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Idiots

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I will never forget my earliest philosophy courses with Dr. John Scott. They were profoundly influential, even if it has routinely taken twenty or more years for me to understand what he might have meant. The frailties of memory being what they are, I have no idea what he might have meant then, or even if my memory is so accurate that I remember precisely what he said. But that he spoke of this, and that it has stuck in my mind for nearly twenty-five years, is important.

One day he asked us if we were all idiots. He was not saying anything pejorative. He was asking us to reflect on a deeper problem. He rephrased the question and asked us if we were all idiotes. Idiotes, apparently, refers to people who talk to themselves. His question was profound. Really, he was concerned to get us to ask whether we talk just to ourselves or communicate with each other. Are we a community? Five years into the growing victory of neoliberalism, this was a profound question to raise. After all, in neoliberalism there is no such thing as community; there are only individuals competitively engaged with one another. Thirty years in, the damage to community is tragic. There is an idiotic nature to modern life.

A case in point:

Adjunct and contractual academics have a rough time. At King’s I once saw 35 PhDs sharing five offices, and I doubt that is unusual. My office was across the hall from them, and I only ever met and got to know two of them. I never saw any of the others. Adjuncts have no significant place in the academic hierarchy and have no decision-making power. They are unrecognized and unknown. Anonymity is their lot. They can be let go no matter how good a teacher they are. They teach more courses with larger class sizes for less money than their permanent counterparts. They get no benefits. They have no academic freedom. Contract staff are a little better off, but not much. The fact that nobody interferes directly with our teaching is immaterial. After all, if we say anything genuinely controversial, they can always quietly let us vanish at the end of the contract. No need for fuss or fireworks.

We get criticized for our publication records, yet we often publish (despite our perishing) and can have records that exceed those of tenured colleagues. Other academics and administrators commonly either don’t notice or don’t care. Where we do not publish, people do not bother to ask why. Perhaps she is a single mother? Perhaps he did not know what to write after he finished his PhD? Maybe he needed some time to think about it? Perhaps she is experiencing despair at being blamed for her career ‘failure?’ Maybe she blames herself for it?

After all, doesn’t not having a tenured position mean you are not good enough? You lost out in that allegedly fair competition with your colleagues? You didn’t go to the right schools, work in the right fields, explore the right topics? After all, if you were any good, you would have studied at Harvard. If you were at all talented, you would have worked in free market economics, or philosophy of mind, or done your business PhD. You would have invested the time and developed the know-how to recognize and exploit the hot topic.

The truth is, this is all bullshit.

Why do we exist? To drive down the costs of university education. To reduce political resistance at universities. To aid in the transfer of wealth and power to elites. This is how it is.

Adjunct and contractual faculty work under worse conditions than their tenured colleagues. They are some of the exploited of the academic world. Commonly, they are also migrant workers. They may move multiple times over the course of a decade. Each time, they go through the same cycle. They find a city or town, establish a residence. They slowly build up a friendship circle. If they have children, they put them into school when they get to kindergarten. Then their contract ends, or they are no longer awarded courses, and they have to uproot and move in search of the next contract or course. They move to the next city, establish a residence, slowly start to meet people, put their kids into grade two and repeat the cycle. But now the children start to become outsiders too and have to find a way to fit in to their new classes and neighborhoods. The effects on them and their families are severe.

This is not a recipe for good communities. But then, there is no such thing anyway, is there, Margaret. Just idiots.

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