Since The Chair came out on Netflix in August, I’ve heard one particularly painful criticism from my friends and former colleagues: the television show I co-created focuses only on tenured and tenure-track professors. It includes no contingent faculty and only one graduate student. In other words, it excludes the most vulnerable members of the academic community: young scholars and adjunct professors who often perform the same — or more — teaching work than senior faculty and have no access to benefits or a living wage, much less the protections of tenure.
The show makes choices about whom to represent and how. All works of art do this. But if The Chair doesn’t show those professors who have to live out of our cars or go without medical care — as I did for years — its release offers me a chance to say very clearly that adjunctification is destroying higher education. The process by which tenure is being systematically eliminated and teaching duties switched over to junior scholars without benefits or job security — that is, to adjuncts like me — is killing American universities.
Luckily for us, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to begin to reverse its effects.
I came all the way to Hollywood from the ivory tower because I needed a job. By the time I finished my Ph.D. at Harvard University in 2017, my prospects for secure employment as an English professor were zero. The academic job market had collapsed — indeed, it has been collapsing for more than a decade. Even L.A., where people famously go to get their dreams stomped on, seemed like a better bet.
After moving to the city’s Eastside, I worked as an adjunct for three years. I commuted an hour north to a beautiful, prosperous, hypermodern campus, where I squatted in a borrowed office to eat my lunch, make my lesson plans and meet my students, as is common for contingent faculty. (One semester, a kind administrator advised me to squat in the conference room instead, though I had to hide my belongings in the filing cabinet when real faculty needed the space.)
I made so little that the job was nearly too expensive to keep; I relied on friends for gas and food. My student debt and that tiny adjunct paycheck meant I had to constantly scramble for more gigs, which irritated my creative partners and harmed the quality of my teaching. I squeaked my way into Writers Guild health insurance in March of 2020, just in time for the pandemic. Only this summer was I able to replace the molar I broke in graduate school. Driving away from the dentist, I cried with relief.
To be clear, I do not mean that any of us have been taking this lying down. In the last decade, the academic labor movement has organized tens of thousands of teachers and researchers. When I was in grad school, I participated in what was then an unrecognized grad student union; I marched and voted and got very mad and once scandalized my students by telling them that I could command a higher hourly wage if I were to simply babysit them than if I were to instruct them in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Whatever else people may find in it, The Chair is a trace of that altered consciousness as it happened for me: it is a story about struggling for meaningful intellectual work in increasingly hostile economic conditions.
I can only repeat that this is the moment to try and change those conditions for the better.
Thanks to months of campaigning by academic unions, a plan is now gaining traction on Capitol Hill to include major academic labor market reform in the president’s $3.5 trillion budget proposal. This idea, developed by Higher Education Labor United — a coalition of the numerous unions in the industry — would require public institutions to reach 75 percent tenure-track or tenured instructional workforces within five years, with hiring preference for their current contingent faculty.
Think about that.
It has significant backing within the Senate already, and support has been growing. Major unions — the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union — are lobbying for it, and it would radically transform working and learning conditions in the industry. Nonunion groups have come out in support as well, including the Modern Language Association and the American Association of University Professors.
In the medium and longer term, the academic labor movement can lead the fight for free public college for all, pay parity for adjuncts and living wages for all campus staff — not just instructors. People cannot teach well if they cannot afford medical care and have nowhere to live; everyone, inside or outside universities, should be able to work under decent conditions for fair pay. (For the curious, the last reliable report on adjunct pay put the average yearly wage at $26,000 a year.)
Close to 20 million people enroll in postsecondary education each year. That’s a lot of people who stand to benefit from better jobs, better teaching and university communities that are more stable and more democratic. It’s a lot of parents who might want universities to be spending a bit more money on teaching their children.
To be frank, that’s also a lot of people who could be calling their senators in support of the higher education provisions in the reconciliation bill. I’m sometimes too shy to do that sort of thing until I remember that this kind of pressure works: a major phone-banking campaign this year by the Democratic Socialists of America has apparently so far pushed numerous Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to sign on to include major labor law reform in the bill.
The show I helped make is about isolated individuals trying — and often failing — to deal with the collapse of our world on their own. So many people watched together. And maybe if we seize this moment — if we all made those calls — there’s a world in which we could together win this key victory, too.