Monday, March 10, 2014

The Psychological Toll of Contingency

I've happened to talk to a lot of my friends from my time in academia over the last two weeks.  Some are contingent faculty, some have moved on to other fields, some are on the tenure track, and some are tenured.  The conversations have given me some pretty powerful flashbacks to what my life used to be like, especially on the contingent path.

Contingency is not just common in academia, of course.  The proliferation of adjuncts and "visitors" is indicative of a general trend towards disposable, replaceable, and poorly compensated labor in our economy.  I have friends and family members in other fields who have had to contend with a lack of job security and crummy pay.  They work 35 hours a week at "part-time" jobs that don't provide them with health care.  They face lay-offs and "flex time," their certainty and security held hostage by capricious employers who only care about squeezing every last cent out of their workforce.

Those awful attributes of contingency are well known, but I am coming to see that the psychological damage is much worse.  When you are contingent, in whatever field, you cannot plan for the future.  With each passing year you have no clue if you will have employment in the next year, or whether you might have to move halfway across the country.  It is next to impossible to hold down long-term relationships, raise children, and plan for the future when the future is always so uncertain.  Life gets put on hold, then seems out of reach.  You end up blaming yourself for being unable to do things that forces beyond your control won't let you do.

Even worse, it is easy when you are contingent to internalize self-hatred, because you are constantly told that you are worthless.  Your employer holds you at arm's length, and metaphorically (or even literally) asks you to go in the servants' entrance.  Your employer doesn't compliment you on a job well-done, but cracks the whip whenever there's the slightest student or customer complaint, no matter how ill-founded.  You are there to perform menial tasks, do as you're told, and do as little as possible to be seen or heard.  It is no way to live, and it makes those subjected to it feel as if they are completely lacking in value.  They might explode in occasional flashes of anger, or they may merely slowly die inside.  Either way they do not have the power to change their situation.

Sometimes when you're contingent you feel as if you're going crazy.  You follow all the rules, you do a great job, and then after proving yourself time after time, you're still stuck on the treadmill, or even given the boot.  You try to apply for a full-time job at the place that employs you full time, and despite your track record, they won't even call you back.  The university that you have given your blood, sweat, tears, and weekends to seems to have no problem turning around and cutting your classes or even laying you off when it reaches a slight bump in the fiscal road.  Hell, after three years of perfecting your craft they just might turn you loose because they only hire contingent labor for three years because the churn drives down wages and ends any uncomfortable questions about why some people have tenure and some people don't.

Why?  Because the powers that be simply do not give a shit about you or any of the other contingent laborers.  You are a line on a ledger, a replaceable part, a gear in the machine to be tossed out capriciously for another.  Deep down you know this, you take it to heart, and it makes your soul sick because there isn't a goddamned thing you can do about it.

Too many people I care too deeply about are trapped in this world, be they contingent professors, corporate employees, or in the creative fields.  The lack of compensation and security is bad enough, but the psychological hell contingency creates is intolerable, and ought to be a call to arms.


Anonymous said...

Hey, have you ever been tenture track with articles in respected journals and a book contract? Just never mentioned it. HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

Anonymous said...

Hey, you posted anonymously for years, buy you're afraid to post my comments? HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!

bmi said...

Anonymous sounds like a jerk.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Don't give the trolls attention, bmi, you'll only encourage them. :)

And no, I don't stay up at night waiting to approve comments by trolls who have nothing better to do than troll a humble blogger like me.