Love It or Leave It!

I don’t see them as often as I used to, but there’s a car in town with a bumper sticker that reads “AMERICA—Love It or Leave It!” Those stickers, usually with their iconography of flags or eagles or soldiers or handguns, remind us that their bearers hold a singular definition of America and no room for dissent.

I was put in mind of that yesterday when reading what has become a fairly contentious article in Inside Higher Ed. John Warner, one of their regular opinion commentators, took the piece that I wrote a week or so back for the Chronicle of Higher Education, and used it to forward one particular idea I’d raised that he wanted to explore and advance. So far, so good. But as often happens, the comments section of that article has become a morass. A great rule for online life, I suppose, is never read the comments.

One particular flavor of those comments, like the bumper sticker above, regularly appears whenever we talk about adjunct faculty. Here’s one specific version of it:

All I would say is, I am baffled that folks are not taking their skills and voting with their feet to leave academia if it is so bad to them. Even teaching at a private high school is a better job, or getting a teaching credential for the publics. Don’t get me wrong, I get that things are different in the humanities, I have a couple of close friends who got caught in the adjunct trap at our local community college. In the end, one got a teaching credential and started teaching high school, the other went into administration. In the end, you can chose to not be exploited….

This person, who elsewhere claimed that the humanities are a cesspool of impractical unemployables in the current academic job market, also said that “Anyone who is paying attention knows that your chances of getting a faculty position with a biomed Ph.D. are in the 5-10% range and much less if you want to work at an R1 in a TT job.” So things aren’t different in the humanities, by his or her own evidence. But whatever. The main point is this idea that we can choose not to be exploited.

Love it or leave it.

One of the things I tried to do in the book is to discuss the ways in which young scholars are groomed to become members of the cult. We’ve been told from kindergarten onward that we were special, that we were smarter or more talented or worked harder than the other kids. We were given even harder things to do—AP courses, honors curricula—and excelled at those, too. We were admitted to competitive colleges, we got terrific grades there, we were invited to be part of faculty conversations every so often, and those faculty wrote us letters of recommendation to really strong graduate programs.

We enrolled in those graduate programs, went through a remarkably rigorous curriculum, learned hundreds of years of history of our field at the same time we learned the cutting edge of current knowledge. We invented a research project for ourselves, designed that project, defended our design, conducted that research, wrote the manuscript, and were deemed by senior scholars in the field to have accomplished it all with panache and power.

We have become exquisitely trained to be obedient, to be instantly responsive to the wishes of our superiors, to dance their dance whenever the tune is played. And now, after twenty or twenty-five years, we’re told that there’s no need for us, that there’s no room to employ that remarkable curiosity, no room to help lead others into a field that we have come to love so much.

That is not merely a dollars-and-cents transition. That is a rupture in identity, a shunning from the congregation, a death in the family. It is learning how to become a different kind of person, and that just takes some time. It will always be infused with longing for the life we were told over and over that we’d earned, that we rightfully deserved.

So can it be any surprise when we try to stay? Our institutions offer us a provisional membership, at a lower tier but still adjacent to the mansion, and we want to remain a part of that family, even when that family has been demonstrably uncaring. We still believe that we can demonstrate our worth—after all, we’ve done that successfully for a quarter of a century, it’s a strategy we know and a strategy that’s worked reliably before.

The tenured community does not see the danger to themselves in their own complicity in the structures of contingency. In the end, if their own institutions make the claim that they can find people to teach pretty much any course for three thousand dollars… that they can have postdocs run their labs for the NIH’s recommended $50,000… then their own claims to specialness will soon run aground.

It seems, all around us, we are surrendering democracy for oligarchy, a concentration of more resources into fewer hands. And the easy dismissal of suffering, the “love it or leave it” bumper sticker attitude, will soon be its own undoing.

If we love it, we’ll want to stick around and make it even better, to help it live up to its claimed values.