On leaving precarious adjuncting

I just have to get it off my chest.  I haven’t told many people because they either wouldn’t understand, or they wouldn’t respond correctly and neither is sufficient for this moment in my life.  The picture above is what I looked like after crying for a day – this is what the cancelling of a contract looks like.

See, my contract was cancelled.  No biggee, right?  Part of the deal of being an adjunct – we all *know* it’s precarious.  Why should I be in any less of a precarious spot than the next person? But it flattened me in a way I’ve never been before. See, that contract had been signed – one class for spring semester. Down from three, then two, but still with the one class I’d picked up at the neighboring school, we could afford daycare and we’d make it another semester.  Summers are always tough, but we’d cross that bridge later. First, food in the mouths for Winter and Spring, and bills and rent…  And after the contract was signed, we bought Christmas presents and I was settling in to my state of obliviousness just fine.  Why, I even got myself a couple of Christmas gifts – some sweaters from Target and matching Pjs for Christmas eve.

It was the last day of class – a Friday – and so it was my swan song.  I brought in donuts and was happily closing out the semester.  This last day is where I have one last moment to push the value of seeking empirical data and a variety of voices in order to understand all social phenomena.  At the very last minute of my first class (I had two in a row), I realized I hadn’t shown an amazing you tube video that a student had made for his class project.  I quickly went online, into my email to get the link he’d sent me, and there it was: subject – contract canceled.  I found the video, and dashed out of the room to catch my breath.  What the fuck?

I read the email again from the office computer.  Contract cancelled – I’m sorry – budget reasons.  So short, so sweet.  As if it was just a minor problem.  “Sorry.”

I have two analyses for why this was such a crushing blow.  The first is that I’d believed that this place, this university, this department, this chair, CARED for me and wouldn’t hurt me.  I mean, she’d been honest with me, and had been the whole time that I might not be offered all the contracts she’d originally thought, but once the contract was offered and I’d signed it…  I breathed a bit easier.  See, that contract means survival to me and my family.  It’s not fun and games ; I tried hard to get a job before the fall semester, once I had my PhD. I don’t want to be here and I know adjuncting is so hurtful to people, me included, so I’d already sworn never again, but then the classes were offered on a silver platter, the pay was better than food stamps and so I took it.  And the chair was amazing.  Supportive, funny, kind.  Halfway through she’d asked me if I could teach three classes in Spring – but then it didn’t look so good.  First one was gone but it would have required the most prep so I didn’t mourn it.  I also was talking with two departments at a different college to try to get some work there.  I could have negotiated three classes there, but with my commitment to the first place, I decided to take just one.  I didn’t want to take on too much…

And then the second class was taken.  A different prof’s course hadn’t filled and well, tenured faculty get first dibs.  And then I waited, nervously, but finally I had the numbers and my class was a go.  With one class from college #1 and one from college #2, we’d survive.  And looking on the bright side, I convinced myself that I’d have more time to look for jobs!  Why, I’d have enough money coming in, I could volunteer somewhere, make much needed connections and build additional skills needed to transfer from academia to what we in academia call “alt-ac” – meaning all jobs that are not professoring.

Anyhow, back to the first reason I was so devastated.  I FORGOT how brutal academia is.  I FORGOT that that nice department chair really didn’t care about me at all.  I FORGOT that I was disposable and completely employed at their mercy.  I forgot that, in the world of academia, I was not a human, but an inexpensive number.  And I do blame myself.  I noticed how, when I attended functions at the U in the first few weeks, how when I introduced myself as an adjunct, people looked uncomfortable.  I was a reality none of them wanted to be face to face with.  I brushed it off… Why, I’m so damn good at my job, I am surely their equal.  Just smile, push on, be present. Make connections, find a way to stay here.  Work in administration – just get a job. Any job.  Cause really, I’d given up on being a professor – at this point, I knew I just needed a job, but the full façade of what I’d trained ten years for hadn’t really been tumbled to the ground yet. It was cracked, and bound to come down, but I was still pretty brainwashed by my years in academe.  That’s another post…  So anyhow, when I got that email, it took about 15 minutes and then I began to cry and I cried for days.  That email was the moment I remembered (cause, I’d forgotten, see…) that I didn’t get to be a part of their club.  Good as I was at my job, they didn’t really want me. (Another post, as well, WHY they didn’t want me in the first place…)

And I don’t think I’m a bad person for forgetting.  Rather, I was someone caught in a changing industry.  It was different when I started, before the recession, but impacts of the hiring freezes of 08 and 09 never really went away.   I had a colleague who finished the year I started; in 2005 she’d decided she wanted to live on the East Coast and so she only applied to select schools and that was fine and she got a nice job.  But these days, only the Ivies really have that choice and not all the Ivies, at that. The rest of us professor wannabes, from schools like big 10 R 1s (save Berkeley and Wisconsin), have to cast a net far to get a job.  Anyhow, at 44, that was something I wasn’t willing to do (again, long story, complete with sociological analyses) so I’d “resigned” myself to “alt-ac” – but if you’ve been in the academy, you know that making this decision is not very honored or respected…  It should be!  I mean, I want to go public with my social science self but the true mark of post-phd success is a tenure track position (at an R1) or, these days, just about anywhere.   So that’s reason number one: I was devastated because I’m SMARTER than that! I’d already made the decision to leave academia but the socialization of what “success” was still had its claws in me, and so for one semester I pretended I was a professor and I was so, so happy.

