I’m about to post a few things about precarious jobs and political responses to precarious jobs in French higher education, but before I do that, I wanted to call a bit of attention to this fragment of a personal narrative of precarious work in American higher ed, which I came across by chance in an old story on Inside Higher Ed:
I don’t know how I’ve gone this long without discovering Inside Higher Ed, but I’m very glad I finally have. This is clearly a hugely valuable resource and I appreciate it very much. I’ve been adjuncting @ 2 institutions for just 1.5 years now, after teaching as a grad assistant for 2, and am actively trying to figure out where the hell to take my career. The article here, as the others, and especially the dialogue in the comments are hugely valuable to me, not least because they just make me feel less alone in my outrage over the “white-collar Walmart” set-up, as another commenter coined.
I looooooooooooove teaching, like crazy, and I don’t even want a PhD. It took me 9 years to complete my BS and MA altogether, I’m 36, and I’m tired. I just want to work & learn with students about textual meaning-making, and do my best to arm ’em with those literacies that will best empower them to get what they need/want.
Before this gig, I’ve been a waitress for going on 20 years, a job I loved, but needed to get out of, due to a chronic injury and a certain amount of going stir crazy within its intellectual limits. Teaching gives me everything I love about waiting, without the arthritis, crazy hours, and bathroom-cleaning. The only seriously huge glaring problem, of course, is that waiting tables, I can and have pulled in a pretty comfortable, lower middle-class income, and get health insurance and a frickin’ 401k.
Something’s gotta give, certainly. I have every confidence that somehow, I’ll make a career that works enough to avoid true abject poverty when I retire, and I’m even more positive that I will find a way to have fun while I do it. I knew what I was getting into, job-wise, when I went for the MA. But I’ll tell you what, if I hear one more tenured/tenure-track faculty at my 4-year institution cluck sympathetically at me about how awful it is that the life of an adjunct is so hard, but take absolutely no advantage of their position to advocate for any change in our treatment, I will lure them to the bar I still work at on the weekends, so I can throw a beer at them on my own turf.
(Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to link directly to a comment on Inside Higher Ed, but if you scroll around you can find the original.)
What I like about this short text is that it calls attention to the moment of surprise that sometimes occurs when someone discovers that they aren’t isolated or unique in their anxieties. What I like about this text is how clearly it illustrates the paradox of people who come to love a job that they know hurts them. That they know is unjustly underpaid. What I like about this text is that it reminds us of the relative ridiculousness of many people’s academic working conditions, worse than those in restaurants. (While I have nothing against restaurants, they’re not really known as the epitome of good working conditions.) Though paradoxically, what I also like about this text is that, in an academic world where too many people seem to subscribe to the (quasi-Thatcherite) principle that they have no viable alternative to their “intellectual” work, here the author seems happy to eschew snotty categorical distinctions between “manual” and “mental” labor, noting that restaurants and universities can be similar in their psychic rewards. I like the Bourdieuian reminder that cultural and educational capital can at times be inversely correlated with economic capital. And I certainly empathize with the critique of those tenured faculty who only theoretically sympathize with people getting the short end of the stick.
But what worries me in this text is the blithe certainty that something’s gotta give, that somehow, I’ll make a career that works enough, that the future will turn out providential against all odds, that the future can become this imaginary space where the irresolvable contradictions of the present receive a purely fantasy resolution. The endearingly practical logic of this passage, who needs a phd when you can already do what you love, at least in teaching you don’t have to clean bathrooms, all that practicality goes up in smoke at the end of this text. The whole last paragraph is written in the register of everything will turn out be fine, but if I hear one more word of false consolation from people better off, I just might lose it, as if two futures are really being envisioned here, one where everything magically works out well and another where the psychic costs of academic labor exploitation just can’t be repressed any longer and finally they explode in the form of a beer hurled across the room.
As we’ll see soon in talking about precarity in French universities, a characteristic social and psychological paradox of precarious academic workers involves this kind of split view of the future, where people fully intend to stick by their jobs and even feel passionate attachments to their work, but are also permanently haunted by the danger of everything falling apart at any moment.