Psychological Wages: No One Becomes a College Professor to Get Poor

Since our actual wages are so inadequate, we adjuncts rely on psychological wages.

A part of our psychological wages, common to all college faculty, tenured (and tenure-track) and adjunct, indeed, to all teachers, is the fulfillment we receive from working with students: when a student learns, a teacher is fulfilled.  Sharing knowledge, teaching skills, drawing out a student’s potential are rewards for which there is no monetary equivalent. We don’t teach so we can get rich or because it’s easy money; we teach because it increases the meaning in our lives as well as in the lives of our students, and in the world at large.

Another part of the psychological wages adjuncts collect, along with tenured professors, is the joy of being scholars.  Reading and writing about our subjects is a passion.  Scholarship, as well as teaching, is a calling for us. Whether we teach at an institution where “publish or perish” is still a mantra or one where the primary mission is teaching, we attend conferences, give presentations, publish, read and study. We receive such personal gratification as professionals that we sometimes don’t find it necessary to draw a line between personal time and professional time. Between semesters, we read books and essays about education, and we have great teaching ideas while on a run.

And there is the psychological wage of belief in the myth that, if you are a “good adjunct,” if you demonstrate your excellence, you will be rewarded, in time, with that coveted tenure-track position. Adjuncts rely heavily on this myth. Never mind that the demonstration of excellence shades into your willingness to be exploited, and does little to ensure reward. At least some tenured share in the belief in this myth as well, as it explains why they are in the place of privilege.

Adjuncts don’t just enjoy these wages, though, especially the “good adjunct” wage; we rely on them because, without these wages, the impoverishing actual wages that shape the quality of our lives would suck out our souls.

We adjuncts depend on these psychological wages to get us through not only the day but also the “lean times.” Conversely, the financial struggle adjuncts endure, from meeting rent to paying bills, to paying for the unexpected, is a psychological burden that threatens body and soul.  For many, to ensure that there is enough food for the children, every check is budgeted carefully to last until the next. When extra cash is needed, the credit card comes out, or friends and family get phone calls. The end of every month is “lean.”  Winter and summer are “lean.” For adjuncts, the “lean time” is always near.

We pretend psychological wages are sufficient, although they are not.  The pretence that our wages do not impoverish us leads some to delude themselves with rationalizations. To explain poverty wages, a common rationalization I hear from adjuncts is, “I didn’t become a college professor to get rich.”  This rationalization creates a rose-colored lens through which some view their oppression as a “personal choice.”   The idea that one chooses to be an adjunct, except in rare situations, deftly transforms the burden of financial struggle into willing self-sacrifice, and the oppressed become those noble martyrs who sacrifice themselves for the good of the community.  Of course, no one becomes a college professor to “get rich.”  No one becomes a college professor to get poor either.

The truth is psychological wages for many adjuncts become part of a web of rationalizations that keeps us from recognizing our exploitation for what it is. We take the psychological wages and endure the burden. We lie to ourselves.

Psychological wages contribute to the illusion of “separate but equal” and the higher education meritocracy, thereby maintaining higher education’s caste system and adjuncts’ indenture. It is true that tenured and adjunct have the same professional interests, if not the same professional opportunities. Economically, however, adjuncts definitely are unequal.

We need to recognize that adjunct wages are inadequate. If we lived in an idyllic ivory tower where monetary wages were disdained, psychological wages would be enough.  Perhaps, there wouldn’t even be psychological wages, only a common sense of higher purpose. But the actual economic circumstances which define our lives are not idyllic. They are merciless.

We carry the burden, the shame, of being adjunct, which, finally, is the inability to earn a decent living and support our families.  Across America, many adjuncts are struggling to gain guaranteed unemployment compensation, since we are unemployed periodically and repeatedly as a matter of course. Speaking as one who “enjoys” this “benefit,” filing for unemployment, counting on it year after year, becomes a burden as much as a benefit.  It’s never enough.  You hate it. But, you are thankful for the pittance.  Even with healthcare and priority re-hire rights, not having enough money to pay for the needs of your family weighs you down.

Additionally, we carry the burden of the huge student loan debt we incurred paying for the privilege to earn our advanced degrees, so we could serve in the maintenance of civilization.  Adjuncts’ student loan debt is a great irony.  The irony gets thick when students are encouraged to attend our classes and “achieve success,” which of course means attaining the ability to make a decent living, an economic privilege denied adjuncts, who are expected to lead these students to “success.”

It is the burden of fear, however, which keeps many adjuncts from facing the structural conditions of their oppression as well as from speaking out about these conditions. Among many other things, adjuncts fear offending tenured colleagues, retaliation from administrators, cancelled classes, and not one day arriving at tenure. The most insidious fear though, as Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority has noted in “Adjuncts, Class, and Fear,” is deep, “unspoken” and “fraught with complexities.” She points out that this fear comes from the “tension” between adjuncts’ “nominal professional status” and their “actual workplace conditions.”  As Maisto so perceptively claims, it is fear rooted in status and identity. This deep fear leads to denial.

This denial is one of the biggest barriers to achieving adjunct justice. Both tenured and adjuncts indulge in denying the oppressive conditions of exploitation which adjuncts live and teach under. We need to stop accepting psychological wages as a trade-off for poverty wages.

Social media is viral with the personal and institutional costs of the crisis of adjunctification. The mainstream media is beginning to cover adjunctification. A growing number of adjuncts (and some tenured faculty) are rejecting psychological wages and demanding justice. Yet, I suspect that this number is still a minority of the majority faculty. More of us, all of us, need to recognize the insidious class system that has colonized our souls as well as our profession. Personally, locally, as well as nationally, we need to face and resist our exploitation and oppression.

None of us ever aspired to be adjunct, tentatively connectied to the institution, but, rather, we aspired to be a fully vested, integral part of the institution. The institution owes us the respect of financial security, at least. This means adequate pay that reflects our professional status and allows us to live with the personal security and dignity of the middle-class enjoyed by our few tenured colleagues.

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3 thoughts on “Psychological Wages: No One Becomes a College Professor to Get Poor

  1. Pingback: An Adjunct by Any Other Name | The Adjunct Crisis

  2. Pingback: Adjunct Pay and Anger | The Adjunct Crisis

  3. Pingback: The Narrative of the Martyr in the Age of Adjunctification and the Decline of the Humanities | The Adjunct Crisis

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