Teaching, Learning, (Making A) Living / by Naima Lowe

There's an article today in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Adjunct Awareness Week at Temple University. The actions are organized by the Adjunct Organizing Committee. I am theoretically a part of this organization. As in, I'm an adjunct at Temple University, and I am interested in fair labor practices, and I'm on the email list. However, I haven't been to an action or a meeting in for as long as I can remember. I get pangs of guilt every time I hear about the paltry protests, because I know that this matters, and that I am as frustrated as many of my peers about the poor working conditions. But it's a total Catch-22, because going to those meetings and seeing those protests can almost make me feel even worse, because they are so poorly attended. It is hard to make the case that Adjuncts are demanding better conditions when only (according to the Inquirer article) 10 people show up to the protest. Cue the guilt. For those of you who don't know, as an Adjunct, I have no job security, no benefits, very little access to professional development, no office, no real support from my department, and the pay is well... BAD. I do it because I happen to like it, and because, frankly, even though I've applied like hell to all manner of other full time positions, this is what I've got going on in this economy. I don't think I'm alone in this particular scenario. So I'm well aware that as an adjunct there are, in fact, very poor working conditions and I know that the University depends on my willingness to work for cheap to maintain its bottom line. The confusing irony, of course, is that while more and more adjuncts are hired to teach, and more and more lay-offs of full time staff occur, tuition keeps going up and up. Read that Chronicle article I linked to in this paragraph. The author explains this stuff way better than I do.

But I digress. I'm concerned with why I, and perhaps other Adjuncts, find it hard to get involved in organizing for better pay and benefits withing our chosen profession. For one thing, I think that there' s a certain complacency built into this system. People enter the land of the "Adjunct' with the expectation that they will move on to something bigger and better eventually (that's certainly what goes through my head), and so getting involved in organizing for better pay and benefits feels sort of problematic/a waste of time. Part of the reason that this system of grossly underpaying large portions of the teaching workforce at a University stays in place is that many of us see it as a necessary evil or stepping stone. Our professors and peers with full time positions all did it, and then found better jobs, so why make a fuss? Of course, many of them got those jobs (and are holding on to them for dear life!) before the current over-crowding of the academic marketplace with highly qualified candidates.

I also wonder if we Adjuncts, who are largely people with advanced degrees (MAs, MFAs, PhDs, etc) find it difficult to think of themselves as "workers." I know that I often internally cringe when I talk about the problems involved with my jobs (yes, multiple, as is the case with most Adjuncts, unless they are independently wealthy). On the one hand I was raised as a good quasi-socialist progressive type who sees the essential flaws in capitalism, supports unions, abhors the treatment of the poor and working class people in our economy, and thus (with requisite middle-class guilt) wonders how I can in good conscience put my over-educated, culturally privileged self into the same category. I know, I know. This analysis is rife with problems, but I think there's something to it! I imagine that many adjuncts have a similar mix of political left-ness, class privilege and (thus) guilt about their position in the world. And I think that my "guilt" may also be a mask for not WANTING to align myself with whatever f*cked up stereotype I have about people involved in labor unions. My family, supposedly, ascended beyond "worker" status, onto become full fledged intellectuals, artists, activists even! And so now, even though I'm nominally employed, and other members of my immediate family are unemployed, underemployed, riddled with debt, facing evictions, etc, I can't help wonder how my ambivalence towards taking part in Temple's organizing is related to my sense of shame in having all this amazing cultural capital, but very little actual capital to show for it.

What should I do my 3 dear readers? Yours Truly, Naima