Monday, June 06, 2011

more on faculty ethics - add Foucault, shake, pour into cocktail glass, and add a twist

I've been thinking that my presentation at the AAUP conference on Thursday needed more bite. On the plane from Newark to Portland, and then again on the flight back from Newark to San Francisco, I took some notes. Here's a bit of the 2000+ words I've added to the behemoth paper I'm presenting. (By the way, I'm doing this without including what will now have to be a massive scholarly apparatus. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.)

The destructive argument

Like most professional codes of ethics, the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics addresses relatively powerful people, and does so in total abstraction from their actual working conditions. It functions as an expression of professional ideology – what the official ruling establishment of the profession says about itself in order to create a normalized reality effect. Like most professions, the ideology emphasizes the profession’s alleged authority and self-regulatory autonomy, standards of conduct, as well as its commitment to the public good. While its application to the majority of those serving as faculty is clearly doubtful – since the majority simply are not professors in the sense denominated in the Statement – it is also not clear how well it applies even to those who otherwise appear to be professors.

What I think this means is that, at present, there is no operative faculty professional ethics whose legitimacy anyone regards, or should regard, as binding. There are documents, there are utterances – mostly high-minded or hypocritical, whether stated by faculty, administrators, politicians, or culture-warriors. All of those utterances that I’ve heard or read strike me as, at best, ethically bankrupt. No one can say knowledgeably either what faculty do or what they should do.

One obvious thing to say is to make the political claim others have already made – that faculty – all faculty, but especially the faculty majority – need to organize, and need to organize all the faculty. This is the political solution. It does not address in a direct way the ethical question, and here I think the catastrophic nature of the crisis needs a radical proposal to meet it.

What is required in this situation is the free choice, taken up by each person working as faculty, of what sort of being he or she will choose. That is, the kind of faculty member one will become, how one will resist or reproduce the dominant structures of power in institutions of higher education, will have to be the leading choice, the determining choice, of what sort of “code” one may adhere to.

Faculty subjectivities, faculty power: the constructive argument

A basic question regarding faculty ethical responsibilities is, who are the faculty? The majority status of part-time faculty, and the huge majority of tenuous-track faculty, demand that we cannot take tenure-track professors as the presumed model for faculty in general.

Rather than a natural species, faculty are socially constructed, and, obviously, differentially socially constructed. Analyzed through Michel Foucault’s later work on power relations, institutions, and subjection, what would we find as the basic shapes of subjection adapted and adopted by those who become “professors,” “lecturers,” or “adjuncts,” respectively? (Not an exhaustive list.) Indeed, I have already been describing some of the key differences between these subjectivities. “Lecturers,” for instance, are subjected to teach heavier loads, accepting or even being grateful for these opportunities, and so forth.

From a period during graduate school, most PhD students in the humanities learn that taking “adjunct” work – a course here, a course there, for very low wages and no benefits – is a necessary starting point for most aspiring professors. Despite the fact that this “starting point” is for most of these PhD students an ending point (that is, that the majority will never have tenure-track “jobs”) , we take on this subject-position, continue to work the conference circuit as much as our dire financial conditions allow, revise and submit papers to journals, hustle for book contracts and continued “adjunct” employment (in order to continue to have the basic legitimacy that a college affiliation offers) – all under the normalizing framework that this is how academia works, and that if I am going to get a “job,” I have to keep at it. (And wow, they're pathetic. I know because I was one.)

The longevity of this “adjunct” subjectivity depends on a number of factors, including an individual’s personal exhaustion point, competing interests like starting a family or paying ever-looming debts, and of course, getting hired tenure-track. My observation is that, for most of us who occupy either the subjectivity of aspiring to tenure-track employment, or the subjectivity of tenure-track professors, there appear to be no alternatives. Thus the imputation that those who never make the leap from this kind of “adjunct” work to tenure-track work have “failed” in some respect, or the alternative analysis that blames either “the job market” or “the over-production of PhDs." For those thus normalized, ethical responsibility means adhering as much as possible to the values and behaviors of the tenured elite.
Any analysis of the state of the academic “profession” which accepts this simplistic binary, and implicitly accepts the notion that faculty employment is accurately characterized as dividing the small minority of academic “winners” from the undeserving “losers,” fundamentally misinterprets, or ignores, the daily working lives of faculty, and the subjectivities, interests, perceptions, and intentions of those working as faculty. In short, it denies ethical responsibility to the majority of faculty, by denying their subjection.

I’ll use myself as an example. I am completely pessimistic about my prospects for a tenure-track “job” at this stage of my career. My PhD has passed its freshness date. I earn too much to be an attractive entry-level employee. I carry baggage as an activist/troublemaker. I continue to research and write, I continue to present my work at national and international conferences, and I continue to stay as much as possible up-to-date in my field. If I do all this without hope of a tenure-track “job,” and if my work looks very much like the work of a tenure-track faculty member, then what sort of faculty member am I, exactly?

I’m a “lecturer,” but that means so many things that it means nothing. I’m an academic outsider in many respects, because my status, and my aspirations, do not adhere to the dominant ideology of the academic profession – the ideology of the professoriate so eloquently stated in the AAUP Statement on Ethics. What shall we say are my ethical responsibilities, if I have reasons that I find compelling to be suspicious of my field of expertise (academic philosophy), to withdraw my compliance with my institution’s rules; if I am unable to seek or state the truth as I see it, or to encourage or model intellectual honesty for my students; if the public at large sees little value, or simply does not see what I do to contribute to the public good?

By and large, every day, I have no problem understanding what I should do, because I have already settled, for myself, the issue of my ethical responsibilities as a faculty member. That is, I have a relatively stable subjectivity which directs my actions according to a relatively stable, though tacit, code. In relationship to the dominant ideology, my own code is one that variably adopts, adapts, and resists – and so does yours, and so does the “adjunct” whom you have never met, who teaches one class each semester at your university’s remote campus.

If I accept that I have some responsibility to my discipline, to my students, to my colleagues, to my institution or to the public, this takes place for me every day in my classroom. If I am honest about my or my discipline’s limitations of wisdom, if I question the dominant power structure of my institution or classroom or society, if I make my primary concern the state of my students’ souls, or the state of their judgments, or their development of critical thinking skills, or their satisfaction of institutional requirements to advance to the degree — and in turn, if I don’t make one or another of these my concern — in any and all of those free and deliberative actions, I commit myself, though not irrevocably, to an ethic, and express that ethic.

This is an ineluctable faculty ethics, I think — one that cannot be codified (that precedes all codifications), and one that does not dissolve, no matter how much my power is diminished by my status, because I walk into the classroom, or go online, and I am a certain “faculty member” then.

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