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.



  1. You have my deepest respect for your courage to drive onward and continue to resist the demands which unravelled Mary Vojtko and others as well.