Blood On Our Hands

Today I got in a heated Twitter discussion with some of my academic and postac homies that went on for longer than I am willing to admit. People I like and respect, and who possibly sometimes like and at any rate don’t outright disrespect me, took great offense to my assertion that any tenured or tenure-track faculty member currently working in the United States has a job because of adjuncts. This is not even something I said first! Terry McGlynn said it, here, and much better and with less vitriol than me. I just happen to agree.

However, the more agitated I get, the more defensive my tenure-line homies get, and now I am just bursting into tears, depressed as all get-out about the lack of solidarity among faculty ranks.

We are all on the same side here–HUMANS. We’re all going to be taken over by robots and SuperProfs (whose robot versions will put the human SuperProfs out of business), soon. We need to be working together.

This is my fault as much as anyone else’s, but I just get so…verklempt thinking about the academic labor system, and how exploitative it is, and how ever single participant in it–me included–is thereby taking part in that exploitation simply by enabling the system. I just don’t understand–maybe some of you tenure-track homies out there can clue me in in more than 140 characters: how are tenure-line faculty positions not made possible by the incontrovertible fact that low-paid adjuncts do most of the labor in most universities?

Yes, the admin doesn’t give enough money to instruction, but that doesn’t change the fact that structurally, a small portion of academics are lords and a much larger group are serfs, and by being a lord you by default are above the serfs, and thus are taking active part in their exploitation, simply by reaping the benefits of your comparatively cushy job (that is usually not cushy!). I do believe there is blood on our hands–and I don’t understand why this position is so offensive. Really, I don’t. You don’t want to be accused of taking part in adjunct exploitation? Then speak up and fight it. It seems pretty simple to me.

22 thoughts on “Blood On Our Hands

  1. I tend to see the objection as one of strategic framing: don’t focus on tenured prof complicity because that feeds the inaccurate narrative that adjuncts are exploited because the tenured are paid a living wage (and have tenure, and do research), rather than because the football coach is literally paid millions of dollars (etc.). I.e. the objection isn’t so much that the blood-on-your-hands argument is wrong as that it’s off message. These are two different visions of solidarity. One is: acknowledge complicity or it’s not solidarity at all. The other is: don’t publicly acknowledge divisions within ranks or the other side will use it to play the tenured/tt against ntt, while admins get off scot-free.


    • What, you got a fuckin’ PhD in nuance or something? ;). Good point, good point–but the way the current structure works, the be-tenured get paid a living wage, etc., because most of the instruction is done for a pittance, and the Overlords are angry it costs even that much. It’s a brutal, toxic capitalist system, and I wish I weren’t taking part in it–I guess for me, solidarity would be for TT faculty to acknowledge that they take part in it too.


    • This is a good point and no doubt administration across the country works to divide TT faculty from contingent faculty. I think the problem is that TT faculty buy into the lie that somehow they are more qualified, smarter, etc. than those in contingent positions. TT faculty want to believe in a meritocracy and believe that everyone in a contingent position is there because they want to be or that they are there temporarily until they find a TT position. We (I’m on the tenure-track) want to believe the contingent faculty situation is temporary and not the foundation that props up higher education in this country.

      Whenever I bring up the idea of working for parallel tenure tracks—traditional research-focused TT positions and teaching-focused TT positions (non-tenure, permanent, full-time positions)—the response I get from tenured and tenure-line folks is “that would create a two-tier system” as if there isn’t one now. I think those of us on the tenure track are in denial about the realities of the labor issues in higher education. Part of that belief is that, even if we won’t say so out loud, we see the writing on the wall and know that the whole tenure system is not long for this world. We feel threatened and see anything that empowers contingent faculty as undermining the tenure system as it now exists. We want to pretend that this situation is just temporary and someday soon we will go back to a system where everyone is a research-intensive TT prof teaching a 2-2 load. Not. gonna. happen.


      • Thanks for being honest about this. I think you’ve hot the ‘privilege’ nail on its proverbial head. I think it’s extremely import to be honest about not just the material possessive investment (more-) privileged individuals have in a vastly unequal hierarchy, but also the embodied-emotional-psychic investment: the desire to feel smarter and better than, the deduction of this siren song.

        What is it that Lacan says about envy acknowledging a real power asymmetry in the world. That’s what this embodied-emotional-psychic investment in the TT/non-TT hierarchy is. Feelings matter, then, as an index of social (and economic) relation. So thanks for being forthright about this investment in feeling ‘better than’, which is often a powerful barrier to solidarity and progressive change.


