association (AHA) to improve the teaching conditions of its part-time and adjunct membership gained momentum during its Boston convention, held in early January. The business meeting of the 14,369-member association unanimously adopted a resolution that condemned “the growing tendency to replace permanent lines with part-time, adjunct, and graduate student lines, which limits academic advising and other services and seriously undermines the level of scholarship at institutions of higher education.”

The AHA also moved toward the important step of educating academic accrediting agencies in the following lesson: the use of part-time history teachers as casual laborers harms not only the laborers, but the subjects of the laborers’ attention; namely, the students. An intellectual harm to the students, one might add, serves only the interests of the employing classes, for whom a degraded mind means a pliable worker.

If the urge to stand and cheer is somehow failing to grip you right now, good. You understand perhaps that the last several generations of history faculty have defaulted so badly on their obligations to would-be historians that the only decent response can be: what the hell has taken so long? Despite some relatively minor variations, a stable market for college history jobs has not recovered since its collapse in the 1970s.

According to a November report by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, “Who Is Teaching in U.S. College Classrooms?”, only 53 percent of historians who currently teach in universities still occupy a traditional, full-time, tenure or tenure-track job. “Part-Time Non-Tenure Track” and “Graduate Teaching Assistants” comprise an additional 21 and 20 percent, respectively. Because the financial remuneration accorded part-time history faculty is so paltry—more than 72 percent of those working on a per-course basis do not receive more than $2,500, and more than 77 percent never receive any benefits at all—many are forced to seek additional employment at other campuses.

The resulting pool of cheap labor spreads far beyond the history discipline, just as the causes of the general restructuring of the academic workforce are part of the national proliferation of casual labor. Nevertheless, according to the AAUP historians are far more likely than the average to accept part-time work because a full-time position remains unavailable—as opposed to other reasons, such as job flexibility. One (slightly outdated) AAUP survey indicated that out of 24 fields of academic teaching surveyed, historians ranked dead last in part-time instructors’ job satisfaction. Anecdotal evidence suggests, moreover, that historians are quite well represented among that population of formerly inward-thinking graduate students whose doctoral experiences have turned them into garrulous union activists.

As the pace of organizing among part-time and adjunct teachers and scholars quickens, it will become increasingly apparent that divorcing the intellectual from the material is no simple trick. Academic work culture, that is, has entered a new phase of class differentiation. If the AHA and other disciplinary associations wish to win the respect of the new generation, they will have to act aggressively.