Why This Conversation Matters: Adjuncting & Systemic Breakdown

A professor recently wrote to me (I’m paraphrasing): It breaks my heart to see adjuncts working so hard, going above and beyond, in the slim hopes of a permanent hire, because I know we [as a department] will never hire them full time.

How did it come to this? The mistreatment and exploitation of graduate students and adjuncts is atrocious, but it is made even more egregious by the fact that they are treated this way under the false promise of a permanent job. We endure, like a hazing ritual, graduate school, endless application seasons, and adjuncting, because we are told from our superiors that we all had to do it, it’s just part of the process.

Fair enough. But now, it is not just part of the process, it is the process.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the bigger picture—beyond the role of graduate students themselves, beyond what graduate student unions can do. The real issue is even beyond the professors who replicate the same systems of oppression that, if they are a liberal humanities professor, they most likely speak out against in their research and teaching.

The question I keep coming back to is this: How can such intelligent and hard-working people fall prey to such an exploitative system? Further, how can a group of people dedicated to free thinking and the challenging of the norms not only adhere to, but ultimately help maintain, such an abusive system?

Professors have lost control of the university, and while I obviously can only write from my limited experience, it seems to me it got away from them in the name of research.

As universities and colleges expanded to include marketing and development offices, student affairs offices, etc, etc-- professors became bogged down in the minutiae (read: reality) of everyday life.

These tedious affairs, such as budget meetings, are looked down upon as beneath professor’s abilities. Professors should be researching. And if not that, lecturing (preferably to graduate students), and failing that, teaching advanced level undergraduate classes.

In this refusal to engage with what, to be frank, we all must engage in: the details of lived reality, academics have forfeited their right to control where money goes.

Sure, professors feel bad about the adjuncts teaching the majority of the departmental course loads for around $24,000 a year and no benefits. But what do they do about it? It seems to me surviving in academia has become a C.Y.A. (cover your ass) situation. No one is fighting for adjuncts to be paid fairly, given health benefits, and treated with at least a veneer of respect. Rather, everyone is fighting for research budgets, for their own tenure-- in other words-- for themselves. They cannot speak out because everyone needs tenure. And by the time they get tenure, why on earth would they speak out? They are now a part of the system in which only they reap the benefits.

(Plus, to be fair, look at me-- look at what happens when you speak out, I don't blame them in the slightest)

What would happen if professors took a stand, insisted on more teaching positions that came with benefits? What would happen if, rather than pitting ourselves viciously against each other in a game where the stakes are actually very low, we banded together and actually fought for the education system itself? 

To be clear: I do not regret my Ph.D., I loved so much of it. I perhaps regret the field I entered, but not the research, writing, and knowledge I gained through the Ph.D. process.

Also to be further clear: I do not hate tenured professors, or professors, or academia. To the contrary, I love it and deeply believe in the fundamental importance of it, now more than ever. This is why I have chosen to speak out. Because as things exist now, we are headed into an intellectual abyss that hurts college education, and thus cripples our citizens in their ability to think critically, engage with difference, and succeed.

At the very bottom of this gigantic issue is the mistreatment of graduate students and adjuncts. Their abuse are mere symptoms of a disease that is far advanced and systemic. The disease is bigger even than the professors who manipulate and take advantage of their power.  And it is for this reason that we must continue this dialogue, and we must figure out how to serve those who are in the most precarious position in the system (to be clear: I mean graduate students and adjuncts) —because they are the backbone of our educational structure.  

I'd love your thoughts and comments, keep writing, I'm listening.