      • Sorry for repost but correcting typos. (Please feel free to delete the previous comment.)

        Thanks for being honest about this. I think you’ve hit the ‘privilege’ nail on its proverbial head. I think it’s extremely important to be honest about not just the material possessive investment (more-) privileged individuals have in a vastly unequal hierarchy, but also the embodied-emotional-psychic investment: the desire to feel smarter and better than, the seduction of this siren song.

        What is it that Lacan says about envy acknowledging a real power asymmetry in the world? That’s what this embodied-emotional-psychic investment in the TT/non-TT hierarchy is. Feelings matter, then, as an index of social (and economic) relation. So thanks for being forthright about this investment in feeling ‘better than’, which is often a powerful barrier to solidarity and progressive change.


  2. Thanks for a wholly appropriate vent, and also for pointing folks to what I wrote.

    I think the rationalization that I’ve heard (and to which I might be inclined if I didn’t want to look at the lines on the budget) is that the job of the TT faculty is different, that we’re not there to teach. Universities, even research universities, exist in part to teach students, and it’s the job, in part, of faculty to teach them. If contingent faculty are doing more teaching, this is what enables TT faculty to do less teaching. Even if teaching loads are the same across the board, then if TT faculty get paid a higher salary, it’s because the university can balance their books on the backs of those who are compensated less.


    • Yes, and I am proud and happy to link to your excellent post, Terry. I have to repeat that I am completely fine with there being a class of NTT “teaching faculty” who only teach and do service, and no research. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than adjuncting. What I object to are that these jobs are “part-time” with no benefits and abysmal pay. I’m even OK with NTT faculty making less. It should just be a living wage, with benefits.


  3. A long reply just got deleted when I reloaded the page. I’m brokenhearted. But listen: people initially objected to the phrase “blood on your hands” because it’s accusatory and hurtful. This is not theoretical blood, after all; “Death of an Adjunct” was just last week. You meant to draw blood, so don’t be surprised that people feel stung.

    From my perspective it’s not really fair play to throw out a Twitter bomb like “everyone on the tenure track has blood on your hands!”, get everyone upset, and then come back afterwards with a new framing that approaches the issue in a signifcantly different way surprised everyone doesn’t agree with you. We were talking about the the first, extremely provocatory thing you said, not the several-hundred-word calm and careful reconsideration. I don’t think any of the people you were arguing with would disagree that academic labor is obscenely exploitative.

    But to answer the questions you asked: why not “everyone”? Well, because not everyone. Some people were just hired. Some people have no power. Some departments don’t hire adjuncts. And some people DO speak out about this, tenured and untenured, at risk to their own careers. Academia is a huge, multitudinous system and it’s just incorrect to paint everyone with the same giant angry brush. When you switch from “your” to “our,” as you did on Twitter and you did in this post, it just becomes confounding: adjuncts have their own blood on their own hands?

    Why not “blood”? Because it’s a maximalist explosion that refuses any sense of proportionality, degree, or nuance.

    The final bit of the question is more complicated but it has to do with the slippage people (not just you) commonly make between “adjuncts do most of the labor in the university” (what you say above) and “adjuncts and grad students do most of the teaching labor in most departments at most universities” (what is more accurate, though still incomplete). Line faculty work very hard and do a lot of labor; it’s not the case that they’re being compensated solely because they stole money out of somebody else’s mouth who did all the actual work. That’s true even at the level of the budget; as I mentioned on Twitter, budgets aren’t just fungible in this way, it’s not one giant pot where you can just shuffle things around.

    The central problem I have with this line of attack, I guess, it’s that in the end it’s a bullying purity contest in search of a politics; as you suggested on Twitter, the only way to “win” is to quit whatever job you happen to have. That’s both unsound tactically (people won’t quit their jobs even if you make them feel really bad about it!) but it’s also unsound strategically; we don’t want less university, we want more of it, with fair wages and fair labor practices distributed across the entire workforce. “Blood on your hands!” doesn’t get us anywhere in that direction; “blood on all our hands” isn’t much better. What’s most true and most important about academic labor is that the administrator class has looted the system for decades and left everything in utter shambles. Nobody pounding the MLA JIL this fall has any responsibility or culpability in that. Of course all systems under capital are exploitative, all systems under capital are misery factories; of course to that extent ours is a miserable, fallen world. But the alternative is to struggle and win, not wallowing in our collective misery trying to figure out which of us is the guiltiest.

