The (Laboring) Elephant in the Room

admin 24/03/2013

One of the major themes of Duke’s 7th annual Feminist Theory Workshop this weekend was  the condition of precarity. The initial conversation and configurations of the discussion of precarity revolved around the ethics of a privileged relation of the academic/scholar/researcher to an object of study that exists in precarity. However, it seemed to me, and many others, that the discussion of the ethics of such a position did not sufficiently acknowledge those of us at the workshop who were ourselves in positions of precarity—not because of our queerness but because of our labor relations to our universities.

I am still amazed that the only time I heard the words “adjunct labor” during the workshop was when I brought them up in my seminar. A few months ago, at our annual literary disciplinary conference (MLA), adjunct labor and the state of graduate education were two of the most overwhelmingly present touchstones of conversation (along with the Digital Humanities) and were featured in Michael Bérubé’s Presidential Address. In literary studies, we refer to the collective status of PhD students and non-tenure track (NTT) faculty as  contingent labor. While the idea of “contingency” is useful in that it implies a relation between NTTers and the institutions that employ or do not employ them, “precarity” seems to resonate more with how I feel or experience this relation.  And the various affects of precarity were palpable within the small auditorium of the workshop.

During the closing roundtable one brave soul “took a risk” (his words) in calling attention to the kinds of privilege that relate to established academics’ positions within institutions of higher learning. Graduate students, on the other hand, are living precarity, not (or not only) writing about it. The response in both situations (the seminar and the roundtable) was silence and diversion.  This continues to puzzle me. Many scholars in the room (not just those who had presented) have produced wonderful research on both precarity and the affects of precarity in relation to immigration, trauma, natural disasters, queerness, etc.  Why aren’t the frames of inquiry required in such research transferable to critiques of labor in our universities, disciplines, or departments? In subsequent conversations, one colleague suggested that the silence might be a result of helplessness, another guilt or complicity, another confusion or misunderstanding, another the inability to relate to our situation. As “brave soul” put it, “Where you are might never be mine.”  



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