Testimonials of precarity in American academia

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.

8 thoughts on “Testimonials of precarity in American academia

  1. It is unfortunate that there are jobs that don’t pay well and don’t promise stable employment. It is unfortunate that some people spend years preparing for and working in an industry hoping to get one of the “good jobs,” but fail to do so.

    That said, I do not believe that employers are morally obliged to provide me with tenure or high wages. If I don’t like their offer I can look for a better one elsewhere, perhaps in a different industry.

    Precarity is the result of too many people wanting too few jobs giving employers a strong bargaining position. My preferred response is to make sure young people are aware of the state of the job market so they may make decisions with full awareness of the risks and opportunities.

    These articles seem relevant:


  2. Mike,

    I disagree, and I think this has everything to do with what I take to be our different ways of understanding the relationship between economy, morality and politics. In my view, the economy ought not be oriented towards facilitating efficiency and maximally informed exchange (as in, for example, teaching young people about the state of the “job market”); rather, the economy ought to be organized so as to provide reasonably stable and materially sufficient life conditions for the entirety of the population. Such an economic order of course also necessitates a certain political order, one which would seem to be, minimally, some form of social democracy. I’m influenced here by Myra Strober, a feminist economist of education, who has argued that “it would be a giant step for mainstream economics to consciously change its definition from a social science concerned with analyzing choices to one concerned with studying the provision of material well-being”; and it seems to me that your economic views seem deeply mainstream here, insofar as your concern is fundamentally with how people make choices and only secondarily with how these choices lead or don’t lead to good social outcomes.

    At any rate, following Strober and my own view, it follows that there absolutely *should* be mechanisms to enforce reasonably secure jobs with decent working conditions, and given the current state of societal organization, it seems logical that these mechanisms should largely be situated in terms of legal standards that individual employers would have to follow. (There are, of course, lots of other social frameworks that could contribute to the same ends in the framework of a nation-state, like welfare, public healthcare and other social services, but let’s just stick with legal conditions on employment for now.) Now it seems to me that almost everyone agrees that there should be laws enforcing certain working conditions; minimum wage rules are pretty popular, workplace safety rules are pretty popular, etc. To argue against precarity, at least within the framework of something like a social democratic horizon and not, say, a more outright anticapitalist perspective, basically just comes down to an argument over whether the existing legal frameworks are sufficient to provide the population with decent stable lives. I think they’re not and that employers ought to be obligated, insofar as they’re hiring, to provide secure and stable positions. If that means that there will be fewer jobs, so be it, although I think the reality is also that higher education is full of MASSIVE inequity in terms of wages — I think there is no possible moral case for paying a university president a million dollars a year — and probably a lot of bad jobs could be made into decent jobs purely by reducing the salaries of overpaid. I think you would have to make an empirical case that you haven’t made to convince me that the genuine problem was one of true oversupply and not one of inequitable internal allocation of resources (I would argue that precarity is largely a policy decision by administrators and not some pure market mechanism). However, even if I turn out to be wrong about this, I would happily argue for a world where fewer people were allowed to get phds in exchange for a world where those people with phds had better working conditions.

    Where do we disagree now?

  3. “…for mainstream economics to consciously change its definition from a social science concerned with analyzing choices to one concerned with studying the provision of material well-being…”
    Of course its impossible to sum up what a discipline does or should do in one sentence so I don’t want to be too critical, but mainstream economics is currently about more than “analyzing choices”. As for the plea that more attention is given to the provision of material well-being… that is kind vague but I could agree with some interpretations of it.

    I object more strenuously to the following characterization of my views: “your concern is fundamentally with how people make choices and only secondarily with how these choices lead or don’t lead to good social outcomes.”

    Even if I don’t blog it, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to achieve good social outcomes. I’ve concluded that the long-term costs of, for e.g., special labor laws to improve wages and tenure for professors, are greater than the benefits. If I only cared about the costs and benefits (broadly construed) over the next ten years I’d probably support such labor laws. You’ve come to different conclusions, and its not going to be easy for us to reach agreement, but I don’t want to discuss this issue at all if you, and the wonderful, beautiful nerds who read this are convinced that this debate boils down to your side which prioritizes “good social outcomes” and my side which prioritizes something else.

    I think a good part of our disagreement lies in what we think the effects of such labor laws would be, but part of it also probably lies in our current beliefs about what constitutes good social outcomes (honestly there is a lot I am uncertain about there).

  4. Hi Mike,
    Sorry if I misrepresented your views; I should clarify that my comment wasn’t about your views in general but just about your views expressed in your first comment here. First you said that “Precarity is the result of too many people wanting too few jobs giving employers a strong bargaining position” — a definition which certainly sounds to me like pure “choice”-based explanation. And then you said, “My preferred response is to make sure young people are aware of the state of the job market so they may make decisions with full awareness of the risks and opportunities.” This is a sentence that doesn’t really say anything about advancing any collective goal, social or otherwise; it’s a comment that was purely about trying to help individuals make career choices that may lead them into more economically favorable paths. Anyway, I’m happy to see your views getting elaborated further in your second comment and your interest in social outcomes reaffirmed.

