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What being an adjunct ISN’T like — and what it is

18 May, 2014

I’m a little late to the party on this, having recently been at the Zoo and now madly working on what could be the most scary presentation in my life to this point; however, I want to take a little time to address a series of interesting posts, one of which really and truly pisses me off. I can’t be bothered to look back and find any number of other posts that talk about how academia screws graduate students, or how nobody warned them and now they’ve wasted their lives and money. I’m just… PEOPLE, what the FUCK are you thinking??

In case you’re a first-time visitor (it happens), I have spent time as an adjunct and VAP. Several years, in fact. I now have a full-time job. By many people’s estimations, my own included, I probably shouldn’t. I did a lot of things wrong during my (very long) time as a postgraduate, and I know a lot of people who have great qualifications, are great teachers, and still don’t have full-time and/or T-T academic positions after years on the market. I also know people who have left the profession after having got jobs many people would envy. I come from a family that several generations ago was largely made up of tradesmen and artisans who owned their own businesses, but has for the last couple of generations has been pretty solidly clinging to the white-collar end of blue-collar labour. When I was a kid in the sixties, we were poor enough that I got free breakfast and lunch at school, and we waited in line to get government issue fake spam (yes — generic SPAM), legumes, powdered milk, grains, etc. The neighborhoods we lived in the sixties and seventies were full of other people on welfare, and where we were one of only a couple white families: our neighbors were African-American or Mexican-American, depending on the town.

And you know what? I have a PhD. I have a job doing what I love. And yeah, I’m in more debt than I’d like. I’m still paying off my student loans (although as someone who received Cal and Pell grants, plus a full ride for my MA/PhD program, plus two fellowships and some adjuncting after the university funding ran out, my total student loan debt was about $18k for three degrees). And I have not now, nor has anyone I know who has been an adjunct, been anything like a slave.

That’s right. Not at all like a slave. Nothing. Also, it’s nothing like indenture (although grad school? there’s an argument for that being indenture). It’s also not wage slavery. And if you think it is, you need to check your fucking privilege and join the real world, because you are no better, and no smarter than the undergrads who think their first jobs will pay $40k a year, and that they will have secretaries to make up for the fact that they can’t spell or write decent sentences. So as someone who has been there, I have a few comments on this whole “adjuncts are today’s slaves” metaphor and how it insults all of us, and worse — far, far worse — denies the suffering and humanity of those who were (or are) enslaved, especially in the slave systems of the modern world. And yes, much of this has been said before, but this is the internet, and multiple rants on the same topic are typical of internet discourse.

The reality of slavery

  1. Slaves are owned. Completely and utterly. They are property, chattel. Their lives and bodies are subject to the will and whims of their owners. They have no legal right to their families, to their relationships, to anything. They have no legal agency, and any agency they can exercise depends entirely on personal dynamics and contingent circumstances.
  2. Slaves have no other options. Period. They cannot choose not to be slaves. Their freedom, should they somehow acquire it, is entirely dependent upon the agreement of their owners. It is also, as in the case of race-based slavery as it existed in the US, entirely dependent upon the willingness of free white people to accept that they were free. Freed slaves could be, and sometimes were, re-enslaved, and there was very little that could be done about it, unless there was an advocate to ensure that the law was respected.
  3. Slaves are on call 24/7. Their time is owned and at the discretion of their owners.
  4. Slaves do manual labour, often of the backbreaking kind. There is no workman’s comp..
  5. Slaves have no realistic hope of getting a better gig with any sort of contractual protections or benefits. Face it: slaves know that the hope for a life that isn’t actually slavery is unrealistic.

What is an Adjunct?

  1. Adjuncts choose to be adjuncts. They do. It’s completely, entirely their choice.
  2. Adjuncts have agency. They can leave. They can reject a gig. They can, if it’s too much of a strain, change fields.
  3. If an adjunct leaves, neither their freedom nor their lives are in danger. No one can force them to go back to being an adjunct.
  4. Adjuncts can marry who they wish. They can have children. Their bodies belong to them, and to them alone. When they have spare time, they can use it as they like.
  5. Adjuncts can maintain some degree of hope — and even realistic hope — that they will some day be employed in benefited T-T positions. It happens, and not just as some sort of urban legend.
  6. Adjuncts have advanced degrees. That’s presumably more knowledge, skills, and experience than people with undergraduate degrees or no higher education at all have. They know how to learn, and they can read, write, do experiments, run labs, and all sorts of things that are needed outside academia — and can pay as much or more than academic jobs. Adjuncts have options.