    You know I love what you’re doing generally and I’m very glad for all your success. But this is why people pushed back at your initial exclamation and this is why I subtweeted it.


    • Thanks for this, Gerry. For what it’s worth, on that great medium that is excellent for expressing wide-ranging emotions, Twitter, I *immediately* included myself in the hand-blood accusation after my first tweet. It was blood on “our” hands the whole time.

      I truly and vehemently believe that everyone who takes part in the system is complicit in letting it exist, and that includes me. If adjuncts went on a General Strike, now THAT might change some shit right quick. I’m talking every adjunct in every school. But you know that will never happen, and you know why.

      I do believe that people just hired are complicit in the system. I believe everyone in the system is complicit in the system. The only thing I don’t believe is that Twitter is a good medium for expressing such things, and for that I am sorry.

      It also says a lot about my usual level of discourse that you viewed this post as well thought-out. I have a LOT of re-imagining to do re: my own writing voice if that is the case.

      One of the ways to fight, though–is to say FUCK YOU to the JIL. To opt out. To apply to work for somewhere like HASTAC, or dissertation-coach, or consult edu-nonprofits (I have a meeting with some rich guy this Friday to see about doing just that, btw). To take the brainpower elsewhere.

      I still very honestly believe that the system is toxic and broken, and that the tenure track as it currently stands and is used to day is part of that brokenness (and that tenure-line labor is exploited in its own very horrible way, too, it just usually comes with benefits and a full-time salary). But to come out as anti-tenure is to come out as pro-Capitalist, and I am anti-Capitalist (in case I didn’t make that clear).

      What it comes down to is that there are two and exactly two enemies here: Capitalism; Patriarchy. That is it. And I need to remind myself of this, and that it takes solidarity to fight the real enemies.

      My new vow to myself is that in the next few weeks, with minor exceptions for when Bill says something verkockte like your typos are what make you fail on the market, if something I write does not directly call out either Capitalism or Patriarchy, I need to rework it in my mind until it does. Those structures are what have blood on their hands–Margaret Mary’s, and countless others.’


  4. It’s quite true that adjuncts allow us to serve more students for the same amount of money, thereby making it possible to raise TT salaries. I’m sure that is part of how my institution has been able to move up from dead last on the salary rankings for my state, while letting us teach the full load of 12 contact hours instead of the previous overloads of 15.

    However, the amount of money we’re getting hasn’t risen enough to eat up all the cash that our expanded student body is bringing in. Where’s the rest of it? I can’t help wondering how much has gone into Bill Gates’s pocket. When we go from having one computer lab with a dozen machines to eight computer labs and a machine on every desk that ‘must’ be replaced every 3 years, that has to be costing money.

    Not that this addresses the issue of how to get a better deal for NTT faculty. Or maybe it does, partly. Maybe instead of looking at ways to snitch money from salary lines to distribute among NTT faculty, as if the salary pool was separated from the rest of the college’s budget by divine decree, we should be looking at where else the money goes.


    • We’ve been able to turn some contingent lines to TT lines because the retiring contingent, with raises, was in fact making enough to cover a (low-paid, but still within range) TT line.

      The question of $ going to Gates and other such entities is really, really key. We used to have geeks on staff to run the computers open source but now have a contract with Microsoft. To cite just one example.


  5. You’re just the next in line for people to lash out at for making them feel bad. Remember last week when I accused professors and admins of being little Eichmanns? Yeah, good times…

    Although I didn’t *tweet* that specific line, so…I agree with you and we all perform a huge amount of mental gymnastics so that we can get through our days (not our fault! Their fault! No, THEIR FAULT. WE ARE POWERLESS SO WE SHALL JUST KEEP OUR HEADS DOWN).

    Sigh. As long as we can all look in the mirror and say, I’m not the problem, it’s NEVER going to get any better.


  6. I am not TT faculty. I am full time faculty at a teaching college where tenure does not exist. I am NOT offended by the idea that there is blood on my hands. I agree because adjuncts keep my college in business.Yes, we are complicit by being a part of the system. Now, can I leave the system? I could but not without great difficulty at this point in my life, and I’m not willing to do that right now. As a result, all I can do is speak up as you’ve said. By the time I realized that the system was unethical, I was already too far in unfortunately.


