Adjuncting and Stockholm Syndrome

A few weeks ago I found myself in an illuminating exchange with a client.  We were “off the clock,” and the dialogue (by skype chat of all things) veered into an interesting and unexpected direction— the psychological state of people in adjunct positions.  I’ve been mulling over our chat ever since.

I am devoting today’s and Thursday’s blog posts to adjunct-related issues as part of my work on the “Social Media Team” (or, affectionately, Twit-squad) of the New Faculty Majority Summit on Contingent Academic Labor in Washington, DC, this Saturday. I’ll be attending, and blogging and tweeting from the site.

In preparation, I want to write today about my chat with my client.

Here’s how it went (with some slight edits for effect):


Adjunct Client (hereafter, AC):  Incidentally, do you offer advice on how to survive being in adjunct hell? You would not believe how close to serfdom my current job is. I told myself I would leap off the Sears Tower before I got into this position. Yet here I am.

Karen: You know….. I’ve been thinking about that. I have never been an adjunct, never experienced the kind of situations I read about from adjunct blogs. What is it exactly—and be specific—that you feel like someone in your position needs help with?

AC: Ah, well, you know. How to make the best of it. Is it appropriate, for example, to assume that since the institution is almost literally asking me to make bricks without straw (no photocopies, for example), and that they’re paying me close to minimum wage, that they don’t expect superstar professional performance from me? I can’t stand the thought of half-assing things. Every cell cries out against it. But we have almost no professional support here. It’s as if the admin doesn’t really care what we do.

I guess my question is, Should I consider my first task being an academic on the job market or being an adjunct?

Karen: Um, that’s easy: academic on the job market. Seriously, do I really need to say that?

AC: Well, I think most people in my position perceive that their first ethical responsibility is to their students. It seems almost fraudulent to me to be working here and still constantly sending out applications. Of course, I’m more neurotic about these matters than some people, but, yes, a lot of my colleagues from grad school say similar things.

Karen: See, this misguided loyalty is what the institutions depend on to exploit you. I mean, it’s not misguided in a sense of higher moral good. But just think—you can’t keep doing good in the world as a teacher if you remain exploited indefinitely. The best good you can do is to find steady work with a liveable income. And to do that, you must be selfish.

AC: Alas!

Karen: Stop with the “alas”! You don’t need to tell me this is an ends justify the means argument. But seriously, throwing yourself personally on the sacrificial altar of student care does not change a fundamentally exploitative system. Your job is to protect yourself.

AC: I can tell you, though, that this is overwhelmingly the mood among people I know. People are cathected onto their teaching.

Karen: Yes, I’ve noticed that, and it’s bizarre to me. Truly bizarre. I have a former Ph.D. student whose committee I was on years back, still run into him occasionally. He’s deeply, profoundly embittered that “all his years of brilliant teaching” have not landed him a job, gotten the respect and recognition of the institution, blah blah blah. Are you kidding me???? Of course it’s not respected! Who respects teaching? Institutions don’t hire you for your teaching! How is that message not getting through????

AC: Oh, because the counter-message is everywhere! It’s like an urban legend among job-seekers. Teaching is everything! Your “teaching portfolio” is the Grail!

Karen: Why? Why? Why? Do you guys not talk to faculty? Or do you not listen to their answers? By faculty, I mean at your Ph.D. institutions, not at the terrible adjunct locations you end up at.

AC: Candidly, we get many, many contradictory claims from faculty.

Karen: Well, fair enough. Most faculty are idiots, pure and simple.

AC: You would not believe how many outright contradictions I got when I was preparing my materials. In the end, I didn’t know what to think. But the worst was simply getting purely impressionistic feedback without specifics. You’ve been a lot more concrete than than most of what I’ve gotten on these materials. And I daresay the vagueness contributes to the the sense of contradiction.

Karen: I can believe that. Faculty members are either ignorant of the true conditions of the market, or else they misguidedly think they’re being “nice” by reassuring you that what you’re doing will turn out ok in the end…

This conversation is incredibly illuminating. I need to write a post on this. Right away.

AC: I can tell you that being “authorized” to be a job-seeker first is a huge relief to me.  Seriously, the sense of fraudulence whenever I start working on an application is overwhelming.

You can quote me. So, yes–preach that Gospel far and wide. Go tell it on the mountain!

Karen: I will. BTW, what do you mean by “sense of fraudulence”?

