Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Labor Pains: From Adjunct to Organizer by Jessica Lawless

On this Labor Day, for the first time in well over a decade I am not preparing to teach. I am, however, back on campus for the first day of classes. No longer as an adjunct professor but as a union organizer. I left my precarious dead end career in higher education for a job with SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign. It’s good work and I am pleased to be organizing my colleagues. But it is not what I ever imagined my graduate degrees would lead me to. As my contingent faculty peers prepare for classes they no longer have the will to teach or post about finally leaving the classroom, I am organizing adjunct faculty at a college where I am not teaching and thinking about the dips, crevices, sinkholes, and hills my own career path has wound around.

Nine years ago Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and made clear that institutional racism is a deadly force. Katrina destroyed New Orleans at the same moment I was teaching my first college course, “Intro to US Popular Culture,” as an adjunct professor. When the news of Katrina hit, we set aside the assigned readings and unpacked mainstream media conventions where black folks were identified as looters and white folks were identified as searching for supplies.

My students researched reasons why Kanye West would declare, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” They learned how to discuss their differences of opinion about the myriad police shootings of unarmed civilians, taking into account their own race, class, and gender standpoint. And, with teary faces, students presented news accounts of the rapes at the Superdome while trying to help each other make sense of the unfolding dystopian nightmare they were witnessing. We decided to make a direct donation as a class to Katrina refugees staying at a nearby church. Then we returned to our scheduled readings on vaudeville and minstrelsy, the rise of popular culture alongside the rise of the working class in the industrial era, and viewed the documentary Wisconsin Death Trip.

By the end of the semester my students were reading media images, making historically contextual intersectional analysis of visual culture, and producing their own media in the form of handmade zines.  

I loved teaching. I loved what I taught. My students and I learned a lot from each other.

I finished my terminal degree, went on a tenure-track job search, and got decimated in the destruction of higher ed. The human-made disaster college administrators orchestrated, taking specific advantage of the Great Recession to cement the adjunctification of the faculty has been exacting and intentional. It is not the same devastation as Hurricane Katrina, but it has been as foreseeable and willfully ignored by those who have managerial power.

And on this Labor Day, like so many other former adjunct professors, I am marking my exit from the classroom, a part of the higher ed diaspora.

I did and I didn't want to stop teaching. Up through my last semester teaching my relationship with students remained as rewarding as that first semester. Sadly though, all other aspects of this thing I loved had become a nightmare. I was in critical debt from investing in my academic career. I was paid less than almost every other job I worked before I had graduate degrees. And the last two semesters were lacking the usual intellectual and collegial pleasure that kept me hanging on like a junkie, assuming one more fix would ease the pain. The chair of the faculty senate, where I served as an adjunct rep, was downright hostile towards any kind of equity or parity between adjunct professors and FT faculty. He hissed venom at me whenever I tried to intervene in motions or actions that excluded adjuncts. The president of the college, in order to avoid including adjuncts under the new ACA guidelines, was asserting policies for credit caps counter to what was written in the college bylaws. And the political values that made me a great classroom teacher were preventing me from moving into any of the student services staff positions I had applied for. On top of all that, the 1099 contract job I held to supplement my teaching income was coming to an end.

I was more trapped than ever. Having given up the tenure track job search a few years earlier, I wasn’t able to get any other jobs in the last 11 months of a broader job search. As the one with the formal education in my relationship, I have been the one to supposedly have more earning power. However when my partner and I both had to go on unemployment last winter we found out his weekly income as a line cook in a college cafeteria brought in a higher unemployment check than my weekly income as an adjunct professor.

We decided it made sense to expand my job search out of state.

While updating my resume once again, I read an article in the New York Times about a former adjunct professor who had become an organizer with SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign. I looked up jobs with SEIU, saw they were hiring for the higher ed campaign and sent in my resume. I got a call the next day. Two months later I moved across three states to start my new job as a union organizer. My partner stayed behind to finish his culinary arts degree and then he and our kitties joined me three months after I forged the way in a new city.

Amazingly I have a regular paycheck and health care benefits and feel fortunate to be doing important and rewarding work. . But it is significant to understand that I left being a college professor for an entry-level position most people do as they are entering the workforce, not as they are nearing menopause.

Many of us who are leaving the classroom are not leaving for high paying consulting or freelance gigs in the fields we were teaching others to enter. We do not all have partners or parents who can support us. The brick wall of a career path for all adjuncts includes a bricked in ceiling for those of us who are women and/or queer, trans, of color, working class, disabled, and the many other ways an aspect of who we are remains marginalized by mainstream culture. Survival skills we developed long before our careers in higher education failed are what we are once again relying on to get through.

For my partner and I, the gamble I took on my degrees being a pathway into middle class security didn’t pay off. We didn’t have an expectation for buying a house or taking extravagant vacations. Though a vacation would be welcome. For us it’s been hoping to own a car made in this century. It's been wanting to travel together rather than separately to visit our aging parents, growing nieces and nephews, a hospitalized sibling, who all live in different states. It's been having to choose which medication or procedure I will skip this year to treat my chronic illness. Its been having to make choices about treatments for dying and aging pets. And it has been trying to save for my partner’s gender reassignment surgery.

This is the one that kills me.

We made saving for his surgery a priority once we filed for bankruptcy and didn't have to pay off credit card debt anymore. Between socking away some of his student loans and some gig work where I made a few good chunks of change, we managed to save a significant portion of the needed money. Through our community and networks, my partner took steps to work with doctors to change his gender marker on his driver’s license and passport. The day we went to court for this we had the warmest interaction with a masculine presenting dyke bailiff a generation older than us who expressed her awe in my partner for being so brave.

Once he had that “M” on his license he was palpably more comfortable out in the world. He felt safer every time he had to present his driver’s license in a bar, the grocery store, to a cop. He supported friend after friend who had chest surgery knowing we were very close to making this his reality too.

Then we had to throw everything in our lives up in the air to move for the new job. We had to spend every cent we saved to afford to keep renting our current home while he stayed behind and finished school and I paid for credit checks on rental applications and finally put down first month’s rent plus a security and pet deposit. Even with doing our own packing and renting our own moving truck, it took everything, including his surgery fund.

On the one hand my partner and I have landed on our feet. I am a part of this growing movement that is the only viable solution to change the teaching conditions for contingent faculty. Those who can afford to teach are now hired to do so on an unspoken condition that teaching is a labor of love, not labor worth a living wage. I’m working to change that alongside many dedicated union organizers and adjunct activists.

On the other hand, imagine what my students could have been learning if I was still in the classroom when Ferguson exploded. And imagine what it means for my partner to keep deferring a crucial aspect of his well-being indefinitely.

As more stories of contingent faculty leaving academia or being on food stamps and unemployment keep circulating, let’s all remember that behind each post, tweet, blog, and article are complicated, heartbreaking realities that add up to much more than just economic equations.


  1. No one expected to be at war with #badmin.
    But, we are.
    And I for one am so honored to call you comrade, friend, and inspiration.
    -rcb/Migrant Intellectual/FancyNewDean/

  2. Jessica Lawless is one of the best badjuncts of all time.