Dear AAA: Sink or Swim?

This statement, written by Ryan Anderson, Jason Antrosio, Sarah Kendzior and myself, is a response to a post on the American Anthropological Association blog that discusses our recent writings about adjuncts, anthropology, and academia.

We are gratified that the American Anthropological Association has taken note of our critical commentary on the vagaries of the academic career, and we thank fellow blogger Joslyn O. for publicizing our work on the Association website. However, we would like to clear up a few misconceptions.

The AAA post suggests we represent two “camps,” but we share only one: a commitment to ending precarious intellectual labour. We protest the transformation of our profession into a swelling Hooverville congregated on the margins of universities whose dwindling tenured citizenry is bankrolled by our low-wage, low-benefit, low-security, low-respect work.

The bleak future of the aspiring anthropologist is not a concoction rooted in cynicism. It is an empirically demonstrable, material condition that speaks its truth in the language of debt, dependency, discouragement, and occasionally, the dole. We queue up for the work time and again because we deeply value anthropology. There is little other reason to plough the terrain of a field whose prospects for success resemble a lottery more than a competition. But as the national belt tightens in the face of prolonged economic crisis, contingent workers are increasingly unable to afford to subsidize the discipline financially, however highly we regard it intellectually. And the dignity deficit takes its toll on us all.

Anthropology is, and is not, “what we make it.” The most powerful producers of anthropological policy and practice seldom include the ranks of the precarious, yet even the privileged can lay no proprietary claim to a field whose fate, like that of its sister subjects in the social sciences, arts and humanities, rests at the mercy of profitability. Nonetheless, anthropology’s commitment to the science of social justice makes the studied ignorance of its own internal inequities insupportably ironic.

The resolution of these contradictions is served by neither silence nor sympathy, but solidarity. An academy structured upon the division of a two-tiered labor market discourages such an alliance. Yet we hope that anthropologists will join together to fight for the value of our work beyond the barometer of the bottom line. We must, for the same structural forces that divide tenured and contingent faculty threaten to subsume us all beneath a wave of public retrenchment, whose end game will inter us on the same sinking ship if we do not turn the tide. While the reserve army may constitute the foot soldiers in this battle for survival, the generals are hardly immune to the war on intellectual value.

The AAA can play a role in promoting solidarity. The first step is acknowledging that we are a house divided: not into camps which value, or do not value, the craft of anthropology, but into classes which are unevenly able to extract a living wage from that craft. The second step is to extend the professional respect and responsibility the Association demands for students, informants, the public and science itself to our fellow workers, within and without the academy. This solidarity is not only desirable but vital, for the future of anthropology is far more than academic.

Ryan Anderson
Jason Antrosio
Eliza Jane Darling
Sarah Kendzior

Associated Posts:

Anthropology: the major, the career, by Joslyn O. on AAA Blog
Anthropology is the worst college major for being a corporate tool, best major for changing your life, by Jason Antrosio on Living Anthropologically
Anthropology minus one and counting, by Ryan Anderson on Savage Minds
Academia, closed, by Ryan Anderson on Savage Minds
The adjunct anthropologist’s open thread, by Ryan Anderson on Savage Minds
Annual meetings as a regressive tax, by Rex on Savage Minds
Less than Zero anthropology, by Eliza Jane Darling on Zero Anthropology
The closing of American academia, by Sarah Kendzior on Al Jazeera
On American academia, by Sarah Kendzior on
Now that I have your attention…, by Sarah Kendzior on
The conversation continues, by Sarah Kendzior on
Crisis in the academy, by Sarah Kendzior on
Sarah Kendzior exposes the Ponzi scheme of academic jobs, by Eric Garland on

33 thoughts on “Dear AAA: Sink or Swim?

  1. At least the links appear on the AAA site, even if the wording from AAA is noncommittal. I just read Eliza’s article on Less than Zero … wanted to say how glad I am that this site exists, in contrast to the “anthropology is what you make of it” idea that AAA keeps pushing. I’ve always been good at what I do, but unfortunately the reality is that if the very talented Eliza can’t get a job in academia, there is not much hope even for those who spend every waking hour of their life committed to it.

    I decided to jump ship on anthropology last year and start work towards an M.D., actually thanks partly to reading this site. Who knew I was actually talented at science. Turns out, I had underestimated my own potential and, by hanging onto anthropology like some kind of absurd life boat, had been depriving myself of the opportunity to learn real tangible skills to make a difference in the world. Turns out, communities don’t need anthropologists. But they do need doctors, especially ones willing to go into primary care and take on patients that no one else wants because they don’t pay enough. I will always be able to get a job, or to make one myself through private practice, or to trade medicine for livestock or food if necessary, if worse comes to worse. Who can say that about anthropology?

    I would never in a million years consider going back. I’m glad someone is getting the truth out about the realities of the field, since AAA and colleges have too much at stake to be fully truthful.

  2. Cheers Max; hadn’t thought of that. I can’t say what will come of it. We’re well aware that the most critical concrete action has to take place at the departmental and college/university level through unionisation, and there are workers out there fighting that good fight. But AAA is as good a place as any for a national disciplinary discussion, I guess.

  3. Unionisation should be part of a larger package: we have unionisation of part-time faculty here in Canada, and even graduate teaching and research assistants, and it’s not that which stops the exploitation. The terms of surrender have simply been “negotiated” and put into writing. We also have a system whereby part-time faculty are automatically short listed for any full-time, tenure-track position for which they should apply in a given department, which can really inflate hopes terribly. In my own Dept., this process has not resulted in the single full-time hire of a previously part-time person. I think that what is also needed in addition to unionisation is, in no particular order:

    • ► strong political pressure from all quarters;
    • ► something approaching a moratorium on the production of PhDs (hopefully without the unintended result of a cut in supply resulting in a cut in demand for the courses);
    • ► a restructuring of how money is spent by university administrations and that means a severe cutback on administration;
    • ► more equitable distribution of research funds and more autonomy in the process (away from large, centralized state boards);
    • ► a refusal by full-time faculty to staff their departments with part-time positions in excess of an absolutely, extremely minimal number at most;
    • ► a total overhaul in the disciplining of knowledge, so while disciplinary identities will be lost, so too will whole sets of knowledge gained not just be lost when an economically unrewarding discipline is dumped;
    • ► professional organizations not engaging in unfair practices of class discrimination like the sorts of practices we see with the AAA;
    • ► and, I would argue along the lines of one of the points above, a revolutionary transformation of the university so that we no longer have these discussions of what helps others, what is relevant, what is tangible, etc. etc.

