Returning to the place it all began:Radical acts of refusal from an academic on the outside

This is a talk I gave in February to Dartmouth College’s Department of Sociology. I could have waited until I was famous enough for someone to create a book of my best lectures and talks, but that day isn’t here yet, and I need to work on getting my words and thoughts out, so here you go.

Dartmouth_College_campus_2007-06-23_Silsby_Hall_01Thank you, honored to be here

– The place where I first learned about sociology

Today, what I would like to speak to you about is intellectual labor and higher education and how I came to this topic and the book project I’m co-editing about the adjunct experience entitled The Professor and the Precariat.

This talk has three parts:

Being taught and of teaching

Academic misery does not love company

The Hard Work of New Futures: Radical Solidarity and Refusal

I. Being taught and of teaching

“Before the grants, research, conferences, books, and journals, there is the experience of being taught and of teaching” (Harney & Moten 2013:27).

When you looked at me when I was an undergraduate, if you ever did, you saw an upper class young girl from Long Island, who performed exactly how you expected she would based upon her station and class—it might have looked like I wasn’t trying so hard, because I didn’t have to. But as a newly made member of the middle-class, and a mostly first-generation college student, who was non-male and somewhat non-white, that was a highly cultivated performance intended to hide my own feelings of inadequacy and mirror the apathy of the elite around me.

The first few terms of undergrad were overwhelming and instead of trying to achieve, I allowed myself to get swallowed. Part of that is my fault, when you feel you don’t belong, that you’re inadequate and ill-prepared, you don’t really seek out help or support, you just try to hide and blend.

I remember distinctly the shame I felt when I was first asked to submit a doubled-spaced paper—I had no idea what that meant. I stayed up till all night placing spaces between every word of my essay. I did that until a friend saw what I was doing and thoroughly shamed me in a way that exposed me for the fraud that I already thought I was.

I struggled that first term, and after freshman fall I was on academic probation and I needed to find some classes that would raise my grade point average. Sorry guys, you have a reputation, even though I learned today that those assumptions are untrue.

I came to sociology through the backdoor. But, what I found here was a language and perspective to help me make sense of my experience. With Professor King, I learned about intersectional feminism and scholarship on race, gender, and class. With Steve Cornish I learned about cultural studies and was introduced to a voice that would forever change me—Stuart Hall. When I first discovered Stuart Hall—a black Caribbean man writing in Britain about racism, Thatcher, diaspora, and identity—it felt like he was speaking to me, and it felt revolutionary. I finally felt seen, and thus maybe heard? I then took Eva Fodor’s methods class and discovered an expansive and nimble toolkit I could use and apply. For all of that, thank you.

But I also felt unseen most of the time; the books and corresponding assignments failed to speak to me, reflect my life experiences or illuminate the areas of social life that fascinated me. In fact, I remember how one book and corresponding assignment in Campbell’s intro class actually showed how much distance there was between my peers and me.

For the assignment we had to interview people who went to prep school. I interviewed a somewhat-friend of mine; he was a soc major and a hockey player, and I will always remember what he said—that D stands for diploma. I was shocked.

College as social finishing school was a totally new reality for me. Whenever I’m asked to explain what Dartmouth was like, I always say formative—it’s a pretty apt description. Without any qualifiers, it stands alone—I was formed here, Dartmouth and sociology shaped me, but what I learned here definitely wasn’t mentioned in any of those glossy admissions pamphlets.

When it came time for me to be in front of a classroom—I taught directly to the student I was—the out of sorts, outclassed undergrad who silently felt like they didn’t belong. Because of my experience, I made a commitment to always meet students where they were, since it was so rare for me to feel like that happened for me. Every student had a right to squeeze knowledge out of the class experience and grow in whatever way they were capable of at that specific time. I wanted them to take risks. I knew what sort of space I wanted to create—a space where students could be safe to try something new and possibly fail.

That’s a challenging environment; I always used the personal in the classroom to get my students to start thinking critically about the world. Without realizing it, I was modeling bell hook’s idea of engaged pedagogy. Based on feminist theory the classroom can become a space of liberation if the well being of both the professor (which I was never one of, by the way) and the students are considered equally. When this occurs, and I’m sure you’ve all had days and courses where the pedagogy stars align, you can feel the transformative power of knowledge.

“I’m so proud of the work I do,” I wrote in my journal. “When I’m fully present and in the moment, I can bring a room along and facilitate deep understanding in others. I transform others, and I feel transformed.” By relaxing into the practice of teaching, and inspiring instead of demanding, that tired old concept of community came to life.

