“Do you think adjunct rights are a civil-rights issue?” This question came to me from a young scholar about to defend his Ph.D. He’s just finishing a great one-year position but does not have employment yet for next year.
Trying to answer his question led me into an interesting group of writings that link the conditions of adjuncts to historically oppressed and exploited peoples such as slaves, sharecroppers, and migrant workers. This language may be misguided. But its apparent utility reveals one of the big obstacles to improving the condition of adjuncts in higher education today.
Clearly, the conditions of adjuncts are deplorable. From the homeless adjunct protesting in New York to the countless stories of inequity, struggle, hunger, and ostracism, the human toll of adjunctification should appall anyone who pays attention.
Over the past few years, an increasing number of voices have argued that adjunctification is best understood as something especially terrible rather than an all-too-typical example of the rise of contingency across the North American workforce. Why do advocates need to go to such rhetorical lengths to gain our sympathy?
The metaphor of slavery, for example, appears frequently. One piece even compares the building of the pyramids to the plight of adjuncts. David Leonard, writing for Vitae, responds forcefully to the use of slavery metaphors. As he points out, invoking slavery diminishes the horror of both contemporary and historical servitude. And it’s a poor representation of the actual challenges facing adjuncts.
Others, perhaps anticipating Leonard’s arguments, use slightly less charged language. “Sharecroppers,” for example, appears now and again. Wendell Fountain, in his book Academic Sharecroppers, only nods to the term in the introduction, noting that in the past, “the landowner made out, and the sharecropper barely got by. In today's world, the academic sharecroppers' world, they are used and abused.” The poet Catherine Wagner, on the other hand, wrote a beautiful essay in which she extended the agricultural imagery throughout. She writes:
The support to which the university and I have become accustomed is collapsing. There is a terrible drought and a weevil. The drought we call a recession … The weevil is an infestation called student loans. It affects the robustness of the plants grown on the sharecropper estate. When everyone has cottoned on to the weevil infestation, they may begin growing their plants elsewhere without the help of the sharecropper estate. Then the estate will transform into I don’t know what.
In the meantime, when they are not out in the fields, the sharecroppers work in ten-by-ten-foot rooms that each contain three desks.
For Wagner, the structural and racial inequities of agricultural labor in the American south, particularly in a time of environmentally-driven scarcity, mirror the plight of the modern adjunct.
Others make similar points, but with different parallels. You can find several of those in a new book of essays, Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, where authors introduce analogies to the civil-rights, anti-apartheid, and abolition movements.
Metaphor pops up in the book’s dedication, to “the millions of women and men who spent many years and tens of thousands of dollars to earn graduate degrees and then found themselves toiling like migrant workers in our nation’s academic fields.” It reappears in Keith Hoeller’s essay, “The Academic Labor System of Faculty Apartheid,” which portrays higher ed as an apartheid state in which a minority (tenured faculty and administrators) repress the majority (adjuncts).
And it pops up once more when Lantz Simpson turns back to slavery in his essay, “The New Abolition Movement.” “To borrow from William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist movement of the 19th century,” he writes, “faculty should describe themselves as ‘immediatists’—because they want the contingency system abolished immediately without any foot dragging and incrementalism. Faculty who support the abolition of contingency must openly proclaim themselves as abolitionists and must carry the abolitionist cause at all levels of authority.”
The authors here are using powerful imagery in an attempt to sway opinion. Still, I think it’s inaccurate imagery. In my view, adjuncts obviously are not slaves; neither are they sharecroppers or migrant workers.
“Sharecropper,” for example, is not just a vague term implying a disadvantaged worker. Instead, it refers to a farmer paying rent through part of his or her harvest. In U.S. history, this has typically been an exploitative arrangement. But the basic notion of using crop sharing in lieu of rent payments for land use need not be terrible. In theory, sharecropping could tie the success of both the farmer and landowner to crop output in a system of mutually beneficial dependency. Even at its worst, such a metaphor does not seem to reflect the power dynamics of a model in which no matter how much profit an adjunct generates, her reward remains the same.
Migrant labor, likewise, invokes structural-power issues that do not seem relevant to the plight of adjuncts. It’s a plea for sympathy, recognizing that academics are likely to sympathize with the brown-skinned workers who cross the border to work in exploitative agricultural systems, doing jobs that most Americans will not take on. Adjuncts, on the other hand, do exactly the same work as tenure-track faculty; they just get paid a lot less for it.
So what’s going on here? Why all these isms and metaphors? Why not just say that adjuncts are underpaid and overworked, and that it’s wrong?
Simpson and Hoeller, I think, reveal the answer. Elsewhere in his essay, Hoeller coins the term “tenureism” for the practice of tenured and tenure-track faculty assuming that adjunct status connotes natural inferiority. In an interview, Holler said: “We should be against tenurism just as much as we are against racism and sexism.”
One could argue with Hoeller’s insistence here—adjuncts need pay, stability, benefits, and institutional stature, not civil-rights recognition—but it’s clear what he and his compatriots are doing. The issue here is not that writers are loosely deploying hyperbolic metaphors. The real problem is that adjuncts and their advocates believe the rest of us aren’t on their side.
We tut-tut and say it’s too bad, but then throw up our hands, blame the budgets, and let the system continue. Civil rights, slavery, sharecropping, migrant laborers—these are terms that evoke sympathy and demand action within the neoliberal world of higher education in ways that just calling adjuncts “temps” does not.
So let’s not be too quick to blame adjunct advocates for invoking historical inequities when trying to change the system. Instead, let’s question why such metaphors seem necessary. I propose that the plight of the adjunct lies squarely alongside that of a long-recognized historically oppressed group: the working class. Why are faculty so resistant to seeing themselves as labor who need to act in solidarity with the exploited adjuncts?
In my next column, I’ll look at what happens when we put all these metaphors aside and just look at adjunctification as a basic labor issue, one in which we all have a stake.
Image: An Arkansas sharecropper in 1935; photo by Arthur Rothstein