Teaching is a Job

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.

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9 Responses to Teaching is a Job

  1. I’m new to your blog, having only subscribed a couple of weeks ago, but I have to say that I completely identify with the struggles you write about here. It’s a particular kind of suffering to endure this economic landscape, to have the kinds of education many of us have, the love of teaching, and the absolute inability to survive doing the work we love and were trained for. My story is similar to yours, a repeat of so many others. I went to graduate school, I was at the top of my class, I graduated in 2009 and spent the next year and a half cycling through every conceivable emotional state while I came to terms, finally, with the utter impracticality of adjuncting. Eventually, I took a state job where I am often the most highly educated yet lowest paid person in the room. Our minds being what they are, we analyze predicaments of this nature to the nth degree, howling out “why” like animals mad with frustration and confusion, a base rendition of the calm, collected, professional and intelligent people we were supposed to be. It shouldn’t be a surprise that so many of us ended up fighting through this reality – but it is. A crude, searing surprise that things just aren’t as reason suggests they should be.
    My question is this: how do we organize? We have to find a way to organize and pull together on this issue. How can we rally? Seriously. I’m ready.

  2. There are efforts to organize. Check out Con Job on Facebok. I think the thing about adjuncting is precisely this: I worked for 4 years in a temp teaching position fulltime at a liberal arts college. I had a great teaching load–3/3 (classes are 4 credits) and wasn’t expected to do anything else (though I actually did do a little committee work). I made a decent salary–the most I’ve ever been paid in my life. When I maxed out my 4 years, I was offered adjunct courses–the SAME EXACT COURSES–for about, oh, 1/24 of the pay. I think that’s what’s SO RIDICULOUS about adjuncting. I DON’T think it’s analogous to temping for this reason. When you teach a course as an adjunct you are DOING THE EXACT SAME THING AS A TENURED PROFESSOR–and actually, in many cases, you are doing MORE (because adjuncts tend to teach the lower-level classes, which really are more work). You may get some of this in the corporate work world (and I’ve temped myself), but I don’t think the pay differential is quite as bad for doing THE EXACT SAME WORK. And yes, professors are doing committees, and research, and advising, but you know what, most adjuncts are doing other stuff too, because we need to be publishing/researching/going to conferences in order to try to get a BETTER job. Do you agree?

  3. post-ac says:

    I know plenty of adjuncts and grad students who busily mentor students, research, write, attend conferences on their own dime, and engage in various others kinds of work on the off chance it will benefit them someday. Or, more to the point, they do it because that is who they are. Only difference: they don’t get paid for it. So, yes, I agree that adjuncts do the exact same work. And I also concur that organizing and wielding the power of our numbers is the only solution.

  4. Djuna says:

    As you write above, the fact of the matter is that most jobs nowadays can be described as boring, demeaning and exhausting whether they be in academia, the non-profit or the corporate world – plus few of us have job security no matter where we work. So it becomes about finding a job that is ‘less’ boring, demeaning and exhausting with ‘some’ job security – which is depressing. I agree that organizing and protesting and striking and making concerted demands on our elected leaders seems to be the only way to change anything short of outright revolution. I’m also inspired by what is happening in Quebec. I worked at one of the universities in Montreal before coming to Paris and the student and teacher ‘culture’ there is firmly on the left (as are the citizens of that province in general) and people see the issue of tuition hikes as being linked to the Plan Nord and the effort to hobble free speech, among other conservative, corporatist efforts. While I like to hope that it is possible to change the growing corporate climate at universities I’m not sure I’m as confident about the US as I am about Canada for a variety of reasons. Anyway, it sounds like you made the best decision you could given the circumstances and I’m looking forward to reading future posts about your ongoing job hunt and return to teaching. It also seems like it’s high time for adjuncts to organize and begin “walking out” or striking in order to start effecting change in their favor.

  5. Dr. OH says:

    Absolutely riveting writing.
    Yes, we have been long trained to expect ourselves to magically transform into “professionals”–can you believe I’ve lead myself so far down this path under the happy assumption that assuredly I’d wind up an “English Professor?” As if the world wouldn’t–simply couldn’t!–leave a *DOCTOR* unemployed!
    I am now finishing the diss, clandestinely plotting my entrance into another field, and hoping I can make 40K one fine day so I can replace this 1999 Saturn. Who ever thought a *DOCTOR* would drive a Saturn, the first car she ever owned?
    I am an advocate of practicality and doing what it takes to get the closest to the actual life you want. If adjuncting gets you there, no shame, dude. I’m planning on applying for a local post doc purely to give me one more year of flexible scheduling so I can stay home with my kid.

  6. Dawn says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a day or so now. I just started following your blog because I’m also in postacademic land and wanted to hear another perspective on working after the PhD. I intentionally chose to work outside the academy, but the longer I’m away, the more I fear I’ll lose all ties with that world. Part of that is this idea you articulated about work’s having “intrinsic value.” That phrase caught my eye since I think that’s what I fear I’m missing by not pursuing a career like teaching and instead working for the Man. I want to know that my work “makes a difference.” Urg, even writing that makes me cringe. I thought I would just work to make money and pay down my staggering student debt and not care about the work I was doing. But instead, I find myself biding my time — whilst making money, thankfully — hoping some inspiring nonprofit education-based position will fall in my lap. But I’m also torn about biding my time, since maybe this job is perfectly fine and about as free of the crap that goes with most jobs as I’m ever going to get. I still am working through all this, but I’ll follow your journey, since it helps me think through what the heck I’m doing with my life.

  7. unknownnarrator says:

    Maybe I misread the last part of your post, but I felt like you were almost apologizing for taking the adjunct position, like you made some sort of promise to your readers to avoid academia forever. A job is a job. And right now, many companies are not providing benefits, so being an adjunct really isn’t much different than being a temp. At least you are working in your field, will get more experience, and hopefully secure a more permanent position in the future. I’m personally happy that you returned to teaching. While I do enjoy reading your posts about The Skyscraper Office, I want you to be happy, and I feel like good things will happen to you soon.

    By the way, I hope in the future you will write some fiction. You are such a good writer!

  8. Chet says:

    Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

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