Killing Us Softly, Part 1–Shame

WalSmart U 9-RCBIn a discussion from last year, TED presenters and social psychologist Paul Riff and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson found common ground in the health problems caused by inequality. It seems obvious that people with fewer resources and less access to healthcare would have poorer overall health and earlier mortality. But it turns out the issue is more complex than that. Wilkinson explains:

[T]he biology of chronic stress, I suppose, is fairly similar across a wide range of mammals. And in human beings, we had always regarded classification by social class as simply a proxy for the real determinants of health that we saw, that we imagined were material factors — like diet and what you’re working with and what you’re exposed to at work and maybe housing, air pollution, things like that. But gradually, it started looking more and more like social status itself was a really important determinant of health, and that was really confirmed when we became aware of people doing work on non-human primates, macaques and baboons, looking at some of the psycho-social, the stress effects of social status in those animals, and seeing remarkable parallels between what came out of experiments in animals.

So status also determines to some degree how healthy we are in our work and life. Which only makes sense: the lower we are in the hierarchy, the more we worry about losing what little footing we have. Part-time adjuncts, especially those who have no other source of income, also have to worry about paying bills in the dry spells between semesters—because we’re not paid enough to save for them. Add to this bad bosses, poor working conditions, exploitation, poor wages, and so on. That chronic stress wears on our bodies and causes more health problems than people who are secure in their employment and social status have: depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, many of the major killers. Our social status also affects how others treat us, and for adjuncts, that means a lot of blaming the victim and self-congratulation for the blamers.

Shame, shame, shame

This year, I’ve noticed many of my fellow adjuncts—complaining isn’t the right word—describing signs of extreme stress in their lives: depression, crying and vomiting before classes, anxiety attacks. etc. Here’s an example:

My fall semester classes start tonight. I’ve been throwing up and crying for three days. I can’t do this anymore. I simply can’t continue to face this despair and humiliation any more. I feel like a whore. I feel so completely shredded right now, so empty of any of the love I once felt for the university. I know that there are those of my colleagues out there who know exactly what I’m talking about, who have gone through, and who are currently going through this… and I could use some advice (PM me preferably). I’ve tried everything I can think of, everything I know how to do, to break free of this. I really need some advice, because adjunct teaching is, quite literally, killing me. It’s effecting not only my mental health, but now my physical health…. PTSD is what it is – constant trauma and abuse, anxiety and stress, a level of fear and at times terror because of the financial distress—all of this is trauma-inducing.

The comments to this posting on Facebook are filled with commiseration, love, and agreement: so many of us have been there, are there and are on the brink of walking away or have been trying for years to walk away and are unable to because of personal situations or the economy that punishes us for being “overqualified” or too old. Many of the responses speak not just to a lack of health insurance (WTH, Obamacare? We still can’t afford it.) but also to the lack of status adjuncts suffer from: “It was the students who did it in for me, but number two was the trend of that department to hire their grad students as lecturers directly out of the MS program, with no real world experience,” said Mark Hutchenreuther, a now-retired adjunct.

Melissa DeGezelle, who adjuncts at Temple and Philadelphia Universities, reported similar symptoms: “I threw up this morning, too. Right before I left out the door to my 8am at Temple. I couldn’t understand why. But I think you gave me my answer. It’s shame. I’m sorry. I know I haven’t been in it as long as you, but I’m working my single parent broke ass off for this union.”

It’s this latter reaction—shame—that I want to talk about here. It’s one of the most harmful reactions we can have to our situation and yet one of the most common. How embarrassing it is to be a highly educated professional reduced to needing government assistance when you’re fully employed, like WalMart workers. How mortifying to have to borrow money from friends and relatives to get by at our age, when the “starving student” stage of our lives should be long over. How awkward to run into your students at the grocery store where they see you not as their professor but the clerk who rings them up.

adultier adultA couple of different factors likely spark this feeling: one is Americans’ extreme sense of independence. This is a land where the Horatio Alger myth is dying hard, a land of rugged individualists whose knee-jerk response to the offer of help is, “Thanks, but I got this.” The older folks like me grew up with Depression-era parents who had no recourse to social services because there were none, and who would rather have died than either ask for or reveal they were taking a government “handout.” I used to think this kind of stubborn independence was an admirable trait, and to some extent it is. We should all be able to stand on our own two feet and take care of ourselves; that’s what it means to be a functioning adult. We provide for ourselves, pay our bills, don’t live beyond our means. To do that, we got an education, as everyone told us to do.

