This is more than a personal account of what life is like as a university adjunct. It is a disturbing chronicle of what can be done to an adjunct when they are seen as a threat to the rigid faculty hierarchy.
University faculties are composed of a small class of well-paid tenured professors and a larger class of contingent adjuncts who are not eligible for tenure and virtually never attain a living wage. The majority of university “professors” are actually adjuncts, who do most of the teaching. Administrators created this class; so-called “liberal” professors maintain it.
While adjuncts are always treated by administrators as highly replaceable cogs, the professorial class raises this to another level. They maintain a highly illiberal departmental caste system which, not surprisingly, places them at the top. This is a perch which is apparently so lofty they are unable to comprehend, or even see, the suffering of adjuncts all around them.
Academics are truly some of the most insecure people you will ever have the misfortune to endure. Academia itself is a rigidly enforced pecking order; everyone strives to be a tenured professor at a top research university. The inability to achieve this pinnacle of academic perfection is viewed by many as a badge of failure.
Those unable to soar to the perceived heights of academia, remain nested in what is seen by them as the far less impressive world of public and state universities. But make no mistake, these are wingless birds with sharp talons. Unable to emotionally endure their place at the bottom of the academic hierarchy; they construct a new pecking order within their own departments. A tiny hop onto the low branch of the academic tree is enough for them to proclaim, “from way up here all adjuncts look like mere worms. We are not worms. Therefore we must be soaring eagles!”
This strategy requires that no worm should ever see itself as a potential bird; with the same abilities, and worth, as those clinging tenaciously to the branch just above them. If a worm raises its voice, it must be devoured. That is what birds do. To do otherwise would call the entire bird/worm hierarchy into question.
Universities aren’t bastions of liberalism; they’re an alt-right fever dream.
If you are an academic reading this, the professor/adjunct relationship is quite familiar. For most others, the hierarchical structure of academia is completely unknown. Even students and their parents know little of the division; the population as a whole is kept completely in the dark.
Our current politics is consumed by the problematics of inequality. Self-designated progressives will often rely on tenured professors as voices of liberal equality, but ask nothing about the harsh inequalities of academia. Instead, the media consistently casts professors as the apostles of progressivism; bathed in the faint glow of a kind of intellectualized sainthood.
Though articles detailing the maltreatment of adjuncts frequently appear on websites such as Adjun’ct N’oise and New Faculty Majority, there is virtually no crossover into more mainstream media. When Rachel Maddow is interviewing a professor who is criticizing Trump for promoting policies of inequality, why does she never ask “How many adjuncts are there in your own department? What do they get paid? Why haven’t you fought against this stark inequality which is all around you?” The machinations and implications of academic inequality are ripe for one of John Oliver’s exposes. I’d take a Keith Olbermann rant at this point.
My own descent into the hollows of academia began in 2006 when I was first hired as an adjunct in the Political Science Department at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB).. Things went quite well for a number of years. My department and student evaluations were excellent, I was being given an increasing course load, and I was voted by students as “one of the most of the most inspirational professors at CSULB.” I was the only adjunct to have my own office on the “professorial floor.”
(It is common to almost all universities that adjuncts are kept separate from professors. While professors are generally given their own offices, most adjuncts are lucky if they have a shared space to meet with students. This is part of the tautological ego game professors play with themselves: “I have a better office than an adjunct because I am a better person. I know I’m a better person because I have my own office.” I’ve taught at universities where adjunct offices were in buildings even the 1950’s Soviet Union would consider “way too bleak.”)
My office was next to the Chair’s. Her conversations were clearly discernible. I had mentioned this to her when she first assigned me to my office, and she responded that she had known this for a long time.
After having been in the office for a couple of years, I overheard a conversation with the Chair and a newly-hired tenure-track professor. The Chair advised the new hire that, in terms of teaching “don’t be concerned, it doesn’t matter.”
There is no doubt that publications have become the singular measure of achievement in academia. No one obtains a tenure-track position – or achieves tenure – by being a great teacher. Great teachers can only aspire to become impoverished adjuncts. But there is nothing that prevents an academic department from insisting on excellence in teaching from its newly minted professors. “Don’t be concerned” is indicative of how a culture which denigrates teaching is being maintained and perpetuated.
