Class Struggle is the Name of the Game at Universities. It’s the Ethical Elephant in the Room

Brian McKenna

Picture this. You have a Ph.D. in anthropology and are hired, as an adjunct, to teach an anthropology course on “colonialism, economic crisis, peasant struggles, nationalism, indigenous rights, independence movements, and struggles over development and underdevelopment.” That’s an actual job posting. The salary for the position is $3,413.

A tenured faculty member may receive about $10,000 to teach the same course.

Now answer this. How can you NOT talk about your own struggles when the subjects you are hired to teach on – oppression and struggle – apply to you? You are a flesh and blood native of Nacirema (“America” spelt backwards) standing before the students. You can provide insider testimony, as a key informant, about “the other.” And you are “the other.” You are a Ph.D. anthropologist who is actually working in the field.

Many adjunct professors are afraid to speak about the elephant in the classroom. They are being monitored. They are under constant surveillance from customers (student smartphones and course evaluations), middle managers (teaching observations by Chairs), technicians (email monitoring by IT), executive officers (annual reviews read by Deans), and CEOs (Provosts and Presidents). They must be careful. They need that paycheck for food, housing, health care, even burial. At one university where I worked I was informed that, before I arrived, the department had to take up a collection for the funds to bury an adjunct professor after he died from a massive heart attack in his office.

The contradictions within the university are enormous. Self-censorship is the rule for any precarious worker, especially in a factory or fast food job. But for an educator? Surely those educated in the threatening science (Price 2004) and dangerous art (McKenna and Darder 2011) of anthropology would be at the forefront of resistance. Here is a troublesome irony: many of the adjunct’s superiors in the academic hierarchy are other anthropologists. They are often Deans, Provosts or Presidents, academics who have crossed over into administration. Here is another irony, those Deans and Presidents can erode tenured faculty pay, over time, in response to the existence of the dual labor market. Is their primary loyalty to the neoliberal institution or is it to their fellow anthropologists? Are they complicit in the deplorable pay and working conditions?

Of course this is an old, old story. I shared my thoughts with a veteran adjunct, a social activist who once worked as a housing organizer in the 1960s. He asked, “Why precarity now? Where was the association for the past 30 years? I’m sorry; nobody expressed adjunct precarity as an ethical or social justice concern. It was always I got mine, now get yours. There must be something wrong with you, It’s always been competitive; not everyone with a Ph.D. gets a job. The victim-blaming, stigmatization of adjuncts as invisible and ‘other,’ together with the adjunct’s feelings of self-blame, and self-doubt compound the sense of alienation and often even social paralysis. it’s about time that the discipline woke up; however, the train left the station decades ago, and that train has made thousands of round trips.”

Why Precarity now? One reason is because the United States is in its “end times.” The AAA itself recognized this with the title of its 2009 annual conference. America is now a post-Orwellian culture of permanent war, bulwarked by the “terror of neoliberalism” at home (Giroux 2004, 2007). Why precarity now? Because most of us are now treated like adjuncts. “There’s a lot of fear in academia,” explained noted anthropologist and labor organizer Paul Durrenberger in his 2014 Malinowski speech at the SfAA (see his “Living up to Our Words” 2014; See also his “Anthropology of Labor Unions” 2010). Indeed, class struggle is everywhere in the authoritarian university. It’s in the debt peonage of students, new corporate alignments, suppression of dissent, student push-out (drop-out) rates, elimination of humanities programs, and workplace bullying of dissenters. It’s in its focus on STEM for capital not ROOT for people: Revolutionary history, Ontology and ethics, Organizing skills and Transformational humanities.

Class struggle is deeply embedded in the digital revolution as well. E-learning, distance education, and Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)s have come of age. They are said to expand democracy. Some faculties question this. On April 29, 2013 the philosophy faculty of San Jose State University wrote a letter protesting the way in which a Harvard professor’s lecture was taped and disseminated widely for classroom use. The professors refused to teach that philosophy course developed by edX, “saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to ‘replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities’” (Kolowich 2013). It’s not just MOOCS but e-learning systems like CANVAS and Blackboard too (McKenna 2013).

With their aggressive entry into higher education, the corporate state is consolidating its power in the third leg of Eisenhower’s feared trifecta: “the military-industrial-ACADEMIC complex.” In 2012 major industry officials announced their study showing the “enormous potential for the future of the e-learning market.” IBIS Capital and the Edxus Group, said that “While education as a whole is triple the size of the media and entertainment industry at $4.2 trillion, digital education is currently only 20% of the size of the digital media market. They expect to see fifteen fold growth in the e-learning market in the next 10 years to represent 30% of the total education market,” reported Pippa Cottrell in Realwire (Cottrell 2013). Educators have not yet had adequate time to theorize the darker side of the digital earthquake in their midst (McKenna 2013). It is one thing for computers to be freely chosen by faculty for their creative pedagogical ends (Jandric and Boras 2015); it is quite another for computers to be foisted on them, in authoritarian fashion, as a tool that faculty have to adapt to for fear of losing their jobs. There are few “Teach-Ins” over this ethical dilemma.

