When Labor Abuse Becomes Emotional Abuse

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 junctrebellion@gmail.com with the subject line of Ways to Leave Academia.

About junctrebellion

'Junct Rebellion was established to raise awareness of the corporate colonization that has taken over our U.S. universities, beginning in the 1980s and growing more and more dire with each decade. Our state universities used to be free, or very low-cost; they used to employ full-time faculty; they were run by faculty for the purpose of disseminating scholarship, to fellow academics and students and to society at large. Now, stratospheric tuitions and crippling student loan debt have been normalized, 80% of faculty across the country are hired on "adjunct" contracts, usually lasting one semester at a time. Classes are designed and overseen by administrators who have never taught. Administrators outnumber both faculty and students on most campuses across the U.S. In short, our academic system has been hijacked by for-profit "business models" and corporatist values. Education is a social good and should be seen, valued and supported as such. It is not a commodity. Our students are not sacrificial lambs. Our scholars are not untouchables, to be starved out of existence. Please join us in our efforts to restore high-quality academia to American society.
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25 Responses to When Labor Abuse Becomes Emotional Abuse

  1. Dr. B says:

    Great article! I wonder where specific administrators who exhibit abusive tendencies learn these? School principals are notorious for being manipulative and “making life difficult” so people whose views differ from their own will leave.

    I have been looking for a message-board forum for adjunct and part time professors to discuss these issues but have not found anything yet. I have been thinking about putting one up myself.


  2. Thanks. You should check out my older blogs as well, on my website: http://www.junctrebellion.com. Are you familiar with The New Faculty Majority? They are an important group to know. Currently, they are planning a “counter conference” in LA during the MLA. I’m planning to be there, and hope to bring my filmmaking team along, so that we can shoot footage for the documentary. Here is their website:
    http://www.newfacultymajority.info/national/ And here is their FB page:
    You want to connect with all of us, and YES begin your own blog/message board! The more voices raised against this atrocity, the better.

  3. Congratulations on a great new site and thoughtful new blog. I only want to emphasize something we all already know-the abuse is built-in, it’s structural. That makes it harder for us to convince any actual folk who are doing it, participating in it, that they really are doing it: they always have a structural excuse and they always deny any personal contribution to the problem. Perhaps the answer is to get all Churchillian on their sanctimonious behinds-and never, never, never give up. Our critics frequently zoom in to belittle any comparisons we might have in regard to civil rights movements, domestic abuse, etc. I say keep it up and don’t let them steal any of the good rhetoric, And I also recommend http://www.newfacultymajority.info/national.

  4. Michele R says:

    Amen! Amen! So much to mull over in what you wrote. Thank you.

  5. Anthea says:

    Thoughtful blog post. Thank you. It seems to me that there’s a number of people discussing this issue in the blogsphere. I’ll definitely be coming back here.

  6. Overit.com says:

    Good Evening!
    I am so glad that I stumbled across your blog and on to this post in particular. Everything that you expressed is dead-on and I am relieved that I could put a name and face on what I was feeling (and still trying to get over) as an adjunct. When I started adjuncting…I never knew it would be like this. I had so enjoyed teaching, I was looking forward to doing it as a career. Not anymore! HELL NO!

    After I left my job to start my own biz, I decided to teach to create some income while I was growing the company. Boy oh Boy I had no idea what I was getting into. I got my entry into teaching at one for profit institution. A couple of years in I got some more teaching . This past semester, I taught 5 classes (OL & F2F )across 3 different schools (profit, nonprofit, state open enrollment) from 1-4oo levels and that was freakin suicide.

    One place was just interesting and it was hard to teach with little to no student interaction. The most horrific place was a like an abscess…growing and growing until it could not be ignored. The other school…is what it is…

    I did not realized that I was emotionally abused and disillusioned until I read this post. The amount of energy given, the lack of dis-regard, the craptastic students, the abuser administrators……crazy. By the end of the semester, I was completely done and had to leave the country for a few weeks just to try and rejuvenate.

    Now I am back and have decided to forgo adjuncting pretty much. I am still at one school because the schedule was complete before I left, but even then I might let that one go to after I hit my year mark. I had to leave the other school because it was becoming a toxic situation rife with lies, subterfuge and apathy. I just got tired of being the disposable one due to the politics,etc. I can’t even begin to describe the fuckery that was ensuing (and still is- it was not personal, just bad leadership), but like an abuser, that mess is so subtle and so underhanded, that you start to think that you are going crazy and being paranoid.

    When I first started teaching, I was so excited…by the time the end of 2010 came around I was borderline despondent. People have no idea how draining teaching can be in the positive of situations. Imagine if you are in a less than ideal situation and you get the hint. I know that I am a good if not great teacher, but I am over it. The stress and $$ are not worth it. If I cant find a full time teaching gig (which by my research is damn near impossible anyway), I can go find a p/t gig doing something else and save myself the stress and grief. My mental and emotional health are much more important that the $2,500-$3,000 per class paid.

