Dude, Where’s The Race in Your Class Analysis of HigherEd?

A key status marker of any profession is engagement in fights about the state of said profession. For the past few weeks a particularly public fight about adjuncts and academia has been waged across blogs, online media and social media. I do not want to jump into that debate. I do not have a dog in the fight, really. It could be fairly argued that I am not even really in the profession. My membership is more contingent than contingent labor, in many ways. And I do not have much to add to these debates so I have largely shut up.

I wanted to shut up this morning when a post from a well-known academic consultant went live. The post is titled, “How the Tenured are to the Job Market as White People are to Racism.” I know a bit about racism and a little about the structure of higher education so this had the potential of being closer to my wheelhouse.

I read the essay and responded pointedly on twitter (or, the opposite of shutting up). The author graciously responded. I appreciate it when people authentically respond to critiques. Therefore, I do not wish to further any critique about what she meant or did not mean or the efficacy of her argument.

However, I would like to talk a bit about the scope of the debate that the post prompted. Many of our most strident debates of highered’s labor system do not speak as eloquently about how that labor system intersects with institutional racism, if they speak about it at all.

I did some searching for something to refer people to and did not immediately find anything. This post is about that gap. I endeavor only to point people towards some questions about the class structure of highered that includes the empirical reality of intersecting oppressive regimes. I cannot redress the gap with this post and I will not try. But when the gap is as wide as the one I saw unfolding today even a nascent exploration is something. Or, at least, that is the delusion under which I’m laboring.

And laboring is where we will begin.

The casualization of the academic professoriate is a problem. Almost everyone agrees that underpaid, overworked, delegitimized, disrespected professors are bad for people, the profession, the university, and students. The origin of the casualization of academia is somewhat debatable (although there’s some consensus that it’s wrapped up in advancement of neoliberal ideology). Marc Bousquet and Cary Nelson’s more structural analysis mostly begins in the 1970s university. Gaye Tuchman’s institutional analysis of the corporate university theoretically recalls the 1960s and 1970s with an ethnographic account that begins in 2003. (I recommend both books, by the way) But almost all scholarly interrogations make at least a passing acknowledgement to a Don Cameron Allen’s 1968 report on projected labor shortages in the humanities. Bousquet and Nelson, in particular, dismantle this report and ground their analysis in its flaws.

It is oddly fortuitous that Allen’s report was issued in 1968 as the black studies movement was also ascending. (Indeed maybe not odd; there may be an organizational argument that the expansion of black studies was facilitated by the overall expansion Allen called for in his report and to which many liberal arts programs responded.) The call for black studies departments was a direct structural response to the centrality of white, elite, European thought in academic canon.

From the outset, casualization was used to de-legitimize black studies programs. Story upon story of this can be found in books, articles, and personal accounts. One particular story from Wellesley from the Encyclopedia of Black Studies is instructive:

“However, the events that followed [the first black studies tenure case] made clear that the prospect of a tenured black colleague unnerved some white professors, who had probably not sufficiently thought through this  implication [structural change in the allocation of power and resources] of a Black Studies department. First, the history department, where he had a joint appointment, abruptly terminated his joint arrangement. They simply stopped inviting him to department meetings, but never informed him of their decision. Then the dean of the college wrote him a note saying that the college had decided in its wisdom that the tenure quote for Black Studies would be capped at one for all time. This meant, she explained, that if the current candidate came up for tenure as mandated by college legislation, he might well be successful and then no other Black Studies professor would ever have a chance to be tenured. In order to level the playing field, she curiously argued, she would advance the next person in line, who would have been eligible for evaluation the following year. Thus, she reasoned, two (black) people would have a chance to slug it out while the rest of the college would presumably enjoy the spectacle.” (p.162)

A department systematically denied tenured professors but charged to run will use what kind of labor to fulfill that charge, exactly?

I take the time to share the entire story of this case precisely because it is not an outlier. Stories with similar procedural shenanigans (See: Yale, Harvard to barely scratch the surface) can be found at every black studies program in the country. Indeed, the denial of tenure to scholars in black studies programs (and later women’s studies and ethnic studies departments) has become a truism in scholarship on knowledge production in the modern U.S. academy.

Far from an aggregation of ancedata, the pattern of tenure denial to control labor demands and racial superiority of the professoriate is a structural response to demands for structural allocation of resources that would change the conditions of non-white professors. That is, the class debate about the casualization of the academic labor market is also a debate about institutionalized racism (and, sexism).

Yet, I rarely see this tension addressed in contemporary debates about the adjunctification of academic labor. The post that prompted the aforementioned debate constructed an analogy that erased the intersecting and mutually reinforcing systems of class and race that define casual academic labor. In that kind of construct it is impossible to solve the explicit problem because it relies on the continuation of the implicit problem of racism.

The author acknowledged as much in a well-written follow-up. But, to her credit, at least her analogy was explicit. It is the implicit obfuscation of how racialized and gendered systems of labor in academia are part and parcel of its class dimensions that resist critique and, thus, critical reflection.  It is how we get to debates about labor with unfortunate allusions to slavery and racism that ignore and erase blackness.

Perhaps it is time for a systematic review/synthesis of class and race and gender in the contemporary patterns of academic labor. Again, this is not that. I pose more questions than answers. Patricia Matthew has written (and is writing) about tenure and race. And Chuck Rybak has an analogous structural analysis of tenure, class, and political economy. Hopefully I point towards a few starting points for a debate that would need to be had for the debate, in my humble opinion, being had to matter.

5 thoughts on “Dude, Where’s The Race in Your Class Analysis of HigherEd?

  1. Thank you for your article Tressie. I hope to be present when that “systematic review/synthesis of class and race and gender in the contemporary patterns of academic labor” takes place. “Higher” education is an integral part of the structure that maintains racism, sexism and White male privilege in the world.

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