Monday, October 28, 2013

"Civil Disobedience" and Campus Equity Week

Adjunct Equity buttonIt just so happens that this week one of my classes is reading Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"--it is also Campus Equity Week here in the US.  The preface to my edition reminds us that the influence of this text extends into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, specifically through Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Originally a speech, this piece provides much encouragement for the contemporary activist, including those striving for sustainable employment for adjunct educators.

Speaking about the contemporary academic scene, many temporary faculty members find themselves in bleak situations, as most recently highlighted by the case of Margaret Mary Votjko.  This is not dissimilar from the plight of American workers in many fields:  both food service and retail also coming under fire for the heartless ways they treat their employees.  The single mother who spoke up to the McDonald's CEO and lost her job, the recording of Wal-Mart instructing its workers to file for food stamps due to their paltry take-home pay, these are not uncommon themes today.  Must this be so?  Thoreau writes "It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience" (¶4).  We live in a time when the Supreme Court considers corporations people, yet we also see what happens when the people behind that Corporate Personage have no conscience.  We have the state of the American worker today.

Thoreau, however, does not leave us without hope.  Instead, he issues a challenge perhaps forgotten among the more popularly quoted lines regarding government and unjust laws.  First he instructs that "when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say let us not have such a machine any longer" (¶8).  Do we have friction? Ask the working poor who are mocked at every turn, on newscasts of every stripe:  are they too lazy and not worthy of a living wage, of being able to afford nutritious food and shelter for themselves and their families, do they not have a right to health care so that they can work and care for things and people without worry and extreme medical debt?  So many are quick to say no, but I say we are not to oil this machine any more, for a machine we certainly have:  the Machine of Corporate Education, and it has no conscience.  Therefore, we are required to "Let [our] life be a counter friction to stop the machine" (¶18)!  It is not going to stop for us. It is not going to stop because we set aside a week.  It is not going to stop unless we quit enabling it with our sweat, our intelligence, and our lives.  

What can one person do?  I do not have an answer for everyone, but for me starting this blog serves as a risk-taking step.  Already, tenure track friends have warned me to be careful, to stop, to delete it.  I cannot.  I can not now stop talking back because I am full-up with sickness, with work pain for these conditions.  I wept for the life of a woman I never knew.  I know that I cannot keep up this maddening commute for multiple years.  This kind of teaching is not my best though I am trying as hard as I can.  I also cannot keep shortchanging my family for the adjunct lifestyle.  Reading Thoreau for class today gave me some solace and I turned the quote over in my mind all the way to work and home again:  "For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be:  what is once well done is done forever" (¶21).  I could take the blog down, but likely there are already screenshots, copies, reposts, and, as Anonymous has shown us, nothing put on the Internet truly ever disappears.  It is done, or rather begun.  

So what will we do next?  The author of "Civil Disobedience" says "Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.  A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight" (¶22).  We may be the minority only in perception, but reality shows that the numbers are on our side.  The Machine of Corporate Education has no conscience and it has no heart, but right now it has our lives.  We can go on until it grinds us to bits or we can, in our collective strength--to paraphrase Thoreau--clog it with our whole weight.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Signal Boost: "Adjunct Blues" video

Next week, October 28-November 2, is Campus Equity Week (CEW) nationwide!  This event is also known in some states and Canada as Fair Employment Week.  Visit for more information, events, and ways to participate.

The linked video stars John Manning and his banjo performing the song "Adjunct Blues," -- with Manning's lyrics set to "Rockin' Chair Money" by Lonnie Glosson and Bill Carlisle.  Thanks to friend of the blog, Matt Ussia, for sending me the link and also filming the video.

The lyrics are below:

                         "Adjunct Blues"

I got the adjunct blues and I got ‘em the hard way
Teaching for the university, working for low pay
And we’re getting robbed…yeah robbed
We’re getting robbed
We got the adjunct blues.

Now students got the adjunct blues and they get it every day
Your teachers got no job security, working for low pay
And you’re getting robbed…yeah robbed
You’re getting robbed
We got the adjunct blues.

