Reach for the Gutter

by Dawn Marlan, 30 July 2020

A few long weeks ago, I submitted an essay to the Digital Feminist Collective about my position as Career Faculty at a state university. In the midst of a pandemic, the problems of structural inequity associated with such positions become more urgent, whether they concern job security or access to health care. The time seemed ripe to describe an experience about which people are usually silent.

That was before a police officer killed George Floyd in cold blood, and protests against racism and police brutality gained renewed intensity and attention. It was before that officer was charged with murder, drawing attention to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. It was before moves were made to disband the Minneapolis Police Department, and before confederate statues started coming down. 

Finally, it seems like we might be on the verge of real change. We can imagine a world, for example, in which fewer Black men will be incarcerated for petty drug charges, and one in which victims of domestic abuse will have social workers show up on their doorstep rather than men with guns. Coming on the heels of a “revolutionary” impulse that is altering the Democratic party platform, the current protests also allow us to imagine a world that considers the intersections of racialized, gendered, and international vulnerability in academic labor, highlighted further by the racialized vulnerability to the impact of Covid-19. 

Both the pandemic and the protests are forcing universities to make changes they would not have contemplated on this scale before. For example, the president of my state university has finally agreed to rename a building he had previously (after much study) decided to retain, since the namesake’s “abhorrent” racist views had “undergone a metamorphosis” after the Civil War. But while symbolic changes are significant and have incalculable effects, we must continue to apply pressure for structural changes to our institutions. The pandemic both exacerbates very real threats faced by those in non-tenure track positions and exposes the extent to which the university resists any challenge to its self-conception and its entrenched culture of petrified relations. 

Non-tenure track positions are disproportionately filled by underrepresented minorities and by women, whose interests here are bound together. According to a recent study from the TIAA Institute, most of the slight increase in faculty diversity in the last twenty years has been in “the most precarious positions” (Inside Higher Ed, August 22, 2016). I would like to describe my own experience of occupying such a precarious position in a time of crisis.


Ever since the shelter-in-place orders sent shockwaves through the university, and the administration scrambled to respond, my job has been at risk. The university realized that, faced with the prospect of prolonged online education, it could lose a substantial portion of its funding, because students might decide that the cost is disproportionate to the value of remote learning. 

An off-hand conversation with a colleague in a situation like mine alerted me to a danger I had not fully considered before. She told me that her course-load had been reduced to five a year, putting her below the “half-time” status that comes with health insurance. To stay insured, Career Faculty need to teach six a year, one course more than a full-time load for a tenure line. She was filled with anxiety because her husband had pre-existing conditions and she did not feel safe relying on his insurance. 

I had always felt well-protected, one of the many delusions of whiteness, although so much of my experience has reinforced my sense of social strength. Examples are arbitrary, but also endless. As a white woman schooled in conventional femininity, I’ve been favored in housing applications. I get friendly warnings for traffic violations. I dress up in airports to give myself bargaining power. I pursue an impractical vocation believing that things will “work out.”

My whiteness and my education enable a certain magical thinking that’s allowed me to operate without paying the kind of attention to economic reality that would be unthinkable for people who don’t share these privileges. My kids and I are on my husband’s insurance plan. Those for whom such precarity is a part of everyday existence would never be so easily comforted by the thought that they might rely on someone else for their health and safety. Whereas, I thought I had nothing to fear. Then the pandemic turned the world upside down. 

But a world-in-the-making is a world that can be re-thought. It’s one where old assumptions can be challenged. I’d like to begin with an assumption favored by corporations, namely that in moments of scarcity, employees must be fired to protect the company’s bottom line. This has always been the university’s modus operandi

But what if those being discarded were among the university’s richest resources? What if this conventional tactic were an act of self-immolation that would squander the very abundance the institution desperately needs to preserve? 


I graduated from the University of Chicago with a PhD in Comparative Literature and a child on each hip, surviving a ten-year stint as a grad student by virtue of sheer stubbornness and a touch of masochism. The prevailing culture of single-minded devotion to the profession meant that some looked askance at my decision to get pregnant at age thirty, which constituted a sort of betrayal. 

My colleagues can probably imagine the circumstances that landed me in my position—that of Career Faculty, sometimes called Non-Tenure Track Faculty, or Adjuncts. We teach as much as Tenure Track Faculty when we are working part time, earning a dollar to their two or three, without insurance and without job security. 

