English, Vanguard of the Fast-Food University

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

Cary Nelson

AS I SIT at my computer thinking about the future of higher education, I have before me samizdat faxes of a collaborative document with its stunned, startled gaze fixed on the past. They are two versions–draft no. 3 and the final version–of the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) Report from its Committee on Professional Employment (CPE).

This report was assembled and drafted by Sandra Gilbert with assistance from her fellow committee members.  The astonished gaze its collective author casts on recent history suggests the windswept visage of a profession no longer in control of its fate. Eyes bulging, the figure is nearly swept away by forces it cannot comprehend.  In stark terror at their oncoming fury, it dares not turn to glimpse their destination.

The report gives us a reasonable–if economically and contextually impoverished–account of the recent history of the academic job market in the humanities.  Its opening subheading, as one reader pointed out to me, introduces a passage in the text that refers to “the best of times at large contrasted eerily with the worst of times in academia.”

Of course the millions of underemployed or unemployed Americans, all those working at poverty or near poverty-level wages, are not living in the best of times.  Academics must recognize that we’re not alone; as long as our disciplinary understanding of the national and global economy foregrounds us as exceptional victims, the chances for meaningful solidarity, meaningful alliances, and significant change remain slim.

But at least we are now symbolically committed to recognizing that our own house is in disrepair.  Having argued for a time that jobless Ph.D.s were primarily ungrateful, the report’s principal author now more or less announces “I feel your pain.”  Proposals for action are unfortunately less generous.

After more than a quarter century of denial, with this report the English profession has now condescended to admit there is a problem.  It does so, I might point out, for the most part in uncredited arguments borrowed from two partly, but not entirely, overlapping groups of scholars–those who have written on the political and economic status of the profession and those who have addressed the job crisis.

One might have wished that some of the ground-breaking essays the American Association of University Professors has published in Academe and Footnotes over the years were cited here. One might have wished the work several of us have done on the job crisis were acknowledged.  So much for standards of scholarship.  I suppose that a score or so of us might make the Chronicle of Higher Education by filing a class action plagiarism suit against the committee members and their sponsoring organization.

Meanwhile we are treated instead to the report’s unlikely yoking of Association of Departments of English head David Laurence and Harvard University Professor John Guillory as disciplinary seers.  This comical–and imaginary–pairing links the MLA’s most apoplectic staffer with the profession’s most admired apologist for business as usual.

“Thanks to Laurence and Guillory,” or “as Laurence and Guillory have shown us with their typical trenchant insightfulness” or “Laurence and Guillory again point the way” is the approximate effect of Gilbert’s repeated citation of their fortuitous faux collaboration.  These Bobsy Toads haven’t so far as I know coauthored anything, so presumably it’s their enlightening conversation Gilbert has in mind.

All this is hardly the most critical issue, but it seems worth going on the record about these elements of a document written in part in ignorance and bad faith.

On that score, let me add that the final report also includes a passage I have some warrant to take personally: “We believe finger-pointing, name-calling, political posturing and intellectual profiteering are inadequate as well as inappropriate responses.”

When I debated Sandra Gilbert in November 1997 at the annual meeting of the Midwest Modern Language Association, she read from the report and made it clear she had me in mind. Indeed these are much the same accusations she made against me in the January 1996 issue of Academe.  Committee member Sander Gilman confirmed that I was the object of that passage in the report when I debated him at a University of Chicago conference the same month.(1)

So all the committee members have apparently felt pleased to sign on to an attack that lacks sufficient courage or honor to address me by name. Again, all this is obviously less important than the vision of the profession the report puts forward.  On the positive side, the MLA has now effectively removed its imprimatur from its official posture of denial.

In one critical area the report recommends genuine action.  It takes up and urges approval of the suggestion I have been making for several years–that the association investigate unfair hiring practices by individual departments.  Of course this recommendation will have to survive extensive review, but it could have real deterrence value if implemented effectively.

But the report for the most part decorously avoids advocating the kind of activism we need and makes it clear the MLA will do little more to highlight or criticize the educational practices of departments and institutions.

