On what I learned about a troubling aspect of my lifelong profession from my couple of summers working as a temp.
For a young man looking for summer jobs before and during his first couple years in college, temping is a pretty attractive option: moving from one position to another, getting lots of experiences without getting bored, meeting different people and being part of different communities, utilizing various skills that might come in handy later in life (I still remember the two straight days I spent transcribing hundreds of hours of recorded interviews; my words per minute definitely went up as a result). And of course I understood and still understand why temps make sense for the employers—in some cases I was subbing for an employee on maternity leave or the like, in others I was completing a brief project that wouldn’t necessitate a full-time hire, in others I was helping with a temporary increase in work (such as for the company that needed to refile a bunch of numerically ordered folders after a move), and so on. Sure, my temp jobs paid close to minimum wage and came with no benefits, but I was 19 and 20, and they fit the bill.
In the two decades since my temp experiences, the industry has expanded, becoming an integral and complicated part of many American professions. Ironically (for my own personal trajectory, that is), in no field is that more true, nor more problematic, than for higher education. The common and ever-expanding use of adjunct faculty members by colleges and universities—there’s a reason why adjuncts and other contingent faculty members have come to be known as, indeed to call themselves, the New Faculty Majority—is frighteningly similar to much of what I wrote in the previous paragraph: very low wages, no benefits, unstable and frequenly changing situations. All of those realities are complicated and yet also amplified by the fact that most adjunct faculty members have the same degrees and qualifications as their full-time and tenure-track peers, and if anything have tended to gain significantly more and more varied experience as a result of their work. Which is to say, while temping is at least ostensibly a job opportunity for younger and less-experienced workers—or was when I temped, anyway—adjuncting is far less about any difference in the people being employed and instead, far more simply and far more troublingly, purely a cost-cutting and flexibility-enhancing measure for institutions, a way to get equivalent teaching and work for far less money.
Those aspects of adjunct labor are frustratingly entrenched and constant, and will be difficult to change (although that’s a fight worth fighting to be sure). But there’s another problematic element to the profession that would, I believe, be easier to change, and here a different lesson from my temping days could be applied. Despite my temporary status in those jobs, I was consistently—indeed, in every case, as I remember—welcomed into the workplace community, made to feel (by my bosses, my coworkers, everybody) an equal part of that community. Yet far too often, and at every academic institution around which I’ve worked (both as a grad student, as an adjunct myself at two universities, and now as a tenured faculty member), adjuncts occupy a significantly separate space, literally and in virtually every other way. This has never been the fault of any individual faculty members or departments, but instead has just seemed to be the way various factors—locations of work space, schedules, types of courses, and so on—have come together to create these entirely disparate faculty communities. Yet whatever the reason, the fact is that it has consistently happened—and that it is crucial, I believe, for all academics and institutions to recognize it and to push back, by acknowledging that adjunct faculty members are not in any way temporary and by welcoming them into our communities, departments, conversations, and work in every possible sense and way.
Next summer job connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?6/27 Memory Day nominees: A rare but well-deserved three-way tie between three passionate and inspiring activists, writers, and 20th century American women: Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, and Lucille Clifton.
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