I read a story, when I was an undergraduate taking a course on the American short story, called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” written by fantasy/science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. If you’ve read it, you know that it’s the type of story that is brief enough to be scanned in a few minutes’ time but laden with endless layers of meaning; in other words, a perfect assignment for students of literature who have better things to do with their time than study literature. Of course, I was the type of student who was idealistic enough to believe that, as my father would say, “words have meaning,” and that a story like Le Guin’s merited study, merited the time spent chasing down the phantoms that it stirred in the mind of one not yet old enough to have matters of ethics and philosophy rendered moot by the brute force of the material considerations of life. If I’m being honest, I am still that student, allowing the written words of others to possess me, to catch fire in my imagination, when it is the spaces between, the absent spaces, that I perhaps should have been studying more carefully.
At its core, “Omelas” is a parable about a fictional city of the same name, a place that Le Guin describes as sort of a personalized utopia, an Edenic chameleon that takes the form of whatever best possible world exists in the mind of the reader, unlike comparable “utopias” like A Brave New World, whose merits as an idealized state vary from reader to reader. By crafting her world thus, Le Guin forces the reader to confront the true conflict at the heart of her idyllic society rather than be distracted by the more common objections raised by such works. And what of the conflict? In short, it is the horror that all citizens of Omelas must face, when they reach an age where their parents feel they can begin to comprehend it, that their society prospers only so long as a young child is held prisoner in the worst imaginable squalor and neglect. No reason as we would understand it is presented for the necessity of the child’s mistreatment, only that it must be, and that if it were not so, Omelas would fall into ruin, and the perfect happiness of its inhabitants would be destroyed forever.
Of course, upon first discovering this terrible open secret, citizens of Omelas have an impulse to help the child, to feel disgust at their society for thriving at its expense. But for most citizens, their anger is short-lived; it soon gives way to the same kinds of rationalizations that all of us our prone to make, when confronted with systemic evil. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and the child would not even understand charity, if charity were afforded it, having gone so long without, and some things just are,” etc. We have all had these thoughts, I am sure.
But then, there is the title of the story, “The Ones Who Walk Away.” What of them? Some of Omelas’ denizens recognize the horror, and, caught in the dilemma of being unable to either condone the horror or condemn it, unable to either resolve it or continue living in a society that seeks no resolution, they simply walk away, leaving the city for the darkness and the wild beyond its walls. No one who leaves returns, and Le Guin is purposely enigmatic on the subject of their fate. All that we know, at the close of the story, is that there are some who have made a choice, when faced with an irresolvable conflict, of walking away. Of refusing to remain complicit any longer.
Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day, #NAWD on Twitter. The brainchild of an anonymous adjunct that, as a nebulous thought experiment, has doubtlessly crossed the minds of countless adjuncts over the past few decades, #NAWD has been endlessly picked apart online, as with every other action that adjuncts have contemplated in their attempts to rectify what a number of academics have characterized as a “crisis.” As someone who “walked away” a while back out of the conviction that my continued struggles as an adjunct were doing no one any favors – not my school, which refused to provide me with the institutional support necessary for student success; not my students, who could not help but suffer when I was forced to give them less than the attention that they deserved as a consequence of my extreme course load that, though full-time by any reasonable accounting, did not come attached to a living wage that would allow me to stay off government assistance while continuing to do what I loved; not my family, who realized long before I did that what I was doing was less of an apprenticeship than it was the pursuit of a stillborn dream, yet who could do little to sway me from my self-destructive course of action; and not myself, whose idealized notions of the life of an academic had become little more than ashes in my mouth after spending so many years struggling against a gradual slide into penury.
Eventually, I could see no course of action that made sense but to walk away. Ever since, I’ve been scrambling, but as an adjunct, I had grown used to scrambling, and while my current status as a freelance writer and editor has yet to make me as fiscally solvent as I would like, I have no regrets. Unlike when I was an adjunct, feeling like a pawn in the games of heartless corporate administrators, I now feel that I have some control over my work, the ability to sell my labor, if not at mythical “fair market” wages, then at least in more direct proportion to the actual labor I have spent in pursuit of the capital needed to keep the fiscal wolves from the door. For those who are still adjuncts – and believe me, I have the utmost respect for those who continue to teach in such degraded conditions, even if the sole reason is financial necessity – I would recommend taking the brilliant advice of “freelance academic” Katie Rose Guest Pryal and treating the school for which you adjunct as any other client.
The flexibility that I have as a freelance has allowed me to refuse to work for those who are clearly out to exploit my labor – the SEO charlatans who pay writers pennies to churn out garbage articles, the “academics” who hire ghostwriters to plagiarize essays and even whole dissertations, and all manner of clients who operate under the deeply misguided assumption that quality writing springs out of an author as readily as oil from a freshly-tapped well – but in retrospect, I should have viewed the academy not as something special, some child of Socrates with no desire but to operate as an intellectual beacon in a world of material darkness, but rather, as a corporate scholarship monopoly, a knowledge factory that treats the content produced therein with all the reverence that Kraft holds for a jar of Cheez Whiz. There is good work to be done in the academy, no doubt, but academics should remain eternally aware – those who are not already – that this work is done in spite of, rather than as a result of, the material realities of the corporate university.
A part of me feels strange for continuing to discuss a topic that should not “matter” to me any longer; it would seem that I have no skin in the game, at this point. And #NAWD, while enormously satisfying on an emotional level, may amount to little in terms of bringing about real change in the academy. But life is strange, and it is long, and the material struggles we face on a day-to-day basis often blind us to the history in which we cannot help but take part; we rarely see which stones we throw create ripples in the wider world, and which leave the waters unmoved. I’ve always felt that my words were these stones, and though many of them have sunk to the bottom, unseen and unremarked upon, it is my hope, unrealistic though it may be, that the stones thrown by myself and countless others will accumulate, will build, and one day, the work that adjuncts do will be recognized, in a material sense, for the valuable contribution to society that it is.
But in the end, I have more words than I do solutions, and I am only a bystander in this affair. So, here’s to #NAWD. Here’s to the ones today, the adjuncts who have chosen to walk out, teach-in, or walk away. You are worth more than you are valued, and valued more than you know. Keep fighting the good fight, and for those who have it to spare, consider donating to a cause for adjuncts, such as the PrecariCorps or the New Faculty Majority. I am formally affiliated with neither, but I have the utmost respect for their efforts.