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"The Chair" Creator: How to Fight Adjunctification

Since The Chair came out on Netflix in August, I’ve heard one particularly painful criticism from my friends and former colleagues: the television show I co-created focuses only on tenured and tenure-track professors. It includes no contingent faculty and only one graduate student. In other words, it excludes the most vulnerable members of the academic community: young scholars and adjunct professors who often perform the same -- or more -- teaching work than senior faculty and have no access to benefits or a living wage, much less the protections of tenure.

The show makes choices about whom to represent and how. All works of art do this. But if The Chair doesn’t show those professors who have to live out of our cars or go without medical care -- as I did for years -- its release offers me a chance to say very clearly that adjunctification is destroying higher education. The process by which tenure is being systematically eliminated and teaching duties switched over to junior scholars without benefits or job security -- that is, to adjuncts like me -- is killing American universities.

Luckily for us, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to begin to reverse its effects.

I came all the way to Hollywood from the ivory tower because I needed a job. By the time I finished my Ph.D. at Harvard University in 2017, my prospects for secure employment as an English professor were zero. The academic job market had collapsed -- indeed, it has been collapsing for more than a decade. Even L.A., where people famously go to get their dreams stomped on, seemed like a better bet.

After moving to the city’s Eastside, I worked as an adjunct for three years. I commuted an hour north to a beautiful, prosperous, hypermodern campus, where I squatted in a borrowed office to eat my lunch, make my lesson plans and meet my students, as is common for contingent faculty. (One semester, a kind administrator advised me to squat in the conference room instead, though I had to hide my belongings in the filing cabinet when real faculty needed the space.)

I made so little that the job was nearly too expensive to keep; I relied on friends for gas and food. My student debt and that tiny adjunct paycheck meant I had to constantly scramble for more gigs, which irritated my creative partners and harmed the quality of my teaching. I squeaked my way into Writers Guild health insurance in March of 2020, just in time for the pandemic. Only this summer was I able to replace the molar I broke in graduate school. Driving away from the dentist, I cried with relief.

To be clear, I do not mean that any of us have been taking this lying down. In the last decade, the academic labor movement has organized tens of thousands of teachers and researchers. When I was in grad school, I participated in what was then an unrecognized grad student union; I marched and voted and got very mad and once scandalized my students by telling them that I could command a higher hourly wage if I were to simply babysit them than if I were to instruct them in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Whatever else people may find in it, The Chair is a trace of that altered consciousness as it happened for me: it is a story about struggling for meaningful intellectual work in increasingly hostile economic conditions.

I can only repeat that this is the moment to try and change those conditions for the better.

Thanks to months of campaigning by academic unions, a plan is now gaining traction on Capitol Hill to include major academic labor market reform in the president’s $3.5 trillion budget proposal. This idea, developed by Higher Education Labor United -- a coalition of the numerous unions in the industry -- would require public institutions to reach 75 percent tenure-track or tenured instructional workforces within five years, with hiring preference for their current contingent faculty.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed