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Academic Activism: Where Has It Gone?

20120918-083113.jpgAcademic activism, the noble pursuit by the literate and connected to advocate for those who lack the resources to do so for themselves, is largely dead. Though I recognize that there are all sorts of activism, some of which do not necessarily work to the benefit of the disadvantaged, the activism I speak of here is of a particular variety.

I have long wrestled with the subject, often at odds with those around me, but a read of an opinion piece on the NYT provided this revealing quote from Harvard faculty member, Matthew Desmond:

If exploitation long has helped to create the slum and its inhabitants, if it long has been a clear, direct, and systematic, cause of poverty and social suffering, why, then, has this ugly word – exploitation – been erased from current theories of urban poverty?

It is true that academics seek intellectual integrity. Part of the pursuit of integrity is to eliminate potential sources of bias. Academics encourage each other to work towards the goal of becoming a fully impartial observer. Certainly , this is a laudable goal. In evidence based science, the data should speak for themselves.

Conflict naturally arises when the data do indeed speak to grave social problems. The conclusions presented may be so compelling and so inherently subversive, that,despite speaking the truth given the data, the presenter may be accused of being overly political, passionate or even blindly obstinate.

Discussions of poverty and exploitation, domestically and internationally, are just one example. The data certainly indicate that the presence of poverty benefits the wealthy, and that there is a vast worldwide market for human suffering. A tenure seeking academic, desperate for continued employment and funding from public and private sources, will have a hard time making this point loudly known in a public forum. I’ve personally seen academics marginalized for making such claims. Certainly, though, there must be a balance.

To me, this is a travesty. We, as literate, connected individuals with access to policy makers and forums for information dissemination have a duty to speak for those we study. Science is inherently political. Socrates was killed for stating the truth. Galileo was put on trial and confined to his home. Hitler’s Germany would have loved to have seen Einstein killed. The world would be a vastly different place had these people towed the official line.

We have an opportunity, though I have yet to see my institution broadly encourage activism amongst its graduate students. Though the existence of Desmond’s quote is encouraging, It is sad to think that smart people have to cower in a corner in a corner.

(Paul Farmer, in the picture above, is certainly not afraid, long acting on behalf of the world’s poor.)

Will Teach for Food: Beggar Faculty in American Academia

As I near the end of my graduate career, I’m filled with anxiety over jobs and money. If an article on Al Jazeera is any indication, those anxieties are entirely founded.

More than 65 percent of all teaching faculty (in terms of credits taught) at American institutions are part time, short term contract workers who are poorly paid and offered little or no benefits at all. Even as tuitions have skyrocketed, full time, fairly compensated job prospects in academia are drying up.

My academic career began when I started teaching math part time at Jackson Community College. Though I was happy to have the opportunity at the time, I worked more than 20 hours a week per course, and was paid the measly sum of $1100 a semester for a 3 credit class. Even if I taught full time for all three semesters (isn’t that a trimester?), I couldn’t reasonably break $14,000 a year, well below the poverty level. Part time instructors had no union representation at the time. We fought for it, but were blocked by both administration (who saw us as an expense) and the current faculty union (who saw us as a threat). I’m not sure what the situation is now.

Eventually, I quit. The poor compensation just wasn’t worth the time put in. Worse, despite poor wages, the school became increasingly intrusive on course design, reporting, management and even whether what we could say in the class room.

There is a direct correlation between freedom on the job and payment. Poorly paid people have little freedom and little respect, well paid people have all the freedom and respect they could ever want. This clearly has vast implications for academic faculty.

The world likes to think that academics live a life of opulence and guaranteed employment. The truth is, that in 2012 most do not. Academics are going the way of just about all employment sectors. Services, even in public institutions, are becoming widely privatized, and the ability of workers to band together and demand improvements in working conditions and compensation undermined. Employer based benefits are disappearing, and compensation is falling. Anti-intellectuals should be rejoicing.

I worry that in 10 years, every university will be taught by robots managing watered down and expensive online courses, geared to giving anybody a fake degree. Academics in the United States is something to be very, very proud of, though the future is very suspect.

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