Erik Loomis on the long-term auto-exploitation of adjunct labor

Erik Loomis has a great post at Lawyers, Guns, & Money on adjunct professors.  As many of you probably know, Loomis is a U.S. labor historian.  Here’s his perspective:

But long-term adjuncts is a harder phenomena for me to understand. It’s not like this is glamorous or particularly rewarding work. Teaching 4 intro level college surveys is no one’s idea of what they want to do with their lives and while you might occasionally get the student where the light bulb comes on when you teach them, that’s a mighty rare moment at that level. And with all the grading and class prep–not to mention traveling around an entire metro area to make this work, there’s no time for any other part of the job. . . .

I think so much of it is the idea that the person has achieved this degree and now wants to use this degree because they don’t want to see the time they spent as wasted. And I get that from a psychological standpoint. Making $20,000 a year on the other hand is actually wasting your life, or at least the earning potential part of it. . . . [C]ontinuing to delay that income earning for years after your degree by holding on by your fingertips to the dream of a tenure-track job is just a bad idea because pretty soon you have a lifetime of doing this and no retirement income. . . .

I’m really glad that SEIU is organizing adjuncts. I know many people within the labor movement hate SEIU, but what other union is going to put real resources into organizing a no-wage sector where returning union dues will be small? Almost no other union. I completely support the National Adjunct Walkout Day and I wish more had participated. Adjuncts should probably go on a general strike to force improvements in their conditions. But to be honest, most adjuncts should also quit their jobs and find something else to do. Working at Starbucks would pay just as well.

And guess what?  The discussion in the comments over there is entirely rational, and no one has yet (so far!) accused Loomis of attacking adjuncts themselves, or of being a neoliberal apologist, or of not truly caring about quality teaching.  It’s so different from when I’ve made the same argument against permitting one’s labor to be exploited indefinitely, or  when Tenured Radical has suggested that adjuncts might want to consider a time-out on adjuncting.

So tell me:  what’s the difference?  Is it that Erik has bona-fides as a labor historian that TR and I do not?  Are there just more former and recovering adjuncts who comment at LGM?  Just curious!


26 thoughts on “Erik Loomis on the long-term auto-exploitation of adjunct labor

  1. Loomis is a great Labor Historian and all. Plus he regularly posts on Labor History topics and contemporary labor issues, so maybe he gets a pass on adjunct rage because he is just working his beat.

    But between you, me, and the lamppost it is his Y chromosome that gives him cover. Not that it detracts from his point, exploitation, especially self-exploitation, is a real phenomenon. It is also another example of the inherent sexism of society and the world wide webs.


  2. Yeah, maybe readers can take straight talk from a guy, whereas I’m supposed to be mom/big sister and offer cookies.

    Loomis is amazingly prolific. He’s rather underemployed at URI.


  3. We haven’t gotten much push back either when we’ve talked about it. I think it’s that people who are likely to be angry about it don’t read our blog anymore (or they only hate read it and don’t comment). See for example: (This one does have some poor MD upset at us about our views on med schools, but not so much with adjuncts.)

    But yes, I’m betting gender has something to do with the difference in discussion civility.


  4. I think your blog has a much higher proportion of readers who are attached to, and passionate about, the academic system. LGM has lots of nonacademic commenters who are just like “yeah, that sounds irrational.” Also, LGM requires commenters to register, and you don’t, which means there is one less barrier to arguing.

    I almost registered just to respond to the one PhD dropout who said the academic job market wasn’t worth staying in in one comment, and that he was automatically rejecting PhDs for a job in his organization because clearly they were “massively overqualified,” “trained for a different job,” and “desperate” in a later one. I’m defending in a month and actively lookng for nonacademic jobs (preferentially!), and that is EXACTLY why I’m afraid I’ll end up long-term unemployed. But I decided it wasn’t worth registering, it’s not like I’d change a stranger’s mind on the internet.


  5. anonymous grad: I think that guy is an outlier. However, if you want to test your marketability with and without a Ph.D., you can always take your Ph.D. off of your resume and see if you get better responses. (You can cover the resulting hole on your CV by stating that you were “pursuing a higher degree” and working as a TA or RA or whatever.)

    I should add: it looks like my department hired someone this year to be a new TT assistant professor whose Ph.D. is from **2009**. So departments are out there who will take a serious look at you if your Ph.D. is older than 3 years (for example).

    (I don’t know if any of you remember this, but it was a department at my institution who ran a job ad telling people not to bother applying if their degree was older than three years from date of appointment. That was some unnecessary salt and lime thrown into the wounds of the already-under- or unemployed! No one in history would dream of writing an ad like that–and we were surprised and dismayed to hear of our colleagues’ decision to do that.)

