In an earlier post I talked about the pernicious factors that keep us too wrapped up in our own shame to speak or do anything about our working conditions or place that shame and blame right where they ought to be: squarely on the shoulders of neoliberal capitalism and those who practice it. But there’s one factor in our inequality that we ourselves are responsible for, and that’s our magical thinking. Too many of us believe that we are the special snowflake, out of the entire blizzard of our cohort, who will achieve tenure.
While it is true that our most of our advisors have been less than honest with us about the possibility of tenure track positions, even when we’re made aware of the dismal state of the profession, we choose to go on adjuncting for lousy pay, keeping up our publications and trying to be worthy in the hopes of being the chosen one. Aside from the fact that adjuncting is quite often the kiss of death anywhere but community colleges, there’s the contradictory prejudice against internal candidates and the obsession with fulfilling the national search, and the “stale Ph.D.” (paywall) phenomenon stacked against us as well.
How often do you hear of an adjunct chosen from the ranks to fill a tenure-track position at a four-year college or graduate level university? What’s that? It happened to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend? Ah, here we have what I like to call “Logan’s Run” syndrome. Just enough of us rise to the top of the carousel to be accepted into the privileged circle of Renewal to make the rest of us believe in the fantasy. It’s the same hope that keeps student athletes believing they’ll be the one chosen by their favorite professional league if they just work hard enough.
The brutal truth is far more, well, brutal.
Good jobs have been made scarce. Tenure lines are disappearing (especially if you live in Wisconsin and then it’s tenure itself that’s disappearing). The lowest line on that graph on the left, the one that’s falling? That’s tenure track faculty. Contingency in all its flavors is increasing (top line). Nobody likes to hear those kinds of facts about their profession, but it’s better to hear them before we’re thousands of dollars in debt with no hope of employment because we’re overqualified for everything else, or have spent too much time out of the workforce. At least this way we can keep from deluding ourselves. No matter how competent we are, how many publications we have, how good our student and peer evals are, we are more likely than not to end up off the tenure track, glory stories and propaganda notwithstanding.
The most dangerous aspect of such magical thinking is that it divides us. The fact that there are so few viable places available sets us in competition with each other and functions as a deviously brilliant divide-and-conquer technique that administration wields like a powerful secret weapon. It brainwashes us into a lack of collegiality at best and outright sabotage at worst. It also influences how full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty see and treat adjuncts. If some new grads actually do make it to the hallowed tenure track, then that must mean the rest of them are inferior in some way. And it keeps us from organizing. Solidarity is out of the question when you might be helping someone who’ll get a job you want, apparently.
I don’t think it’s an accident that many of the organizers I know in academe are from other professions (nursing, business, law). My own experience within and outside of the academy has deeply influenced my view of adjuncting. I worked for many years in industry and only went back to adjuncting when I was downsized during the recession. Like me, many adjunct organizers have come out of industry and don’t need the validation of academic colleagues to feel they are worth more money and respect. Former adjunct Julie Withers agrees:
[A]djuncts tend to suffer a kind of group think when it comes to divergent perspectives about why this shit is put up with. Tough talk is awesome in the moment but real talk (includes anger, disappointment, hurt) will get you there in the long run. When I look at organizing among low wage healthcare workers, I see workers emotional and tough… I came from private industry also; one of the things I noticed right away was the insecurity, shame, and internalized classism of my adjunct colleagues. These are people who had been in school as student or employee most of their adult lives and only knew the work world of higher education and didn’t exhibit much agency within that space. I see shame and internalized classism [as] two of the primary psycho-social barriers to organizing adjuncts.
So just as we need to reject the shame of our financial and employment situations, we need to think realistically about how we might be complicit in our own exploitation. One way is keeping silent out of indifference. The other is believing that we are somehow not like all the other kids, that somewhere there’s a tenured place for us. Unfortunately, there is a tenured place for only a very small number of us, not the vast majority of us. So that majority of us need to embrace realism and band together to change that.
Let me make clear that I am not by any means blaming the victim here. This is not an issue of market forces and “bad decisions”; it’s a planned fissuring of the academic workplace that leaves adjuncts out in the cold and administrators profiting from our starvation wages. If you wish to pursue graduate education, by all means do so. Most of us got into academia because we love learning, and we love teaching. But go into your studies clear-eyed about your job prospects. If you want that Ph.D. in whatever (and make no mistake the STEM fields are suffering too), by all means get it, but don’t count on anything but an intellectual return on your investment. I wish it were otherwise. It should be otherwise.
And if you’ve already got those degrees and debt, stop blaming yourself for your position while at the same time deluding yourself that you just have to work harder to be worthy. As one adjunct colleague said, hard work doesn’t work anymore. Horatio Alger is dead.
So this is not condemnation, but another call to action. Shake off the shame. Banish the magical thinking. Unite with your colleagues and help make higher ed what it should be: a viable profession for all its employees—especially those of us actually doing the education part.