AC: The sense that I’m merely playing at being a job-seeker to avoid the real work of, say, answering student e-mails (which, after all, is what I’m getting paid for). The sense that a person who describes his “research” while teaching correct comma placement is risible and deluded.

Karen: Dude, that’s fucked up. That is totally Stockholm Syndrome! I mean, why would taking an adjunct job derail your sense of yourself as a legitimate tenure track job seeker with a research agenda?

AC: It’s not just me. Trust me.

Karen: I believe you. But it’s fucked up!


I know that adjuncts need to teach well for a lot of reasons—because they want to be hired again, because they are dependent on good student evaluations, because they’re trying to perfect their craft, because they genuinely care.

But when teaching well becomes an end in itself, and becomes the goal to which all else is sacrificed, including the adjunct’s economic self-protection and psychological self-care, then something is terribly, terribly wrong. That’s where the adjunct begins a willing participant in the mechanisms of his own exploitation. That is Stockholm Syndrome.

Adjuncts cannot necessarily just walk away from the exploitation of the system at large, when adjuncting may be the best option (at least in the immediate term) to utilize the Ph.D. for pay, keep the wolf from the door while seeking permanent work, and create a record that will help in that search. But adjuncts should never, ever identify with their exploiters. They should never cathect onto or identify with the teaching labor that is being extracted from them. Because that is to identify with, form an identity around, the exploitation itself.

Yes the students are being underserved and neglected by the mainstream faculty. Yes they “deserve” better. Guess what? Making the world better for the undergraduates is not your job. It is the job of the tenure-line faculty. If they fail to do it, that is their problem, and they can reap the outcome of that choice.

“I can’t stand the thought of half-assing things. Every cell cries out against it.” That’s exactly what they count on. Your higher moral code keeps you working yourself sick for them, for peanuts, while neglecting to invest adequate time in your own self-advancement.

Your job is to take care of yourself, ensure your financial well-being, and pursue your career success through 1) the means that actually accrue useful capital on the tenure track academic job market: peer-reviewed publications and major grants; 2) re-tooling yourself for non-academic work.

Yes, sometimes the exploitation cannot be avoided. But do not ever mistake it for anything but what it is: exploitation. You can live with it for awhile, but never forget that they are not your allies or your friends, they do not have your back, they do not share your values, and they will dispose of you when you are no longer of use to them.  Some of them may be nice people.  That is immaterial.  Do not waste your time raging about how they should “appreciate” all you do for them and their students. They have no economic incentive to do so.  Don’t be your own captor.

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Adjuncting and Stockholm Syndrome — 23 Comments

  1. This is a lot to think about– thank you. To “defend”/ describe the psychological state of an adjunct, though, there’s something about teaching that provides a sense of satisfaction about the importance of our field and research within it that sustains us psychologically. That is, the problem these days is not that my research isn’t good enough (I think), but that it’s not on the hottest topics, and those hot topics are the ones departments are looking for. There’s a limited amount of things I can do about this. (Of my two subfields, there was ONE job ad this whole year that covers either of them. (My first subfield–advertised zero jobs advertised.) So, I think teaching provides those of us underemployed historians with a sense of importance when nobody else validates our subject matter. On top of this, I have found that half of the conference interview time is dedicated to teaching strategies, so this must pay off somehow. (In my one conference interview, this was certainly the case.)

  2. Stockholm Syndrome, how apropos: ‘martyr complex’ works too. I just shared this post with lead-in, “Meet the #newfac12 Summit Social Media Team. Karen Kelsky gives tough but straight advice on careers for academics in and outside acdemia and blogs at The Professor Is In.”

    I hope cohorts, colleagues, attendees, featured speakers and followers are up for looking reality straight in the eye. ‘Putting everything on the table’includes accepting the possibility of not being able to change the system. Incidentally, ‘on the table’ reminds me less of the overworked cliche about negotiating and more of Basil Bunting:

    “Man’s life so little worth,
    do we fear to take or lose it?
    No ill companion on a journey, Death
    lays his purse on the table and opens the wine”
    ~ Basil Bunting, The Spoils

  3. I think adjuncts also tend to focus on teaching over their own scholarship (and I am saying this as a current adjunct on the market), because it has IMMEDIATE results: the stack of papers is gone, you feel accomplished when you finish your preparations for a class, etc. etc. Meanwhile, research/writing/ scholarship does not see such immediate results and it’s a slog. But remember this: departments hire adjuncts (as opposed to VAPs and lecturers) to be warm bodies– why should you go above and beyond that? You don’t have to ignore your students– but you don’t have to give them 150%. I realized long ago that my 70% was most other faculty members 100%. Also, pedagogically, I’ve come to see that when I give up more of my position in the classroom and require that students take on more responsibilities for their learning, it makes for a more enriching educational experience for them– one that is always highly praised on evaluations– and a satisfying (and less time consuming) experience for me.

