Adjuncting And Academic Freedom

Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In another post here at Conditionally Accepted, Eric asserts: “Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.”

Eric writes from the perspective of a tenure-track scholar, though he acknowledges that tenure won’t protect scholars if the institutions backing them withdraw support in the face of public ire. The question of institutional backing is even more hazy for scholars in adjunct positions, like myself.

Adjuncting In The Context Of Academic Labor

As Kelly J. Baker points out, “The reality of academic labor is the separation of those who can gain access to tenure from those who cannot.”  In order to give some historical context, Baker traces the origins of tenure as a protection primarily for teaching activities, not necessarily research ones: “The AAUP describes teaching as the main work of the university, and tenure became the mechanism to protect teachers from the whims of political leaders, the larger public, and their own institutions. Education was a common good that must be safeguarded.” She advocates for creating a system wherein contingent laborers, like us adjuncts, have both academic freedom and economic security. I would love to have both of these things, but I’m not holding my breath.

Generalizing about adjuncting is tough because we have very diverse experiences. I know that I am not the only one with academic freedom concerns; adjuncts who are also activists have been fired. And as Kate Weber points out, we’re hindered by having a repetitive, overly simplistic conversation about whether adjuncts are “good” or “bad” teachers, when a more apt assessment of the situation would be: “If #highered has to rely so much on underpaid labor, then its foundation is cracked — but not because #adjuncts are bad at their jobs.”

I am in the fortunate position of not letting myself be defined by my adjunct role (neither financially nor in terms of my overall identity).  In fact, it may be better for me to take chances with my public persona because that is the very expertise that I bring to the classroom as an adjunct. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t agonize over academic freedom, or whether blogging about a certain topic in my sex educator persona will be too much.

Controversy And Precarity

I teach controversial topics in my classes, employing what I hope are common sense and empathetic strategies to support students as they confront topics like STIs, sex education, sexual assault, and alternative sexualities. I also blog and tweet (@foxyfolklorist) about these topics in my capacity as a freelance writer and sex educator. My department chairs know that I do this work; my students know, too.  And, if anyone else’s opinion on it matters, it’s news to me.

Despite being a woman on the internet with opinions, I have yet to receive any death threats or rape threats. Maybe I haven’t written anything controversial enough yet, or maybe my writing simply hasn’t come to the attention of the right hatemongers. If and when it happens, though, I’ll face similar problems as the professors whom Eric discusses in his blog post – though without the safety net of tenure. There’s always the chance that my institution decides that the “all press is good press” axiom is not, in fact, their preferred policy when it comes to media attention for their scholars.

In one sense, I’m not in too precarious of a position because I have decided to pursue adjuncting the way it “should” be done (in my opinion): not as a stepping-stone to something better that will probably never materialize, but rather as a way to stay engaged in teaching and maintain institutional affiliation to help me continue to do research. I also don’t do it as a primary source of income. I bring real-world experience and expertise as a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator to the classroom, which, again, is how adjuncting should work in my mind. The poor wages and job security aren’t quite so bad when adjuncting is viewed as something that a real-world professional does on the side in order to bring their experience into the classroom to benefit students. The sheer amount of work it takes to teach a class means that the pay scale remains on the degrading side no matter how you slice it, but since I shifted my view from wanting to eventually get a tenure-track full-time position to stepping back from full-time academia, my experience of adjuncting has been healthier and more realistic.

So from this perspective, it’s hardly a bad thing that I have strong opinions about the miserable state of sex education in the U.S., or that I reblog essays about polyamory at popular sites like YourTango.com, or that I’m interviewed as an expert in articles on how to incorporate BDSM in your love life. I maintain pretty clear professional boundaries by not talking much about my own sex life on the web or in the classroom, even though someday I’d like to see a world where no one is judged for doing or speaking of any (consensual) sex act.

On the flip side, though, the lack of job security that most adjuncts face makes it a bit scary to think and tweet outside the box. If tenured professors are facing more push-back when they exercise their academic freedom, what will happen to adjuncts when we do the same?

Scrutiny And Censorship

As an example, Laura Kipnis published an essay on sexual paranoia in academe. I didn’t care for the essay – but whatever, it’s free speech. Then I read about what she termed her “Title IX Inquisition” [paywall], which included mysterious phone calls, having to meet with people who wouldn’t tell her exactly what the charges brought against her were, not being allowed to have an attorney during these meetings, being taken to task for a single tweet, and so on. That was a terrifying read, and if it can happen to a full professor, what about the rest of us?

The censorship Alice Dreger has experienced (albeit as a part-timer) is also frightening (and relevant for me, since she became internet-famous in part for critiquing the terrible abstinence-only sex ed happening in her son’s classroom).  She astutely observes: “in my world, the fear of offending someone is reason enough to forget about academic freedom.” She asserts that if her contract is not renewed at the end of the next term, it won’t be because of the quality of her work; it’ll “be because what I’m saying is off-brand and might offend somebody.” Is this really how we want our country’s professional intellectuals to be operating? Worrying about losing a job due to their public-facing statements and research not fitting an institutional brand?