    They have been teaching anthropology in Cuba, throughout the hardest possible times, so let’s find out how and why that has been the case. However, I think that as long as we protect, defend, promote and act within the confines of disciplines, we are defeating ourselves not just as political actors, but as intellectuals, and even as citizens. Now that disciplinization is biting us on the ass, some ironically cry out “save the discipline!” when they should be acting to put an end to the system of disciplining. The logic of continuity is so insidious, that you even find some anarchist anthropologists doing all they can to better promote and defend the discipline as a discipline. Wrong answer for the wrong times, sorry.

    Stacie, I like the “see ya!” tone in your post, even if unintended. Just a reminder though, about what it means to “help” others: Che Guevara was a physician, and he is not most known for his work as a doctor in simply “saving lives” in the basic biological sense. He didn’t even do such a good job with his own wellbeing, forgetting his asthma medication before going on long treks and into battle. I would still want to see interventionist doctors–those who make a mission for themselves of going out there to “help” people–to have a background in some form of “anthropology” whether in debates about what is healing and curing, what are the causes and sources of widespread physical ailments and what action is needed to counter it, so that healthcare is not divorced from social and economic change. And when you say “communities don’t need anthropologists,” then I wonder how much this site really could have inspired you, because the message here has always been: they already had their own anthropologists, always have, and always will, even if the anthropology as such is neither professionalized nor institutionalized. Hopefully the doctor coming to such a community recognizes that fact, and seeks out the collaboration of these local, home-grown anthropologists.

  4. That’s very kind of you to say Stacie, thank you. I had considered the medical route myself at one point — veterinary, specifically, as there’s a real need for that kind of work in my community, which is not only wildlife-rich but a habitual drop-off point for abandoned pets [she writes as a rescue cat climbs on her head]. And it wouldn’t be an entirely illogical course of action for an environmental anthropologist. I guess I balked at the idea of starting over with a truly fresh page so late in life, and some stubborn part of me still clings to the lifeboat, as you aptly put it. But it sounds like you’ve found a whole and happy path, and maybe your anthropology will find a place in your medical practise, too.

    Addendum: as Max suggests above, I do think medicine can greatly benefit from anthropological wholeness. Having been through the cancer caregiving process with a parent recently, the shocking detachment of some physicians from the totality of the person has really hit home. It’s almost like they’re mechanics, or, with cancer especially, snipers: seek and destroy. It’s more than bedside manner; it’s the whole approach to the person as a broken machine.

  5. “…as we protect, defend, promote and act within the confines of disciplines, we are defeating ourselves not just as political actors, but as intellectuals, and even as citizens. Now that disciplinization is biting us on the ass, some ironically cry out “save the discipline!” when they should be acting to put an end to the system of disciplining. The logic of continuity is so insidious, that you even find some anarchist anthropologists doing all they can to better promote and defend the discipline as a discipline. Wrong answer for the wrong times, sorry.”

    I fully agree with this. I struggle between the compulsion to act locally, where and when I am (precarious labour isn’t just an academic problem, much less an anthropological one; it’s a broad neoliberal condition, but since I’m an anthropologist, why not start there?) and the sinking feeling I’m defending the right to a slightly more inclusive franchise rather than working toward the end of the corporate intellectual racket altogether. I do believe the fight for decent labour conditions in the academy is vital, but (a) I doubt that will be accomplished without the totalising change Max is talking about and (b) even if it will, it doesn’t signify victory, at least for me, if anthropology is still walled up behind the university gate, a bigger club than it was before, but a club nonetheless.

  6. Hi Max — I see how you might call lots of people home-grown anthropologists, and I’ve met people that might fall under that category in my own work, but the AAA and the profession would never recognize them as they do “real” anthropologists. Some people, at least from the people I’ve met in West Virginia, have so much disdain for academics who spend their life writing journal articles that they might even be offended to be bunched into that group.

    And Eliza, yes it is strange the detachment of some physicians :). I’d say it’s probably because they spend 20+ years of their life studying science with very little real world or human component. Anyone who has read a science textbook lately will know what i mean. But non-science majors should probably also know that it’s not absolutely necessary, and coming from anthropology, I did better than many science majors on the MCAT even though I have only taken a couple basic courses so far. Of course, others go into medicine for pay alone, and may not care about the human component as much.

    I don’t know how you teach people to care or be morally and ethically responsible in their own interactions with other people, if that comes through anthropological training, but I’m not sure it does, maybe a little. It’s hard to say. The first thing you learn when working in medicine is NEVER to disclose any confidential information about any patient, and it turns out EVERYTHING is confidential, even the fact that someone is a patient.

    It’s a far cry from anthropology where anything you see or hear in a community seems to be fair game to blabber to the world, whether or not you really have their permission, and whether or not people will be negatively affected even unintentionally.

  7. The decline of academic anthropology and its current class based and professional or ideological divisions are rooted in the increasing awareness in academia, especially in the humanities and letters and in the popular political culture, about the deeply colonial genealogy of the discipline. Western anthropology has always, especially through the scam of “comparative perspective” subtly (and sometime blatantly) promoted Euro-American hegemonic complacency and exceptionalism. Behind the mask of “relativism”, anthropology has been the most political of academic disciplines. Now the old mask has worn out. The rush to find new disguises is the agency of our problems of disorientation and disunity. Forensic anthropology and other specializations in “biological anthropology” tracked for service in the American military and other security forces are some of the most popular areas of undergraduate and graduate concentration in the discipline.

  8. Stacie: “but the AAA and the profession would never recognize them as they do ‘real’ anthropologists”–to be candid, I don’t care what the AAA recognizes, but beyond that it is also not relevant to the point I was making. Actually, I am sorry that the discussion is otherwise centred on the AAA, as if it were the only anthropology association in the world worth addressing.

