“It’s not that bad” – acknowledging privilege when critiquing the ‘Adjunct Narrative’

Please note: In this blog post I use the term ‘adjunct’, as that is the nomenclature used by my casual colleagues in the US. It is not exactly interchangeable with “casual” as we use it in Australian higher education, which is why I did not just substitute it in. However the issues faced by adjuncts in the US are parallel to the ones faced by casual academics in Australia, and this is the position I am taking with this post.

At the moment there is an outpouring of adjunct/casual rage within the blogging world. There is a seething undercurrent of resentment and hostility, where my casual colleagues are sharing their adjunct stories and communicating outside of the parameters of the networks offered by their institution to forge friendships and alliances. Their seems to be consensus that casualised staff within the higher education sector are marginalised and excluded, that the system is essentially broken.

Except there isn’t consensus at all.

Amongst the blog posts by academics outraged, confused, and appalled by the conditions they (and by extension their students) are facing, there are the faint voices of disapproval, the dissenters whose main thesis appears to be: come on now, it’s not that bad. The latest contributor is Kelli Marshall, a lecturer at dePaul University. In her piece ‘Part-Time Professing: It’s Not All Gloom and Doom‘ she argues exactly this, that it isn’t that bad. In her title itself she downplays the experience of adjunct staff in the US by recasting their very real concerns and lived experiences as “doom and gloom”. In one fell swoop she acknowledges these experiences, and then completely disavows them.

One part of her post I find particularly problematic. After acknowledging the shitty things that her adjunct colleagues have endured (empathy), and then recounting her own tale of woe, she appears to flip the focus away from the administration. A slip of the hand and the blame shifts onto the adjuncts themselves.

I quote:

It’s Who You Know (and Knowing Yourself)

I’ll close with two bits of advice.

First, get to know people in your field. Whether through social media or conference networking, introduce yourself and make acquaintances; you never know when or how those people will pop back into your life. As your parents once told you, sometimes it is connections that make the difference. Indeed, I owe much of my current situation to a colleague who once “threw my name into the pot.”

Second, go for it if you know without a doubt that academic life is the road for you (i.e., you would be miserable outside of academe, you shudder when you think you’d never get to interact with college students again, etc.). Once you’ve determined that, then be wary, but don’t let all 1,320 of those “NEVER EVER GO TO GRAD SCHOOL” posts deter you from your academic aspiration(s). For even in the part-time arena, it’s not always doom and gloom.

The systemic issues that are preventing casual staff from progressing in their careers, that see adjunct staff take on work far beyond that outlined in their contractual agreements, is all diminished to an issue of networking. Of Nepotism. I am not exactly sure what we are meant to take away from Kelli’s post. Should we work on our LinkedIn profiles perhaps? Should  more effort be put into creating an attractive personal brand?

This cloying empathy makes me angry. Obviously I am not the only one, as Kelli cops a hiding in the comment section. Dr Robert Baum captures the sentiment perfectly when he responds:
Her “doom and gloom” narrative is a dismissive, irresponsible, unethical, and repressive counter-narrative gesture (think “power/knowledge”) that seeks to demoralize and further disenfranchise any and all individuals intent on joining the adjunct uprising. Why? To avoid the main issue of equal pay for equal work. How can at-will faculty meet the needs of time tested, successful, and sustainable curriculum and instructional design?
Language is a slippery terrain, here used to silence those who are only just beginning to find their own voice. A similar strategy is employed in this piece on the Yellow Dog blog ‘Adjunct Narratives‘. I recommend you read it in order to get the full context, but in this piece the author J. Rice concludes [emphasis my own]:
So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.
Our stories are, to J Rice, repetitive, and not entirely strategic. In his piece he acknowledges that “[t]he adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new” and goes on to argue that perhaps it is a cynical grab at readership, citing Slate has published some “hyperbolic and uniformed pieces” (unlinked). He attacks this adjunct narrative from a number of angles in order to achieve what? An admission that it “isn’t all doom and gloom” perhaps? Again, the issue is acknowledged, and then the old bait and switch, ad hominem, the adjunct story, my story, is reduced to a narrative which, to him, is counter-productive and repetitive.
Both of these authors came from a place of unacknowledged privilege. Ms Marshall’s identifies scheduling as being her biggest issue with adjuncting, whereas Associate Professor Rice… well his privilege is right in his title. The difficulty in addressing these kind of blog posts is that it puts us (and I will include myself in this) in the position of having to defend our position, and reframes our concerns as “whingeing”. Of course things could be worse. Of course the flexibility that casual academia offers can be great for working parents such as myself although I seem to work a lot of hours and give up a lot, at the altar of “flexibility”. Yeah it could be worse, but here is a novel approach: rather than getting caught up in pedantic bullshit about who has it worse, or better, or indifferent, and why; let’s focus on improving the system we do have. Let’s not reframe the outpouring of adjunct anger as being cynical clickbait, let’s instead take these stories at face value, and consider why, as J Rice asks, these stories are surfacing right now, at this point in time. Rather than defending a broken system, I think our time is better spent thinking about how we can improve employment conditions for all casual academics. And that can only be achieved by acknowledging all of the realities of casual teaching/adjuncting… even the unpleasant ones.

5 thoughts on ““It’s not that bad” – acknowledging privilege when critiquing the ‘Adjunct Narrative’

  1. Yes, I have been thinking about this, and sensing this response, even if I haven’t seen all of these examples of it. Watch out, you don’t want to sound stroppy and entitled. Says the academic with a full time position. Who didn’t face any of this when they were starting out. Or continuing.

    What is this entitlement? Why wouldn’t I want a rewarding career? To be involved in teaching and research? Of course I know the problems of technology, working online, and insane bureaucratisation aren’t going to evaporate. It’s not like I am unaware that the ‘academic dream’ doesn’t exist. But why shouldn’t I complain? Be angry? (I also wonder about the legions of young female casual academics being told to be nice, not complain, and not be angry). Why shouldn’t I be angry about education? About being encouraged to knit together my fundamental values of critique, thinking, imagination, creativity, justice, with a system that professes to value them, but doesn’t walk the walk? Why shouldn’t I be angry about those years that I have put in? Renting, scraping through the summers, Centrelink juggling, queues, forms?

    Hey. Republicans tell the poor they should get over feeling entitled. Joe Hockey says that Australia needs to get rid of its entitlement mentality.

    Who tells whom they need to stop feeling entitled?

    Those who actually hold some privilege, when they have been wrecking the joint.

    (Ok, ok, I am doing broad brush strokes here, getting to the essence, or the emotion, or something).

    But this is my life. Yes, it is work, but I have been living this. It makes me angry. That’s not going away.

  2. Pingback: Suggestions for ways to improve your relationship with your casual colleagues | The Smart Casual

  3. Oh, and quickly, on the theme of anger: avoid using phrases like “as your parents once told you” and assuming that a good thing for you to do is give career advice. Think about if that parental positioning is helpful. Think about if the world where networking is the be all and end all still exists. If it is as easy as going to a conference, or just ‘being around’ still works now. (Also, possibly, I would guess that many adjuncts are pretty aware of the need to self-brand and market themselves, which is problematic in itself). Ask before giving advice. Is advice needed? Is giving individuals advice on how to work harder to promote themselves, and suffer more to see if they really love it enough, the best response?

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