For this month’s Summer Session we’re going Back to School, and today we bring you Anuradha Vikram’s #Hashtags column addressing adjunct labor. Higher education in the United States has become increasingly dependent upon this contingent and precarious workforce, and Vikram argues that its inherent instability is particularly jarring given the Marxian configuration of labor that underpins much of contemporary art rhetoric. This article was originally published on May 5, 2014.
This past May Day week, there has been much chatter about the decision by adjunct faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute to file for a union election. This comes on the heels of a similar decision to file for union election byMills College adjuncts and the formation of a union to represent adjuncts at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The ubiquity of adjuncts in college teaching is not new, but the conversation around unions for part-time faculty has emerged more recently. Meanwhile, tensions regarding low pay and lack of job security and benefits for instructors, and rising tuition costs for students, are finally converging to invigorate a public conversation about the substandard working conditions of the majority of American college faculty.
In the arts, this overreliance on a precarious labor force is doubly appalling, given that much contemporary art rhetoric draws heavily on a Marxist construction of labor that resists and opposes alienation of workers in the interests of capital. For such intellectual constructs to be transmitted to new generations of artists and students by a fundamentally alienated workforce of adjuncts is a genuine scandal. The renewed emphasis on collectivity in art that coincides with the emergence of social and pedagogical post-conceptual practices seems not to be reflected in the values of academic institutions such as SFAI. This is evident in President Charles Desmarais’ appeal to adjunct faculty to reject SEIU’s efforts to unionize them, which was criticized by longtime Visiting Faculty (aka adjunct) Dale Carrico in a cogent blog post that called out the school for touting its Diego Rivera mural while discouraging contingent employees from organizing. Rivera’s famously working-class politics may seem a historical footnote to administrators, but for faculty and students, they are again relevant. Consider, after all, that the newly minted MFAs graduating from these non-unionized, adjunct-heavy art schools will face the same enormous pressure to comply with an unfair system that the adjuncts who teach them contend with currently.