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I am an adjunct who did what Claire Potter recently suggested in Inside Higher Ed.

I quit. 

It took me sixteen years to do it, but I quit. For the vast majority of that time I had no desire to quit. I loved the work. Unlike many adjuncts, I was almost always full-time at a single institution with benefits. At the low end I made around $3200/course. At the high end, $6000/course.

Even at the end I had no desire to quit, but having finally reached a definitive dead end with the last tenure track job I could apply for going to someone who wasn’t me, I saw little choice. I called this space Just Visiting at the outset, because I knew no matter how much I tried to make where I’d landed a home, it probably wasn’t going to pan out, and I was right

My enthusiasm for teaching was undiminished, but I could see trouble on the horizon, consigned to a single course, semester after semester, no room for growth or new challenges. I didn’t want to be angry, or worse, bitter.

Because I had some advantages, my transition was easy. I was already making more money writing than teaching. I have an emotionally supportive partner who also could support us financially without me earning a dime.

On my way out the door I sold two book proposals, and dipping my toe into speaking opportunities[1] allows me to earn more with three one-day campus visits than teaching a single course for an entire semester. To tell people who have no financial cushion to “just leave” when even that poorly paying work may be the only thing between them and defaulting on loans or putting rent into arrears strikes me as some pretty casual cruelty.

Even with my cushy landing spot, the psychological barrier to stopping teaching was considerable and required a step-down process from full-time to single course to now, nothing. Financially, professionally, I will do far better having made this move than I could’ve sticking with the full-time instructor life, and yet, many days, I wonder if I made the right choice.

I’m hoping someday relatively soon the new life will be sufficiently established for me to consider adjuncting in the way it was intended, a professional person in the community who has some time and the desire to teach and doesn’t mind it’s basically volunteer work.

Prof. Potter is right that adjuncting PhD’s or other academic castaways can survive outside the academy. She says we “feel more trapped than we actually are,” which is probably true. Highly educated people do tend to do better in the world than others. Over my “career” I’ve encountered dozens of contingent faculty who have left higher ed and gone on to better things, financially anyway.

I believe Prof. Potter is also right that while unions and other collective labor organizing will improve some individual situations, they are unlikely to effect systemic change. The lot of non-tenurable faculty may improve, but they will not suddenly become tenurable.

But I am significantly more skeptical that a sudden uprising en masse of contingent faculty of all stripes quitting their jobs would result in any structural changes either. For sure, this kind of act would be disruptive, but who really believes that school administrations would suddenly see the light and reverse the decades-long trend of labor casualization?

Recommending that contingent faculty quit and move on is good advice at the individual level.

But I think a lot of the people who give this advice aren’t considering what this means in the bigger picture. If all adjuncts are to quit, what’s left?

Will this sort of action cause a giant pot of money to fall from the sky? Will it suddenly alert tenured faculty to the existence of a thirty-year-long trend? For fields like composition, it has never been the lack of jobs, but the largely arbitrary classification of some jobs as beneath security or reasonable pay – and all the attached rationales – that has resulted in the status quo. The conditions which allowed this to happen don’t suddenly change when adjuncts walk away.

The actual administrative responses that would come are fairly predictable because they are the same ones that have been happening. Tenured faculty may be asked (required) to pick up some of the slack, but there is far too much slack to be taken up. If adjuncts have truly disappeared, credentials for teaching will be lowered or credit requirements will either be changed or offloaded to “alternative” providers. MOOCs may be a “failed product” when measured against genuine high contact instruction, but if the alternative is nothing at all, institutions will do what must be done. There is no bridge too far. As long as the credential can be granted, anything goes.

It will be fairly straightforward for more selective publics to require some equivalent of courses that depend on contingent labor, like first-year writing, prior to matriculation. This will be a boon for the College Board and their AP exams, but it won’t be a benefit to quality education, and the cost of those credits will fall on students

Gazing into my crystal ball, institutions will start touting a “streamlined path to a degree.” You’ll see plenty of op-eds celebrating the end of “pointless” general education courses and more direct path to “career readiness.”

The devaluing of the labor of teaching is a fait accompli. In a lot of ways, it’s the dedication of contingent faculty that keeps the old traditions alive, attempting to do the work as best we can under the circumstances.

Until tenured faculty – en masse – recognize that the first priority must be to protect the value of academic labor, even if that means a diminishing of their status or comforts, no action from adjuncts will result in any meaningful change. 

I don’t expect anything so radical to happen, however.

Telling adjuncts to “just quit” is giving up on education, and only hastens the ultimate demise of security for any faculty.





[1] I’m hoping to jump in with my full body on this front in the future, once these books are in the can. Email me. 

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