Lady Adjuncts of the Apocalypse

Seventy-five percent of college teachers now work on short-term and/or part-time contracts, prompting Frank Donoghue to call the current generation of tenured scholars the “last professors.” As a part-time college instructor, I taught alongside many such curiosities. I often wondered how they understood the inequality that surrounded them. How did they explain the fact that people who had the same degrees and taught the same classes as they did were paid so little and treated so poorly? A few years ago, when I was teaching English at a large public college in New York City, a tenured colleague suggested an answer. I was in her office to collect an observation report that she had written about my Freshman Composition class. “I was an adjunct once too,” she said, as if sharing a secret. “We’re a sisterhood, you know.”

A sisterhood? This was certainly a new take on the old adage of teaching as a noble calling, especially considering the dominant image of a professor is still a middle-aged man in a tweed jacket. I found myself speechless in response. Why would someone with a lifetime job who taught everyday alongside low-wage teachers with no promise of continued employment assume that she and I were jointly part of anything? It seemed to me that thinking about me as her sister was a way of not thinking about me as a severely underpaid colleague. But how had gender come to win out over economics as a framework for understanding our institutional relation?

We can start to answer the question by expanding the frame and examining the disparity in college degree completion between men and women. Since the 1990s, women have been completing college at higher rates than men. This is true for women in all income groups and for white women as well as for black women and Latinas. Simply put, there are more women in college now than ever before, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down.

The proportionate rise in the number of women entering and completing college is happening at the same time as college teachers are themselves more likely to be women. Numerically speaking, then, the idea that academia is some kind of ‘sisterhood’ is understandable. Moreover, if we believe that more women (students and teachers) on campus is a sign of progress in and of itself, then Donoghue’s era of the “last professors” may have delivered us into one of greater gender equality in higher education.

If this way of looking at things bothers you, it’s because you intuitively understand that there is nothing necessarily progressive about more women on campus, especially in an age of privatization and austerity. We can take a closer look at the data to see what the gender disparity in degree completion actually means. Let’s start with the unsurprising fact that it is wealthy women who are driving the trend. According to NBER researchers:

For those born in the early 1960s, there was little variation between men and women in terms of college completion. For those born in the early 1980s, women outperformed men at all income levels, but especially at the higher income levels. ‘In college entry, persistence, and completion, women in the top-income quartile have pulled away from the rest of the population.’

These findings suggest that the story of more women graduating from college is far from a feminist triumph. Instead, it is a variation on a familiar theme: wealthy people are more likely than poor people to go to college. The difference is that these days those rich people are more likely to be women.

We can better understand the relationship between graduation rates and workplace precarity by noting that women are also overrepresented among the ranks of adjunct faculty. According to the Modern Language Association, women are now “the majority of non-tenure-track faculty members across all types of institutions.” Though women are earning more PhDs than ever before, they are more likely than men to work on part-time or on year-to-year contracts. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kate Bahn identified this trend as “the rise of the lady adjunct.” What do we make of this workforce shift?

As I suggested above, a key to understanding gender demographics in higher education is to place “more women on campus” alongside an historical trajectory of wealth transfer from the bottom to the top. According to Emmanuel Saez, the infamous “one percent” now earns about one-sixth of all income and the top 10 percent about half. Moreover, the trend towards rising inequality has intensified. Since 2009, the top 1% have captured 95% of all income gains. This economic landscape means that an ever-smaller percentage of college graduates are beneficiaries of the so-called “college premium,” the economic benefit supposedly attached to a college degree, and that degree completion itself is highly correlated to family income.

One conclusion to draw from this data is that colleges are not the engines of class mobility that we like to think they are. But colleges are not just crudely reproducing class difference in correspondence with economic trends. Instead, it is more useful to understand colleges as social and political institutions whose funding models are more and more based on taking advantage of the economic insecurities that students bring to college and on treating those insecurities as part of a sales pitch.

As Bob Meister put it, over the last few years, public colleges have begun to promote degrees as a kind of asset that permits students to hedge against being on the wrong side of the line of widening inequality: earning a college degree has come to be understood by students and families as a way, perhaps the only way, to increase the likelihood that you won’t be poor. “Here we have the kernel of a funding model,” Meister explained in an essay about financialization at the University of California, “that allowed public universities to raise prices far faster than the growth of the economy or of median incomes. [College] prices were, rather, geared to the rapid growth of income inequality.” In other words, a diploma will not protect most people from rising inequality since economic gains go to the top one percent anyway, but colleges still justify raising tuition by claiming to offer a credential that protects the bearer from ending up at the bottom.