  9. Jamil’s point makes me wonder if the proletarianisation and decolonisation of Stateside anthropology might be bound up with each other. One of the ill-discussed points of perpetual precarity is the (in)ability to do research, particularly across the distances demanded by the “comparative” model. It occurs to me that we’re increasingly comprised of those who produce Argonaut anthropology in the field and those who regurgitate it in the classroom (both within single institutions and across the R1 – community college spectrum). I’ve often wondered about the extent to which contingency – with its dearth of continuity and funding – has promoted the weekend warrior approach to research, a sort of staccato anti-fieldwork squeezed into the the margins of time and conducted more often down the street than across the world. Then again, I once suggested this idea in a postgraduate paper and was smartly slapped down by a tenured type who informed me that travel isn’t really all that expensive if you know the secret of doing it right, and I should stop whingeing and get on with it.

    On Cuban anthropology, I remember reading recently about the Observatorio Critico, a social forum comprised of scholars, activists, writers, musicians and so on working on a sort of not-your-father’s-socialism idea focused on the future of Cuba, a vision without capitalism but without the bureaucratic state-led socialism they’d grown up with, either. Can’t seem to find the article now, but what struck me were the photos. It was about as far as you can get from the officious annual meetings our organisations tend to hold in the barren, windswept CBDs where a hotel room goes for $300 a night, an ATM withdrawal will cost you five bucks in usury fees and prospective job applicants congregate in the hallway down from the “ballroom” for a communal sweat-out before their departmental pre-screening.

    I’m trying to imagine a bunch of Yank anthropods (Yanthropods?) getting together for a meeting on the question of: “What the f— are we going to do about this crappy empire?” A picture is not jumping readily to mind.

  10. @Stacie:

    Hey! Good to see you around these parts. Sounds like you made a pretty damn good call, and you sound pretty happy too. That’s good to hear. You know, if I had it to do over I may have just stuck with my MA in anthro and then added something like an MPH. There are often times when I come to the same conclusion as you–that at least folks in the medical field are actually doing something other than attending conferences and publishing papers. Well, public health at least. But then I do think Max makes good points about the value of anthropological perspectives in health/medicine.


    “I think that what is also needed in addition to unionisation is, in no particular order…”

    You have a lot of good points Max. I hate to say it, but I have been thinking the same thing about the production of PhDs. There are just way too many—and far too many people going into debt over it all. One solution: maybe departments should only take in students they can fund! Imagine that. Agreed also about the need to cut back admin. I mean, look at the sheer number of undergrads who are paying–where on earth is all of that money going? Another thing that really drives me crazy is that not only are many classes taught by adjuncts who don’t make anything, but class sizes are going up. So you have a class of 60-70 kids, taught by one person. If things were reworked, that could translate to three classes of about 20 kids, which would make for better classes/teaching, etc (IMO). But instead things keep going in the other direction.


    “Addendum: as Max suggests above, I do think medicine can greatly benefit from anthropological wholeness. Having been through the cancer caregiving process with a parent recently…”

    Ya, agreed. My family recently went through dealing with an ICU in southern California. The way the whole system understands and thinks about “health” can be pretty appalling. It was all very compartmentalized. It was not a good experience. We were amazed at how they interacted with (or didn’t) the families in the ICU. Ya, definitely a need for some different perspectives in a lot of medical facilities.

    “I’ve often wondered about the extent to which contingency – with its dearth of continuity and funding – has promoted the weekend warrior approach to research, a sort of staccato anti-fieldwork squeezed into the the margins of time and conducted more often down the street than across the world. Then again, I once suggested this idea in a postgraduate paper and was smartly slapped down by a tenured type who informed me that travel isn’t really all that expensive…”

    I actually think more anthro programs should stop chasing the Malinowskian dream (he was basically stuck there after all) and open up to more locally-based anthro PhDs. I really do. We need to think about not only why we think we need to send EVERYONE all over the world–and the anthro grad students themselves should really rethink the economics and other costs of doing so. Because as it currently stands, a LOT of people I know end up waiting and waiting and waiting to get funding to go to [insert distant country here]. And it’s all so automatic. That’s just “what we do, right?” Well, maybe that should change–we sure could use a lot more of turning the lens on our own damn problems, if you ask me. I’d personally rather see a LOT more community anthropology and such. In fact, why not have some really good economic anthropologists do a dissertation about the political economy of getting a PhD in anthropology. I’d read it. Hell, THAT’S what I should have done!

  11. Instead I will reply to both Charles and Eliza here.

    It turns out, after reading Charles’ comment, that I might have a reservation after all. I really do not see how this works: “universities whose dwindling tenured citizenry is bankrolled by our low-wage, low-benefit, low-security, low-respect work”. If that were the case, and just on its own terms, then one could just as well read it this way: given that the tenured citizenry is dwindling, according to that statement, and the number of adjuncts is increasing, then it is the sacrifice of the tenured that creates the opportunities for adjuncts who may otherwise not be the best qualified for employment in universities. I am not standing by this assertion at all, I am just saying that the statement above could be turned around just as easily.

    In terms of the distribution of economic resources, neither tenured faculty nor adjuncts have any say in the matter, so Charles is right to object. When in my Dept., we tenured and tenure-track faculty ask the Administration to permit a full-time hire for a new position, we are either told “no” flat out (most often the case), or we are instead offered one or two adjuncts to make up for the deficit in personnel to teach existing courses, or in rare cases we get that full-time, tenure-track position. In no instance do I recall tenured faculty ever arguing: “let’s get a bunch of adjuncts so our own positions can be secured”. So when Charles says,

    “The class that is benefiting are the people who own and control the productive property in our societies, the people who make the actual decisions, the people who sit on university boards of regents and corporate boards of directors,”

    he is right on target.

