Her words, barely audible beneath the bar band,
circle sharks and her thesis and some shared teacher
whom I had hated having, a point we argued
only toward the needlessly necessary end
of exchanging dull fact for whatever fancy
she had projected on me from across a glass
that had led her across the room on a pretense
as overtly covert as the hidden black ball
that appears again upon her clenched, smiling lips
whenever she must wait for my part in this farce
to concede, forcing a regretful retraction
of an anglerfish lure, shamefully effective.
Monthly Archives: December 2014
Her words, barely audible beneath the bar band,
Privileged rhetoric about contingent faculty members leads to angry rebuttals from former contingent faculty members
Like you, I realize that over-reliance on contingent faculty is only growing worse. Like you, I have followed the discussion closely, only to conclude that there is no single solution to this problem. And like you, I believe that the only way to alleviate adjunctification is by comprehending its nuances before taking steps to reverse this trend.
For the life of me, though, I cannot understand why, after readily admitting the harm that adjunctification causes to both educators and students – and therefore, to the academic endeavor as a whole – you would take the time to pen an op-ed in The Chronicle that does nothing but restate the same tepid arguments that adjuncts have heard countless times before, the typical fence-sitting justifications of an unjustifiable system where some few win big, many more lose dearly, and the former rationalize the reduced fortunes of the latter with all the intellectual rigor of a modern-day Pangloss.
I could speculate – as many doubtlessly will – that your, at best, highly equivocated support for adjuncts stems from your status as an associate professor, department chair, and academic dean, which has removed you from the material considerations that you “dispassionately observe” from your privileged perch. If you are not currently struggling to make rent, struggling to survive on food stamps, struggling to maintain a minimum standard of living while providing valuable service to an institution that refuses to support large numbers of its instructors with the basic job protections and equitable compensation that you take for granted, then you have absolutely no right to dismiss the frustration and bitterness that your adjunct colleagues must overcome every day in order to do their jobs effectively. Of course, as you put it, “some” adjuncts are necessary, and adjuncting isn’t “always” a bad thing, and “not everyone” is tenure-track material, but surely you see how weak these equivocations are, and how readily they can be employed to soothe the consciences of those who would otherwise be more forceful in their advocacy for improving the working conditions of adjuncts? By perpetuating the stereotype of the “happy hobby prof,” a retired septuagenarian offered a relatively generous stipend to supplement his Social Security and corporate pension benefits to pass along the lessons learned from his many years practicing [insert subject here] in the private sector, you are complicit in the exploitation of the majority of adjunct instructors and professors in higher education, those who would like a better job but simply cannot get it. If it makes you sleep better at night to assume that candidates deserving of tenure are few and far between, slipping through the cracks of a largely meritocratic system, so be it, but I hope you understand that such a stance appears laughable to those of us who have seen firsthand just how capricious the hiring practices in academia can be.
I have read my fair share of adjunctification apologia, and what bothers me most is not the bald elitism that so many in academia code as “merit.” Nor is it the uncritical acquiescence to the decisions made by aggressively anti-labor, anti-education politicians, corporate donors, and college administrators – those with even a passing familiarity with how capital functions in society understand that siding with those who have money will always be a safer bet than siding with those who do not. No, the thing that bothers me most about articles such as yours, Professor Jenkins, is the unbearable condescension that is shot through each word. As someone who must have taught any number of composition courses over the years, you are surely familiar with the dictum that, as a writer, one must know one’s audience. Writing in The Chronicle, you are writing for an audience of academics, highly-educated people who have been trained for years in the art of researching, constructing, and deconstructing arguments. And an argument that is based on a brand of financial expediency that requires those at the bottom to bear additional costs while those at the top reap greater and greater rewards will never convince anyone except those who benefit by being willfully ignorant of the suffering of others.
You say that you, in your position as dean, were forced to either hire adjuncts or not offer particular courses at all, but where you see a fait accompli, I see an opportunity to draw a line in the sand. Why did you not say to your superiors, “We have too many adjuncts, and the ones we have are not given the institutional support needed to accomplish the mission of our college, therefore, we cannot in good conscience offer these courses to our students”? When you make compromises that lead directly to the exploitation of your colleagues, you cannot absolve yourself of the responsibility for their welfare, and by extension, the degradation of academic integrity that adjunctification entails.