They just don’t like those options.

Well, damn.

That sucks, doesn’t it?

Being an adjunct is not like being a slave. Being an adjunct is like having to have a single scoop of vanilla in a cup when what you thought you were going to get was a full-on coffee-Heath Bar fudge sundae fixed just like you wanted. It’s still ice cream, and if you don’t want vanilla, you’ve got a really good chance of getting pie or cake or tiramisu with a nice glass of cognac and coffee somewhere else. Hell, even if being an adjunct means you’re eating ramen at every meal, the worst alternate if you leave the field still means you get to eat in chain restaurants with silverware.

I accept that most of the time, it is not what an adjunct wants, except in the sense of wanting to stay in academia and have a job of any kind, just to do so. It’s often a desperate choice. It’s often a choice people make thinking that there is no other viable option. That’s part of why this whole thing sucks, really. The overall culture of traditional academe is absolute shit at letting people know they have options. But look across campus: do you see the students in the professional schools freaking out about getting full-time jobs? No. More to the point, unlike our professors and mentors, theirs have convinced that they can carry a full-time faculty member’s workload AND bring in a nice second income with consulting gigs, running their own businesses and practices, etc. Of course, they often have lower teaching loads… but I digress.

The thing is, the people who go into professional schools may be training for a profession, but their training also opens the door for academic jobs, if they want them. Professional students learn to judge their future value in the working world. I’m not talking on an individual basis, mind you; I’m just contrasting what I see as a major difference between academic postgraduate studies and professional programs. Moreover, there’s a sort of pervasive sense of disdain for people who leave academia — despite all evidence to the contrary, survivor guilt makes those of us who have positions want to believe that we somehow deserved them. The idea of meritocracy survives because so many of us suffer from impostor syndrome. It doesn’t help that we all know better qualified people who are still out there looking.

Yep. There are lots of excellent people who don’t have jobs. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons all of my Doktorvater’s PhD students who wanted jobs have them because he’s frankly a little weird for an academic. He never seemed to hold it against students who decided to leave. He never criticized us for making the sorts of life choices that other advisors warned against. For DV, it was pretty much always, “it’s your life — you’re an adult and you aren’t here to please me, except as far as I’m advocating for you in the department and on the market.” I realize that’s a rare thing. But anyway, I’m fully aware that there are people who are better teachers, better researchers, better writers, who generally have their shit together more than I do, and they don’t have jobs. There are also plenty of people out there proving daily that sometimes, all it takes is being glib, super-self-confident, good at interviews, and well-pedigreed to get a very good job, despite being less than stellar at any of the things we are supposed to do. But the adjunct situation isn’t a result of the wrong people getting jobs. It just isn’t.

Adjuncts have a choice. It’s not a great choice. But to be honest, even those of us who managed to get full faculty positions didn’t choose between job offers.

In any given year, we compete for positions against a lot of very well-qualified peers. There are always fewer jobs than candidates. A lot of those jobs aren’t in places we want to be, or have teaching loads we like, or they force us to negotiate difficult family decisions. It’s often the choice between a job and no job. For adjuncts, it’s much worse. The lack of choice is magnified, and the consequences are, too. It’s wearing, and it’s hard. It’s demoralizing. Adjuncts desperately cobble together teaching gigs and often other part-time work to make ends meet and scrabble with torn and bloody fingernails to stay on the fringes of academia, never wholly included, yet never able to let go.

And yet…


It’s also not like indentured servitude, wage slavery, or sharecropping. Seriously. No matter where you came from, if you have a PhD, then you need to recognize your privilege. (Let’s just take it as read that I am not saying that it’s an equalizer across the board. It’s an intersectionality thing, ok?). You went to a university and got a good enough education to be accepted for postgraduate work. You got to spend even more time doing what you love. You learned stuff — and probably didn’t pay your whole way for it. No one can take that away from you. You have resources to draw on that will give you advantages in any pursuit you choose. But you have a choice, and you have agency. No one owns you, and no one is forcing you.