Further, it’s infuriating to see the amount of scrutiny that’s happening to professors who write and tweet in attempts to exercise academic freedom in contrast to the extreme oversights happening in Institutional Review Board cases. This NYT op-ede about the medical research mishaps at the University of Minnesota details multiple “ethical breaches, [which] university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing with a variety of underhanded tactics.” This is uncomfortably reminiscent of how many universities handle sexual assault, which is to say, rarely, sneakily, not well, and sometimes not at all.

As the author points out, “In what other potentially dangerous industry do we rely on an honor code to keep people safe? Imagine if inspectors never actually set foot in meatpacking plants or coal mines, but gave approvals based entirely on paperwork filled out by the owners.” It’s bizarre to me that university review boards trust (usually tenured) researchers to carry out ethical research based on this honor code, but don’t seem to trust professors to be ethical in the classroom and in the public eye.

Perhaps what’s at stake is less a scholar’s ethics, and more the potential for unwanted attention based on not only lack of ethics but also anything controversial. After all, how many complaints from an unethical study will have to add up before it comes to the public’s notice, vs. how many student complaints, or tweets from the greater public, can make a scholar sound like a bad person or an unworthy teacher?

Staying An Active Scholar (At What Cost?)

I wish I had some suggestions for how to continue to be active as a scholar in the public eye when one is also an adjunct, but all I’m coming up with is trite advice to be so awesome that they’ll want to hang onto you regardless. At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor pushing that process along. One thing that’s been helpful for me is affirming that my identity remains that of a scholar regardless of my institutional affiliation. I was recently invited to participate in a symposium on digital approaches to fairy tales, “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder,” which was a huge honor. To be deemed worthy of inclusion in a small working group of scholars doing cutting-edge research was great for my self-esteem. However, I haven’t told my institution about my participation in it yet because I don’t know whether they care about my activities outside the classroom.

In closing, I’m curious about whether other adjuncts have thoughts to share here. I know I’m not the only one who makes an effort to stay active in scholarship and the public arena while simultaneously trying to make sure I do the right things to keep my adjunct position for as long as it benefits me.

Jackson Wright Shultz Reflects On Conditional Gender Privilege

shultzJackson Wright Shultz (@WriteRadically) is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jackson reflects on his “conditional” male and cisgender privileges — contingent on others’ assumptions about his sex and gender identity — and how they benefit him in the classroom. 

Be sure to check out Jackson’s first guest post, too!

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On Conditional Gender Privilege

At the end of my first term as an adjunct, I nervously awaited the receipt of my student evaluations. From the moment that I submitted the final grades for my classes, I lived in a state of anxiety. I kept replaying the events of the semester over and over in my mind. Did I explain the course expectations thoroughly? Did I make myself available to students often enough? Was I approachable? Did my students actually learn anything? Perhaps my anxiety stemmed from being new to teaching, or perhaps it was rooted in the knowledge that as an adjunct my future employment depends in no small part on the evaluations my students give me, Several weeks after the term ended, my evaluations finally arrived. My hand over my eyes, I peered apprehensively through my fingers, reading each student comment with a combination of dread and excitement. The first evaluation was positive. As was the second. And the third! I continued reading with growing enthusiasm and relief. All of my students provided glowing reviews of my teaching.

For a full two minutes I was elated. My world was an idyllic sphere of thoughtful students who cared deeply about learning and who respected my pedagogical methods. Yet, as I re-read the evaluations, my blissful smile slowly sank into a frown. The words that had comforted me moments ago were suddenly glaring red flags: confident, awesome, interesting, organized, and even one gnarly. I knew that there was little hope, but I still desperately wanted to believe that these were objective, unbiased reviews. So, I called a colleague to ask how she fared in her evaluations.

“Don’t even ask,” she sighed, “One student wrote, ‘I’m not sure what was going on with her hair, but it was very distracting.’ It only goes downhill from there.”

I hung up, disheartened. I had wanted to believe that my teaching was as outstanding and gnarly as my students suggested, but as many women in academia have noted and countless studies prove, student evaluations are all too often biased along gender lines. I didn’t work harder than any of the other adjuncts in my department, and I had significantly less teaching experience than the majority of women with whom I worked. My excellent evaluations were the product of male privilege, and nothing more.

Recognizing And Using My Privilege

As a transmasculine individual and a feminist, it is critical that I recognize and push back on my gender privilege. My students see me as a white, able-bodied man and evaluate me as such. Not only is my male privilege abundantly clear in my evaluations from, and interactions with, students, other faculty, and administrators, my cisgender privilege is, as well. In my case, having cisgender privilege, sometimes heinously referred to as “passing” privilege, means that I am consistently perceived as a man and assumed to be male. It doesn’t matter that I am not cisgender: I still benefit from cisgender privilege. In part, this means that I have the option of whether or not I disclose to others that I am transgender – a luxury and a safety that many trans people can only fathom.