As I’ve gotten older and creakier myself, I’ve come to realize that we all need each other, that living is a group endeavor and democratic socialism is a lot smarter way to live. I’m unmarried, an orphan now, and an only child (no pity parties, please), so my family is one largely of choice. They are a great group of people that I know have my back and who have been a tremendous help to me in the last couple of years especially (and to whom I owe a boatload of money). Am I embarrassed to be beholden to them? Yeah, a little. But they were all glad to help. I was glad to help, too, when I had the means. Everybody likes to help, and some of us in my group have traded the same $20 back and forth between paychecks for years. I’ve also been on unemployment, but haven’t qualified for food stamps, though I have no shame about trying to, or taking them if I should.  Here’s why:

It’s the economy, people

There’s a big difference between “adulting” and trying to get by without help when the deck is stacked against you. And make no mistake that it is. I spent years wondering why I wasn’t doing better financially than my blue-collar, airplane-mechanic dad who never made more than $35K in his life. On that lone salary, my folks had a three-bedroom, two-bath house, a big car, and sent their kid to an expensive private college in the 1970s and ’80s. Which, it turns out, were the last good fiscal years for anybody who wasn’t the 1%. As Robert Reich has pointed out ad nauseum, wages started to stagnate about then, and have, since then, not kept up with either American productivity or (until very recently) inflation (more on this below):

Since 1979, the nation’s productivity has risen 65 percent, but workers’ median compensation has increased by just 8 percent. Almost all the gains from growth have gone to the top.

This means your wages too, people.

We are working harder for less, all of us (the middle and working class and the poor), and everyone’s jobs have been increasingly “Uberized.” We all live in a gig economy now, unless we are upper management. With the increasing corporatization of the university, that’s not us either. And it’s not even our tenured colleagues (who need to wake up to this fact before they are extinct). We were never in this for the money, but it’s absurd that we, like so many others, can’t make a living as experts in our chosen professions.

Imposter syndrome

The other factor likely to add to our shame is imposter syndrome, bolstered by our inability to make a living. It takes a long time to own our expertise and our working situation (and some of our so-called colleagues) are not helping with that. The bar for tenure has been set higher and higher. Even Peter Higgs thinks the demand for publications has gotten completely out of control. Meanwhile, the number of tenure lines has been shrinking drastically or, thanks to crackhead politicians like Scott Walker, completely disappearing. Hard to feel like a professional when your profession keeps changing the stakes and requirements, let alone the rewards.

As the person who started this all off replied to her support system,

I’m hearing from so many of you, both here and privately, that so many of us are experiencing the same kind of symptoms—crying, throwing up, sleepless nights, panic attacks, physical illnesses, depression, urges to drink or get high just to numb the pain—this is the state of American college faculty—as I’ve said before, this is a kind of genocide on an entire professional class in this country.

Of course we’re showing stress reactions. The system is killing us, slowly. Of course we’re ashamed. But why? Why is this our fault?

Guess what? It’s not.

Stop being ashamed

FF15BrazilI’ve been watching the Fight for $15 movement since its beginnings with a real sense of hope and delight. It’s been a hard fight, but workers have won victory after victory, across the minimum wage retail and fast food sector. They sparked a rise in minimum wage in several cities and states, and a discussion about who deserves a living wage across the nation. (That rise in wages, coupled with low interest rates, has finally helped some incomes begin to match inflation, mostly because inflation is low right now.) The movement has spread to Brazil. Their motto is, “1,000s of workers. 100s of cities. 1 movement. $15 and a union.” This is a group composed of people working in minimum wage jobs at the bottom of the social and fiscal ladder, or one rung up from it. Many rely on social services to get by and feed their families too, like many of us.

The big difference is they’re not ashamed. They are fed up. They’re proud of the work they do, proud of their ability to earn a living. They just want a better chance to do so, an equitable chance. And isn’t that what we want? Why are we taking the shame of the exploitative economy on our own shoulders? That shame does not belong to us. It belongs to the neoliberals who rigged this system to vacuum up as much profit as they could and deprive us of our ability to make a living.

I owe about $20K in credit card debt right now, none of which I can pay. I’m not even very embarrassed about that either, because I wouldn’t have needed the damn credit cards if I’d been paid a decent living wage (and didn’t need them when I worked in industry), if my wages had kept up with inflation, if the country I lived in didn’t think healthcare was a privilege and not a human right, if I had monetary recognition of my expertise. This is a national economic problem, not a personal problem.

One of the things shame does is paralyze us. It keeps us hiding in the shadows and silent. It keeps us from recognizing who’s responsible for our situation, and it allows others to blame us for “bad choices.” Most of all, it perpetuates the status quo by keeping us from working together to end our exploitation. When you start speaking out and agitating, you will find that you feel proud, less ashamed (eventually not ashamed at all), stronger, more confident. Like the expert you are.

You’re not an imposter. You’re not a failure. You’re worth more that $2700 a class. Demand it. There are approximately 1.4 million contingent faculty across the country. We are the backbone of the university/college system and we have the power to shut the entire system down if we crawl out of our shame cocoons and stand up for ourselves. If we don’t do that, then we should be ashamed. Stop being embarrassed by poverty. Start adulting to change it.

–Lee Kottner


4 thoughts on “Killing Us Softly, Part 1–Shame

  1. What a fabulous pep talk. Thank you! I am proud to be a member of the “underclass” in American higher ed. With apologies to my tenure-track friends, adjunct/contingent faculty are the heroes here. It is a difficult road, but look who your colleagues are!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Killing Us Softly, Part 2: Magical Thinking | Majority Rule

  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Proud to be an acquaintance of the person who wrote this. It’s a look at shame that comes for workers (adjunct faculty) when they aren’t paid their worth, let alone a living wage. Please reblog, share on facebook, and retweet.


  4. Pingback: Killing Us Softly, Part 3: Taking Care of Ourselves | Majority Rule

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