Your folks got the adjunct blues and they get ‘em the hard way
Paying big tuition for adjuncts who get low pay
And they’re getting robbed…yeah robbed
They’re getting robbed
We all got the adjunct blues.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adjunct Carnival, Buyer Beware

Being an adjunct is bad enough when I see posts on line of the travails of this career from others, notably CUNY's refusal to pay their adjuncts until October 14th though they started work at the end of August.  However, some weeks this nationwide crisis gets a bit more in my space.  Recently I attended a meeting that included discussion of a department's treatment of adjunct faculty.  I still do not know if this was a good decision on my part or not.  I don't even know if I even understand what happened, what it all meant, and if anything aligns with our current contract, but two things from this meeting have rarely left my thoughts since.

The first item seems to me to be an unattainable golden ring--no, not the Lord of the Rings one, but the kind that used to be on carosels high up in the bunting which conferred a free ride to any merry-go-round jockey lucky enough to grab it.  The ring was stationary while the horses not only spun around but moved up and down, making it next to impossible to reach.  I feel that just such an enticement has been nailed up in front of us.  While being told we may no longer be welcome to apply and teach at this school as adjuncts, we were told that any of us were eligible to apply for any of the full-time tenure track positions that were posted.

This might be the point in the meeting that I chuckled out loud.  Ever since I first arrived at this school I have been told by multiple sources "off the record" that the department in which I work WILL NOT hire their own people.  Will not.  Won't.  Don't bother.  I know of two people who were highly qualified for positions there in the past who did bother to apply.  Neither of them were even interviewed.  They eventually were picked up full time elsewhere.  But, we can apply.

The second thing that I cannot seem to ditch was a comment on the part of a tenure track graduate faculty member who, among other things, proposed that part of the solution to this problem of adjuncts was simply to "advise our graduates not to pursue a career as adjuncts."  My apologies if those are not quite the exact words.  I was so caught up in the brilliance of this solution that I might not have written it word for word in my notes.  If only my adviser had told me about the dangers, nay horrors, of the adjunct lifestyle, how much trouble might I have avoided?  Why oh why did no one tell me instead to apply for full time jobs only?!

No really.

I left shortly after that.  If anyone thinks I left in disgust or outrage, they can go on believing that.  In truth I had to go start a class.

I still can't figure out why no one else ever solved this crisis in such a simple way.  It eats at my soul.

Now excuse me while I try to find an open amusement park to practice my agility on moving carnival rides.......

carousel horses

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Litany of Excuses, or Reasons Why Adjuncts Exist

1.  We're not as bad as _____________ .  Currently, in my area, this blank is filled in with Duquesne, which has become the default of the poorest treatment of adjunct faculty. As long as our school doesn't stoop that low, then what we do to adjuncts is fair in comparison.  I mean, hey, we actually allow adjuncts to have offices/computers/attend meetings/(choose the perk).

2.  Hiring any of these adjuncts permanently, no matter how well they're doing, prevents us from maybe possibly someday being granted a sacred tenure track line for something we really need.
Need seems to mean some miniscule specialization that may only teach one such class a term or year, but never seems to mean covering vast quantities of general studies courses.

3.  There just is not enough money to pay for full time teaching, which also means full time benefits.  Meanwhile, here is your invitation to the latest construction project ribbon cutting ceremony on campus.  By the way, have you seen our new dorm/stadium/fitness center? 

4.  Our dean will not let us hire full time adjunct positions.  

5.  We use teaching associates so that our graduate students get more experience.  Teaching associates are totally not contingent labor or exploitable in any way.  They need this.

6.  People choose to be adjuncts.  (Who are these people?)

7.  People just don't apply for permanent jobs, therefore they are stuck being adjuncts.

8.  Really we must be concerned with management's attempts to cut programs, so attending to adjunct issues is a huge distraction.

9.  When I was a newly minted PhD, I was hired right away.  Surely these adjuncts must be doing something wrong.

10.  If one or two of them complain and refuse this offer, there are at least forty more people waiting to take the job anyway, no matter what it is.  

Feel free to add any in the comments.  I'd truly hate to have missed one.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Is Unionization the Answer for Adjuncts?

A large piece of the story brought to the fore by the death of Mary Margaret Votjko, and a piece that often is used by those who would table debate on the use and treatment of adjuncts, is the fact that the bleak circumstances of her last years and death only appeared to the general audience through the writing of Dan Kovalik.  Criticism of Kovalik stems from the fact that he is senior associate general counsel for the United Steelworkers union and has been working with adjunct faculty in the Pittsburgh area who wish to unionize.  Supposedly, Kovalik used Votjko’s case to further his own agenda—that of bringing union protection and bargaining power to the adjuncts, specifically those at Duquesne, where Votjko worked until her dismissal.  

