Dear Josh Boldt
How did I become an Adjunct? An addict?
Let’s explore together a paraphrase of the opening to William S. Burroughs’ extremely relevant Junky novel as a way to see what works and doesn’t work in the “addiction” model.
The answer is that most teachers do not intend to become Junkies.
I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to be an Adjunct. It takes at least three years teaching two or three courses a semester to identify as permanent part-time, to get the Adjunct habit at all.
And I didn’t really know what the life was until I had several habits going at once (kitchen worker, freelance writer, respite care). It took me almost four years to get my Adjunct habit, and then the withdrawal symptoms were mild.
I supplemented the Adjunct Habit with a drug called ABD, All But Dissertation, the last step in becoming a full blown academic addict. My Vitae was my habit.
I think it no exaggeration to say it takes about a year and several contracts at several schools to make an Adjunct.
The question, of course, could be asked: Why did you ever try being an Adjunct if the addiction rates were so high? Why did you continue signing contracts long enough to become an Adjunct?
You become an Adjunct because you do not have strong motivations in the other direction (permanent part time, non-tenure track, tenure track). Adjunct wins by default.
I tried it as a matter of curiosity and survival; a way to work, get paid, be with my kids, be with my wife, write, complete my doctorate, and teach. I drifted along taking contracts when I could score. I ended up hooked.
Most Adjuncts I have talked to report a similar experience. They did not start Adjuncting for any reason other than needed to keep up with the Vitae.
Needing to stay active in the classroom as well as publish or perish because their Vitae necessitated evidence of active scholarship, service, teaching, grant writing, committee service, and student evaluations. I just drifted along until I got hooked.
Oh. If you have never been an Adjunct, you can have no clear idea what it means to need a contract with the Adjuncts special need. You don’t decide to be an Adjunct. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an Adjunct.
I have to be honest, my friend. We should really stop talking metaphors and get to the point: adjuncts are not paid a living salary that respects their extraordinary financial and personal investment in a teaching, writing, researching, and curriculum design career. The number of tasks they complete in service to their courses, many of them unpaid, command at least a half professional salary. For Liberal Arts, the MLA has suggested about $8,500 per course. When you break it down and look at the real time figures for a 20-30 person course paying at least $1000 in tuition, the figure of $8,500.
But, for now, I’ll play along even though I don’t know a single junky who could have lived the life I lived 2003-2011. It required simply too much focus and energy; this is why I don’t exactly agree with the addict metaphor. But, like I said, I’ll play along.
I was lucky enough to have a position where I was paid (sometimes) to do all tasks. I oftentimes received additional contracts for curriculum (about $1500), grant writing (about $1000), and occasionally professional development (reimbursement, travel, fees, and, in two instances, a day rate for representing my college). But, every contract was a battle between a professional (me) with advanced degrees and requisite experience and an administrator with a degree in curriculum/instructional design and broadly defined liberal arts graduate work. The office that held power over me every single term was also proud of its status as the course controller, you know, filled with the people who supply the Junkie and then blame the Junkie when s/he needs more Junk.
We all have met these types of administrators (get it?); sadly, at my college these admins were not only in charge of contracts and all hiring and firing but also brought a new stash of instructional design money from the state of New Hampshire. Sometimes the administration of the Junk and the supplier of the Junk was quite often the same person.
Sleepless. Faithless. Tireless. Hopeless. You would say to yourself: just one more semester. Write twenty more applications. Just one more year. Ten more submissions. Just one more course development contract. Fifty plus follow-ups. Just one more $100 infusion. Time to submit another dissertation chapter. Just one more credit card advance. A freebie encyclopedia entry at a “recognized” and “peer reviewed” online publication in the UK. Just one more rent loan. More follow-ups. Just one more transmission. Another job in Chronicle and MLA matches! This is going to be the one. Just one more Family Pizza Dinner special. Sociology course opened? Apply now. You can bend your CV to meet that course need. Yeah. Yeah. You can do this.
Then, a returned phone call from a college in China. Just one more semester. Looks like three more TBAs at one of the sister campuses. There must be open full time positions there. Calculate the math. See if the contract fits your wife’s schedule. Just one more rent loan. Just wait it out. Just ride it out. The adrenaline and the testosterone and the insomniac rush of empty calories and tiny splashes of acid reflux in the back of your throat meant one thing and one thing only—another fix, another chance to advance your Vitae.
