Cultivating Academic Culture
by Grant A. Mincy
Imagine you make your living as a university professor – you have a low salary, no health benefits and no retirement benefits. Now imagine that at the end of this semester your career will be suddenly terminated, with no due process or severance pay. Now imagine this circumstance is not unique, because it’s not – this circumstance is experienced by adjunct faculty everyday.
An adjunct faculty member is a part-time professor (who may work full-time hours) hired by contract each semester. As employment is contracted out per semester, adjuncts do not have the ability to obtain tenure, are often paid less than full-time faculty and many have no benefits. Currently, adjuncts make up the bulk of educators at colleges as they are cheaper for schools to employ – a result of reduced investment in the “public” education system. Adjuncts have the educational responsibilities of full-time professors and equivalent expertise in the discipline they teach. Work experience and advanced degrees are considered before a hire is made – as a result, adjuncts are highly educated, talented people.
Adjunct professors are the product of two acute problems facing higher education these days. The first, alluded to earlier, is decreased state sector investment in education. The decline in funding has created difficulty for schools to hire full-time employees. Instead of struggling to keep programs open and funding full-time staff, many schools have opted to let contract employees go when need be. Though the US population would rather see tax revenue invested in education, than say military spending, this means nothing to the political elite who instead shell out stolen dollars on pet projects (Pork!) or increased military spending. To make matters worse, college administrative costs have sky rocketed because of the expanding size of management personnel – all to the detriment of academics. On campuses today there are seemingly never-ending construction projects and administrative programs. The problems associated with this featherbedding and reduced government revenue are further exacerbated by money generated by endowments and student loans that encourage a cost-plus markup approach to spending.
Building on cost-plus markup, the second, and yet another manufactured crisis of the political elite, is that higher education has become another bubble. Students unable to find work due to the ongoing economic downturn have started competing for higher degrees. With rising education costs, however, these degrees are much more expensive than they are actually worth. There are more graduates than there are jobs that require their advanced qualifications. In many cases not only is there no household income, but many folks are also buried in student loan debt. Students with graduate degrees have traditionally trusted the academy or its resources to find jobs with good wages, this is no longer the case.
In today’s (captured) market, advanced degrees are no longer the tools for growth and prosperity they used to be. Increased tuition, increased fees, the burden of student loans, rising conference costs, rising membership costs to (insert academic discipline here) Society of America, and even the high costs of journal publications are now all imposed on a struggling public. This is a great indoctrination technique – people buried in debt do not have a lot of time or energy to invest in challenging the status quo, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. This creates a situation where only those with the correct amount of capital, or the correct inner circles, are (largely – there are exceptions) allowed to play the game. Education fits the neo-liberal economic model – push the public out-of-the-way and serve special interests. The modern academic model looks to be more about publishing, obtaining grants and making connections than it does fostering an environment for learning, inquiry and creativity.
As I have argued before: When education spending is cut, and when corporate influence impacts research, one can clearly hear the calls to privatize (fully allowing only those with capital to pursue higher degrees) or the calls for stricter regulation and “teach to test” policy (fully allowing for the indoctrination of students). Both solutions championed by state officials directly impede social capital and reinforce adherence to preconceived rules – they are ridiculous. Furthermore, it keeps teachers from “owning” their classroom. Teachers must ensure their students meet the demands of the state, or private entity, that truly chooses the instruction of the classroom – their jobs depend on it. Teachers no longer have agency over their own labor. This is what Kevin Carson has called The Real Curriculum: Please the status quo and create docile, obedient, indoctrinated future employees burdened with debt.
Despite all of this, there is resistance. With falling communication costs new orders are emerging across the market, education included.
With the emergence of new information and communication technologies individuals can take active roles in their communities development. This trend leads to increased transfer of authority and responsibility from centralized institutions to local neighborhoods. This engages and empowers everyday people. Information technology has allowed us to question who has authority and decision-making power, why power is distributed the way it is and what implications it has for society and future generations. As a result of such inquiry, decentralization has become a main theme. In the case of education, democracy in the classroom is again on the rise.