This, to me, highlights what is now the new normal in America.  No one ever pays attention to any given situation that may be in dire need of work/attention/help/repair until catastrophe strikes.  Bridges and infrastructure in disrepair?  No one can find the money or be bothered until a bridge collapses or a pipeline bursts spewing either fuel or water onto people, homes, and land.  Anyone pointing out the problems beforehand, when some preventative measure may have been taken is a treehugging Communist or something else hardly patriotic.  We cannot be arsed to fix it if it isn’t entirely, devastatingly broken.

Well, it’s broken.

The situation of adjunct faculty use and their gradually worsening statuses is not new.  This developed.  Rather, this was allowed to develop over time.  At any point, faculty, administration, or governmental agencies (in the case of state funded schools) could have asked more questions.  When the dollar becomes the only thing that matters, people become commodities without names, lives, and histories.  They simply cease to matter except in terms of class coverage and, of course, how many students can be crammed into a class that will be covered.

In Mami's post "Adjuncts Should Do as Little Work as Possible," which I discussed on this blog earlier, I did not address her comments on unions that appeared towards the end.  She states, regarding the adjunct life, "I was stupid enough in the beginning to assume it was a problem at the particular school I worked at.  Unions are not the answer since I was represented by a union at all three schools.  To me this was a double whammy--1) Get paid next to nothing with no benefits and 2) Pay union dues."  When I first encountered these thoughts, I was more impressed that three schools allowed union participation for adjuncts.  I have now taught for four different schools in this area and only one has a union, of which I am still a member.  The others do not.  Or rather, if they did they were for full-time faculty only and I was never approached to join.  Even now, $22.81 come out of my check for my union dues.  I've begun to wonder what exactly that buys me.

As a full-time temporary faculty, this afforded even me the union eye and dental plan, first and foremost:  totally worth it.  Additionally, I voluntarily served on the union's temporary faculty committee, when it met.  The last two years that I've attempted to do this, I believe it has not met at all.  The chair of the committee is an acquaintance of mine, but is also a tenure-track faculty member, as are several other members.  Now, I do not fault them for wanting to help and showing concern for our causes.  I understand that some sort of permanence is needed since contracts are either yearly or semesterly for adjuncts there.  In fact, of all the other schools in our same system, we had seemingly the most organized efforts for adjuncts.  I know this because I helped this committee complete a system-wide survey a few years back.  While serving on this committee, we heard a few complaints but neither met the qualifications to be forwarded on to the membership.  Neither person fulfilled their responsibilities to work towards conversion to full time permanent faculty.

Just this term, the union asked for nominees for a temporary faculty member to attend representative council expressly to speak on our behalf and hold a permanent place at the table.  I could not apply to do so, for the meetings conflict with my teaching times at one of my schools.  I forget which one, I just know that they do because I checked.  I do not know what exactly this will mean for adjuncts at this school or in this union and system, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.  However, even though the union made an effort to protect us in the last contract negotiation with the system, going so far as to reject deals that would precipitate situations such as the non-full-time state I find myself in now, the union did not go far enough.  They did not add to the contract wording to protect us from our own departments!  Who knew?!  The only advice I received when presented with my current job offer there was to not take the offer because it had not directly violated the contract and there was nothing to be done.

The part of me that grew up learning about Mother Jones and the proud union history of my home state wants to believe that unionizing can only benefit adjuncts, if handled well, but it seems adjuncting has become a situation in which one must imagine and prepare for any possible assault to do any lasting good.  Taking a hard hit from so-called friendly fire likely never crossed the state leadership's mind.  It will now.  We have been made examples.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Adjunct Stereotypes Exist for Administrators' Ease

"Course Correction" an article by Lauren Daley, Chris Porter, and Alex Zimmerman appeared in City Paper Pittsburgh's 10/2-10/9 issue last week continuing the conversation forced to the front of the local and national consciousness by the death of Mary Margaret Vojtko.  The article presents, among other information, the story of Clint Benjamin, a current adjunct at both Duquesne--where Vojtko taught--and at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC).  Benjamin lists as his rule, "Teach as many classes as you can" and follows his own advice by currently teaching five courses between the two schools.  He also describes his own health care situation as "[...] death by a thousand cuts," referring to the $150 a month he shells out for only catastrophic coverage.  Clint Benjamin proves one of the brave by providing the authors with his name, something not everyone interviewed could do.  Interestingly, most cited Vojtko's death as a signpost of the contemporary academic culture we all find ourselves in as part of Adjunct Nation.