Yet both my male and cisgender privileges are entirely conditional. They are predicated on other people remaining ignorant of the fact that I am trans. They are privileges that can be revoked by coworkers “outing” me to my supervisors or students, by glancing at the extensive list of transgender-related publications on my CV, or by merely Googling my name. In some ways, these gender-based privileges are single use: once my status as a trans person is discovered, the scene roughly equates to the villagers descending upon Frankenstein’s monster with torches and pitchforks. Minimally, once my trans status is “discovered,” my cisgender privilege vanishes, my male privilege dissipates, and my acceptance as an instructor and scholar is retracted. In practical terms, being “outed” could easily result in me receiving negative student evaluations, experiencing harassment in the workplace, or even being fired.

Thus far, I have been extremely fortunate in my academic career to have an open-minded supervisor who hired me in spite of my lavender vita, as well as coworkers whom I can trust. I’m not naïve enough to believe that I’ll continue for much longer in my career without others in my department or on campus realizing that I’m trans. Alas, the internet exists. While many trans individuals in generations past transitioned and disappeared into the woodwork, the anonymity that they were able to achieve is difficult, if not impossible, for a generation raised on the Internet. My online presence is hardly stealth, and comes with calculated risks. By blogging and publishing without the use of a pseudonym, I hazard that my coworkers, supervisors, or students may soon put two and two together, and the consequences for me could be dire if they do–particularly as an adjunct (a topic for future discussion).

For the time being, however, my open presence online allows me to frame the conversation about myself as a trans scholar. Likewise, in the office, my cisgender and male privileges, though conditional, afford me the agency to advocate for transgender colleagues and students who are not in safe positions to self-advocate, as well as to call out sexism and misogyny in the workplace without risking the scorn, scrutiny, and career-hampering that women often face for the same actions. I am fully cognizant that I was once in their positions and could be again, and I act with an awareness that dismantling the institutions that uphold and enforce sexism benefits everyone. My hope is that if and when my conditional privileges are stripped away and I am no longer in a position to self-advocate or frame the conversation about myself, maybe I will have affected enough micro-level changes that my students and colleagues will be able to engage in constructive dialogues around gender and leave the pitchforks at home.

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Biography

Jackson Wright Shultz is an adjunct professor of writing at New England College. He obtained his MALS degree from Dartmouth College (2014), and will begin his Doctorate of Education in the fall. He recently gave a TEDx Talk on transgender liberation and gender equity. His personal research interests include technology law, social media studies, women and gender studies, critical race studies, queer theory, composition pedagogy, higher education administration, and oral history. His first book, Trans/Portraits, will be released in October 2015 from the University Press of New England.

Reflections On Pursuing A Non-Traditional Academic Career

Chris WhiteDr. Christopher White is one of a growing number of academics who have pursued an alternative academic career (or “Alt-Ac“).  In this guest blog post, he reflects on the uncertainty and self-doubt, as well as the joys and triumphs, that he has experienced in defining his academic career on his own terms.  See Dr. White’s full biography at the end.

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I’m Such A Loser (But My Life Is Fucking Fantastic!)

For the past decade or so, I have spent the first weekend of every November at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS – pronounced “quad ess”), a place that has become my academic home complete with a wonderful group of friends who have become a family of sorts for me. It has become one of the most important events of the year for me because it is not only a time for me to learn about the latest work in the field, but also a time to recharge through the love and camaraderie of some of my closest friends.

In a sense, all of us “grew up” together professionally, regardless of our ages. I met most of these folks while we were in graduate school or shortly thereafter as “young professionals.” Over the years, I’ve watched these men and women transition from graduate assistants to junior faculty to settling into their tenured positions. At SSSS, we served the organization as student leaders, on various committees, and most recently we all filled or are currently filling various roles on the Board of Directors. I’m sure that we will continue to do so and will eventually move into the “elder” categories of “past presidents” and such – but let’s rush anything. We’re still relatively young… I think.

Earlier this month, we joyfully gathered in Omaha, Nebraska, spent time catching up over too many cocktails, laughed, maybe even cried, and shared out latest successes and frustrations. I felt incredibly lucky and fortunate to have been surrounded by such amazing, bright, and supportive friends, as I always do when we’re together. This year, though, I felt something else – sadness, envy, and jealousy. It bubbled up in moments when I heard about someone’s latest achievement – a published book, tenure, and new grant award. I wasn’t unhappy for them, quite the opposite. But I felt the creep of self-disappointment, self-criticism, and whole heckuva lot of self-doubt.

 “I’m a failure.”

 “I’m not as smart as these people are.”

 “I’ve accomplished so little.”

 “What have I done with my life?”

 “I shoulda, I shoulda, I shoulda…”

You see, after I completed my PhD, I made the decision not to pursue a tenure-track position in academia. I moved against the stream and chose a job, no, a career that was not “on track” with what I was supposed to do. I consciously made this decision. I wasn’t interested in the game, the scam – the seemingly never-ending treadmill of writing stuff that no one was going to read to impress the right people into giving me a permanent job with “academic freedom” – whatever the hell that really means. At least, I think I consciously made that decision.

Half-Assed Job Searches And Knowing People

The truth is that I spent a year applying for academic positions right before and after graduation. I got a few nibbles, but the big one always eluded me. I had set parameters that made it difficult for me to land the type of job that I thought I wanted. Maybe I should have followed the advice of my mentors and done more quantitative work, toned down the sexuality stuff, amped up the health education work, and applied for jobs at smaller universities in Podunk towns.

