For the Good or the Guild? Scholars Respond to Kate Daley-Bailey: Charles McCrary

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In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For  the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.

Revolution, Love, the Good, and the Guild

by Charles McCrary

Kate Daley-Bailey’s open letter to the American Academy of Religion is a personal and persuasive call to action, with five practical suggestions for improving the lives of adjuncts within the “guild” of religious studies. As an AAR member and, in all likelihood, future adjunct myself, I endorse the contents of the letter. The point of this post, though, is to consider why and how the AAR might care about adjuncts. On what grounds, by what logic, is the plight of adjuncts a problem?

At Florida State University’s recent Graduate Symposium, expertly recapped here by Jeff Wheatley, many participants, including those on a veritably star-studded roundtable, discussed neoliberalism. I don’t want to use such a loaded and disputed term as a simple one-word explanation of the situation of adjuncts in the ever-corporatizing “corporate university.” However, I do think there is something to be gained from considering neoliberalism as a “governing rationality,” following Wendy Brown following Michel Foucault. Neoliberalism names a set of political projects, designed to promote “efficiency” and profit in the name of good governance, but it also names “an order of normative reason that, when it becomes ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices, and metrics to every dimension of human life” (Brown, Undoing the Demos, 30). In other words, that state works this way in part because it has become common sense (and vice versa.) Later Brown contends that the “neoliberal state may act openly as a capitalist state and on behalf of capital because economic growth is its raison d’état, and capital appreciation is the presumed engine of growth” (68).

Many of us would say that higher education is valuable because it elevates public discourse, helps citizens’ thinking skills to develop, and creates environments in which innovation and ideas can be pursued freely. But these “goods” are not valuable in neoliberal society. College, according to President Obama, almost any freshman in your class, and a growing number of university presidents, is primarily about increasing one’s earning potential. Because numbers are trustworthy, the U.S. Department of Education offers a College Scorecard, which reports students’ “salary after attending,” the median earnings of aid-recipient students ten years after they enter school.

I like Kate’s focus on the “good” and the “guild,” but I’m afraid that her idea of the good might indeed be at odds with the way universities function now. The common good can be measured on a scorecard, and funding adjuncts’ conference travel does not improve a university’s rankings (or, perhaps, an academic society’s reputation.) Of course, I agree with Kate, and I agree that the plight of adjuncts is, in fact, not good. But the neoliberal academy does not agree. Their metrics (and I do mean metrics!) for measuring the “good” are simply on a different scale, using a different logic, a different governing rationality. To undo this rationality would require nothing less than a revolution.

Speaking of revolution, the AAR’s theme this year is Revolutionary Love. I have neither much personal experience with revolution nor academic expertise in love, so I speak with no authority here. But to understand revolution and resistance we might draw from Bruce Lincoln on the use of religious texts:

If religious texts can help reinforce the social order, they can also be used to modify it, either by agitating openly against its sustaining logic or, more modestly and more subtly, by using that same logic to recalibrate the positions assigned to given groups, shifting advantages from some to others (Lincoln, “How to Read a Religious Text”).

But which religious texts should be useful here? If, as others at the Bulletin have recently suggested, this AAR theme is tinged with Christian ideas and language (and, as someone on Twitter pointed out, a logo that looks very much like one from an evangelical high school retreat), perhaps it could be useful to apprehend what “love” might mean from the Christian scriptures. 1 Corinthians, in a passage you might hear recited by a minister at a wedding and/or someone who doesn’t know very many Bible verses, suggests love is the sine qua non of the good. Fancy talk, selfless deeds, prophecies, perhaps revolution—they need love to have any meaning or lasting power. “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but do not have love, I am nothing.” (The King James Version, it might be relevant to note, translates the word not as “love” but “charity.”) Adjuncts need a revolution. And they need love.

Charles McCrary is a PhD student in American religious history at Florida State University. His research interests center on nineteenth-century American cultural and intellectual history. He is writing a dissertation on the cultural history of sincerity and belief in 19th-century America. He can be found on Twitter @CharlesMcCrary.

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