David Leonard

Associate Professor and Chair at Washington State University

Adjuncts Aren’t Slaves. Let’s Stop Saying They Are.

Full 12042013 slavery

“Wage slaves.” “America’s modern slaves.” “Slave labor in higher education."

Amid the rightful discussion of our shift toward an entrenched, disposable academic laboring class, some adjunct advocates are making a striking analogy. Adjunct labor, they say, is a form of new slavery.

The comparison has become increasingly visible on blogs and within comment sections. Here’s one more example, from Langston Snodgrass: “It has been said that, ‘Adjuncts are the slave labor of higher education.’ This is factually true beyond doubt. Adjuncts are disrespected as teachers, as individual human beings, and as professionals in terms of what adjuncts are paid.”

So let’s be clear about this: Adjuncts are not slaves, and being an adjunct is not akin to slavery. Exploitation? In many cases, yes. Slavery? Absolutely not.

Slavery was (and continues to be) a system of forced labor, of lifelong servitude, of denied compensation and violence. Those who deploy the term as part of a rhetorical strategy are joining PETA, anti-choice crusaders, the G.O.P., Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, and a myriad of anti-Obamacareites by doing so. They are blinded by their cause, by historic myopia, and often by the privilege of whiteness.

Throughout history, slavery has been embedded within society. It has governed law, economic and political structures, and everyday realities. White supremacy has been a guiding ideology, a way to rationalize the exploitation and violence experienced by enslaved African and African-American people. Daily abuse, torture, sexual violence, and death have all been part of a system of slavery in the United States, and terror and violence were instrumental in maintaining a system of mass enslavement.

“Slavery for Black Americans was traumatic,” noted Patricia Moody Jefferson, a doctoral student in the Ethelyn R. Strong School of Social Work at Norfolk State University, during a recent discussion I participated in on Facebook. “Children and whole families were sold like animals. People, human beings were killed. Africans who were enslaved lost much of their identity.”

It should go without saying that being an adjunct is nothing like this.

It should go without saying that the ideologies and narratives leading to more and more contingent faculty don’t seep into every aspect of life. It should go without saying that violence and terror aren’t part of the adjunct experience, nor is being legally owned as a form of “property.” It should go without saying that being an adjunct isn’t a birth-to-death reality, one passed on to future generations. The analogy falls flat on its face. Not only does it deny and erase the history of enslaved Africans and African Americans within the United States, but it also obscures the real issues facing adjuncts in our contemporary system of higher education.

“Why use slavery?” asked Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, during the same Facebook discussion. “I understand that slavery is a potent metaphor because it was a potent experience, but I always go back to Nell Irvin Painter and her claim that to metaphorize slavery is to deny its ‘literal meaning and consequences.’”

“Can we find suitably impactful vocabulary,” she wondered, “without blurring and diminishing the idea that a person (‘and any shadow they cast’) was owned by another person or institution?” Exploitation: Yes. A system based in violence, a lifetime of exploitation and abuse: No.

Let’s put aside the historical inaccuracy, the rhetorical sloppiness, and the disregard for the trauma of slavery, and reflect for a moment on the heterogeneity of adjuncts. Although activists often note that more than 75 percent of today’s faculty are off the tenure track, the varied experiences among these professors make it difficult to talk about the adjunct. In a sense there is no adjunct class, but many different experiences for those laboring as part-time or contingent faculty.

For one thing, there are many adjuncts who don’t mind their arrangement. Over half of them actually expressed a preference for it, according to a 2010 report published by the American Federation of Teachers. (This isn’t surprising, given that almost 40 percent of adjunct faculty have jobs outside of teaching.) According to the report: “One in three (34 percent) prefers part-time because it allows the individual to devote time to family or personal matters.” Many adjuncts have a strong desire to secure a tenure-track job, but that is not the case in every instance.

Choice. Options. This is hardly analogous to slavery, or even indentured servitude. Yes, there are plenty of examples of injustice and exploitation, of faculty teaching at several different universities without health care or job security, of professors searching desperately for a tenure-track job in a world where those jobs are scarce. This is not slavery.

What’s more, there is also a wide range in the working conditions and pay of adjuncts. Over 38 percent of adjuncts have incomes over $75,000 (with another 22 percent earning more than $50,000), the AFT report notes. And while this reflects a world where contingent faculty are working multiple jobs inside and outside academia, it is far from a world of slavery. While 35 percent of faculty make less than $2,500 per class, this is not the experience of all. Some cash in in ways that tenure-track faculty can only dream about. Just look at pay for adjuncts in architecture and design at Cornell University ($20,000 per class), business at Emory, linguistics at the University of Hawaii-Manoa ($15,500) or political science at Iowa State University ($12,200). While these may be outliers—with a majority of adjuncts making $4,000-$6,000 per class—we’re hardly talking about “slave-type wages.”

These comparisons aren’t just rhetorically troubling. They also reflect blindness to contemporary slavery.

In the Facebook discussion I mentioned above, Safiya Umoja Noble, an assistant professor in the department of media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, questioned those who compare adjuncts to slaves. And she submitted a more appropriate example of new slavery: “How about prisoners as the new slave labor force?”

The experiences of those who are locked up inside America’s system of mass incarceration, forced to work to make tables and chairs, dorm furniture, more closely reflect a history of slavery. They are not alone. Human trafficking is the second largest industry in the world, and over 30 million people are enslaved at any given moment. From the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast, where young boys are forced to harvest the beans from which chocolate is made, to the streets of India, where children are forced to sew soccer balls to pay off their parents' debts, slavery and enslaved peoples touch every corner of the earth.

So the next time you hear that “adjuncts are new slaves” or earn “slave-like wages,” pause and think about our history and the history of America's colleges, about the trauma suffered by actual slaves, about contemporary slavery, and about dorm furniture, soccer balls, and chocolate. Yes, slavery is visible on our campuses—just not in the way we are so often told.

Image: Escaped slaves at the headquarters of General Lafayette, taken by Matthew Brady.

David J. Leonard is an associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University at Pullman. Leonard’s latest books include After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY Press) and African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press), co-edited with Lisa Guerrero. He is currently working on a book—Presumed Innocence: White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon—about gun violence in America.

Join the Conversation

10 Comments

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.