Why the MLA Matters

The MLA’s importance in this area should not be underestimated.  As the largest of our disciplinary organizations it has considerable leadership potential.  It also has a deep structural responsibility for the present conditions of academic labor, as the professional organization representing the single largest disciplinary group of graduate student and part-time labor.

Thus at issue here is not only the inadequacy of the CPE report but also the discipline’s special culpability.  Yet if I have been critical of the organization’s reluctance to act politically I must also say it has perhaps been the single most activist large disciplinary organization.  Most of the others are even more frightened of the public sphere, more unwilling to undermine faculty privileges and departmental autonomy.

Thus the MLA has been one of few such groups to defend National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funding on Capitol Hill consistently and aggressively.  One would think all fields would have been in that battle for years, but such is not the case.

The MLA also cosponsored an important conference on part-time labor in 1997, working closely with the American Association of University Professors, a group more experienced in articulating basic statements of principle, and the work of that conference should have major impact.

Just by issuing its own report on the job crisis and by collaborating on the part-time employment report, the MLA this year has put itself ahead of most disciplinary groups.  But the hour is late, much more needs to be done, and more than two decades of inaction will cost us very dearly indeed.

One example of an area where we need tough action is in the MLA’s response to efforts to create new Ph.D. programs.  Although many faculty members find it difficult to believe that institutions would attempt to establish new doctoral programs in the midst of the current oversupply of Ph.D.s, there are always several such efforts under way.

Often the pressure comes from above, from administrators who want to move up the hierarchy of rankings by institutional type, sometimes because that produces more state support.  A number of doctoral programs were forced on Michigan faculty members for that reason in the last decade.  Sometimes departmental faculty resist these efforts but are overwhelmed by coldly unscrupulous administrators.

Professional organizations like the MLA should be leading the way to block new doctoral programs, and they should be doing so simultaneously on multiple fronts.  But that is only one example of the way the report fails to view the crisis broadly enough.  Both its narrow view of the forces acting on higher education and its recommendations for change have already been overtaken by events.

Academics In Dubious Battle

I did not expect very much from this group, given that it was dominated by MLA presidents despite the illusion of diversity, but I expected more than we received.  What, then, has the committee failed to understand?

One succinct way of highlighting the problem is to point out a basic contradiction in the group’s recommendations.  Put bluntly, they cannot recognize the tension between their realism and their elitism.

The report repeatedly urges us to prepare graduate students to teach in the real world, to prepare them for the jobs and responsibilities that will exist in the new millennium.  “An offer from a two-year institution or a high school should not,” the report remonstrates, “elicit the response (as it recently did from a prominent academic), ‘Oh, well, it’ll put food on the table while you’re looking for a job.'”

Indeed, “the primary goal of graduate education should not be to replicate graduate faculty.”  Departments “will have to reimagine the size and shape of the graduate programs they offer and the directions in which those programs ought to evolve, given the range of educational needs our profession will have to meet in the twenty-first century.”

Part of the accompanying rhetoric is simply ignorant, as when they quote George Levine warning that “graduate programs will have to find ways to incorporate into their training ‘the sorts of material that would serve students finding jobs at heavy teaching colleges.'”

Here in River City, as in many other rural spots, we already do that. Our graduate students not only teach a whole range of lower-level composition, literature, and film courses; they also teach remedial rhetoric and composition for disadvantaged students.  Indeed, they train at intensively tutoring remedial students.

Short of community college groundskeeping it’s not immediately clear what our students should do. Certainly not all of them have set their dreams on the research track; some end up sick of their dissertations and hope never to see another major research project.

The contradiction arises between this bracing dose of realism and the report’s recommendation about graduate student teaching loads.  The committee goes on to urge that graduate student employees teach only one course per semester.  What the stern warning about preparing for the jobs that will exist means, quite simply, is hurry and set up the Rhet/Comp Droid assembly lines.

These dedicated droids will fix comma splices, not spaceship wiring.  But why give Rhet/Comp Droids extra leisure time? What are they going to do with time off?  They beep and whir and grade, that’s all. They’re not training for research.