    A very wise colleague once said in response to a conversation on feeling like a “bad teacher” for not giving 100% to students– “you ignore students for 5 years so that you can HAVE students for 40 years.” While she was speaking about the tenure track– but I think it’s applicable to adjuncts as well.

  4. Thanks for this great post. I’d just like to add that much of the same could be said of grad students. Grad students’ first priority has to be their own coursework, then dissertation, then job search. But so many of them get sucked into excessive grad student teaching, and they participate in their own exploitation by making teaching their first priority and trying very sincerely to be the best teacher ever. They really believe that stellar teaching evaluations and a gorgeous teaching portfolio will get them a job–even if teaching replaces writing and research as the top priority. It’s more Stockholm Syndrome.

      • I am just off the market (with the help of the The Professor!) and I can assure you that when you are out there on the interview trail, teaching matters little. Committees want to know if you can balance the demands of teaching with the rigor of research. So, yeah, be a decent teacher, and PUBLISH well. By ‘well’, I mean quality over quantity. It will distinguish your file in a complex, and heartless, market!

  5. Smart and accurate, as always Karen! I’m an adjunct myself, and the mind-set you describe sounds nuts. Of course, I teach in an institution where adjuncting is NOT utterly exploitative (one can make a liveable salary with benefits) and my department has a number of long-term adjuncts who have a clear-sighted understanding of what their job is and why they are doing it. Many have decided on a straightforward tradeoff: professional standing and advancement in exchange for proximity to family, time and energy to pursue other interests, and similar quality-of-life issues. Of course, no one gets much respect from the tenure-stream colleagues in the department–which rankles, but isn’t a deal-breaker.

    That issue of respect, though, may be what’s driving some of the syndrome you describe. Students WILL look up to a teachers of whatever rank, try to meet their expectations, treat them as authorities, and respond positively when the job is done well. It’s all to easy to let that kind of affirmation fill the vacuum of respect and affirmation that most adjuncts experience around their tenure-stream colleagues and administration. It’s so hard NOT to draw a sense of self-worth from students in that way, and then even harder to acknowledge the ways that its value is limited.

    • someone just told me on twitter that since history’s greatest teachers were martyrs (think socrates and mlk) therefore adjuncts should be martyrs instead of careerists. And there you have it, folks.

      • The idea that being a martyr to exploitative routine compares in any way to challenging a culture is completely ridiculous. If anyone wants to be a martyr, do it big.

        I was an adjunct for three years — and had more publications than the total of the rest of the faculty minus one (who had about the same as I did). I was considered too much of a writer (science fiction). For writers, jobs that expose them to other things than more academia are actually better. My last two years before taking early retirement were working as a tech writer in the DC area.

  6. This is fascinating. Between defending and bailing completely on the job market, I adjuncted 161 credits in about 3.5 years. The money was good, and I also edited for an online company. I also published about four peer-reviewed articles in the first year and a half of this journey. My evals were pretty good. My rationale for what I did was “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may.” I knew that my chances of getting a good tenure-track job from a second-tier program were almost non-existent. I never identified with the institutions at which I taught, although I wrote letters, etc. I was single when I was doing this. I always laughed because the people who told me that I shouldn’t teach so much either had fulltime jobs or were married to people with significant incomes. You have to look out for yourself. Anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it.

  7. There’s no doubt that adjuncting contains legions of problems. However, I think good teaching gets panned a little too much here. There’s an enormous difference between not making teaching a huge suck and being a decent, even good, teacher. Being the latter doesn’t mean investing all of your time in teaching at the expense of other obligations; it does mean developing a class with a reasonable structure, clear organization, appropriate readings/assignments, and sufficient feedback. There are plenty of tricks to make one appear to be spending more time on something than one is, but those work if and only if one has already created a sensible syllabus. If the class is a lecture course, it should be comprehensible to anyone who walks into the classroom — and for some people, making their expertise comprehensible is intuitive and for some it requires time and energy. But if it’s not done when starting to teach (whether that means TAing, adjuncting, VAPing, tenure-tracking), it’s unlikely to ever happen. And that’s why there are some really shit-tastic teachers among the ranks of college faculty even though faculty salaries (at least in the humanities and some social sciences) come from one’s teaching obligations.

