Making It

The faculty can’t deliver the mythical ticket to middle-class transformation, partly because the majority of faculty members themselves are struggling to survive.
By Monica F. Jacobe

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reporter Beckie Supiano documented the story of a mother concerned because she couldn’t afford her daughter’s first-choice college and needed additional help from the institution in question. When her appeal was met with regretful apologies, Natasha van Doren told the Chronicle, “I always hear schools say that there is always a way to pay for school. How the school expects a family that pays 75 percent of their income on rent to pay $10,000 is crazy.”

These questions about college costs, college value, and even what a college degree means for the earning potential of graduates have become a high-profile component of discourse about higher education in the public sphere, and the voices of parents, politicians, taxpayers, and even students have often been raised against the university itself—against its internal functions and external value.

What does not enter this conversation or, apparently, the minds of most of the stakeholders talking about college costs is the fact that the majority of faculty members will also struggle to pay their children’s college tuition. Beneath this fact lie two important questions. How is such financial difficulty possible for the intellectual elite in their seemingly luxurious ivory towers? And why don’t most parents and students know the answer to that first question?

Rhetoric of Middle-Class Opportunity

Part of the answer to these questions lies in the rhetoric of the middle-class conception of the value and the cost of a college degree, an issue with which higher education scholar Christopher Newfield deals in his 2008 book, Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Instead of defining class purely in terms of income, Newfield uses the term middle class to refer to the majority of the population whose concept of college is also interwoven with the mainstream and politically powerful ideal that they are to have “interesting work, economic security, and the ability to lead satisfying and insightful lives in which personal and collective social development advance . . . side-by-side.”

This is the ideal that many parents articulate for their children. Newfield’s central concern is the political and ideological assault on the ideal of American higher education, but a real question underlying his study (and not fully answered by it) is why so many people continue to believe in this ideal. As a nation, Americans believe that college will help you “make it”: transform class standing, open up opportunities otherwise closed off, and generally counter long-standing and inherited economic and social realities. This narrative seems to lie at the root of American identity, rising from the earliest national rhetoric that had hardscrabble, hard-living settlers of a new nation recast themselves as first political revolutionaries and then statesmen in charge of a new nation. From its earliest form, then, the United States has been a place where individual raw talent and drive could change the world. More recently, this idea has smart people going to college to get an undergraduate degree, and sometimes on to graduate school, perhaps eventually joining the professoriate and helping train the members of Newfield’s middle class. All of this, inevitably, perpetuates a singular view of the value of higher education.

The rhetoric of middle-class opportunity, still standing in the face of the current economic crisis, also surely informs the resentment many parents feel about not being able to afford the college education they believe their children need, even are entitled to have. But these parents often don’t blame the economy or lawmakers or fate; they blame the college or university and everyone they see as agents of its bureaucracy—from top administrators down to the lowliest adjunct. This example points toward the problem created by a rhetoric no longer borne out by reality and the resulting “PR problem” colleges and universities face: parents view institutions of higher education as, at best, impediments to and, at worst, enemies of their children’s future—and the future of a deeply entrenched American ideal.

The ideal itself is part of the American psyche and has resulted in important changes in the academy across many decades—open-access institutions, affordable state education, colleges and universities serving people of different colors and genders. What has failed to evolve as institutions have evolved, however, is the wider-reaching rhetoric of the ivory tower that is woven just as carefully into the American consciousness. Faculty members and administrators, the people who run higher education in this country, are often portrayed in the media as out-of-touch, impractical, existing at a distance from the realities of everyday life, concerned instead with the life of the mind, and, always, privileged. In economic matters, out come the salary data to prove that professors make plenty of money.

