Schadenfreude & Adjuncts

Much has been written about the working conditions of part time professors for good reason: they stink. The more we talk openly about the academy’s hypocritical two tier system, “a system which not only exploits the 70 percent of the faculty with contingent appointments but cheats the current and future generations of students in profound and long-lasting ways,” the more likely change will come. But along with the need for equity and academic freedoms for all is the need for relief from the daily emotional harm being done on campuses across the country. I’m talking not only about the head games played at adjuncts’ expense but the attitudes that shape these games.

One form of the head games stems from a sense of entitlement that often goes along with being a professor. Don’t get me wrong, I carried this sense with me into academia. I believed the hype that retirements and the Boomer-fueled student population growth ensured enough tenure track openings for hard working and well qualified temporarily-adjuncting applicants. I expected that as one of many well qualified temporarily-adjuncting workers, I would be given materials, space, and time to meet with students and prepare for class. I assumed I’d be accorded the same respect and dignity I’d always associated with the professors with whom I‘d worked in grad school, which is why, based on the abundant in-class discussions we’d had on equality and the variety of –isms, it never even dawned on me that pay equity was virtually nonexistent. I even thought that there was something wrong with being an adjunct: you were either on the short list to get hired, or you were somehow found defective and thus delegated to the loser pile of permanent adjuncthood.

Caution Schadenfreude

I thought I’d paid some dues as a grad student, but I had huge lessons ahead.

Any delusional sense of entitlement disappeared when I ran into a widespread, unfortunate, deeply entrenched persona non grata and/or persona non esse attitude toward adjuncts. It hit  me strongest when our email inboxes got hijacked by a weeks-long reply-all discussion of new office furniture and computers for full timers. This consumer-laden discourse occurred smack dab in the middle of budget cut negotiations in which not only were overload hours being cut, which meant adjunct jobs were being cut, but we were also being asked to take a pay cut. While some of us tried to carry on a serious discussion about the adjunct double whammy (which many either didn’t catch or didn’t care about), we were vehemently told by both full timers and fellow part timers to stop cramming their mailboxes with “trifling whining.” Okay, so pretty, sparkly, new furniture and computers, yes. Jobs and wages, no.

An even sillier example of this entitlement is musical office chairs. I work at a campus with a designated adjunct office. Since apparently such a designated office is rare, we are fortunate to have it. At least, this is what one of the chairs told me when I started looking into more office space for the adjunct hordes. “You’re lucky to have one at all,” said the chair. A couple years back I requested new chairs be switched out for some broken ones. Facilities was both kind and efficient, for the very next day I was greeted by six new chairs. Our relief was short-lived, though, for it wasn’t long before the chairs one by one mysteriously disappeared, replaced of course with worn out, broken chairs. This event happened not long after – for reasons unknown –  the locks to the adjunct office were switched to conform with the same key used to open the building. Now everybody had a key, not just adjuncts. Where’d the chairs end up? Who knows – anywhere but for use by adjuncts.

Silly? Yes, but very telling.

Such silly “mean girl” tricks are played on adjuncts every day, from plopping your contagiously sick students in the adjunct office to take a test, to referring to us as dispensable during budget discussions like you have a bad taste in your mouth, to hyper-vigilance on the part of some chairs who apparently don’t trust that we adjuncts can do our jobs so we need babysitters. To clarify: I’m not talking about recently graduated new hires who could use some help. No, these are people with five plus years experience who are being micromanaged to the point of being bullied. I contend that the two tier system is a form of bullying that allows the “mean girl” mindset to go unchallenged.

The United States doesn’t take adult on adult bullying very seriously, mainly due to our form of capitalism which encourages intense competition. To too many of us, bullying is just a part of competing. In “Academic Bullies,” staff Chronicle Review writer Piper Fogg states that  academic bullies may roll their “eyes at your new idea. . . , spread rumors to undermine a colleague’s credibility or shut their target out of social conversations.” Along with countless others, I know I’ve been a dupe for all these forms of abuse. After realizing this several years ago, I began researching online to find out what I might do. I was quite taken aback to find a list on the UK website Bully Online, which under the subheadings “Isolated,” “Subjugated and Controlled” and “Eliminated” pretty much sums up the everyday life of an adjunct professor.

An underground swell of academics have been writing and blogging for more than a  decade about the common occurrence of bullying on campus, coming to a head in 2008 in calling for legislation to include workplace bullying in laws against “discrimination for religious, sexual or cultural reasons.” The heading for this site, Bullying of Academics in Higher Education, reads: “The bullying of academics follows a pattern of horrendous, Orwellian elimination rituals, often hidden from the public.” Herein lies the “mean girl” attitude of the entitled, accompanied by an odd sense of what I can only name the schadenfreude of bullying.

Last month, in her review of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, containing essays about two decades of the adjunct movement, Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty reported editor Keith Hoeller’s overview: “the book’s biggest takeaway is that the adjunct faculty movement is really a civil rights movement. If equality for all faculty really matters, he said, “‘we should be against [rankism] just as much as we are against racism and sexism. Contingent faculty are not inferior. They are equal and should be treated as such.’”

One startlingly simple way to effect positive change and help repair the broken system from within is to look deep inside to discover if you are, as they say, a part of the solution or a part of the problem. Do you secretly (or openly) believe there must be something wrong with people – including yourself – who can’t seem to get off the adjunct track? Do you treat adjuncts differently than you treat full timers? Full or part time, it doesn’t matter: don’t internalize the oppression. If we harbor negative attitudes of inferiority or dispensability toward adjuncts, we are only playing into the corporate game, making it easier for the corporatization of the academy to tighten its grip, subsequently making such ideas as academic freedom and its no longer necessary guardian, tenure, obsolete.


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