My husband had tenure by the time I was ready for the job market. He is eight years older. If I had decided to take a tenure-track job in another city, it would have meant splitting up our family, or asking my husband to leave his job for mine. We would have given up job security and a more substantial income without solving the problem of one us being underemployed. 

No one trains ten years for a profession they don’t intend to practice. But life happens. Part-time teaching allowed me to write in modes that the tenure clock and the university culture would have prevented. Writing fiction was the silver lining to my disenfranchisement. 

I have watched peers apply for jobs without the burden of considering how that job might affect a partner or a dependent. I have witnessed some of them land jobs, buoyed by their partners’ clout. Whether attached to things we possess or the burdens we lack, our arbitrary privileges increase productivity and yet are read as merit. Once deemed meritorious, one’s accolades grow, just as being out of “the game” tends to produce more indifference to its rules and fashions. 

That “ficto-critical” traditions and poetics (and affect in general) are now in fashion might seem vindicating, except that the university only recognizes formal experiments by those who paid enough of a debt to traditional scholarship—which one does (and has to do) when one has the privilege of being in the game. When one has a job, one does what one must to keep it. When one doesn’t, one is freer to write in less traditional scholarly or more experimental modes, a habit that can then be used by the university to justify one’s place teetering on the edge of the academy. This circular logic is crystal clear to me. But sometimes I wonder if my colleagues think that I am where I am, and they are where they are, because they’re worthier, kind of the way rich people often think about the poor. 


I was anxious about the Coronavirus from the outset. I had vividly imagined what I thought were worst-case scenarios, all of them centered on losing the people I love. But I hadn’t quite realized that if my husband died, I would also lose my house and health insurance. The serendipitous social strength I enjoy in the world could instantaneously evaporate.

My economic privilege makes my institutional vulnerability hard to recognize. But this privilege depends on my husband and his invulnerability, and on being tethered to him, no matter the circumstances. That I had not thought this through before testifies to the strength of our marriage, which I enjoy by grace of chance.

Now I am forced to think it through. If the worst were to happen, the conditions under which I would be working, if I were still working, would feel very different. As it is, there is something galling about working for an institution that condemns exploitation while blatantly profiting from it.

I want to pause here to acknowledge that I feel unusually lucky to have landed with my particular colleagues, people I admire, appreciate and enjoy, and whose good intentions I tend to trust. I am especially grateful for the warm, collaborative relationship I have with my department head, a woman my age, whose respect I feel every day. 

But for me, there is no escaping the fundamental structural hypocrisy undergirding our university operations. I know it’s not personal. Like many fields in the humanities, the discipline of Comparative Literature frequently devotes itself today to analyzing power inequities. The faculty pride themselves on identifying with victims of discrimination, while blithely participating in the exploitation of an entire class of workers. They tolerate the contradiction, because the system is built on it. Because that’s the way it is.

I make excuses too. There are a million things I tell myself so that I can keep going. Systems feel inevitable. I chose to work under these conditions. For a while, I made my peace with it. But the more I have worked and the longer I have been working, the more the profound injustice of it becomes impossible to ignore.I’m tempted to try to lay out the professional logic behind the pay discrepancy, the reasons given and the refutations available for its justification, as if a demonstration of the faulty logic would prove my worth, my right to make a living wage. But in this impulse, the devastating effects of the system are demonstrated. 

This has been the surprise. Somehow, I tricked myself into thinking that if I came to the university without seeking a tenure track position—without hanging on the hope that a line would open that would be appropriate for me, or that my valuable contributions would move them to create a line for me—I would spare myself the pain of seeking from friends something they were unable or unwilling to give. But I wasn’t spared.  Despite the appreciation I feel from my colleagues and despite my affection for them, I’ve not been able to resist feeling the structural attack on my value. And it is a constant, pervasive, leaden weight on all of my professional interactions, though they probably don’t know it.

Visiting friends in New Mexico, friends with whom I share the most intimate things, I reddened with shame before admitting my salary, at which point I felt their marked pity. 

Sometimes at faculty meetings, I feel it too. In the midst of a discussion about someone’s needs and how we might advocate for them, I see it flash across their faces. A fleeting moment of recognition when they remember the conditions under which I am working. It seems to embarrass them. Worse, though, is when they don’t remember.

Years ago, I had a brush with death, when I contracted a serious case of pneumonia. It developed out of a flu, a much less virulent virus. It took months to recover. The risks of this virus are real to me.

