What is a “migrant intellectual”?

To the best of my knowledge, the first time I heard this term was in conversation at a theatre conference with Framji Minwalla (then at Yale). It was a perfect description of how I view philosophy, critical theory, theatre, literature, etc. “Migrant Intellectual” also summarized without any doubt or confusion the situation many higher education professionals find themselves in right now. But, as I worked with SEA/SEIU to create the first adjunct union for community college adjuncts, I began to think of the term as a “problematic” — something that identifies a problem and calls for critical thinking.

Most colleagues, regardless of income or political ideology, viewed themselves as white collar workers. Professionals. People with degrees. The situation, they believed en masse would improve over time. True to this self-understanding, most also figured that with time, the situation would improve. No administrator or Chair would go out of her way to block salary increases or insurance buy in or paid participation on curriculum or hiring or 360 administrative review committees. What seemed like an epiphany for many adjuncts participating in the meeting process boiled down to a sudden realization that work conditions and what we still need to call equity was directly tied to real time decisions made by trusted colleagues, their bosses, and their bosses bosses. Sorrow. Rage. Disbelief. Rejection. Joy. You name the response! It seemed impossible that someone you have worked with for a decade participates in a process that actively works against your personal and professional best interests. But, in many cases, this is very true.

A migrant intellectual in this situation comes to realize the “migrant” part faster than the “intellectual.” A good portion of my colleagues view what they do as work, hard work that carries with it inherent satisfactions and a great many pleasures. Working with struggling students in professional and liberal arts courses is still a calling; and those who remain in the game are some of the best teacher and colleagues I know. But, many new adjuncts (five years or less) still believe they are white collar “Ivy Tower” intellectuals who teach community college as a temporary stop gap between Visiting and tenure-track appointments. In fact, these colleague were hellbent to deny their “worker” status; they were also quite able to rationalize their decisions to not get involved simply because they had found a temporary home and had forgotten their nomadic status as temporary workers.

Unlike the Administrations that work against the adjunct, as a migrant worker, it is very hard to establish long-term goals. When professional life is contingent, when pay checks are delayed a month, when courses are cancelled (even when they meet enrollment policies), when performance reviews are bothered to be scheduled, when course development money is delivered to old addresses when all other communications are delivered electronically or at least to the correct terrestrial address–this all increases the tentative nature of the adjunct life as well as creates conditions for incredible financial, emotional, spiritual, and professional stress.

I agree–adjuncting should not be carelessly compared to avacado picking in southern California or day laborers working in horrific chicken processing concentration camps in South Carolina. I remain on guard to make sure both laborers are discussed with respect and a sense of contradistinction. But, even with this in mind, I categorically reject the idea that workers finding themselves in degrading situations, regardless of profession, should not unite. In New Hampshire, this unity across professions was easily achieved given the number of industries SEA/SEIU represents. But, it was the greatest struggle to encourage some of the more self-aggrandizing adjuncts to see their daily activities — prepping, teaching, grading, advising, corresponding, meeting, driving and more driving, changing flat tires, repairing or replacing transmissions–as part of a type of work they had been long conditioned to view as “service” or as “repayment for tuition” (when they were Graduate Assistants).

Custodians, nurses, and other traditional “workers” were also skeptical; but, in an interesting way, they seemed relieved that a group of people they have viewed as abused by the System were finally coming to realize that cultural capital (e.g., the networking, the famous contacts, the service work to professional organizations) does not pay the bills, make for equity, or determine one’s self-worth. It is all about “the work”; and those who were able to see what they do a work, as labour, as something difficult yet rewarding and an extension of who they are versus their status in a profession or the value of the letters that follow their name: they seemed almost at peace. A needed answer was found after asking the right question.

The “intellectual” part will be the subject of another post. For now, I would like to stay focused on the “work” aspect of adjunct life and professor-ing in general. It’s also very important to celebrate achievements and build on successes even while better identifying the sources and present conditions that make the life of a migrant intellectual not only demeaning but exhausting.

Thinkers and workers of the world unite!