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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!


About Dean RCB

Dean of Academics Lebanon College Philosophy and Integrated Liberal Arts Writer & Producer (theatre, television, film) Composer & Producer RCB lives in the Upper Valley with his wife and four boys.

9 responses to “What is a “migrant intellectual”?

  1. Framji Minwalla ⋅

    Are you sure I said “migrant intellectual” and not “vagrant academic”?

  2. Definitely believe that which you stated.

    Your favorite justification appeared to be on the net the easiest thing
    to be aware of. I say to you, I certainly get annoyed while
    people think about worries that they just do not know about.
    You managed to hit the nail upon the top as well as defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people can take a signal.
    Will probably be back to get more. Thanks

  3. Pingback: Homeless Adjunct: Building Community from Brokenness « Migrant Intellectual

  4. Looking forward to continuing the conversation! 🙂

    • Liza ⋅

      Hi Migrant. It’s Liza.
      I think the term you might be looking for is migrant technical worker. I like the way you are really getting to the meat of the issue around organizing for change. Yes, many adjuncts do see themselves as white collar professionals, when in fact, they are really something quite different than that. I often saw doctorale adjuncts looking down at me, and then become quite humble when they found themselves adjuncting with me after graduating. Your post is a good reminder that we must see things for what they really are.

      Speaking of seeing things as they really are, I read your last post on poverty and thought it was amazing. It is also illuminated for me why I agreed to teach on a part-time basis for so long. Poverty makes people crazy. It urges people to accept the cult-like conditions of the university (ie. give up all your worldly goods to us and we will show you the better way) without question. Teaching under those conditions is maddness and the people at the top not only don’t care, they actually WANT you to stay crazy. After all, any sane person would begin to look at how their family-life is disintergrating, how their very health continues to be at risk by engaging in such labor-intensive work, and yet the adjunct lecturer does not even notice what is happening to them. Why? Because the job is so close that they have convinced themselves they are actually been fed from this “career”. That they are actually not starving. This is maddness. Maddness which others will point out to you but many adjuncts, including myself, refused to accept because of the addicting nature of the all encompasing hunt for the academia job. Santiago in the Old Man in the Sea is a poor man, hence, his search becomes even more desperate and obsessive. He is literally made crazy by the search. People who have three square meals a day, in that sense, will not be able to get Santigo’s plight (including well-fed academics who teach this book). They are simply passive off as mad or agressive, after all, they “CHOSE” this life path. Poverty is exhausting, and more to the point, it makes those on the “outside” of poverty, less likely to understand you. Yes, it can drive you mad, but in another sense, it teaches you how “mad” normal society is, particularly when you see the affluent middle class public buying such books as “Fifty Shades of Grey” to be a tourist to the kinds of abuses that are regularly and unapologetically inflicted on poor people. These people, in my mind, are mentally ill.

      You are good, courageous person Migrant. There are more people joining the ranks of the Fight Clubb and sticking up for their fellow adjuncts. There are more people waking up and joining unions, all because of you.

      Stay the course.


      • Liza,
        I’m so sorry I missed this post.
        If you write me at my public email address ( I will forward you my private one so we can continue this conversation here and in private. Blessings to you! -rcb

    • Wendy ⋅

      Great to see you are putting forth some new publications and that you are influencing so many people in the blogsphere. This stuff is sooooooo important. Open communication from you guys is so important, because as you know, the classic tactic of the university is to isolate you so that you believe it is really you who is mad and not institution. Yes, maddness. They work you so hard for so long that eventually you become “irrationally” attached to your subject, as Pannapacker states. But I believe that this “love” is something that happens, in part, because there really is very little else on which to hang your hat. How, for example, can you become “irrationally” attached to your office, as many ftime profs are, if you are never given any space? How can you become “irrationally” attached to a good salary when you receive so little per course? And not being “irrationally” attached to your subject can also result in poor teaching evaluations, so what seems to be an “irrational love,” for one’s subject, might be a very rational response to an irrational situation. So maddness is a necessary component for subjugation, and this is done through the anonymous, equally subjugated student who has every reason to feel they too are in some sort of mad house not of their own making. I believe this is why the conversations in my classes have been so intense, because of the maddness of that very moment, the insanity of paying someone nothing, by an audience who has no money to give. Is it a conversation between desperate people trying to hold on to a ship that is tipping over even as the captain tries to steer the course. And the ones who are the most insane are not even there. They are the ones evaluating all of this maddness and giving it a score. Surely they should see the shock and desperation in their students eyes, yet they do not. Surely they hear the voice of the voiceless adjunct as they are forced to keep teaching because they can find nothing else, yet they do not. This too is maddness. The organization chart says that someone is driving the ship, but in fact, I believe there no one is driving the ship. We are adrift. We are insane. And we cannot allow ourselves to feel what is happening to us, or we cannot chart the maddness. I have seen both adjuncts and tt profs destroyed by this system, and I am convinced that any sane person cannot survive it. The other day, my sister told me I looked like a bagperson in my second hand clothes, and I said to her, why should I try to convince my students that this situation is any different than it is? Why should they not evaluate me on the content of my character and not the color of my clothes? And yet, I know these things are so important to administration. You must look like a professional and yet, we will give you no money to look like one. Maddness.

