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At-Will Employment Is the Real “Cancel Culture”

The “cancel culture” debate never focuses on at-will employment, which allows most American workers to be “canceled” at the drop of a hat — even those teaching in higher education.

Like so many American laborers, most academic workers do not have just-cause provisions or other legal protections to turn to if they find themselves facing trial by spectacle online.

A specter is haunting academia — the specter of cancellation, ghostly in part because no one can agree about what it amounts to, much less whether it even exists.

There is further disagreement over what “cancellation” would involve if it in fact existed. Some understand it as a matter of cultural boycotts targeting prominent figures with questionable views, while others are more concerned about our tendency to treat social media platforms as de facto courtrooms.

But whether or not “cancellation” of either form haunts the hallowed halls of the university, something that manifestly can happen to you if you teach college courses is this: your students can take to Twitter to launch a vigilante campaign to get you fired.

It happened just a few weeks ago, when an irate student tweeted out a screenshot of an email from one of her teachers. The email in question was, apparently, a response to an earlier email she had sent him. (I quote no student tweets verbatim in an effort to protect their authors from backlash, for reasons that will emerge shortly.)

The student didn’t post her own original email, so we are left to infer its contents, but it seems she was initially angry because she believed (erroneously, it turns out) there were no authors of color on the course syllabus. Her teacher replied informing her that there were in fact authors of color in several of the anthologies assigned, and he added that she was free to drop the class if its contents didn’t appeal to her.

By the time the student dashed off the vicious tweet that was liked and retweeted so many thousands of times, she seemed to be calling for the teacher’s removal merely because she objected to his tone. Her sentiment proved infectious, spurring more tweets, this time to the effect that teachers of college courses should cater to students who pay tuition.

Regardless of whether there is such a thing as “cancel culture,” there is certainly a “customer culture” in higher education, as many academics have observed. The customer is always right — and the academic worker is always wrong, at least whenever throwing her under the bus is expedient for her bosses.

Like so many American laborers, most academic workers do not have just-cause provisions or other legal protections to turn to if they find themselves facing trial by spectacle online. This is especially unfortunate given how many academic administrators view social media controversies as PR problems to be solved at their employees’ expense.

Precarious Teaching

I believe that it is almost always morally distasteful to try to ruin someone’s life by means of online bullying. But if such guerilla tactics are ever justifiable, they are certainly only justifiable when the figure they target is so powerful that he or she is otherwise insulated from consequences. Harvey Weinstein could only be toppled with the aid of a social media campaign because the institutions ostensibly designed to protect his victims were overwhelmingly stacked in his favor. The same can also be said of a small number of academic celebrities whose bad behavior is abetted by the wealthy universities where they have secured tenure.

But the vast majority of academics are not like Thomas Pogge, who is alleged to have sexually harassed a number of students but is nonetheless enshrined at Yale. They’re more like me, a graduate student making less than $30k a year yet living in one of the most expensive cities in America. I am lucky to be a member of a union, but despite the heroic efforts of our bargaining committee, we still don’t have dental insurance.

When we were on strike for our contract, I overheard a group of tourists scoffing about what more could Harvard students possibly want. They were shocked when I informed them that we still lack an independent grievance procedure that would ensure neutral investigations of workplace discrimination and harassment — and, moreover, that our health insurance covers only a limited number of visits to specialists, leaving students with chronic conditions to fend for themselves. Above all, they were surprised to discover that graduate students did so much of the actual teaching at Harvard.

I used the word “teacher” rather than the word “professor” when I summarized the outraged student’s tweets because most of the people teaching college courses are not tenured professors with stable jobs and a robust range of benefits, but graduate students or “contingent faculty”: adjuncts, lecturers, and postdoctoral fellows. Around 75 percent of university faculty in America are not on the tenure track, and more than half of these are adjuncts, meaning they work only part-time. Around 80 percent of the workers in this category do not have health insurance.

Many adjuncts, for instance, those at Emerson College, will no longer be paid if they contract COVID-19 and become unable to meet their teaching obligations. As I write this, graduate students at the University of Michigan have only just concluded a strike for the right to teach remotely in the midst of the pandemic. Even at the best of times, most contingent faculty can be fired at the whim of the university, and this is the worst of times — this summer, the City University of New York alone laid off 2,800 adjuncts.

On average, an adjunct makes around $2,700 per course and thus around $24,000 per year. The national average for PhD candidates is $27,000. Do the undergraduates tweeting about their omnipotent instructors have any idea how little of their tuition is dribbling down to the people teaching them?

A Lose-Lose

Evidently not, but then again, why would they? Many factors conspire to blind them to their teachers’ working conditions. It is in the interest of university administrators and Trumpists alike to obscure the bleak reality by painting all academics, whatever their station and compensation, as “elites.”

The notion that anyone with a PhD is a tweedy patrician has penetrated deeply into the popular imagination, generating hostility to the academic labor movement and falsely casting adjuncts as formidable enough to warrant the sort of “cancellation” we should reserve for Hollywood moguls. In the end, the student-tweeter’s retributive focus plays straight into the hands of those who would prefer to avoid greater structural reforms.

Because who really wins when students try to get their teachers fired as casually as they would try to get a disappointing sandwich taken back to the kitchen? The same people who always win: the university administrators who do profit from hefty tuition fees in the form of bloated salaries, and the conservatives who have long sought to undermine the universities where people learn, among other things, to trust scientists.

And who loses? The teachers who stand to lose their jobs — and who may not even have health insurance to lose — are the most obvious victims.

But students are also casualties of a kind, whether they know it or not. A teacher browbeaten into meeting all of his students’ demands for fear that he will otherwise lose his job is not well positioned to educate. And a student who relies on punitive logic forecloses the sort of discussion that might lead to more equitable classrooms, in part by leading to more equitable working conditions for her teachers.

All of this is to say, the student-vigilante who took to Twitter to get her teacher fired was misguided. Her teacher is almost certainly not powerful, and as we have seen, “cancellation” (or whatever we want to call it) is only defensible when it is levied against those who are otherwise shielded from repercussions.

The Collective Defense

In a country where unemployment is tantamount to a death sentence, the bar for summoning the cancellation-specter must always be high. But by the same lights, it is misguided to attack (if not to criticize) a confused student who has been willfully misled by neoliberals on both ostensible sides of the political spectrum. Both responses keep the real enemy out of view.

The real enemy, of course, is at-will employment, which manifests in the academy as the absence of institutional protections for contingent faculty. We will remain vulnerable when this happens again. And this — namely, students stirring up scandal online — will happen again, probably many times. As long as higher education is an expensive commodity and not a universal right, we’ll continue to have aggrieved “customers” instead of students.

Whether or not graduate students and contingent faculty can unionize formally — and many face barriers to doing so — we can at least unionize unofficially, by forming unions the National Labor Relations Board does not recognize or simply by organizing to support each other. We can and must come together to hold administrators publicly accountable when a colleague is at risk of being fired over a tweet — or of being forced to deliver lectures face-to-face during a pandemic.

What much of the hand-wringing over cancellation misses is that the real threat to academic freedom, both in research and in teaching, is not to the likes of Steven Pinker. For all his complaints, he is insulated by tenure and the many resources it affords him.

The rest of us are still haunted by the specter of cancellation, and our best and only option is to protect each other.