It is hard to insist upon one’s value, especially when one knows that others have it worse.  I have never experienced the fear Black Americans feel during any encounter with the police. I have never been at risk of deportation to a country I don’t even know. It is difficult to really acknowledge this inequity and to insist nonetheless that after ten years of graduate school and over twenty years of teaching, I should not be working for bus fare and lunch money without my own insurance policy. But I don’t pretend that the work I do or that the time I’ve put into learning to do it makes me worthier of insurance than those who perform other kinds of labor. The ten years I spent being in graduate school—drinking coffee in cafés and getting excited about books—of course doesn’t make it less outrageous that housekeepers are uninsured, when they’ve spent those same years scrubbing other people’s grease and making order out of other people’s chaos. It just makes me more privileged. However, my relative privilege doesn’t change the fact that if my husband dies or if I’m a casualty of the university economic crisis, I’ll be a middle-aged woman competing for jobs during a time of record unemployment. And yet right now, I type from a deck overlooking a yard of blooming peonies. 

I am in a position of power in the world and of weakness in my profession, and these worlds—formerly separate—could collapse and I won’t know whether to feel rage, or sorrow, or guilt.


Even before the Coronavirus, social changes had begun to make themselves felt in the university. For instance, students had become more pragmatic and career focused, less interested in an education for its own sake. But this shift was partly due to the fact that the university started charging for each individual credit, undermining language learning and fostering the conventional wisdom that an education is a means to an end, the more direct, the better.

As much as I worry about the anti-intellectualism that accompanies a purely pragmatic relationship to education, some of the changes have been partly positive ones. For example, with fewer jobs requiring academic literacy, students have become less interested in learning to write like scholars. The upper administration noticed. While learning to write academic papers is good training regardless of one’s career goals, it’s not the only kind of writing we should be teaching. The administration began to call for innovative assignments that would engage students with different career trajectories. Suddenly, I had something unique to offer for having spent so much time engaged in “creative pursuits.” This was an instance in which, as Career Faculty, I was both less attached to the old way of doing things and prepared to innovate quickly. 

This is perhaps even more true for faculty of color, whose lived experiences, professional expertise, and creative energy could help shape a generation of young people. Many of them are already (under)employed and overworked as contingent faculty at universities across the country. Offering them full-time work and job security should be part of diversity initiatives. Their enfranchisement would help the university to evolve, not just by teaching white faculty about unconscious biases, which is necessary but insufficient, but by allowing faculty of color to flourish as thinkers and producers, which in turn enriches our world. It is time to expand what we mean when we talk about the “production of new knowledge.” 

In my own experience, the less the university is attached to traditional markers of “excellence,” which usually means traditional (i.e., white) modes of expression, the more excellent it becomes. The more I was freed from the necessity of teaching scholarly writing exclusively, the more I could innovate, holding up models like the Black legal scholar, Patricia Williams, who writes compellingly by combining personal writing with fierce argumentation. I’ve been able to introduce alternative ways to access and process material, which can reach a broader, more diverse student population. Now, I can ask students to write personal essays, imitate literary stylists, and take photographic “self-portraits” in dialogue with various artists. 

In many ways, I am extraordinarily lucky. The ideas I’m offering have a place here. But it’s the department that carves out that place and the department that recognizes those efforts. The administration doesn’t seem to notice that a lot of the innovation they want to see is being carried out by Career Faculty to whom it feels no loyalty.

Our union is fighting for us valiantly, from trying to protect our FTE to suggesting symbolic changes I never thought possible, for instance, that we Career Faculty be given a title with some degree of dignity—Teaching Professor. So far, the administration has rejected this shift that would cost them nothing and would align with the nomenclature the students have always adopted. They call us, “Professor.” Just like they call Assistant Professors “Professor.” 

Symbols matter. They don’t compensate us for the fact that we have no health insurance, or that we could be destitute if our spouse dies. But such a change would show respect.

Things are changing, but I will not be surprised if we lose our jobs before they come to pass.


Today there was a message from the Dean asking for input about how we might “explore the creation of shared administrative services.” He insists that this is not “an exercise to downsize,” but rather to “creatively use our resources…and rebalance our staff’s portfolios.” He claims to want them to feel “less harried and more satisfied.” 

I have a suggestion for creatively using our resources. Maybe it’s time, not to cut the very faculty who are their best bang for their buck, but to fully engage and employ them. 

Consider this example. I am the Director of Undergraduate Studies for our Department. Among other things, I do student advising. But recently, the university president has hired large numbers of professional advisors, staff unconnected to the university’s primary teaching and research mission. 

