Why “just leave” doesn’t solve the problem

In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, Claire Potter returns to an argument I thought was kind of over–that if adjunct faculty find their treatment so bad and their conditions so untenable, why not leave?

There was a wave of this line of argument in 2012/2013 when Margaret Mary Vojtko died, and the contingent faculty equity movement started to gain what I think is real (yes, very slow-moving) power. My gut reaction to it then, and now, is to be irritated in the same way I was at people who told New Orleans residents post-Katrina that they should “just leave.”

After a second cup of coffee, I think it’s more productive to cast that response differently. There are a few points that need to be on the table in order to get at what I want to say–in short: Sure, as long as ______.

1. It’s already happening. That’s why quit lit exists. Faculty in increasing numbers find the situation untenable and opt out. For the record, I say good luck and godspeed to any individual who has that choice and takes it. You shouldn’t have to save anyone else (either by staying, or by leaving).

As an aside–people who advocate leaving the profession ought not to castigate people who do, a la accusations that people who write quit lit are “just whining” or “sound so proud of themselves” or other nastiness. You can’t advocate that people leave and then snark at them when they do. I haven’t seen Prof. Potter do this, but I have seen others. Not OK.

2. Not everyone has that choice, not in a meaningful sense. They’re not literally tethered to whiteboards or desks (if lucky enough to have one). But I know at least a dozen adjunct faculty who are placebound in locations remote enough not to offer real options (anecdotal, yes, but they’re just the ones I know personally). There are also freeway flyers who are teaching too many courses in too many places to be able to conduct a very thorough job search even in locations where such jobs exist; they’re golden-handcuffed to the work they have because it’s just barely enough to survive on, and risking it even to carve out the time it takes to job-search can be a real danger (see Con Job for a clear example of this story). There are other examples. The kind of solidarity en masse quitting would require isn’t simple or obvious (maybe not even possible). Prof Potter envisions lots of alternative employment venues when she says:

First, no one — whether a department chair, a graduate adviser, a graduate student or a contingent faculty member — should be dismissive about the value, availability and satisfactions of work in nonprofits, industry, government or secondary school teaching and academic administration. Yes, you may need some help from a career counselor to mount a successful search; yes, there may be geographical challenges. But the fact that other people you know have had difficulty pursuing careers that make good use of a humanities Ph.D., or that your own doctoral program discouraged you from even thinking that way, doesn’t mean such work isn’t available or that a doctorate in the humanities is not good preparation for it.

Again, those are fine choices for people who have them. Along with the problem of reaching critical mass of solidarity for such a move to work, I’m concerned that at a macro level, encouraging people to leave puts the people who can’t leave in even worse positions (if numbers are powerful, isolating people harms them, right?).

3. They shouldn’t have to. Does anyone have a right to a tenure-track job just because they want one? No. But telling people they should walk away from their commitments (ethical, professional, financial) because of a broken system puts all the onus for improving the system on them. And when we look at the work that adjunct faculty across the country are doing to organize/advocate for themselves and each other, to put even more responsibility on them to fix anything seems unreasonable.

4. Would you do it? If the logic of the argument is, the system is broken and the only way to force its repair is for people to leave, why aren’t we all answerable to that logic? Why is it the responsibility only of the most vulnerable? The evidence that the system is broken isn’t just bad adjunct jobs; it’s that they have those jobs while often doing much the same work as I do at my stable well-paid job. If leaving is the answer, shouldn’t we all?

I’ve been surprised for years that none of the adjunct faculty I rabble-rouse with has ever asked me if I’d give up tenure as a way to fix the two-tiered system. Honestly, I don’t know. It’s cavalier to say, in the hypothetical, that of course I would. The answer is tied to the argument I’ve been making here–as an individual, giving up my tenure would accomplish very little. We do it in solidarity, or we don’t do it. And I won’t hold adjunct faculty to a different standard.


7 Responses to Why “just leave” doesn’t solve the problem

  1. darinljensen says:

    Reblogged this on Teacher-Scholar-Activist.

  2. Michelle Trim says:

    One more problem with the just leave argument…. many ‘regular’ jobs won’t hire people with advanced degrees. The few pt time NTT folks that I have known who have switched jobs had to either hide or downplay their academic credentials to get that initial start. Ageism is another piece that I am not seeing mentioned enough here either. Women over 35 competing against 20-somethings for the same entry level position rarely receive bonus points for their wisdom of experience.

  3. Thanks as always for your responses and re-framings of the tired old arguments. I appreciate Michelle Trim’s comment about sexism and agism. My response to the “just leave” BS is twofold.
    1. Whoever is saying it hasn’t been on a job search outside of academia in a long time. There was this thing called the Great Recession that happened. The jobs that exist now are gig work, temporary, precarious without benefits. Or they are in those illustrious well-funded non-profits that pay 10-15/hr for professional level skillsets.
    2. This is what is said to people in violent/abusive relationships. You know what happens when someone just leaves? Statistically they are more likely to be murdered by the abuser. I don’t presume the president of the college where I last taught is after me (though a couple where I unionized adjuncts could be), but when I “just left” 4 years ago, my life, my family’s life, my physical and mental health, my self-esteem, my sense of self, all were thrown into chaos that is only just beginning to settle. It’s not easy. And even with the job security I did get – after a year of probation – I am likely about to be on another job search when the Janus vs. AFSCME case is decided. There is no job security outside of tenure or civil service.And of course today, all of us in the adjunct movement are so aware of the toll, “just leaving” has had on one of our fiercest and strongest fighters. Ms. Potter should stay in her lane.

  4. I wanted to comment directly on your excellent piece Seth, but am having trouble with WordPress. It seems to me the root problem is over-hiring caused by massive mismanagement. We all have to figure out how to “share the pain” this has caused, and I don’t think either giving up tenure or “just quitting” will do it. For one thing, tenure-line colleagues could refuse to take courses developed by contingent faculty. For another, we could agree on guidelines for tenure that apply to ALL faculty, so we are all eligible. And finally, we could serve as One Faculty at each institution, either through a labor union or through a strong and inclusive governance system. No more 2nd-class faculty.

  5. […] teaching a single course for an entire semester. To tell people who have no financial cushion to “just leave” when even that poorly paying work may be the only thing between them and defaulting on loans or […]

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