The Rise of “Quit Lit” and the End of the Infinite Game

“Quit lit” is clearly a rising and resurgent cultural phenomena. After all, it’s been given the kind of catchy, rhyme-y name you’d force on a pet ferret. But behind the roll-off-the-tongue moniker, the artifacts of quit lit – social-media essays, written primarily by former university adjuncts, detailing their disillusionment with academia and reasons for leaving the profession – are a flare in the darkening sky, illuminating an America in which, more than ever, winning is everything.

Those, like myself, who first entered academia expecting an open-ended pursuit of scholarly wisdom, now find themselves trapped on a runaway train which long ago flew off the rails of intellectual engagement. Universities claim they are guiding students on a pilgrimage to enlightenment while administrations reshape faculties into neo-liberal class stratifications and tenured professors disparage teaching in order to win the status game over adjuncts.

A useful perspective for framing the descent of academia, and situating it within the broader disjuncture between expectation and reality which has come to shape much our lives, is James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. According to Carse:

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The construction, maintenance and expansion of national parks is an infinite game; gashing the land for the financial interests of a dying oil industry is finite. A politics devoted to the “arc of justice” is infinite; a system of justice contorted by wealth and power is finite. In academia, the collaboration of administrators, tenured professors and adjuncts on the search for, and transmission of, new vectors of knowledge is infinite; an administration pre-occupied with reshaping universities into profit-making machines and a professorial class fueled by egoism are decidedly finite.

As the nation’s passage towards social and economic equality plummets into the finite, academia needs to be the guardian of the infinite game. Its refusal to do so, and its obsession with profit, prestige and reputation, isn’t only a failure of universities; it threatens the entire narrative of progress upon which this country was founded.

The intellectual promise of history was marked by a move from the finite to the infinite. The tide of the Enlightenment erased the absolute truths of the Classical and Medieval ages, substituting instead a faith in open-ended processes of reason and rationality. The eternal unchanging essences of Plato’s Forms were replaced by the “I think therefore I am” of Descartes. Progress manifested itself in a continuous quest towards elusive horizons of knowledge.

We are now witnessing this historical process in reverse. The infinite game of progress is increasingly bruised and battered by a nation which has become a never-ending rugby scrum.

Academia used to be the protector of the infinite by opposing attempts to shape all of society around the finite goals of the economic sphere. But universities now function as large corporations and worship at the same alter as all financial institutions.

The increasing budgetary reliance of universities on part-time, contingent, underpaid adjunct/teachers has been twisted into a new finite game. Adjuncts, and teaching, now function as the maligned “others” whose lowered status secures the ongoing “victory” for well-paid, status-driven tenured professor/researchers.

“[In the finite game] it may appear that the prizes for winning are indispensable, that without them life is meaningless, perhaps even impossible.”

Publications have become the singular path to the financial security of a tenure-track position. The strategic focus on stockpiling publications has deformed the vectors of academic research, and the odyssey of knowledge, from infinite to finite. A study at UCLA found that, in the sciences, “researchers who confine their work to answering established questions are more likely to have the results published, which is a key to career advancement in academia. Conversely, researchers who ask more original questions and seek to form new links in the web of knowledge are more likely to stumble on the road to publications, which can make them appear unproductive to their colleagues.”

Participation in the game of academia is limited to those who have willingly, even eagerly, jumped into the finite. The rewards of tenure-track jobs flow to those who abjure long-term open-ended scholarly pursuits in order to excel in the sport of publication accumulation.

“Since finite games are played to be won, players make every move in a game in order to win it. Whatever is not done in the interesting of winning is not part of the game.”

The academic competition is ultimately won by those who can construct the highest heap of articles and books. Embracing the quantification of academia has become a useful, though highly simplistic, tool for an enterprise increasingly devoted to separating out winners (professors) from losers (adjuncts).

“A title is the acknowledgement of others that one has been the winner of a particular game”

Publications are primarily strategic; they are designed not to share knowledge (though that might be an unintended consequence) but to win the game. Thus, the forces of aggregation are in no way deterred by the reality that at least one-third of all social science articles, and 80% of those in the humanities, are never cited.

Adjuncts of my generation offer a unique viewpoint on the relation between the finite and the infinite. We entered an academia which was seemingly still engaged in the infinite game, only to witness its swoon into the finite. But quit lit is not merely the frustrated cries of those who have lost the game; it is a jeremiad against the darkening of the infinite where it should be – it must be –  shining the brightest.

