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Arrested Development, Contingent Edition

Why do I feel like all of my friends got to become adults and I didn't? 

February 10, 2013

Over Christmas, I had the pleasure of meeting up with some old friends. Many of them are also married and have young families, which is both nice (as we are all exhausted and can swap stories and support one another) and weird (one particular friend, I’ve known since we were eight, another 13; somehow not only did we survive, but managed to find mates and procreate).  Growing up, I was fortunate that I had a ton of really, really smart friends. In high school, we were in all the enriched classes together. There was never any question about us going to university, the only discussion was what our major was going to be and what schools we could get into and afford. We were bright, motivated, and supportive of one another.

Unsurprisingly, all of these really smart friends went on to become really successful professionals in some form or another. Some went to graduate school and some didn’t (that any of my friends went to graduate school tells you something about my group of friends). But all of them have been working for at least ten years at their profession (either for the same company, for themselves, or at different places). To hear them talk about their jobs is to hear them complain not only about bad bosses and meetings, but also about being the boss, or at least being in charge of projects, a group of other employees, and the added burden of having increased responsibilities. We laughed about how we used to not even be trusted to drive after dark. Now, we have houses and mortgages and kids of our own.

I left these reunions unsettled. I felt like a failure compared to how successful my friends have all been. We were all so smart, and we were all destined for great things. Why do I feel like somehow things went differently (and not in a good way) for me? I am just as smart and capable as they are, so why am I in this situation? I thought at first it was because of the money; they make a lot more money than I do. But it was more than that, more than just the money. I chose to be an academic, to forgo the “big bucks” (but does it have to be so much smaller?). No, there was something else bothering me about my situation when I compared myself to my friends.

Now, before you get into a critique of this comparison, stating that this is apples and oranges, I would say that my friends have a wide variety of jobs: nurse, engineer, technical writer, event planner, accounts manager, government employee – the works (except for teacher; not one of them became a teacher). They love their jobs in varying degrees; for some, they’ve found their calling, for others, they’ve found work that both pays the bills and doesn’t absolutely drive them insane. These are friends from both school and swimming. I am comparing apples to oranges to bananas and grapes, but in my mind, we all grew up in the same fruit basket. I spent my formative years comparing myself to them, for better and for worse. We all did.

We all grew up together, and then I went away. And in my absence, they all kept growing up while I didn’t. Sure, on paper, we look exactly the same in terms of where we are in our lives, but the biggest difference between where they are professionally and where I am is that they are treated like adults in their workplace. They are rewarded for doing good work not only with promotions and higher pay, but also with increasing amounts of responsibilities, new and different tasks, and the respect and recognition that comes with that.

There are few such rewards for contingent faculty. Those who are paid on a per-hour basis don’t get any recognition at all for the job they do, just the same crappy contract semester-by-semester. Or not. Do more than what was asked, and you will just be asked again, at no extra pay, and punished if you refuse. There was a discussion recently on an adjunct listserv about how the research/publication successes of adjunct faculty are rarely celebrated or even acknowledged. We are also losing control over what we teach in our classroom, with increased standardization, particularly in the lower-level general education courses that so many of us teach.

We are in a state of arrested development, professionally. If so many of us appear at times to behave “like children” it is perhaps because the institution increasingly infantilizes us. I’m not saying we all deserve promotions and raises and added responsibilities (or that we all want them), but we should have the opportunity to earn them if we show ourselves able, instead of being punished. Are their other jobs that treat their employees like crap, disrespecting them and grinding them down? You bet.

But I also bet that those jobs don’t require you to have a bachelor’s degree, let alone advanced ones. 


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