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Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education


Reviews & Interviews

  November 2005
William Vaughn on Reclaiming the Ivory Tower
Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labor

The subtitle to Joe Berry’s important new book promises that by organizing we can change higher education, and while I share that hope, I doubt if Berry would agree that the portion of his study which best communicates some shape of that change is the “Acknowledgments.” Maybe I’m the only one who ever reads these pages of an academic tome, but I’ve seen enough instances of the genre to recognize the formula: dissertation directors thanked; colleagues recognized; conference hosts toasted; journals credited; partners beatified. All praise to those who supposedly made the work possible; all blame to the person whose name actually appears on the spine. There’s nothing really wrong with the formula—every cliché contains some truth—but as a formula, it too often expresses the very structure of labor books like Berry’s are hoping to revise: one person at the top of a pyramid, acknowledging that pyramid, with the pyramid builders then scuttling off to the footnotes and works cited pages.

Books, then, are often like the institutions that sponsor them: glamorous apogees cresting countless hours of invisible labor—only some of which was performed by the person whose name appears on the spine. Joe Berry has worked on a number of pyramids; he’s put in the hours; and he’s talked to, consulted with, and learned from a lot of other people who have done the same. Much of which is acknowledged beautifully toward the end of Reclaiming the Ivory Tower. If, like he and I, you value such a reclamation project, read the “Acknowledgments” for an alternative perspective on what it means to do the work of education and for how we might begin to change our work.

Should you choose to read the book in its given sequence, though, you will first move through five frames of organizing before reaching the felt sense of such captured in those

Acknowledgments.” opens with some snapshots of contingent academic labor before theorizing bases of response. It then moves to more specific accounts, first of recent organizing successes in Chicago and then—somewhat speculatively—of a metropolitan strategy we might extrapolate there from. The fifth and final chapter concerns some basic organizing advice.

Having shared rostrum, periodical, and anthology space with Joe Berry, I was more than prepared to be impressed with this volume; having organized academic workers at the graduate employee and tenure-line levels, I was ready to learn more about the needs of those in contingent circumstances. Berry’s book rewards on multiple levels. Its limitations, I suspect, are those intrinsic to a nascent genre. We are only beginning to organize toward change. The more progress made, the better we will understand both where we’ve been and where we’re going.

One appreciates especially the author’s respect for the very contingencies of contingent workers. As Berry recognizes, one of the fundamental questions such workers must ask is, “[W]hat organizational structure in a particular situation will best provide the maximum amount of activism and class consciousness in any particular situation?” (36). I would also endorse the entire section on “Appointment to Union Staff,” which should by read by anyone building or maintaining a union for education workers (41-46). Chapter 3, “The Chicago Experience,” grows out of Berry’s interview research, and compellingly captures the voices of academic unionists as they progress from disgruntled and disposable employees to reinvigorated professionals. I also found myself concurring when Berry defined a union as “the relationship among people that allows us to trust that we are not alone and can act together in solidarity”; and when, in encouraging workers to “act like a union” before they’ve achieved formal recognition, he suggests that “the focus should be on building an organization that can survive a contentious campaign and [remain] strong enough to force real changes in compensation, working conditions, and the quality of education for our students” (120, 121). However much all of us—graduate employee, contingent worker, full-time tenure line—may be organizing toward basic improvements in wages, benefits, and terms/conditions of employment, we are also always aiming—as Berry’s title reminds us—to reclaim and enhance the whole of higher education. That project begins in our trust as fellow professionals and culminates in a renewed sense of professionalism—one that recognizes the erosion of our status equally damages students.

Here is where I might have appreciated more from the interview research. As material analysis, Berry’s work makes all the right points. But for all our recent organizing successes, much militates against the kind of professional transformation conveyed by his book’s title. We shouldn’t—we must not—be deterred by those impediments every organizer encounters in recruiting colleagues. But academics’ capacities for self-mystification remain, I would argue, the greatest barriers to the type of renewal that I, Berry, and the many figures cited in his “Acknowledgments” have been fighting for.

When I’m not teaching or organizing, I’m often training teachers. After fifteen or so years in the profession, I still feel as though we don’t talk enough about our classrooms as sites of work. More importantly, we don’t talk enough about of our work as work. My little pyramid in west central Missouri barely rises above the prairie, but like every such enterprise, modest to world-class, it stays alive by paying too many people too little money, and by extending them too little respect. At the first—and only!—dean’s council meeting I attended, I asked why my department’s office professionals both earned less than $20,000. We hired a consultant, I was told, and they determined those were market wages. Sometime after that meeting, my school junked its salary schedule for professors and replaced it with “market” and “merit” indices. I was still naïve enough that I hadn’t seen that coming. Too many of us remain naïve.

Read Joe Berry’s book for the advice it contains, the success it chronicles, the hope it conveys. But then—after or in the midst of marking, grading, prepping, teaching, meeting, conferencing, advising, researching, and writing—then, indulge in some truly utopian thinking. Imagine how you might convince some really intelligent people that they can be dumb about very basic things. Then organize them. Then tear down the pyramid and rebuild it.





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