For years, academia was a hallowed portal into a magical way of life.

Or, to be more realistic, it seemed to be one way towards class mobility that was secure, respectable, and relatively easy to obtain, or so most people thought.

If you believe cinematic and televisual representations, all academics are professors who live in immaculately maintained houses glowing with the soft light reflected off antique wooden furniture, their rooms filled with never-ending shelves of books, sunlight dappling warm kitchens, and living rooms abounding with vases of fresh-cut flowers.

It’s not that such scenarios no longer exist; there is a stratosphere of academia where such idyllic existences are still possible. But, as the mainstream public is quickly learning these days, a growing number of academics are in fact underpaid and overworked graduate students and adjuncts. The dreams of class ascension and mobility that academia once offered to many are being dashed.

We are witnessing the adjunctification of the professorial class, as well as a highly spirited resistance to the same. Increasingly, adjunct activism points out that universities are insidious cogs in the neoliberal machine, and it highlights the extreme exploitation of teaching faculty. But as adjuncts organise and agitate, they tend to rely on a narrative that emphasizes their desire to restore a particular class structure, a desire often echoed by the established professors who support them. Considering these matters of class longing more deliberately requires us to critique the affective underbelly of organising efforts, and not just the manifestoes they issue.

Consider the words of Melissa Bruninga-Matteau:

The media gives us this image that people who are on public assistance are dropouts, on drugs or alcohol, and are irresponsible,” she says. “I’m not irresponsible. I’m highly educated. I have a whole lot of skills besides knowing about medieval history, and I’ve had other jobs. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make enough to live on. Until now.

On the one hand, this does drive home the point that academic jobs like hers don’t pay enough, but, on the other hand, it also draws clear distinctions between people like Bruninga-Matteau and those other women, the presumably real welfare queens who are neither educated nor responsible. In a follow-up piece, after she finally gets a tenure-track position, she notes with dismay the many negative responses to the initial report, “They harped on the fact that I’m a single mom, even though my child was born in marriage.”

It’s not easy, sometimes impossible, to convey nuance in a medium that is often read quickly and for what is termed maximum impact. My point here is not to excoriate Bruninga-Matteau but to point to the construction of the good adjunct, the blameless adjunct whose upward class trajectory could continue, unsullied, without being pulled into the morass of the real and often unmarried welfare queens with children.

The professorial class exists in the public imagination as a nostalgic image, of rumpled but well-off, white, male professors tapping away at keyboards in sunlit rooms. But the fact of that image being part of nostalgia and not reality is mostly only understood by those who have inhabited academia to some extent. When adjuncts begin to differentiate themselves from, for instance, “welfare queens,” they are simultaneously hooking into and trying to draw themselves up by that nostalgic longing, and they reinforce its various forms of privilege. And they are erasing the possibility of rethinking the terms on which we might move forward through the current crisis, which demands that we drastically rethink the terms of the debates.

We, adjuncts and allies, need to stop apologising for the value of intellectual production and we need to stop rendering its value in terms of the class mobility and the raced and gendered privilege it can confer upon us. We might seize this opportunity to reconfigure the terms of academic success to signify a system that allows everyone opportunities to do the work they desire, without holding ourselves up to mythical standards of class empowerment. Yet, over and over, the most persistent narratives about adjuncts draw upon class nostalgia.

When Mary Vojtko died as a 83-year-old penniless adjunct, her story made the news because it seemed so contradictory to the usual stereotypes about comfortable professors. Daniel Kovalik wrote of his conversation with Vojtko’s caseworker at Adult Protective Services, and having to explain that she had been fired as a professor at Duquesne: “The caseworker paused and asked with incredulity, ‘She was a professor?’ I said yes. The caseworker was shocked; this was not the usual type of person for whom she was called in to help.”

Not the usual type of person. While Kovalik goes on to point out that few people understand the differences between full-time and adjunct faculty, the caseworker’s response echoes that of not only those unaffiliated with academia in any way, but of adjuncts and their allies.

Take, for instance, the slew of recent first-person accounts and reports designed to give intimate glimpses into adjunct lives. Arik Greenberg writes, “I’m fully educated; I stayed in school. Two masters and a Ph.D. I’ve published a book. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve followed the rules to realize the American dream, but I am now living the American nightmare.”

Emily Van Dyne expresses her feelings differently, “When people ask me what I do, I tell them, accurately, “I am a college professor,” and then hope, depending on the person, that they ask me nothing further. All of the pride that I take in the job that I do, and do, I have no problem freely stating, very well, is sucked from me…”

Overall, reports and testimonies relating to adjuncts focus on such easily understood narratives of what amounts to what I call Class Shock: the feeling of inadequacy and anger that arises when one’s class aspirations have been trampled underfoot.

Understanding class shock takes account of the misplaced and often gendered rage and anger that comes to bear upon adjunct struggles. There are vastly different constituencies engaged in adjunct struggles. But we might all easily recognise one particular body of adjuncts whose fire-breathing and rage has been especially noticeable: men, mostly white men, often married, whether straight or not, whose anger at having arrived at the Gates of Academe after years of amassing debt and degrees is palpable. Some of this is evident in Greenberg’s account, where he openly declares that he deserves a shot at the American Dream. The narratives of female adjuncts like Van Dyne and Bruninga-Matteau are similar in terms of class shock, but are more likely to reflect quiet desperation and a sense of shame.

A PBS report puts such feelings of entitlement and shame even more bluntly, when it quotes Peter Brown, professor emeritus fighting on behalf of adjuncts, “Adjuncts are the lowest paid people on campus. They get paid less than the folks who come in at night to clean the classrooms.”