My own department offers teaching at two courses per semester and virtually every graduate student signs up for it; they need the money for living expenses.  For years I have urged my department to reduce the teaching load but retain the full salary, but then I have the research Ph.D. in mind. I want our students to have more time for their intellectual lives.

But the JOBS OF THE FUTURE so confidently touted by the MLA will not have an intellectual component, not any intellectual component, let alone research time. So there’s no reason to provide such graduate students with anything but job training, and little reason not to extract the maximum labor from them while they’re at it.

Indeed extracting the maximum labor at the lowest cost has been the aim of graduate training in English for decades.  When the MLA committee members imagine the future, they of think full-time jobs with higher teaching loads, more service courses, less time for research.

Paving the Road to Ruin

Well, folks, those were the good old days. That degraded future is itself already imperiled.  Late capitalism has more exploitive working conditions than those in store for us. What’s worse is that English, more than any other discipline, has helped pave the way for the alternative academic workplace and the full proletarianization of the professoriate.

About this, the MLA’s committee had not a clue. The future is one of part-time work dominated by corporate managers.  Academic freedom will be nonexistent.  Salaries will hover at the poverty level except for those who work past distraction.  And English departments have helped make this brave new world come true.

Confident for decades that literary studies opens Heaven’s Gate, the discipline is about to learn it has been praying in a corporate lobby.  English has in fact been an unwitting corporate partner in a project to defund, defang and deform higher education as we know it. How has this happened?  How can I make these claims?

English, I would argue, is the discipline most responsible for laying the groundwork for the corporate university.  I refer to our employment practices.  For English departments above all have demonstrated that neither full-time faculty nor Ph.D.s are essential to lower-level undergraduate education.

What’s more, we’ve shown that people teaching lower-division courses need not be paid a living wage. We can no longer claim that such courses have to be taught by people with years of specialized training.  Like many departments, mine puts people in front of a composition class the semester after they earn their B.A.

So the educational requirement to teach rhetoric is apparently a B.A., a summer vacation, and a week’s training.  A couple of years of graduate study, having completed M.A. course work, and they are then assigned “Introduction to Fiction” or other beginning courses.  Any research university that wanted to would be educationally justified in hiring such folks full-time at $2,500 per course or less.

In my own department two thirds of the undergraduate teaching is already done by graduate student employees without Ph.D.s.  We can hardly justify hiring full-time faculty with Ph.D.s by arguing no one else is capable of teaching the courses, since we have already proven otherwise.

Indeed, after an ethical decision to reduce the size of our graduate program, we were forced to turn to graduate students in other fields to teach our composition courses.  We now hire more than a score of law students to teach introductory rhetoric, so they are not even enrolled in the department’s degree programs.

There is now some statistical support for these claims.  Data from the 1993 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, based on fall 1992 hiring figures, is now available as a CD-ROM.  More up-to-date figures will not be available for another couple of years, but they will hardly be heartening.

Ernst Benjamin of the national office of the American Association of University Professors has assembled the raw 1992 data into charts and passed them on to me. They show that English departments nationwide had the largest percentage (8.2%) of the part-time faculty work force.

Four other fields with much smaller work forces overall (Law, Communications, Computer Sciences, and Psychology) used a higher percentage of part-time faculty–English used 52.9%, whereas Law used 65.3% and Communications and Computer sciences each used about 55%–but most of those other disciplines were employing moonlighting professionals who were supplementing full-time jobs for prestige or pleasure.

Thus colleges of Law regularly hire community lawyers part-time; notably, 99% of part-time law faculty in four-year colleges and 79.8% of them in two-year institutions have the appropriate professional degree.  Communication programs often hire local journalists part-time.  A number of other disciplines, like business and nursing, do the same with full-time practitioners in their fields.

Taken together, English and Foreign languages–the MLA’s constituency–accounted for 11% of the part-time faculty in 1992.  And they amount to a block of people working at slave wages–people who depend on their instructional income for their living expenses–that dwarfs other small fields like philosophy, which accounts for but 1.3% of part-time hires.

Finally, a number of these fields, like law, use their part-time faculty to train students in professional schools, not for basic undergraduate instruction.  It is above all English that has proven that full-time Ph.D.s are superfluous for at least the courses it offers for the first two years of the undergraduate degree.

If we then considered what graduate students having completed all doctoral course work might teach–and what salaries we could hire them at–the picture becomes still more troubling.

For English department employment practices have demonstrated that most–or even all–of the undergraduate degree could be handled by severely exploited labor.  Indeed, some of the relevant courses could be taught at a profit.  In a way, many already are.

The gap between the tuition paid by the students in an introductory course and the salary paid to a part-time faculty member to teach it (from $1,000 to $3,000 per course) can be considerable.  Moreover, do you really need a library, a gymnasium, a chapel, an auditorium, a student union, a chemistry lab, or an elaborate physical plant to teach such a course?

As these forces come together in a moment of recognition, the corporate takeover of the profitable portion of the undergraduate curriculum becomes a possibility.  English has led the way in turning college teaching into a low-level service job; we are corporate America’s fast food discipline.

Subminimum Wage Faculty

It is worth calculating just what the hourly rate is for Ph.D.s paid $1,000-1,500 per course, common salary levels at community colleges and proprietary schools.  East-West University in Chicago, a four-year institution, paid $1,000 per course to part-time faculty in 1997.(2)

Assuming thirty to forty-five classroom hours, depending on the length of the term, assuming a rock-bottom minimum of two hours preparation time for each hour of classroom teaching, two hours a week of office hours, and a minimum of 75-100 hours of paper and exam grading per term, the hourly pay rate comes to under $4 per hour.

This calculation makes two assumptions–that preparation involves reviewing familiar materials, not reading and researching new topics, and that paper grading includes no extensive comments by the instructor.  Getting involved in either of these traditional forms of teaching, let alone extensive tutoring during office hours, can cut the rate of compensation to $3 per hour or less.

Meanwhile, ask yourself how many $1,000-1,500 courses a person has to teach to assemble a reasonable livelihood?  How much attention can students receive from someone teaching a dozen or more such courses a year?  Are subminimum wages for Ph.D.s to become the norm?

Two things are clear enough.  First, paying faculty subminimum wages constitutes a genuine violation of professional ethics.  It must be characterized that way by everyone involved in higher education.

Second, this kind of brutally exploitive salary structure represents the single greatest threat to quality higher education, and the greatest temptation for corporations contemplating hostile takeovers of our enterprise.

It is not enough for organizations like the MLA to issue general statements urging fair compensation for adjuncts and part timers.  MLA’s report recommends that departments and institutions do “self-study” to determine whether their enrollment and compensation practices are fair. That’s all well and good, but asking East-West University to look into the depths of its soul is really demanding they plumb the shallows.

The disciplinary organizations need to set minimum wages and work to enforce them. Each discipline should, for example, publish an annual “Harvest of Shame” listing all departments and institutions paying less than $3,000 or $4,000 per course to instructors with Ph.D.s.(3)

Full-time faculty members and administrators from those schools should be barred from privileges like discounted convention room rates, and from advertizing in professional publications.  Regional campaigns should condemn the institutions involved.

The Nightmare Future

If we do not resist this exploitation, we will eventually find corporations managing proprietary schools dominating the education market.

Numerous other changes in the intellectual and professional environment of academia would soon follow.  Tenure of course would disappear.  Yearly or term contracts with very narrow and vulnerable definitions of academic freedom are one certainty.

The Pew Charitable Trust has recently given Harvard Professor of Higher Education Richard Chait a grant of over a million dollars to develop alternatives to tenure, long one of Chait’s interests.  “One size no longer fits all,” he cheerfully announces about the granting of tenure; “the byword of the next century should be ‘choice’ for individuals and institutions.” (4)

In what is a remarkably disingenuous scenario, Chait suggests that “faculty so inclined should be able to forgo tenure in return for higher salaries, more frequent sabbaticals, more desirable workloads, or some other valued trade-off.”  But of course exactly the reverse is the case. We will forgo tenure in exchange for lower salaries, no sabbaticals, and heavier workloads.

