On Recognizing Privilege
February 7, 2014
By now, you may have seen this post on the Chronicle Vitae site. In it, Kelli Marshall, a lecturer at DePaul University, talks about her job as an adjunct as a pretty pleasurable experience. And, really, reading her description: it’s not so bad. She apparently makes more than most adjuncts (almost the starting salary of an assistant professor, she says), has a decent commute, has an office, and is fairly secure in her situation. Oh, and she has a husband, also in academia, with a full-time job.
Now, if you caught me on a really good day, that description could be me (except that my husband is not in academia). On a bad day, like today, when it took me over an hour to commute 3.7 miles via bus, you will only get scowls from my general direction. I’ve been teaching at the same two institutions for the past five years. When one of them had a one-year vacancy, I was given a real salary and benefits for a year; I’m also their preferred adjunct, getting first choice at classes. So, they like me! They really do. (That’s a Sally Field reference, for you youngins who didn’t get it.)
I also enjoy various benefits of the flexible adjunct life: I work from home three days a week (note: I did not say that I had those days off); I can go to the gym or the pool when it’s dead quiet, which is usually around 2 p.m.; I can occasionally meet a friend for a run and maybe tea afterward; I can schedule a haircut in the middle of the afternoon at my usually busy salon. (Yes, this is deliberately obnoxious–I’m driving a point home.)
However, just because I can do these things does not mean that the system of contingent labor in academia is not massively fucked. Nor does it mean that I’m happy in this position–I really do not want to be a housewife with a part-time job. My husband and I would definitely have more economic security if I had guaranteed work. I’d very much like to get rid of my debt, so that maybe we could actually afford to buy a house someday. But, the reality is, I can do a lot of things that other adjuncts can’t because I have a significant amount of economic privilege (not to mention the racial privilege that landed me in a good school in the first place). And I’m not so blind as to let my privilege obscure my critiques of the system–I know others do not have that privilege, and that they are infinitely more screwed over than I am.
Marshall and I fit the traditional image of the adjunct–white, female, married. As Kay Steiger writes in The Nation, academia has a long history of adjunct positions as “Mrs. Professor So-and-So”:
Before women were allowed to be full professors, colleges often allowed them to teach at the adjunct level and wives of professors often picked up extra work as adjunct instructors. As Eileen E. Schell, the author of the 1998 sociological work Gypsy Academics and Mother-Teachers: Gender, Contingent Labor, and Writing Instruction, said that the reputation for adjunct teaching as a women’s profession was so strong that adjuncts were dubbed “the housewives of higher education.”
So, forty-odd years after the women’s movement started, here’s someone in a Mrs. Professor position telling the rest of the world that adjuncting doesn’t have to be that bad. Well, no, it doesn’t, when someone else is taking care of you. But, despite how much privilege Marshall (and, yes, I) may have in our adjunct positions, we are not the reason to accept the system as is. In fact, we–and I include myself in this 100 percent–are part of the problem.
I said this before in my own Vitae piece: When academia views adjuncting as a job for privileged spouses, everyone suffers. The labor of teaching is devalued, treated as a hobby, and paid equivalently. This screws over the vast majority of adjuncts, who, unlike the traditional-but-outdated portrait that both Marshall and I fit into, are not working for pin money.
So, when someone tells you adjuncting isn’t that bad, consider what other resources they have in their lives.
P.S. There’s an unrelated issue at the bottom of Marshall’s post, where she notes that you need to make connections to get a job. Of course that’s true, but to insinuate that other people are stuck in their crappy adjunct jobs because they’re bad networkers–and not that most adjuncting jobs are crappy–is a bit off mark.