This last statement is, of course, meant to be a damning indictment of the betrayal of the adjunct, saying, in effect, We pay highly-educated people with multiple degrees less than the uneducated slobs who clean up our trash. Bruninga-Matteau’s story circulated at a time when the press was highlighting the apparently shocking fact that a great many highly educated adjuncts were on food stamps. But, as is evident from the piece itself, so is a full 15 per cent of the US population.

Similarly, Van Dyne’s shame echoes a larger cultural stigma towards those who fail to attain the class status that they spend a good portion of their lives pursuing.1 Van Dyne’s claiming the title of professor, even when she is not one, is typical among adjuncts. When I worked as an adjunct at the University of Illinois at Chicago and became a Lecture Representative, I refused to let my students call me “Professor.” I explained to them the differences between the various ranks of professors, and my own more tenuous position at the university, my teaching load, and how little I was paid. My reasoning was simple: if adjuncts were to agitate for fair treatment, it made no sense to simply pretend that we were exactly the same as the professorial class, when we simply weren’t.

There were and are those adjuncts who endow themselves with the title of professor, betraying, as Van Dyne does, their class shock and class anxiety. But if matters are to change, it makes more sense to point how unequal the system is, and it’s impossible to do that when adjuncts insist on camouflaging themselves as professors to their students and, consequently, to the public.2

I learned, during my brief tenure as an adjunct, that the biggest problem with organising around labour issues in academia is that academics are loath to see themselves as labourers. In an example I use often, one of my fellow adjuncts responded to an organising email I sent out about possible unionisation efforts with a peeved, “Are you telling me that I’m no different from a truck driver?” The short answer was yes. The longer answer is that if we don’t realise we deserve to be treated as well as unionised truck drivers and janitorial staff, for whom this and other adjuncts displayed such contempt, we might as well just sit back and continue to whine about our poverty.

The extent of adjunct organising on campuses country-wide indicates that matters have reached a point where it’s unionising or death. This is in some ways ironic because, in fact the only real way to solve the crisis is to begin to end adjunct hiring in the first place. But for now, organizing matters. More importantly, how adjuncts organize and the terms on which they make their case are critical.

In the US, everyone pretends there is no such thing as class, but everyone’s biggest nightmare is facing a descent into a lower class category; it is unthinkable to make fun of people on account of their race, for instance, but it is practically a requirement that we mock the “hillbilly.” For years, academia has meant a form of class mobility for many (and it has also, at the same time, for many, been a way to maintain class hierarchies) but the rise in adjunct positions and the slashing of tenure lines, along with the increased contempt for the professorial class has meant, in effect, a dwindling of the possibility of entrance into a class position and, consequently, a wider sense of class shock.

This is not to mock adjuncts wholesale, many of whom are well aware, I have no doubt, of the classed narratives that surround the lives to which they seek to gain access. But it is to highlight the affective underbelly of the adjunct crisis and to emphasize that, if we ignore the class narratives at play in all of this, we run the risk of only making incremental gains for a select few. Adjunct organizing has become more mainstream and has come to rely on the easier and more palatable narratives that most resonate with the public. This has meant appealing to wider class anxieties.

That strategy will be successful in the short term, but as long as we, adjuncts and their allies, don’t interrogate and understand class shock and class anxiety as factors that hinder and hamper adjunct organizing, we will only be fighting for the status quo, and doing so in terms dripping with affect and desire of the professorial Golden Age. There is no returning to these real or imagined halcyon days when (white male) professors in tweed jackets peacefully toiled at their desks unencumbered by questions about their next meal; there is, indeed, much about that scenario that needs drastic revision. At the same time, substituting women and/or people of colour in that scenario in some neoliberal version of diversity will do us no good. Contemporary discussions about the value of intellectual work in relation to the marketplace tend to swing in the opposite direction, pointing to some equally mythical ideas about “relevance” when in fact, the question of relevance itself is weighted with standards that are impossible to meet, especially in the liberal arts (studying poetry need not lead to making better physicists; it only needs to make for an understanding of poetry and, perhaps, better poets).

Rather than insist that we need and want more places in a system that will reward the deserving with a privileged class position, we might want to argue, simply, that we deserve the rights of all workers, that intellectual production is labour, that teaching is not a noble calling but labour, and that we are fine with all the vivid forms of hell of our choosing, the life of the mind.

Yasmin Nair is a writer, academic, and activist currently working on a book, Strange Love, about neoliberalism, affect, and social movements. She is also the co-founder of the radical queer collective Against Equality and a member of Gender JUST, a radical queer grassroots group in Chicago. Her work can be found at www.yasminnair.net.


  1. The reality, of course, is that adjuncts are not simply after class status but very real benefits, including life-saving benefits ones like healthcare. But, in the US, such benefits are part and parcel of class status. Employment itself is seen only as a product of hard work (with no attention to the systemic inequalities produced by capitalism) and, consequently, benefits are seen as accruing to those who deserve them because of their greater devotion, their work ethic, etc. The connection between material benefits and social status is, in the US, a complicated one, and teasing it out more thoroughly is outside the limits of this piece. But suffice it to say that the perception of a failure to achieve class status as a failure doubly reinforces the link between material benefits and class status, instead of what should be a logical outcome of any real understanding of inequality: that everyone deserves benefits, regardless of class status.  

  2. I’m well aware that there are in fact several different kinds of designations amongst adjunct lines, and that some of those do reflect varying pay scales and responsibilities. My point here is a more general one.