Potter is not wrong, it’s just…

Clair “Tenured Radical” Potter seems to have struck quite the nerve with her Inside Higher Ed column “Angry About Adjuncting? The radical move might be to quit.”  The gist of the column is basically in the title: adjuncts who are angry and bitter about their working conditions ought to quit and seek employment outside academia. Lots of comments on the column and social media I saw more or less echoed the sentiment of “The Dude” in this exchange with Walter: Potter is not wrong, she’s just an asshole.

Actually, no— I don’t think Potter was being an asshole. I think she was trying very hard in her column to be kind with her mostly sound advice. It’s just not exactly the kind of advice adjuncts want to hear, especially if one is an adjunct and feeling trapped, depressed, desperate, on the edge of financial ruin, living in their car, contemplating sex work, etc. 

Seth “Here Comes Trouble” Kahn had a good blog post about this, where he points out the problems of Potter’s “just leave” advice (though I don’t think that’s exactly what she’s saying). He’s right– it’s not just that easy to give up sometimes because of personal and emotional investments, not to mention because a lot of adjuncts are “stuck” geographically or for family reasons or what not, plus a lot of adjuncts are “golden handcuffed” to the work in that it’s just barely enough money to get by and they don’t want to risk losing that. Though I think Seth kind of agrees with Potter too.

I’ve blogged about adjunct work and the job market frequently over the years because it has been a concern/topic in the academic media since I started caring about academic career things almost 30 years ago. I used to read the excellent Invisible Adjunct blog regularly. She (it was an anonymous blog) left academia and closed down her blog in 2004, and I do wonder once in a while how things turned out for her. I hope well. My point is none of this is new and there was never a golden age for being an adjunct, either real or imagined.

So while I realize that Potter’s advice might make her sound like she’s being an asshole, she’s still mostly right. I guess though I would add three other thoughts, all of which I’ve written about many times before:

  • Being an adjunct should be a temporary thing. Unless you can afford to work part-time because of life circumstances, being an adjunct should be a “transition” to a career and not a career in itself. Of course, this is advice to heed at the start of one’s adjuncting career, not after being in it for 10 or 20 years.
  • Don’t quit your day-job; make a gradual transition. I was an adjunct between my MFA and PhD studies, but I taught at night and had an office job during the day. This was really important for me professionally because I got a chance to see at least a taste of what a “real job” was like and also could (sort of) pay the bills and had insurance and such. But I think this advice works the other way too for the full-time/part-timer: that is, while I think there is a certain purity in Potter’s advice of just quitting, it seems to me the more sensible thing for the adjunct trying to leave academia is to try to ease into non-academic work a bit more gradually.

I should add that I am not speaking from experience on this one because I’ve been a professor/had the same job for about 20 years. But I will say that entering my fifties and the state of affairs at EMU has made me at least contemplate briefly a different career. I guess if I was serious about leaving my job, I would start by researching career counseling services, or maybe even temporary employment services. That’s how I got a “real job” oh so many years ago.

  • Higher Ed generally (and composition and rhetoric specifically) needs to find ways of cutting our dependence/addiction to cheap teaching labor. I blogged about this here with my “Modest Proposal” about MOOCs; in brief, I think my field needs to stop requiring every single college student to take first year writing. For me, this is not an argument about the value of the course because I think it is valuable. But the universal requirement perpetuates the exploitation of part-time instructors. In other words, part of the solution is of course on the “supply side” of things, which is what Potter’s advice and the call for decreasing the number of PhD students in the humanities (especially in fields like literature) are trying to address. But Higher Ed and the profession also needs to address the demand side of the equation as well.
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