I had a hard time writing this part, because nobody wants platitudes here. We’re working in a system that is making many of us physically and emotionally and mentally ill from stress and poverty and it’s beyond most of our individual means to fix that, or even do something simple like join a gym or still afford decent health care. We’re being chewed up and spit out and replaced by younger, hardier, cheaper adjuncts who will be ground down just like we are. The absurdities of our condition are endless. My union just won the right for our adjuncts to use the college gym for free by proffering the argument that they’re not giving us healthcare and we need to stay healthy somehow.
So BS about eating healthy (On our income?), getting regular exercise (Bench press your textbooks! Kettlebell exercises with your work satchel in the parking lot! Bike to work for exercise and economy!), and seeing our doctors for checkups (Riiiiiiiiight. Like I can even afford subsidized Obamacare), are not what we need. I won’t insult your intelligence with them.
But I’m reminded of my favorite quotation from hardboiled detective Phillip Marlowe when I consider how chewed up we all are:
I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and left the room.
I’ve written elsewhere that American individualism can be a crippling cause of shame, but Americans have a useful collection of heroes too. Horatio Alger is no longer a viable one, but we have a special love of underdogs. And you don’t get much farther under the dog than adjuncts are right now (trickle down what?). Chandler’s Marlowe is one of my favorite characters, mostly because his humor is dark, caustic, yet realistic, and he has a personal moral code from which he does not waver. He reminds me a lot of many of the adjuncts I know.
We stick with this crap job because we feel an obligation to our students. We love what we do (more on this in another post). We feel it is noble work and that we’re contributing to society doing it, even when people disparage us for doing it. Like Marlowe, many of us are individual crusaders. I think this might be especially true of those of us who teach at schools with high first-generation college student numbers, but I might be a little biased in that. Often it’s the time we spend in the classroom with students that renews us. But it’s not enough to keep us sane and healthy.
So what to do?
- Use your voice. I’ve got a coat, a hat and a metaphorical gun too. I’m using that gun right now. I use it every day in the classroom, every time I tell my students what it’s like to be an adjunct and how that fits into the big picture of our politics and history. I use it on my own blog, here on NFM’s blog, on social media, in my union meetings. I use it in adjunct orientation. I use it in the hallways in passing with my colleagues. Sometimes it’s just a vent (the shotgun blast). Sometimes it’s something more organized, like this (the sniper shot). As an academic, you’ve got that gun too, and you’re already loaded for bear. Our voices are like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, which bore the legend “This machine kills fascists.” Join your voice to the chorus of the outraged. The upshot (forgive the pun) of that leads to suggestion number 2:
- Find a community. Sometimes you have to create that community yourself, and it’s hard when you’re commuting to two or three other schools to the tune of 5 hours a day. This is where the online world becomes a godsend. Not only are the Interwebz a great place to organize for action, they’re a great place to find the like-minded who will listen to and support you when the excrement hits the cooling device’s rotating blades. Don’t know where to start? Look to the right. In the column of this blog is a wealth of resources to be found online. Join COCAL and the Adjunct-l listserv. Become part of the New Faculty Majority. Or Faculty Forward. Or all three. Join Facebook. Start a page of your own. Invite fellow adjuncts. Before you know it, you’ve got a proto-union of maladjusted malcontents of the sort Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about who would save the world. That community will have your back when you need it. It can publicly shame department heads into returning your classes and administrators into rehiring you. It can help you daylight truly egregious abuses and never let admin or the public forget it. It can help make you powerful, too. I would be lost without my Seekrit Band of Rebel Adjuncts.
- Use that community to procure resources and advice. With nearly 1.4 million of us—Acs, Alt-Acs, and Post-Acs—banging around, somebody’s got some good advice and suggestions or connections. We’re smart people. Got a problem/situation? Crowdsource it. We may not have a lot of money, but we’ve got a lot of smarts. Just ask Lee Skallerup Besset and Karen Kelsky. I’ve seen adjuncts look for career, childrearing, moving, teaching, and even canning advice from their communities. And find it. We find copies of research papers for each other, PDFs of articles squirreled away behind paywalls, reliable exterminators, editorial advice, legal resources. We’re an endless font of wisdom. Use us.
- Feed your soul. Look for the little things that delight. The kind words of colleagues. Delightful vids like this one: Some biting satire. Crazy memes.
- Educate, Agitate, Organize. Take some action. Start a blog. Take back some agency in your life and career. Be just a little subversive. It doesn’t have to be something enormous. It can be something as small as refusing to write a recommendation letter for free. There is nothing so uplifting as standing up for yourself, and others. Sometimes this means setting a deadline for yourself: I will ditch this path if I don’t have something better by 20XX or whenever. One of my colleagues said that was surprisingly freeing in more ways than one.
- Rescue Yourself. Stop being a victim. Stop keeping your head down. Stop being ashamed. Stop thinking, “if only I work harder, I’ll get tenure.” You probably won’t. The system is broken. Come together with us and help us kick it in and start over. Pick up your coat, hat, and gun and leave the room.