    Intellectual day laborers is what us adjuncts are.

  7. Dr. B says:

    $2,500-3,000 per class???? WOWOW!!! We only get $1,650 per class in Tampa!

    Pro. B

  8. Pingback: The Adjunct Situation as Emotional Abuse - On Hiring - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  9. Julia says:

    I love this article. A mass exodus is what we need to do. I also hold adjuncts accountable for this crippling crisis as well. It sounds mean to say this, but if it weren’t for soooo many brilliant adjuncts staying in the field and letting them get abused, we wouldn’t have this situation. Colleges profit and hire mostly adjuncts because there are too many of them lapping up classes.

  10. Julia says:

    Oops, and I hit enter too quickly:-) On top of my previous message, I realize adjuncting was the worst career move I ever made. I own that. Now comes my exit strategy…..stripping at a bar. I will be better off.

  11. Lana Ross says:

    I’ve been an adjunct for 10 years. I’ve collected dozens and dozens of unsolicited letters of appreciation from students. I’ve been thanked and commended verbally by many more. In student surveys given by the school, I get excellent ratings. When my students take standardized tests, they achieve significantly higher scores than students taught by anyone else in the department. When paid for 6 contact hours, I typically put in 9 (not including, of course, time spent outside of class.) I’ve never canceled class in 10 years. You get the idea.

    How has the department and administration thanked me? They rejected me for every full-time position that opened up, hiring people with less education, less experience, and less success. Now they’ve given me a class in the spring that has no students registered. When it’s canceled, which is highly likely based on previous semesters, I won’t have an assignment… Or I’ll have to pick up crumbs like running a lab for a faculty member, no teaching involved.

    Yes, my psyche has been hurt. I’ve never worked so hard or been treated so unfairly in my life. And yes, I’m powerless to do anything about it. The only thing that keeps me coming back is the overwhelmingly positive response of the students.

    I’ve learned that the world of education is about money, power, politics, and special interests. Students and learning are secondary. Adjuncts aren’t a blip on the screen.

  12. N says:

    I really feel for you. I’m going to call myself a recovering teacher because I worked for a school system for 30 years and feel that I was emotionally abused during much of that time. Staff and administration could be rude,exclusive and did not seem to respect my role in ese with many somewhat violent children much of that time. Little respect,manipulation and being used didn’t ring a bell for me. HELLO! I learned how to detach from other people.Please don’t stay if your being controlled and abused. We have 1 life.

  13. Melinda says:

    I love this!! I starting thinking that I was just being an ungrateful brat, but after speaking to my colleagues and readin this, I know I’m not alone and that this is a real issue. What bothers me the most is we take our work home with us! We’re so underpaid and underappreciated. I teach English, and boy do the colleges love dumping the remedial courses on us. Teaching remedial is rewarding, but as some of you may know, it is very challenging. F*** it, it’s hard and it sucks sometimes! I’ve been dying to teach a literature course, but that’s not going to happen because the precious full-timers want those classes. I feel that we adjuncts are like dogs at the side of table, hoping and drooling for some courses. This is the most demoralizing job I’ve ever been in, and I used to be a waitress! Good luck to my fellow adjuncts! I’m thinking of y’all every day.

    • marlanaesquire says:

      After going back to grad school out of desperation and confusion from being an adjunct for 2 years, I’ve come to realize how it is a terrible existence. Decided this semester that I will be quitting to work at the health food store. Guess my second grad degree has already started teaching me something:self respect. I’m taking classes in an English program with many k-12 teachers and aspiring adjuncts. The least I can do is be a good role model. I was thinking about doing something as an exit shocker. Perhaps a mass email. Perhaps a publication.

      • Mariana, this is one of the saddest things that happens with all of us. We begin to think that going BACK to school, doing additional grad work, might help. The universities will never disabuse you of that — and in fact, take advantage of that combined despair and hope — to pull you back into an exploitative system.

        We all have to begin conceptualizing a mass exodus from the colonized academic world — I no longer believe it can be saved. I think that we, the intellectuals and scholars, have to abandon those ruined and corrupted institutions in order to create an entirely new model – as Buckminster Fuller has written, there is little benefit in pushing against a broken system. There is more power in creating an entirely new system that will supplant the old, broken one. That’s where we are right now; and we should be using our intellectual gifts to collaborate on envisioning and manifesting this new, empowering replacement – to benefit ourselves, our beloved students and the society.

  14. Leigh Mitchell says:

    thank you, thank you, thank you for this article!

  15. Good piece. Just found it today! I got out just over ten years ago and it was the best thing I ever did! Haven’t regretted it for a second.

  16. Thank you for blogging about this. I’m glad I found it while researching my own situation. I love teaching, but have been trying to find an exit for the last 6 months now since the Affordable Care Act decimated my hours.

  17. Pingback: Killing the Hungry Ghosts – Cultural Capital Doesn't Pay the Rent

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