This Is Why We Fight

"Beautiful piece, but what about looking beyond ourselves?"

“Beautiful piece, but what about looking beyond ourselves?”

The “[ compliment ], but…” construct is a mainstay of academic conferences, one that’s too often used to precede a polite-snark critique or a wild ride into the questioner’s own research and opinions. When I saw it come up in response to the essay I wrote for How To Leave Academia, my instinctive reactions were all defensive. Let’s get those out of the way first:

1. I wrote these 5000-plus words on a volunteer basis. I spent a significant chunk of time on the piece as it was. Expanding its scope would have required more writing and revision time that I needed to spend on projects that might eventually net me some income.

2. Related to the “outside the scope of my paper” defense: I am very uncomfortable with generalizing my experiences. Many of the practical problems I encountered cross disciplines: adjuncting, poor advising, the uncertainty (impossibility?) of balancing grad-student and contingent faculty life with family. I think there are writers out there more concerned with and more qualified to speak on those issues. I was fortunate enough to have an employed spouse with good benefits during most of my gradjunct years. We had to pay attention to money, but we didn’t sink or swim based on my income. The interior, emotional issues became the important ones for me (though they’re not disconnected from money and pragmatic questions) and the ones I felt best qualified to write about.

Okay, we’re good on that? Because Dr. Selder’s question merits a fuller response. My answer is again going to come in two parts. (Old habits die hard.)

Looking Beyond Ourselves

Being a touchy-feely humanities writer guy, my first (non-defensive) interpretation of “looking beyond ourselves” was to take it as a critique of the navel-gazing of my essay. It’s an introspective piece…self-centered if you’re inclined to read it that way. It belongs to a genre of personal confessions about the suffering of the “failed” academic…a navel-gazing genre. That’s one of the reasons that I grew increasingly weary of doing #postac posts here on Walking Ledges. It felt more and more like self-indulgent whining. I’ve only recently realized that it’s possible to write about the happier elements of #postac life without coming all the way around to the rah-rah public boosterism of consultant-centric #postac.

That said, part of getting through the navel-gazing phase of being a postac or altac is finding new ways to connect yourself to your community. I lingered so long in the morose phase of leaving academia partly because I compounded that loneliness with a cross-country move. Substitute teaching wasn’t enough to help me get over it until I had long assignments at the same school. I didn’t enter fully into the community, but I did get to be part of it. Over the course of those weeks, I interacted repeatedly with the same people. I got to (and had to) deal with their concerns and quirks and needs. I could not do my job as a teacher and hang on to being self-centered.

You have to have a rudder before you can decide which star to sail your ship by.

You have to have a rudder before you can decide which star to sail your ship by.

For the other academic leavers in the audience, that’s my piece of advice: find something that you care about that brings you into contact with other people. The perspective will help you get on with your life.

Doing Something About It

Dr. Selder—whom I know exclusively through his Twitter feed and his association with the California Part-Time Faculty Association —posts actively about adjunct issues and the corporatization of higher ed. I’m guessing that his “looking beyond ourselves” was aimed more at those questions than my touchy-feely writer-y ones. Even if it wasn’t, to what extent do postacs and altacs have a responsibility to engage the broken system that led to those neologisms?

The answer is…I’m not sure. My thoroughly leftist alma mater has spent the spring in a public fight about the formation of an adjunct faculty union. It’s involved Congressman Keith Ellison. A picture of the quad of my yesteryear was the cover image for a national news story on adjunct issues. Recently, the union vote has been canceled, in part at the request of both adjunct and tenured faculty who had questions about the process.

There is no question for me that the use of contingent faculty helps only budget administrators. No matter how much they want to, contingent faculty can’t provide the same support for students that tenure-track professors do. Structural inequalities keep most adjuncts from accumulating the CV bullet points that get your foot in the tenure-track door. (A tenure-track door that seldom opens.) In large departments that rely on adjuncts, power imbalances can get ugly for all involved. It’s bad for departments. It’s bad for students. It’s worst for the people whose “$17/hour” only counts for the three hours they spend with a given class rather than the 10+ they spend on preparation and making sure students learn the material and get their questions answered. (Never mind commuting.)

Still…where does that leave those of us who, like myself, have gotten out of higher education completely? Every passing semester diminishes my connection to adjunct issues. More and more of my friends are either snagging tenure-track positions, landing in “stable” visiting positions on multi-year contracts, or getting out of the business all together. It won’t be too many years before my Facebook feed runs out of adjunct-issue posts from actual adjuncts.

We can’t abandon the problems. Many of us have or will have kids—do we want them taught by academic wage-slaves until they get to their senior seminar when an academic superstar can handwave them through to cap-and-gown? When we’re completely outside, we might not have a lot of power to affect what goes on inside the academy. We do, though, have our own platforms to speak out. We can raise awareness. We can write letters. We can donate to projects like GEDs and PhDs that make a real difference in people’s lives.

Most importantly, we can recognize that adjunctification is one element of the same pervasive change that’s eroding social mobility and concentrating wealth and political power in a limited number of hands. That is a problem we do not leave when we leave academia. That is reason enough to fight.

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