Most prospective faculty members will have less, not more, “choice” in Chait’s brave new world.  But “choice” is not the only slogan he cynically adapts; elimination of tenure and academic freedom, he suggests, will also help promote “diversity” in work arrangements.

Meanwhile, other foundations linked to corporations, including the Mellon Foundation, are also mounting or supporting assaults on tenure.  Some have suggested we measure the strength or weakness of current tenure policy by the level of public trust it elicits!

Chait, on the other hand, has urged we decouple tenure from academic freedom and devise contractual guarantees for the latter.  The proposals so far have been chilling at best.

The American Association for Higher Education has been a leader in seeking ways to restrict the intellectual freedom and independence of the professoriate.  As part of their “New Pathways: Faculty Careers and Employment in the 21st Century” project, they have distributed Chait’s work and that of others in a series of occasional papers that should be required reading for everyone interested in the future we face.

In a 1997 AAHE working paper, J. Peter Byrne’s Academic Freedom Without Tenure, prospective contractual guarantees of and limitations to academic freedom are expressed this way (the emphasis is mine):(5)

Faculty members have the right to teach without the imposition or threat of institutional penalty for the political, religious, or ideological tendencies of their work, subject to their duties to satisfy reasonable educational objectives and to respect the dignity of their students.

Faculty members may exercise the rights of citizens to speak on matters of public concern and to organize with others for political ends without the imposition or threat of institutional penalty, subject to their academic duty to clarify the distinction between advocacy and scholarship.

Faculty members have the right to express views on educational policies and institutional priorities of their schools without the imposition or threat of institutional penalty, subject to duties to respect colleagues and to protect the school from external misunderstandings.

It is the last requirement–to protect the school from external misunderstandings–that would have particularly amusing consequences in the corporate university.  Imagine what caution these “guarantees” of academic freedom would instill in a faculty none of whom had tenure, but any and all of whom could be fired summarily.

Moreover, once dismissed, the burden would be on faculty to file suit and seek to overturn an improper firing.  In the present system the burden of proof in dismissing tenured faculty is on the institution, which must supply that proof in lengthy proceedings.

Imagine trying to defend your “reasonable educational objectives” in a court committed to upholding the institution’s right to be protected from “external misunderstandings.”

Astonishingly, Byrne’s proposal underwrites dismissal for any disagreement that produces public controversy, even for debates about institutional policies and goals.  And his demand that we “respect colleagues” would obviously justify dismissal for a sharp disagreement with an administrator; of course anything as aggressive as a campaign to oust a dean or a president would warrant immediate removal of a faculty member.

Chait promises a revised set of contractual guarantees for academic “freedom” soon, but I would not expect much comfort from them. Perhaps I may offer my own version of a faculty contract in the hypothetical corporate university:

brings you

The Corporate University’s Principles of Governance:

  1. The student consumer is always right.
  2. Contract faculty will maintain a cheerful and friendly demeanor at all times.
  3. Contract faculty will avoid challenging, threatening, or upsetting student consumers.
  4. All courses will be graded on the basis of clear, universally achievable goals.  Divisive notions of excellence and quality will play no role in evaluating consumer performance.
  5. All products of faculty labor are the property of the corporation.
  6. Termination without notice is available for faculty noncompliance or insubordination.
  7. All faculty members are provided with syllabi and textbooks without charge.
  8. All faculty possess presumptive redundancy.  The need for their services will be reassessed each term.
  9. All faculty must submit an annual report detailing how they can better serve the corporation’s mission.
  10. Faculty members have full academic freedom to accept these principles or to resign.

Interlocking Crises

If this is the world we are heading towards, the MLA’s cautious and constipated recommendations will do nothing whatever to avert it. Indeed we may no longer be able to confront the job crisis on its own. The multiple crises of higher education now present an interlocking and often interchangeable set of signifiers.