Instead, I pushed my qualitative research agenda and only applied for jobs in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. When I didn’t get the jobs that I wanted, I said, “fuck you and fuck the capitalist system of academics and research.” I was a rebel and was going to do things my way… yeah, that’s it.

Then I got a call from a “prestigious” academic in San Francisco. He’d heard about me from a grad school peer of mine. He wanted to know if I was interested in coming to work for him at his center. No academic appointment, no tenure-track, just a job. I said yes.

Let’s fast-forward about seven years. I am the director of a CDC-funded project at a youth-focused, LGBTQ organization. I’m adjunct faculty at three universities and enjoy teaching undergraduate and graduate classes. And I feel like a complete failure – at least, I did a couple of weeks ago when I returned from the SSSS conference in Omaha.

Hearing my friends’ stories about being awarded tenure or about their latest publication made me feel like a complete loser. I’m happy for them, and I want them to be successful. At the same time, with each success that I heard about, a voice in my head said, “You made the wrong decision. You are a loser.”

“SHUT THE FUCK UP! Leave me alone. Go away,” I screamed silently to that other me. The doubter. The critique.

Wait A Second…What’s That Smell?

Then something happened. I got on a plane and flew to New York City to attend a training of health teachers and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisors and to meet with NYC Department of Education staff. I spent two days talking about the work they are doing to support not only LGBTQ-youth, but all marginalized young people, and looking for opportunities to support and grow their work. Then I went to Boston and did the same thing there. Next, I talked to some colleagues about a conference we’re organizing to work with 20+ school districts across the US to do the same. And I realized something… I’m really fucking lucky to get to be part of something so amazing, so life-changing for so many people.

So, I may not be getting that letter from the Dean saying that I’ve been awarded tenure, and I may not have my face on the back of a book jacket (yet!). But I am working on an important project, which was funded because of a proposal that I wrote. I travel around the US to major cities and talk to high-ranking school district officials about LGBTQ youth. I get the privilege of training teachers on how to make their lessons and their schools LGBTQ-inclusive and friendly. AND, I get to teach classes, and hear from students that my courses made a difference in their lives. On top of that, I make a decent living and can afford a fairly nice life. Oh my god, wait, the fuck, I AM successful – although writing that makes me feel foolish, but fuck it.

So maybe I’ve lied to myself a little bit about why I chose not to go the traditional/expected route after I finished my PhD. I still got to where I need to be… and I’m not done, yet.

If anyone reading this is questioning their decisions or considering doing something other than what they are “supposed” to do, my advice to you is to find a way to make your career what you want it to be – maybe that’s tenure, or maybe that’s hodgepodging the job you want. Whatever it is, celebrate your friends’ successes, and don’t forget to celebrate your own.

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Biography

Christopher White, PhD, is the Director of the Safe and Supportive Schools Project at Gay-Straight Alliance Network in San Francisco.  He teaches courses in health education and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, and occasionally at Widener University in Chester, PA.  His primary interests are in developing LGBTQ-inclusive sexuality education, creating supportive schools for LGBTQ students, and promoting gay and bisexual men’s sexual health and well-being. When he’s not working he can often be found “werq-ing” it on stage as his drag persona, “Crissy Fields,” or performing with the dance troupe, Sexitude, as “Daddy Sparkles.” Chris is working on becoming a BodyPump instructor, a health coach, and is an avid cyclist – he’ll be riding in his third AIDS LifeCycle (545 miles from SF to LA) in June 2015. Got a question or suggestion for Dr. White?  Drop him a line at christopherwhitephd [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Professor vs. the Performer: Undercutting

Jeana performing at a 1st Friday street festival in Kokomo, Indiana.

One of the perspectives that I bring to my academic blogging is that of a professional performer: in addition to having a PhD and teaching at the college level, I teach and perform dance. In this blog post series, I would like to highlight some of the marginalization practices in academia by comparing them with practices in performing arts communities. My hope is to illuminate problematic expectations that often go unnoticed because we have become accustomed to them, although they are precisely the kind of thing we should be challenging and changing.

What Is Undercutting?

This post is about the practice of undercutting, or charging a lower-than-average fee for your services. It’s not a term I hear very often in academia, but I’m starting to think we should be more attuned to its implications for us.

Talk to performers in your community—whether they’re jugglers, fire-eaters, or burlesque dancers—and you’ll hear about the horrors of undercutting.

Professional performers are often asked to teach or perform for free. This is a common woe that you’ll hear us gripe about. But then there’s undercutting, wherein someone charges less than the going rate, either in a conscious attempt to screw over other professionals in the area, or for some other reason like an attempt to compensate for lack of experience.

One of my friends, a juggler, told me that when he first started doing paid performances, he wasn’t charging very much. After all, he was pretty new to performing, and while he was good at it, he didn’t want to overcharge his clients. In part, it was so much fun that he felt guilty asking for money to do it. It wasn’t very long before some of his more experienced circus performer buddies took him aside to have a talk — a “we like you a lot, but you’ve got to stop undercutting us” talk. Because he was doing it as a hobbyist, and they were doing it professionally, needing to pay bills and feed their families with that money, it became problematic when he accidentally started to take their gigs. After that conversation, he kept in mind that he was helping set prices in his town, and raised his rates accordingly.