The well-known scholars who write about academia—Newfield, Michael Bérubé, Stanley Fish, Cary Nelson, Marc Bousquet, and Donald Hall, to name just a few—all speak from positions of privilege in the academy and struggle to counter this image effectively, but they are often met with the claim that “you can’t speak about my condition because it isn’t your condition.” If they comment on the ills of contingent labor, the tenured and famous are told that they have no idea what the conditions are truly like. If they object to the heavily gendered nature of contingency in the academy, men (as all of my above examples are) are met with disingenuous shock that they would dare speak for women. The same kinds of objections are raised for Ivy-pedigreed faculty members who want to engage with questions of underserved student populations and the needs of first-generation college students.

It is true that most of the people who speak for the American faculty speak from positions that have not been for decades, are not now, and will never again be economic and employment norms for the vast majority of college teachers. The majority of college teachers, nearly 76 percent as of 2009 (according to the AAUP’s tabulation of the most recent Department of Education data), labor in contingent appointments, always uncertain of just how much they will earn in the coming months. Are these workers, myself among them, really in an ivory tower, distant from the troubles parents trying to afford college for their children encounter every day? I don’t think so, but that image is certainly central to the challenges academe has faced over the last few years—what many refer to as a crisis in the humanities.

False Meritocracy

This “crisis” has come from politicians, parents, and taxpayers—higher education stakeholders who are often part of Newfield’s middle class—in the form of questions about skills-based education and the utility of learning certain subjects, as well as deep cuts to departmental and university budgets. So we in the humanities are told to do more with less, to wait until next year or the year after for that raise or new hire or new building, to go out on the job market although there are no jobs, to wait and wait because some day things will change. We are told all others are tightening their belts—first and foremost, the educational disciplines and subjects that are not explicitly valued as a route to the middle-class ideal. Workers need skills, so the message sent to colleges and universities is that they must train the workers and provide the skills—not merely the education—necessary for a functional citizenry.

Martha C. Nussbaum’s most recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, articulates the argument that many are making: humanistic disciplines help people understand and interpret the world around them, as they collectively study the ways human beings experience and record that world. This valuable and, to my mind, accurate argument, however, no longer stands as the primary defense of the humanities. The Modern Language Association (MLA) goes beyond the need for a knowledgeable voting public, arguing for the utility of language study and the need to know several languages in order to communicate effectively in our globalizing world (see MLA president Russell Berman’s article in this issue of Academe). Most recently, the MLA’s report Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009 expounded on that argument.

But Nussbaum and most faculty leaders of the MLA hold secure, tenured positions. Again, those fighting the battle most directly are not those who now constitute the majority of faculty members in American colleges and universities.

Why is that? Is it perhaps because those who must teach more classes for less money and are constantly searching for their next job (just in case) are too busy to worry about such structural matters? No. All of us, on all sides of the faculty class divides, are trapped by our own rhetoric of rank and affiliation. We support the myth that the “worthy” make it—our own version of the middle-class myth of class transformation. We believe the promise that everyone will retire; that tenure lines will be continued; that higher enrollments will mean more jobs with decent pay, benefits, and job security; and—worst of all—that if you work hard enough, pay your dues, and prove yourself worthy, you will be one of the anointed ones stepping into the increasingly rare positions of privilege inside the ivory tower. The problem with the tired tropes of rank and affiliation as the end-all of professional value is that they are based on a false meritocracy.

It seems fair to say that achieving tenure is a mark of professional success, though because tenure standards and policies vary widely, there are many definitions of success. The problem comes before that. No one can argue that the academic job market is fair or resembles a genuine meritocracy. You have to be both stellar and lucky. Allowing our profession to discount publicly or even simply ignore colleagues lacking appropriate rank and affiliation—in support of a false meritocracy—can no longer be a viable model inside the profession. Nor can we allow this system to continue to determine who speaks out in defense of academe at large and the humanities in particular.

Internal Prejudices

Michael Bérubé, in his essay “Working for the U: On the Rhetoric of ‘Affiliation,’” explains the problems that arise when affiliation is a central professional value: “The discourse of affiliation insists, against all the material evidence, that we are somehow an especially rarefied version of professional: your garden variety megacorporate lawyer might ‘work for’ Simpson Thatcher and Bartlett or Cravath Swaine and Moore, but Marjorie Perloff is merely ‘affiliated with’ Stanford and Joseph Urgo ‘affiliated with’ the University of Mississippi” (emphasis in original). In his characteristic tongue-in-cheek style, Bérubé is pointing to our internal prejudices, our collective desire to seem special.

