The Guardian, as part of its “Outside in America” series on homelessness, has published a feature about homeless adjunct instructors by Alastair Gee. It is painful reading. The protagonists of the story include a homeless English adjunct professor at San Jose State and an anonymous adjunct who pays the bills through sex work.
The story sets these individual stories of desperation in the larger context of universities’ increasing reliance on adjuncts for cheap labor.1 The reporter also, commendably enough, notes the recent successes of unionization efforts at improving adjunct pay. Yet the story is framed in terms of individuals’ intractable desires: “There is nothing she would rather do than teach,” runs the opening sentence, about the teacher doing sex work; “I hung on to the dream for too long,” says another adjunct, in the last line of the article.
The implication is that only excessive psychological investment in the idea of being a university teacher would make anyone remain in an adjunct job. The story reinforces the impression by choosing as its iconic adjunct subjects not young ABDs or thirtysomething recent Ph.D.s but women who have been working precariously for a long time. One is obviously supposed to be particularly scandalized, and perhaps prudishly thrilled, to think about a “middle-aged” (Gee’s phrase) female teacher doing sex work. The implication of this narrative, I think, is not just that universities exploit workers, but that the idea of an academic enterprise carried on by stably employed researcher-educators is a sentimental, outdated “fantasy.”
This is a disempowering spectacle, presenting the homeless adjunct as a sensationalized figure for higher education in irreversible decline. One of the adjuncts in the story is AAUP second vice president Caprice Lawless, who is quoted as saying, “You haven’t failed, the system has failed you.” Yet as a story about people who want out but are deeply stuck, this Guardian report suggests that no one should be suckered into these terrible jobs in the first place. Since the only characters in the narrative are the women themselves (and their families), no one appears responsible, unless it is those same women. The reporter did not interview any of these adjuncts’ employers. I am not solicitous to hear the bosses’ side of the story, but I would put every reader on guard against the supposition that the bosses bear no particular responsibility for the suffering of people in “the system.” Public university funding is in decline, the reporter notes; “private institutions also recognize the allure of part-time professors.”2 Who, exactly, makes the decisions? It is as though there are no more choices to be made about this, just a fact of nature: “institutions” either need or want cheaper faculty labor, so they get it. Public funding allocations are down, so people should lose their public-sector jobs if they are hospitalized. How alluring.
This article is of course tailor-made to go viral, like previous shocker-stories about homeless adjuncts and dying adjuncts. Nothing is more appealing for the Grauniadverse than middle-class professionals falling into dire circumstances, and if the victims are vulnerable women, so much the better for the retweets. Of course these are compelling stories, and every one of the protagonists is being atrociously exploited. It is outrageous that anyone, with or without a doctorate, living in the richest country in history, should have no place to live, or that anyone should find themselves forced to go back to work the day after the death of a parent. And we should condemn the hypocrisy of the people running institutions of higher learning, who exploit their workers even as they promise students that higher education is the path to a better life—and, more crudely, the path to the kind of job you can’t lose for missing a day after a severe injury. If this kind of report encourages everyone to support the struggle to improve the working conditions of part-time academics, that is all to the good. It should also help us to recognize that academic casualization is part of a broader proliferation of bad jobs, itself a key dimension of the continuing exacerbation of inequality under the rule of the corporate rich.
But for those who work in universities, an article like this offers perverse reasons for complacency. It sets the bar very low: are your own institution’s adjuncts homeless? No? Then it could be worse. The report is quite incurious about the ordinary crappiness of adjuncting, which is bad enough even when you haven’t been deprived of the human right to shelter. At Rutgers, concerted organizing efforts by part-time and full-time faculty have pushed part-time base pay to the princely sum of $5100 per course, together with a promise to try to tell people whether they’ll be rehired or not sometime before the next semester starts. Next year will see a new round of contract negotiations for all faculty, which will test whether my full-time colleagues and I have it in us to struggle alongside our 2500 part-time colleagues to improve these undignified and insecure working conditions.
And on the other hand, one can say, if it is this bad, the people who don’t already have good jobs should just abandon ship. For those who teach graduate students, the only professional task would then be to ensure that people currently seeking Ph.D.s don’t make the mistake of wanting to pursue the profession they are being socialized into. But this is absurd. Focusing on the clash between extreme deprivation and the “fantasy” of being a teacher tends to limit the whole question of the structure of work in today’s university to the narrow realm of the desires of people with Ph.D.s. Despite its gesture to adjunct unionization, the Guardian piece restricts the possible responses to this situation of institutional decline to just one: exit.3 Of course everyone should have the right and the capability to get out of terrible work situations—though, just by the way, it is basically the definition of exploitation to say that lots of people do not. And of course everyone entering the academic career (“a mad hazard,” says Max Weber in “Science as a Vocation”) should weigh the likely prospect of long-term precarious post-Ph.D. employment against other possibilities.
But for people remaining in the academic institution, exploitative working conditions will not be addressed by shaking one’s head over people’s stubborn failure to quit their bad jobs. They are addressed by solidarity across an organized workforce, exercising collective action to improve working conditions while refusing to be divided by offers of more privileges for the tenured few. In the Guardian report, the pathos of mistreated individuals also seems to preclude discussing the harm done to the entire public in the degradation of university teaching. Despite the contempt showered on professors by the reactionary sectors of the media and the political class, it is still true that teachers and researchers serve the public good. Maybe that is one reason people continue to pursue the doctorate even when they are fully aware of the crushing effect of casualization. Rather than regret this praiseworthy desire, we could spend more time making the case for the revolutionary proposition that the whole society benefits when university faculty don’t have to live out of their cars.
- The background here is, to judge by the link in the article, provided by a recent interim report from an American Sociological Association task force, which usefully summarizes large-scale trends. The proposals to address those trends are mostly unobjectionable but do not go as far as I would like. But the report offers the following crucial explanation for casualization, which is not at all taken up by the Guardian reporter: “Perhaps even more important is an ideological commitment—by legislators and by campus trustees—to market-based employment systems” (24). ↩
- “Allure”! the more closely I look at this article the more troubled I am by the way it handles its gendered subjects. ↩
- It was at this juncture, as I was getting properly upset about the individualizing frame of the report, that I noticed that the Guardian series is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is not famous for its love of strong labor rights for teachers. ↩