More on Professors and Unionization

As K C Johnson noted here yesterday, Stanley Fish and Walter Benn Michaels have a conversation at the New York Timesopinionator blog in which both advocate unionization (see here).  Their immediate target is an op-ed by Naomi Schaefer Riley in USA Today entitled “Why Unions Hurt Higher Education” (see here).

It should be noted that Michaels and Fish are both English professors, which puts them in a department where the adjunct hiring problem is, perhaps, the worst on the entire campus.  They see enormous differences in working conditions for those at the top and those at the bottom, and with the job market in literary studies in dreadful condition, unionization is certainly one of the options the faculty may take if things get any worse.

When humanities professors talk about unions, however, they run up against a wall of their own making.  it is that while unionization requires collective thinking and action, humanities working conditions, particularly the incentives for promotion and salary, are all individual.  Professors are valuated on their teaching and research, mostly, with service a distant third.  Service is, indeed, collective (committee work, administrative duties), but teaching and research are almost always based upon solitary work.  People write books and articles by themselves and they teach classes by themselves.  They have learned from the start that unless the sequester themselves for individual work, they won’t have the time to meet tenure demands.  In the 1950s, social theorists used to talk about the way television “atomized” people, separating them into houses at night, eyes focused on the electric hearth.  Today’s research university does the same for professors, their eyes focused on the books and web pages they need to write their way to advancement.

They’ve done it so long that it becomes a professional trait.  They think separately and work separately, often regarding collective moments such as department meetings as a bother.  Many of them just want to be left alone.

The union option works against years of acculturation.  So much so that it is hard to imagine 35 English professors convening, drafting an objective, formulating a method, and mobilizing for action.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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