For me, the classroom was my contribution to a better and more just world. I loved teaching because I could “think through the skin of teaching towards a collective orientation [and a] future project” ((Harney & Moten 2013:27)

I was able to “think through the skin of teaching,” because of my institutional privilege in spaces of higher education. Coming from Dartmouth and Duke, I landed a few pretty prestigious post docs. Even though I always taught at the periphery of the field (which honestly, is where I’m most comfortable anyway), I always was given institutional support and the time and space to think about the relationships between pedagogy, practice, and scholarship. I taught that same classes more than once and was free to design my own courses and syllabi—the university, for the most part, was invested in my success, which in turn, translated to the growth of my students. I learned how to be a good teacher by doing. For example, a syllabus takes about three passes through before you get out all the kinks. Some things land, and some don’t— I kept a version with track changes to chart the progress of the course and remind myself of what worked and what didn’t. On top of this, you need to keep your finger on the pulse of society and the pulse of the room. With each new class that walks through your door, comes a new generation with different cultural and social cues. And then, about every three years, you still need to revise to keep things fresh and up to date with new work in the field.

Staying on top of all these moving parts is a challenge, but one I always enjoyed. I felt awake in the classroom, it invigorated me, and the work of the day sat with me, I couldn’t shed it. I found joy and a form of applied activist sociology. Everyday was an opportunity to connect, to expand, and to do better. The goals were broad and idealistic, but the actions to get there were tangible.

But, as that institutional support began to whither, the classroom became a place of frustration, I spent too much time, “antagonized and antagonizing” (Harney & Moten)—writing cover letters and corralling ref writers in hopes of lining up the next gig, searching, pleading and demanding extra funding for course enrichment and fighting for a seat at the table, all while trying to figure out how I was going to pay my rent while I was now doing twice as much work as the year before for half as much money. When this lesser contract was announced to my department, a tenured male “colleague” commented how this was a great opportunity for a wife interested in giving back and supplementing her income. “I’m sitting right next to you,” I responded, “and I don’t see why I need a husband to survive, all I’m asking for is a salary that allows me to support myself.” To him, my contribution to the department and the university and my areas of focus were a pastime. I doubt he felt the same way about his research or teaching. Dismissed, marginalized, and excluded, from the “real” work, I got angry. The resources needed for me to succeed were being taken away. I saw junior faculty, my peers, pass me by and advance through the ranks. The prestigious research grants and course releases were never available to those off the tenure track—I was paid solely for a base level of classroom engagement.

Most student are unaware of the rapid growth of contingent faculty in higher education and the less than ideal conditions these faculty members must teach within. I started to share my personal experience with my students as a way to cope with my feelings of despair, marginalization, and disappointment. Because of how I structured my courses, my frankness about my own condition, inspired action and empathy; they demanded that a university founded on social justice reflect those values. They started a campaign to encourage the administration to offer me a tenure-line position. Here are some testimonials from the letter they shared with the administration about my contribution to their intellectual journey and growth:

“She gives voice to the marginalized and teaches students of privilege how to think critically about their privilege, rather than teaching white guilt.”

“To get straight to the point, Professor Powers, to me, is the link between scholarship and activism. She is fully invested in the topics she teaches, which are incredibly important, intersectional analyses of culture, and makes sure to constantly check and update herself on how to perceive and teach cultural studies accurately, effectively and formatively.”

“I’ve always felt that I should have more of an opinion about the inequality plaguing our society, but I never wanted to express anything because I was never well informed. Professor Powers aided me by giving me the tools and resources to become a more socially conscious individual; one that actually has a voice.”

“In the classroom, I have grown to become a more engaged and confident student. Each semester with professor Powers, I let go of fear of speaking up in class and fear of being judged.”

Reading this back is really emotional for me, it’s hard to hold such feelings inside, but, because of them, I now know my value. I brought my students into this struggle, because I believe in the value of teaching for change. I knew this wouldn’t work, strong-arming an administration, and doing it publicly (there was an article written in Slate about this) is never going to endear me to the corporatist and sanitized bureaucracy of higher education. But it energized my students to care about their education. I knew I was never a cause; I was just a hyper visible casualty of a system that doesn’t live up to its ideals.

But then again, neither did I. It wasn’t until this affected me personally that I fought for institutional transformation. I was sympathetic to the adjunctification in higher education, but silent. Hungry for that unicorn of a tenure-track job, I kept my head down. I let the joy of the classroom blind me to my own complicity.