That, too, is part of the internal division among faculty members that has many of us falsely believing that our raw talent is defined, first, by which institution’s name is joined with ours and, second, by the rank at which we have been appointed. One of the reasons parents and politicians see the academy as the ivory tower we all know it isn’t is that we want them to see our specialness and not our all-too-common problems.

This rhetoric, however, is not just external. In his now-classic The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual, Donald Hall claims that many scholars of his professional generation found “too often a tense, competitive atmosphere in which personal achievement (often the single-minded pursuit of ‘stardom’) was valued over collegial exchange and communal responsibility.” Hall’s emphasis here isn’t so much on affiliation—but it does emphasize our desire to pull away from the pack and be different. He also says that the need for stardom overshadows “communal responsibility,” which isn’t just about faculty work but also about the wider academic community and its stakeholders—parents, students, and so on. The false visions of the academy that faculty members construct to soothe their wounded egos, and the false sense of failure they feel at not having monetary and professional success in a profession where it is nearly impossible to have either, contribute directly to the negative public mythology about our profession.

The process of creating this myth begins early, with the idea that our academic success is based on raw, natural talent (the middle-class dream) for those who aspire to join it. When people do enter the faculty ranks, they bring with them a need to be identified through the prestige of the institution for which they work and the rank at which their appointment was made, as though that speaks to their professional value, their value in and to the profession.

So why does this long-standing set of beliefs matter in the public rhetoric of crisis, both economic and academic? Certainly the professional narrative of meritocracy hasn’t been sustainable for a long time. Contingent faculty positions have made up more than half of the professoriate since 1989, according to Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System figures from the Department of Education. But we need to change our internal messages in response to a changed external conversation—because concerning ourselves primarily with the rat race of the meritocracy looks petty, internally and externally, when there are other issues worth worrying about. Parents and students are concerned with college costs and the value of a degree after graduation. Will graduates get good jobs? Will they be strapped with heavy loan debt? Politicians and taxpayers respond to these demands, and this is part of what has turned higher education toward the consumerist frame we all know today. The image created by our internal concerns over rank and affiliation—that we as a profession are concerned centrally with our own betterment—contributes to the image that higher education is the ivory tower of otherness where faculty members are fiddling as Rome burns.

The dominant narrative of higher education doesn’t allow room for the real, on-the-ground, and increasingly common concerns that faculty members share with other stakeholders. The faculty should no longer let that false message stand, inside or outside the academy. The majority of us inside the academy have been experiencing the same labor dynamics as the larger public for decades.

A friend and colleague at Princeton University, Andrew Mossin, asked me some time ago: “When will this profession stand up and deal with its own Walmart labor practices?” My answer was and still is that some of us have stood up. But at the same time, I know, despite decades of good work by many, that the story being told about faculty work in higher education—the one insiders and outsiders buy into even when they shouldn’t—is the myth of meritocracy and professional ease. It’s not the story of labor realities where most members of this profession will spend their entire careers in contingency, not because they are bad teachers or poor scholars or lazy or unpleasant but because of circumstances beyond their control. And if that’s not the same labor reality all of my friends who work outside academe are facing now, I don’t know what is. And, yes, it is even the reality for workers at Walmart these days and for members of Christopher Newfield’s middle class—made up of our current and former students—who are struggling to find jobs. A new one, a first one, a next one. Any job.

But people know what they need when they go to Walmart, and they can get it. What members of the public seem to want from the university and from the faculty can no longer be delivered. We can’t deliver the ticket to class transformation, one that allows them to reach for that American ideal and achieve their dreams, despite the misperception that colleges and universities have plenty of money to pay out-of-touch and privileged professors and can certainly do more to help their students. Isn’t this the view underlying that Chronicle article and what so many people believe today? We have allowed this misperception to go unchallenged by not speaking, fully and correctly, about who we are. Instead, we have too often and too long allowed ourselves to buy into and become complicit in the false and much prettier story told about us.