So is there a better metaphor? because being an adjunct sucks, and adjuncts are treated badly and oppressed and the system is really unethical and I need a metaphor that can convey just how shitty I feel without acting like a complete dick about other people’s truly horrific experiences

Actually, yeah. I’ve got it covered. How about …

Being an adjunct is like being trapped in a really bad marriage. You’ve invested your youth, your energy, you’ve made personal sacrifices and probably are stuck in a deeper financial hole than you ever imagined. If you leave, you may be cutting off ties with family, friends — at the very least, you may have to say goodbye to a part of your life that you truly love. Or you may not. Some people manage to leave the teaching track and still stay connected, just like some people manage to keep their in-laws. It’s scary to think of leaving, but staying is absolutely miserable. Every day hurts, and you keep thinking it will get better. And you know? you can continue to tell yourself that at least your marriage is still together, and you’re not single. You’ve got presentations and publications, which you can show off like pictures of your kids to remind yourself the time wasn’t wasted. And who knows? maybe things will get better, or you’ll meet someone new.


Being an adjunct is like having worked your way up in a company you joined right out of high school, gradually taking on more responsibility, getting more power, decent raises, learning all the ins and outs of the business. You’ve got a mortgage, kids getting ready for college, but every year you get a raise, and you’ve even got a union contract that looks like it will keep you secure through old age, even if you retire at 62. Of course, you’ve only ever worked in that one industry, that one company. And then the economy went to shit, and the company fell to a hostile takeover, and in order to keep younger people on, the union was forced to agree to a new contract and a couple of plant closures. There you are, in your 40s, and you have no job, no way to pay the mortgage because unemployment is way to little, and you need to re-train, but the government says you have to take an almost entry-level job to qualify for any benefits. Everything you thought you knew about your life is gone.

Oh wait. Being an adjunct isn’t quite like that, because not being able to get steady work doing what you want and what you were trained for isn’t really the same as being laid off and having to find a new career. Trust me, I’ve done that. Being an adjunct is a choice. Now, if you end up changing careers because you can’t find work in your field? yeah, it’s kind of like being laid off and starting again.

So do you have an even better metaphor?

How about this one?

Being an adjunct is like being any other person who has trained and invested a big chunk of their life in a career, especially a career that a person sets their heart on having, only to find out that there are just not enough jobs for everybody in your line of work. So like millions of other people who do this in many fields, you find yourself trying to stay in the same career, even if it means part-time work, no benefits, and crap pay. Like millions of others, you know that every day is a gamble: will you get that permanent job with benefits? or will you just dig yourself into a deeper hole? You know it’s taking a toll on you and your family. You don’t want to give up, but you don’t know how you can go on.

You know, since the last big economic crash, this has been the story of many, many people. I’m not saying adjuncts should be happy with their lot. The contingent faculty situation is appalling, and all faculty have a duty to fight to fix the system. It is a system that is morally and ethically bankrupt, and is detrimental to the university community and to higher education as a whole. The only people who should be adjuncts are those who really do choose to teach part-time, because they are retired or have another full-time job.

But frankly, when I see essays like the one that riled me up enough to post this, I lose some of the will to fight. There’s something about comparing to slavery to being an adjunct, which is literally no worse than the employment situation faced by millions of qualified people who are out of work and trying to find something comparable to their last job, and far better than the situation of those millions who have lost jobs and are grateful to have managed to get part-time work at Walmart and the local donut shop, that wants me to say, “You know, it’s a PhD, not a guarantee. Also? you should probably go watch The Princess Bride again. Because…






UPDATE: I meant to include this Very Useful Post by David Perry Also fixed a link above.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 May, 2014 2:18 am

    The pie with cognac turns out to be very good too. Very good.

    • 19 May, 2014 10:51 am

      That’s what I have found. Me, I am lucky that I ended up with vanilla and fudge sauce, and it works. But occasionally, I remember the cognac…

  2. 19 May, 2014 5:10 am

    Reblogged this on A Very Long Apprenticeship and commented:
    This essay makes many sound points about the misguided metaphors that pose adjunct labor as slavery. The core argument here–that adjunct labor is not, in any structural or analogical fashion, comparable to slavery–is sound. This is a point that needs to be repeated, again and again: when you pose things that aren’t slavery *as* slavery, you are going to lose your argument, because you clearly don’t grasp the consequences of your words. Put another way, the average adjunct salary of $22,041 is abysmal–been there, done that, TRUST–but that is indeed a salary.* Your advanced degree does not guarantee you success, nor a fortune. Given the decades-long supply-glut in my own field, the rational choice for those in academe is to channel honed skills into non-academic work–or to force open the boundaries of what is considered acceptable academic work. (Or, to get a different job and pursue a passion by other means.)

