Thursday, January 24, 2013

ethics and tenuous-track faculty

One problem I have with writing about the experience of contingent academic labor is that I seem unable to avoid writing about my own experience, and I am concerned that what I write may seem to be special pleading, or worse, a call for pity. From my own experience, I can attest to the general degraded working conditions and forms of humiliation that tenuous faculty face on a daily basis (as compared with most tenure-track faculty, that is). What I need is some way to make a claim to knowledge about this experience, that is not merely subjective.

I also have a problem writing about Foucault's ethics as a way of understanding the situation of tenuous-track faculty. I have what I think is a very strong argument to demonstrate that official statements of faculty ethics like AAUP's Statement on Professional Ethics can't apply to most faculty (it addresses "professors," after all, and not anybody with any other title). That opens the issue of what ethics could mean for tenuous faculty, and that's what leads me to Foucault's notion of ethics as freedom, the conduct of oneself, and one's own subjectivization: tenuous-track faculty have to make shift for themselves, both practically and ethically, because of their bizarre institutional status.

Foucault can't provide any prescription for how tenuous-track faculty (or anybody else, for that matter) ought to conduct oneself, because that would close the door to the very freedom of self-conduct. So, what can I say, in an affirmative voice, about tenuous faculty ethics?

It seems to me a basic step in Foucauldian ethics is to acknowledge that freedom, to acknowledge our subjection and our subjectivization -- to acknowledge that regimes of power make determinations of shapes of life and ways of acting morally, but that we can and do resist these regimes. The prevailing regime of academic work links ethical responsibility to the ideology of the professoriate so eloquently stated by the AAUP, and is very differentially deployed by administration through compliance apparatus. These apparatus affect tenure-track and tenuous-track faculty, as I said, very differently. (I once attended a brief meeting regarding a complaint by a student of sexual harassment against a lecturer. He was offered the choice to resign, and the university would not tell prospective employers why he resigned unless they asked; or fight the charge, and the university would fire him and offer the information to all prospective employers whether they asked or not. During that same semester, a tenured faculty member was similarly accused of sexual harassment, and was required to complete an online sexual harassment training.)

It occurred to me that the first problem is addressed by dealing with the second problem. What I can say about the ethical conduct of self by tenuous-track faculty is that the contingent faculty movement in North America has developed a large counter-discourse about our experience, expertise, roles in our institutions, and the missions of the institutions themselves. This counter-discourse is both the basis upon which I can make not-merely-subjective claims to know the situation of tenuous faculty, and also an initial step of conduct of self. In a way, it is the kind of ascetic writing Foucault calls for, as well.

My new problem is finding a way to write this in less than about 5000 words (right now I'm at 4000, and haven't quite put the argument together like I have here), for a conference presentation that should be around 3000 words.

Warning to Foucauldian friends of mine: I'm going to be bugging you with this.

Oh, and the other thing that came up today is that I could write this entire thing a different way by interrogating the concept of academic freedom.

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