Teaching is the stated mission of the California State University system, with the University of California system its research counterpart. “Teaching doesn’t matter” isn’t just a matter of indifference; it reflects a culture of disdain for the educational process that undermines the very rationale for the CSU’s existence.
The wingless bird stares longingly at the higher branches of the tree and recoils at its own insignificance. Knowing it can never hop high enough, it rearranges its ragged feathers and declares, “Teaching is for worms. From now on I will be known as a Researcher! Now I am just like the birds who look down on me from the top of the tree.”
After overhearing the Chair’s advice to the new hire, I made the grievous error of stopping by her office to inquire about what I had heard. I thought I was about to engage in the kind of open conversation so publicly valued by academics. But, as it turns out, the “free exchange of ideas” is highly policed by the professorial class when it comes to their own actions.
The Chair claimed that she was only reiterating administration policy. This was not an encouraging response. I left the office suitably depressed but thinking that the matter had reached its conclusion. Little did I know I was about to become a reluctant player in a malevolent game of Angry Birds.
The Chair insisted on an additional meeting in which she repeatedly declared how really really committed to teaching she was. Based on this newly-proclaimed commitment I asked her if she would consider, when assigning classes, to allow adjuncts to present her with the times of day that work best for them. Not as a priority, no commitment, just merely looking at them.
(Not surprisingly, tenured professors – the “Researchers” – are the only ones to have input into what courses and times work best. Adjuncts – the “Teachers” – are assigned the leftovers.)
The terse but telling response was “there has to be hierarchy.” That was the only reason given.
This is not a statement to be quickly dismissed. The Chair was not defending the organizational structure of the department; my request would not have in any way altered that structure. I simply asked if adjuncts could provide additional information from which she would make her decisions.
This is a sense of hierarchy premised on the belief that merely acknowledging the existence of adjuncts would tear asunder the carefully fabricated web of superiority. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out the horrific histories that have resulted from the implementations of these kinds of divisions. It’s disturbing that CSULB would support and protect this view, and allow departments to be constructed around it.
I left this meeting less depressed than the first; lowered expectations will do that. But, once again, I thought the matter had ended.
I soon discovered what happens to inquisitive worms. I was banished to the adjunct floor, at the farthest end of the hall. (Retribution is rarely a subtle affair.) Another adjunct, much younger than me, was hired and immediately given a high entitlement of courses, which required that courses be taken away from me.
Adjuncts are paid by the course, and almost all, including me, live in near-poverty. Taking courses away from any adjunct is truly life-damaging. After twelve years at CSULB, I still do not make a living wage.
I have recently been informed that an additional course will be taken away from me spring semester. This not only pushes me below my entitlement for the first time ever in my many years at CSULB, it resets the entitlement to this lower number for the rest of my academic career there.
In devouring the worm, the wingless bird dreams of its own supremacy.
Diminishing the quality of my life has been accompanied by pernicious maneuvers designed to isolate me within the department. The overall strategy is clear; make teaching at CSULB so untenable for me that I have no choice but to “self-deport.”
Trying to force out one of your best teachers is obviously not in the interest of students. But at CSULB, students and their education are collateral damage to the ravages of hierarchy maintenance.
There is no moral core to CSULB to which adjuncts can appeal. Those with power feel completely protected, even when they do the most appalling things to those without. It is a culture in which no one will ever speak up on behalf of an adjunct, or even question the decency of what is being done.
Behind the proverbial ivy walls, universities are hidden chambers of insidious inequality. It’s hard to know whether academia attracts individuals with extreme narcissistic tendencies, or whether these traits are bred within academia itself. That question is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this essay.
Too often the media relies on the professorial class as the voice of equality and justice. This is absurd. Professors have the ability to structure departments by a collegiality which would mitigate the harsh economic policies of administrators. Instead, professors and administrators demonstrate how giving people power over others brings out the worst elements of human behavior.
If nothing else, the next time you’re watching a self-proclaimed media progressive interviewing a university professor who is roundly criticizing Trump, you will hopefully be asking the question they won’t. “How is your total disregard for the dignity and well-being of the adjuncts you consider beneath you any different than the alt-right agenda?”
University professors decry all constructed hierarchies except the one which benefits them. Progressives can not fight against social and political inequalities if they continue to align themselves with those who, in their own lives, consistently wield the Trumpian sword of ruthless narcissism.
Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University; firstname.lastname@example.org
Other essays I’ve written about academia: