Walking Away from Adjuncting

The post-academic blogosphere is awesome today. There is some great writing out there about How To Quit Adjuncting, including posts by After Academe and From Grad School to Happiness. Go forth and read. I can’t add much to their stellar advice. I just want to emphasize one thing.

For me, leaving academia/adjuncting was a personal decision based on my needs as a human being. It was also a political decision. It was a decision I made as a worker whose labor was being exploited more than I could bear.

After Academe is absolutely right that academia does not care about us. The only power we have is in our numbers. That doesn’t mean that everyone should walk away from adjuncting without something else on the horizon. But if you can leave, if you see any possibility of doing so, then do it. Most Humanities folks are familiar with William Pannapacker, who has famously lifted the curtain on the whole nasty, brutal academic labor mill. Here’s some of his advice for those still trapped in the adjunct world.

Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities [insert your      discipline here] make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now.  Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support  yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even more privileged students  . . .  and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don’t have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.”

Again, if you are contemplating leaving academia, you should have some kind of back-up plan. However, when I’m dreaming about Impossible Things That May Never Come to Pass, I imagine a day when all adjuncts, as Pannapacker says, “just walk away.” The entire enterprise of higher education in America would come to a halt. That’s what needs to happen for anything to change.

Of course, when you walk away, there will be another person lined up to take your crappy job. My last semester as an adjunct, I informed one of my supervisors that I was leaving. He said, “You’re one of the few people around here who understands what adjuncting is.” What he meant was not that I am smarter or more enlightened than anyone else toiling away at that college. Rather, he meant that eventually, when you adjunct long enough, you realize that it’s not an apprenticeship; it’s not professional development; it’s not something everyone does for a while until they get a real job. Adjuncting is labor exploitation, plain and simple. So, yes, someone else will come and teach the class that you decline to teach, but the point is that person will not be you. And one day s/he will find out what adjuncting really is too. When masses of people feel solidarity with others in their condition, that’s how a labor movement gets started.

A real movement, one that is connected to living wage battles outside the academy, is what we need. Here’s what William Deresiewicz has to say about the academic labor crisis in The Nation magazine.

“What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self-enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat, and a shrinking middle class. The same devil’s bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives—its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security—in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top, and indirectly, the betrayal of the future of the entire enterprise.”

The only person who can end the “devil’s bargain” is you. I don’t want to minimize the gravity of the decision. Leaving academia can cause extreme anguish. Sometimes adjuncting can seem like a connection to the people we used to be and the work we still love. I wouldn’t tell anyone to “just walk away” unless they had some other way to earn money, at least temporarily. But I also believe that walking away is one of the few strategies that we can employ as an underclass of exploited workers. So if you leave, do it for yourself.  But know that you are also leaving in solidarity with those who went before you and for those who, inevitably, will come after.

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3 Responses to Walking Away from Adjuncting

  1. recent Ph.D. says:

    Thanks for linking to my post! I do a lot of dreaming of Impossible Things That May Never Come to Pass, too, which is why I keep talking and talking and talking, and I completely agree that “walking away is one of the few strategies that we can employ as an underclass of exploited workers.” Organizing is great, but I don’t see it having the kind of impact that large numbers of people walking away would. A nationwide union that could organize a nationwide strike would maybe be helpful, but with laws against collective bargaining on campus in many states (among other problems), I don’t see that ever accomplishing things in the way it has in other industries.

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