What the hell is my professorship for?

Posted by Roger Whitson on February 26th, 2014

English: Final roll call vote in the U.S. Hous...

English: Final roll call vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on H.R. 7152 (the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Page 1 of voting record. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other day, I came across this article from The Guardian that lamented the fact that Obama seems to have mitigated the second term of his presidency away by drifting from one crisis to another. The author contrasts Obama’s “drift in principle and policy” with LBJ’s response when an aide argued that his desire to pass the civil rights bill was not realistic.

Johnson, who sat in silence at the table as his aides debated, interjected: ‘Well, what the hell’s the presidency for.’ ‘First,’ he told Congress a few days later, ‘no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.’ Over the next five years he would go on to sign the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, launch the war on poverty and introduce Medicaid (medical assistance for low-income families) and Medicare (for seniors). That’s what his presidency was for.

The contrast between Johnson and Obama couldn’t be more stark: Johnson saw his presidency as a time to make things happen, while Obama has identified himself so much by compromising with the previous administration that it is hard for many leftists to understand why they voted for him in the first place.

I believe any scholar who beat the odds and secured a tenure-track position has a moral duty to answer a similar question about their institutional appointment.

What is my professorship for?

First of all, let’s be real: those of us who have a tenured or tenure-track position haven’t gotten here because we are metaphysically better than the (in some cases) hundreds of applicants who also applied for our position. Academia isn’t a meritocracy. We got here with a lucky combination of institutional pedigree, publications, privilege (racial, gendered, class-based, ableist, and/or heterosexist, among others),  and simply being in the right place at the right time.

Second, we need to be clear to whom we owe our obligation to answer the question. It may seem like “what is my professorship for,” is similar to a research question or a dissertation thesis. It isn’t. For me, the question is ethical and political. Why am I here when so many of my colleagues from graduate school are still adjuncts? What qualities do I have that will make the lives scarred by academic exploitation better? 

Does this mean that I should work towards tenure? Maybe or maybe not. Perhaps tenure-track recipients like me should view our years at a University as a temporary opportunity to do what we can with the power we wield. Maybe there’s a danger in focusing so much on achieving tenure: that (much like Obama) the tenure process forces us to identify too closely with a power structure that relies so heavily on exploitation to survive. Maybe that system doesn’t deserve to survive.

I agree that much of the adjunct crisis is caused by the removal of state funding for higher education and the subsequent corporatization of the University. But that fact doesn’t remove my responsibility or my implication in an industry that ruins so many lives.

What is my professorship for? Two things:

  1. To advocate for a model of intellectual life that extends beyond the University campus (particularly through technology);
  2. To support — through my scholarship, my advocacy, and my teaching — exploited workers on University campuses.

Why am I particularly suited to these goals?

  1. I come from an upper middle-class family. My family is educated, but they aren’t academics or scholars. I spend a good amount of time with them explaining why my work matters. Sometimes these are difficult conversations, but they force me to think and talk outside of my comfort zone and identify with people who are not primarily interested in academic questions. I’m also made to be keenly aware that the academic solution is not always (or even most of the time) the best solution.
  2. I also experienced a number of years where I didn’t know where my next paycheck would come from. This caused me to become resentful when I saw my tenured and tenure-track colleagues anxious about small disciplinary arguments. What does it matter if a film counts as a text when 70% of college instructors can hardly make ends meet? 

I want my colleagues to see this post as a provocation. I challenge each and every one of you to ask this question of yourselves. Be honest.

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