This enormous expenditure largely duplicates a function that was already being filled, but with more confusion and less knowledge of each discipline. But the university President, whose mind was on building and filling a shiny new building, had made “advising” his fancy pet project, and we are now stuck with it. It occupies a prominent place on the quad, while we fight for classrooms to teach in. Meanwhile, the College of Arts and Sciences has begun laying off Career Faculty in Romance Languages at a time when the university actually needs more teachers.

Yes, it needs more teachers, in spite of the fact that teaching is going remote and the same lecture could potentially reach a thousand students. We need more teachers because the students don’t have the stomach for passive learning.  After ten minutes the anxiety about a disintegrating world creeps back in and they can’t focus. We need more teachers because reaching these students now requires the individualized attention that was always the best pedagogical idea. 

But even if the university can’t bring itself to hire more of us in a period of retrenchment—because there are science buildings to erect and athletics to fund—they don’t have to fire us. Because there’s an alternative to hiring new staff and firing teachers and hoisting gleaming buildings for all to admire. 

What if this raging virus reshaping our world were seen as a challenge to name our values? What if instead of clinging to outdated hierarchies, the university were to commit to the people who are already here? 

This hiring freeze could be an opportunity for the administration and faculty to stop endlessly demonstrating the principle of imitative desire by chasing the next bright object or shining star, whose otherworldly sparkle fades the moment they appear among us as an actual human. It could be an opportunity to look to the talent and energy and capability all around them. It would require recognizing that—out of necessity—some of that talent, especially among faculty of color who are carrying additional burdens, might be less “traditional” than the fantasy hires departments were contemplating. But it will be worth it. 

It is not more important to hire someone who represents this year’s niche trend or that unrepresented area of specialization (we can’t cover all of them anyway) than to invest in people already on the job, who have proven records and developed relationships. We do not serve our students better by abandoning their teachers in the name of “new knowledge,” which is almost always “tweaked knowledge,” or by insisting on the absolute priority of another traditional scholarly monograph. We do not serve students better by featuring those with the largest number of citations captured by flawed algorithms in an intellectual popularity contest. Students will not abandon the university for supporting their teachers or for further expanding and redefining what we mean in the humanities when we talk about “research,” which is a model borrowed from the natural and social sciences.

What would it mean to fully commit to the highly qualified people who are already here or to take the university seriously when it suggests that creatively “rebalancing portfolios” isn’t code for downsizing?

The university could, for instance, “balance” the portfolios of Career Faculty by fully employing them, perhaps by dividing our time between teaching and administration without overloading us to the point where they make us ineffective. 

At my own university, there are projects already underway—for instance, new schools being conceptualized—that require more time and energy than the tenured faculty have to give. Some Career Faculty also have a good deal of administrative experience. For example, I was previously the Associate Director of a Humanities Laboratory at UIC responsible for creative programming. My current institution might not know this, because they don’t look closely enough at the people around them and because they have developed the habit of disqualifying people for the very disenfranchisement that the institution creates. “We don’t respect you, for the compelling reason that we have already deemed you unrespectable.” 

The sort of change for which I am advocating might require recognizing that those in the upper administration who are paid the big bucks have the very same degrees as the Career Faculty who make an infinitesimal fraction of administrators’ salaries. Their portfolios are overflowing. We could do some of that work. 

No, they should not pull up more TTF to do it, which is where the upper administration always comes from. The logic of advancement has been that those who already make money deserve more money, because their salaries reflect their merit, just as titles once allegedly reflected the innate virtues of the nobility. 

But when faculty become administrators, they generally stop researching, which was the principle justification for their promotion to a tenured position, which was in turn the condition of their eligibility for a position in the upper administration. So maybe putting seasoned researchers into administrative positions is not the best or only way to advance the university’s research mission. 

Further, as we all know, there is no necessary correlation between research productivity and administrative prowess. The skillset is different. And thinking “outside the box” doesn’t happen when those boxes are comfy, cash-lined sanctuaries for those inside them. When you want innovative ideas, don’t turn to people making bank and otherwise thriving from the old ideas. 

Instead, they might consider my modest proposal. Rethink the way you view contingent faculty, a diverse group of people teeming with energy and new ideas. Reach for the gutter. Put us in charge. 

Then, this crisis could be the occasion not to fire indiscriminately, not to wound, but to rebuild, taking stock of the value that is already here, and that has been here all along, hiding in plain sight.