    However, so is the statement published by the four authors in the post above on target when it states:

    “The most powerful producers of anthropological policy and practice seldom include the ranks of the precarious”

    “…the studied ignorance of its own internal inequities insupportably ironic”

    “a two-tiered labor market”

    “the same structural forces that divide tenured and contingent faculty…”

    “professional respect and responsibility”

    Meaning that while tenured faculty neither created the inequality of a two-tiered labour system, nor rally around its maintenance, some have clearly taken advantage of the situation in terms of deriving an inflated sense of their own self-worth as the “real” scholars, in terms of assigning the large classes to adjuncts while taking the tiny graduate classes for themselves (there is a logic there too, and it’s not totally wrong), in terms of not protesting this division, and in terms of not boosting their adjuncts into full-time positions when they get the chance. They do not, and we did not, and thus the adjunct is out on the street after 20 years of heavy lifting in our Dept. We instead gave a job to a person who already had a tenure-track full-time position at another university: giving to those who already have. But that was also how I got here, so while I can criticize the bias of giving tenure-track positions to those who already have them, I also benefited in the same way. So there are, unlike what Charles recognizes, ways in which we tenured faculty lubricate the system and warm our little hands over the roasting bodies of adjuncts.

    While it may or may not be relevant for background analysis, both Charles and I work at public universities in Canada. Their situation is often not comparable to private, uber-rich colleges in the U.S. I have no inside knowledge on such institutions and have no idea of how the situation of faculty there may or may not be comparable.

  12. Addendum: When I first came to the university where I am now based, I read a published statement from the university, directed at a student audience, about the meaning of part-time faculty (and we have different tiers among those too). The stated principle was that these were accomplished professionals in specialized fields of endeavour, who were generously taking time off their lucrative practices to teach an occasional course, for the sheer love of teaching. I thought: what a great system. My credulity was also aided by the fact that I personally know such individuals who match that description perfectly–they are by no means financially dependent on the adjunct work. In response to all of our debates here, the university administration might well respond: the full proletarianization of others, and their total dependency on the wages of part-time teaching, is neither our creation nor our responsibility. It would be an entirely misleading remark too, because university administrations have sought to transfer revenue away from teaching and research and into administration, which has become the refuge for private-sector flunkies in search of another form of public bailout–so the system benefits them perfectly, and they are the ones to decide when a position gets cancelled, not replaced, or replaced only by part-time labour. But they would be right on this: the university did not create the problem of total wage dependency, but it did create the problem of graduating far too many PhDs, and the PhD students helped to also create the problem by not better informing themselves of what might await them–moreover, some appear to be shocked at being informed, as if they would prefer not to hear the bad news. Or perhaps they come from very rich families, and this is all sport for them (yes, that is also the case in some instances).

    Incidentally, Ryan says that one solution might be for departments to “only take in students they can fund! Imagine that”. Of course I can imagine that: that is what we actually do. Not only do we do that, but so do those universities that rejected my applications when I had not yet secured funding of my own, and had none to offer themselves. I don’t see how this is in any way a solution to what comes after the PhD is obtained.

  13. I essentially agree with Max’s comment (where my original comment was posted) and his response to my own. My point would be that there are always some in the working class who see their immediate advantage being linked to selling out to the ruling class even which this undermines their ultimate interests and makes the struggle for social justice more difficult. From my work on the deck of unionized fishboats to non-union healthcare sector to the fly-by-night fish processing sector to my work in universities I have also found some co-workers more willing to enhance their short term gains by selling out others. BUT, I have also found many more who,through the crucible of life and experience, find ways to build solidarity.

    It is hard to spend so much time struggling and hoping to get a job that one has trained all their life for. And, in this struggle it is likely quite hard not to see that those with the job are the real cause of the problem. Sadly, that’s just what the propertied classes want us to believe.

    For those interested I have a more developed augment about academic labour here:

  14. Let’s see if this works. I tried to comment via twitter but that’s just not going through…

    Hey Max:

    “I don’t see how this is in any way a solution to what comes after the PhD is obtained.”

    Ya, I probably should have explained that. I was thinking in longer terms: not having so many students come out of programs with a ton a debt, which I think leads to other problems. I think high debt can lead to people taking these adjunct positions–because they really need work, and at the same time want to try to do things that will supposedly lead to something better. But as you point out, there is another side to this: it’s time for grad students to better inform themselves instead of acting so “shocked” about all of this. If us grad students march willingly right into this, then we are part of the problem as well. Anyway–that’s what I was thinking, how certain things earlier in the chain that lead to other problems down the road. Maybe what REALLY needs to happen is that prospective grad students need to just stop entering programs if there’s no funding help. It’s really not worth going into serious debt to work as an adjunct for 10 years. At least I don’t think so.

  15. On the only take students that a department an fund argument – I totally disagree.

    I have heard that argument used in my own department(from faculty and from students).

    Here’s my brief explanation as to why I disagree. (1) we have no way of forecasting future job opportunities (2) there is no way to determine which potential graduate students will complete the program (3) some people (I was one of them) think more about the excitement of the opportunity to learn than about what will happen at the end of the phd (personally ironic given I ended up with a job when I fully expected to continue my ‘day-job’ working in the fishing industry) (4) the best criteria is whether we have adequate faculty on hand to fully mentor our students (5) we need to stop talk and telling students that the phd and an academic job is the only end point. Our dept. has a near 80%+ job placement rate for our MA students in occupations completely relevant to their course of study, for example.

    It might be that the US system of all or nothing direct entry PhD programs are part of the problem. Systems that have a two step MA first, then application and entry to PhD might ultimately work better for students. Data from Canada shows that annual income increases with each degree post-high school to the Master’s Degree and then a drop when people get the PhD. An intriguing piece of statistical trivial (from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)

  16. from Slings and Arrows…..

    Ellen Fanshaw: This is the life of an actress. You play the Ingénues, you play the Queens, you play the dreaded Nurse, then you retire to PAL. Then you sit there in the dining room eating rice pudding and hearing endless tales of life on the wicked stage. And you realize that you never really lived at all, you just pretended. Is that what you want?

    Kate McNab: I can’t believe you’re saying this to me. I’m supposed to play Juliette

    Ellen Fanshaw: You can play it, or you can live it. Your choice.

    Kate McNab: Oh my God.