The authors then attempted to collect data on temps' pay and usage at several area campuses.  Not surprisingly, some of my old friends reappeared to buttress these schools' refusal to admit they were not guilty of exploiting contingent labor.  Many of the comments seemed reminiscent of Gormley's denial of culpability.  I wonder if administrators think that if they repeat these things long enough that others will actually believe them.  I do not give them the benefit of a doubt that they themselves believe this nonsense.  I think these moves are calculated and PR-approved.  That also means it is high time to slap some labels on these cardboard cutout adjuncts so we can knock them flat forever, replacing them with the true experiences of people like Clint Benjamin, Luke Niebler, Josh Zelesnick (all three from the City Paper article), and those who fear to give their names.

First, I'd like to introduce you to "Apologetic Adjunct":  AA is often trotted out by administrators as the very model of a modern major adjunct.  Apologetic Adjunct can be found painfully admitting that the overall situation of adjuncts is Very Bad Indeed, BUT AA cannot really complain and this horribleness does not apply to AA's particular situation because of a full-time and/or multi-year contract that provides for a living wage and even health insurance.  Apologetic Adjunct is Very Sorry Indeed that everyone cannot have a position like this.  It allows AA to be just fine while being removed from the overall political discourse that is the contingent labor debate in the US.  AA wouldn't want to jeopardize said contract or the likelihood that it will be renewed, even though tenure will never be conferred.

Another regular who appears to aid administrators is "Flexible Adjunct":  FAs just love the versatility that adjuncting offers!  Maybe FA has only one class a term or two, but that's exactly what FA was looking for!  Perhaps FA has a partner provider and does not have to seriously worry about bills, health care, and a career.  FA can work the one class and still be homeroom mom or dad of the year! FA is an administrative and cost effective dream because, supposedly, FA has no desire to become full time ever, which would get in the way of whatever Real Life FA had going on outside the academy.

This final category is one that I'm still not convinced isn't mythical, but we have "Adjunct For Fun":  AFF repeatedly appears in official commentary of administrators as the golden haired child of the adjunct world.  This individual is, I hear, a Working Professional with Real World Experience who is only too glad to jaunt to campus for a course here and there to impart bon mots of wisdom from the field of choice to those students eagerly seeking to enter said field and also disdainfully tired of learning at the feet of full time professors (who are supposed to be full time and work lighter schedules to stay current and do research in the field--which is why they don't need to teach four courses at a time but adjuncts do, according to other rationale).  AFF has no need for high pay or benefits from the college or university because AFF already has awesome things like that from the Real World Job.

As a whole, all these categories are entirely too conveniently packaged and sold as part of administrative rhetoric.  I have no doubt that Apologetic Adjunct exists.  I think I was one.  I think I know some now, and they are at the mercy of their respective schools, so to speak.  Even now it is personally hard to blame any of them who choose to stand by saying and doing nothing. A good contract is no small matter.  I hope they never take the fall that I did.

It is possible that Flexible Adjuncts are out there somewhere, and I'm glad that position works for their lives, but they are not representative of the vast majority of us.

Adjunct For Fun, however, I have yet to encounter.  It's like that rare comic book or baseball card everyone hears about but next to no one has, or maybe Bigfoot.  Why on earth does it keep showing up in the discourse? Because it looks good.  It sounds a lot better than the actuality of life for the majority of Adjunct Nation.

However, the Reality of Adjunct Life is of one who travels between at least two schools, if they're lucky.  They may teach as many as six or seven courses.  Some people who cannot get multiple schools may supplement incomes by teaching a course or two online or by taking other work outside the academy.  They mainly make $30,000 or less per year, according to recent interviews.  They pay their own healthcare or go without.  They might be on food stamps.  Their children may have state insurance cards.  They teach their students and do their jobs sometimes without offices or regular access to computers.  They might be represented by a union or that might be forbidden. They might be accepted as participants in departmental governance or they might be asked to stay away.  Yet, without us, without the large quantity of adjunct labor, the contemporary American college and university would cease to function in this current incarnation.  The Reality of Adjunct Life is not as neat, tidy, and unexploited as administrators would have America believe.
Adjunct Sketch

