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The Precarious Lives of Politically Incorrect Adjuncts

Posted by iusbvision on September 22, 2009

Pope Center for Education Policy:

A professor without tenure discovers that even the teaching of basic English is driven by political correctness.

By Mary Grabar

August 25, 2009

I’m an adjunct English professor. When the subject of adjunct faculty comes up, the predictable calls for unionization and “social justice” are often voiced by my tenured colleagues enjoying light teaching loads and by administrators enjoying comfortable salaries overseeing “multicultural” programs. But I know that I would not be among their intended beneficiaries were they made aware of my political views.

mary grabarIt’s not that I sought to be political when I returned to school in the 1990s to earn my Ph.D. I soon discovered, however, that political neutrality—even in literary studies—is suspect. In the academic world, the belief that great literature conveys universal, timeless themes is generally taken as evidence of an imperialistic outlook. The same holds for history, where the reliance on factual evidence and focus on major events are deemed offensive to women and those from non-Western cultures.

My fellow graduate students tailored their programs for the job market: studying African-American and gay writers, and applying the trendy postmodern, deconstructivist literary theories. Since 2002, when I earned my Ph.D. in English, the field has gotten even stranger, with such additions to the ideological postcolonial, African-American, and critical theory courses as “fat studies” and “trauma studies.” An upperclassman can enroll in “Introduction to Visual Rhetoric”—and then presumably in “Advanced Visual Rhetoric.” But how does my study of Plato and Cicero prepare me to teach these classes?

I am considered qualified to teach freshman composition, though. My experience of being called at 4:50 p.m. on a Friday and asked to be on campus at 8:30 a.m. on Monday to fill out the application and teach two classes that morning is not that unusual. At least it’s one way to avoid the scrutiny of mycurriculum vitae.

Some of my teaching is done at a community college. Even there, however, one must accept the prevailing ideology, as I discovered during a job interview.

After my teaching demonstration on a nuts-and-bolts aspect of freshman composition (semicolons), the committee chair (a black female who chaired a committee that was all-female, except for one openly gay man), asked how I addressed the multicultural needs of the student body. I mentioned Zora Neale Hurston, the black and decidedly non-political author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, as someone I like to have students read. Apparently, it wasn’t a good enough response.

Although I did not get the position, I was encouraged to apply again. To put my cv over the edge, I suppose I should attend the recommended online and Saturday teacher development workshops and publish papers on multicultural pedagogy.

I certainly could not, however, tout my writing in publications like the Weekly Standard, Pajamas Media, and Townhall, even though they might inspire student writers. Some of my colleagues openly brag about being published in the leftist magazine The Nation or having worked on Al Gore’s presidential campaign. That’s perfectly safe, but I no longer list my academic affiliations under my byline. Once I was told that I was no longer “needed” at a school after readers of my columns wrote laudatory letters to the department chair.

Here’s another illustrative case. A colleague who started at a small college as an adjunct was eventually hired on a one-year basis and told he’d be the first in line when a full-time position opened. Then he was asked to submit his application, but was later told that the position now required a “gender historian.” He was not even interviewed, despite having published a book and having received glowing student evaluations. History major “groupies” circulated petitions when they learned that his contract was not being renewed—to no avail. He just didn’t have the right political orientation. Excellent teaching and research didn’t matter.

The sad fact is that history majors, after taking the mandatory gender history class, will be taught from that same radical perspective in their other history classes. These kinds of students probably will seek other majors. I doubt I would have continued my graduate studies had I not been able to select the traditional classes of older professors, who have since retired or died.

And even at the community college level where we have to explain the difference between a noun and a verb, we have no choice in textbooks. One I currently use includes a story by Richard Wright from his communist period (which Zora Neale Hurston called “communist propaganda,” I tell my students). The introduction does not mention Wright’s repudiation of communism later. The grammar handbook uses Alice Walker’s prose as examples of elegant sentences, and the words of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld as logical fallacies. At another low-tier state university we were ordered to put on our syllabi that the course had the objective of gaining “an understanding of race, class, and gender.”

I think what happened a generation ago was that conservative humanities professors failed in challenging the ideology of the radicals—especially the females—who demanded entrance. During my one-year stint as a full-time faculty member I watched a tenured Shakespeare professor voice no objection to the suggestion that a course include Tupac Shakur’s lyrics as poetry.

Or, more generously, the conservative gatekeepers assumed that the radicals demanding entrance would apply the same rules of open-mindedness, objective inquiry, and fair play they did. We now know otherwise.

The colonization of American higher education by the left is remarkably thorough. From the elite universities to the lowest-ranked schools, the deck is stacked in favor of those who want to turn everything from semicolons to Shakespeare into an ideological exercise. On occasion, dissidents like myself can sneak in the back door, but we are in a precarious position.

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