    Ellen Fanshaw: Kate! You know me. I’m petty and bitter. There’s a reason for that, ok? Don’t make me spell it out. Just go! Go girl! Seek happy nights and happy days. See? I’m playing the Nurse already!


    ‘You can play it, or you can live it…’

    Love ZA, being one of those backyard, ‘home-grown’ anthropologists (would never cop to the crime), the stories here resonant strongly with the general sort of state of everything in our culture where most everyone can not find any decently paying work worth doing. The farther down the social ladder, the worst it gets. Being married to a once-aspiring anthropologist who fortunately recognized, with the help of some very real but embittered ones, the very nature of the discipline, she abandoned those aspirations long ago for a ‘real’ life. As the fictional character Ellen notes in her advice to a young actress conflicted with playing the part of Juliette or living Juliette. I think that is very much the essence of the choice that must be made today in order to change the very nature of the reality within which we dwell.

    My professional life should be explained in terms of that of an accomplished architectural designer, master builder and craftsmen but I learned long ago that such definitions and social roles, with all their connotations and baggage, were a fundamental obstacle to being human, which after all, is about the nature of our relationships with those around us. To try to live and work within the ‘professional’ framework that generates the built environment in N. America was always a stark, dismal prospect at every level of the process. To be party to a profession whose profession is to destroy as much of a landscape as possible in order to render humans cogs in the economy of power never really held much appeal to me. How could I live life and be human within something so anti-human/anti-life was never explained to me in school.

    I knew this early because the world I loved, the kinds of people that touched me and impressed me as human, the kinds of buildings and places that sort of overwhelmed me with the songs and spirit of those that made them and lived amidst them were places where the ‘professional’ had no practical use accept as a con man, thief and plagiarist. In fact, professionalism was something inimical to spirit that made such places alive, warm and compelling. Figuring out what that was all about took time and anthropology certainly helped in understanding that, but so did a lot of other things.

    At a certain point in my professional pursues, I felt I had to make a choice, the choice to play it, or to live it. To be able to live in the world where I knew I belonged, to be able to create what the profession extolls as ‘vernacular’ form, to practice what is craft meant that I had to give up all pretense to it, I had to reject thinking of it in a certain way and in certain terms. It was not a matter of mimicking style or reclaiming some arcane method of construction and craft but learning how to be real in relation to others, to materials and tools, to the earth. I think the term is ‘going native’ and I had to exchange the $500 suit and sterile office for the threadbare work trousers and calloused palms. Damaged by decades of education and poisoned over a lifetime by the mother culture, the road home is proving to be scarred and bittersweet. Something Vine Deloria once noted about his journey home from the conqueror’s realm.

    The most powerful story I took away from Debt was about the slave who, in order to redeem himself, to reclaim his self-worth and respect, had only one path and that was to become worthy in the eyes of those who enslaved him, as an esteemed member of their society – that very society that enslaved, tortured and murdered untold millons of his brethren (and still, to some degree, continues under a difference guise). I know that feeling very well as I am sure many here know it, too. But the cognitive binds are loosing. There is actually plenty of space on this planet to meaningfully toil in obscurity and with great satisfaction and reward. To reclaim our dignity and intrinsic worth far away from the prying eyes, diploma mills and greedy paws of Leviathan is a fundamental, revolutionary task. That is how the world will find its way home, when we abandon him and his little gold, silver and bronze stars. We here now know enough to know that when his little army of anthros show up in our little corner of the world to ‘study’ our strange form of life and our strange little buildings, that we will have no choice but to slit their little pecky throats only to release their souls so they too can join us at the great feast of the moment that is life.

    Sandy Meisner, the great acting theorist and coach once said that ‘acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances’. Although very real, all our circumstances are indeed imaginary, so the question of how to live is always paramount. You can play it, or you can live it.

  17. Sorry Charles, almost EVERYONE is now having problems posting comments on this site. All I can promise is to continue doing what I have been doing: frequently searching the moderation and “spam” queues and rescuing comments throughout the day. The only good news is that site no longer gets any real spam at all any longer, when in past years it could reach as high as a thousand spam postings per day.

  18. [Reposting my response to Charles from Savage, sans the dead links, after which I will continue the conversation here as it’s getting too complicated to keep copying and pasting back and forth].

    Hi Charles,

    I concur with your first paragraph, if I understand the implications aright. Certainly the labour conditions we now face have been building since the early 1970s, and certainly we are not alone, but one tiny ripple in the sea change to post-Fordist precarity. From there, I have some bones to pick, and I’ll begin with the empirical ones.

    “The lowest paid are those doing the work that makes our institutions work – cleaners, cooks, clerical, maintenance, etc.”

    This is a vast oversimplification which, like your post in general, sees class in a nutshell (though you vacillate between class as income and class as productive control), untroubled by the niceties that cut across craft. But let’s begin with income, and look at some data pertaining to some of the categories you mention. The following figures are taken from the CUNY First employment website:

    Maintenance, salaried:

    Steamfitter: $89,231
    Oiler: $96,549
    High-Pressure Plant Tender: $65,459

    Maintenance, hourly:

    Custodial Assistant: $12.70/hr

    Clerical, salaried:

    Clerical Associate: $25,211
    Administrative Assistant Level 1A: $41,129

    Clerical, hourly:

    College Assistant: $9.72/hr

    Interestingly, I cannot compare tenure-track faculty salaries as none are mentioned in any of the extant adverts, and the website divulges nothing about adjunct wages as those are generally processed in-house. My own (CUNY included) have ranged from $1200 to $5000 for a single course, and a recent offer that came across my desk was for $3600/module. Depending upon the specific degree of exploitation (a rate left deviously ambiguous by departments and determined largely by the conscience of the worker concerned), a precarious intellectual wage may or may not match the hourly figures above. But if you can find me an adjunct who makes ninety-thousand dollars a year, I’ll eat Patterson’s collected oeuvre without salt. So please get your “empirical realities” straight before you complain about our “bad class analysis.”