Only once I started to actually become precarious within the university, was when I began to notice all the ways I contributed to this unequal and unjust intellectual system. Even though I knew all the stories of adjuncts on food stamps, selling plasma, and living and holding office hours out of their cars. I banked upon my educational privilege to protect me and I internalized the toxic language of individualism to set myself apart from those I never really saw as my peers—it won’t happen to me, I’d whisper to myself like a mantra. Seeing myself as somewhat special, like I could beat the odds, I dismissed (and sometimes still do) the work and the intelligence of adjunct professors and contingent faculty. As it looked like I was now going to become an adjunct, I finally saw how my cushy postdocs contributed to their higher course loads.

I felt like a perky plastic Fox news blonde—a woman who disparages other women for their victimhood or inability to punch through the glass ceiling, until something happens in their life that makes them realize there’s a systemic problem afoot—the shit like this shouldn’t happen to people like me response. I felt ashamed. Along with the work I had to do to mourn a career that I loved and found meaningful, I had to look inward and critically analyze the self.

Why was I able to promote with such fervor a vision of social justice in the classroom, but stay blind to my own exploitation and the unjust labor conditions that surrounded me? What was it about laboring within the university that made me docile?

II. Academic misery does not love company

“This is a story of lonely labor and unarticulated feelings” (Cvetkovich 2012:34)

While many professors are satisfied with their jobs and are emotionally committed to their universities, recent studies reveal that professors are under extreme levels of stress. We’re all feeling the crunch of the corporate university. Unrealistic research expectations and metrics for “productivity,” challenges to academic freedom and expertise, lack of job security, the reliance on adjunct labor, the dismantling of tenure, the emerging student-as-customer model, and the increasingly administrative nature of academic work and the shrinking role professors and faculty have in the management of the institutions they work in has made this a very hostile environment in which to think and share information.

Under resourced and perpetually under attack, the entire mission of higher education can sometimes feel precarious—unstable and uncertain. This feeling infects all those who labor within the academy. “Academia breeds a particular form of panic and anxiety,” stated Ann Chevoktich (2012:18). The affecting feeling of precarity, even for those with stable forms of employment, feels particularly pressing when “the pressure to succeed and the desire to find space for creative thinking bump up against the harsh conditions of a ruthlessly competitive job market, the shrinking power of the humanities, and the corporatization of the university” (Cvetkovich 2012:17).

To continue within this system we find ourselves shedding the parts of our lives that connect us to others and sustain us. “To work today,” as Harney and Moten describe, “is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption” (2013:87). Personally, for me, how this manifested, was that I spent so much time contorting myself. I smiled through the numbness and tried to make my research and teaching on ethnicity and race as inoffensive and innocuous as possible.

Producing and disseminating knowledge under such conditions has consequences, especially to our scholarship. According to the AAUP adjunct faculty are less likely to undertake risky projects, and young faculty are professionalizing themselves towards employability in ways that bend their scholarship and self away from new thinking in order match existing trends and funding sources.

To justify the feeling of disassociation and alienation from our work, we naturalize our misery by telling ourselves that intellectual work requires this from us, and “that the ensuing pain and nausea is a kind of badge of honor, a kind of stripe you can apply to your academic robe” (Moten & Harney). In an environment of scarcity this badge shines. However, the naturalization of misery encourages a very individualistic investment that prevents us from seeing past our own condition to the larger social issues ravaging the academy. Scarcity, I argue, breeds selfishness.

Again, I will use my own life experience as example. Here are a few responses floating around the sociology job market online rumor mill page after I published an article detailing why I was leaving academia: 

“She has the pedigree, she had two good, cushy postdocs, her book is under contract with NYU Press, and her work sounds interested. If she had just published a few articles during the postdocs instead of agreeing to all of the book chapters, she’d probably have a much better position and more optimistic picture of academia.”

“But she’s a lecturer, so it sounds like academia was just not that into her. Too bad because getting a PhD in sociology from Duke is a big investment of time and money (lost wages, loans perhaps). I’m sure she thought a TT job was a sure bet, coming out that program. Perhaps her standards for employment were too high — you know, R1 or nothing. If she loved teaching so much, she could have found a TT job. The piece itself is fairly standard quit lit:”

For those still being socialized in graduate school, in order to signal their desirability to remain, they reproduce these ideologies of individual meritocracy. If one just works hard, dedicates themselves to the field, publishes in the right journals, and produces innovative work, regardless of one’s station or social networks, they will advance through the ranks. All that is necessary to succeed in academia is strategy, hard work, and, as these two commenters reveal, lowering your expectations. The assumption commenter one makes is that my pedigree could not protect me from my own poor decisions. Commenter two just thinks I’m smug with high standards that made me unlovable. The gendered nature of this dismissal demonstrates how intersecting systems of domination influence how we understand academic success and failure. If you happen to fail, and most will since 75% of jobs are off the tenure track, you do so alone.