Just one more. Just one more something to help you do the thing you’re good at doing, the thing you carefully planned out with the best advisers at the best colleges and universities. You were going to teach across the curriculum and write. You were just that simple. You would look for just one more chance to do the job—teaching—even though you knew you’d be in trouble in the 00s and 10s. You still did it. Despite all the evidence. You said “No, not you; you would never become an addict.” Overspecialization? Well, this is one more reason to go interdisciplinary. Just one more area of concentration or field of study or area of specialization to “diversify” my career. Another course meant more money (which was still not enough) and if you signed up for more courses you would also get more points with the administration who counted on your addiction to continue unchecked, the very same people who would look the other way as they handed you your next fix but would have you instantly removed if you hinted, let alone discussed, your addiction.
So, why do this? Certainly not for the money. The contracts did not pay the bills. Not for the job satisfaction: I was always behind in my grading, curriculum design, student advising, etc. Most of these activities were unpaid but essentially carried with them implications of professional ethics that were taken advantage by all administrators, the Junk Dealers who go unmentioned in Josh’s article and a host of other Adjunct equity literature.
I want to add also that I wasn’t addicted to the Junk life. I was addicted to an intellectual and creative way of life, a dream, an endgame that oftentimes asked for sacrifice and demanded my consent because I had discovered something I love and could make a decent living doing: Liberal Arts Professor or the nouveau-Artist/Academic.
Even on my worst days, as an AdJunkie, I did not slash the full time positions in NH. That was the Junk Dealer; not the Junkie. I became a Junkie after injecting my professional life with bad shit over and over and over again.
I didn’t hold three humanities permanent positions hostage across four academic years. The AdJunkies held out for better Junk, maybe even a way out. That’s what Junkies do. Meanwhile we embraced the austerity myth for teachers (there’s just not enough Junk to go around) while the Junk Dealers and their trustee level supplies reaped the rewards with raises, new support hires, and building, marketing, and retirement portfolio funding during the middle of the financial crisis (always finding more buyers for their Junk). They also started to wean the Junkies by imposing credit limits and other draconian measures to curb the drug crisis they helped to cause.
Just as we can always find more money for war but not for education, the Junk Dealer can always find new and improved ways to distribute the Junk to the addict or create new addicts when the Junkie demands a better drug, a better way to work, to live, to breath, to think without doing the endless mental math, to talk with a wife or husband or mother or colleague without the shame of knowing at some point in the conversation you were going to have to ask for some cash.
I didn’t shove twenty-seven people into a classroom that seated fifteen in a course that was designed for thirteen. That was the Junk Dealer; not the Junkie. Same for slashing course development from $1500 to $500 as the marketing budget for a new name and new logo and new t-shirts increased budgetary expenses by 25%. Never forget that the Junk deal needs to keep up appearances; s/he wouldn’t want to be caught dead looking like the Junkie.
What happened to me across 2009-2011 as a Junkie talking to other Junkies involved in the Junkie Union Drive was meeting with other Junkies in cafes, classrooms, bumming smokes out back of the community college.
We realized we were Junkies. Together. Out of the direct view and earshot of the Junk Dealers.
But, we didn’t look like Junkies.
We dressed nice. We talked in full sentences. We were knowledgeable about our subjects. We worked with students and negotiated with colleagues with coherence.
The Junk Dealers, however, didn’t look like me. They dressed nicer. They had nicer cars. They spoke in a stranger Kafka like bureaucratic language, often in trendy academic speak. Words like “andragogy” and “360 horizontal review.” Also, the Junk Dealers didn’t have such deep lines under their eyes: we certainly did. The Junk Dealers didn’t walk with their head down. Many of us did. The Junk Dealers didn’t really understand me when I would talk about paychecks lost in the mail or having to wait six weeks for my first paycheck or not receive final paychecks on time because someone in the finance office didn’t file the paperwork in time with the state. They were always “confused” and they always respected my “issue” as they dealt more Junk and moved on with their day to stay “on task” and “task oriented.”
Between the Junkie and the Junk Dealer, I learned that I was definitely an addict but not the kind described by Josh’s article. I was addicted to Vitae. I put up with everyone and everything because I had built a really nice CV until I started taking Junk courses from the Junk Dealers in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Become the agent.