    Yet income isn’t the rub. Whatever the wage differential, a steamfitter can’t do my job any more than I can do a steamfitter’s job. The labour power embodied in both is a measure of accrual, including the specific accrual of intellectual labour in the process of training. Only a fool would deny that the university could not function without the vital labour of those who sustain it physically and clerically, but it’s an equal fool who thinks it makes any sense at all without teachers and researchers.

    I stand by the statement that the precarious bankroll the tenured. Any adjunct-reliant department that was suddenly compelled to provide its contingent workers a salary, with full benefits, pension, funded sabbaticals, and the general totality of the tenure-track purse, would find itself out of business in a New York minute. The hourly administrative assistant might make less, and the salaried pipe fitter might make more, but neither can replace the adjunct. And if they could, then the tenured have a bigger problem, because in that case the gatekeepers of disciplinary social reproduction are churning out utterly meaningless PhDs by the truckload.

    Which brings us to class as productive control, a far more relevant argument. Your contention seems to be that in the precise capitalistic sense anthropologists can lay no claim to “productive property.” I think the Pentagon would beg to differ, given their lucrative buyout of militarily strategic ethnographers via HTS, but that’s a footnote to the real story. Within our own little intellectual mill there are indeed knowledge producers, as well as consumers (formerly known as “students”) who lay down the dosh to buy that product. It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about evolutionary theory assembled at Harvard or comedy plastic vomit manufactured in Hong Kong, both have exchange value providing they don’t wind up as dead labour on a forgotten shelf, which is where the anthropological commodity might well find itself in a few years.

    There are also those who have no resources to sustain such original work, but are relegated to regurgitating the intellectual property of others in the classroom, because their realised value gets shunted up the food chain in the form of labour time. If you want to be persnickety about the terminology, then adjuncts, when employed at all, are the retailers. They don’t get to control much productive property at all beyond the PhD, if they make it that far. Maybe that analysis doesn’t fit neatly into the millenarian clash between capital and labour, but neither does the custodian on $12/hour versus the oiler on $96k/year, and when it comes to solidarity across such chasms, the devil is in the detail.

    Finally, we have in no way identified the tenured as the “root of the problem.” Quite the opposite. In fact that’s such a disingenuous accusation that I’m only going to call bullsh*t on it, and invite you to read the post again. If this is your “yes” on solidarity, I shudder to think what “no” would look like.

    Best regards,

  19. In response to Charles’s further post on Savage, beginning: “Blog posts and blog comments are not detailed analytic statements or reviews. Thus my comment here and before will necessarily be simplified – perhaps even simplistic….


    Neither was our statement meant to be systematically detailed given that we were responding to a very brief post, and tried to do so briskly, briefly and boldly in order to strike while the iron was hot, and keep the conversation going. So perhaps we too were overly simplistic, but you were quick enough to jump on our theoretical failings with little regard for context or intent.

    I am still unsure of the purpose of steering the discussion toward the question of whether academic labour is technically “productive.” Is the implication that only those who engage in such production should struggle for decent working conditions, and the rest should accept their lot gratefully? If so, that excludes a sizeable segment of labour, and not just academics, from the endeavour to “build a new society that values the labour of all.”

    Our statement very specifically noted that the tenured do not own anthropology either; rather, they too are caught up in the corporatisation of the university. Yet people may benefit inadvertently from unjust systems they did not themselves set out to create and may even abhor. Such antagonisms, which do indeed strategically benefit the truly elite, who would prefer to see us comfortably conquered through division, can be found in professions other than ours. There are parallels, if imprecise ones, in the realms of gender and race, and there too the reaction is often resentful defensiveness when those with less privilege have the gall to point it out.

    I take issue with your woolly description of the university pay scale, which reproduces the convenient right-wing myth of intellectual labourers as universally privileged and pampered. Indeed some of the original posts, including Sarah Kendzior’s on Al Jazeera ( as well as other recent pieces (see, discuss the plight of adjuncts living below the poverty line, and find themselves in the position of having to reject departmental offers for slightly higher contingent pay in order to continue to receive the SNAP and Medicaid benefits their families desperately need. In the US context, it is crucial to remember that job insecurity usually includes the absence of health care. For workers with children, disabilities, chronic illnesses, or dependent kin with same, this means living on a knife’s edge. The further implication that contingent intellectual labourers are excluded from those whose “work makes the university work” is not only inaccurate but downright insulting. It smacks of the suggestion that departments are doing precarious labourers a favour by “letting” them work, instead of needing them to shoulder the burden of the 101s in the drive to tamp down labour costs.

    So I’ll concede your technical point that academic labour is not productive. Indeed every anthropologist on the planet could walk off the job tomorrow, and capitalism would shrug and keep trotting jauntily on down the road. Personally, as I said in my farewell-to-academia post (, I value anthropology, and I further find it worth it to struggle to keep doing it somehow, though my own struggle will no longer take place in the university context. Still I’m glad that others continue to fight that fight, because it is part and parcel of the more general effort to create a world in which value is not defined by profitability and the endless compulsion to accumulation. Perhaps the unproductive nature of the labour makes it an inconsequential struggle; if so, then a whole lot of workers in the ostensible “west,” phased out of productivity in these post-industrial times, might as well give up the ghost.

  20. Max,

    On the point of “dwindling,” the issue is one of proportionality. According to AAUP research:

    “The proportion of tenured and tenure track faculty members shrank dramatically between 1975 and 2009, from more than 45 percent to less than 25 percent. In all, graduate student employees and faculty members serving in contingent appointments now make up more than 75 percent of the total instructional staff. The most rapid growth has been among part-time faculty members, whose numbers swelled by more than 280 percent between 1975 and 2009. Between 2007 and 2009, the numbers of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members and part-time faculty members each grew at least 6 percent. During the same period, tenured positions grew by only 2.4 percent and tenure-track appointments increased by a minuscule 0.3 percent. These increases in the number of faculty appointments have taken place against the background of an overall 12 percent increase in higher education enrollment in just those two years.”