Changing the Message

How we communicate to and among ourselves has contributed to how we are spoken about—the internal rhetoric of the academy has shaped the external rhetoric about it—and changing our internal rhetoric is an important step in changing that outward rhetoric.

How? Well, I know as a rhetorician that changing the message always changes the response, and articulating a different set of priorities about this profession, owning its realities, and aligning our narrative with our lived experiences can do nothing but bring us into a real conversation about the nature and purpose of higher education. I can’t tell you that this will change anything on the ground now inside the profession—that the many talented scholars and teachers whose lengthy and impressive careers haven’t “earned” them tenure-line jobs or even living wages will be bettered professionally by this change in rhetoric. All I can tell you is that there is no hope for the future of our profession if we can’t face what we are today.

What that future might look like and what its benefits are is multifaceted.

First, the rhetoric of rank and affiliation needs to be left behind as the evolutionary anachronism it is. Personal merit has so little bearing on professional realities inside and outside higher education that maintaining such rhetoric can do nothing but harm to our collective ability to speak about the importance of what we do. We will have to stop telling one another that folklore internally, but we also have to begin to recognize and encourage the many voices that should be part of the conversation.

Yes, without academic freedom, contingent faculty members are at greater risk when they speak as public intellectuals about higher education, but the academy desperately needs more such voices to begin to engage the stakeholders outside of academe who don’t really understand its realities. Such engagement would allow the very necessary conversation about undergraduate education to begin, a dialogue in which humanities scholars who live in a reality much closer to the middle class of students and parents, taxpayers, and politicians can speak from a position of authority about the value of those fields of study. That changed ethos is an absolute necessity in order to change the conversation; many of those speaking would, then, unquestionably be facing the same hard realities as everyone else, including, yes, the inability of some college teachers to afford their own children’s higher education. (Contingent faculty members rarely receive such benefits as reduced or compensated tuition for their children.) Only by changing who speaks can we change what is being spoken about—something we must do collectively if we are ever to align the public sense of the university with reality. That realignment would significantly and productively affect graduate education as well because graduate students—former undergraduates, remember—will no longer enter advanced study with the idea that they should just keep going to school because they like it or because they need an advanced degree to guarantee a job. Inside and outside higher education, there are no more economic guarantees, and the sooner we stakeholders in higher education all face that together, the sooner we can get back to the business we should be in—that of actual education, not of class transformation or employment guarantees or certification. And isn’t that what faculty members believe in? Isn’t that why we chose this profession in the first place?

I am often struck by calls to save the academy so we can maintain a recognizable landscape after this economic difficulty is passed. My first response is that the difficulty and the changes in and to higher education are not a result of this brief moment. My second response is always, “Well, I would prefer if we came out with an academy I didn’t recognize at all.” I would be happy, on the other side of these hard times, if we returned to an academy where the profession at large and the public value of what we do in and out of the classroom are affirmed with academic freedom and tenure as the dominant paradigm, where institutions of higher learning spend more on instruction than on utility bills. The problem with my pseudo-utopian academy is that it hasn’t existed in a long time (if it ever did), and that it is not a model we can get back to, given the budgetary structures of most public and private institutions of higher learning.

What we can do is change how we talk about what we do and why we do it. Changing the representation changes the perception. It is the only way we can have a meaningful conversation with the Natasha van Dorens of the world—the only way to create a future for American higher education.

Monica F. Jacobe is a postdoctoral lecturer at Princeton University. Her recent work on academic labor has appeared in College English, the Western Humanities Review, and Profession. She coauthored, with John Curtis, “Consequences: An Increasingly Contingent Faculty” in the AAUP’s Contingent Faculty Index 2006.

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