This is the first of what I hope are several guest posts. Kathryn M. Peterson contacted me after one of my (ahem, many) tweets about the petition I cowrote and offered to write something about the adjunct situation. I happily accepted, because I knew she’d do something good and because I want The Consulting Editor to do different kinds of things.
Kathryn’s fine piece is also listed on Chronicle Vitae’s #QuitLit spreadsheet. When you’re done reading this, visit the #QuitLit list for more voices and stories of other long (or short) academic goodbyes. There are almost 80 stories so far, hopefully with more to come.
I’m always happy to let people do guest posts about anything related to academia, adjuncting, or activism. You can be you. You can be anonymous. You can be pseudonymous. (Interested? Comment below or email me.) Regardless, the most important thing is that you get your story out there. The more that adjuncts and others on academia’s Island of Misfit Toys take control of the narrative of contingency, the more success we’ll ultimately have, and the more we can #FixHigherEd.
My Academic Long Goodbye
I remember the day I decided not to seek a tenure-track job.
I was standing in my backyard after Hurricane Ike, looking over the fence at my neighbor’s flattened house, and talking to a friend about the academic job market. It was a weird thing to talk about right then—I guess I was trying to see where all the pieces of my life fit back together. I was in the middle of writing my dissertation for my Ph.D. in Creative Writing. I was also worried that my novel was becoming something other than what my program valued—more commercial and less literary.
“What will the academy think?” I asked her. “Will this be the kind of novel I can justify for tenure?”
“Honestly, Kathryn, you sound really hot for the book. Why not just go for it and forget what the academy thinks?”
Forget what the academy thinks. Not so easy, since the job I’d trained for for over a decade was what I’d always hoped would support my art. Not so easy, since by that time I’d spent the past decade or more trying to squeeze myself into an artistic and intellectual box.
I stood there, looking at the large pecan tree that had smashed our fence and was still suspended precariously against another. I considered that we had recently purchased our house—a house, that, had it been a mere ten yards away, would have no longer existed. I also considered that we were building a life together that was geographically tied to Houston, since Mark works primarily for NASA.
I ran down the options:
- Find a place with both aerospace work and a vibrant college community where we could both get jobs. (Possible, but not likely.)
- Go on the job market widely and just see what I could find, and then see if he’d be willing to have a long-distance marriage. (Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.)
- Or, and this seemed the most logical, I could stay where I was, finish the Ph.D., and then look for work outside the academy.
I already had been doing freelance writing and editing for most of the time I was a graduate student. Before Mark and I were married, I often worked three or four part-time jobs to support myself through my M.A. and later my M.F.A., since the T.A. stipend I received was barely enough to cover rent, and did not always come with a tuition waiver. The holes in my academic CV were obvious: the lack of publications and a mere handful of conference presentations. My non-academic resume, on the other hand, had potential.
In the end, the decision was pretty much a no-brainer. Mark and I would have a better life if I did not seek a tenure-track job, period.
I would also be less bound to convention and be able to write what and how I chose. So that day, standing there looking at the dirt dangling from tree roots and piles of gray branches lining the streets, I made the choice. I would finish the Ph.D., but I would not seek a tenure-track job.
I felt at peace for the first time in a long time.
But then there was the teaching. I had been, since 2002, teaching college classes at a medium-security Texas state prison, as an adjunct. For each of those classes, I receive(d) the nearly average $2500/semester that many adjuncts get. I worked my butt off for that job—often spending 12-15 hours a week just on one class. The prison students were so eager to learn, and it was very clear that I was changing lives.
But I was making no more than $13,000–$20,000 a year. Even after I defended my dissertation, there was no increase in my salary, and no acknowledgement from the administration beyond some vague promises that the creative writer at the campus “might retire, someday.” I stupidly held onto that, thinking that maybe I might actually get hired and that everything would just fall into place.
It didn’t. The more the University became corporatized, and the more state budgets slashed the prison program, the more precarious my situation became.
The final watershed moment came when, in 2011, my car broke down in the middle of a four-lane highway, and I just barely managed to get over to the side of the road before it stopped completely. Sitting there, in the parking lot in front of one of Texas’s ubiquitous strip malls, I realized I could not do it anymore. Had I been on my own and not married, I would have no health insurance, no way of paying most of my necessary bills, and certainly no money to pay to fix the car. I could not keep living like this.
It was that night, after we sold my totaled car for scrap, that I made the decision to look for other work. By some combination of chance and divine design, I found it—immediately. The work pays well and is rewarding, in different ways from the academy, but still rewarding.
I’ve continued to teach occasionally at the prison, usually just one class. But even that has worn thin. Now that I have my art and work that is finally paying me a respectable salary, I need to let go.
But God, it hurts.
When an inmate says to me “I did a second degree here because I really want to take your playwriting class,” it hurts. When an inmate walks back towards his cell after class and says “Now I go back to not being human,” it hurts. But most of all, it hurts because I know that as busy as I have become, I just haven’t been able to do the kind of job I want to do.
So I turned in my grades this morning and cried. I still don’t know if it’s the end, but I can no longer in good conscience continue feeding this system. I can no longer be part of the all-too-great supply of highly qualified individuals who work for what in many cases effectively becomes minimum wage. I have a friend who works full time at one college and still does not make enough to support her family, so has to adjunct 4, sometimes 5 more classes on top of it. Another friend teaches four classes at the same campus each semester and yet somehow, the university claims she is not full time.
How is this legal?
There are so many problems with the university system that it is hard to know where to begin a reform. But if those of us who have support by other means (spouses, other jobs) would leave, that might be one important step in the right direction. I also wonder what the impact would be if for at least one week, ALL adjunct professors and ALL adjunct allies did not teach. I know this is radical. But if all of us got together, around the country—hell, around the world—and decided this, what would happen? Would they be able to fire ALL of us?
We need to take desperate action if we want to begin to make changes. I realize that, now that I am pretty much out of the academy, I have nothing to lose, while most of my adjunct colleagues still do. But if we continue this tacit acceptance of what is essentially an abusive situation, nothing will change.
We need to begin now to take practical steps, like fighting for a government investigation into university practices. But just as importantly, we need to reconsider how we think of ourselves and our own self-worth. This situation simply cannot continue. This is not fair to any of us, and we need to stop taking it. Our students are worth more than this. So are we.