I’ve finished Ohmann’s book, and before I leave it, I feel compelled to add personal observations that illustrate the historical (and Marxist) view he provides of changes in the professional field of composition instruction and higher education instruction since 1970. Very briefly, the narrive he provides is that the old model of the university began to break down about the same time as the old vertically integrated corporation, and opportunities for professional positions at the college level began to diminsh. For some fields, such as composition instruction, the very possibility of maintaining the professional status of the work largely disappeared, with most colleges turning to what Ohmann calles the “casual labor” force of adjuncts, teaching assistants, graduate students and other low-pay, non-tenure positions.
Through my work at Emerson, I’ve been party to this system of diminshed opportunity and witness to the real effects it has on people’s lives. As I’ve said elsewhere, Emerson Division of Continuing Education hires on a strictly adjunct basis, filling some 250 courses a year with part-time instructors. Many who contend that these should be filled with full time employees would paint the school as solely responsible for exploitive hiring practices. And while this may be true to an extent, the people being hired into these postions also help create the conditions of their labor. Many part-time instructors have full-time positions in their field and teach at night for extra money and for the prestige of being an instructor. I used the part-time positions available in the DCE to get at least a toe-hold in teaching fiction, an opportunity otherwise unavailable to me. The extra money was also critical, making up a full third of my income in my final year at Emerson.
And there are a minority of adjunct instructors who are willing to get by on a heavy diet of part-time positions rather than leaving the field for other work. I used to joke that they were “adjunkies,” because though I was the administrator hiring them into what I knew were unhealthy labor condistions, I never had to pressure any of them very much; usually a phone call to say a position was open was enough, even if they were already teaching three or four classes that term. The most I’d ever head of anyone teaching was nine courses between three colleges in a single term–an extreme case, but nonetheless a demonstration of how much these people are willing to take on. And while these are the people who most deserve the protections and dignities of full-time employment, they are also the slice of the labor pool that most enables the system. The fragmentation between professionals teaching at night and adjunkies also makes it difficult for this labor to organize, as those teaching at night only don’t need the benefits and wages that those subsisting on adjunct positions need.
I’ve always felt that–especially in the field of composition–these hiring practies were very short-sighted, given that composition instructors are likely to be among the first instructors fresmen encounter, and an overworked, stressed, checked-out, unplugged instructor can set a negative tone for a student’s college experience. If students are expected to wait until their junior year to encounter what it means to engage in vigorous and energetic academic debate, how many are going to abandon the project before then?
I suppose Ohmann would say this is all part of the sorting out function colleges provide…