Valizan, a dancer I know, talked to me about the effect on the community of charging too little for classes:

When new teachers feel they must charge less because they don’t have the experience or the same amount of training, I often think, “then why are you teaching?”  To me they are saying they are not up to snuff. If they aren’t, they should teach for free or do the community centre gig until they ARE up to snuff.  Integrity is the difference between a professional and a hobbyist. If you put out a shingle, you should charge the proper area rate and not drop the price to try to attract students. Because that eventually brings it down for everyone. And FEH [exclamation of disgust] on that!! 

In dance and other art forms, there’s not always a credentialing process to make sure that performers are qualified to teach. So when a dancer decides to begin teaching, often she’ll just go for it and start charging some arbitrary amount, or an amount that’s deliberately less than the going rate…but this has a definite effect on the other teachers in the community, which is where we get into trouble.

The Consequences Of Undercutting

One of the results of undercutting is that the people hiring performers have come to expect people to work for little to no pay. Another of my contacts said, “I gave a speech recently to a group of high level professionals. They explained I should be honored because the previous speakers included Fortune 500 executives, university presidents, and top state officials. And that they had no budget for speakers.” When I asked him to comment on this event, he said: “The point is that people should pay you for your work. And I hate accepting non-paid work or cut rate but I have to.”

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to creative types, either. I asked Robby Slaughter, a workflow consultant, about his views on undercutting. He said: “Charging less (or nothing at all) for your expertise as a speaker, writer, or artist not only makes you seem unprofessional and unworthy of compensation, but contributes to an ever-growing lack of respect for your profession. Undercut your price, and you’re cutting down everyone who does what you do.”

Slaughter linked me to a blog post he wrote on whether to pay speakers. I gravitated toward this quote from it: “On the one hand, it seems unethical to offer work for free. You depress the entire market. You force other customers to pay those costs. But on the other hand, speaking for free does provide access to audiences. And all speakers and consultants need audiences in order to find future success.”

Undercutting In Academia

So, how does this relate back to academia? We don’t call it undercutting, but we (institutionally) ask people to work for little/no pay, and we (individually) will offer to work for little/no pay. This, like undercutting in the artistic community, has the effect of dragging down the entire academic community, instilling unrealistic expectations in the people who are in positions to pay us.

As an adjunct, I have to face the unpleasant reality that I am part of the problem. If I were to refuse to work for such ridiculously low wages, and if enough people would follow suit, then maybe we’d be able to make an impact on the system. I’ve been following the news about unionization and strikes with great interest, for this reason.

However, there’s one big disconnect between the artistic and academic communities. In these artistic communities, there’s explicit dialogue about undercutting and how it’s bad for everyone (except, temporarily speaking, for the people making a quick buck). A local dancer shared with me this anecdote: “There is an event I chose not to teach at for this very reason…They are not covering travel, hotel, or conference registration for ANY of the instructors. I think instructors who teach there are undercutting other artists and event organizers. I won’t participate in that type of undercutting. It’s bad for the art.”

In academic communities, on the other hand, I never hear about undercutting. It is as though we simply don’t have the language or concept to apply to our situations, though—as I’m arguing—it should definitely apply.

Take, for instance, a colleague of mine, a PhD student who has repeatedly been asked to teach at a prestigious summer institute. He has taught there for free, knowing that others get paid to teach there. (He asked me not to name him in this post for obvious reasons.) It’s a great networking opportunity, and it goes on his CV, and it’s fun, and so on. But working for free, and potentially undercutting other colleagues, makes him uneasy, and he’s not sure if he’ll keep doing it.

Perhaps tenure-track and tenured faculty don’t think in terms of undercutting because they’re not directly affected by it; one could even argue that it (in the form of adjuncting) benefits those holding TT positions. However, I would argue that this is on the whole a devaluing phenomenon, one that has long-term consequences for academics of every stripe, and higher education in general.

If undercutting were regarded in academia like in any dozen other communities, people who did it would be taken aside and given a stern or at least concerned talking-to. Imagine if our mentors told us that it was “bad for the field” to accept a job for less than we’re worth. Think about what it’d mean for colleagues to tell us not to agree to work for free, because it demonstrates that we think our work has no value. Because, with the way things are going, how could we be receiving the message that our work does have value?

“I Just Want A Full-Time Job”

The following post was written by Anonymous.

source: adjunctnation.com

I recently took an administrative position in a campus unit that had been formed by the consolidation of several preexisting units. It fell to me a few weeks ago to effectively fire a contingent faculty member who came from one of those previous units. I didn’t want this task, and it turned out to be harder than I anticipated. But I hope that what I learned will help me be a better administrator going forward, and potentially help others. For the sake of anonymity, I will call this faculty member “Jim.” I had never met Jim in person before he came to my office to discuss the reorganization of activities and priorities in my new unit, a conversation that ended with me telling him there was no place for him. Jim was a research assistant professor, and had been employed by my university for about five years. He started out teaching one course each year, and then supplemented that by securing external grant funding that pays part of his salary. He also works for other universities on a consulting basis.

