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It’s easy enough to see why so many scholars have been so dismayed by these postings: Adjunct faculty are already widely recognized as some of the most exploited white-collar workers. One can hear the implied refrain with every enraged click and retweet: “You mean adjuncting can get worse?” The invocation of volunteerism takes a tragic situation and renders it farcical: “Volunteers” often forgo pay to work in support of a cause they believe in, but who in the world supports the adjunct system so much that they would participate in it without pay?
The specter of a class of volunteer adjuncts arrives on the U.S. academic scene as the logical but no less haunting conclusion of four decades of stagnant wages, decreased funding for public education, and a problematic, oft-repeated assumption that teachers, and other “laborers of love,” can always do more with less. Now colleges and universities have apparently begun to wonder: Can low-wage become no-wage?
From professional sports to social services, volunteer labor has emerged as an effective tool to blunt wage increases and circumscribe union organizing. While it’s too soon to judge the permanence of the volunteer-adjunct position, we have every reason to expect colleges and universities will seek to increase their unpaid ranks. Indeed, a history of unpaid labor in civic organizations, secondary education, and a host of cultural industries confirms what some critics have long suspected: The business of higher education in the United States is just that — business. And the business of business is always to profit more while paying people less.
The position of volunteer occupies an odd space in the marketplace of labor. Volunteerism designates a site where labor could have been purchased for a wage but has been donated instead — typically with the expectation of some other, non-monetary compensation. No one calls a family member a volunteer. But when it comes to staffing the public library or running events at the local school, a volunteer may very well show up and declare that she believes that much in the mission of literacy or education — she just wants to help. Volunteerism designates the possibility of paid work while obfuscating the fact that it is work.
But some things just need doing — and, since the mid-70s, in the face of stagnating wages and reduced government services, more of that doing has required, in part, the labor of volunteers. At the height of New York City’s fiscal crisis, with hospitals slated to close, police officers and firefighters being laid off, and no help forthcoming from the federal government, Sen. Jacob Javits initiated the Citizens Committee for New York City in hopes of recruiting 10,000 volunteers to staff public libraries, health clinics, and auxiliary police squads, and to clean sidewalks. “Citizen Group Suggests Volunteers Be Used to Fill Gaps in City Services,” ran the headline in The New York Times. The Citizens Committee remains active today, and indeed, for many working- and middle-class people, the crisis that required volunteers has yet to end.
While it’s too soon to judge the permanence of volunteer adjuncts, we have every reason to expect colleges and universities will seek to increase their unpaid ranks.
Indeed, volunteerism haunts the civic realm, that odd space of not-quite-market-but-not-quite-social interaction and exchange. And wealthy women have historically been its crucial organizers. They become nonworkers who choose to work but don’t categorize it as such. Volunteerism has been particularly prominent in public secondary education. The Parent Teacher Association bills itself as “the largest volunteer child advocacy organization in the nation.” But underfunded schools require more than just PTA meetings: Think of all the school fund raisers and the field trips that need to be staffed and chaperoned. When the school day ends, moreover, many children head off to Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, amateur athletics, and so on — almost all of which run mainly on volunteer labor. Unlike giving money to a nonprofit organization, which is tax-deductible and therefore, in some sense, profitable, those who volunteer give time and labor, which is decidedly not tax-deductible.
But what if one just really loves volunteering at their child’s school, sharing their knowledge at the local historical society, etc.? What if one really does want to adjunct for free? The fact is, people’s individual reasons for volunteering are irrelevant; what matters is the net effect volunteerism has on the devaluation of labor as such. Whatever one’s reason for volunteering, one of the primary effects is the depression of wages through the replacement of paid work with unpaid work.
The private sector itself has been more direct on this front. In 2016, the clothing company Urban Outfitters put out a call for volunteer workers to staff the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” rush. For over 10 years, business publications have been investigating the pros and cons of volunteer labor. Forbes asked how widespread such practices were in its 2011 article “Unpaid jobs: The New Normal?”
But colleges and universities have also been expanding their own, lesser-known use of unpaid labor. From unpaid athletes to unpaid undergraduate teaching assistants, they, too, are in on the volunteer game. This is a chilling complement to schools’ successful navigation of the unpaid internship market in which students pay universities (and foot all out-of-pocket expenses themselves) to volunteer elsewhere and receive credit for doing so. It likewise builds on universities’ recruitment of unpaid workers at all levels to conduct scientific research.
With the emergence of the volunteer adjunct, then, colleges and universities seem to be testing the waters. Might it be possible, they ask, to push an already decimated professoriat from low wage to no wage? Again, that remains to be seen. But by simply floating the prospect out into the choppy waves of “the discourse,” higher-ed institutions are now forcing us to seriously discuss what should be an absurd proposition.
In their attempts to convert even part of the adjunct labor force to the status of volunteer, universities are relying on the intensification of the dual trends of wage stagnation and the feminization of labor. That doesn’t simply mean more women working — although, as Kate Bahn reported in Chronicle Vitae in 2013, “A 2012 survey by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce puts the number of female adjuncts … at nearly 62 percent.” Rather, it means more workers will work like women have always worked: They will give more and receive less.
The volunteer adjunct presents a smooth continuation of a widely shared, if circuitous, logic that suggests care work is deserving of lower (or no) wages because, surely, one wouldn’t undertake it if one didn’t love it. But few academics love adjuncting, and doing it for free certainly won’t increase that number. Thus, the volunteer adjunct could also present a disruption in the love discourse of contemporary work that, as authors like Miya Tokumitsu have shown, saturates both corporate and academic settings alike.
This language of love, care, and support, even if reflective of genuine desires and hopes, has been a sad accompaniment to the casualization of academic labor. If we are to stave off the prospect of a no-wage professoriat, we must find another language for communicating and evaluating the work we do. But language alone will not curtail academe’s steady cultivation of an unpaid labor force. We must remain aware of the historically slim difference between “volunteers” and those who work for free out of a sense of limited possibility even while harboring a desire for things to be otherwise. Academics might take their lead from recent struggles in secondary education, which can provide a frame for analyzing the value and the limits of volunteerism. Finally, we might take inspiration from teachers’ labor actions, particularly their demands that increased workloads be accompanied by increased wages. The specter of volunteer adjuncts is indeed haunting the academy; exorcising it for good will require a truly transformative vision of labor in and beyond the university.