Cardboard sign reading "I need a miracle"

From Ph.D. to Poverty

 Published on September 3, 2014 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris /  “let's sleep again” by Hannah Law; CC BY-NC 2.0 /  3

Another Ph.D. just applied for unemployment. I haven’t received any benefits because my claims are under review while the Employment Security Department determines reasonable assurance of reemployment. Per my contract with one college (I work for four institutions): “This memo is not a contract for employment and may be rescinded should the class(es) be cancelled or for any other reason.” Standard non-contract language of institutions nationwide, and not oblique: there is no reasonable assurance of employment for adjuncts.

My personal low and itinerant “profession” stems from a labor crisis in higher ed that’s attracted the attention of unions and Congress, but nonetheless persists, and perpetuates a unique poverty that affects the majority of academic laborers. And because we look forward to new email memos from colleges offering non-contractual, temporary appointments, we lesson plan, design LMS content, and draft syllabi without pay. These working conditions are disruptive, cyclical, and intentional.

It baffles me why, in a higher ed system that holds political but not ideological power over its workers, we don’t object to our labor conditions en masse. There are several strong voices in the argument for adjunct labor reform, but the more widespread false consciousness that accepts, complies with, justifies, and administers exploited labor is shameful. It would be different if higher ed wasn’t posing as something it isn’t, namely: an institution founded on key phrases such as Learning and Discovery, Access to Learning, A Climate of Mutual Respect, Openness and Reflection and Community and Civic Engagement. These core values are at odds with the toxic reality.

In particular, a climate of mutual respect implies shared governance, voice, and reception for all; but this is not the case. Adjuncts won’t get a seat or iota of mutual respect at the bargaining table without union representation. Of course, murmurs of unionization are met with resistance and censure, and there isn’t an internal path of negotiation for intentionally marginalized university workers.

Imagine a university where unified faculty teach and write with the dignity and pay our work deserves, administration prioritizes instruction and essential student-support services, and student-centered learning models are progressive, not packaged. Until then, it’s time to stop romanticizing a bygone academy and, rather, court new paradigms that are proven, ethical, and sustainable. Higher ed needs radical leaders who realize their role and stake in the crisis, quash cronyism, and confront the culture of fear and contempt that hamstring progress.

It’s not unusual for adjuncts to spiral in a climate designed to exploit and scapegoat, which Colman McCarthy reiterates here: “the demeaning of adjuncts is little more than structural economic violence.” Unemployment isn’t a choice, it is a national security “designed to provide partial income replacement to regularly employed members of the labor force who become involuntarily unemployed.” For me, going on the dole is a last resort, a demeaning consequence.

Even temporary poverty is difficult to bear; it’s humiliating and gut wrenching. That said, this personal crisis has humbled and brined me in reality, and I am determined to fight for my profession, from the margins or beyond, if with luck and effort I should get a job outside academe through weekly job searches. It isn’t that simple, though. I’ve been in a vacuum for ten years, teaching toward tenure (yeah, I know), and numb to change because I was employed, however insecurely. I wish I’d bartended in my twenties so I could delete the Ph.D. off my CV, take away the M.A., bury the B.A. under bar-back experience, and get a job with tips pulling pints and shaking martinis. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? But I’m not sure I can wipe the slate or deny experience at my age.

In talking to colleagues in similar crises, it’s apparent that the slow erosion of the profession has taken a toll, and though there will not be a mass exodus of adjuncts, there are hordes of us who, battered by academe’s hard-labor mills, contemplate alt-ac careers. And those who break out often reflect on their precarious employment with the fermented retrospect one affords a broken marriage.

I’m in this argument to humanize contingency and reify the argument for adjunct labor reform. The narrative’s shifted: it’s time to realize change and fortify higher ed for future generations. Incremental strides are within reach when we work collectively toward a solution, with mutual gravitas. It’s 2014, pick up a spade and cultivate a voice and conscience, like in this exchange between me and Nathaniel C. Oliver:

Thank you, Nathaniel: thank you for bearing all. I’ve adjuncted for a decade, and the pain compounds with every narrative I read. This is my story, your friend’s story, and so many others.

The image of a sardine-packed train with pushers pushing more bodies in the closing doors comes to mind. Will it derail? Will I get on? Should I bother? I have a ticket, though!

I don’t want to die an adjunct, either, and I realize this pathway to poverty is secure. I have a little fight left in me, though. And each act of bravery, such as your post is, ignites my passion and purpose to push harder. I’ll get on that fucking train and ride it. Thanks for the push.

Thank you, Tiffany. I am continually impressed by the determination that people like you have shown in the face of the juggernaut that is adjunctification, and I am just trying to do my part. I understand that the temptation is huge to just give up completely, especially now that I have a young daughter, and like all parents, I want to provide for her the best way that I can. On the other hand, I worry about the world that she will inherit; I don’t want it to be one where academics are routinely consigned to poverty while others make fortunes off of their labor.

Good luck to you, and thanks for not giving up the fight.

For Nathaniel, for my children, for my colleagues, I won’t give up. I have so little to lose but integrity and you. Remember when we were kids on recess? Some chased, some swang, some played 4-Square? It’s quite the same now: the playground’s changed, but we’re on the same merry-go-round. Now, as then, I’m against bullying. The bell’s calling us out…

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3 Responses
  1. Kathleen Hartley

    I have known many wonderful educators caught in this bind, and as a public school educator for 25 years, I have never understood the choice to put up with such shoddy treatment. I could never convince anyone to even consider the security, unionization and humane working conditions of teaching in our public schools. Not to mention the public service aspect. Public schools desperately need these dedicated professionals, and if you just walked away and into a place where you will have what you say you want, the abuse would just end. Period.

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