    All of this is not to say that yes, surely all deserving candidates will get a TT faculty job, because you won’t. But it is to say that if you can manage to survive and publish something in-between full-time grad students and wherever you are now, you haven’t necessarily aged out of the pool.


  6. And I should add: per n&m, no one in my threads was uncivil. But they were angry and hurt by my comments!

    At least a few were. A lot of people seemed to agree that adjuncts should look for other work (and take it, if offered!) even in the middle of a semester or an academic year.

    It bears repeating: Don’t show more loyalty to your employer than your employer shows to you! That’s for suckers. Look after yourself and your interests first.

    It’s like this:

    Forget Lean In. I want the “airplane rule”: Put the oxygen mask over your face before you put one on anyone else’s. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will, especially not at work! You have to insist on better treatment and be willing to walk if you don’t get it. Your colleagues won’t agitate and your students don’t care enough. You have to be your own advocate, but a union to back you up would also be really nice!


  7. I do want to add, though, as someone in an alt-ac-ish position, that I have definitely experienced anti-PhD comments along the lines of what that “outlier” commenter was saying while job hunting (and while at jobs, too–little microaggressions here and there). And a fair amount of the advice that goes out to PhDs looking to do something else does (or did, when I was transitioning out years ago) strongly encourage you to proactively ward off suspicions that you’ll leave as soon as you can get a teaching job, that you’re disorganized, or arrogant, and so on.

    I would never have gone the adjunct route, personally, but sometimes it really just isn’t as easy as “just find another job!” (especially in this economy). It can sometimes feel like there’s a whole other layer of explaining yourself that you have to do.


  8. I think something else is going on, namely that the rhetoric around adjunct labor and leaving academia has changed radically in the last 18 months-2 years. Part of it has to do with much increased and visible adjunct activism from people like Rebecca Schuman and Joe Fruscione (both of whom have now stopped doing adjunct work), as well as events like National Adjunct Walkout Day. But my real theory is that we are now sufficiently past the recession to eliminate any real hope of the market improving as the broader economy does. Whether these hopes were realistic or not, I think many adjuncts were more resistant to leaving b/c the national economy still needed to improve significantly, leaving the possibility that the academic economy might improve with it. Now it’s clear that this promised improvement won’t come. In fact the chart going around on Chronicle Vitae last week shows a double dip in hiring with a few humanities fields at or below their 2008 low points. Now that it is so clear that the situation isn’t improving, there may be less hostility to those suggesting (rightly, to my mind) that people avoid long-term adjuncting in favor of nonacademic work.


  9. I think thefrogprincess is right about the climate changing. Two years ago nobody outside academia knew what an adjunct was, even though the casual academic labor market had been growing for two decades (anyone remember the Doonsbury cartoons about adjuncts from the 1990s and early 2000? ). Now I think the phenomenon is more widely understood outside of the academy.


  10. I don’t know why Loomis isn’t getting pushback, maybe the audience for that blog is different? I don’t think gender is the decisive factor in this case, though. In my view you got pushback here (and so did TR elsewhere) because that argument about

    (1) what adjuncts ought to do in order not to be exploited

    is specifically and recognizably at odds with feminist analysis that says, hey, rather than concentrate on “hey exploited people you are doing life wrong” let’s concentrate on why the larger system is so goddamn exploitative. This is particularly, sharply ironic in a circumstance where adjunct labour is disproportionately female and you and TR are both feminist scholars.


    (2) these people, they are so economically irrational, what is up with that?

    is specifically and recognizably at odds with a huge, huge, huge body of humanistic and social scientific analysis that says, essentially, “economic rationality is a tiny part of human motivation and why society looks how it looks so invoking it as definitive on both counts is always ideologically motivated”. This is particularly, sharply ironic in a circumstance where you and TR are both either humanists or social scientists (or both) and so presumably know this literature and even, under other circumstances, would know exactly how to gut those arguments instead of making them.

    But in this case, when it comes to a set of stigmatized persons proximate to (but not sharing, but potentially undermining) your own subject-positions suddenly both those kinds of arguments are totally appropriate: why are they letting themselves be victims and duh why don’t they smarten up and follow the money? The whole “look at me, I’m not one of them, but here’s what I would do if I were them — this thing that they seem too victimy and dumb to do! Must be why I am not them” is so *rehearsed* in a our society, and then to see two people trot it out who ought to know much, much, much better in a way that is so, so, so self-exalting:

    I think that’s where the pushback came from.


  11. I disagree with your analysis to this extent, Kathleen: I think it’s very congruent with feminist values to refuse to be exploited and to insist that one’s talents and time be properly compensated.

