Some years ago I was a casual academic. I taught classes and marked essays. It was great fun. For a fellow as quiet as me, the enforced opportunity to speak about the stuff that I knew was tremendously rewarding. I loved it; I believed in it, I wanted to do it forever.
I liked the students. I liked being liked by the students. I liked the conversations. I liked the marking and the authority of the red pen. I liked the fascia of being a scholar. I liked the consultation hours and the name on the door. I liked the phone number and the pigeon hole. I liked the personal relationships with real scholars. I liked the good hourly rate and the enforced layoffs between teaching periods. I liked the library privileges. I liked uncomplicated process of sharing the joy of learning.
I liked the whole thing, a lot. It was a loving place to be. And then it wasn’t.
It was a slow process of falling out of love. The first things that went were the pretenses. I wasn’t a scholar. There was no book, no tenure, no research grant, and no prospect of being hired permanently. Then I couldn’t bear the accessories of casual teaching: moving from room to room at the beginning of semester; getting my email cut off three days after marks were submitted; finding the contents of my pigeonhole in the recycling; finding my library privileges disabled before the exams were done.
Then went the respect for those around me: the crudity of the auction process (the echoes of slavery and Curt Flood), the pretenses of professional respect, the shoddiness of the process for managing staff, the shittiness of those emails asking me to clear my voice mail and give my key back.
Then I started to realize that my autonomy was a complete fugazi. That I taught other peoples words and structures and whatever input I had was next to none. Even if I bothered to have my say and put in two cents worth it didn’t count for anything. Weightless, I certainly wasn’t invited to the meetings that determined anything, that made decisions.
The autonomy was nothing, a child sent to the corner store with a list and a ten bob note. I was just a pawn and as long as I occupied a square on the board my task was complete and successful. It was enough to keep me on the chessboard for quite a lot of years.
The classroom was the thing. It took me half a decade to realize that what I did in there was incredibly important to me but wholly inconsequential to the institution I served. As long as I was there, speaking to the lecture slides and keeping to the schedule, the institution didn’t care. It didn’t check.
At some point it dawned on me that no matter how good or bad I was in the classroom it didn’t make any difference. It wasn’t about me and it wasn’t about the students. Strangely this eureka moment didn’t cause me to walk away, even though I’d done my dash and was turning bitter. Even though I was not having fun I was earnest, I was bloody-minded in my dedication and I was faithful to the cause.
For a while the bitterness kept my rubber on the road, turning up and doing the tell around the scholarly campfire. Partly I wanted to show the institution how committed I was, how prepared to suffer I was for pedagogy, how willing I was to endure institutional self-flagellation. And partly I wanted them to keep disappointing me so that I could hate without complications. Eventually I so hated my hateful self that I ran from the building leaving my faith in the cause somewhere in my abandoned (temporary) office.
I read a good deal of material about the adjunctification of higher education, and on an industrial level it is not about the faithful or the cause anymore, nor their betrayal. It is simple: cheap inputs maximize the value add on outputs. The price of turning lay preachers into ordained leaders is not one that need be born by the institution, experience has shown that they either do it themselves or, like me, they stop believing and they leave.
Either way I can’t see this as being a good result.