#adjuncts #unions #MFA #precarity #affective #labor
This past May Day week, there has been much chatter about the decision by adjunct faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute to file for a union election. This comes on the heels of a similar decision to file for union election by Mills College adjuncts and the formation of a union to represent adjuncts at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The ubiquity of adjuncts in college teaching is not new, but the conversation around unions for part-time faculty has emerged more recently. Meanwhile, tensions regarding low pay and lack of job security and benefits for instructors, and rising tuition costs for students, are finally converging to invigorate a public conversation about the substandard working conditions of the majority of American college faculty.
In the arts, this overreliance on a precarious labor force is doubly appalling, given that much contemporary art rhetoric draws heavily on a Marxist construction of labor that resists and opposes alienation of workers in the interests of capital. For such intellectual constructs to be transmitted to new generations of artists and students by a fundamentally alienated workforce of adjuncts is a genuine scandal. The renewed emphasis on collectivity in art that coincides with the emergence of social and pedagogical post-conceptual practices seems not to be reflected in the values of academic institutions such as SFAI. This is evident in President Charles Desmarais’ appeal to adjunct faculty to reject SEIU’s efforts to unionize them, which was criticized by longtime Visiting Faculty (aka adjunct) Dale Carrico in a cogent blog post that called out the school for touting its Diego Rivera mural while discouraging contingent employees from organizing. Rivera’s famously working-class politics may seem a historical footnote to administrators, but for faculty and students, they are again relevant. Consider, after all, that the newly minted MFAs graduating from these non-unionized, adjunct-heavy art schools will face the same enormous pressure to comply with an unfair system that the adjuncts who teach them contend with currently.
As schools struggle to accommodate an increasingly global student body, the faculty who most represent and can mentor those students are consistently among those whose situations are most precarious. In the New Yorker blog this week, novelist Junot Díaz describes how alienated he felt in his own MFA program in the early 1990s because no faculty resembled him or knew of canonical texts by artists of color. To the extent that American academic institutions have corrected for this absence since then, it has largely been through hiring adjunct faculty from underrepresented groups to balance the perspectives of older, white, tenured faculty. Rather than inspire a student like Díaz to excel, their circumstances demonstrate that while people of color may have a presence, the academy is not committed to their success.
Christian Nagler, Visiting Faculty in SFAI’s Interdisciplinary Studies and New Genres departments, led a workshop at the recent UC Berkeley Arts Research Center Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum titled “Yoga for Adjuncts.” Alternating between facilitating a conventional yoga class and lecturing on labor, policy, and philosophy as related to economic precarity, Nagler led a group of educators, curators, and artists through our paces while asking us to question our assumptions about work and reward. As we wrapped, lingering in the refreshing pause of corpse pose, I was struck by the rarity of such a moment of peace in the lived experience of the adjunct. Dashing from one school to the next over sometimes substantial distances, veteran educators and dedicated artists exhaust themselves daily to cobble together a subsistence living while somehow, inexplicably, drawing the energy to inspire and enlighten students. The pace can be untenable, and some, like myself, choose to abandon teaching for full-time opportunities elsewhere. That choice to leave students and institutions of higher learning represents a profound loss, even if the alternative supplies much-needed financial stability. Adjuncting as a supplement to work in the field remains acceptable, but adjuncting as a way of life has become a trap for too many talented teachers and thinkers. Perhaps the recent efforts to unionize will go some way toward improving what is presently a dismal situation.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.