    Yeah, it’s an Anglo-American/bootstrap/Lean In kind of feminism, but that’s a long and respectable intellectual lineage.


  12. I spent more than a decade in an employment situation that started out promisingly enough: tolerable (but not excellent) pay, interesting colleagues and students, good subjects to teach, etc. But as happens in some relationships, things went funny. The environment grew hostile and the demands became less about opportunity and more about compliance. For a while I thought there was some kind of nobility in fighting the good fight, trying to defend folks with less power, trying to push the levers in different directions. Maybe there was. What’s abuse to one person might not be abuse to another, or the reward might be worth whatever is being paid. We’d probably never say that in the case of domestic violence but we say it to ourselves in unhealthy work environments all the time. We are good worker bees.

    Unionisation is the only pathway to improving the academic workplace. One of the rays of light at my former institution was that the union fought for both tenure-track and contingent faculty. The field was not the least bit level but at least (some of the) folks with a firmer footing were actively engaged in trying to shore it up for others. Unfortunately, the United States as a whole is trending in a different direction.


  13. Funny: I wrote about unionization in that “offending” post. I agree truffula (and others, inc. Loomis) that it’s “the only pathway to improving the academic workplace.” A lot of the offended who complained about the post were strangely disinterested in striking, IIRC.

    At my uni, even the hint of a whiff of unionizing got the administration to offer long-term adjunct faculty the possibility of more secure, long-term contracts. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Clearly unis depend on adjunct labor & don’t see them as **entirely** easily replaceable.

    Maybe it has to do with gender and authority–I’m allowed to express sympathy apparently, and do the care work people expect of women. But tell them to take action to improve their own situation? I guess that’s bossy, or unfeeling, or un-feminist or something.

    But, like I always say here about the quality of the advice: you get what you pay for!


  14. This kind of politics really is the reason that I didn’t, with a genius IQ and a GMAT score in the top 10% of the US, go to graduate school.

    Folks didn’t believe me when I told them I loved my field too much to see it eviscerated on these battlefields.

    Your post supports my decision thirty years ago.


  15. Looking over the posts you link to again, I’m reminded that the original Tenured Radical posts seemed kind of out of touch because they conflated f/t lecturer positions with benefits and one-course-at-a-time adjuncting. I think in that specific instance that’s why there was some push-back as the two situations are incredibly different. Neither is the same as tenure-track, but the f/t lecturer position is much more like what non-academic middle-class jobs look like.


  16. I just loved the “airplane rule” upthread. I’ve used the metaphor itself without reference to that exquisite name for it many times over the years to explain and describe a lot of rational behaviors, but this term of art should be trademarked.

    Years ago the “in the unlikely event the cabin depressurizes” skit would say “if you’re traveling with small children” (put your own mask on first) and people would just flinch. So they made it more generic. Either way, if academics let the intellectual substance part of what they do wither in the service of dealing with the process, volume, and service parts of their jobs, nothing of value to anyone follows. In the particular contexts that I’ve used it, though, I’m not entirely sure the union is on the same page.


  17. Looking over the posts you link to again, I’m reminded that the original Tenured Radical posts seemed kind of out of touch because they conflated f/t lecturer positions with benefits and one-course-at-a-time adjuncting.

    This is true. But what astonished me was the venom directed at her. The hostile commenters read her out-of-touchness as malicious, regardless of the sympathetic posts towards adjuncts she had published over the previous years & the posts in which she identified the bad actors who have adjunctified our profession. I get it that not everyone was necessarily a regular longstanding reader, but the absence of good will towards a post that offered good advice was noteworthy.

    If you don’t like unsolicited advice, then click away! Click away, friends! TR’s probably like me in that people actually write her to ask for her advice, as I’m sure they do nicoleandmaggie too, so forgive us if we think that someone, somewhere thinks we have some expertise to offer!

    And not just cookies and slankets and hugs, although we are openly and admittedly women.


  18. Kathleen upthread nails it. Yes, of COURSE it’s feminist to resist exploitation. But Kathleen completely nails the psychology of how crucial tone is when someone not-exploited tries to impress that message upon someone who is exploited.


  19. Support for adjuncts that’s wrapped in patronizing snark sounds more like victim-blaming than support that isn’t. Adjuncts, even fairly well-treated ones like me, get irritated when their would-be supporters let that streak of mild contempt show–we get enough of it elsewhere. Perhaps it makes us overly sensitive–I’ll cop to that. But I guess the answer you wanted to the question posed here was, “oh, how unfairly you and TR were treated by those mean, sexist adjuncts!” Cookies, snuggles, and slankets all around, then.


