The Mercenary Adjunct, or What Would Machiavelli Do?

English: Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiav...

Taken from Svenska: Furstens omslagsbild. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Chapter XII of his world renowned, sixteenth century instruction manual to Lorenzo d’Medici of Florence, The Prince (1532), Niccolo Machiavelli states that “The chief foundations of all states… are good laws and good arms” (Machiavelli, all quotes taken from Gutenberg & are public domain). What he meant is that a nation should produce its own military forces, and never hire outside forces to defend its own land. If they do so, then they will suffer penalties he articulates later on in the text. But he makes clear that these two foundations are contingent upon one another. He states: “there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws” (ibid.). Essentially, one is both a determinant of, and a dependent upon, the other.

Over the past few years there has been debate and general discourse concerning the allowance of the coveted “tenure-track” position within academic institutions. Many argue that this provides teachers with a “free-ride” where they are allowed to do or say anything they wish, regardless of university approval.

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Mac...

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, now residing in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy; headcrop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their rivals argue that tenure is one of the last bastions of organized labor, and a reward for the excruciating intellectual labor that takes place in academia. I believe that there are allusions that can be drawn from Machiavelli’s The Prince that would lend credence to an argument against the way universities and colleges employ adjunct professors. While I am not wholly in favor of tenure, I do take issue with the use and abuse of the adjunct’s position. As would Niccolo Machiavelli, but not for the reasons we may at first assume.

Before I put my opinion into the hat (as they say), I want to make something clear: I’m an adjunct professor of English. Out of maybe seventy general education instructors at the college where I teach, which shall remain anonymous, maybe twelve are full-time employees of the company. The rest are adjunct. Mercenaries. Hired guns used exclusively to fortify a business and protect it against closure. We work for a flat, per-credit remuneration, with the only chance for an increase being the coveted full-time position. Furthermore, we have no guarantee of further employment, since we are on a contractual basis. Our contracts state that it may be cancelled, or prorated, at any time the employer feels necessary. We have no health insurance, nor life insurance. No 401k. And no vacation time accrues. We are simply mercenaries.

Machiavelli is quite opinionated when it comes to mercenary forces. He states: “mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies” (ibid.). Well! That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it does hold some basic truths. What is the motivation of the adjunct to be disciplined and faithful to a particular college’s ideals? What is their reasoning for teaching beyond personal ambition? The mercenary doesn’t attend regular staff meetings because he or she has outside responsibilities, such as other jobs, and has little loyalty without immediate reward. So, he or she is less informed of important matters. And less likely to recognize, and thus respect or empathize with, his or her superiors.

Henry V of England

Henry V of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is that the mercenary has no loyalty, save for her art and her livelihood. If you fought in a national army, you would be surrounded by fellow countrymen. What a joy to discuss your lives and your country with your co-combatants, and then fight for your patriotic ideals as one! Waving a flag high and singing patriotic tunes, as if you were fighting with “God for Harry! England and Saint George!,” screaming “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” (Shakespeare). The patriotic spirit is precisely what the mercenary lacks, and precisely why Machiavelli sees them as the eventual ruin of a nation.

What is then created is a state protected and guarded from failure by those who harbor no loyalty to the state for which they fight. Machiavelli continues: “they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend” (ibid.). Essentially, the adjunct goes where she is called. If the college is unable to hire them, or they find a more lucrative position, then they move on. Plain and simple. Someone else may come and fill the position, but all this does is create a stressful and bureaucratically laden administration whose sole job is to hire/re-hire on a whim. This then creates a college/university of which the majority of its inhabitants are administration, rather then serving their most elementary function: teaching (see note 1). With instructors routinely coming and going, attaching themselves to a university based on only a few basic personal factors, at the bottom of which resides loyalty. The university does not harbor camaraderie, intellectual engagement and interactivity amongst co-workers, or a shared notion of the universities or department’s ideals and mission. The deterioration of not only the universities status, but the educational standard of the university, is at stake. And it seems eminent from what Machiavelli warns.

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiave...

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What the college uses the adjunct exclusively for then is their skills and capabilities as an instructor. But Machiavelli warns about this as well: “if they are [skilled], you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way” (ibid.). The best interest of the college would be to hire those who are not too skilled so that they leave for a better job or a specialized degree, but someone skilled enough so you retain students. This is not easy. One has to make sure there is a minimum requirement of intellectual activity, but not too much so that the adjunct doesn’t wander for better employment. It should better them in their art, but not so much that their confidence grows beyond its place. The result is a lack of educational standards that are necessary for the globalized workplace. In other words, there are not “good laws where the state is not well armed” (ibid.).

I cannot conceive of any immediate solution to the problem of the use and abuse of adjunct instructors. In fact, I think it is here to stay for quite some time. The influx of work can often be a perk, allowing for a sort of “freedom” from responsibility. No classes? You’ve got time to right that novel! Or polish your resume! Or backpack across a state or two! But with this supposed “freedom” comes the life of the mercenary adjunct. And the realization that you never know where or when your next paycheck is coming, what would happen if you became ill, or if you will ever find steady employment. And with a mercenary army comes the lack of “good laws” along with “good arms,” in the shape of falling educational standards and the inability to understand how those standards can be measured (see note 2).

As Machiavelli warned Lorenzo d’Medici so long ago: “the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries” (ibid.). So should we heed his warning by conceiving a negotiation between the sacrosanct position of tenure, and the vulnerable predicament facing the mercenary adjunct.

1. A quick Google search will display numerous articles regarding the dwindling ration of instructors vs administration employed in colleges, universities, and public schools.

2. See debates on No Child Left Behind, and other modifications, thereof.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. W. K. Marriott. Project Gutenberg. Ed. John Bickers, David Widger, and others. Oct 2010. Web. 14 Jun 2012.

Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry V. Project Gutenberg. Tudor Edition. Nov 1998. Web. 14 June 2012.


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