Thinking Aloud: Sociological Solidarity(?) and the Crises in Higher Education

I spent yesterday attending the annual Pennsylvania Sociological Society meetings, which were held in Edinboro this year. One of the things I particularly appreciate about having a state-level society like this, as small as it is, is the ability to connect with other working academic sociologists. It provides a sense of connection to the people working within the profession that the national organization does not. Additionally, because we share a political context—which influences things like our institutional funding streams and working conditions—these state-based connections are vital to professional engagement.

The current crises in higher education were hanging over these meetings. While these were an explicit part of the post-lunch plenary session, there were other ways in which their presence was felt, be it in the off-handed comments during research presentations or side conversations at lunch. An issue that arose for me during these conversations, and this is also related to a session a colleague and I are organizing for the Eastern Sociological Society conference, is the necessity for labor solidarity among sociologists, and among academics more broadly. I’m going to use this post as an opportunity to sketch out some initial and tentative thoughts about some of the crises affecting higher education and the various impediments to developing such solidarity, which might be useful in resisting the tendencies contributing to these crises.

A good starting point for thinking about these issues is the institutional settings in which we work. While we labor under very different organizational arrangements, we are shaped by a shared socio-political context. For example, I work within a department of “social sciences,” not sociology. Indeed, there is no major in sociology where I teach. The courses I teach tend to be general education requirements for students who will be transferring to other institutions, or topics courses that serve primarily to support career programs like social work or criminal justice. Thus, there are certain curricular job requirements that folks who have majors/programs will have to perform that are not part of my work portfolio. However, as the only tenure-line sociologist on my campus, there are a number of administrative tasks that fall to me alone, whereas folks working in departments with multiple full-time faculty may be able to divide that labor among more people. A mutual understanding of these working conditions is necessary for the development of labor solidarity across those different settings.

We also need to comprehend how those differing conditions are often expressions of the same macro-level forces and tendencies. While we work in different organizational contexts, with varying levels of autonomy and different proportions of teaching/research/service responsibility, we face similar pressures associated with increasingly corporatized systems of managerial control. This expresses itself in a variety of ways that we all encounter, including the use of “objective” measures of “productivity” for evaluation (many of which seem to be more along the lines of universalized and context-less customer-satisfaction surveys than evaluations of instructional quality) or the replacement of benefits-eligible full-time employees with a workforce largely comprised of low-wage no-benefit part-time temporary workers. Concomitant to the replacement of tenure lines with “adjunct” employees is an assault on the security that tenure supposedly provides, ranging from the implementation of increasingly stringent post-tenure review to the complete elimination of tenure itself. All of these forces produce a less secure workforce whose labor is more tightly controlled through the use of ideological and technocratic metrics that are often inaccurately measured or inappropriately applied.

Additionally, these measures of “productivity” are increasingly economic, ranging from university funding through the acquisition of grants to the employability of program graduates. New pressures are placed on programs and departments to prove their economic value to the institution. In an age of retrenchment in public higher education, this produces competition between and within departments, and between colleges and universities. Resistive solidarity is made more difficult due to the competitive struggle for survival.

In addition to these relatively widespread conditions surrounding academic labor, there are specific concerns facing those of us in the social sciences and humanities. Some of these are related to the issues of economic sustainability I just mentioned. The utility of a higher education degree is increasingly measured in terms of the employment training it provides. The academy is under pressure to produce problem-solving resources instead of critically-engaged citizens.

One reaction to this has been to defend the liberal arts approach to higher education on such employability grounds. Within this framework, it’s not necessarily the particular major and specific information learned from that course of study that matter. Instead, the critical thinking, research, and communication skills that such studies build are defended by pointing to their workplace utility in an information economy. What gets lost in this approach, though, is the notion of citizenship.

I primarily teach Introductory Sociology, and my basic approach in that is one of citizenship education. For most of my students, this will be their only organized exposure to sociology. I want them to gain some kind of understanding of the power of sociology as a tool for engaged citizenship. The ability to evaluate competing political claims is a vital skill for citizens in a mass mediated infotainment context. The ability to place those claims in a broader context, to understand the sedimentary forces of history and the contextual nature of human social action are indispensable for engagement in the public sphere. We want a citizenry with an active sociological imagination.

As we all labor to help our students develop their own sociological imaginations, we often need to be better about applying our own imaginations to the places where we work. While the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty may free up some researchers to pursue their work by covering course releases, it also undermines systems of tenure and workplace security for all academic laborers. We may be willing to critique the idea of meritocracy in American society, but heaven forbid we question it in the academy. However, we must. It is no more true here than elsewhere. There are structures of inequality from both within and outside the academy that influence who gets hired, who gets good student evaluations, who gets tenure, and who hustles from school to school trying to make ends meet. We need to be better about analyzing these structures, and understanding how they divide us as laborers. (And how other distinctions in the academy divide us from other people in our workplaces, from the librarians to the janitorial staff to the folks working in food services.)

That’s one of the reasons I’m so appreciative of state-level societies. There is less competitive workplace pressure at these meetings than there is in the regional or national conferences, and these labor issues are more central as topics of conversation. However, the PSS largely reflects the PASSHE system. As I noted at the plenary yesterday, there is a marked absence of community college and adjunct faculty at the meetings. I should also add that there is a shortage of sociologists from the more “elite” educational institutions in the Commonwealth. There are structures in place that influence which conferences we attend and which professional networks we create.

We need to think about those things with a renewed vigor. As the liberal arts face assault from those who want us only to train employees, as we see movement toward greater privatization of the services provided in the academy, as we experience the increased insecurity and greater demands of the arrangements, we need a greater involvement with each other. We need to do a better job of building mutual spaces where the competitive pressures of professional advancement aren’t driving our conversations. We need to think more about collective resistance to an increasingly anti-education educational management class.

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