Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Adjuncts, Assumptions, and Activism

I've started three posts tonight and deleted them all.  When I'm writing, that usually means I'm avoiding what I really want to say or I just don't know what it is that I want to say yet. Also, it seems that the more I write and share on here and in other spaces, the more I have come to care about this plight of adjuncts.  I also care about the persona of me that exists in these spaces.  Ridiculous! No one can control the internet.  Well, maybe the NSA does (Hi folks over there!) but the rest of us don't.  Once we write, post, like, +1, favorite, heart, or star any number of things, we become linked to those.  Sometimes we get drawn into discussions wherein people seem to just take everything the wrong way.  The internet is good for that.

For instance, after liking a post by another user elsewhere, we were both accused of wanting to do away with tenure entirely.  The post in question did not deal with that specifically and I did not say that.  Perhaps the other writer has in the past--I don't know.  I don't have time to read every single thing every person writes.  I have 102 composition students this term.  I read their many writings closely.  I read things that I'm interested in.  I don't read all of everything very prolific writers put out ever in the field of higher education.  Furthermore, why in the world would I want to remove tenure?  Simply, I don't.  The problem that I have with some people holding that designation is their lack of support or blatant disregard for adjuncts at their institutions.  If tenure provides protection, then please, please, use some of that to advocate for adjuncts.  Some schools allow us to attend department or college meetings, but some do not.  Even the places that allow attendance may not actually allow the adjuncts present to speak or vote.  Please, use your tenured voices there to question departmental practices, collegiate practices/policies, to speak for us when we are excluded.  If you don't know what to say, get to know the adjuncts working all around your school and ask them.  It might be possible to belay this into a service line on the C.V. by serving on a committee.  

If you as a tenure track person are lucky enough to have a union or lobbying delegation, use these forums to also bring attention to adjunct issues.  Many of us do what we can by protesting, meeting with elected officials, writing letters, and telling our stories, but sometimes this is deeply constrained by lack of money and the time involved for those teaching/commuting to multiple locations.  Telling adjuncts who ask for help that tenure track faculty don't make all the decisions is as weak an excuse to do nothing as the people who tell adjuncts to "just get another job." We know that faculty have limited direct power, just like other folks should know many of us are constantly looking for other jobs.  

Standing up for adjuncts IS standing up for tenure.  The corporate education model appears to think contract workers are the way of the future.  If fighting to keep tenure is the only cause or what is framed as the most important cause, then there are some other trees in the forest that need to be seen.  Most students scrape and struggle to pay astronomical textbook costs.  Staff work, in some cases, for a 12-month yearly pay far below the beginning professor on a 9-month contract--how could our schools function without them?  Far too many graduates from all levels of higher education cobble together cash and credit to pay astronomical student loan payments, many while working outside their chosen fields or massively underemployed.  Many adjuncts work without job security, benefits, and/or a living wage.  The disappearance of tenure cannot be championed separately from these other issues--it disappears because its absence makes the rest of us easier to exploit.  If you hold a tenured position and you're already silent on these matters, then what is the point fighting to keep that designation?  Higher education in America is in crisis and now is the time to speak up.

Personally, I write about adjunct issues because that's what I am.  That is the truth that I live.  Does this mean I am not concerned about the rest?  No.  Don't mistake my concern for adjuncts as a dismissal of other factors.  I've been ready to walk a picket line twice with my union at one school, which is mostly tenure track faculty, for contracts that held far more for them than they did for me.  If it comes down to it and adjuncts must walk out to be taken seriously, will those tenured people be the ones standing with me?  I hope so.   

Already I feel like lines are being drawn between the outspoken adjuncts and those who vocally/visibly support us, and everyone else in higher education.  I want to be proven wrong on this hunch.  Just because I make a lot of noise about adjunct issues doesn't mean I consider everyone else enemies or non-players.  I want to see students, parents, staff, and faculty all in solidarity to make higher education in America accessible, affordable, and sustainable.  I want things to be better than they are now.  No, better than they ever have been.  This is possible--I believe it--but not without a great deal of work and, I fear, a great deal of hardship by those willing to stand up.  For me, the possibility of better is worth it.  

(For those interested in trending social media as it relates to adjunct issues, see the following hashtags on Twitter:  #NotYourAdjunctSidekick (created by @nickysaeun) and #AdjunctGeneralStrike (created by @GracieG)
Additionally, go to Adjunct General Strike's website:  http://leekottner.typepad.com/adjunct_general_strike/
for more information, links, and resources)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Unruly, Angry Adjuncts