In their illuminating article on this blog in March 2015, “Professional Precarity, Ethics and Social Justice,” Avineri and Black noted that Principle seven of the AAA Ethics Statement “is impractical or even impossible” to satisfy at this juncture. They draw attention to the imperative that “Anthropologists should at all times work to ensure that no exclusionary practices be perpetrated. . .” Bev Davenport added, in the comments section, that one way out of this ethical dilemma (of excluding precarious professors) is to offer a “full time lecturer with a multi-year contract . . . an avenue for promotion” into the tenure track. I wholeheartedly agree.

We all know adjunct anthropologists who have worked in departments for 20 years or more, teaching full loads and making poverty wages. Once over the age of 50 they often become permanent adjuncts. They hope to retire with that job. In my estimation you have about five years after getting a Ph.D. to land a tenure track job. Competing against 150 applicants for the same tenure track position, people know the odds are against them. Some reassure themselves that it’s a level playing field, even after reapplying for twenty years straight. I’ve even heard it be said that “It’s a lottery.” Not so. The tenure track jobs tend to go to new Ph.D. graduates from a select group of universities.

Muhammed Ali was mercilessly pummeled for seven rounds by George Forman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” but was miraculously able to spring back from the “rope-a-dope” and win. Can we? The class struggle in higher education demands a holistic analysis and an insurgent response. We must investigate the political economy, preserve teacher autonomy and bring the precariat into the tenure track where they can gain the dignity and respect they deserve. As applied anthropologists we need to teach organizing skills in our classrooms. As civically engaged activists we need to organize unions throughout academia. Remember, an injury to one is an injury to all. Take back higher education.


Avineri, Netta and Black, Stephen (2015) “Professional Precarity, Ethics and Social Justice,” AAA Ethics Blog, March 27.

Cottrall, Pippa (2013) “Digitalisation of Education Will Result in Fifteen Fold Growth for E-Learning Market Over the Next Decade.” Realwire. May 14.

Durrenberger, Paul and Reichart, Karaleah (eds.) (2010) “The Anthropology of Labor Unions,” Boulder:University of Colorado.

Durrenberger, Paul (2014) “Living up to Our Words” Human Organization: Winter 2014, Vol. 73, No. 4, pp. 299-304.

Giroux, Henry (2004) Take Back Higher Education. Basingstoke, UK:Palgrave.

Giroux, Henry (2004) The Terror of Neoliberalism. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Giroux, Henry (2007) The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Jandric, Petar and Boras, Damir, eds. (2015) Critical Learning in Digital Networks. Switzerland:Springer.

Kolowich, Steve (2013) “Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2.

McKenna, Brian. 2008a. “Ted Downing and Troublemaker Anthropology: How ‘Yes, Sir,’ Necessarily Becomes ‘No sir,’” CounterPunch, Petrolia, CA, December 30.

McKenna, Brian and Antonia Darder, eds. 2011. “The Art of Public Pedagogy, Should ‘the truth’ Dazzle Gradually or Thunder Mightily?” Special Edition, Policy Futures in Education 9:6: 670-685.

McKenna, Brian. 2013. “The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Learning,” CounterPunch, Petrolia, CA, June 3.

Price, D. (2004), Threatening Anthropology McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

4 Responses to “Class Struggle is the Name of the Game at Universities. It’s the Ethical Elephant in the Room”

  1. we are all
    under occupation
    and sold
    and hedged
    and leveraged
    bid for
    and mortgaged
    merely units
    units of labor
    statistical anomalies
    components of
    name your poison
    or let
    the dismal science
    do it for you
    do for you
    do you


    do you?


  2. I’m not in the game anymore, however, i did laugh a bit and have a feeling of satisfaction that you folks fear the university. To begin crying about being bullied and feel that dissenters are persecuted makes me happy because now you know how us few conservative anthropologists (i can count on one hand the conservative anthropologists that I knew in my 14 year career) always felt. I’m really surprised that “hegemony” wasn’t brought up, but the article did nail most other keywords of your dogma.

  3. The hierarchy of who gets to study who, has also been related to class, and universities assumed an objectivity in reasoning what was a subjective colonial belief in their own lack of subjectivity in the exchange of knowledge where their superior concept of themselves got projected of an entire body of study. Anthropology were known to participate in what in now known to be cultural genocide because of their assumptions regarding their entitlement to base their research without permission of the humans, in what has become a form of cultural genocide, based on some of their projection regarding “other.” In sociology the effect of the observer, and that relationship between the subject and the object is considered to be social bias. Given the economics of social bias, of indigenous others, all over the world, I am not surprised that the university professors would take advantage of anyone, as their own interests and desires for status and money, not truth of objective knowledge, has often defined their study of humans and who gets to have power.

  4. Mr. Pevarnik: 1) Smug trolling is always an attractive trait, as I’m sure you know. 2) Given the intellectual foundations of anthropology and the social science more generally, the very idea of a conservative anthropologist is a contradiction in terms. As conservatives (at a minimum) come in varieties associated with classist premodern romanticism, empirically-refuted utilitarian individualism, deductivist and moralistic market competitivism, gender repressive, race-reifying and Orientalist xenophonia-embracing varieties, perhaps your professional problem had nothing to do with liberal hegemony (BTW, your use of that term indicates a failure to understand Gramsci) and everything to do with practicing a discipline-contradicting approach to the field… even if you were an archeologist. 3) Oddly, perhaps, your whiny celebration of the destruction of higher education undermines many conservative principles but, like atheists tend to know more about Christianity than Christians, it seems we likely have a case, here, where Brian and I know more about conservatism (and anthropology) than a certain conservative.

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