How I Woke Up and Realized I Was Adjunct: An Adjunct Narrative from the Age of Neoliberalism

I am, by neoliberal, administrative definition, non-essential. How did I get here, to this dark and hopeless dead end, to the outer deck of this sinking ship?

It took more than fifteen years, but I finally woke up and realized that I’m trying to win the lottery. I have the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell of getting a tenured position. I have been adjunctified. I am adjunct. Disposable.

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A number of benchmark moments tell the story.

It took fifteen years for me to realize the absurdity of the situation because in spite of what now seems like obvious signs that tenure in higher education is fast eroding, and with it the quality of academic life, I was optimistic. My optimism had grown out of the success of my graduate career and from the influence of the general notion prevalent in America, and central to a neoliberal society, that, if you work hard, and do a good job, you will be rewarded.

I began my college career with the utilitarian notion, a fundamental principle of neoliberalism, that the goal of earning a degree was to get a well-paying job. When, as a senior in high school, I was poring over the career information provided by the guidance counselor, I was looking for the kind of job at which I could make a lot of money. Not get rich money, but a career that would provide for me a solid middle class lifestyle. I do not remember that this was especially encouraged, but making a decision about what to major in when I got to college based on potential salary wasn’t discouraged either. It should have been.

Waking, as an undergraduate, as if from a dream

But I woke up. After a few years in a kind of haze, not really enjoying my classes, I became the most serious student alive and made up my mind to pursue a graduate degree in English. As an undergraduate, I tried a huge array of majors before realizing that I was squandering an opportunity and that I might not get a second chance. In the last year and a half of this period, I finally settled on and earned a journalism degree, and began to envision myself as a writer. So how, in the following years, did I first get sidetracked from this aspiration?

8th grade intimations of an awakening

Like many who were or should have been English majors, reading and writing have always come naturally to me. By the time I was in the eighth grade, I had announced my desire to become a writer. My parents quickly informed me that since I wouldn’t be able to earn a living that way, I should choose something more practical, and besides I still had to go to high school anyway. And then college. Because they had a deep respect for education, they suggested that I become a teacher. But, of course, they never thought I would be an adjunct.

Awakening to a calling (or, a fateful turn)

In the liminal period between my undergraduate and graduate years, I attended a community college (coincidently, the one at which I now teach most of my classes). As the voracious post-baccalaureate student whose intellectual hunger could not be quenched, I made the most of this brief experience. Fatefully, it is where I decided my future path: I would be a community college professor, a more financially stable option than trying to earn a living as a journalist (or so I thought). I wanted to write and I wanted to learn, and I wanted to earn a living for it; where better to find the life of the mind than as a college professor? Little did I realize then, or even after I had earned my master’s degree, that in the world of neoliberal corporate education, college professors were no longer considered essential. The full realization of how non-essential would not become apparent to me for many years.

After some unexpected twists and life-events (every life has them, no?) I finally arrived at graduate school. Two years later, I completed my master’s thesis, opted out of the doctorate (I had enough debt!; still do) and began my life as an adjunct community college professor. And it was so easy to get started! I was first hired sight unseen, recommended by the university from the erstwhile GTA cum university adjunct pool during a new president’s strategic outsourcing of developmental English classes to community colleges. Around the same time, I published a chapter from my master’s thesis, and, so I imagined, was on my way.

A slipping into slumber

And so I became a freeway flyer. And I said, “I’ll write when I have tenure!” And so I became deluded, and stopped writing so I could teach a full-time load for part-time pay.

And the years rolled by. I taught my ass off; one semester I taught at four sites. I designed challenging curriculum, I said yes to all assignments, I developed my craft. So I worked on a book only as an afterthought, only between semesters, only after all the papers were graded. At first, in my delusion, I thought, “I will be a good adjunct, and in my time, I will be rewarded with tenure.” Unlike the common adjunct experience at most schools, the English department at this one school, where I have taught for fifteen years, noticed and appreciated their adjuncts. Well, perhaps “appreciated” is not quite the right word. Is it possible to be appreciated and exploited at the same time? At any rate, I was received with applause and all looked bright. Why did I need to get too involved in trying to change things? I just needed to work hard, demonstrate my excellence, and stay optimistic. Although full-time positions had been denied to some long-term adjuncts, who obviously had earned such position, I would be different. I did not yet realize that I was living in the age of the adjunctification of higher education, in which the neoliberal ideology of market fundamentalism was becoming increasingly the barely questioned status quo in higher education employment proactices.

The slow but unrelenting erosion of tenure-track positions continued. Tenured faculty retired. Adjuncts were hired to replace them. More years passed. Then, word came from the district office that the English department had received funding to fill a tenured position, and I received an interview. Just as I had expected! But no second interview.

Somewhere, under the surface of my conscious mind, a quiet, little voice asked: “what just happened? OK, look closer, something is wrong here.” But before I could look more closely, another, louder, cheerful voice cried, “But wait! Here comes the AFT FACE campaign! Surely, in a few years this campaign will be successful and adjuncts will get justice.” So I optimistically and foolishly imagined. Then, the bubble economy burst and FACE went blank. Hiring freezes were the order of the day. And more years rolled by.

Awakening to adjunctification

The ideology of the market that seeks to commodify all and everything defines me as non-essential and makes me a precarious worker. Some tell me that I chose my fate and that if I don’t like my wages I should find another job.

But I see that what I do is important for the maintenance of civilization. If higher education continues to devolve into corporate job training, our democracy will disappear, eventually. Without the ability to think and communicate clearly, without the humanistic values that enter into society through a liberal arts higher education, without the deep understanding of science available in college, in thirty years (or so) when the climate destabilization beast really gets angry, Hell will break loose. Ah! The rough beast slouching towards the Ivory Tower! The widening gyre! The sinking ship!

I am defined as non-essential, I am serially unemployed, financially challenged, but I know that I’m needed because I have been called back and given a “tentative agreement” over thirty times. I know I make a difference because students tell me. The value of my contribution is not contingent or non-essential but my status and pay is. The adjunct me is different from what should have been the full-time me only in that he gets less than half the pay. At the very least, I deserve to be paid as well as if I were full-time.

Tenure looks like a dying sacred cow. I’m not sure I even want it anymore. But I am going to demand equal pay. The impact of my talent and energy has been enormous. I have earned the right to be paid on the same schedule as someone who has been tenured for fifteen years. Indeed, I had the right from the beginning. Now I’m calling for it. I am now seeking justice.

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3 thoughts on “How I Woke Up and Realized I Was Adjunct: An Adjunct Narrative from the Age of Neoliberalism

  1. Pingback: How I Woke Up and Realized I Was Adjunct: An Adjunct Narrative from the Age of Neoliberalism | michelledionnethompson

  2. I’m 37 years into a “career adjunct” position, which I began as soon as my doctoral degree (in Music) was completed. One thing that strikes me as a labor activist is that our colleagues are very used to working alone in our disciplines–that is how we achieved. So organizing us is like herding cats (very talented cats, I might add). We all–tenure-track and contingent/adjunct alike–have to get over the idea that higher ed hiring is based on a meritocracy and work collectively for equal pay for equal work. In solidarity with you, JR.

    Liked by 1 person

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