For my last post, I discussed the derailment tactics being deployed against vocal adjuncts, perhaps leaving out one of the major ones.  Interestingly, it was the one that first started me thinking about how we were being categorized by others and that word is ANGRY.  Evidently, we are not supposed to be angry or express any emotion outside of gratefulness that we even have courses and are "doing what we love."  This past week, Jacobin published a very good article about this labeling of labor.  Miya Tokumitsu's "In the Name of Love" discusses what is termed a feel-good devaluation of work.  In particular, Tokumitsu unpacks the classism inherent in this "Do what you love mantra" as it pertains to those able to do what they love, those who should suffer in silence because they are at least doing what they love, and those unable to even have a chance to do what they love for work.  Adjuncts feature prominently in the latter third of the article and the assessment is spot on.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to teach.  I played school in the summer, I secretly liked school during the year--well, the learning part, not so much the mean people part--and I always have found myself teaching or leading workshops even when not in the teaching field per se.  When I teach, I am doing what I love.  Most of the time, this has been an equitable and livable job for me.  Until now.  Personally, I was able to teach because of two things:  a talent for it and the gift of a good education, much of which I had access to because of where I grew up--a good, rural school district--and a family that valued education.  This is not true for everyone.  I recall going to college after high school, expecting to be surpassed by students from larger districts in higher tax-base areas.  To my relief and utter shock, my school had prepared me far better than the majority of my peers.  I never once felt ashamed of my homeplace.  Not everyone, however, has this chance.  I have had students come to post-secondary education ready and willing to learn only to find that their schools have utterly failed them though they hold high school diplomas.  To paraphrase one student's writing at the term's end:  I had no idea how much I didn't know until I came here to college.  I was Valedictorian there and I feel very stupid here.  Now I know where my strengths and weaknesses are.  I want to learn and I know what I need to work on and that there are people to help me.  It won't be easy but I plan on succeeding.

I wish that were the result for every student who wants to learn despite what has happened to them before, but sometimes the shock is too much.  This makes me angry.  Disparate education right here in the state I live in and also in the state I grew up in could be leveled but it isn't.  Private schools and charter schools purport to be solutions, but not everyone can get to or afford these.  What about those students who are left out?  How will they do what they love?

Alternatively, what if a person just wants to work in order to provide for themselves and/or their families?  What if "What they love" is their family and they would do anything to support them?  I am not saying folks working in food service or garbage collection could not love their job, but what if loving that isn't important?  What if the reward of a living wage, or more, is what they want?  That shouldn't be belittled.  I know many friends and family who do just this.  They may or may not hate their jobs, but they see them as means to an end:  clothes, food, shelter, presents for holidays, and vacations shared.  Even I've often missed the job that I left at the end of the day when I'm elbows-deep in grading.  None of these workers deserve condescension or disrespect and when I see that happening, that makes me angry, too.

As "In the Name of Love" relates to this blog, however, I find an interesting harmonizing note with some on-line experiences I've been drawn into lately.  Tokumitsu works deftly with a Marc Bousquet quote here playing on the false dichotomy between evil corporate drudgery and good academic labor:

Many academics like to think they have avoided a corporate work environment and its attendant values, but Marc Bousquet notes in his essay “We Work” that academia may actually provide a model for corporate management:
How to emulate the academic workplace and get people to work at a high level of intellectual and emotional intensity for fifty or sixty hours a week for bartenders’ wages or less? Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring “I love what I do” in response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks? How can we get our workers to be like faculty and deny that they work at all? How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?
No one is arguing that enjoyable work should be less so. But emotionally satisfying work is still work, and acknowledging it as such doesn’t undermine it in any way. Refusing to acknowledge it, on the other hand, opens the door to the most vicious exploitation and harms all workers.

This is exactly it:  academia has found the golden ticket to getting mountains of work out of some devoted people for next to nothing.  There is no accounting for the amount of "work pain," to borrow a term from Blitz and Hurlbert's Letters for the Living. The type of work is to be its own reward and the drawbacks to getting access to it are unmentionable.  How dare we complain.  Are you angry yet?  If you find yourself feeling that way, then prepare for the next step.   

"Being ANGRY is Irrational Feminine Behavior and No One will Take You Seriously Being All Angry."  Or so I've heard.  I have seen this used on many people standing up for their causes and expressing just anger at the situation.  Critics quickly point out if these people just weren't so gosh-darned angry then the powers-that-be would be more than happy to listen to and perhaps address their concerns.  But not like this.  Not if they're ANGRY.


Adjuncts have a right to be angry.  We have a right to express our anger at getting/losing courses at the last minute, of late paychecks, of meager salaries, lack of offices and resources, and to tell the stories of our lives with their work pain even as we strive to change these things.  For some of us, that means organizing.  Organizing a nation of adjuncts is a monumental task because even organizing a campus of adjuncts often seems impossible.  If a union or teaching organization doesn't already exist on campus, it can be difficult to gather names and contact information to reach out to contingent faculty.  What possibly could help this is a safe, trusted nation-wide database any and all adjuncts could log in to and enter their information.  Some tech savvy one of us should get on that in their spare twenty-fifth hour of the day.  For others that means leaving teaching, whether we love it or not.  Some may shift to other positions on campus that are not teaching.  Some may leave for other fields entirely.  Whatever happens, I don't intend to become un-angry about what is happening to thousands of teachers in this country AND what that means for their students, who are and will be losing out on the stability of full time, permanent work for faculty members.

