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.
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.