As to your point about teaching as an adjunct for three years to get the experience necessary to apply for a full-time position at a community college, I can tell you – as someone who did just that – that such a prospect is rife with difficulties. After spending six or more years going into debt to attain a degree that will allow one to teach, one is expected to then work for poverty wages for three years after that, and even if somehow one is able to survive these economic hardships, one must then wait for a full-time slot to open up… and then one must compete not only with every other starving adjunct at one’s institution, but with adjuncts at countless other colleges that have collectively decided that supporting instructors is not a priority for institutions of higher learning. Effectively, this system leads to perpetuating a socioeconomic class system that puts the lie to the pretensions of meritocracy that academia has for itself: those who can afford to absorb the financial shocks of working with little to no pay for year after year are those who are most likely to succeed.
Ultimately, your contempt for adjuncts manifests itself most profoundly in the shallow metaphor that you use to describe the difference between someone who is “tenure-track material” rather than merely a “part-timer.” When addressing the “silly” assertion that if someone is good enough to be hired part time, that person is good enough for the tenure track, you write that this is akin to saying that just because someone is your friend, that person would make a good roommate. I have rarely heard such a glib dismissal of one’s colleagues from someone who professes to be sympathetic to adjuncts’ concerns. Why not simply say what you really mean, that there is no need to buy the cow when you are getting the milk for free? Perhaps you possess some uncanny insight into human nature that allows you to be the unerring arbiter of whom is most deserving of the privilege of a living wage and health insurance, but do you actually believe that when a position opens up that anywhere between one and five hundred adjuncts apply for, only a select few have “what it takes” to be formally and institutionally recognized as a full-time instructor? And what of those congenital “part-timers” of which you speak with such derision? What ineffable qualities make them inappropriate for a tenure-track appointment, yet well-suited to teaching students, the core duty of any faculty member?
Admit it: academia is a game of musical chairs, and some will always be left standing when the song is done. You are doing all that you think you can to improve things for adjuncts, but you are only one person, with limited power. Fine. But stop asking us to see a silver lining in the storm cloud of adjunctification. It is an unalloyed tragedy in academia, and though we may, as individuals, be able to do little to combat it, we will certainly not accomplish anything by concealing our frustration and anger with the situation. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” as Frederick Douglass once said, and I must concur. Faculty both on and off the tenure track have “worked together in good faith” with administrators for decades, only to see a steady decline in the working conditions of all faculty, while administrators have only proliferated in number, power, and compensation. Unless we are happy with the idea of a majority adjunct professoriate – which is harmful not only to professors, but to students, colleges, and education as a whole – then we must be clear, unified, and unequivocal in our support for adjuncts’ need for, if not new tenure lines, then at a minimum, proportional pay and access to the same benefits and facilities that tenured instructors receive as a matter of course.
Are these demands impractical? Are these expectations unrealistic? Perhaps. But if practical demands and realistic expectations only lead to the same managed insanity that higher education has become, then I see no need to advocate for the status quo, which does an admirable job of perpetuating itself without the need of help from others.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
“’Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”
I waited for him to stop reading, inwardly ecstatic that a student had so readily volunteered to “engage” with the text, although in hindsight, I had no good reason to care. The Chair of the Department of English and Humanities sat in the back of the near-empty classroom, taking notes and evaluating my performance, but I had long since realized that no matter how brilliantly I shone or how dully I went through the motions, it was over. I had worked as an adjunct instructor for close to four years, teaching as many as five classes per semester for, at most, thirteen grand a year, and after losing out once again to another candidate for a full-time position – which would have meant being compensated three times as much as well as receiving benefits, in exchange for doing pretty much what I had always done – I could no longer justify what I was doing as anything else but slowly sinking into poverty for the sake of a dream.
I had taken these last classes out of habit and out of desperation, deeply hurt that my years of service to the small town community college where I had once sat in a classroom and discovered The Great Gatsby for the first time had been met only with suggestions that I teach at online for-profit schools that lived under the perpetual threat of indictment by the federal government or at “local” colleges that were over an hour’s drive away. Apparently, this was the way a number of teachers in higher education made their living: taking work one class at a time, hiring themselves out as mercenaries to whichever schools would take them, and, if they were lucky, finding a way to “efficiently” teach seven or eight classes in order to scrape together just enough money to keep them above the poverty line. And though the route to efficiency might require substituting rote Powerpoint presentations and computer-graded multiple-choice tests for open-ended discussions and careful analysis of student papers, as long as students kept passing courses and paying tuition, would anyone care?
After class one day, I had stopped by the office of the man who had introduced me to Fitzgerald’s novel, back when I was a student. I told him that I had spoken highly of him that day in class, and I thanked him for inspiring me to pursue a degree in English.
Taken aback, he could only apologize. “There’s no money in the language arts.”
