Yes, Please, Let’s Be Language Police While Adjuncts Can’t Pay Their Bills!

by Gordon Haber

I feel like Al Pacino in The Godfather: “Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in!” My mistake was believing that publishing my own novella about adjuncting meant that I could put the subject behind me and get back to religion writing.

Instead I keep coming across infuriating pieces by academics explaining, or attempting to explain, that the real problem is not that most college teachers don’t get paid a living wage but that there’s something wrong with adjunct rhetoric.

Example 1: A Specter Is Haunting Precarity by one Laura Goldblatt.

Goldblatt investigates the term precariat—“the increasing number of workers around the world who lack stable employment, housing, and healthcare.” Apparently the term was coined by Guy Standing in The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. (Maybe the subtitle should have been “The New Endangered Class,” but never mind.) Standing writes that “the precariat is not victim, villain or hero—it is just a lot of us.” Goldblatt quite reasonably responds with another question: who exactly is this “us?”

The most logical place to begin the investigation is with the Italian Autonomists of the 1970s (of course!), who rejected “stable employment.” It’s unclear why these Autonomists would use the term precarious when they were willingly exploring alternatives to regular work, but hey, what do I know. More to the point, Goldblatt asks if “an upper-class student with access to familial resources as precarious as a single mother working at a fast food restaurant laid off for sounding the alarm against sexual harassment at work.”

In other words, Goldblatt believes that the term precariat is classist.

Goldblatt raises an important point—that the middle class in recent years hasn’t given a rat’s ass about labor issues until they themselves felt the squeeze (myself included, I am ashamed to say). But the reader will forgive me if I have a hard time getting worked up about classism.

When I was adjuncting—working sixty or seventy hours a week for two-thirds of a living wage—I knew most of the janitorial staff by sight, and, unlike many faculty members, I always tried to be friendly. But I suppose I should have instead grasped the hand of the parking lot attendant, looked deeply into his eyes, and told him that I feel his pain. I never did because (a) he would have thought that I was a patronizing dickhead and (b) the only pecuniary difference between us was that he probably wasn’t still paying off an MFA.

Goldblatt does say that it is “high time for displaced professionals to organize alongside of, strike with, and support fast food and other low-wage workers.” Meanwhile these displaced professionals should be “relentlessly” asking themselves if they are getting involved out of “noblesse oblige, cultural imperialism, or racism under a different name.”

So ultimately the problem is not that administrators are screwing over generations of teachers and students. The problem is the rhetoric! And our secret racist hearts!

Rebecca Schuman published an amusing response to Goldblatt’s post on her own blog. So I won’t belabor my own point. I’d just like to say that this is a fine example of the academic head-up-the-assness that has made it so much easier for administrators to divert university funds into their own pockets.

Example 2: Sharecroppers. Migrant Workers. Adjuncts? by David Perry, an Associate Professor of History at Dominican University.

Perry’s argument is that adjuncts should stop referring to themselves as “slaves” or “sharecroppers.” Adjuncts are indeed underpaid and overworked, but this kind of “misguided” language is overblown and likely insulting to people actually descended from slaves and sharecroppers.

Now, Perry is right. And he was gracious when I criticized him on Twitter. And he ends his piece by suggesting that tenured faculty make common cause with adjuncts, to which I say, “A fine idea but I won’t hold my breath.” But in the end I find it galling that here we have another academic launching a critique of labor issues in higher ed by parsing adjunct rhetoric.

And while we’re having all these wonderful thinky discussions that simultaneously provide a forum for our erudition, higher ed administrators are gutting liberal arts and hunting around for other teachers to fire until every last American institution of higher education is an engineering school taught by MOOCs. Until it costs half a million to put a kid through a college from which, after six or seven years, he or she will emerge barely able to write a sentence in English.

Parse that.