Academe as a Plantation: A False Consciousness

latina-professor-350The Webster’s dictionary defines a plantation as “a large area of land especially in a hot part of the world where crops (such as cotton) are grown.” However, like every other definition it has many lives. The popular meaning today includes large farms growing a commercial crop such as cotton, bananas or other single crop such as sugar. It needs a large labor pool comprised of slaves or slave-like labor such as peonage.

Like prisons the slaves develop a mental and emotional dependency on the institutional life. I have friends who actually enjoy going back to prison, although acknowledging their loss of freedom. The plantation preys on this dependency and gives the inmates (slaves and peons) housing and other functions. They are often controlled through privileges that they are grateful for.

The university is organized in a similar fashion: the bosses, the overseers, the disparate crew bosses and the peons (the students). They are distinguished by titles: doctor, professor, mister and the peons by first name. Recently I referred to a colleague as Ms. So and so, she corrected me, Dr. So and so.

I responded that I did not use the title, any title, and that my father upon learning that I had one asked me, “si eres doctor que curas” (“if you are a doctor what do you cure”).

Everyone down the vertical scale has a title: full professor, associate professor and assistant professor. When I began at my present institution, the entry was often an instructor who was at the bottom of the overseer class but was in line to move up.

Originally the lecturers were paid better than the instructors or the part-timers. However, the lecturers and the part-timers were vulnerable because they were not in line to become “partners.”

Today the part-timers enjoy some permanency thanks to a union contract. In lieu of equality they have been upgraded in name to “lecturers.” It sounds better, and a title almost always makes the guard feel like he is in line for a promotion to become a tenured professor.

This plantation mentality has been used very effectively by academe that has converted the institution into profit centers. The process is neoliberalism that “makes it harder for poor children to attend college and forces debt-ridden students into an intellectual and moral dead zone devoid of imagination.”

In an interview Henry A. Giroux defined neoliberalism as an ideology that interprets profit making as the essence of democracy and concludes that only the market can solve our problems. “As a mode of governance, it produces identities, subjects, and ways of life driven by a survival of the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual, and committed to the right of ruling groups and institutions to accrue wealth removed from matters of ethics and social costs.”

This hit home the other day when I received an email from a part-timer who now considers herself a “lecturer.” She objected to my criticizing California State University Northridge for converting itself from a public university into a private university – privatizing the blue collar working labor pool into contract labor.

At CSUN and most state universities, the academy increasingly relies on part-timers to process its classes. CSUN has not gone as far as some American universities and outsourced online teaching to foreign vendors via profit-making centers such as the Tseng College. However, CSUN is headed that way.

Using part-time or lecturers is cheaper than employing full-time professors. The academy saves not only in salaries but costs for sabbaticals, release time, tenure, office space and other perks. In lieu of higher salaries many of the part-timers (AKA lecturers) are forced to moonlight. In Chicana/o studies department some teach at two and three other campuses to eke out a living. The result is they parachute in and out of the university, and students in most cases do not get the benefit of office hours.

Many of the so-called lecturers develop what Marxist called a false consciousness that is caused by the systematic misrepresentation of dominant class of reality. Thus the subordinate classes form a false consciousness. The ruling elites systematically conceal or obscure the realities of subordination, exploitation, and domination. Examples of this false consciousness abound; most obvious are workers identifying with the Republican Party or corporate thieves.

Critics of neoliberalism blame the lack of critical thinking skills. It is no accident that the teaching of critical thinking has been under heavy attack by neoliberals. Max Rafferty, a California Superintendent of Public Instruction in the 1960s, called the schools of education subversive for teaching critical thinking. The outcome is that it pays to be ignorant and ignorance like greed is good.

The notion of a false consciousness hit me the other day when I received an email from a part-timer (AKA lecturer) who told me that I was “biting the hand” that fed me because I was criticizing the university and the administration for the abuses of neoliberalism and the privatizing of what was once a public institution.

The email began like all messages of this type; she demanded that I take her off my mailing list, accusing me of sending unsolicited “missives” (she is on the humanities list server, not mine). She continued “I find your recent remark towards Dr. Harry Hillenbrand intolerable…I have been a lecturer in the Department of English for sixteen years… I have found Dr. Hillenbrand to be a valuable champion of my efforts, always with an open ear and open mind.”

In the next breath she complains about “the interminable and convoluted confines of University Policy to improve teaching conditions for Lecturers at CSUN.” The writer then says that she is “only entitled to teach four classes per academic year, per my three-year contract, [thus] I earned $19,000 last year.” She then questions how much I have been paid, “Has the University really been that bad to you?” This is another way of telling me that if I don’t like it to go back to Mexico.

She concludes, “But I must say that, in the process, you bite the hand that feeds you. Please stop pissing on my CSUN. This place means too much to me to take your irresponsible jab at Harry Hillenbrand.”

Not once does she examine the issues of the lack of faculty diversity, out-of-control tuition, student debts, and the university as a profit center, the particulars of the UNAM/CSUN accord or other grievances that I have laid out. She admits that she only earns $19,000 annually which to me constitutes exploitation.

If she loves the university so much why does she tolerate these conditions? Why doesn’t she fight to convert part time positions into full time tenured faculty? And why doesn’t she fight for effective faculty governance through the California Faculty Association?

I am also concerned about CSUN. I am concerned about its ability to educate Latino, black and other working class students. I am concerned as their teacher not their doctor that they have the proper food, shelter and clothing. I am concerned that the universities are using them to pay for administrators, professors and “lecturers” salaries and perks. They are my students not my slaves.

rudy acunaLastly, I am concerned about the growing academic-military-industrial complex in U.S. and Mexican universities. Higher education should be about teaching students how to think for themselves in a democracy, and not feed the false consciousness of my part-time friend who works the same hours as a tenure track professor at, if I am to believe her, a third of the wages of an entry-level assistant professor.

Perhaps she should be angry instead of taking it. But the truth is that academe like the prison and the plantation institutionalizes us not to piss on it. She should try it, pissing is often a pause of refreshment.

Rodolfo F. Acuña

 

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