Lecturing on Gatsby, scribbling with a faded magic marker on a whiteboard in a cold bare room, I prodded my students to come up with their own interpretations of the text, and when that failed, I gave them my own reading, which, were I not a precariously-employed adjunct in a small town in a deep red state, I would have been able to properly label as “Marxist.” Without invoking this verboten name, I spoke of the glittering, gilded, hollow lie that is the American dream, where the hoarded wealth of a dynasty compounds into perpetuity while the sudden stolen fortune of an upstart outlier evaporates in one summer’s vain attempt to reify the Alger myth. And absent the media proxy wars waged by “left” and “right,” absent the vapid, vaguely warmed-over Cold War propaganda, absent the dubious claims of class mobility that I, as a teacher in an open-door community college system that markets itself to students as an unequivocally sound investment in the future… well, if I were bolder, I would have merely said, “Ecce homo.” We were all adults; we all knew the score.
I wasn’t the only high school dropout in the room who had looked to a college education as a means to a fulfilling, comfortable life. And I doubt that I was the only one currently on food stamps, either. A small class meant that I came to know each student intimately, for even when I was evasive about my personal life, they were explicit about theirs: I heard their stories of drug addiction and miscarriages and privation, and I went home to a fiancée I could not afford to marry and a child I could not afford to adopt and a home I could not afford to own, and the world of Gatsby seemed at once so close that I could smell the manicured lawns of West Egg and as distant as Daisy’s haunting green light across the water. And though, like Gatsby, my dream seemed so close that I “could hardly fail to grasp it,” I had realized my folly: no pushing, no straining, no striving would transmute the leaden weight of five adjunct courses into the golden halo of a full-time appointment. I had borne the load for years in the misguided sense that I was sacrificing my present at the altar of the future, all the while woefully unaware of how little value my labor held to those who saw me only as a tantalizingly small number on a balance sheet.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Gatsby is a relic, of no use in this technocratic, neoliberal age. Maybe the attempts to rebrand the humanities as “digital” are only a desperate attempt to stave off the obsolescence of our discipline. Maybe the very idea of a liberal arts education, an education designed to broaden, rather than narrow, one’s horizons, is quaint, childish, and, that most grave sin of all in a society obsessed with an ever-escalating GDP, “not worth the money.” As the corporate model of commodifying people into living capital grows increasingly ascendant, we find ourselves locked in an economic arms race, students borrowing vaster and vaster sums of money to compete for fewer and fewer decent jobs, and those among us who might shed some light on these structural inequalities are all too often only to be found huddled in hushed obeisance in the shadow of the ivory tower, learned monks with obligatory vows of poverty, begging bowls extended.
Unlike Gatsby, I never aspired to wealth, and I knew that, as a teacher, I would not attain it. I will admit to being shocked by my slow slide into poverty, though, and the callous disregard that the institution that I worked for held for my well-being. On an individual level, I had administrators, faculty, and staff who clearly sympathized with my plight, refusing to dock my pay on my rare absences from class, pointedly mentioning that I wasn’t being paid for work that I had been contracted to do, and writing glowing letters of recommendation whenever I applied to a full-time position, but the system itself was rigged against me, as it is rigged against all adjuncts.
If a tenured professor could be compared to an old house, increasing in equity year by year, an adjunct is more like a new car, losing value with every mile a school puts on us, as we race from one campus to another. The longer one remains an adjunct, the less likely it is that one will ever make the leap to full-time status as a faculty member, because in higher education, experience is taken not as a measure of one’s skill as a teacher but only as an indication of how little one is willing to work for.
For a time, I bought into the Hegelian master-slave dynamic of higher education, the notion that my time was not worth that of my tenured “betters,” which is a thought process that I suppose was easy for someone like me, a small town guy from an almost entirely non-academic family background, to fall into. However, if we view teaching as a service provided to students – and the customer service model is increasingly being applied in higher education – then what sense does it make for students to pay the same price for a class whether it is led by a fairly-compensated full-time professor or an abysmally underpaid adjunct? Hiring adjuncts saves colleges money, but the savings are not passed on to students, whose grotesquely inflated tuition is spent instead on lavishly-compensated administrators, student athlete-exploiting sports programs, and gorgeous amenities that will look good on college brochures: in short, everything but the faculty who form the core of a vibrant college education.
Though free market fundamentalists are quick to ascribe all of this to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, what has become clear to many inside of academia is that, in prioritizing bureaucracy, athletics, and aesthetics over instruction, higher education has lost its way. Where education should be seen as a social good, a basic form of infrastructure that we invest in for the betterment of society as a whole, it has instead become, like health care, yet another means of profiting off of those who can ill-afford it, yet who need it desperately. And, as is again the case with health care, we ignore the hidden subsidies that higher education relies upon to continue operating: professors on food stamps, professors on Medicaid, professors on disability, professors on social security, professors with trust funds, professors with working spouses, professors with all manner of alternate sources of income that, were they to vanish overnight, would all but annihilate the modern-day American professoriate, and higher education along with it.