To contextualize this story, my university is a place of great privilege and my own position is among the more privileged in the university. I have tenure, a leadership position, discretionary budgets, and respect in and out of the university. Departments and programs in my university treat our contingent faculty well. I have often thought with pride that, while we shouldn’t be hiring people into such insecure positions, we do better by them than many other universities. Our “visiting” faculty receive benefits and earn a living wage, and our adjuncts earn $10,000 to $15,000 per course. Jim was able to apply for external grants as a Principal Investigator in the same way tenure-track faculty do. So, feel free to say that everything I describe here is a “first world” problem among the universe of adjunct experiences, or that I am naively living in a bubble. I’m well aware that I should have known better.

When Jim came to my office, I knew the conversation would be unpleasant. No one had discussed with him what the restructuring might mean for his position, and Jim had been complaining to staff about some recent changes that had affected him. I also realize now that I went in with the wrong assumptions about contingent faculty that many people have. I assumed that Jim had chosen this mix of activities at my university because he really wanted to live in this city or work here, or that he probably had a spouse who needed to stay in the area. This looks completely idiotic and embarrassing, as well as conceited about my university, when I put it in words. Like I said, you can call me naïve or anything else, but I imagine I’m not the only one who had assumed the precarity of adjunct work was someone else’s problem.

I spent about half an hour talking with Jim, describing the new organization of the unit and discussing how he came to this university and his research. While discussing the combination he had pursued of teaching and external grants, and gently asking him about the potential of one of his other contract positions becoming permanent, I was framing the conversation in terms of what he wanted to do over the next few years. This is a familiar conversation that I have with all my graduate students. When he said “I just want a full-time job,” and his eyes filled with tears, I was shocked to realize all my preconceptions had been wrong. My first instinct at that moment was to give him the full-time job, but that doesn’t fit with the reality of my position. I was trapped in a situation in which I had to tell someone that they were no longer welcome, that it was effectively not my problem if he was unemployed when his current grant funding ends. All I could offer him was a letter saying that he had to leave because of restructuring and not because of any evaluation of the quality of his work. A poor substitute for real support.

My second thought during and after talking with Jim was anger at the faculty member who had hired Jim. He did no one a favor by hiring Jim into a position that was renewable indefinitely and allowing Jim to apply for grants that committed the university to activities over more years than Jim’s initial appointment. While that did give Jim a (part-time) job for several years, it also gave an implicit promise that Jim was part of our community and would be able to continue in his position indefinitely. As a result, telling Jim that he no longer fits with the mission of the new unit felt cruel, and I believe it was a surprise to him.

I take two personal lessons from this experience, and I hope that others can learn from my experience. First, I need more humility; we here at my fancy university are not as exempt as I thought from the inhumane treatment of our contingent faculty. Second, I will never hire any PhD-level scholar/teacher/researcher without a clear term and regular ongoing communication about opportunities (or lack thereof) for retention and advancement.

For those of you similarly moving into positions in which you could hire contingent faculty, including both temporary instructors and research faculty, I would suggest the following:

  • Don’t convince yourself to hire someone with a vague and open-ended informal understanding. If you give vague explicit or implied promises but aren’t willing and able to hire them with a multi-year contract, you are setting them and yourself up for trouble. Eventually letting them go will be hard for you, and their employment at your university won’t necessarily have set them up for success.
  • Be completely clear about what you can offer and what they should expect, no matter how uncomfortable it is to say to someone that they will never get a permanent position at your school.
  • Pay attention to contingent faculty under your purview, and ask them how you can help with their careers.
  • Don’t wait until you are letting someone go and there’s no time left to help, but also don’t assume you know what career they want or what will help them toward that career. Contingent faculty may unfortunately be second-class citizens in our universities, but they aren’t students or children looking for our guidance.

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. IV)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is the fourth and final installment of my blog post series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  In this series, I’ve written about the alt-ac options in my main field, folklore studies (see Part I); the process I’ve undergone of recognizing that maybe I want to step back from academia (see Part II); and the “trying on” of this new identity at a conference (see Part III).

Now I’ve gotten to the point where stepping back to gain some distance from and perspective on academia has seemed like a great idea, even if it’s only for this summer. But where to go from here?

As far as concrete planning-for-the-future type stuff, I’m still adjuncting. I actually really like the school where I’m teaching now, but I don’t like the fact that I’m stuck with the adjunct pay scale, lack of benefits, and inability to plan beyond one semester ahead. But, I’m not taking on a huge course load, so I’ve got time to explore other things that I want to do with my life, potentially as career options. I plan to do more writing, and to build a business as a sex educator. I’m already doing informal relationship and sexuality counseling among my peer group, and teaching gender studies classes on related topics. Might as well give it a go and see if I can get paid to do it, right? Plus it’s the kind of career that I can do as part-time as I want while I’ve got other things on my plate, since it seems to involve a lot of freelancing and getting my own gigs.

