Adjuncts of the world, Unite (and shame the crap out of any happy adjuncts!)

The job market is looking more and more…real. I am not ready to enter it fully yet, but I can no longer ignore it as I once could. (Not that I ever did; I’ve been studying the job market since before I went back to school. But now it’s leaving the realm of interesting research and becoming something I will soon have to directly engage.)

I have been teaching at a couple of schools this year, just a course at a time, getting my feet wet and putting a few new lines onto my CV while working my other part time gigs and writing the paper. And perusing academic blogs and sites for basic Zeitgeisty stuff.

You can’t wade through an academia-oriented website nowadays without accidentally walking into a really unhappy, poor, debt-laden adjunct academic who’s completely pissed off with the whole system that keeps them in poverty while those tenured few enjoy the perks and delights of what academia is supposed to really be like. And believe me, I’m not dismissing those people, nor in any way applauding or endorsing a system that creates so many more indebted academics than there are jobs for them, so very many more…it’s ridiculous and wrong, and I’m completely on board with that.

However…in my quiet lurking in the corners of academic sites, I came across this one recently, about an adjunct working in my own fair city who has managed to find a situation she kind of likes, and where she can make a living wage working at two different colleges. She states pretty plainly that she knows it is horrible out there for a lot of people, but she wanted to put out there the story of at least one situation where it doesn’t.

Over the next 15 comments or so she is called irresponsible, unethical, a “smug self-satisfied tool,” and a liar. She is told that because she has a spouse with a full time job her academic work isn’t a “career” but a “hobby” and accused of “siding with the bosses,” for presenting a narrative that in some way (say the commenters) implies that being an adjunct isn’t so bad and there’s nothing wrong with it.

I don’t want to go on there and engage. And I doubt anyone who read that post will bother to come over here and engage me, but if they want to, what the hell. But…where I come from, and where I went to school, even in the whole artsy world, one tries to actually read what a document says and not choke on your own perceived reception of subtext. Nothing she said in her post could reasonably have been construed as saying “Yay! Go into academia, even if you are an adjunct, it’ll be fun!” The overall slant of her story seemed, to my perspective, to be just that—her telling of her story. A long term adjunct faculty member who has been fortunate enough to be able to make it work. A story that pushed a lot of people’s buttons, apparently. Makes me want to smack a bunch of them over the head with a hardbound copy of Bourdieu. With a little Ricoeur on the side.

Before going any further, let me just be clear: I am a musician. Many of my friends live the lives of freelancers, and they manage to work and socialize and marry and have kids if they wish and pay their mortgages on condos in the city or houses in the suburbs and generally pull through.  It’s been rough in the past few years, with the economy tanking, but they are being creative and generally keeping it going. Some are partnered with spouses whose jobs provide them with health benefits (they–we–are the lucky ones), some are single, some are partnered with other freelancers. (No. It is not a hobby.) Many others who don’t consider themselves “freelance” keep their lives together by cobbling together 3 or 4 or more part time gigs at any one time; Christmas is pay dirt and March is slim, but most of the time things just keep perking along.  There’s never a guarantee that the same job is going to still be there next season, but you hope for the best and keep your options open, and life goes on. You market yourself. You audition. You cold-call. You network. It’s part of the gig, and it’s a part that never ends.

It is from this perspective that I read some of these comments from unhappy adjuncts whose former $60,000 salaries have been unexpectedly downsized to the mid-40s, or whose ability to earn a livable full time salary hinges on their working their butts off all year round without summers off. And while yes, the system sucks…I have a hard time weeping for you. You see, I come at this whole academia thing from a place where the job security is even less, and the pay less still. For me, adjuncting at its worst means one more potential part time job I can add to my roster of 3-4 existing ones, especially if I can get one for a winter quarter somewhere when the other gigs are few and far between.

I get that it should be better, and if any of us were misled by others at the beginning of this process into believing all we had to do was get the degree and a cushy TT job was all but guaranteed, that’s disgraceful. And I also get that the current system of abandoning regular faculty for harried part time teachers erodes the quality of our universities and our overall quality of life–not just the teachers’ quality of life, but that of everyone who could benefit from what a solid university system could offer. And I’m a big fan of organized collective bargaining, and I agree that adjuncts need it, and badly. I’m not arguing with any of that.

Yes. It needs fixing.  But shaming and screaming at Kelli Marshall for not pretending her life sucks, or for not keeping silent in the corner and not speaking unless she speaks party line, isn’t the solution. I’m not sure what is…but I’m pretty sure it’s not that.


  • I appreciate your post, and the line about “the hardbound copy of Bourdieu” tickled me. 🙂

    As I wrote to you earlier, the most disconcerting thing to me is not that people are pissed off about the post (and my current job situation perhaps) but the WAY they respond to it, in public, on an academic site.

    Academics should be civil in their dialogue, even (or especially) when they vehemently disagree with someone. The discourse should be something like, “Kelli, I understand where you’re coming from, and I agree with [this point and this one], but perhaps you might also consider [such and such].”

    Statements (anonymous, of course) like “Ms. Marshall, you are smug, self-satisfied tool [sic]” are unhelpful and do nothing to further a coherent discussion on the matter. I can’t respond logically to that. It’s sad.

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