The semester is winding down, and most of us are buried under papers, perhaps still meeting with students, preparing exams. I thought it might be a good time for me to talk a little about my observations of the emotional roller coaster of adjunct employment, since the ride, for this semester, is just about over, and some of you may be wondering why you feel so shell-shocked.
For years now, I’ve been aware of a low-grade depression that begins to take hold only a few weeks into a semester. I find it harder to focus, I begin functioning more slowly. My thoughts become darker. A sort of despair settles over my outlook. I have known for a long time that it is directly related to the adjunct dilemma of my work life, but until this semester, I never really thought about it as a reaction to emotional abuse. Labor abuse, yes, that’s clear — we are being exploited professionally and financially and there are hundreds of thousands of words that have been written and spoken about it. But emotional abuse has not been talked about.
A few weeks ago, I realized that adjunct teaching – the relationship that exists between the adjunct faculty member and the university – is an abusive relationship. Much like an emotionally abusive marriage, it causes certain specific kinds of trauma.
What is the definition of emotional abuse? According to a website created by Steve Hein, called EQI.org, “Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept.
Whether it is done by constant berating and belittling, by intimidation, or under the guise of ‘guidance,’ ‘teaching,’ or ‘advice,’ the results are similar. Eventually, the recipient of the abuse loses all sense of self and remnants of personal value.” That all sounds exactly right; I don’t know any adjuncts who haven’t expressed pain about their sense of belittlement, the loss of self-confidence, and the feeling of constant intimidation, because of the insecurity of semester-by-semester employment. The longer we stay at this, the worse those experiences become, the deeper they burrow into us.
Emotional Abuse is also called Relationship Abuse. The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness defines it this way: “Abuse can be emotional, financial, sexual or physical and can include threats, isolation, and intimidation. Abuse tends to escalate over time.” True again. Financial abuse is an obvious connection. But so is isolation, since so few of us ever really know any of our colleagues. We are the majority faculty, yet we are very alone. Intimidation? Hell yes. Just look at the way most universities behave when the adjunct faculty tries to form a union. Finally, the abuse has escalated over time. It is more widespread, with the ballooning numbers of faculty hired semester-by-semester, with the tactics of the universities becoming more and more brutal.
I think there is little doubt that these definitions can be applied to the relationship experience between an adjunct faculty member and the university system.
In putting all of this together, I began to understand more clearly WHY I was struggling with feelings of depression and other issues. Here are some of the common symptoms of an emotionally abused person:
• Withdrawal from friends, family, social activities
• Low self-esteem
• Fearfulness and anxiety, nervousness
• Feelings of guilt or shame
• Mood changes, emotionally instability
• Feelings of distrust and pessimism
• Substance or drug abuse
• Suicidal attempts
I know, for myself, that depression, fear and anxiety, feelings of shame and low self-esteem are frequent experiences. I’m very fortunate, in that I have wonderful friends; as a writer and playwright, I stay active in the arts community; and my children and I are very close. I am grateful for all of that, because without it, I think I would feel the urge to withdraw….and just curl into a fetal position somewhere. When the struggle against poverty is constant, and the feeling of professional failure is ever-present, it is hard not to want to just shut yourself in a dark room somewhere.
There are also classic behaviors displayed by abusers – the blaming, the coercion, the intentional creation of insecurity, the belittling — and of course, the mixed messages (i.e. those emails we get that are addressed to “Colleagues”, a little crumb that pretends to be respectful of us). The arguments used by the university and the media often imply that, if the adjunct educator was any good, s/he would have found a full-time job by now. Another frequent argument is “You knew what you were getting into.” In other words, all of this is your own fault. These are also classic excuses of the abuser. (The “Look what you made me do” argument.)
As my semester winds down, I have found myself wondering, “Why do I feel so out of focus?….so unable to function?…..Why am I struggling against the desire to stay in bed, day after day?” On occasion, I have worked as a volunteer in shelters for women and children. Today, I realized that the look I saw on the faces of those women and those little ones reflected what I am feeling right now — the need to be protected, to be nurtured, a need to find a safe place in order to regain some balance. Am I overstating? No, not really. I know adjuncts who are on the brink of homelessness. I myself faced it last year. I know adjuncts on food stamps. I know adjuncts sleeping in their cars. So the comparison to those poor, abused victims in shelters is not as far-fetched as some outside academia might imagine.
Is it any wonder that we all begin to feel shell shocked? Numb? The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness explains this by saying, “If you are being abused…you may feel confused, afraid, angry and/or trapped. All of these emotions are normal responses to abuse. You may also blame yourself for what is happening.”
There are connections between emotional abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is classified as an anxiety disorder, which can be caused by repeated episodes of abuse, feelings of powerlessness over that abuse, or an experience of repeated humiliation. There have also been plenty of studies that talked about the learned helplessness that develops in cases of repeated and overpowering abuse.
One of the other things that struck me as I was continuing along this line of thought is that, much like the abused child who is constantly turning to the abusive parent for consolation – we are turning to the university, expecting that they will begin to behave more appropriately, that they will see the injustice of their tactics. Even turning towards unions may be a form of creating false hope — like turning towards another family member who has limited power over what the abuser will find a way to do.
Oh, and one more thing. What is one of the most classic reasons a person stays in an abusive relationship? They claim that they are staying for the children.
In our case, the children have kept us here, too. Our love for our students, our belief that if we can at least bring our best to the classrooms, pour ourselves into the work, give them what they deserve — all of this love of the children has kept us accepting the abuse of the system.
But let’s face it — just as the children in an abusive marital situation will ultimately be better if that situation is ended, so will our children, our students, be better if all of this comes melting down, if attention is finally called to the lies and atrocities of the university system by a dramatic action on the part of the majority faculty.
What dramatic action?
The best response to being in an abusive situation is this: Get out of it. I know that this might sound ridiculous, given that we are living through the worst economic crisis in several generations. I know that unemployment and underemployment are somewhere close to 20%.
I’m not saying we can all walk away tomorrow and find six-figure salaries elsewhere. What I am saying is that we have to work, beginning now, to construct an exit strategy that will have most of us deserting an abusive situation. The truth is that the situation IS only getting worse. Thousands and thousands of us across the country are facing even more dire situations now, with job cuts and other moves by universities around the U.S. to pay even less to teaching staff.
There are times in history when nothing short of a mass exodus is called for.
Abuse victims go into collusion with the abuser when they stay where they are, in the hope that things will get better, or in the belief that their goodness, their effort, their harder and harder work just might turn things around. No matter how unwillingly, we’ve been in collusion with our own abuse for too long, in those same hopes. Yes, those hopes are good ones – in the right situation. Yes, it is always a good thing to try our best to turn bad situations around. But after a time, and with all the proof we have now about the increasing abusiveness and its far-reaching, long-lasting effects on us, I say: We have to get out.
Over the next few months, I’ll be dedicating some of my articles and blogs to this topic, and talking about ways academics can leave the edu-factory and find happiness. If anyone has anything they would like to share, please either add your comment and contact information here, or contact me privately at email@example.com with the subject line of Ways to Leave Academia.