Information technology is allowing us to build new foundations across the political divide. Beyond the dominant paradigm of “teach to test” and prepare for the workforce, many educators are looking to teach in ways that inspire critical thinking. Though still in its infancy, this democratic shift in education can empower students and promote values of free association, co-ordination and altruism. It can inspire students to work for their communities well-being, as opposed to the requirements of the corporate state apparatus. The current Service Learning movement, where for course credit students have the option of community service, is a great example of this encouraged pro-social behavior. In other words, decentralized education will work to enhance our natural capacities as human beings – intellectual growth will be cultivated.
Communication technologies have created a market for people to work around traditional power structures. Educators are easily able to share their concerns with each other, and the rest of the public, because of growing social networks. Through the means of communication, consensus reveals the many problems with our mainstream educational systems – be them government or private schools, the freed market is demanding a paradigm shift. This promotes the libertarian position of individualism, the notion that we should assume more responsibility for our daily lives – if nothing else, we are now constantly exposed to the failures of the corporation state. In individualist tradition, governance is being scrutinized. People are now talking about problems associated with their communities, workplaces and society. As a result, incredible causes are being organized around, federations are developing, movements are progressing and it is all happening because we simply talk. The traditional libertarian position is clear: Individuals can better represent the concerns of their communities instead of a single powerful person, group or organization.
In regards to education, Kevin Carson notes:
The idea is not to eliminate higher education, but to eliminate the mass-production model by which it is organized: Transporting people to a central location with expensive physical plant and a bloated administrative bureaucracy in order to process them into human resources. Network technology, with its ability to move information cheaply rather than moving people, offers the potential of an alternative that creates its own educational modules if needed (from scratch using modern tools and techniques)…
Falling communication costs are allowing us to build anew within the shell of the old. Take for example the Massive Open Online Course, or “MOOC” phenomenon. MOOCs are courses offered online, for free, that are open access and have unlimited participation. MOOCs offer all of the standard materials of traditional classrooms (videos, readings, lectures, exercises, etc…) but also user groups that help build community among students and their educators. The variety of this free educational resource is also incredibly vast.
Imagine the possibilities here. “Garage” physicists, for example, being able to take classes they could never afford online, for free. Massive human communication systems allowing them to freely associate with online social networks that educate and inspire – totally void of traditional power structures. The creative, innovative potential for our society is astounding, as Sebastian A. B. explains:
The individual is the basic functional unit of innovation. Institutions provide resources — capital, human and fixed. But free people can achieve a lot with very little.
The magnitude of creative productivity is most strongly correlated with the number of researchers, and less with the talent of the individuals involved, and fortunately the positive feedback loop (or virtuous cycle) of technology continues to lower the cost of instrumentation. That is, happy accident probability is proportional to time invested rather than just skill.
But what of the traditional campus? Information technology and low communication costs have tremendous potential to allow for the empowerment of classroom instructors. Indeed, the use of emerging communication technology and information science is causing increased transfer of power from centralized authorities to locally based institutions. The internet is being used as a tool for educators to ban together and begin social movements to once again gain autonomy over their classrooms. Network technologies are being used to create a diversity of support platforms for instructors and other temporary/freelance workers. For instance, collective bargaining is again on the rise spreading insurance, legal aid, professional development opportunities and even locally controlled scholarly publishing. The internet revolution has already brought some liberty back into traditional campuses. With the spread of information and mass social communication this trend will continue exponentially.
So just what does this mean for us adjuncts who love to teach? Simply put, education is in the beginning phase of an evolution. With information technology, harnessed by the public, a more decentralized society is on the way – liberty is winning, naturally. Our libertarian society will of course emphasize education. Human beings long for creative labor, it is a biological universal. No longer will education be a tool to prepare us for the workplace – education will become the life-long pursuit of our interests and creative ingenuity. We are programmed with curiosity and the desire to learn and communicate. Public consensus will naturally cultivate a new academic culture – those who aspire to teach will be in demand.