The very people trained to understanding the difference between personal troubles and societal level issues fail to see the structural constraints that force scholars to either leave the academy or accept low paying low prestige work. Too focused on our own condition, we compete over feelings of misery and wind up indifferent.

However, precarity is not a feeling—it is a condition

By naturalizing misery within the academy, faculty and instructors in all positions are complicit in the reproduction of this multi-tiered and unjust system.  

I share two examples from a recent Facebook conversation I had about this issue—one is an assistant professor and labor historian, on the tenure track, at a large R2 institution in a Republican controlled state government keen to begin to dismantle tenure and crack down on academic freedom. The other is from a humanist who has had three prestigious VAP and lectureship-sort of jobs off the tenure track and at three different institutions since receiving his PhD.

Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 1.37.59 PMScreen Shot 2017-07-19 at 1.38.07 PM

“Success is not a pathway out of social responsibility,”[1] Sarah Kendzior wrote in an article for al Jazeera. Yet both of these scholars, who ultimately should know better, keep their head down in hopes that they might succeed while others ultimately fail and flounder. Their interventions are off in the future, and not directed towards the current conditions. One mentors students and discourages continuing education, the other banks on Assistant Professors who, hopefully in 5 years once they get tenure, might look kindly upon the precariat. I would remind both of Audre Lorde’s main pronouncements—silence won’t save you, and the masters’ house can never be dismantled with the masters’ tools.

I’ll say it again: By naturalizing misery within the academy, faculty and instructors in all positions are complicit in the reproduction of this multi-tiered and unjust system.  

Tuitions continue to rise, but rarely do those funds trickle down to the classroom. More money is being funneled into administrative positions and away from tenure-line hires.[2] Salaries for full-time faculty are barely higher than what they were in 1970, and most teaching positions are now part-time and low-paid adjunct positions, over 75% of labor within the academy is now off the tenure track. Even elite schools rely heavily on non-tenure track labor.

Women make up 61% of non-tenure track positions, African-Americans, 15%. To make enough to survive since the average annual pay for an adjunct is under $25,000, 89% of adjuncts are “freeway flyers,” working at more than one institution, 13% work at four or more. Compensated meagerly by the course, adjuncts work long hours, for low salaries, without institutional support, and without benefits or job security. They are excluded from governance and decision-making, and rarely have control over the courses or content they teach. Without support or a voice in decision-making processes, academic freedom and economic security is now a perk of one’s station, limited to a select few based on their rank within an institution (and even now, this is under attack).

This, I argue, is an exploitative capitalist caste system. Universities staff courses at a fraction of the cost by relying on adjunct labor, in turn, those on the tenure track have more time and resources to research and write.

Under these conditions, the meritocratic model of academic success has no bearing on reality. To borrow from Jacqui Shine, in an article for the Chronicle’s site Vitae, you cannot “haul yourself up by your doctoral hood.”[3] The cheap and undervalued labor of the adjunct is necessary to keep the whole system functioning.

Worn thin, demoralized, and marginalized, the adjunct keeps going. Charmed by the ideals of the university, the fiction of a career of the mind, and their own shame around failure, they persist. They are invested in the idea that they can thrive without enrichment because it has been baked into the firmament of our culture. With their heavy teaching loads, we don’t even allow the adjunct to enjoy the place that brought us all in to begin with—the classroom.

As Emily, my collaborator, and I started working on the anthology, we were surprised that we didn’t actually have more teaching submissions. Contributors wrote at great length about the consequences of marginality and the actions of organizing, but when it came to teaching—silence. There’s too much disappointment and shame around the teaching. Calling an intellectual to service, then withholding all they need to succeed, as Audre Lorde explains, “is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel” (Lorde 2007:55). The prestige, financial security, and academic freedom does not extend to those doing the most foundational work of the university—teaching.

So what’s to be done?

III. The Hard Work of New Futures: Radical Solidarity and Refusal

What would higher education look like if all those laboring within it had a living wage, economic security, and academic freedom? What prevents us from demanding new futures and just and considerate working conditions for all?

I was drawn to academia because I thought it was a place where I could engage in a life of discovery and connection—bring clarity, bridge divides, build community. Discovery and connection involves quiet and slow contemplative thinking and deeply engaged human interaction. For a long time, I found that connection, that purposeful engagement with others for a common practice in academia. But, I had to ask, what public was I really serving?