Become the agent they fear.
The Junky that no longer needs the Junk Dealer.
The being that has access, direct access, to the Interzone.
The being that can see through people because he or she can LITERALLY see through people while walking the world in a Junk haze.
Become the agent.
Become the agent they fear.
The Junky that no longer needs to stay in any one place to find a fix.
The being that access, direct access, to other places that can be reached by travelling through the Interzone.
The being that can see through the ideologies of the unions, the administrators, the chairs, the colleagues, the students, the corporations, the legislatures, the top, tippy top TOPS of the top leadership councils and executive committees and equity teams and all the rest of the locations the Junk Dealers like to hide.
The being you are becoming can see them all through the Junk haze.
And it’s always been like that.
You just didn’t know it.
You just didn’t trust it.
You thought there was an outside.
A exit through the Junk when all that exists is the Junk.
Become the agent.
Become the agent they fear.
The agent they no longer control.
Do so from the inside—travel to the Interzone while teaching.
Travel to find the source of all possible Junk while taking notes in a committee meeting or between the margins as you review the latest adjunct contract.
Maybe you’ll become the agent while you are pretending you are not an agent.
You’ll notice something.
Something from 2009-2011 that I noticed.
While on the Junk.
I noticed that happiness breeds confidence.
A smile throws off the Junk Dealers.
Another “sure, let’s do that instead” allows you to gain their trust.
Another “I’d be happy to” brings you closer to the inner circle.
Another hit of Junk, another course, another unpaid afternoon with students, all of this
allows you to live in the Interzone without detection.
When the time is right and you and the rest of the Junkies are trying to figure out what to do next, you will not have to do much because you will see everything through the Junk haze and the Junk haze will tell you what to do.
The Junk may tell you to burn some tires in the parking lot so no one can leave until they give you what you demand.
They’ll ignore you; you’re just a Junkie.
The Junk may say: punch that smug piece of shit in the face.
They’ll blame it on the stress, not the Junk.
They need the Junk as much as you need the Junk.
The Junk will definitely want more and more of you and you may show up to a Trustees meeting babbling about having to bury your wife because you couldn’t afford her medication.
But, again, they’ll blame it on your bad decision to teach part time and pursue useless liberal arts degree.
And as you are dragged away from the meeting room, told over and over and over again that there are proper ways to register your complaint, you will say “I love the Junk, I need more Junk, I’m just here for the Junk, why are you not giving me more Junk, I love you, I’ll do anything for the Junk, please, more Junk, more more just one more class just one more contract just one more semester, I trust you, I do, I’m sorry for trying to stab you in the neck with a pencil, beautiful Junk Dealer, I’m sorry for calling your face, what did I say, my own personal toilet where I will spray liquid shit in your mouth until you drown because that’s how she died, that’s what she was doing when she died, that’s what she became as she lay dying and you were on the back nine, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you . . . . it’s just the Junk.
I no longer live in that world; I am no longer a Junkie. I have a new set of problems and a whole different set of Dealers in my life as a producer, director, writer, musician, and independent education contractor. There is life after the Junk; there is life while on the Junk. What is not discussed however is how the Junk got onto campus in the first place, who trafficked it, who supplied the dealer, and where the fields are located where the raw materials for the junk are grown. Yeah. It’s going to be hard to learn that some of your closest colleagues and even some of your best Junky friends are dealing or muleing or growing the buds and seeds or mixing the chemicals in the very chemistry labs where your students learn their pre-Med lessons. You will identify your closest administrative contacts as Junk Dealers who hide in your haze, who live in the shadows between your classroom and the Interzone.
But, you will know that you are an agent, not an addict. You are someone who has chosen to embrace resistance, someone who wakes up knowing that “freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you” (Sartre). And agents are after one thing and one thing only – the ultimate fix, the ultimate high, the source, the source of all their joy and misery, somewhere through the Interzone, somewhere that can transport them to the Castle, to the big shiny buildings in state capitols, the old Georgian buildings on campuses. You will find that fix. You will find the source. You will finally meet the MugWump you’ve been searching for your entire miserable junk blind life. And when you do, you will know what to do.
You know what, Josh: I think I like this metaphor after all.
Robert “Agent 1483” Baum formerly known as Migrant Intellectual