    But, there’s a certain sentiment here that takes away from this argument. The second half’s search for an appropriate analogy could best be summarized as “Some People Have Real Problems: You Likely Don’t (When Placed In Perspective of Others’ Suffering).”

    Yet, the aim for a rational short-term choice is how many get stuck in an adjuncting rut. In other words, some of us knew damn well we were getting a “single scoop of vanilla in a cup” when we got into it–but, for some of us, the recession made the job hunt writ-large feel like a giant game of trick-or-treat: an underwhelming dessert is better than a rock. The economic climate is different than it was 5 years ago–enough to see much more promise in pursuing alt-ac, post-ac, and non-ac avenues–but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still caught in a web of decisions made half a decade ago.

    But that’s the irony: A shitty choice is a still a choice. Further, that kind of choice reveals an interconnected system of opportunities for choice that go far beyond what could be exercised–or often imagined–within slavery.

    Hence, the main argument here needs to be shouted from the rooftop (every ivory tower?): You want change? First acknowledge your own privileged position–and the luck in being alive here, now–and then realize that your life and career are incomparable to slavery. You win no sympathies through that tactic, especially by using it around people who *literally* know better.

    It’s evident the author understands the dilemmas that millions of Americans in shitty, underwhelming non-academic careers face. For academics, however, the advice trends toward “You made your bed, now lie in it, because at least you have one.”

    *Income is an estimate given by U.S. Committee on Education and the Workforce. See: Andrew Erwin and Marjorie Wood, “The One Percent At State U: How Public University Presidents Profit from Rising Student Debt and Low-Wage Faculty Labor” (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 2014): 10.

    • 19 May, 2014 10:39 am

      Re the last bit of advice– that’s certainly not what I am saying ( I think you meant that that’s the general trend?). If I were to use the “you made your bed” thing, it would be this:

      “You made your bed, and have acquired some pretty awesome bed-making skills. If your bed isn’t comfortable, you can continue to lie in it, or you can make it up again and see if that’s mor comfortable, or you can decide that even your bed-making skills can’t make a bad mattress comfortable, and get a new mattress. The bed you lie in is your choice, though. Please don’t liken the quality of your mattress to spending your life sleeping rough with no blankets, because you have a bed, and the ability to make it comfortable and warm, even if it isn’t your dream bed.”

      PS — I don’t like the “you made your bed” thing in this context, though. It’s something that implies a bad decision in the first place, or getting what one deserves. I may have to expand on that in a new post.

      • 19 May, 2014 3:57 pm

        Fair enough! I rewrote that sentence several times, and should have probably just taken it out. (And, not commit to editing and posting comments after midnight.) You’re right: the sentiment in that final sentence doesn’t align cleanly with the rest of the essay.

        That said, in your PS, you remark that the “you made your bed” analogy does not work because “implies a bad decision in the first place.” That gets closer to the point I was feebly trying to make: There’s something slippery about the ideas of choice and decision-making in the broader adjunct labor debate, and it seems as though both sides are speaking different languages despite often using the same words. Rather than liken adjunct labor to slavery/bondage/servitude, it would be more useful for adjunct activists to gauge what TTs’/admins’/non-acs’ mean when they discuss choice, decision-making, skill, and even luck in the labor market. Otherwise, the debate over adjunct labor will remain a confusion of tongues.

  3. 19 May, 2014 5:43 am

    Adjuncts have a choice. It’s not a great choice. But to be honest, even those of us who managed to get full faculty positions didn’t choose between job offers.

    Yep.Or at least, pretty rarely. It’s frustrating how often this devolves into the alleged division between academic haves and have-nots–as if all TT faculty were at top-flight R1s earning six-figure salaries teaching one class a semester with an army of TAs and no service responsibilities. Sure, there’s a spectrum, and most full-timers have it better than almost all adjuncts, but the game of “I have it WORST!” alienates people who might otherwise be allies.

    We should all own our advantages (and our luck). But we should all own our choices, too.

  4. 20 May, 2014 3:12 pm

    Well said, you.

  5. U suck permalink
    21 June, 2016 8:08 am

    The irony of “check your fucking privilege” coming from full-timer.

    You probably think you’re a real innovator, since you write blog posts on your WordPress site lol — what an expert.

    • 9 August, 2016 4:25 pm

      Given that I was an adjunct for many years before becoming a full-timer, I think I have a pretty good idea of what academic privilege looks like.


  1. Quid plura? | “Kindled by the dying embers of another working day…”

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