Conversation about the lack of full-time jobs for Ph.Ds turns inevitably to the excessive use of part-time faculty and the exploitation of graduate student employees, which in turn suggests the replacement of tenured with contract faculty, which slides naturally into anxiety about distance learning, which leads to concern about shared governance in a world where administrators have all the power.

Thus when Richard Chait, in an introduction to the New Pathways project, remarks reasonably enough that “technology threatens the virtual monopoly higher education has enjoyed as the purveyor of post-secondary degrees,” we can and must recognize the implications along all the other cultural and institutional fronts his warning effects.

But our own programmatic responses and strategies, adopted under pressure, can easily make things worse.  Thus whatever external assaults are mounted on humanities research, tenure, sabbaticals, teaching loads and other elements of university life will be underwritten by disastrous compromises made in good faith by departments themselves.

English departments, for example, are compelled financially and structurally to hire non-Ph.Ds at a time when Ph.Ds cannot get jobs. Doctoral institutions also hire postdocs at teaching assistant wages–often out of the altogether decent aim of giving them additional years to get traditional jobs–and in the process undermine the status of the profession and the future job market, by proving that Ph.Ds can be hired at half or less the typical current rate for new Assistant Professors.

And the department that hires a new Ph.D. for $3,000 a course is placing itself dangerously close to the salary scale adopted by the schools hiring Ph.D.s for half that or less.

Meanwhile, those with instrumental visions of higher education have no patience with the critical distance humanities faculty would like to maintain from their own culture.  Their goal is to strip higher education of all its intellectual independence, its powers of cultural critique and political resistance.


  1. Gilman remarked as well that the MLA committee spent considerable time analyzing job market writings by myself and others and comparing and contrasting their recommendations and ours. It is thus even more remarkable–indeed shabby and unprofessional–that they obliterated all citation of our work. In my case, the cause is partly Gilbert’s personal anger and partly her determination to prove that none of us who have criticized the MLA have made any contribution to the debate or the report’s recommendations.
  2. My colleague Stephen Watt at Indiana University remembers that he was paid $1,150 per course as a visiting lecturer at the University of Wyoming for the 1976-77 academic year, twenty years ago.
  3. This suggestion would need to be worked out tactically, since the national list would be very large.  The list might be assembled and distributed state by state to reduce the numbers and focus the disapproval on local conditions.  One would also need to decide how much pressure to place on schools at the upper end of the part-time pay scale.  The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, pays $3,500 per course.  Obviously a “Harvest of Shame” that shows all institutions as noncompliant would serve no purpose or even be counterproductive.  At the same time one wants all part-time salaries raised.  So one might need to set the figure so as to exempt schools at the upper end from criticism but warn that the minimum ethical salary would be raised each year.
  4. See Richard Chait, “Rethinking Tenure: Towards New Templates for Academic Employment,” Harvard Magazine (July-August 1997), 30-31, 90, and “New Pathways: Faculty Careers and Employment in the 21st Century,” American Association for Higher Education,” March 1997.  The latter document, issued as a background paper for attendees at a 1997 AAHE conference, is the source of my quotations from Chait.  Also see Richard Chait and Cathy Trower, “Where Tenure Does Not Reign: Colleges With Contract Systems,” (1997) AAHE New Pathway Working Paper Series.  AAHE papers can be ordered from their office at One Dupont Circle, Washington DC 20036.
  5. See J. Peter Byrne, “Academic Freedom Without Tenure?,” (1997) AAHE New Pathways Working Paper Series.  For a detailed critique of Byrne and contractual guarantees of academic freedom see Erwin Chemerinsky, “Is Tenure Necessary to Protect Academic Freedom?” (1997-98), Occasional Papers from the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis.  The Center’s occasional papers may be ordered from their office at the University of Southern California, Wait Phillips Hall Room 701, Los Angeles, CA 90089. 

Cary Nelson is the author of Manifesto of a Tenured Radical (NYU Press, 1997) and Will Teach for Food (University of Minnesota press), which were reviewed in ATC 70 (September-Octber 1997).  He is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

ATC 74, May-June 1998