This is a difficult post for me to write, which is why I have been stalling for days and days. The first thing I must say is that everyone is right. Djuna is right:
I’m just a bit confused about the decision to temp at actual corporations instead [of teaching as an adjunct] which seems like even more demeaning work in a far less stimulating environment. Before (and sometimes while) I went to graduate school I too worked as a temp and a legal secretary at a law firm and then as a program manager at a couple of non-profit organizations in NYC and to tell you the truth all of those office jobs were, for the most part, boring and exhausting — and the non-profits were equally hierarchical and patriarchal. While adjuncting might not be ideal it seems like the lesser of two evils?
Many of us working outside the academic bubble would acknowledge that the non-academic world is not less hierarchical or less demanding than the academic world. My recent experiences have confirmed this. As a temp over the last few months, I have seen the inner workings of various organizations, including a law office, a non-profit, and a couple of corporations. All of the people (the underlings, at least) who work at these places seem miserable and bored (or they’re too young to know that they should be miserable and bored). Yet, the only thing that frightens these employees more than keeping their boring jobs is losing their boring jobs. Several people I have met, including full-timers and long-term temps, are absolutely terrified of getting fired or, in the case of the temps, watching the short-term jobs dry up like leaves on the vine.
One woman, a full-timer whom I sat next to for days at the Skyscraper Office, rarely uttered a word to me. (I’m just a temp, why bother?) The one conversation we did have involved me explaining to her the stress of temping and feeling like there might not be any work next week. She said wryly, “You think those of us with full-time jobs don’t feel that way too?” Then she advised me to go back to teaching because “people here will stab you in the back.” Yeah, because that could never happen in academia. What I have learned is that work sucks for most people. Perhaps I sound like a twerp. But, as a person who has had some kind of job since I was 14 years old, I stand by that statement. Why is working for wages such a soul-sucking enterprise? Let me get out my Marx and write another post about that later. For now, I will say that:
Caitlin is also right.
[D]espite the intrinsic interest of [teaching] . . . the material taught, and the stated mission of educating a citizenry and pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, universities are institutions that are often every bit as large, profit-seeking, hierarchical, demeaning and exploitative of their employees as for-profit corporations.
Indeed. It’s not only that people (including my sullen Skyscraper Office mate) don’t understand this fact; it’s that the notion of intrinsic value has been used to keep teachers from leaving bad jobs and from demanding better pay and work conditions. Many of us enrolled in grad programs because we thought working in a college and wearing tweed would automatically insulate us from the mean old corporate world that we despised. Well, the joke’s on us. This is not an accident. It is by design. If you haven’t read Debra Leigh Scott’s magnificent opus, “How the University Was Killed, In Five Easy Steps,” you should drop everything and read it. Scott describes how universities are now run like corporations, which is why they exploit 70% of their teachers, pay top administrators like Kings, and then plead poverty as an excuse to raise tuition. Why do we keep putting up with it?
There are 1.5 million college teachers in the US and one million of them are part-timers or are otherwise working on contingent contracts. What happens if they all decide not to show up for work one day? The American university system would simply grind to a halt. It’s not like it hasn’t happened in other places. In Canada, students have been on strike for months to protest increasing tuition. Assuming an adjunct strike could continue here for as short as a week or as long as a semester, the fallout would be enormous. There are literally hundreds – maybe thousands – of academic departments across the country that would cease to exist on the day the adjuncts disappeared. The only strength we have is in our numbers.
Of course, as Caitlin’s comment suggests, there is almost zero chance of a direct action like that ever happening in the US because (for one thing) so many adjuncts think of their work as a calling, as something with intrinsic value. The corporate managers know this, and they have used it against us. There are several campaigns coming out of Occupy Wall Street that are focused on organizing mass strikes. I still have hope that it could happen, and I will be there when it does. It’s the only way to ever change anything.
As for me, I am not even sure that teaching has any “intrinsic value” for me anymore, which is why, when my old boss from The College Where I Used to Adjunct, invited me to come back and teach two courses this fall, I was certain to decline.
But then I didn’t. I slept on it (it was actually less like sleeping and more like laying awake all night in a panic).
My old boss had emailed me at just the right (from her point of view) moment. I was in between two rotten temp jobs. I had recently applied for two full-time jobs for which I thought I was highly qualified. I had received no response, not even a “thanks for your application.” Furthermore, as anyone who reads this blog knows, many post-acs (including me) have a fraught relationship with our previous “work” and our former “fields.” We prepared for years to enter labor markets that do not exist. And being bounced around on the economic tides of history is a hard thing to reconcile. I feel like I am supposed to be a professional. Graduate school taught me to expect that. Teaching allows many of us to continue in the illusion that that is what we are, even though we are not and may never be again.
The other day, I was at a social gathering where new people were introducing themselves. One woman said, “I’m Terry, and I’m an English Professor.” See how she did that? She labeled herself as a professor in the same sentence in which she told us her name. Academic identities are hard habits to break, even when you know you should just walk away. It’s especially difficult when walking away means, on some level, embracing the new role-du-jour that the temp agency has assigned to you.
Finally, teaching is a job. I have made that argument on this blog before, and it occurred to me again during my night of not sleeping. When the temp agency calls to offer me a job as an admin assistant or as someone who types words into Google all day, I feel that I must say yes, almost every time: “Yes, temp agency, please sign me up for that boring job that I will hate. Thank you very much.” (True story: the owner of the temp agency called the other day to talk to me about a job. At the end of the call, she thanked for all my “good work.” I replied, “it’s my pleasure!” No, seriously, I really said that. Then I hung up the phone and got drunk.)
The point is, when someone calls offering to pay me a low wage and no benefits to sit in an office and file papers for hours, I (often) agree to do it. Why should adjuncting be any different? The idea that I couldn’t take a full-time job if I found one while teaching is not exactly right. I could – and would – walk out the door in the middle of the semester if a better opportunity came up. Why should I have any semester-long loyalty to the college that abuses me?
So, in case you haven’t guessed, I agreed to teach two classes at my former college. For money and for the freedom it allows me to, more or less, set my own schedule to complete some other projects I have on the horizon. I am not proud of this decision and have regretted it in the days since, especially now that I am writing syllabi for the first time in almost two years. (Read: I am doing a lot of work before I’ve even received a paycheck because of the “intrinsic value” of shaping young minds.)
But I only signed on for this one upcoming semester. I plan to still temp on the days when I am not teaching and during school holidays. And I will keep my eyes open for more regular employment. I plan, in other words, to do everything. At least until December. I figure that the life of an itinerant worker means I can’t really plan for the future. I can’t see around the corner. I can only see what comes next.