THE BLOG
01/09/2015 03:51 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Memory Against Power: The Potential of Adjunct Faculty

Milan Kundera begins his masterful novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by describing a photograph from 21 February 1948, where Vladimir Clementis, long time activist, stands next to Klement Gottwald, chair of the communist party, on the podium at the pivotal moment when Gottwald announces changes which would usher in the socialist government in Czechoslovakia . Two years later Clementis was charged with treason because he opposed Stalinist demands. His image was erased from all photographs, including school text books, by the state propaganda office. Kundera observes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."

In today's individualist, consumerist, technocratic societies, many more forces than state officialdom erode memory. And, as I have described in earlier blogs, forgetfulness is especially apparent in higher education. Its once vibrant public purposes have been largely forgotten.

There is an overlooked resource for helping to reverse amnesia: part-time or adjunct faculty who make up more than one half of all teachers in America's public and private colleges and universities.

Over the holidays in South Africa, I was fascinated to learn how experiences of my brother-in-law, Stephen Dugmore, as a part-time faculty member resemble those of adjunct faculty in the US.

Stephen is one of South Africa's most talented architects. One of three finalists for the design of the famous Robben Island Centre commemorating the jail experiences of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners of the anti-apartheid struggle, he and his team were recently awarded the contract for designing the icon at the southern-most tip of the continent.

Stephen loves to teach. But after eight years of teaching at the School of Architecture at the University of Cape Town, he is calling it quits.

Like adjunct faculty in the US, his remuneration bore little relation to the hours he put in teaching. The deepest frustration was the sharp separation between the tenured faculty, focused on what is called "research," and part-time faculty, whose own work is devalued and largely invisible in the mainstream academic culture. "I felt I simply wasn't able to build a long term relationship to the school," he explained.

Stephen's experience is common in South African universities, and it reflects forgetfulness about what makes for vital faculty work. As described in books like Glenn Moss's The New Radicals, and Billy Kenniston's Choosing to Be Free, faculty and students were often on the front lines of the struggle against apartheid. This meant involvement with communities in a myriad of ways, enlivening scholarship and teaching.

I thought about parallels in America. My friends among adjunct faculty in the Twin Cities include community organizers, historians, scientists, artists, writers, business leaders. Many are outstanding public intellectuals, as well as wonderful teachers. But their talents and experiences are largely invisible, in ways which contribute to the radically shrunken sense of the purposes and meanings of higher education in our society.

In 1947 the Commission on Higher Education established by President Truman declared that "the first and most essential charge upon higher education is that at all levels and in all its fields of specialization, it shall be the carrier of democratic values, ideals, and process." This sounds today like a dusty museum piece. For all the service-learning projects, community research and other important engagement efforts connecting higher education to communities and the society in recent years, the democracy history and public purposes of higher education are largely forgotten.

We discovered such amnesia in discussions with thousands of citizens in an earlier conversation, "Shaping Our Future," and listening sessions leading up to the launch on Jan. 21 of the national conversation, "The Changing World of Work -- What Should We Ask of Higher Education?" Both conversations grow out of the American Commonwealth Partnership, dedicated to higher education's public purposes, which I coordinated on invitation of the White House, and the National Issues Forums Institute.

Many dynamics contribute to amnesia, including the ways colleges market themselves simply as tickets to individual success and rankings which put a premium on detached research. But changes in faculty cultures also play a role.

As Thomas Bender put it in the introduction to American Academic Cultures in Transformation, a study by leaders in four fields (Economics, English, Philosophy, and Political Science):

"The disciplines were redefined over the course of the half century following the [second world] war; from the means to an end they increasingly became an end in themselves, the possession of the scholars who constituted them...Academics sought some distance from civics."

Edwin Fogelman, then chair of the political science department at the University of Minnesota and I heard many examples of the consequences of this distancing when we interviewed dozens of senior faculty at UMN in 1997 and 1998. Many noted the erosion of community connections and public purposes. The interviews are described in Public Engagement in a Civic Mission, on the web.

As Charles Backstrom put it, "When I came to the University of Minnesota in 1959, the Political Science department gave students credit for working in the community and on political campaigns. I thought of my job description as including work with communities [and] worked with the extensive service in a rural public leadership program. I had examples of rising starts like John Bochert in Geography, who went on to become world-famous. John was working with communities to think through what factors make a small community grow and flourish or fail."

Backstrom also experienced "a war of cultures at the university," which made his public engagements suspect. Despite a distinguished career, including a stint as pollster for Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign in 1968, when I interviewed him after his retirement party in 1998, he worried that his career had been "a failure" because it violated dominant norms of detached scholarship.

Today, as described recently in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Service Employees International Union and others are seeking to organize adjunct faculty to improve their working conditions and to gain voice in addressing the changes transforming higher education. The campaign aims at organizing faculty in multiple institutions in metropolitan areas such as Boston, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and the Twin Cities.

These goals are about basic justice. Organizing also has potential to generate larger change, based on recognizing the roles which adjunct faculty often play as connectors between education and the larger society.

Such rootedness was the wellspring of the democratic story of higher education. Recognizing its importance will require adjuncts, as well as institutions, to name and claim the nature and importance of their work in new ways.

This process may reverse amnesia about what it means to be a faculty member with public goals and civic identity. It could also help lead to a broader democratic awakening.