by Jessica Langer
I’ve got news for you: if you take a tenure-track position at a university that uses a significant amount of adjunct labour, you have sold out. This may come as a surprise to you. Academia is the opposite of selling out, you may think. Academia is where we go to fight and write against systems of oppression! It’s where we can get tenure and then use our power to speak out! Or at least, it’s where we can live the life of the mind and contribute to the intellectual history and prowess of the human race!
There are two problems with that.
1. Academics aren’t the only people, or even necessarily the most significant people, to contribute intellectually to the world.
This is surprisingly non-obvious to a lot of people who are transitioning out of academia – and people who are still in academia. The ivory tower of higher learning is a seductive ideal and a compelling image.
But… think about it. Who innovates in every space outside of academia? Where do thought leaders come from in industry? Who comes up with new and different ways to use technology, to build homes, to create sustainable urban spaces? Who thought up the Apple Watch? Who writes for the New York Times? Who’s in charge of getting astronauts safely to Mars in 2020? Mostly non-academics.
The idea that academia is the be-all and end-all of the “life of the mind” is one of the most pervasive and most destructive lies that academia has ever told.
2. Academia itself is an oppressive system.
It always amazes me, the extent to which some academics will consider leaving for industry a failure of morals as well as of ability. Capitalism is an oppressive system; workers are alienated from their labour in the context of a large corporation or organization; the people at the top get paid many, many times what the people at the bottom make.They’re right, of course. It’s the system in which we all function, and it is oppressive; and by being a successful businessperson, I am participating in that oppression.
But so are academics who work on the tenure track.
The reason they are able to be on the tenure track at all, to teach the courses they do, to make the salaries they do, to have the departmental funding and the job security they do, is because the “grunt” labour of teaching undergraduate students is done largely by a proletarian class of labourers who have none of those things. These labourers are paid shockingly badly (in the States, at least), are generally not eligible for departmental funding, get the last pick of courses, and have no job security. They are the sweatshop of academia: the tenure-track folks are the customers who tut-tut at the labour practices of the factories while at the same time loading up their carts with cheap T-shirts.
So: is there any way not to be a sell-out?
The short answer? No, there isn’t. Not in this system.
We all sell out. We all make the compromises that we need to make in order to keep ourselves alive, clothed and fed. We all compete with each other, and we all close our eyes to injustices in the interest of furthering our own self-interest.
We all try our best to live our ideals, but here is my radical idea: accept the fact that you live in a system that requires you to “sell out” in order to live, and be deliberate about your choices with the understanding of that. In the current university system, you will be selling out whether you take an academic job or leave academia. Don’t worry about selling out. Worry about how your work, whatever it is, is going to impact the world at large and yourself, your family and your community specifically – and make your choices based on a nuanced understanding that goes beyond fear and into deliberate action.