What Do Superstorm Sandy And The Adjunct Crisis Have In Common?

Once again, the East Coast is recovering (barely) from a major hurricane. Sandy was far, far worse than Irene, last year’s superstorm. At least thirty-eight have died in NYC and millions have been displaced. Some have lost everything. Seems like we’re getting one of these unprecedented storms every couple of years. We’re going to have to stop calling these monsters “hundred-year storms” and refer to them as “last week’s storm.”

I am one of the lucky ones. I live on a hill and was spared the worst. In fact, my SO and I never lost power, which is why we are hosting some Sandy refugees from the blackout zone this week.

As I listened to the raging wind and rain outside on Sunday and Monday, fearing that the windows would explode at any moment, it occurred to me that Superstorm Sandy and the adjunct crisis in higher education have a lot in common. They both have their roots in neoliberal capitalism that reduces everything to the profit motive, destroying our ecosystem in the process.

We constantly hear that, to have a healthy economy, we must promote growth. Politicians from both parties say this again and again. Industries need to expand so more jobs are created and more people will have money to buy the stuff that corporations are selling. Companies will then have to hire more people to make the stuff that people are buying. And the cycle continues.

The problem is that the growth imperative increases carbon emissions and depletes natural resources, contributing to global climate change. Warmer oceans and higher seas mean bigger storms.

As Pat Thomas wrote last year in Alternet:

“The mantra of ‘growth’ has become a kind of mental monoculture. Many businesspeople and economists can’t see any other point of view and don’t really want to. And yet every argument that we make in favour of growth falls down at the feet of one simple fact: the resources upon which growth depend are running out. ”

What’s the connection to education and the adjunct crisis? The exploitation of adjuncts is an effect of the ideology of infinite growth. As Andrew Ross recently wrote in Dissent:

“Salaries of full-time faculty have been stagnant for a long time, and the massive conversion of tenure track jobs into contingent positions (more than two-thirds of professors are now off the tenure track) has sliced the teaching payroll at almost all institutions.”

The culprit, according to Ross, is “expansionary growth” in which every public good or resource must be crushed under the churning wheels of the we-need-more-stuff machine. As more and more classes are staffed by adjuncts at lower rates of pay, more and more buildings are sprouting up across American campuses. The College Where I Adjunct is building a multi-million dollar technology center a few blocks away. But the administration cries poverty when adjuncts ask for a raise. “Universities,” Ross explains, “have become a vital part of the urban growth machine.”

Colleges under the spell of the growth imperative care more about new buildings and higher enrollments than about fair employment practices or quality teaching. They care more about growth than they do about fulfilling some old fuddy-duddy mission to educate the public. In fact, these days, if a college isn’t growing or expanding, no other measure counts.

That kind of thinking makes teachers an exploitable resource – another thing to be used up and thrown out.

We weren’t ready for Sandy because we haven’t yet begun to acknowledge that we’re growing and expanding ourselves out of existence. Likewise, those occupying (disappearing) privileged positions in the university aren’t any more knowledgeable about how bad things have gotten in the basement of the academy.

I was observed in the classroom last week, two days before the storm hit, by a long-tenured professor. She has no idea what life is like for me and the dozens of other adjuncts who teach in her department. Yet, that didn’t stop her from advertising her ignorance.

“I was an adjunct once myself!” she beamed. “We have to look out for each other. We’re a sisterhood.”

No, I am not joking. A professor, tenured for decades, actually said this. To my face.

I wanted to say, “Fuck you. We’re not sisters.”

But I just smiled, as is the post-academic’s way.

It’s this kind of denial, this complete and blatant misunderstanding of the facts, that makes me think the whole system needs to be overthrown. Reforms aren’t going to do. This refusal to see the obvious also prevents us from addressing the growth imperative that fuels climate change and Superstorms like Sandy.

Want more good jobs for college teachers? Want to save the Earth? Like some smart people once said,

“All Our Grievances Are Connected.”

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6 Responses to What Do Superstorm Sandy And The Adjunct Crisis Have In Common?

  1. Our apartment is a Sandy refugee crash pad, too!

  2. JC says:

    This is a really insightful post. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about the structure of higher education, and (as you write) about the focus on “more administrators” and “more expensive buildings” and “growth, growth, growth!” … while instructors are viewed as cheap labor to be exploited. And you’re right – it has some clear connections to the way we keep using up and spitting out our natural resources while ignoring the consequences that are staring us in the face.

    I’m glad you made it through the storm safely…thinking of all of you out East.

  3. recent Ph.D. says:

    Great post. Naomi Klein did an interesting piece for The Nation called “Capitalism vs. The Climate” about a year ago arguing that dealing with climate change was going to entail a much larger cultural shift than just changing few policies here and there.

  4. Wonderful post. “Fuck you. We’re not sisters” is about the best possible response I can think of in regard to faux sympathy and solidarity. The not-getters-of-it population is truly irritating.

  5. Anthea says:

    This is a very thoughtful post. I’ve also been thinking about the structure of the university system and this whole mantra of “growth, growth, growth”..really since I remember that my old PhD uni used to publish articles at length whenever some wealthy alumni donated cash for a new building that was constructed…but then as a TA or GA you’d be struggling to teach classes with little to no resources to do the tasks required but zillions of paperwork to fill out according to lots of administrative rules. I remember that some of my colleagues had to use a room for their meetings with their students were there were squirrels (who came into the building via some holes somewhere)…who came in on a daily basis to find food or shelter from the oncoming cold. One time one colleague left a bag of exam scripts there overnight since she couldn’t carry them all home to mark in one go (no money for taxii)…and tragically the squirrels chewed the exam script. She complained to admin who did nothing and who knows what she said the students’ whose scripts were munched. Admin didn’t care apparantly…silly really since guess who was paying their wages?!

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