Who are the aca­demic elite, ex­actly?

Most ses­sional teach­ers in the ‘ivory tower’ are just try­ing to scrape out a liv­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - LATHAM HUNTER Latham Hunter is a writer and pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and cul­tural stud­ies; her work has been pub­lished in jour­nals, an­tholo­gies, mag­a­zines and print news for over 20 years. She blogs at The Kids’ Book Cu­ra­tor.

Back in Fe­bru­ary, The Spectator dar­ingly pub­lished not one, but two ar­ti­cles about prom­i­nent Mc­Mas­ter fig­ures’ re­sponses to Don­ald Trump’s elec­tion. TWO. On the same day! Mc­Mas­ter Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Henry Giroux and Mc­Mas­ter Univer­sity pres­i­dent Pa­trick Deane both, un­sur­pris­ingly, warned against Trump’s ide­ol­ogy. Sure enough, the ar­ti­cles pro­voked some pop­ulist ire: one let­ter to the ed­i­tor slammed both men as “cos­seted, fi­nan­cially se­cure lib­er­als” from the “ivory tower” who are part of “the elites [...], ex­hibit­ing cul­tural snob­bery even as they preen in their own su­pe­ri­or­ity.” Does work­ing in an ivory tower au­to­mat­i­cally make you one of the elites?

I was sim­i­larly struck by Michael En­right’s April 2 in­ter­view with Pre­ston Man­ning on CBC’s Sun­day Edi­tion; Man­ning re­peat­edly re­ferred to “fi­nan­cial, po­lit­i­cal and aca­demic elites.” Again, the logic eludes me: since when are aca­demics roam­ing the halls of power with the cor­po­rate lob­by­ists, the fi­nanciers, and the pol­icy-mak­ers?

Aca­demics sure can’t claim elite sta­tus by their pay rate: from 2002 to 2014, part-time and tem­po­rary in­struc­tor as­sign­ments (ses­sional, ad­junct, or con­tract work) went up by 135 per cent, but the num­ber of full-time fac­ulty in­creased by only 20 per cent. Over roughly the same pe­riod, full-time stu­dent en­rol­ment alone went up by about 50 per cent. As Ma­clean’s re­ported in 2014, ses­sional teach­ers make about $28,000 per year for teach­ing four cour­ses (of­ten at dif­fer­ent schools), while full-time ten­ure track profs will make be­tween $80,000 and $150,000 for teach­ing the same num­ber of cour­ses on one cam­pus. This cheap labour is in­creas­ingly be­ing used to churn larger and larger num­bers of stu­dents through the sys­tem: ses­sion­als teach more than half of all un­der­grad stu­dents in Canada, which for Lau­rier, for ex­am­ple, looks like 4 per cent of its op­er­at­ing bud­get be­ing used to teach 50 per cent of its stu­dents. It’s more of a re­cy­cled plas­tic tower than an ivory tower, re­ally.

The col­lege sys­tem does a bet­ter job of keep­ing track of the stats on this kind of thing: in On­tario, part-time fac­ulty make up al­most 70 per cent of col­lege in­struc­tors. So it would ap­pear that most work­ing aca­demics, i.e. post-sec­ondary in­struc­tors, make a whop­ping, cos­seted $5,000 above the Cana­dian poverty line. Truly, one must shield one’s eyes, lest one’s reti­nas be burned by the white hot glare of their priv­i­lege.

Aside from the is­sue of pay, an aca­demic’s re­la­tion­ship to the con­cept of “elite” can be kind of messed up. On one hand: I re­mem­ber that, as a grad stu­dent, I was in a group con­tin­u­ally re­minded that, as peo­ple hop­ing to teach at univer­sity, we were lost causes. I once got a form let­ter from a univer­sity thank­ing me for my ap­pli­ca­tion to their grad­u­ate pro­gram and also re­mind­ing me that there was lit­tle if any chance of my ever be­com­ing a pro­fes­sor. As part of my PhD stud­ies, I had to read a book called “The Univer­sity in Ruins.”

On the other hand: as a hu­man­i­ties stu­dent, I of­ten learned about the scale and scope of the dam­age done by the priv­i­leged (white mid­dle class peo­ple like me), and the un­fair ad­van­tage I had sim­ply be­cause I was born into a sit­u­a­tion in which a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion was even an op­tion. So from this per­spec­tive, I was elite, but only in­so­far as it was some­thing I was un­easy and vaguely ashamed about.

I don’t know if the same thing was go­ing on for aca­demics in the sci­ences, but my mem­o­ries of sci­en­tists wor­riedly stuff­ing their car trunks full of data when the Harper gov­ern­ment was on its mis­sion to dump vast quan­ti­ties of re­search … well, they make me think that the sci­en­tists don’t feel all that elite, ei­ther.

So many aca­demics spend their time re­search­ing things like poverty, democ­racy, ed­u­ca­tion, pub­lic pol­icy, the en­vi­ron­ment ... things that give them a fairly good idea about the in­jus­tices suf­fered by the dis­em­pow­ered. This is why there’s such evil ge­nius in la­belling them elites them­selves: the pro­fes­sion­als, along with jour­nal­ists (also cur­rently ma­ligned as “elite”), per­haps best trained to re­search and re­port on the real breadth and depth of the world’s in­jus­tices, are ren­dered less cred­i­ble by as­so­ci­at­ing them with the ac­tual cul­prits. It’s the cul­tural equiv­a­lent of that clas­sic fart ri­poste, “Who­ever smelt it, dealt it.”

But let’s just say, for the sake of ar­gu­ment, that all aca­demics had sta­ble, mid­dle class em­ploy­ment teach­ing and re­search­ing and pub­lish­ing and gen­er­ally pro­mot­ing truth and knowl­edge and stuff. Would that make them elite? Would it make them em­ploy­ers of hun­dreds? Of thou­sands? Would it mean they could sway mil­lions in gov­ern­ment spend­ing? Would they shape the me­dia con­tent that reached bil­lions of eye­balls every day? Would they have power over the qual­ity of air we breathe? In the age of Ap­ple and War­ren Buf­fett, can the cat­e­gory of “elite” re­ally be ap­plied to aca­demics?

As part of my PhD stud­ies, I had to read a book called ‘The Univer­sity in Ruins.’

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