Always, on the first day of class when I taught the introductory United States history survey, whether as a graduate student or later as visiting faculty at different universities, I asked the students why they thought they were required to take the course. Was this just the capricious whim of some remote dean determined to complicate their lives? Or was there, perhaps, a defensible reason behind it?
In the end, this generally led to a robust discussion among the students about the usefulness of an historical perspective for understanding contemporary events; the importance of learning the lessons of the past; and the capacity of historical knowledge to connect individuals to a larger social experience that may involve shared values. During these conversations, I made sure to mention that, despite the continued certainty among some that their attendance was mandated by an anonymous and mean-spirited administrator, many people cared deeply about how I taught this class. I let them know that there were animated disagreements among elected leaders, political activists of all kinds, parent groups, and other educators about, for example, whether I framed the narrative of United States history as one of glorious achievement or as promises not kept; about who I included in that story and who I left out; and about how I explained the meaning of that history. Why, I asked them, might this be the case.
All of this, of course, was an attempt to make the students aware of the political battles that attend the teaching of history in particular, and the liberal arts more generally. E.H Carr’s distinction between facts and historical facts provides a useful reminder that argument and interpretation, not a recitation of chronological events, lie at the heart of the historical endeavor. The conversation is, finally, about what constitutes an historical fact, who gets to decide what is historically significant, and what it all means. In other words, the politics of history itself. As Paulo Freire said, education is not neutral, which says something about the importance of teaching.
However, when 75 percent of university faculty across the country are temporarily employed and teach for low wages, without job security, health benefits, or retirement, it is easy to conclude that teaching is not considered important. At numerous colleges, with rising numbers of contingent faculty, financial resources dedicated to teaching constitute a shrinking percentage of overall budgets; adjuncts often only learn days before the term begins that they will teach a given course; temporary faculty rush to teach at two and three different campuses in order to earn a semblance of a living and barely have time to meet with students; and, part-timers are most often not considered or treated as full members of the department. Such working conditions do not support quality teaching. Yet contingent faculty teach most undergraduate classes.
But, just as we ask students to place events within broader historical circumstances, so too we need to consider the increasing dependence on contingent faculty in a larger political context. The rise of a majority part-time college teachers is part of an effort to diminish universities as sites for progressive thought and action by undermining tenure and academic freedom without waging a direct assault on it. Establishing a financially vulnerable cadre of teachers inhibits free and creative thinking in the classroom that might disturb the status quo. Living and working under economically insecure conditions, contingent faculty are less likely to challenge conventional wisdom or their students and more likely to present non-controversial issues in a non-controversial manner. A hesitation to provoke necessarily limits the kind of education that students experience by undermining the liberal arts commitment to the view that knowledge of the truth is never static, but always subject to the process of searching.
Such a perspective depends on remembering that this trend toward contingency has been many decades in the making, and did not merely emerge from the financial crisis of 2008. Though certainly the ranks of contingent faculty have grown since then, the ratio of full-time to part-time faculty had been steadily declining for the thirty years prior. Situating this story around that convenient date makes it easy to miss the deeper political roots of this phenomenon and to conclude that this is a financial issue when it is really about the politics of teaching.
A recognition of the seeming contradiction between the importance of teaching on the one hand and the deteriorating working conditions of those who teach on the other demands that those who seek to understand the move toward greater contingency be cognizant of the politics of education. Not doing so obscures the high stakes involved.