  20. Actually, I was interested in hearing what other people thought. That’s why I asked the question.

    Please show me where I offered “support for adjuncts. . . wrapped in patronizing snark.”


  21. Okay, “patronizing snark” isn’t fair. I withdraw that claim and apologize for it. But yes, there is a difference in tone and perhaps more precisely, framing, between Loomis’s piece and the previous posts by you and TR that you cited, and it matters, particularly given the differences in audience that other commenters have noted.

    You and TR hector–particularly TR (who drew a great deal more fire for her post than you did as a result). Your posts directly address adjuncts with the tone that Kathleen above described, “The whole ‘look at me, I’m not one of them, but here’s what I would do if I were them — this thing that they seem too victimy and dumb to do! Must be why I am not them.'”

    For example: from your “An Update on the ‘Death of an Adjunct'” post:

    “Guess what? It’s not the responsibility of adjunct faculty to solve the problems that properly belong to the university! Adjunct faculty should tend to their own needs and interests, and to hell with your employers. If the university you teach for has made you no commitment, then you owe it–and its students–precisely jack squat. Please, please, please: DO NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF DEMONSTRATING MORE LOYALTY TO AN INSTITUTION THAN IT DEMONSTRATES TO YOU. Our employers looks after their own interests; that’s why most of us don’t have tenure-track jobs.”

    From TR’s “Are You Getting Your Adjunct On?” (on which I posted a comment noting how the confusion in taxonomy–full-time NTT vs. “adjunct”–was generating more bile than the topic itself):

    “I know that you love, love, love teaching. But guess what? Everyone does, or claims they do, and it’s still the people who finish things and publish them in prestigious locations who have a shot at a career in teaching, not the people who love teaching more than anyone else does, hold a quazillion office hours and over-enroll their courses. Those of you who immerse yourselves in teaching during that first year out as an adjunct as if you were in a tenure-track job are doing something wonderful for your students, but are cheating yourselves.”

    Let me be clear: you and TR are both right and offering excellent advice. I’m not arguing with anything either of you say.

    Note, however, that Loomis casts his discussion as third-party speculation and description, he doesn’t seem to be personally incensed by the stupid choices any of his readers-who-are-adjuncts have made, he acknowledges the psychology that might lead people to make these stupid choices, and he prefaces his specific advice for individuals with some discussion of union organizing. Rather than a micro-managing list of how people-who-aren’t-him should cope with painful trade-offs (responsibilities to one’s students vs. responsibilities to oneself; family commitments vs. commuting; long-term goals vs. short term pressures), his advice, when it comes, after this lead-up, at the end of the article, is brief and digestible:

    “But to be honest, most adjuncts should also quit their jobs and find something else to do. Working at Starbucks would pay just as well.

    Don’t let yourself be exploited if you can help it.”

    So, yes: tone.


  22. Thanks, Good Enough Prof., for the retraction. But I honestly disagree with you that my comments that you quote demonstrate that I am “personally incensed by the stupid choices any of [my] readers-who-are-adjuncts have made.” I admit that I was and am baffled by folks like the adjuncts who claim they can’t look for other work unless they can time a resignation with the end of a semester, and that they can’t possibly form a union and go on strike because that would hurt their students, but there’s no outrage on my part towards adjuncts. This post came from a place of outrage with universities and their appetite for exploitation of adjunct labor.

    I tried to communicate that by focussing on the universities’ choices as employers, not just adjunct choices as employees, with comments such as “If the university you teach for has made you no commitment, then you owe it–and its students–precisely jack squat. Please, please, please: DO NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF DEMONSTRATING MORE LOYALTY TO AN INSTITUTION THAN IT DEMONSTRATES TO YOU. Our employers looks after their own interests; that’s why most of us don’t have tenure-track jobs.”

    So while I appreciate your careful read of my post and TR’s post and your response here, I respectfully disagree with your interpretation of my post. I don’t think it is either kind, fair, or certainly feminist to blow smoke up people’s skirts to make them think that their undercompensated employment will win them better or more secure employment by the same employer.


  23. Unthreading here to Nicole and Maggie about my “out of touchness”: it was a good example of the comments thread being carried away. I used the word “adjust” to describe a one year VAP, because that’s hat we called them at Wesleyan. Then a number of commenters leaped in to yell at me for suggesting they move to a new location for a per course job, which was not at all what I had suggested.

    The kerfuffle resulted from my local use of the word “adjunct” in a way that is no longer used by contingent faculty; and contingent faculty misreading the post, and once I explained it in the comments section, not willing to walk away from a language dispute empty handed.

    And yes, they would not have abused a man that way under similar circumstances.


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