The advancement of neo-liberal corporatism which is shaping our politics and our universities is the triumph of the finite game. The obligations of each generation to strive for justice, to protect the planet, to help the less fortunate, and to forge new horizons of knowledge are being replaced by the ethos of a financial ledger.  We are all living the experiences of my academic generation as we watch the infinite dissolve before our eyes.

“Evil is the termination of infinite play”

We are trapped in a unique period of history as the promise of infinite horizons decays into malevolent victories won by the most small-minded amongst us. But from the prowl of the finite emerges the possibility of rebirth and revolution.

We are a generation whose lives span the chasm between the memory and promise of the infinite of Kennedy and Obama, and the current triumph of the finite. Disillusioned by the rift between the expected permanence of the infinite and the reality of its decline, we are the generation that must resist the ongoing normalization of the finite and we must counter the claim that a society based on the infinite is an illusion. It is vital that we reclaim our universities, and the endless expedition of education, from the snarl of the finite game and reinstate them as bastions of the infinite. We must rescue our politics from the forces of corporatism and hierarchy and we must demand that our government and institutions of higher learning play a new game. One in which we all win.

—TGR—

(Quotes are from Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games)
 Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com

My Life as an Adjunct

This is more than a personal account of what life is like as a university adjunct. It is a disturbing chronicle of what can be done to an adjunct when they are seen as a threat to the rigid faculty hierarchy.

University faculties are composed of a small class of well-paid tenured professors and a larger class of contingent adjuncts who are not eligible for tenure and virtually never attain a living wage. The majority of university “professors” are actually adjuncts, who do most of the teaching. Administrators created this class; so-called “liberal” professors maintain it.

While adjuncts are always treated by administrators as highly replaceable cogs, the professorial class raises this to another level. They maintain a highly illiberal departmental caste system which, not surprisingly, places them at the top. This is a perch which is apparently so lofty they are unable to comprehend, or even see, the suffering of adjuncts all around them. 

Academics are truly some of the most insecure people you will ever have the misfortune to endure. Academia itself is a rigidly enforced pecking order; everyone strives to be a tenured professor at a top research university. The inability to achieve this pinnacle of academic perfection is viewed by many as a badge of failure.

Those unable to soar to the perceived heights of academia, remain nested in what is seen by them as the far less impressive world of public and state universities. But make no mistake, these are wingless birds with sharp talons. Unable to emotionally endure their place at the bottom of the academic hierarchy; they construct a new pecking order within their own departments. A tiny hop onto the low branch of the academic tree is enough for them to proclaim, “from way up here all adjuncts look like mere worms. We are not worms. Therefore we must be soaring eagles!” 

This strategy requires that no worm should ever see itself as a potential bird; with the same abilities, and worth, as those clinging tenaciously to the branch just above them. If a worm raises its voice, it must be devoured. That is what birds do. To do otherwise would call the entire bird/worm hierarchy into question.

Universities aren’t bastions of liberalism; they’re an alt-right fever dream.

If you are an academic reading this, the professor/adjunct relationship is quite familiar. For most others, the hierarchical structure of academia is completely unknown. Even students and their parents know little of the division; the population as a whole is kept completely in the dark.

Our current politics is consumed by the problematics of inequality. Self-designated progressives will often rely on tenured professors as voices of liberal equality, but ask nothing about the harsh inequalities of academia. Instead, the media consistently casts professors as the apostles of progressivism; bathed in the faint glow of a kind of intellectualized sainthood.

Though articles detailing the maltreatment of adjuncts frequently appear on websites such as Adjun’ct N’oise and New Faculty Majority, there is virtually no crossover into more mainstream media. When Rachel Maddow is interviewing a professor who is criticizing Trump for promoting policies of inequality, why does she never ask “How many adjuncts are there in your own department? What do they get paid? Why haven’t you fought against this stark inequality which is all around you?” The machinations and implications of academic inequality are ripe for one of John Oliver’s exposes.  I’d take a Keith Olbermann rant at this point.

