Grad student unions, Rick Perlstein, and the Lawrence Welk Show

Attention Conservation Notice: If academic labor wants to unionize, it is probably better to do so across institutions rather than one-by-one, if the outcomes for so-called “winners in the game” (tenured professors) are any indicator.

Rick Perlstein has been writing about higher education and organizing over at the Nation.

There’s a reason why Perlstein is on a crusade about the academy and is notably silent on his own industry’s exploitation of young writers. The former sells and gets eyes on the page, and the latter would bite the hand that feeds him and possibly irritate an editor. Just as there are hundreds and hundreds of applications for every single tenure track job, there are plenty of young writers lined up to freelance for The Nation. Doctor, heal thyself.

I don’t say that just to throw some shade at Perlstein. It’s more along the lines of: yeah, contemporary capitalism, where all labor is two seconds away from being under the bus.

Perlstein wants to take down the math professor who told students to cross a picket line of adjuncts to get to class, and he wants to castigate a professor for writing an email to his graduate students telling them that their open letter to the department for why they were organizing is a risky career move.

Yes, some misguided souls might note that when a student pays what they do for tuition, offering class despite the picket line can be defended on moral grounds, too, though I personally would not have had students cross the picket line. And still other misguided souls might think that it’s entirely possible to support and organize a grad student union without writing your faculty to rub their noses in it. But, hey, I’m just a patronizing anti-union proffie.

Perlstein’s column includes this bit:

And their dominant tone was that same clueless arrogance we see above. One, a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, allowed that while things could be improved, and “I would like to see more tenure-track jobs and fewer adjuncts,” academia was still after all a meritocracy. He argued that “[f]riends like your autodidact”—he was referring to the example I gave of a recent PhD from one of the greatest universities in the world, who wrote brilliantly and insightfully, was a natural-born teacher and applied to a hundred jobs to no avail before realizing “tenured employment is almost unimaginable” because of his undeveloped suck-up skills—“ will slip through the cracks if, despite actual excellence, they can’t muster what the academy considers evidence of excellence…. I think of a tenure-track job like an actor getting a job at a repertory company, or a baseball player being hired to play baseball full-time—there are just too many people lining up to do such jobs to give them to everyone.”

This was supposed to be a defense of the system.

A person more interested in journalism and less interested in scoring points and calling people names would probably get that the original statement was hardly supposed to be a defenseof the system, ours or any other. It was meant to be a description of the cut-throat job market professors live in:

1. Yes, even very talented people do not get the jobs their talents merit.

2. Yes, sucking up is a skill in the academy–the way it is *everywhere*, in every institution;

3. But even if you are talented at both research AND sucking up, it’s entirely possible a person won’t get a tenure-track job which is, apparently, what Perlstein thinks his buddy is entitled to (since when?); and

4. In order to get a tenure-track job, you will have to be extremely lucky; probably move to a highly undesirable location; eat crap during job interviews; and if you are fortunate enough to get a job, you will have to eat crap for many more years as a probationary faculty member.

And, alas,crap-eating doesn’t end with tenure. I’m sorry, but that’s true. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the world. Universities can and do punish unproductive scholars after tenure. Even well-renumerated deans spend all their time sucking up to donors.

Tenure track jobs are not the cushy realm of reflective scholars who stroll with students across the quad pretending to be Aristotle. We are branded, careful to build to and maintain that brand. We divvy out minutes spent with graduate students (and other students) in 15 minute intervals because we are on a production line, and the hour of my time you want means an hour less with my family because if I try to take that hour out of my research time, I will a) get fired if I am assistant professor and b) get unbelievably shitty raises if I am a tenured associate.

We have spent years and years listening to people claim that universities need to be more like businesses, and I just roll my eyes when I hear this. Are you kidding me? Universities are businesses now. Tenure track faculty have watched tenure erode in a matter of about 15 years. It’s over. So all of you who think tenure is the root of all evil can just relax and move on. So calling for an end to tenure is like calling for an end to showing reruns of the Lawrence Welk show on PBS. Eventually, enough of us will die off, replaced by people without tenure, and by people who have no interest in polkas.

Professor’s wages, too, have fallen in real terms, or in some segments of the markets, grown very slowly.

The demands for getting, and keeping, a full-time faculty job go up, up, up, every single year.

And all the above happened…with unions for faculty in many institutions. Now, maybe it would all be so much worse without unions. But…solidarity means what, exactly, in a world where companies like Microsoft openly say they won’t hire fresh-outs, and half or more of our professional school graduates work in free internships for multiple years?

All that said, fine. I’ll honor the picket line. If there’s a chance unions help get benefits, wages, and limits on working conditions, I’m in. But I doubt it. But I’d also sure be happy to be wrong. I strongly suspect that adjuncts in some markets fare way better than adjuncts in oversupplied urban markets, and so organizing across institutions might actually be a better strategy than organizing at individual institutions, so that the leverage in one location could help at others.