This post first appeared on Lee Kottner’s personal blog, Dowsing. Reprinted here by permission.
Here’s my day as an adjunct today; it’s not typical but it’s not unusual, either:
9-10:30—commute to York College, Queens
10:30-12—office hour (paid), class prep
1:50-3:30—commute to New Jersey
3:30-5—union executive committee meeting (paid; which I’ll be a half hour or so late for)
5:00-6:00—commute to Manhattan
6:00-8:00—mandatory (paid) faculty meeting
I do this periodically to make my life as an adjunct instructor visible to people that it’s usually invisible to, and who should know about it because my working conditions affect them: students, parents, the general public. Later, two good friends, people I love dearly, both tenured full professors, asked me the equally proverbial “why do I do it?” question. My pissy response after that long day was this:
Why do I do it? Why do you do the work you do? Why do you teach in China for $3,000? Why did you take the job as assessment officer? Why did you keep going back to academe when it was so hard to get a job? Why do anything worth doing? I and other adjuncts get tired of answering that question. We do it because the job is worth doing and because we want to see others paid what we’re worth. Nothing changes if the only response is to leave and let it be someone else’s problem. That’s what full time faculty have done for the last 30 years. That’s how we got in this mess. That’s not a question an ally asks. The real question is why I should have to do this when you don’t.
I’m pretty sure I hurt some feelings with this response, but as an activist-educator, I can’t pass up the chance to use this as an object lesson to allies. I’ve confronted this question before in real life and in a performance piece I wrote. It comes up all the time in the adjunct world and it’s one of the weapons used against us by management/administration and the entrenched privileged. “Why do you keep letting yourself be exploited? Why don’t you just get another job?” My friends asked me this out of concern for my health both physical and financial, and I love them for that, but as academics I wish they were also more my allies in this struggle. Because their words make it harder, not easier, to keep doing what I’m doing.
One of the first lessons I learned as a baby feminist in the 70s was the slogan “The personal is political.” The conditions of my life as an adjunct and as a union activist really can’t be separated from my personal life. Those conditions are my personal life. Teaching is as much a part of my identity as being a writer or a feminist is. Like my tenured colleagues, I sank a lot of time, money, and effort (though not as much as they) into becoming an educator. Whenever I could (i.e, whenever I could afford it), I kept coming back to it because it felt like vital work, and because it was soul-filling and not soul-sucking like the far more lucrative job of writing advertising copy was. I want a return on my educational investment that makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, not perpetuating a sick, exploitative system. Because even while I’m signing those sick, exploitative contracts, I’m subverting that system every time I walk into a classroom and open my mouth.
Asking me why I keep doing what I do isn’t the same as asking how I keep doing it, or commiserating with my exploitation. Because when that question is personal, it places the responsibility back on me rather than on the system that exploits me, with the subtext that I could walk away if I wanted to. That’s why that question pisses adjuncts off: because nobody asks why Tenured and Tenure-Track profs don’t walk away when they don’t get raises or are denied tenure or when administration exploits them by squeezing more administrative work out of them for the same money. Somehow, tenure has not only given academics security, but a right to love their jobs that adjunct and contingent faculty often don’t seem to have (more on this in a later post). (And please don’t say this in response. Please. Just don’t.)
Phrased another way, “why do you do it?” reads as “why don’t you get another job?” But an ally asks, “what can I do to help change this system that exploits you?” Or, if you’re a local ally, “how can I support you, personally, if not professionally, in making this better?” And why should I be supported? Yes, this is a choice I made, and continue to make every time I sign an exploitative teaching contract, but it’s no different from the choices that people working for justice everywhere make, whether it’s working for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or some other activist NGO, or on a political campaign. People who work in the non-profit world don’t often make a lot of money. Many of them go into dangerous situations to do what they do, and risk death, imprisonment, or torture to help others. Do I really need to remind anyone what civil rights marchers, anti-war protestors, or even the Occupiers of Zucotti Park faced? Social change does not happen without risk and sacrifice. Continuing to work as an adjunct and as an activist at the same time is my risk and my sacrifice.
I’m not trying to sound all noble here; my risk is relatively low by comparision, and mostly economic. But it’s precisely because I don’t have dependents and haven’t sunk all my apples into a Ph.D. basket that I feel I need to be one of the people in this fight. Many of my adjunct activist colleagues are single parents with kids to support and massive student debt, or people who don’t have a partner (like me) to support them, or people whose partners don’t make a lot of money either. My personal risk is pretty low, so I need to take a stand in this fight. It doesn’t cost me much except personal security and time, and I’ve always lived on the economic edge, mostly by choice, though also because of the same wage exploitation that we’re all suffering from.
Which brings up another point: how interconnected this fight is with economic justice for the dying middle class, of which my colleagues are a part, and the increasing numbers of working poor. Many of my colleagues from grad school teach at institutions that serve the working poor and have watched their school’s tuition go up and up and up until it is crippling and as unobtainable as an Ivy League school. Student debt load is killing our economy and crippling a generation of students. Administration ties that debt to poor adjunct salaries, as in, “if we pay you a living wage, we’ll have to raise tuition.” If we don’t expose this lie, we’re doing our students and our society a grave disservice. And we’re falling down on the job as educators. We are, instead, modelling economic and intellectual poverty and complacency for our students, instead of enaging with the political and economic realities of the world around us.*
This is why I do it: Because I can. Because I must. With or without your support.