Many people I know in academia have experienced anxiety since the 2016 election, and subsequent events have kept their anxiety fresh. Some feel more vulnerable as professionals under public scrutiny; some feel more responsible for shaping public events; some have reevaluated the purpose of their work. This feeling is not limited to those on the left. Too many of the conservative and libertarian academics I know, the American national situation seems, if anything, even more frustrating and uncertain.
George Innes, The Lackawanna Valley, oil on canvas, ca. 1856. Public domain. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
In a time like this, we can forget that most aspects of our work are not new. I worry sometimes that politically galvanized academic workers may lose sight of the fundamentals. With that in mind, let us assume you are (as I am) an adjunct professor who specializes in the early American republic, and who teaches at small schools in a red state or reddish region of the country. Here are some ways your work as an adjunct and scholar probably has not changed since the election.
First, when most Americans discuss academia, they still assume that students and tenure-track faculty at major universities and exclusive liberal arts colleges represent the rest of us. That assumption is still false.
Second, if you study the early American republic, virtually all of your income as an adjunct (if it comes from academic work at all) probably still derives from teaching other topics. That still means, among other things, that the time you spend on specialized scholarship is probably inefficient and fitful.
When you do teach early American history, students raised in the United States still think they already know the material. Thus, you still struggle to make familiar things strange. (The challenge when teaching other topics is often, but not always, the other way around.) This is still true for liberal and conservative students alike.
With respect to early American history, the differences between the preconceptions of your liberal and conservative students when they arrive in your classes are still small—except for a few issues.
You still look for ways to communicate basic ideas like contingency and context. When you teach early American history, you struggle to get students to understand its familiar moments as instances of uncertainty, experimentation, and often violence. You still find it difficult to fight teleological temptations in your own lectures.
Your students probably still visualize white men as agents when they think about any topic in American history. This, too, is true for liberal and conservative students alike—and it varies less by demographic group than you might assume. Indeed, there is still a high chance it is true for you.
You still teach mostly students who have not had the privilege of wide travel outside their own region of the country, nor (in many areas) wide exposure to different cultures within their own.
The most engaged and thoughtful students still are not necessarily the ones who most agree with you. When they do change their minds, it is still because they are changing their own minds; you are not changing their minds for them. It is still true, as well, that some of them are going to change their minds completely, but only years after leaving college.
You are still accused of trying to brainwash students if you express the opinion that a good college education is likely to change their thinking. You still are accused of coddling students if you express the opinion that they should all feel welcome and accepted in your classroom. You still do your job anyway.
Your classes still probably are not very racially diverse, although this varies enormously by institution, location, and teaching schedule. This still makes a big difference to class discussions.
Many of your students still have a limited understanding of basic American institutions, including the things you believe everyone in a democracy needs to understand—and many have surprisingly vague knowledge of current events.
Some students probably are still hostile to you for partisan reasons, or because of racial, sexual, or other kinds of prejudice.
You are still tempted to make assumptions about your students that turn out not to be true. The students who get the most out of your classes still are not always the ones you expect.
Your students still need you to model respectful disagreement, evidential reasoning, curiosity, and intellectual humility—about every subject.
When political pundits characterize the experiences and attitudes of American college students, most of them still have no idea what they are talking about.
The academy’s treatment of adjuncts and other contingent faculty members still demonstrates its contempt for general-curriculum teaching. For most people, good teaching is still not a path (nor bad teaching a hindrance) to professional advancement in any transparent way. A few of your senior colleagues—not most, and not necessarily in the humanities, but a few—still never seem to talk about teaching except to complain about having to do it. That still includes professors who believe education is the solution to America’s political problems.
(Finally, the preceding list probably still includes elements that do not apply to you. Academic labor is still complicated, context-sensitive, and highly individual.)
Ali Zifan, “Pennsylvania Presidential Election Results 2016,” Wikimedia Commons, 2016. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
The bottom line for many adjuncts in Trump country is this: The American higher educational system as a whole depends on exploited and vulnerable workers to carry out the most basic business of a history education. In the current apparent time of crisis, this means academia perversely depends on exploited workers to maintain its institutional integrity and justify its public privileges. That business model is neither just nor sustainable.
Almost everyone in public life, on the left or the right, seems to agree that teaching the early history of the United States is critical to building good citizens and advancing liberty. Yet our working conditions reveal something else entirely about their values. In the meantime, the republic needs its history teachers, and our fundamental mission has changed very little.