adjunct community, “Lucy Snowe,” and the trap of adjunct work

A vibrant on-line community has erupted around contingent faculty in the last five years. Articles about adjuncts and the atrophied job market have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Slate and beyond. When you add the blogs and Twitter accounts that have popped up everywhere regarding adjuncting, unionization efforts and transition from academic life, it seems a massive snowball has formed over the much troubled village of academe.

Real change may still be far out, so far that I have trouble imagining what it will look like when it finally comes, but the potential for graduate students and adjuncts to build community and organize exists on a large scale.

I am so happy to see this community form. When I worked as an adjunct from 2004 to 2006, I didn’t even know the other contingent laborers at the university where I worked, let alone those who held similar jobs across the country.

But I did have Lucy Snowe.

Not the Lucy Snowe of Brontë fame–although I’m sure the pseudonym is inspired by Brontë’s teacher-protagonist in Villette–but a Lucy Snowe who worked as an adjunct writing instructor for almost 20 years and who wrote three articles for the CHE between 2003 and 2006.

Back then, the Chronicle still materialized on my doorstep–and I didn’t even think that was quaint. When I read Snowe’s article, I’m Professor Nobody, in March 2004, I folded it up and “filed” it in a stack of books in my office.

I wouldn’t begin my own adjunct work until after I graduated that coming May, but I still recognized this public accounting of adjunct life as a novel thing.

Not even my friends wanted to talk about our plight. We had all endured at least one job search by then, so the burden of shame already weighed heavily upon us. As my colleagues graduated, they scattered to the wind, preferring, I suppose, to face the odds and lick their wounds in private.

The blogosphere was in its infancy at the time. If I’d known to look, I could have found an online source of support in the blog The Invisible Adjunct, but I was what marketing professionals call a “late adopter.” I had heard people talk about “web logs” in 2004, but I didn’t really know what that meant, and I had my hands full with young children, teaching, research and job searching. Surfing the internet never crossed my mind.

I’m sorry for that because I think The Invisible Adjunct would have been a huge support to me as I followed along in her footsteps. IA posted from 2003-2004. She quit adjuncting and blogging just as I graduated and began my first term appointment. (The blog’s archives have been offline for years, but you can read about it here. There’s also an article in the CHE: “Disappearing Act” by Scott Smallwood, but it’s behind a pay wall).

Without an awareness of this small but burgeoning online community, I only had Lucy. I pulled her article out in 2005 and re-read it as if she were a cherished friend. So many of her experiences paralleled the things I’d written about in my journal: our exclusion from faculty meetings and meaningful committees, our invisibility in the department, our miserable walks to the mailroom, our motherhood, our passion for our work, our disgust with the tenured faculty who treated us like second-class citizens, our job insecurity, and our angst about the future.

Except Lucy had been at it for decades.

I would leave academe after spring semester 2006. I’d played the “market” three times, once as a grad student and twice as an adjunct. Some would consider that a quick exit. A lot of factors went into my decision. Kids, exhaustion, pride, my own helpless form of activism (don’t let the university exploit me). But one of those reasons was Lucy Snowe. By sharing her story, she showed me the future: adjunct work would not lead to tenure-track work. It was a trap.

In the eyes of academe, Ph.D.’s are like fresh vegetables. We degrade quickly once cut from the vine. In that sense, the further you get from graduation, the less appealing you become–and adjunct work proves a poor preservative.

After I quit, I published a farewell article in the CHE. Lucy published hers, The Long Goodbye, a few months later, in October of 2006. She and I made the same analogy: the university was an abusive lover, and we saw only one way to save ourselves: leave.

When I saw Lucy’s article, I felt validated. I was sorry that her career ended as it did, but the idea that someone else made the same decision as me, leaving what she loved because it didn’t love her back–went a long way to comfort me in my terror that I’d made a mistake.

So this post is a shout-out to Lucy Snowe, wherever she may be, for having the courage to share her story in the days when we had only a trace of a snowball.

Thank you Lucy!

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