My own descent into the hollows of academia began in 2006 when  I was first hired as an adjunct in the Political Science Department at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB).. Things went quite well for a number of years. My department and student evaluations were excellent, I was being given an increasing course load, and I was voted by students as “one of the most of the most inspirational professors at CSULB.” I was the only adjunct to have my own office on the “professorial floor.”

(It is common to almost all universities that adjuncts are kept separate from professors. While professors are generally given their own offices, most adjuncts are lucky if they have a shared space to meet with students. This is part of the tautological ego game professors play with themselves: “I have a better office than an adjunct because I am a better person. I know I’m a better person because I have my own office.” I’ve taught at universities where adjunct offices were in buildings even the 1950’s Soviet Union would consider “way too bleak.”)

My office was next to the Chair’s. Her conversations were clearly discernible. I had mentioned this to her when she first assigned me to my office, and she responded that she had known this for a long time.

After having been in the office for a couple of years, I overheard a conversation with the Chair and a newly-hired tenure-track professor. The Chair advised the new hire that, in terms of teaching “don’t be concerned, it doesn’t matter.”

There is no doubt that publications have become the singular measure of achievement in academia. No one obtains a tenure-track position – or achieves tenure – by being a great teacher. Great teachers can only aspire to become impoverished adjuncts. But there is nothing that prevents an academic department from insisting on excellence in teaching from its newly minted professors. “Don’t be concerned” is indicative of how a culture which denigrates teaching is being maintained and perpetuated.

Teaching is the stated mission of the California State University system, with the University of California system its research counterpart. “Teaching doesn’t matter” isn’t just a matter of indifference; it reflects a culture of disdain for the educational process that undermines the very rationale for the CSU’s existence.

The wingless bird stares longingly at the higher branches of the tree and recoils at its own insignificance. Knowing it can never hop high enough, it rearranges its ragged feathers and declares, “Teaching is for worms. From now on I will be known as a Researcher! Now I am just like the birds who look down on me from the top of the tree.”

After overhearing the Chair’s advice to the new hire, I made the grievous error of stopping by her office to inquire about what I had heard. I thought I was about to engage in the kind of open conversation so publicly valued by academics. But, as it turns out, the “free exchange of ideas” is highly policed by the professorial class when it comes to their own actions.

The Chair claimed that she was only reiterating administration policy. This was not an encouraging response. I left the office suitably depressed but thinking that the matter had reached its conclusion. Little did I know I was about to become a reluctant player in a malevolent game of Angry Birds.

The Chair insisted on an additional meeting in which she repeatedly declared how really really committed to teaching she was. Based on this newly-proclaimed commitment I asked her if she would consider, when assigning classes, to allow adjuncts to present her with the times of day that work best for them. Not as a priority, no commitment, just merely looking at them.

(Not surprisingly, tenured professors – the “Researchers” – are the only ones to have input into what courses and times work best. Adjuncts – the “Teachers” – are assigned the leftovers.)

The terse but telling response was “there has to be hierarchy.” That was the only reason given.

This is not a statement to be quickly dismissed. The Chair was not defending the organizational structure of the department; my request would not have in any way altered that structure. I simply asked if adjuncts could provide additional information from which she would make her decisions.

This is a sense of hierarchy premised on the belief that merely acknowledging the existence of adjuncts would tear asunder the carefully fabricated web of superiority. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the horrific histories that have resulted from the implementations of these kinds of divisions.  It’s disturbing that CSULB would support and protect this view, and allow departments to be constructed around it.

I left this meeting less depressed than the first; lowered expectations will do that. But, once again, I thought the matter had ended.

I soon discovered what happens to inquisitive worms. I was banished to the adjunct floor, at the farthest end of the hall. (Retribution is rarely a subtle affair.) Another adjunct, much younger than me, was hired and  immediately given a high entitlement of courses, which required that courses be taken away from me.

Adjuncts are paid by the course, and almost all, including me, live in near-poverty. Taking courses away from any adjunct is truly life-damaging. After twelve years at CSULB, I still do not make a living wage. 

I have recently been informed that an additional course will be taken away from me spring semester. This not only pushes me below my entitlement for the first time ever in my many years at CSULB, it resets the entitlement to this lower number for the rest of my academic career there.

In devouring the worm, the wingless bird dreams of its own supremacy.

Diminishing the quality of my life has been accompanied by pernicious maneuvers designed to isolate me within the department. The overall strategy is clear; make teaching at CSULB so untenable for me that I have no choice but to “self-deport.”

