Ed Simon on Adjuncting
The day was bittersweet. It was my last time that I might teach a college course. A few months ago, I was offered the opportunity to take a full-time job offer in a career outside of academe, and I gladly signed the contract. I was hired to teach my first class in 2007 (about a year before the financial collapse), and over that twelve years I’ve taught at five different institutions – that’s included 45 different classes, dozens of preps, not only in English composition and literature, but also rhetoric, religious studies, political science, communication, and journalism. I’ve taught hundreds of students and graded thousands of papers. I’ve taught at elite R1 schools and business schools, first generation college students and non-traditional students. My identity, as for most aspiring academics, has been inextricably bound up with the act of teaching. Now, I am leaving the classroom. Of course part of me is sorry to step away from institutional academia, but more than anything I’m excited and grateful to be heading down a path that I hope will be more fulfilling and fairer.
I was a graduate student for a little over half of the years I was teaching. As stressful and at times thankless as that can be, it needs to be understood that, at least in the conception of potentiality, there is more esteem and hope in that position than I found as a part-time, contingent, adjunct faculty member. I worked as an adjunct both before I got my PhD and after, and while working in graduate school, I tried not to harbor any illusions about how horrible the job market was, preferring to understand that work as something that I was doing during that time period, which paid and had some security, and that may or may not have led to a full-time academic job. It did not. Still, I couldn’t help but internalize the sunk cost fallacy that allowed me to adjunct longer than I should have, despite the lack of benefits and almost comically low pay. The steps to ensure a full time academic job right now are as follows: 1) luck, 2) maybe connections, but increasingly not, and 3) a willingness to move anywhere in the country. I know that the knee-jerk quality of apologizing out of a sense of imposter syndrome keeps many from admitting that the work we do should guarantee us a job, but on my way out the door I’ll just say that I certainly did the work that in a fairer system would have guaranteed me more than a minimum wage job. The larger point is that college teachers and graduate students shouldn’t have to present a ridiculous amount of publishing and service to justify their employment. The system itself needs to be fixed. If you’re adjuncting only out of a sense of inertia, and if there is anything else that you can do – do it.
Sometimes I’m asked if I regret graduate work, and the reality is that I don’t regret it. I tried to remain clear eyed about my chances when I was going through it (which helped), and it introduced me to many fascinating ideas that I love writing about. But there is a certain irony in that because the freelance public writing career, which I’ve been able to build up over the past several years, is something I love and which sustains me. It was made possible by the scholarly work I did, even if the public writing I do isn’t considered a benefit on the job market. More likely, it is considered a detriment. Yet, I’m lucky in that I didn’t need to adjunct for financial survival, which makes me profoundly fortunate among the 76% of American faculty who are now adjuncts. I didn’t have to rely on Medicaid or food stamps, but many people who adjunct do rely on these services.
That being said, I taught my classes and did the (unpaid) service that was needed, though earning above what was effectively minimum wage would have been nice. If you do the work, you should be paid for it equally. No need to apologize for not making equal wages in something that starts to look like eccentric volunteer work with a piddling stipend. Full stop. The reasons for why this economic precarity exist are legion, and if we’re paying attention we all know what they are. I suspect neither students nor parents really understand, though whether that’s out of lack of interest or poor communication on our end, I’m not sure. Surely the exorbitantly rising costs of higher education are ironic in this context. Tenure track faculty should know, and on some level they absolutely understand it, but the toxic culture of meritocracy that dominates higher education too often prevents them from admitting it. Not even the most left-wing of presidential candidates makes the adjunct issue a visible part of their platform, despite the fact that it’s one of the dominant labor issues of our contemporary era. I suspect it’s in part because there is virtually no class solidarity within higher education and because in the United States the politics of image always dominates. The idea that professors have a labor grudge simply doesn’t match the cultural expectations of what academe looks like, and so it’s ignored. It’s increasingly clear that the same tendencies that have completely destroyed higher education (and let’s be honest, this is an untenable system) have also come to define the wider economy.
For those of you who are still adjuncting and don’t want to be, I hope that things might turn around. For all of us in academe – undergraduates and graduate students, adjuncts and full timers, the tenure track, and the tenured – I hope that things get better. I hope we can produce a system where there are more than a few dozen full time jobs for thousands of graduates. I hope that teaching is actually valued as much as the frequently arbitrary stipulations of research, and I hope that we quit thinking of full time teaching as a job that’s impossible to secure. It’s teaching – teaching! It’s an obvious societal necessity. This is not the entitlement that assumes we’re owed guaranteed positions on NBA teams or in Broadway shows. This is educated, experienced, and talented people who have done the training to teach American students, and indeed have taught American students, without benefit or living wage. Until priorities alter, the people who will suffer will be students, the wider society, and those who teach. So for now, I’m cashing in my chips.
Ed Simon is an editor at the British site Berfrois, a contributing editor for the History News Network, and a staff writer at The Millions. He is the author of several books, most recently Furnace of this World; or, 36 Observations about Goodness. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Poetry, McSweeney’s, Aeon, Jacobin, Salon, The New Republic and The New York Times among dozens of others.