I’m in the rare and fortunate position of not needing to be the breadwinner in my household at the moment, so I have more freedom than most adjuncts to poke around and figure out what I want to do with my time (for which I am grateful, very very grateful). I don’t see myself not working for long periods of time. I’m taking on paid writing jobs this summer, despite needing a lot of downtime to recover from near-burnout. But, I want to choose a potential next career with intention and clarity – and that can take time.

Additionally, since I know that I’m luckier than many adjuncts who struggle to make ends meet, or other folks on the post/alt-ac spectrum who don’t have a lot of leeway between ditching the ivory tower and needing another income source, I want to do a little more volunteering. You know, give back to the world, improve my community. Thanks to a Twitter conversation with Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) of From PhD to Life, I determined that as much as I make myself out to be a cranky introvert who retreats as often as possible to her hermit-cave, I have a deep need to connect. I need my work to make meaningful contributions to my larger community, not just my academic community. Sex education gives me the chance to do that, especially since I plan to take on some volunteer gigs, both to gain experience in this profession, and because there are a lot of people who really need accurate, thorough sex and relationship education, even as adults.

I don’t anticipate that this will all be smooth sailing, though. Even if I’m starting to deal more healthily with the emotional fall-out of an unexpected career change that felt like a failure, I’m sure there are plenty of struggles ahead. For one thing, my career trajectory involves writing, and that means facing a lot of potential rejections. I’m still working through what my time seeking academic employment means and whether there was anything I could’ve done better or differently to get a job (imposter syndrome, anyone?). And, I worry that a thoughtless or judgmental word from a colleague could send me reeling. I’m still not sure what this makes me (post-ac? alt-ac? something-else-ac?) and how it’ll influence my relationship with academia in the future.

A lot of my thinking is, unfortunately, cyclical. I hope that I’m not shooting myself in the foot by publishing this kind of blog post online, under my real name. But, would I really want to work for an institution that doesn’t want honesty or critical awareness from its employees? If a university wants someone working for them who’s never questioned academic politics, they’re going to end up with someone who’s naïve, dishonest, or perhaps both.

Another instance of cyclical thinking is that if I’m not feeling passionate about my research right now, I should put it down and come back to it when I’m feeling recharged. But, is walking away for a time going to reinforce feelings of not belonging, and cause me to feel more disconnected? I worry that the more time I spend disengaged from academia, the less I’ll want to return to it, and that’s a bundle of mixed emotions right there, even if I just spent this blog post series establishing that I don’t know if I want to be on the academic career track I’d started out on a decade-plus ago.

I’m no stranger to the cyclical “if they don’t want me, I’m not a good fit for them” line of thought. I’m an outspoken feminist who works on various gender and sexuality topics that some people find off-putting. There are probably some workplace cultures – both academic and not – where I wouldn’t be welcome, whether because I’m a woman, or because I work on these various gender and sexuality topics, or both. I try not to be too in-your-face in talking about sex and, of course, I keep this kind of discourse professional, but there are still places where that’s taboo. And I don’t want to have to hide such a huge facet of my identity or my interests just for the sake of fitting in.

So…that’s where I am. I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me reach a point where I feel I can step back from a career path that hasn’t been working for me, despite the fact that it’s really scary to do so. My husband, my family, and my dance community have been especially awesome, not only for supporting me through this tough journey, but also giving me constant, joyful reminders that there’s more to life than having my nose stuck in a book.

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. II)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part II of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I here). Now that I’ve given some perspective on where I was coming from in my disciplinary background (folklore studies), I’ll talk about the other factors influencing my decision to maybe, kinda, sorta, not pursue a career in academia anymore.

In the past, I have blogged here at Conditionally Accepted about gauging internal and external ways to validate my work as an adjunct, as well as how identifying patterns of normalized weekend work in academia has led me to reevaluate my working habits. On my personal blog, I’ve written about how my experience of academia has oscillated between potential career and very expensive hobby. I’ve ranted – a lot – to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, both online and in person, about the uneasy fit between my experiences of academia and the narrative I’d swallowed in grad school. And finally, I’m able to put some of it into a coherent format.

But first, a word about how academia’s cultural practices complicate the personal/structural binary that runs throughout my piece. As grad students, we’re taught to link our professional career to our personal identity, which can be problematic when the number of jobs dwindles, simply making it a fact that most of us will not get to do what we love or what we’ve trained to do. There are “approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.” And yet, PhDs who “fail” to get jobs are facing damaging and misguided rhetoric, such as the idea that “The best students will always succeed” and “The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.” Rebecca Schuman’s outraged response mirrors mine, in that I’m appalled that the dominant response to those leaving academe has been so disdainful and out of touch with the reality of the academic job market and adjunct working conditions. Those who are stubborn enough to stick it out may eventually win a TT job, true, at which point the exploitation and abuse they’ve endured transmutes into praise for their dedication. This is such a bizarre system that I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether I want to stick around for that outcome.