    It further goes on to note that what growth there is occurs unevenly:

    “One clear pattern emerges from a review of the aggregate numbers of full-time faculty members before the recession and now: of the 1,095 institutions with tenure-track faculty members, 66 percent increased their total numbers of fulltime faculty appointments. This constitutes aggregate growth of 2.7 percent, but the composition of the faculty at these institutions has shifted. The most substantial growth has been in non-tenure-track appointments, which grew by 7.6 percent during the three-year period. Tenured appointments increased by 3.7 percent, but the number of tenure-track positions dropped by 3.7 percent.”

    It also notes the staggering growth of top management salaries:

    “During this recessionary period, the average salary increase for presidents was more than twice the average faculty salary increase at public institutions and nearly three times the faculty salary increase at private institutions. Presidential salaries in all categories of institutions were already several times higher than the average salary for faculty members at the beginning of this period, and the gap widened considerably even in the space of only three years.”

    (All from

    I have no specific figures from anthropology but I see no reason to think we’re bucking the trend, though I’d be happy to learn otherwise if anyone has such data.

    These patterns do not reflect a “sacrifice of the tenured” (and I do note you are not endorsing that statement but suggesting it as a possible interpretation) but the sacrifice of whose who would pursue the tenure track, but can’t. Again, our statement did not AT ALL suggest that tenured faculty have control over the distribution of economic resources within the university. In fact it said the opposite. So frankly, Charles is correct to object to his own misinterpretation of our post.

  21. Eliza, I don’t think this medium is working for effective communication.

    So far I have learned that I am a wooly thinker, that my actions/conclusions are full of the excrement from bulls, that solidarity from me is not really worth it, that I have fallen prey to the arguments of right wing, and I am arguing with myself over a misinterpretation of the original post. I am sure that I have missed something.

    All of this exemplifies problems (from my perspective) the way that online communication can go offtrack. In a face-to-face interaction I doubt that I would have been told that what I was saying was bull shit; at least not so quickly. Anyway, a totally different topic.

    All I can say is take a look at the article I wrote in New Proposals where I spend more time outlining my idea of what’s going on with the corporate university, the context of political struggles, etc,etc.

    I’m signing off this thread now. “It’s been a slice.”

  22. Charles, you opened your salvo on our statement with the dual accusation that it was contrary to “empirical reality” and “bad class analysis.” You then stated that we identified tenure-stream faculty as “the root of the problem.”

    That’s pretty strong stuff, and some of it just downright underhanded (i.e., misstating our argument). You’ve done it again, above. I did not say you are a “woolly thinker.” I said that your description of the university pay scale was woolly, and it was: partly true in that some of the workers you mentioned make less than some academics, and partly false in that some of the workers you mentioned make more, even much more. In other words, woolly as in “imprecise.” I tried to provide some concrete evidence to illustrate that, but you seemed to lose interest in the “empirical reality” of university pay subsequently.

    I don’t object to disagreement and debate; that’s life, that’s politics, that’s organising, that’s science. But I do object to the misrepresentation of something I’ve said, and if I’ve failed to live up to your expectations of meekness in the face of a strongly-worded and subtly patronising critique, tough.

    I guess the only thing we do agree on is that this is going nowhere fast. In fact I think it’s successfully derailed what might have been a fruitful discussion based on genuine contention rather than straw-men. I’m not sure if it’s the medium of the internet or the milieu of academia, where efforts to improve our conditions often seem to end in squabble while management laugh all the way to the bank. I don’t think I’m particularly less frank in face-to-face interaction, which is why faculty meetings were never my strong suit. Water under the bridge now. Adieu.

  23. Perhaps the wise thing for me to do would be to let things rest, and not keep scratching at the scab, but I am just not following this and I have not seen an explanation or evidence to back up the argument that the “dwindling tenured citizenry is bankrolled by our low-wage, low-benefit, low-security, low-respect work”. That would suggest that the tenured asked for that system because it’s what pays their salaries–but that is not a system created by the tenured for the tenured, it’s an imposition by the administration, and further economic and political interests behind the administration. So when you add, “Any adjunct-reliant department that was suddenly compelled to provide its contingent workers a salary, with full benefits, pension, funded sabbaticals, and the general totality of the tenure-track purse, would find itself out of business in a New York minute” it again places emphasis on the wrong actor–the department, as if it was the source of the decisions on how resources should be administered. In my department, we never asked for adjuncts: we ask for full-time tenure-track positions, and get denied. In some cases, courses simply are not taught, by anyone. Students whose tuitions pay part of the public university’s costs might also like to say that they bankroll those identified here as the precarious, and unwillingly too as they frequently object to the poor quality of classes run by adjuncts. Taxpayers who pay most of the public university’s costs might then add that they bankroll the students, so STFU whiners because you get what we can afford. Either way, I think we can already make the case based on what has transpired in the comments, that we are not going to build solidarity this way. Let’s think of alternate approaches then.

  24. I’m not sure what else to say except to reiterate that people can benefit from advantages they don’t actively request, and even vehemently oppose. I want to be careful because the analogy I’m about to make is not equivalent to the labour situation we’re discussing here; it’s more a general illustration about the complexity of systemic oppressions, individual agency, and the scale of blame. But male privilege, for example, works something like this. More than a few men in the world abhor patriarchy and work actively at multiple scales (through individual consciousness and behaviour, the values they pass on to their children, political activism, etc.) against it. But it’s not the kind of privilege someone can just hand back voluntarily, at the individual scale; one can denounce it, but not renounce it. Similarly (though again, I’m aware this is a very limited analogy) I know many tenured and tenure-track faculty who work actively against an exploitative system they despise, through the kinds of requests to administration you mention above, through the active pursuit of funding for students and/or contingent faculty colleagues, through conscientious behaviours and attitudes that convey interpersonal respect to same. Yet their higher compensation package, including temporal and monetary benefits and the relative security that accompany them, come at the expense of those who are denied such advantages, even though they didn’t ask for that disparity, and want to work in (and actively work toward) a more just system. Sorry, I know that’s a rubbishy analogy and hopefully I’ll think of a better one with more reflection. But I’m trying to make a structural rather than a moral analysis, one that acknowledges the limitations of agency in systemic power relations comprising multiple levels of exploitation. I will say though, that unlike men, the tenured do have the power to stop asking and start walking. They could, ostensibly, collectively refuse to work until universities stop treating their colleagues like dogs. They would of course risk losing their jobs. But if we’re talking about truly revolutionary change, that risk is par for the course, and would likely be the least of it.