    My idea about what constitutes a good social outcome is not very complicated. The idea is that people who work (particularly for obviously rich institutions) should be paid a decent wage and should have a reasonable degree of employment security (not necessarily lifetime tenure, but maybe something like long contracts with a general presumption of renewal). Note that I’m not necessarily in favor of exceptional rules for higher ed; I’d be happy to see these kinds of rules extended, minimally, to all large employers. Obviously this would cost the employer more per employee, but as I indicated above, I’d rather a smaller, stable workforce than a larger, precarious workforce.

    At any rate, this seems to be the crux of the issue: What are the costs and benefits of these labor laws, in your view, such that their long-term costs are greater than their benefits?

  5. There is so much to say… here is a jumbled list of points:
    I don’t oppose all labor laws, a lot of them I am uncertain about. I think the benefits are more likely to exceed the costs when the beneficiaries do not have the skills to find higher paying jobs. Let me return to the specific example of labor laws increasing wages and job stability in academia.

    I think they would result in colleges doing some combination of:
    1. hiring fewer people (ceteris paribus, more phds unable to get academic jobs at all)
    2. increasing class size (ceteris paribus, worse education provided)
    3. raising tuition (ceteris paribus, fewer people can justify getting additional education)

    Ceteris paribus, the better wages and job stability would draw more people into grad school and the academic job market. But there ends up being a sharper disjuncture in possible outcomes for those seeking academic jobs. Many have improved jobs, others are unable to get them at all.

    Forcing higher wages gives deans reason to look for other ways to cut costs, I don’t know what they’ll do but it kinda scares me.

    Increasing job protections makes hiring mistakes more costly (for students as well as colleges) and reduces colleges’ ability to incentivize good teaching and research.

    Other policies one might consider (with or without the above labor laws) are increasing government subsidies of higher education so that the costs to students don’t rise (requiring higher taxes) or restricting the number of people going to grad school (improving the bargaining position of young academics, or if wages/working conditions are already driven above the market equilibrium then the main effect is to reduce the number, and change the composition, of grads who try and fail to get academic posts.)

    I’m open to the former idea (more subsidies) but more skeptical of the latter. I don’t believe that grad schools do a great job of identifying the most promising students. In general I worry that restricting grad programs will exclude many people that would be great teachers and / or researchers and / or would benefit from grad school in other ways. If what we academics are learning and doing is important, it seems to me we should be very hesitant to reduce the number of people who have access to it. Do we want to risk the possibility that some great discovery or cultural movement is significantly delayed by restricting grad education?

    Some of the effects listed above are probably not too important, I only claim they are things worth looking into. A combination of local knowledge of different parts of academia (which you have) and mainstream economic research can help us attempt to quantify these costs and benefits but admittedly there will always be significant uncertainty. Good social outcomes are not just good jobs but also institutions which lead to the creation and spread of knowledge. I think that the world is much much better off (materially and in other ways) today than it was a century ago, and the reason is that individuals have invented and adopted better ideas, institutions, values, and norms. These changes are primarily due to decentralized decision-making and this makes me skeptical of laws that might reduce this dynamism.

  6. This comment will be, I suppose, less insightful than the discussion above, but I am reminded of a friend of mine who left a lucrative career as a waiter at high-end restaurants to earn a masters degree in teaching. As a graduate student he is unsurprisingly financially worse off than before, but as a teacher he will probably never make what he did as a waiter. The tradeoff is worth it, he thinks, not only for the relative pleasures of each kind of work but also for the lifestyle that accompanies them. (No, he isn’t looking forward to “summers off” but to “not working nights.”)

    And yet – he is probably making a safer career tradeoff than the commenter on IHE you quote. Teaching primary or secondary school, while poorly remunerated and more revered in the abstract than in practice, at least offers most graduates with the relevant degrees stable employment if they wish it. It’s a funny thing that going on for the doctorate probably makes one less employable. Of course, we know that education and income have a u-shaped curve – people make more on average with higher levels of education up through masters/professional degrees.

  7. Hi Eve, yes, I agree about secondary school teaching — I always kind of have it in the back of my own mind as a backup plan. Have you seen figures comparing higher ed vs secondary school salaries? My sense is that high school teachers are incomparably better off materially than university adjuncts, though still worse paid than tenured faculty. But I’d love to see some figures.

    Mike, there’s lots to discuss here — I’m a lot more favorable to shrinking grad programs than you are, to improve employment prospects for those who remain, for one thing — but the issue that I’m most interested in is still the question about the general effects of labor regulations on a labor market. I’ll have to think about how to think about that some more.

    In the meantime, let me just note that I agree with your concerns about knowledge-making but I also don’t really feel that universities have historically been tremendously good sites for the creation of new ideas. A lot of new ideas come from practical contexts outside universities and are only institutionalized afterwards. Nonetheless, insofar as universities do produce some new knowledge, let me just emphasize that it seems pretty obvious that incredibly bad material working conditions are clearly NOT propitious for the production of new ideas. People who are full-time adjuncts are (if you can believe the picture you get from the higher ed media) often too busy worrying about their next contract to do much research (which is why it can be hard for people to get out of being adjuncts once they get into it). So from that perspective, it would seem that improving working conditions would potentially enable some people to do much better research than they would otherwise. What do you think of that kind of argument?

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