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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Adjuncts and Freelancers: Reading Signs of Eventual Destruction

What happens when institutions stop employing people they need to do the work?

May 3, 2019
 
 

I was hoping readers could do me a favor and before moving further, take a moment to read this essay by Jacob Silverman published in The New Republic“Down and Out in the Gig Economy.”

This post will be here while you wait.

For those who are impatient, and didn’t want to read[1]the piece, I’ll summarize. Jacob Silverman has been a freelance journalist for over a decade. He has published in the New York Times, Slate, Bookforum, and lots of other places in addition to The New Republic. He published a book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection. He even was a three-day Jeopardy! champion. 

Despite all of these credits and accomplishments and not for lack of trying, he has never had a job as a salaried employee at a publication. They are happy to take his labor and pay him $50 or $300 or in an extremely good opportunity like this particular essay, $1000 per publication. 

He reports being tired of making $20,000 a year as a freelancer. He is worn out and looking for a little relief. Because he’s a professional writer who is good at his job, he understands the importance of a good “kicker,” the concluding part of a piece that drives home the point. He relates meeting with a friend who has a salaried job at a small magazine and tells her: 

“I no longer held journalism in self-defeating, sacred regard and would look widely. In fact, after I’d written critically about tech for years, it now seemed like the only area where I might find employment.”

“I’m applying for a content job at WeWork,” I said.

“Don’t work for WeWork,” she said dismissively.

“I need a job, an income.”

She had nothing to say.

Oof. 

If you have read the piece or based on my summary, I ask you to inventory your impressions in terms of its implications for the institution of journalism. Does Jacob Silverman seem like a person with the qualifications to be a salaried journalist? Does it seem as though journalism would benefit from Jacob Silverman and the thousands in situations like him having secure positions from which to do their work?

Would it be easier for publications to engage in their Fourth Estate responsibilities if these folks had stable and secure employment? Would it be better for the public at large to be able to read the work produced by publications staffed with employees in stable and secure positions?

This seems obvious to me.

Here’s another thing that now seems obvious, though I was not aware of it until reading the piece, the relationship between freelancers and publications as described in Jacob Silverman’s piece is identical to that between adjuncts and higher ed institutions. 

And I mean identical. 

The most obvious connection is that both institutions (higher ed and publications) rely on a precariat force of workers to stay in operations. Without these highly qualified, skillful practitioners making very low wages – particularly relative to the full employees – the larger institutions could not function.

Next, in terms of qualifications, there is little to distinguish those on the “right” side of this divide from those on the wrong side. Both freelancers and adjuncts have the requisite skills, training, and experience to be full-fledged employees, but they are not given this status.

The emotional reality of the freelancer and the adjunct is identical. A byline in a prominent place is enough to make one believe the balance could tip toward opportunity and security in the future. For an adjunct, there is always the next job cycle.

The inherent pleasures that keep people tied to the work are the same. Writing, when one is good at it, as Jacob Silverman surely is, is a great pleasure, and one feels lucky to get paid anything. Similarly, the day-to-day work of teaching (when not ground down by too many students) is the most rewarding work imaginable. It is hard to give up.

Shall I go on? Those on the right side of the divide are often sympathetic to the plight of those on the wrong side, but with limited exceptions, very few are inclined to tangibly address the material conditions of those who are on the wrong side of the divide.

Those on the right side of the divide are also harmed by the treatment of those on the wrong side of the divide. More work must be done by fewer people. (More with less.) The pleasure of being on the right side is eroded by the suspicion you might not actually be doing a great job anymore because you lack the time and resources to do the job in the way you know it should be done.

The presence of the precariat also makes those on the right side significantly more malleable when it comes to being manipulated or exploited by those above them. After all, there’s further they can fall. Do they really want to challenge the status quo?

And of course the reliance on the precariat threatens the ongoing existence of the larger institution. It may be a slow death, but it’s a certain death.

I am perhaps in the unique position of having been both a freelance writer and contingent faculty member for many years, two full-time jobs that added up to a single reasonable salary of $45-60,000 a year, or about what I would’ve made either as as an entry level professor or as a somewhat above entry level writer.

Even having had these experiences, I was not so consciously aware of the parallels between the life of a freelancer and the life of an adjunct.

I don’t know what to say that I haven’t said a thousand times in this space. This can’t go on. There’s no solution to these problems that involves individuals making different choices like going to work for WeWork because once enough people make those choices, these institutions which I believe to still have some importance cease to exist.

Either we work to solve these collectively or we all go down the drain. 

Someone tell me I’m wrong.

 

[1]If you teach, I swear you’re never allowed to complain about students not doing the reading again.

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