    An important caveat is that contingency is not all to the advantage of the tenured. As Charles astutely pointed out over on Savage in response to another poster, there is also a general devaluing of all intellectual labour occurring through the adjunctification of the university. The casualisation trend tracked by the AAUP, noted above, could have the broader effect of convincing administrators and perhaps the taxpayers too that most academic work can be done on the cheap. With 75% of US instructional staff now contingent, I suspect that’s the way things are headed. I don’t have a crystal ball, but maybe in another thirty years that figure will be 100%, and the problem of solidarity across the disparity of contingency will have sorted itself out.

  25. Since three people can find three different ways of saying the same thing, it’s quite possible that I was not understanding what I agree with. But I am not really sure.

    For example, the tenure system comes “come at the expense of those who are denied such advantages”. From what little I know, universities here are allotted three envelopes or purses:

    (1) Unrestricted Funds (also known as Operating Funds);
    (2) Restricted Funds (money given for a specific purpose); and,
    (3) Capital Funds (to support building and infrastructure).

    Where money is assigned to teaching, administrations realize that tenured faculty can teach X number of courses for Y amount of dollars. However, they can get far more from part-timers, teaching X+n courses for either the same Y amount or less. The decision then involves effectively taking more and more funding away from maintaining the tenured, and moving it towards the adjuncts.

    This is why I had difficulty following, because the real target of corporatization, and of the political disciplining of faculty, are not adjuncts but rather the tenured (meaning tenure-track plus tenured). So if you say “contingency is not all to the advantage of the tenured” it would be more accurate to say that contingency is NOT AT ALL to the advantage of the tenured, because it seeks to eliminate the tenured. Hence, we ask for a full-time position, merely to replace one we lost through retirement, and are told no. Next thing you know, two new part-timers appear almost out of nowhere. The destruction of a tenured post is what creates the space to pay their salaries…but their smaller salaries do not pay for the salaries of the tenured people who preceded them, and who the adjuncts are ultimately there to replace.

    That I am aware, as I mentioned before, that there are numerous ways that some of the tenured can defend, accommodate, and even draw personal advantage from such a system (usually of a non-monetary nature) is not being denied–and you are right to criticize it. For that matter, there were also many in the working class who voted for Reagan and Thatcher.

    Let’s not forget the political targets of this process, which includes academic freedom itself. That my university has stopped mentioning it altogether as part of its mission statement, is not an accident. I provided some actual examples here (2nd paragraph from the bottom). What is really “great” about adjuncts is that they are temporary, can easily be dispensed with, and are usually too fearful to speak out on political matters lest they get booted. They also do not require academic freedom for their research and publishing, because they have little or no time to do either.

    Also on this site, see the discussion of the work of Gilles Gagné under, “The Funding of the University: Shaping the Conditions for Higher Education”.

    PS: In identifying what actions the tenured could take in support of adjuncts–well, it should be in support of eliminating the adjunct system, not in making the inequalities more comfortable–one should also identify what sorts of costly actions the adjuncts could take.

  26. Yes, I think we are saying the same thing. Maybe it would make more sense to say that the target is tenure itself through the process of degradation. That’s what we meant by the proposition that “the same structural forces that divide us [in the present] will subsume us all [in the long run]” — not (usually, I don’t think) through the outright sacking of a tenure/track employee and their replacement by several contingents, but through the expiration of the line’s shelf life and its subsequent elimination; there’s a time element to it. The subsidy in the present-day snapshot is also to a degree a temporal one; few tenure/tracks in contingent-reliant places would have the time to do much research (especially on top of their admin load) if they had to do all the teaching, marking, office hours, etc. done by the contingent (which the AFT found back in 2008 was a majority of undergrad courses at public institutions), and of course eliminating the contingent workforce wouldn’t free up sufficient funds to replace them with enough tenure tracks to bear the workload without a net loss in time somewhere, because they only cost about a quarter of the tenured package. But the long-term trend is toward no one having research time, which is largely the community college model we already have. That’s was Kerr’s vision, an institutional division between teaching and research, and to a certain extent it was realised, and is passing its sell-by date in its own turn.

    The political implications, as you note, are vast. I think the adjuncts have to be prepared to walk as well, but there’s a great deal of fear out there precisely because they are politically vulnerable. And there’s a peculiar psychology to academic contingency which I think may be somewhat singular to our line of work because we allow our profession to occupy our identities. There’s a great deal of guilt and shame entailed in failure on the intellectual job market that doesn’t seem to be alleviated by the increasingly public knowledge of its commonality. The constant nagging question of “Is it me, or the market, or both?” is actually a quite difficult one to answer with anything approaching objectivity for a variety of reasons. Your committee obviously thought you were good enough for the letters, so why can’t you get the job? Plus the market seems to be able to bear a relatively wide range of competencies. It’s entirely possible I’m being self-serving here, but I simply don’t see the evidence that the best get the positions, and the rest get what their modest intellectual capabilities deserve. I doubt I’m the only one in the world who has encountered such genius on the tenure spectrum that I think, “If that’s what it takes, I’ll never make it!” as well as encountering such inanity that I’m stunned such a halfwit made it through the degree at all. And there’s plenty on offer in the muddling middle. The case for meritocracy seems thin, and god only knows what the unit of value is to begin with. I imagine those who shut their traps and avoid rocking the boat have a considerable edge, though celebrity radicals can bring both prestige and pesos, as long as they keep their politics on the page.

    In order to get organised people have to get angry, and in order to get angry they have to move past their guilt. That’s tough when failure is so deeply internalised, and individualised. I suspect many don’t fight for themselves because they don’t believe they’re worth it.

  27. Reblogged this on Tales from the Adjunctiverse and commented:
    Anthros, the other white meat, or Alan’s not the only one stumping for the academic precariat. English and lang/lit majors are not the only ones out with pitchforks and torches. Time for us all to get together and compare notes, don’t you think?

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