For a while, I was able to carve out a life on a grad student teaching salary of around $22,000 before taxes. I didn’t have any other mouths to feed, and I lived to learn and pursue my own interests. Then tragedy struck when the person closest to me developed a serious illness. Suddenly the weight of that person’s obligations—property repair, credit card debt, equipment rentals—loomed over me as well. The illusion of the perfect, free life of the mind was shattered, and I realized that something had to give. Since June I have been working two jobs: a full-time day job and a nighttime college teaching job.
As humanists, it seems as though we are so blessed to live the life of the mind that breaking the silence and complaining about our lot is taboo. Instead, we—and when I say “we” I am largely thinking of the adjunct majority—apply for public benefits, take on additional jobs, and suffer in silence. Then, one day, enough is enough and we explode in protest. Or, worse, as our work is devalued we devalue our own work and slowly slide into a deepening apathy.
I wonder if the very privilege that is often a given when it comes to entering and remaining in academia is also what traps many aspiring academics. The more well-off and entitled one is, the more likely it is that one has the resources to tolerate living off a graduate stipend for an extended amount of time. For the least privileged, delaying one’s earning power and full participation in the economy is often not an option. Some of the brightest public-university students that I have encountered in my teaching career do not feel that the life of the mind is even a possibility given the long training time and dubious job prospects. When I reflect on my time in academia, I do realize that being here is an enormous privilege and that, sadly, with the precariousness of the system today, it seems like a place that is most welcoming to people of privilege. Ideally, academia should offer more stability for and be more welcoming to those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. To me, that is the greatest tragedy of the devaluation of academic labor: the sacrifice of true diversity.
I am very pleased to be involved in Connected Academics, and not because I want to escape academia. I continue to see the enormous potential of college-level learning, and I would still like to work someday as a faculty member in a department and a college community where I am justly compensated and where my work is respected and valued. What this program means for me is that I will no longer settle for adjunct wages. At best, I hope that the conversations we have will reverberate outside our group and that we will ultimately encourage others not to settle for working conditions that offer little respect or compensation.
As humanists, what does it mean when we fully acknowledge financial considerations? What would a business run by a humanist look like? I ask these questions seriously. Adorno said that art is an idealized, frozen version of nature, a signifier of man’s alienation from the natural environment. What if humanistic inquiry is frozen in a similar sense because of its almost fundamental disconnect when it comes to directly influencing the affairs of the world? What would it mean to unleash humanistic concerns and inquiry upon the worlds of policy, business, and government? Could a graduate student in languages and literature succeed in creating his or her own business? I am excited and intrigued by the possibilities offered by these various intersections, and it is wonderful that Connected Academics is able to offer us the chance to publicly and communally consider and explore these possibilities.
Sarah Ruth Jacobs is a doctoral candidate in American literature at the Graduate Center, City University of New York; an adjunct lecturer at the New York City College of Technology; and a founding editor at the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. Her dissertation research centers on long-term sociological perspectives on American literary reading in comparison with the consumption of other media.