As contingent faculty and staff think critically about their circumstances, many of us brought our baggage into the classroom in revolutionary ways. In service to our first public, our students, we redefined and reshaped our pedagogical acts in hopes of raising consciousness in the classroom. However, our labor was ultimately in service to a university interested in extracting the most from us to support the real intellectual labor of a select few.

The submissions we received for this anthology demonstrate the tensions and conflicts around voice, power, career and calling. Working at the bottom rung of a system that unequally distributes resources and prestige is demoralizing. But the submissions also reveal the power of community building, testimony, and organizing as ways to claw a sense of stability from the grips of precarity. But I do not believe words or unions are enough. We’re too busy swimming upstream and fighting for basic dignity, to do the real career advancing work, our research. I believe and support adjunct unionization efforts, as a pragmatic action to address the current crisis, however, I’m conflicted over the fact that adjuncts are casting their lot with and comparing themselves to fast-food workers who are demanding a living wage —adjuncts have options, and while they do not have the economic security or prestige of their class station, they still have educational capital. I also have a problem with these efforts because these contracts formalize these unequal hierarchical relationships that shouldn’t exist within higher education in the first place.

While the administration enacts these race-to-the-bottom policies, most of the work academics do everyday perpetuates and normalizes the multi-tiered nature of higher education. “We have met the enemy,” Cary Nelson, explains, “but we will not admit that it is us” (in Bousquet 2008:xvi). Too comfortable with contingent models of employment we have allowed them to invade and take over spaces of learning.

I share another example from Brandeis, a university that I love and respect deeply, which is why I call them in in hopes they work to reflect their ideals. Here is an email shared by Brandeis Faculty Forward, Brandeis’ faculty organizing committee, a project of the SEIU. They sent this around to those on their mailing list after negotiations for a union fell through this past December:

When we challenged them to defend their choice — and it is a choice — to perpetuate the pay inequities, they said that, compared with full-time faculty, adjunct faculty have lower qualifications and less experience. The full-time faculty, they said, bring a “quality of excellence and engagement,” and “expertise, knowledge, and everything that comes with it for the betterment of the school.”

Having had insult added to the injury of low and unequal pay, we asked if the administration ever informed students and parents that, despite charging the same tuition for the same number of credits, it actually valued some teaching more highly than other teaching — even for different sections of the same course. Were there asterisks on the registrar’s course listings?

Of course not. So the administration then pivoted from an odious and disingenuous argument about lower quality to an equally odious, but probably more honest, argument based in the logic of the market: we pay adjunct faculty what we pay adjunct faculty because we can get away with it.

In their quest to deliver cheap instructional labor, the university reveals just how much they value the primary function of their entire existence—education. I even learned today that at a place like Dartmouth—a college—teaching is so marginalized in the tenure process that evaluations or statements of pedagogy are not even included in the tenure package.

To distract from their hollowing out of the university’s mission, the administration pits the contingent against the tenured. Unfortunately, the callousness of prestige produces compliance among faculty. Tenure-stream faculty are incapable of seeing past their own feelings of precarity to cast their lot with the contingent. Anyone who has worked off the tenure track knows about the micro-agressions you have to deal with daily. Actively dismissive, silent or only offering support in hushed tones in hallways or behind closed doors, they leave the contingent and precarious to fend for themselves. In this caste system there is no common culture or communal interest.

However, the fates of the precarious are connected to those on the tenure track. Increase reliance on adjunct labor and the decrease in tenure track jobs requires more solidarity, not less. Treat contingent faculty as colleagues and peers or don’t hire them. As the entire institution of higher education becomes more stratified, and corporatist interests seek to deliver cheap instructional labor, we cannot signal to our students that this is OK. Refuse the terms and conditions offered—believe in radical solidarity, contribute to your own emancipation, and model a life of intellectualism that inspires students to work for social transformation. Refusal demonstrates to our students that we do not accept these unjust and inequitable conditions. By setting an example, neither will our students when they go out into the world and enter the labor force.

It’s easy for me to make such claims; I am now on the outside. My perspective on adjunct labor, and my options post-academia are entirely shaped by my privilege, position, and scholarly interests. But with this move comes the ability to speak, to organize without fear of the consequences, and to share what has worked for me:

Amplify Issues

  • Walk away loudly and publicly
  • Demand better working conditions

Make space for others

  • See the contingent as your peers

Use your resources to create opportunity

Stop fighting for scraps at the table



Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press: Durham NC.

Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions: New York.

hooks, bell, 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York.


Citations and Such: 


[2] The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, by Benjamin Ginsberg and David Bernstein. 2013.


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