What does financialization have to do with more women on campus? Proportionate increases in the number of women students and teachers is a phenomenon that has occurred during the same period that a college degree is less likely to confer financial advantage. (Indeed, I do not think college degrees ever did such a thing as “confer financial advantage,” but the idea that they did and do is so engrained in our culture that it’s a necessary starting place for my counter argument.) The point is that the wealthy among us capture most economic gains regardless of whether they went to college or not. In that context, what seems a progressive transformation of women’s place in society – or at least on college campuses – is actually a shifting of the ground upon which economic advantage is conferred.

I propose that women, as both students and teachers, have been permitted broader access to what was formerly considered a resource for upward mobility now that a college degree is more widely recognized to guarantee exactly nothing.

If we are going to reject the liberal argument (and I suggest we do) that colleges “reproduce” privilege in some kind of identarian vacuum, then we must also acknowledge that gender disparity in higher education is an economic relation between teachers, students, and institutions forged in the caldron of austerity and financialization. According to Laura McKenna, “nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps. Indeed, many adjuncts earn less than the federal minimum wage.” If we bring in Meister’s discussion of diplomas as a risk-management tool, we begin to see a structural component of the neoliberal university emerge: low-income women teaching students (more and more of whom are women) who enrolled in college as a hedge against the risk of being poor.

Demographic data from the country’s largest public college system reveals two trends that starkly illustrate the relation I am trying to describe. The City University of New York’s senior colleges have become more selective in recent years, with 26% of students earning an SAT score of 1200 or better, up from 12% a few years earlier. Since test scores are a proxy for economic class, more selective admissions has meant fewer low-income students and students of color at the flagship campuses. “At CUNY,” reports Michael Fabricant, “20 to 30 percent of students have homelessness or hunger issues” and, as recently as 2011, “54 percent of CUNY students’ family income was less than $30,000.” The vast majority of those students are enrolled in the system’s lower-status community colleges. One program for over 10,000 low-income students at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, for example, lists average household income at $7,305.

The intersection I want to highlight is this: at the same time as more than half of CUNY students are struggling to make ends meet, more than half of all CUNY faculty teaching them are adjuncts.

This relation is important to the economic model Meister described in which colleges market degrees as a hedge against inequality. In his essay on exploited college teachers, Max Haiven argued that “haggard adjuncts” are being positioned to manage the emotional and psychological needs of young people almost certain to be disappointed by their own post-college prospects. “Most students,” he wrote,

will graduate to a life of work that will look more and more like what adjuncts have been experiencing for years: part-time, casual, disposable, poorly paid and hierarchical labor conditions where individuals are blamed for lack of success and where one must cobble together a variety of tenuous contracts not merely to make a living but simply to keep up with loan payments.

If fear of being poor drives college enrollment, then school is about getting a job, even if the job doesn’t exist. The readiness is all. The specter of “haggard adjuncts” teaching for peanuts is a model for ‘learning to labor’ in the hope of regular employment that never arrives. In this economic context, more women on campus is not an advance for gender equality. But nor are women teachers just the castoffs of a financialized higher education system. Instead, they are being centrally positioned through economic insecurity and workforce precarity to serve as exemplars who model the economic and workplace relations that await most students after college.

The rise of women teachers and students in sites of extreme inequality should prompt us to reimagine feminist political activity and solidarity. Nancy Fraser has explained that second wave feminism’s rejection of “economism” helped lead us to the grim place where we find ourselves. “The result [of politicizing the personal] should have been to expand the struggle for justice to encompass both culture and economics,” she wrote.

But the actual result was a one-sided focus on ‘gender identity’ at the expense of bread and butter issues. Worse still, the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social equality.

Where does that leave the idea of sisterhood? The rise of the lady adjunct is not our mothers’ or our grandmothers’ sexism translated across time, wholesale and unchanged, into a new era. It’s a phenomenon of now. The sisterhood invoked by my tenured colleague elided my economic status and consecrated both of us – tenured and adjunct alike – as, simply, women. To her, I write this to say what I should have said then: I am not your sister. The real gender disparity, which is economic inequality, should prompt us to ask what feminist solidarity might look like on the dark road ahead. One thing is certain: as the “last professors” refuse to see, the disappearance of their ranks will be met with deserved indifference as it is nothing to be mourned.

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