Coronavirus, Market Forces, and Contingent Teaching

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Life was moving along: I was preparing drafts for resubmission, grading in flurries of activity, and incorrectly filling in travel funding applications, and before I knew it, we were all rehashing the 2008 financial crisis, which had once upon a time yanked me Vaudeville style down the path I would ultimately move academically, into uncertainty, finance, and ‘crisis stuff.’ But all in a slow motion horror movie fashion, somehow. What has become apparent, again, are the myriad structural problems and inequities of the global economic system, owing somewhat to bad luck (the spread of this particular virus), and in larger part to the flaws of a largely neoliberal economic system that privileges capitalist markets in directing economic activity with immediate and longer term political and social implications. And, on further consideration, the development of the virus and its spread owes much, too, to patterns of regional development, incursion into surrounding environments, and markets writ large.

In the early weeks, I did my best to pull together some thoughts about directions for policy, but then daycare was cancelled, and time felt even more divorced from my pre-March-2020 conception of it. Nevertheless, I’m continuing to plug away in a more disjointed way than I’d like, thinking about financial aspects of the crisis, the fiscal requirements of any response to the crisis, and the more structural aspects of the crisis, especially the need to reorganize the way that many essential industries and services in our US version of the capitalist market (yet still mixed) system to better serve humanity.

One of the things that was apparent to me, as an assistant professor who is still on the tenure track, was the large role that universities and schools in general have had to play in responding to everything. Of course I know that that’s obvious. Anyone with kids at home is living it; any teacher who has needed to fundamentally retool their curricula to suit our socially distanced moment is there, too. Lost in the shuffle of national reporting on this crisis seems to be the crucial role played by universities’ shift away from full time tenured and tenure track faculty toward non-tenured faculty, of the full time (lecturers) and the contingent (adjunct and visiting assistant professors) varieties.

So, in an 18 page brief that I put together and have been slooowly reworking into more polished standalone pieces that properly argue things rather than pointing out problems, I included the university system (and schools in general) as a region of society and the economy that governments should (1) give far more money, (2) actively take on the funding role, and (3) empower to improve in ways that “market forces” don’t encourage.* Chief among these are the arguments that (1) teaching is an essential service at whatever level, (2) teachers and professors should be paid more, and (3) teachers at all levels need more security in their professions. Successfully pivoting from one mode of teaching to another is arduous and takes finesse; if we believe that markets reward skills with higher pay, the evidence on this is a mixed bag with the most generous interpretation. If we instead believe that these are essential services and worthy of investment, we might simply decide, using the power of government, to dictate norms and provide ample and conditional funding on the promise that universities and schools do better by their faculty, starting with higher pay and extending more generous benefits and terms of employment that grant flexibility rather than requiring ever more flexibility from teachers themselves to those crucial workers.

But another structural aspect for redress is academia’s market driven drift toward contingent teaching. Lecturers and adjuncts who bear the brunt of teaching in order to give star faculty more time for research are vulnerable, period, to the whims of students, their tenured peers, and the vagaries of the economy. The postings on Twitter from contingent faculty not having their contracts renewed in this moment of intense need, but also when education is apparently (and obviously) important to so many, students and their parents, is a moment of nauseating cognitive dissonance. Maybe that’s just capitalism, baby, but we shouldn’t tolerate it.

Luckily, there’s an excellent piece weighing in on the structures and costs of this trend, and cogent arguments for changing it. In their article “Refusing to be cheap or flexible: labour strategy in academia,” for Overland, Australia’s “only radical literary magazine,” Doctors Michael Beggs, Senior Lecturer of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, and Rebecca Pearse, Lecturer of Sociology at Australian National University, have written about the perniciousness of this trend in Australia, where I’m sure things are still much better than in the US. (Lecturers outside of the US have standing parallel to tenure-track and tenured professors in the US.) The piece itself is equal parts diagnosis of the appeal of contingent teaching under capitalism and a cri de coeur to reject it.

Despite this work being based on Australian experiences, there are immediate parallels to the US experience. If we consider universities’ willingness to delay tenure clocks for pre-tenure faculty, we might remember that pre-tenure faculty are paid less than tenured faculty; this ‘makes economic sense’, where ‘economic’ is a crude proxy for the bottom line. At the same time, universities appear ambivalent to extending graduate students’ funding, despite the immense disruption to their work, as this adds to the universities’ outlays, in a time of genuine economic duress. Finally, when considering whom to cut from payrolls, contingent faculty with few, if any, job protections are most vulnerable, even as the effect on school enrollment may be ambiguous in the midst of a massive economic depression.

Plenty of forces are working behind the scenes here. Declining public funding of research increases pressure to apply for a diminishing pool grants to fund research in cost-intensive fields like the hard sciences, or to access expensive data for business, financial, and economic research. Star faculty, athletics coaches, and administrators have been wooed with ‘competitive’ pay, and (presumably) lost due to those pesky market forces before. Yet students are the bread and butter of most universities, and (ahem) the point of why we all went into this, right?

The market economy is going to get much worse before it has any hope of getting better. Endowment funded grants are likely to shrink further in supply as a consequence of market gyrations on a weekly basis, and tanking asset prices across the board. Students and their parents’ ability to pay tuition is ever more precarious, even as some pundits will start lecturing about skills and exertise and the value of education. Large universities seem to be considering pay cuts for administrators and tenured faculty; this would be a good gesture in a moment of sharing the burden. But if this is a moment for potentially radically reorienting our (national, global) economy and centering what we believe is important, and what our students and faculty deserve, why shouldn’t the federal government back stop the university system? There’s an inherent injustice in the notion that US universities should insulate themselves from fiscal crises by relying more on their own marketing, or that universities in states that continue to fund public colleges are perpetually at risk of budget balancing at the state level. Both strategies are vulnerable to shocks beyond their control; reliance on market forces to bolster tuition dollars and university prestige is a recipe for disaster, as we are currently seeing, and will only see more of soon.

*If you care, other industries/services that I think are too important to be left to ‘market forces’ are the provision of health care, journalism, the arts, care of children, elders, and families writ large, grocery service, and climate change related industries/services. Like I said, it’s a wide ranging document.

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