The metaphor of “a thousand cuts that kill” describes my experience of alienation from the academic career track pretty well. There are lots of individual aspects of academia that I love, but the things that have worn me down and hurt me have begun to outnumber them. The things I enjoy are often concrete experiences I can easily point to and describe, whereas the things that detract from my enjoyment and my sense of integrity are more abstract, and hence more difficult to discuss. But hey, that’s why I got an advanced degree, so that I could describe the difficult-to-describe, right?

If I were to make a list of pros and cons of being a career-path academic (from my perspective), the shortened, blog-post-palatable version would look like this:

Pros:

  • I love teaching, research (both textual and ethnographic), writing, and presenting.
  • I excel at these tasks and have been recognized in various ways (yay external validation!), such as receiving fellowships, publishing many articles in peer-reviewed journals, and having multiple “this class was awesome and/or changed my life” conversations with grateful students.
  • Having a flexible schedule and the option of having summers off is great for me, plus I love to travel (like for conferences and research).
  • I need intellectual engagement in my life.

Cons:

  • I had inflated expectations about being able to get a job right out of grad school, so spending 3 unsuccessful years on the job market has been emotionally painful for me.  (For more on why academic rejection hurts so much, see Rebecca Shuman’s post, gathered from the responses she crowd-sourced here).
  • The nature of the academic job market is needlessly expensive, time-consuming, and exploitative (see Jennifer Guiliano’s suggestions for a more humane job market), and I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.
  • Spending the last few years adjuncting has opened my eyes to the exploitative nature of university work, and I can’t say I really want to be a part of this system in such a way that I structure my identity around it (and even should I land a TT job, I would be implicitly endorsing this hierarchical structure by participating in it).
  • I am close to burning out and no longer wish to work evenings and weekends on research that would help me stay competitive on the job market.
  • Getting tenure no longer seems to guarantee job security, so why struggle to get a TT job and subsequently overwork myself to have a shot at a vanishing dream?
  • Even if I did get a job, I’m not sure that I could, in good faith, mentor students.  (See this blog post for another perspective on advising grad students in good faith).
  • I’m at a point in my life where I want to prioritize my family and my relationships with others, so academia’s culture of overwork is less appealing to me than it was when I was younger, single, and itching for something to be passionate about.
  • I tend to struggle with anxiety and self-worth issues, and the culture of overwork in academia has not been good for my mental and emotional health.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, in order to have a shot at the hypothetical “it’ll all be worth it” outcome of a TT job, the more I question the wisdom of this plan despite the sunk costs and investments over time.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I feel like I’m not contributing to my household financially (because, truly, I’m not, and even though I got a decent funding package, I still graduated with student loans).
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I want to use my time to do other things, rather than work for an institution where students are paying the same tuition regardless of whether a part-timer or full-timer is teaching their classes.  (Hm, where is that extra money going?).

Lest anyone reading this think I wasn’t good enough to get a job, let’s all remember how arbitrary and flooded the academic job market is. I’ve got similar amounts of publications and other accolades as my colleagues who have found TT positions.

Regarding those last few bullet points, obviously it’s not all about the money. But when you’ve spent the last decade-plus believing that you’re laboring intensively to build the skill set to land you a given career, and then you learn that you likely won’t have a shot at the full-time version of that career unless you labor under exploitative conditions with no certainty of renewal… it’s tough. From another perspective, I experience cognitive dissonance about the pay scale because in other communities (like the performing arts), working for so little could be perceived as undercutting one’s competition. Except, in academia, it’s almost the opposite: because we adjuncts are willing to labor for so little, we are enabling those in pay scales above us to continue to do what they do at the rates they get paid. A little odd — isn’t it?

Even though this list is a rough approximation of my experiences of the last 3 years on the job market, simply weighing these considerations has been helpful for me. I’ve come to see that, while I enjoy and am good at many of the localized tasks involved in being a career academic, the overall culture has been toxic for me.

I’m not used to making big life decisions based on how I feel. (This should tell you what a great track record I’ve had in relationships). So it’s really weird for me to say that, despite being a competent scholar, and despite all signs pointing to me eventually being able to land a TT job someday, I don’t feel happy doing this work anymore. I just don’t. It doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t fulfill me, and those fleeting glimpses of joy simply don’t make up for all the frustration, anxiety, misery, shame, and other negative emotions and experiences that have come to comprise my attitude about academia. I know not everyone is in love with their job, and I’m not trying to be a special snowflake who deserves more happiness than everyone else. I’m just trying to relate how my negative experiences and feelings are making this job not terribly worth doing, given the other unsustainable aspects of this gig. And yet, like Elizabeth Segran, I fear that if I leave, I won’t get to do what I love anymore, so that’s another factor in my thought process. The “do it because you love it” rhetoric has always been problematic for educators (and really, everyone), as pointed out in this excellent Jacobin article.

So there’s been a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved in reaching the point where I can say I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore. Note that there are a bunch of vagueness modifiers in this sentence; it’s not that I’ve completely ceased wanting to be a professor (I might want to take a job if I can find one that’s a good fit for me). And it’s not that I’m absolutely positive that I will never work in this profession ever again; the right circumstances could lure me back, and I’ll likely continue to do this kind of work, just with different expectations and goals.

Now that I’ve reached this realization, though, how do I act on it? That’s what my next blog post in this series addresses.