      • so much to say.
        so little space or time to say it.
        the FoxNews story is going to break either tomorrow or Monday.

        So, let’s start here.
        Talk a bit as the sound of invading trolls swells in the darkness.

        //The other day, my sister told me I looked like a bagperson in my second hand clothes, and I said to her, why should I try to convince my students that this situation is any different than it is? Why should they not evaluate me on the content of my character and not the color of my clothes? And yet, I know these things are so important to administration. You must look like a professional and yet, we will give you no money to look like one. Maddness.//

        First, thank you.
        Thank you for your work.
        Thank you for staying in the game.
        You are so important; your work is so important; your voice is so important.
        You are a blessing to your students, to your friends and family, to yourself.
        In the language of my mentor Avital Ronell, you are a dear one, my friend.

        From suffering we create community. Together and only together can we talk about how the Adjunct and the homeless person have more in common than the adjunct and the Full-Time Faculty and Administrators. At least, right now, at this minute there are more parallels. I wish it were different. I really do. I reflect and rail about this all the time; I’m not doing it in public to, quite frankly, save my sanity.

        FOX NEWS SPECIAL REPORT w/ BRET BAIER as therapy? Or, deeper insanity? I guess we’ll find out, won’t we. 🙂

        As a member of DC Coalition for the Homeless in the late 80s, early 90s and someone who regularly volunteered for The Haven in White River Junction back in the 90s and early 00s, I can say without any hesitation that we do have more in common with the homeless than even I would like to admit. We do not know how to plan our financial lives one moment to the next. We’re barely employed, contingent, at-will. We create micro-economies with our families, friends, states, nation, churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. We are ashamed by what we’re able to afford in the way of clothes and food and apartments and homes and (laughing) ever owning a home. We’re confused and exhaused; explaining this situation in it’s most basic terms is tiring because the very thing that enobles us as professors is what can hurt us in public — saying too much, too fast, with too much passion to an audience conditioned to receive bullet points, crisis points, and perennial missed-the-points.

        But, we as long as we say “yes, I have more in common with the overnight off-the-books teams of cleaners at restaurants” and say “yes, that woman pushing that cart is me in two months if I am not paid for my work exactly what I am due” and say “yes, I am homeless in the world right now as we move from one university to another, one college in one section of the country to another.”

        Oh. And while I’m on the subject: the biggest connection we have with a homeless family or person is sharing the burden of answering this question, which I did on Fox when Chris Wallace asked: “Why don’t you just move? Move to where you can find more work?” My response was laughter and a firm “No. You can pay me for my work and then we discuss my geographical preferences.” Or something like that. I believe I followed up — I blanked a bit here and there, it was such a bizarre experience that I grew to somewhat enjoy — with a discussion of how much it costs to move to an area where the adjunct pool is stuffed with equally qualified, economically strapped, and professionally disrespected PhDs. At least in VT and NH, the PhD had a lot of currency until right around the time I completed mine (laughing).

        Hope that gets us off to a good start. I’ll do a better job watching these conversations as I try to manage what will amount to the single greatest electronic swarm in my career.


        The Hobbit opens this weekend.
        I think that’s perfect.
        An unlikely hero going on an impossible journey which will change the course of history.
        I’m either completely delusional or dead on, either way, I’ve definitely lost my mind. 🙂 🙂 🙂

        “Going out of our minds” (Sonja Johnson) is a great first step!!

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