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Where Do I Belong?: Contingency and the Psychic Wage

 Published on November 13, 2013 /  Written by /  0

Hybrid Pedagogy recently announced a call for articles that address the problem of contingency in higher education. The goal is to examine our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always result in opportunity. The following article is the fifth from a series that will continue throughout Fall 2013.

I should have, as many, many people remind me, nothing to complain about. I am a full-time instructor at the same institution as my husband (who is on the tenure-track). I have steady pay, benefits, my own private office and computer, and relative job security. I am at an institution that doesn’t exclude non-tenure-track faculty from receiving institutional money for research or travel, and I am welcome to sit on a number of departmental committees that directly impact my position. To complain about how relatively low my pay is with no system of promotion, my heavier teaching load, or the fact that I’m teaching outside of my area of expertise, is to invite the ire of my friends and colleagues: You should be grateful that you have a job at all; You have no idea how lucky you are.

But all of those complaints bely a deeper dissatisfaction with my current position off the tenure-track: that I am still marked as other, as less-than, devalued, and made to feel like I don’t belong. When the professors in the department are addressed by their professional rank and title, and I, in turn, am referred to by my first name during meetings, it’s clear that my PhD, my ten-plus years teaching experience, my long list of publications, all mean nothing; all that matters is what I am not, and that is a Professor.


Marc Bousquet, who has been eloquently and cogently writing and speaking about the working conditions for all faculty in higher education for years now, used the phrase “psychic wage” to describe (in part) how academia can continually and constantly exploit the professoriate at all levels. We will accept lower wages for more “meaningful” and pleasant work; the “life of the mind,” the “love” of research, the passion we have for our students outweighs the conditions under which we work. However, while Bousquet defends the tenured professor mowing their lawn on a Wednesday afternoon, I want to talk about how this psychic wage is unevenly distributed between tenured and non-tenure-track faculty.

It’s about belonging.

One of the unspoken but important parts of the psychic wage associated with higher education and the academy is the sense of belonging. Of being a part of something larger, more important than yourself. I receive daily reminders that I (and my other colleagues who are off the tenure-trackdo not belong. Our research doesn’t “count” because we don’t have to do it; our professional opinions matter less because we’re not on the tenure-trackwe wouldn’t complain if we just understood how hard it is to be a tenured professor (or that we wouldn’t be able to make it).

This latter comment is particularly galling, that I should somehow be grateful that I am not required to perform the duties that would make me a fully-integrated member of the university community: advise students, sit on various university committees, do research, etc. I have few-to-no opportunities to create meaningful connections with my students, to mentor them and work with them to achieve their academic and professional goals; whatever relationship I do develop evaporates when I have to tell them that I can’t write a letter for them because it will be meaningless coming from an instructor. I also have few opportunities to connect with colleagues across campus with whom I might develop productive professional relationships as I am excluded from serving and participating in shared governance, paired with the assumption that as an instructor, I don’t do research anyway.

Some of my colleagues tell me I should not envy their positions because of the requirements placed upon them. But when I ask if they would like to trade places with me, they all laugh and look at me in horror: not on your life.

For many contingent faculty, this dearth of psychic wage has morphed into a desperation for the approbation, acceptance, and admission into the sacred fraternity of the professoriate. We volunteer to do the jobs, teach the classes, no one else wants. We turn ourselves inside out trying to show our value, that we do belong, that we are worthy. We allow ourselves to be exploited in the hopes that maybe, one day, we will be accepted.

Which of course, we probably won’t. On my first departmental evaluation, my chair apologized that he was only able to address my teaching in his letter, despite my having a book that just came out and participating in various service activities; it’s not part of your job description, so it can’t be mentioned.

For someone like me, who is making a conscious effort not to be exploited, it is a double-edged sword. I must not care enough, want it enough, be good enough, then, to one day belong. I watch my tenure-track husband mentor students, create new classes, grow programs, have an influence on how the university is run, and I envy him. I see through social media the professional triumphs my friends have in their professional lives, triumphs that I know I will never be able to match in my current position.

I chose to become a professor with my eyes wide open, and I wanted it because of all it involved: the teaching, the research, and the service. The psychic wages attached to those roles attracted me to academia, for better or for worse. But it was also the opportunity to feel like I belonged, that I was a part of the community, too, that drew me in. That those things remain unavailable to me wounds me more than I can articulate to my colleagues.

More and more of us are leaving. Josh Boldt has recently written that he is transitioning out of academia, comparing those of us off the tenure-track to addicts. Kelly J Baker is taking a year off to weigh her options. Writing about leaving academia has become its own genre. The mental anguish, the identity crisis, the guilt (you are abandoning your students!)…all of it weighs heavily. Maybe I’d stay if I felt like you wanted me here, felt like you valued me and what I provide. Maybe we’d all stay. Instead I feel myself belonging to the growing ranks of people turning their backs on the classroom.

We’re closing that door firmly behind us, together.

[Photo by Hunter-Desportes]

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