Issues in Graduate Education

Disciplinary Associations and Contingent Academic Workers

Marcus Harvey | Feb 1, 2002

Editor's Note: This essay and the following one by Michael Innis-Jiminez are based on presentations made at the 115th annual meeting of the AHA in Boston. Although the presentations were made in a session sponsored by the AHA's Task Force on Graduate Education they do not necessarily reflect the AHA's official position. Marcus Harvey is an associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, and Michael Innis-Jiminez is actively involved in the organization of graduate students at the University of Iowa.

In recent years, postmodernism, the diversification of the professoriate, and even generational tensions, have led academics to reevaluate the substance and nature of their work, privileges, and responsibilities. This process stimulated interdisciplinary dialogue and challenged old pedagogical habits, but also held our attention at a critical juncture. We have not been the only ones looking at American higher education anew: social and economic conservatives, corporate executives, managerial innovators, and venture capitalists have all come, seen, and set out to conquer academe.

The litany of transformative influences (generically referred to under the rubric of "corporatization") on academia is all too familiar. So too is one of corporatization's prime symptoms: specifically, the failure to renew tenure lines as they come open and the resultant expansion of the contingent workforce—part-timers, adjuncts, and graduate students—to meet institutional teaching needs.

By and large, the professoriate has been sluggish in response. Not so graduate student employees. From the largely unsuccessful grade strike at Yale, through the recognition struggles of the UAW in the University of California system, to more recent union victories at NYU, Michigan State, and Temple, graduate students are turning to collective action in ever greater numbers.

The relative militancy of graduate employees compared to faculty should come as no surprise. Tenured professors are sheltered from the vicissitudes of the academic labor market, while many nontenured academics are justly cautious for fear of jeopardizing their employment prospects. Unlike tenured faculty, graduate students tend to be painfully aware of the academic labor market, but—unlike adjunct faculty—they often enjoy high levels of institutional commitment to them individually. This combination of heightened awareness and lessened risk is optimal for union organizing.

As unions become increasingly important to the next generation of professional historians, the question arises: what roles can—or should—disciplinary associations like the AHA play in this new environment?

We have already seen some efforts to make disciplinary associations more
relevant to their most vulnerable constituents. The insurgency of the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association stands out in this regard. However, the AHA also adjusted its focus, and its Task Force on Graduate Education has done much to raise organizational awareness. The efforts of the MLA and the AHA to measure contingent labor use (and abuse) should prove of considerable value, as have the resolutions passed in support of graduate student collective bargaining. Nevertheless, the AHA could do more. Its members should consider the following suggestions:

  1. Affirm the responsibility of academics to support one another in collective enterprises. Despite the fact that a quarter million faculty and tens of thousands of graduate employees have already unionized, we are crippled by a widespread perception that unionization is "unusual" or "inappropriate" within the academy. It isn't. Joining one's local, serving an academic union, not crossing picket lines, all of these things should be as much disciplinary expectations as presenting one's research and not plagiarizing the work of colleagues.
  2. Explain the importance of academic work to the general public. The most dangerous assault on higher education comes from a neo-liberal discourse on markets, efficiency, and job skills that obfuscates and devalues academic work. If consumers are led to demand only narrow, vocational education from our universities and colleges, then that is what they will get. For the teaching of the humanities to remain relevant, we must explain the values of a liberal education and convince people that they are being cheated if they do not receive one. Unions—poised to defend all workers' rights and economic well being—are ill-suited to explain the merits and social utility of the specific labor of historians, professors of literature, or philosophers. Such work must be done by the disciplines.
  3. Finally, disciplinary associations should collaborate with the national AAUP to hold institutions accountable for their employment practices. The AAUP maintains a censure list of administrations that violate basic standards of academic freedom.1 At present, some 50 administrations are on the list; job postings in Perspectives indicate them with an asterisk. Were the AHA and similar organizations simply to refuse advertisements or job postings from those institutions, we could greatly increase the pressure on scofflaw administrations to comply with professional standards, crafted by faculty members themselves over the past half century.

In short, the only way to ensure that control of academia resides with the academics who work there is to become more vigorous and effective in our own defense. Disciplinary associations are primary sites of academic identity and socialization. Either they will come to the fore, or we will all shrink to the margins.

—A member of the AHA, Marcus Harvey recently completed his PhD at the University of Florida. He is an associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, and operates out of its west coast office in Berkeley, California.


1. The seminal articulation of these standards is the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure." The AHA formally endorsed that statement in 1961.

Tags: Resources for Contingent Faculty Contingent


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