The lecturer’s tale

ancient-architecture-blue-sky-256448.jpg

The writer and teacher of creative writing James Hynes wrote a novel called The Lecturer's Tale, a sardonic look at the life and absurdities of university teaching at the proletarian level. As a lecturer myself (at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa), I've been hesitant to cast my hat into the debate over the state of adjuncts - I appreciate the position I have, enjoy my department (the Institute of Peace) and feel valued there. This position also works with my schedule and the rest of my life. I teach in the evenings, online and in the summer and it allows me to keep a university affiliation that I otherwise would not have - this is important for publishing, conferences and other academic activities. They also pay me well as lecturing goes. For some the lectureship makes sense.

But the outcry is getting louder that something needs to be done about the two-tier system within academia. Seventy percent of college teaching faculty are now lecturers, which seems to signal a decline in the desire of universities to have research-producing faculty. Some lecturers soldier on and produce research seemingly against all odds.

A particularly poignant article in the New York Times depicted a lecturer who died destitute after a promising beginning to her career - she landed Visiting Assistant Professor positions, which are all too often carrots that dangle with nothing beyond them. Some are asking how the tenured and tenure-track faculty can sit by and watch the situation go on. Others say don't blame tenured and TT faculty for the plight of adjuncts, blame admin. Fair enough. But the two-tier nature of the university system seems to ignore the fact that most lecturers have the same degrees as the tenured professorate, and if they aren't, or cannot develop into, senior members of the academic community, it is precisely because they have become the epitome of the "overworked and underpaid" cliche. As one lecturer put it: "how can I inspire my students if I'm not making it myself?"

The Other Lost Generation

The realization is slowly dawning on scholars  that because precarious adjunct work is the new norm in academia, a generation (going on two generations) of scholarship has been lost. What could have come out of this generation had they been offered normal, full-time academic positions? It’s really impossible to say, but if we look back at what previous generations brought us, it may give an inkling of the potential that has been, and is being squandered by the pay-per-student university model, as 70% of the academic teaching workforce are now  lecturers.  Just a sampling of the traditional model of the academy shows its fruits:

The late-nineteenth century brought us existentialism, early theories of modernity, Nietzsche’s theories of power, atheism, Marxism, anarchism and young Hegelians.

The first lost generation (WWI) brought us Freud’s ego, id and superego, Jung’s collective unconscious, and Husserl’s phenomenology.

With the WWII generation, we gained Arendt’s  banality of evil, Heiddeger’s dasein,  Marcuse’s one dimensional man, and the insights of Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt school in general.

Though the glut in PhDs began with them, the boomers gave us postmodernism, Derrida’s deconstruction, liberation theology, Said’s orientalism, and many of the critical and areas studies (Women’s studies, Black/African American Studies, Ethnic Studies).

Generation X was the first to be hit with “adjuctivitis,” and it has shown – ours is not really associated with any major intellectual movements. Just more postmodernism and a vague sense of trying to catch up with our forebears, who seemed to think up this stuff between sips of champagne (World Wars notwithstanding), tea and some heavier stuff. On the contrary, in our time, the death of theory has been (albeit exaggeratedly) proclaimed. Now as the early millenials begin to enter the halls of academia, the prevailing mode is not liberation, but a new frugality, even while burdened with unprecedented debt.

If we are to take just the very rough outlines of these developments in thought, we find modernity (scientific rationality) and postmodernity (a simultaneous acceptance of multiple world views), which suggests the next development would have been “beyond” postmodernism. One approach, which I have written extensively about, was ironically (or perhaps not so ironically) developed outside academia: Integral. As integral takes the best of both modernity (the use of reason) and postmodernity (the understanding that truths are context-dependent), it seems feasible that it could be, or could have been, a next step. As Generation X grew up at the cusp of liberalism (Carter) and conservatism (Reagan), it also seems feasible that it could be, or could have been, the first integral generation – inside or outside of the academy itself. Philosophers were not usually professors until Kant. Hegel was a high school teacher until he was 46. Though many had some type of patronage – from the time of Aristotle through Rousseau – academic posts are not the only way to be productive. It’s just that we have yet to find a better model.