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

If I Can't Tell if an Article is Satire, That's a Problem

My social media sites have been popping these past few weeks with adjunct issues, and articles by and for those in the Adjunct Nation.  Some are good, some bad, and some leave me wondering what I am supposed to think of them.  Mami's "Adjuncts Should Do as Little Work as Possible," published via The Chronicle's "The Adjunct Project," falls into that confusing category for me.  The basic gist is that adjuncts are not paid well enough or given enough resources to properly do their jobs, therefore, they should do them according to their pay.  The author rightly ties adjuncts' desire for continued work to fears over poor student evaluations or making waves by reporting problems such as cheating or plagiarizing.  However, I do not think the answers offered are a path that I can condone.  Admittedly, the author says that doing the least possible wasn't personally acceptable to her either, and thus she no longer works as an adjunct.

So, I wonder, is this advice from Mami offered as satire?

Adjuncting is a good job if you:
  1. Don’t prep.
  2. Assign the least you can get away with.
  3. Grade by doing a brief scan.
  4. Never grade finals — just give the student the grade you would have given him or her without the final.

If so, I think that it misses the mark.  It also assumes that the reading audience will get that it is satirical as it denigrates the art of post-secondary adjunct teaching to a path of least resistance.  If one happens to be an adjunct, such as myself, and knows many adjuncts, these practices seem absurd:  no one I know at either school gives such short shrift to their classes.  However, this article is in the social media circulation loop, which means it will invariably be viewed by those who neither know any adjuncts in real life or understand satire--people will think this is, in fact, what adjuncts ARE doing.  It doesn't exactly assist in signal boosting the plight of adjuncts that has finally and tragically been brought to light by the death of Margaret Mary Votjko of Pittsburgh.

The writer goes on to claim that this poor level of teaching is exactly what administrators want because it will lead to fewer failures, higher retention, and fewer grade complaint issues.  I have no idea if this is true or merely conjecture.  At the department level for both of my schools, my work is subjected to some review.  It was required by both that I submit my syllabi beforehand for approval, and both schools will administer student-completed evaluations.  As far as I am aware, only one school will do a peer evaluation.  The opposite school provided stricter policies on book and assignment choices in an effort to assure some standardization across sections, so perhaps they only observe if complaints surface.  I do not believe I could get away with a low level of engagement at either place.  However, I taught for a community college nearby a few years back and joked at the time that I could've just had the students watch cartoons and no one would've ever known.  Not one person checked on me, contacted me, provided me instruction after the year began, or observed me.  If I assured the students they would all receive passing grades, they likely would've been kind if not laudatory on their evaluations for they had all landed in required remedial writing courses and could not move on until they passed.  I didn't show cartoons, however, I did my job as best as I could.

And that is what I do every day.  I do my job and I try to do it well.  Just today I forgot copies of a handout for my classes at School Two.  Even though I could show the handout and use it via the computer so that my lesson plans weren't wrecked, I still felt annoyed with myself for forgetting the students' copies.  I did write a note to take the handouts, but I was so tired that I never opened that folder the night before the commute.  The students didn't seem to mind, and I made it available through their on-line course management system as well as promised it for the next meeting, but nonetheless, I beat myself up over it.  I do not like to do a shoddy job.

Naggingly, this article reminds me of one I read as a graduate student.  The tone is similar and the advice much the same.  I believe it was called "Don't Give it Your All," though I have no idea now who wrote it, nor did it turn up in searches (okay, I admit I didn't spend hours looking for it).  This author implored dissertation writers who might be teaching assistants or adjuncts to slack on their classes in favor of completing their degree at all costs.  Certainly, I can see the logic in that, but I was never able to reconcile giving my students a sub-par classroom experience just to benefit myself.  Yes, it took me a long time to get my PhD--though still at the average for a humanities scholar--but I also finished with excellent teaching experience and evidence of such.  That article, like this current one, seemed to be offering an easy way out that could, and likely would, be acceptable to many as a rational reason for lackluster work.  I'm relatively sure that older piece was not satire, but perhaps this new one is.  However, if I'm left guessing, I'll bet others are as well, and what we need is absolute clarity:  being an adjunct is not easy, yet many of us work with integrity nonetheless.  We deserve better.  We will not simply go away.  Higher education created Adjunct Nation and now it will have to deal with us.