Governor J.B. Pritzker

The news, released in the run-up to Monday’s inauguration, that Illinois’s new governor, J.B. Pritzker, will be doubling the salaries of his top aides with money from his own pocket brought to mind a few things I heard at the MLA convention, held here in Chicago earlier this month. Well, right after it brought to mind the phrase “banana republic.”

MLA (the Modern Language Association), is the trade group for professors of language and literature. Like the profession, it’s been tweedy and patriarchal, but it has finally come around to talking about the problem of contingent faculty. Contingents mostly work part-time gigs for poverty-level wages, without job security, hope for advancement, or benefits, and they now outnumber the other kind of faculty (tenured and tenure-track) by a ratio of about 3 to 1. University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson, who yelled “Fire!“ about this 20 years ago, says MLA’s concern now is too little, too late.

That doesn’t bode well for the amount of attention being paid to a newer, bigger, faster-growing threat to academia-as-we’ve-known-it: technology.

A modestly attended MLA session about online courses at the University of California, optimistically titled “How Online Teaching Can Enrich Research, Improve Teaching, and Increase Enrollments,” touted the greater accessibility of school on a screen, and reported that students especially like the fact that they can rerun video lectures.

But a couple of big open questions hung over the discussion: How well do online students do in comparison to those who’ve had traditional, in-person teaching? And once a faculty member develops an online course, complete with video lectures, is that course available for someone else (perhaps a contingent employee) to teach?

If the answer to the latter question is “yes,” it would explain the “dreadful” response UC history professor William Worger said he encounters from colleagues when the subject of online teaching (even in his “hybrid” course) comes up. It’s not much of a jump to imagine a future where the professor’s on a screen and the class itself is run by a gig-economy adjunct.

A more prominent session—part of the 2019 National Humanities Summit on Automation—featured Rochester Institute of Technology professor Evan Selinger warning that we’re on the road to automating ourselves, beginning with communication, and said the process started when Gmail began completing our sentences. Co-speaker N. Katherine Hayles, Duke University professor emerita (and author of the seminal 1999 book How We Became Posthuman), offered GPS as an example of how we’re diminishing our own capacities.

“The jobs created by AI will be fewer than the jobs lost to it,” Hayles said, noting that gains in productivity from technological advances so far have not been matched by rising wages. On the contrary, since the 1970s, wages have stagnated and the wealth gap has grown, she said. To illustrate her points, she handed out an Economic Policy Institute productivity-and-compensation graph, and an Occupy image (by Stephen Ewen) that represents the distribution of wealth in the U.S. as land mass.

“We need a consensus on how we want AI to work—for example, for a more even distribution of wealth,” Hayles concluded. “We’re facing a global crisis that can only be solved by consensus.” 

Addressing an audience of literature and history professors (the American History Association was also convening in Chicago this month), Hayles said she thinks humanists must take the lead on this. Given their past performance—say, on the growth and exploitation of adjunct faculty in their own fields—that doesn’t seem promising.  Which brings us back to Governor Pritzker, who’s addressing inequity right off the bat.

After spending $170 million to buy—um, win—the governor job, Pritzker’s digging into his own pocket again to rectify the miserly salaries we taxpayers allot to bureaucrats. His chief of staff (and former campaign manager) for example, slated to be paid a paltry $148,000 by the state, will get another $150,000 from Pritzker. Deputy governors, drawing just $139,000 in state salaries, will actually take home $278,000, thanks to the largess of their boss, to whom they will no doubt be doubly grateful. In all, Pritzker will be doubling the salaries of 20 members of his staff.

So at least here in the great state of Illinois, there won’t be any wage gap at the top.  v