But then there’s number two – the second reason for why I was so devastated: I’m caught in the” iron cage” of bureaucracy (and so is everyone else).  For this, I turn to Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). See, Bauman suggests that the atrocities of the Holocaust weren’t born out of massive anger but rather due to seemingly benign social forces inherent in bureaucracies.  One force is an adherence to progress – he writes of scientific progress but I would extend his analysis to budgetary progress.  The progress of the whole far outweighs any individual’s morals or beliefs.  A second force is the dehumanization that comes with bureaucracy.  Each of us plays our part and it is our action in the bureaucratic whole, rather than our humanity, that becomes conflated with the person. (I could go to Marx and alienation, too – but I’m looking to implicate not the worker with no power but rather the people who look away so I’ll save my Marxian analysis for another day.)

This is what it looks like in real life then – this process which Bauman warns us about: The Dean “forces” the Chair, both sociologists who in my opinion should know a thing or two about dehumanization, to cancel my already issued and signed contract due to “budgetary issues” and do so just a week before the holidays and a few weeks before the start of a new semester.  I end the semester a babbling mess, unable to teach the final class because I can’t stop crying.  They avoid or have never met me, so they have no idea.  Oh well. Too bad.

Meanwhile, my anger and confusion grow.  HOW COULD THEY DO THIS TO ME?  And then the façade of academia cracks and shatters and I know I am done so I go to the one place I can express this, a facebook page for sociological teaching resources,  and tell the 2000 profs and teachers  on that site that I am done because they canceled my contract and nice knowing you. GOOD BYE.  I removed myself immediately from the facebook group, and hide all sociologists from my facebook feed because I don’t want to see ANY of it.  I need a clean break. I need to be done. It feels heathy. It feels good.  I’m at bottom, but I can see clearly now.

Back to Bauman.  See, just so happened the Dean who cut my funding was on that facebook page… And a dear friend had outed the offending school (though I had not, for whatever reason, I didn’t feel comfortable naming them) with the following (I found this out days later because I quit the site the moment I wrote my farewell): “XXX should be ASHAMED of themselves.”

Upon seeing the shaming message, the Dean then wrote to me and told me of her agonizing decision to cut my contract, and how it just wouldn’t be fair to NOT have done so (I’ll save you her excuse because I think it’s irrelevant to my point), what with all the concessions she was asking from all the departments… Why, even the tenure track professors had to increase their enrollment levels!  And she CCd the Department Chair who is not on FB and didn’t need to see this.  And I am left in the MOST UNCOMFORTABLE POSITION of having to respond to THAT.

I am a human, with children and bills and if I don’t find work MID FUCKING SEMESTER MY FAMILY AND I WILL LITERALLY BE HOMELESS BOO HOO FOR YOUR PROFS WHO HAVE HIGHER CAPACITY IN THEIR CLASSES. I’m sure your recent raise from one livable wage to an even better one stayed nice and intact.  I don’t say that though.  I have to be “professional” which means let her live in her delusion that she’s some great fucking martyr for cutting my contract. “I’ll be fine… It’s best for me…”  I know that that $5,500 won’t balance the budget of that school, the adjuncts will only in the long term make the bloated administrations of higher education function longer, but it’s all just an unsustainable bubble and I’m getting out before it implodes.

And the department chair.   She sits in my office a week later and sees that it still makes me cry and is a decent human, most sociologists are.  But the fact remains that they issued me a contract and they should have honored it.  Every last one of the tenured faculty should have stood up for me: the least powerful and most precarious.  SOMEONE should have asked ME how that decision would affect MY life and MY family.  But no one did.  And they’ll all look away.  And I write this mostly anonymously so that I don’t have to watch all of my colleagues look away from my plight, and the plight of the adjuncts in their own schools.  Just trying to make it to tenure or whatever, but they’ll all forget about the humans in front of them, instead making up fancy theories about humans elsewhere that allow them to forget their complacent role in the unraveling of academia.

Its not another holocaust in this case – I’m not making a case for that.  Rather, it is indicative of a society where people cease to be humans and instead are budget lines.  And this hurts.

I’m not sure what my role is, going forward. I don’t think there’s a happy ending, though my fingers are crossed that there’s a new chapter ahead.  I mean, first things first I just need to find a way not to become homeless.  I will scramble for a job first and foremost.  I just pray that I get to work somewhere where I get to impact the common good – someplace where I will never EVER forget the humans that hold me up, and I them.  But that’s the thing: as a sociologist I know that not ONE of those humans is really to be blamed. The Dean, the Chair, me….  We’re all just players in the bureaucracy of academia, and society more broadly.  So I can’t escape this dehumanization, and I’ll either work or be fired, and the Dean and the Chair, they chose to work, and me, one day I’ll choose to work, and someone will be fired at my expense…  We’re powerless to the neoliberal institution and our own survival/greed. You are too, so let’s all look away.