Trying to force out one of your best teachers is obviously not in the interest of students. But at CSULB, students and their education are collateral damage to the ravages of hierarchy maintenance. 

There is no moral core to CSULB to which adjuncts can appeal. Those with power feel completely protected, even when they do the most appalling things to those without. It is a culture in which no one will ever speak up on behalf of an adjunct, or even question the decency of what is being done.

Behind the proverbial ivy walls, universities are hidden chambers of insidious inequality. It’s hard to know whether academia attracts individuals with extreme narcissistic tendencies, or whether these traits are bred within academia itself. That question is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay.

Too often the media relies on the professorial class as the voice of equality and justice. This is absurd.  Professors have the ability to structure departments by a collegiality which would mitigate the harsh economic policies of administrators. Instead, professors and administrators demonstrate how giving people power over others brings out the worst elements of human behavior. 

If nothing else, the next time you’re watching a self-proclaimed media progressive interviewing a university professor who is roundly criticizing Trump, you will hopefully be asking the question they won’t. “How is your total disregard for the dignity and well-being of the adjuncts you consider beneath you any different than the alt-right agenda?”

University professors decry all constructed hierarchies except the one which benefits them. Progressives can not fight against social and political inequalities if they continue to align themselves with those who, in their own lives, consistently wield the Trumpian sword of ruthless narcissism.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com

Other essays I’ve written about  academia:

The Economic Inequality in Academia

Professors in Charge: The Lessons for Progressive Politics

Professors in Charge: The Lessons for Progressive Politics

At the heart of the progressive movement is the firm belief that, if given power and a degree of control over others, progressives would never replicate the kinds of social and economic inequalities exalted in by the Right. A large-scale test of that claim has been ongoing in our universities for the last twenty years. The results are an illuminating account of the intransigence of inequality and a disturbing demonstration of what actually happens when you give a small group of highly educated, self-identified progressives power over the lives and well-being of others.

Within academia, one of the supposedly most liberal groups in America – tenured university professors – maintain and enforce a strict hierarchy over part-time, contingent faculty known as adjuncts. This is a form of inequality which has become so normalized in universities that those who perpetuate it truly believe they are the kind of people who would never do such a thing. The workings of this academic hierarchy reveal progressivism’s fundamental misunderstanding of how inequalities are continuously constructed, justified and enforced – even by those who are unwaveringly attached to their own progressives convictions.

For the last few decades, university administrations have been replacing the majority of tenured faculty positions with lowly paid adjuncts. As a result, an economic division emerged within faculties between a small number of well-paid tenured professors and a larger class of poorly-paid, contingent, part-time adjuncts who are not eligible for tenure, have little to no job security, and no opportunity for advancement.

Tenured faculty didn’t create the original division; they were handed an existing financial inequality which they then had the ability to either ameliorate or exacerbate within the boundaries of departmental discretion. What has emerged is a highly stratified, highly rationalized, hierarchy within departments in which adjuncts are viewed as naturally deserving less than tenured faculty and are given virtually no input or consideration in the decisions which directly affect their lives. The continuing rationalization of this hierarchy of individual value and worth undercuts a basic progressive belief that the tendencies to construct and maintain inequalities are mitigated by education, income and liberal self-identification.

‘[The] success [of power] is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.’
Michel Foucault

The rationalization of the faculty class structure is indicative of the cultures of inequality which persist at all social and economic levels. The more a constructed power relation is allowed to morph into normalcy the more insidious the inequalities it generates. The philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that “the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.” Without a complete exposure and fracturing of cultures of inequality – wherever they occur – a progressive political movement aiming for large-scale social change runs the risk of ultimately reinforcing inequalities which have become naturalized and rendered invisible.

During the 2016 presidential campaign Senator Bernie Sanders spoke passionately about the role of government in providing free college tuition for all. However, the Senator never denounced the impoverishment and marginalization of adjuncts even though challenging those kinds of constructed social and economic hierarchies formed the basis of much of his campaign. The effect would have been a highly progressive program which validated and reinforced the very kinds of inequalities it was designed to undermine.

An effective progressive politics must aim to expose and deconstruct all cultures of inequality, whatever the economic class or political identification of those who perpetuate them. To allow the rationalization of inequality anywhere is to validate it everywhere.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com