    • I’m in exactly the same sort of place, though I’m an adjunct. I was up for a full-time NTT position here this year, and it went to another former adjunct I know, and adore. I am very proud that she got it and know in my deepest heart that she was indeed the best “fit.” We hang out and are friends. But she knows, and I know, that her FT job is possible because this institution employs mostly “visiting” faculty.


      • Reading all these comments makes me wonder what it takes to get people to want for others what they think they deserve for themselves. As with the comment about TT faculty feeling smarter and better, I just keep thinking of how normal it is to be deeply selfish in the present neoliberal moment (in the US). I just wonder what it would take to have a paradigm shift such that we wouldn’t accept for others conditions we don’t want for ourselves. Because what administrator, or comfortably-situated tenured faculty, would want to accept adjuncts’ working conditions and salary?


  7. There’s value in realizing that we’re all part of bad systems (including this one), and also value in realizing that in that we’re all victims of it, too. Or something. Realize, accept, figure out how you (each and every one of us) want to react. We can’t all be front-line soldiers but thankfully there are many, many roles that need to be filled in this war (to use a military metaphor). Mutual respect and understanding to those who realize and accept and act (in some way, including spreading the word, as you do). Fight on! 🙂


  8. When I think about this discussion in terms of my current situation – I have a wonderful position at a European university, paid just as poorly as most everyone else there, not TT since that is increasingly rare in Europe – I realize how universal these infrastructures remain. I have it pretty good, frankly, but I am still part of the mid-level faculty and not part of the diminishing number of “tenured”-equivalent faculty. I am also, though, not part of the equivalent of adjuncts, who are not paid well and yet without whom we would not be able to offer all the courses we need to.

    There are differences to the U.S. system which I was part of for many years – I do not see any administrators at my current university making much more money than anybody else, and it does not much matter what discipline you are in – the general contract does not allow for different pay scales based on area of teaching or research. And my experience has been that faculty are very open about the problems we have in terms of fairness. But part of that openness includes stating that we do not have money to add new lines, and that contracts are not going to get better in terms of benefits or number of hours taught or anything else that involves money, since there is none. Students do not pay tuition, taxes are already very high and in general salaries fairly low, so it is a blood from a stone scenario that is not going to get better.

    I have offered absolutely no help or suggestions of how to fix anything here, but I think it is really easy to see university problems in the U.S. as somehow specific to American culture. They are not, although many of my colleagues in the U.S. often make vague generalizations about how much better it surely is in western European universities, assuming that somehow everything must surely be better elsewhere. Yes and no. Perhaps recognizing that universities have problematic structures and regulations in many countries would be a step towards re-thinking where the issues begin and how to address them. Maybe.


  9. Just looking at job openings you would think that adjuncting is the most common source of instruction, but I think turnover in these jobs distorts your perception. In my experience (first as a faculty brat, then a faculty spouse) any given adjunct position is likely to come open on average every year or two while a tenure-track position comes open on average every 10 or 15 years. It’s just that adjuncting is the only attainable job available in a bad academic market. I personally quit the adjunct treadmill in the “Baby Bust” era when the academic job market seems to have been about as bad as it is now. Adjuncting still is concentrated around teaching entry level courses that don’t really require the specialized knowledge of a PhD, so in a bad market there is a big pool of qualified PhD’s willing to take a job at twenty cents on the dollar to try to prove to themselves that they didn’t waste the last ten years training to do stuff that nobody wants. After about three years I decided I was better off accepting the reality of my situation and sought other work.


      • The universe of colleges surveyed probably matters a great deal. Big differences exist between, say, liberal arts colleges and for-profit colleges of cosmetology.


  10. Well, our contingents never did a Ph.D., never moved out of state for a job, never published, vote Republican or not at all, and do not have solidarity with anyone, but I still fight for their rights, and they take advantage of that, and the institution still likes them the best, and they get renewed and get raises and so on without having to come up for tenure and all. I still consider my situation better than theirs.

    But I came onto this thread to talk to Bad Attitude about something completely different. I have been thinking about institutions that are your enemy and/or the enemy of your program. About what it is like not to have them be the enemy — it is a very different feeling. About how mostly, in my experience, they are that, though, albeit covertly. About how bad it feels; about how it feels differently bad to realize it than not to do, but feels bad either way.


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