The costs of adjunctification, the increasing reliance on contingent educators, are hidden, but they are felt nonetheless. A vital system of higher education depends on a professional force of teachers to be its backbone, and adjuncts, though in many cases doing an admirable job in spite of the dearth of resources given them, cannot fulfill their duties to the fullest when they are overworked (an inevitability when so many rely on multiple part-time jobs in order to make anything close to a reasonable living) and underpaid (also inevitable when one is paid only according to time spent in a classroom rather than for all the work that goes into teaching, work that is accounted for in the salaries of non-contingent teaching positions).
Although working as an adjunct has made life difficult, I don’t expect anyone’s sympathy, although I have of course been grateful to those who have extended it. On an individual basis, I see the rationale for the personal responsibility argument, that those who attempt to make a living by being an adjunct are making a mistake, although I know that for many, avoiding adjunct work is easier said than done. I have a friend who has adjuncted for seven years: on less than ten grand a year, he lives in government housing and is forced into innumerable sacrifices on a day-to-day basis, but with a master’s degree in history and a chronic, crippling medical condition, his job options are limited. Personal circumstances often make the “choice” of adjuncting into an economic necessity: even exploitative work is better than no work at all.
However, although my friend is not the only one who has suffered greatly due to the precarious, poorly-compensated nature of adjunct work, we make a mistake by looking at these cases as simply tragic, isolated incidences rather than as signs of a larger, more disturbing trend. Rather than seeing education as a vital part of public infrastructure and funding it accordingly, we have increasingly bought into the idea that education is a matter of personal responsibility alone, and that those who want to pursue it should shoulder the burden themselves. It is this short-sighted corporatist mentality, that all investments which do not bear fruit within the next fiscal quarter are bad ones, that has taken over higher education. And were I not the recipient of this down-sizing, I might feel more sympathy for harried administrators who contend with shrinking budgets by “cutting labor costs” – a cold corporate euphemism that elides untold examples of heartbreaking personal sacrifices, but never mind that for now – but I can’t help but think that, once a school has seen that it can continue to operate, at least nominally, while using a majority “part-time” workforce, why would it ever go back, even if the trend of education defunding were to suddenly reverse itself?
As the recent fast-food and Walmart worker strikes have demonstrated, corporations, once addicted to a supply of cheap labor, will only improve worker conditions under the threat of organized labor action, and higher education, having succumbed to the same bottom-line mentality that drives the decisions of private sector restaurant chains, will only improve when adjuncts realize that if we want a living wage, we will have to fight for one. In any labor dispute, there is the tension between speaking out at the risk of losing one’s livelihood and remaining silent at the risk of remaining exploited forever, and I believe that the tipping point is quickly approaching where more choose to do the former rather than the latter.
If I were an optimist, I would say that change is imminent, that the scattered efforts of adjuncts to create organized labor movements and work with legislators to achieve better work conditions will result in widespread reform, and that, in time, the “professor on food stamps” trope will be seen as just an unfortunate chapter in the history of American higher education. But as I face the prospect of abandoning my profession while watching a friend slowly wasting away in pursuit of a dream continually deferred, I can’t help but be filled with an overwhelming sense of futility. When educators are forced to fight for their very survival, what does it say about the value we place on education itself?
My teaching career may be dead, but my convictions about what higher education should look like have not perished. Adjuncts might be fighting a losing battle, but even if they are, I know that their cause is just. And I know which side I am on.
Go to any college in the country, and there you will surely find someone like me: an adjunct barely scraping together a living in the hope that just a little more work for just a little bit longer will result in a full-time faculty position. It is this belief, vain as it is, that sustains so many of us, who, like Gatsby, see our futures receding year by year, even as we run faster, stretch out our arms farther…
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The Sambian people of Papua New Guinea
observe a curious right-of-passage ritual:
in order for boys of the tribe to become men,
they must consume the essence of their elders.
“Semen drinking,” as anthropologists call it,
is believed by the Sambians to build strength
in those who so imbibe and, one must admit,
there is a certain strange logic to this notion.
In the pre-scientific mind, Occam’s razor
is frequently misapplied; the earth looks flat,
so flat it must be, and meat births maggots,
and you are what you eat, ergo semen, Q.E.D.
This, of course, explains why the most powerful
warriors in the tribe attract the attentions of boys
eager to ingest the semen of a great man, thereby
obtaining some of that greatness for themselves.
This might also explain why some conservatives
can’t seem to stop sucking Ronald Reagan’s dick.