Solidarity in Times of Precarity

From Inside Higher Ed

August 10, 2018

[UFF-FAU Preface: Solidarity starts with our individual actions but blooms into a movement when collectively organized. UFF-FAU exists to create solidarity among all levels of workers within and outside the academy.]

It’s conference season for my discipline, sociology. Social media is full of hacks and hashtags of how to maximize the conference experience: bring nuts and protein bars or a collapsible water bottle. Update your website and business cards. Grad students should reach out to tenure-track scholars

This is all good advice, but I wonder: What about the precariat? You know, the 70 percent or so of teaching labor at most colleges and universities, with titles like “adjunct,” “lecturer” or “visiting professor”? Or those of us who are unemployed with a Ph.D. in hand, or underemployed, or off to work outside academe.

If you are on the tenure track or tenured, however, you might forget that many of your grad school or teaching peers can’t afford expensive conferences. Or we won’t be there because we are busy teaching three, four, five or more classes as contract labor. We often literally don’t have time for research and writing. Conferences might be great places to network or draw attention to our research, but they favor the fortunate. If your name tag lacks a prestigious affiliation, much less any affiliation, people pass you by. It’s just how the business goes. It’s not personal, except when it is.

Regardless of your employment status, if you’ve gone to grad school or worked in academe, you have witnessed more than your fair share of truly deplorable behavior. Maybe a senior colleague has called you a “dirty Jew” to your face in front of students. Maybe that same colleague has introduced you at a conference as a “part-time helper in cultural studies” rather than a visiting assistant professor of sociology. Has a superior expressed surprise that you continue to have an “ambitious” research and publication record, while mostly talking to you about your pants? You know, as some purely hypothetical examples.

But in some ways, that’s no surprise. Academe is notoriously brutal. Grad school is often more akin to a hazing than an apprenticeship. Many of us have been told directly some earthier version of detritus rolls downhill. We expect that we’ll have to fight our way to the top, and some of us take pride in being warriors.

What might be surprising, though, is the horizontal hostility from those we used to call friends. Most of us outside the tenure track can tell you how many of our dearest grad school and professor friends love to ask us to read drafts of their work, or listen to them complain about the difficulties of their jobs, only to ignore us in public or only call or email when they need a favor. Some of us can’t tell those stories, however, because more successful friends and peers drop us once it’s clear we won’t be victors of the academic Hunger Games.

Maybe you’ve shared hotel rooms with colleagues who regale you with tales of the parties and gatherings they went to the night before with senior scholars — without inviting you. Then, too, are the dinners I’ve been lucky to attend where senior scholars realize that their peers who teach a 2-2 course load probably are good scholars who aren’t as productive as those who teach one class a year at a top-10 grad school because, well, they’re teaching. To say nothing of the 3-3, 4-4, 5-5 loads out there, and the adjuncts who cobble together a barely living wage by teaching as many courses as they can.

Many of us will not be at our discipline’s conferences because we can’t afford them. But if you’re visiting our cities or towns or exurbs, take us to dinner and talk research. Talk about teaching. Listen to us and connect us when and where you can. If you ask us to do the unpaid labor of article and journal reviews or commentary, remember that it comes at a cost. When any of us spend a few hours reviewing someone else’s article, book proposal or tenure file, those are several hours we’re not spending writing, researching or applying for grants. For those of us whose time is spent teaching large sections of introductory classes, where student evaluations determine whether we’ll be employed next semester, those are the trade-offs we have to make: work for pay, not for scholarship.

Your precariat pals are not wasting time or “choosing” to leave academe; we’re forced out. The longer we’re out of grad school and without a tenure-track job, the smaller the likelihood is that we will ever publish well or get those mythical jobs. Many of us still hold out hope, though. Connect us to scholars with jobs or publishers. If we’re not able to continue our research, writing or teaching because there are no jobs, remember that: it’s structural.

Remember that people already marginalized by race, class, gender, sexuality, immigration status, ability or other structural conditions are also much less likely to be employed as professors or scholars. We are marginalized by structural conditions. So, of course, individual solutions, especially those that ask junior scholars and marginalized workers to reach out to our more powerful peers, ignore the larger reality: academe is not a meritocracy, nor is it a system of individual actions. The system asks those most marginalized to do the work to overcome marginalization. It’s a catch-22.

I’m saying two things: keep us in the academic loop and understand why we might not be able to stay in the academic loop. The structural inequality that academe is built on absolutely marginalizes people of color, those from working-class or poor backgrounds, the disabled, the fat, the nonbinary, women, queer folks and so many more. Or rather, if you are white, straight, male, cis, gender normative and middle class, scholars are going to take you more seriously, and you’ll have an easier time finding employment and be likely to carry a smaller teaching load for higher pay than your peers.

And yet, I’m suggesting in some ways that small individual actions might help. If you’re tenure track or tenured, buying a lecturer or unemployed friend a coffee or a drink won’t create a job, but a humane action might remind both of us that the university is a system that operates on forced scarcity. For your own sake, don’t be someone who gets passive-aggressively called to task in an online column. For your own humanity, don’t exploit us or shun us in public. Remember that even though relationships are something academe does not nurture, they make life worth living.

Including your friends in panels, calls for proposals, paid lectures or workshops — none of that will create jobs or change universities. That requires larger structural changes. But the individual actions can help create some bottom-up improvements, as well as call attention to the larger labor conditions that marginalize already-marginalized scholars, and make some individual success seem merited.

We aren’t leaving academe because of failure, incompetence or lack of grit. We simply lack a job. So I have a simple suggestion for this conference season, and for academics in general: don’t leave your friends behind. If much of academic success is networking and mastering the hidden curriculum even after student days are long gone, remember and include us — the precariat, the unemployed, the underemployed. There have to be better hashtags (and better actions), but think about #SolidarityWithPrecarity, and remember: solidarity is a verb.