    Now I get the point that spending all time on teaching while adjuncting is not going to yield a permanent job. BUT the time invested before the class begins will make the class much easier and less time-consuming to teach. It will also be a much better class than otherwise. It’s really a matter of time management: not on a daily basis, but on a yearly one. That whole weekend spent on syllabus-development will pay dividends in terms of research/writing time (and avoid really shitty teaching evals). And students don’t need a brilliant professor but they do need (and should be able to expect) an organized one who knows what s/he is doing and who has control of the course.

    • This is absolutely true, and excellent advice. As I’ve said elsewhere, I am as harsh as I am about teaching as a counterweight to the widespread “martyr-to-teaching” mindset. But in fact teaching well is a fine skill to have, and one that I actually (ironically?) cultivated with great seriousness while an assistant professor. But again, I was an assistant professor, not an adjunct. The calculations will always evolve with each new status and position. But to return to your point, learning to teach well often means also learning to teach faster and more efficiently, and that means you can teach and get your publishing done.

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  9. A friend of mine advised those without tenure trying to keep up with research to “teach down to the point of insubordination” (i.e., that is, do as badly as you can get away with). Yeah, we want to do (much) better than that, but you MUST MUST MUST put yourself and your research first.

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  11. I soooooo agree with your assessment of adjuncting as Stockholm syndrome. The problem is, even your own advisor may be in on it as they want a trusted student to take on their teaching stipend. So in a sense, everybody can be in on keeping you in the dark. And I think it is this state of normlessness–you are given one set of advice on one day and then another on the next by another prof that keeps you in a state of terror. There really is no one you can trust because everybody is in on this lie. It’s like a institutional form of emotional abuse, but with everybody putting Sleeping Beauty to Sleep and cheering her on when actually they are drugging her up with lies. When I found out the truth, it was like I had been living with a pack of psychopaths who ritually did this to new students every year–kind of like a ritual purging to keep the herd strong. Even when you try to leave them, they will still try to get you to stay. They will say “We can’t afford to lose you!” They will say “but we NEED you so much.” It is SICK! The truth is, the system is hungry for adjuncts and the adjuncts are kept on the fringe in cult like conditions (no food, no security), so they will do just about anything for a little love and affection. It’s funny. When I left my adjunct position for good, my academic “mentor” who said “We need you,” never called me back after I left. Again, it’s so psychotic. Their love is so provisional and insincere (something they would never do to their own kind), but when you’re in the trenches, you become bonded to these would be saviours in some sick way. Get rid of tenure and the big salaries of admin I say. Maybe with everybody being a little more insecure, this type of widepread abuse will finally stop. God Blesss you adjuncts and keep you safe from the self-serving vampires that want to keep you small.

  12. “But in fact teaching well is a fine skill to have, and one that I actually (ironically?) cultivated with great seriousness while an assistant professor.”

    I think I know what this means. Assistant professors are encouraged to provide the simulacra of caring about teaching by dithering with the expensive “Centers for Teaching Excellence” that universities establish to fund more bureaucrats and appease the punters who say they only care about research. As soon as one is tenured, however, one can go on one’s jolly way–teaching well or poorly as the case may be.

    Most research in the humanities is completely unimportant compared to teaching anything well. The current system, however, encourages people to pretend to care about teaching to get a job where eventually they will measure their status by how much teaching they can avoid, and how many trips to read papers to audiences of under a dozen, including panelists, they can make.

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  14. Holy crap. This has got to be the best post concerning the adjunct experience I have ever read. I get very little self-esteem from adjuncting, and I know there are days my students will have to suffer my crappy attitude. But, with most things on this planet – you get what you pay for.

    In the meantime, the joy of teaching has been sucked out of me by more and more demands of the job. 24 hour email from students. LMS platforms that we don’t get paid to learn (even if we teach only F2F) when the college decides yet again to go with the lowest bidder as service provider. Fighting it out with the students for a parking space. Survey upon survey from the admin. The expectation you will volunteer for “free college day” and other events, or you’re not a team player. The academic culture is twisted. What’s wrong with me that I continue with it?

    Pre-semester meetings. Dictated socializing.

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