So if you want to be an Angry Adjunct, go ahead.  Anyone who tells you that you have no right to be angry probably has little to no idea what this life is like for professionals who've dedicated years, dollars, and time to a field that cannot sustain them.  Or they would really just like you to be quiet and stop rocking the very precarious boat.  The next step now is to put this anger to action and make things happen.  I still contend that a general contingent faculty strike would get the attention all our writing and organizing has yet to commandeer, but that, my readers, will take massive communication and coordination.  Nothing worth doing is ever easy.  Even if you love it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Adjunct Derailment Commence!

Happy 2014! On the very first day of the new year I checked into social media to find several pieces referring to the adjunct crisis in American higher education--so many, in fact, that I cannot even remember how many things I've read on adjuncts in the past could of weeks.  However, the more I read, the more annoyed I became.  It soon became clear to me that we adjuncts have now made enough noise to draw the derailers.  Those people familiar with social justice or other activist issues will notice some of the same patterns emerging.  The very same tactics used to silence and discredit any group raising awareness and advocating for radical change are now being turned on adjuncts.  This is by no means a comprehensive list of derailments used, but every single one of these I have either seen multiple times in print since late last year or heard in person.

1.  "Stop whining/complaining someone somewhere has it worse!"

I don't believe any adjunct whose story I've read or heard has claimed to be the most oppressed person in the entire world.  Certainly many of us are aware of the enormous humanitarian crisis in Syria, to name just one.  We also know that garment workers worldwide suffer extreme working conditions for little pay.  We know that none of this is right or fair.  Telling adjuncts to stop complaining because it could be worse is ridiculous.  We know.  We might not have any classes for the upcoming term.  We might have our assistance programs cut.  That doesn't mean that we should stop speaking up about the deeply unfair working situation many adjuncts face.  I find this especially interesting as new college coaches ink deals right and left for sums of money I cannot even imagine.

2.  By putting any blame on tenure track faculty, you're dividing the faculty and we should stand together against administration/bureaucracy/government.  Unity! Unity!

Certainly several adjunct writers have laid blame at the feet of tenure track faculty for, if not actively allowing the adjunctification of American education, standing as mainly a silent majority* while it happened.  If tenure is the much sought after prize conferring some sense of safety from random firings for opinions and scholarship, then why not speak out about the crisis right under their very noses?  The only answer I have for this is the one I was given personally, "Sorry, but I'm only worried about our new possible tenure track hires," which I took to mean adjunct concerns could go jump in the lake because they would harm the ability to offer TT positions or in some way make those positions unpalatable for some lucky person.  If you have spoken up and/or stood with adjuncts, good.  Think about how many have not.  What is the good of safety if it goes unused?

  *see also:  "But not ALL tenure track faculty don't care about adjuncts!!!"  Often when a writer calls attention to any sort of situation, especially involving binary groups, the first critique is the "but not all..." or "but I don't!" one.  Please.  Please stop doing this.  If the critique doesn't apply to you, move along knowing it does, however, apply to a lot of people.  I learned this through some great social justice folks on social media this summer.

3.  If you had worked harder, you wouldn't be in this situation.

Yes, yes, all of us adjuncts are the losers of our respective graduate programs.  MAs:  you should've gotten your PhDs.  PhDs:  You should've gone to a better school/had a better mentor/published more/not been an idiot.  Yes all 75% of us are the absolute laziest dregs of the academic world.  We never put hours of work into our lesson plans, grading, learning on our own, or personal research.  This particular statement seems to come from those who've recently landed a permanent position.  Perhaps residual guilt causes it, or maybe fear.  They could've very easily been us.

4.  Just do something else.

Some of us are trying to.  Many folks leave the academic field or get certified to teach public school, which is not free or even cheap.  Certainly over this break I've been looking at the job postings and applying.  I've applied outside the academy.  I've considered some really strange careers.  In case the critics spouting this line have not noticed, the economy and job market in general--not just the academic one--are pretty grim.  Even though adjunct work might not pay well, many still make slightly more than they would in retail or fast food, which seem to always be hiring.  Getting out simply is not as easy as walking away, especially if the adjunct has family to support.

5.  It's because you didn't want to move.

How could anyone even know that?  It's an assumption based on older job markets when graduates would aim for certain regions and possibly perpetuated by the fact that the MLA Job Information List  search feature is still organized by regions.  While I'd ideally like to be within a day's drive of an older parent, I long ago understood I may have to go anywhere.  I think anyone adjuncting who is not tied to an area by a family member with a better job or extenuating reason to stay would agree that the applications go nation, if not worldwide.

6.  But that isn't true for everyone!

Certainly there are people who graduate and step right into a tenure track position.  Cheers to them!  I'm genuinely glad for anyone who does.  That does not mean that it happens for everyone.  This statement is also used by those who have multi-year adjunct contracts, sometimes with benefits, and they do not understand the critique of the whole system since their experience does not match.  Just because you have it good does not mean that others do.  Adjuncts aren't making these situations up.  They're not painting a picture worse than reality.  They're bravely speaking their truths at great personal risk to their jobs and financial well being.  Hush and listen.  Oh, and have some compassion.

7.  You adjuncts just don't understand politics.

It is possible there are adjuncts who do not understand hiring procedures or how local/state politics influence post-secondary funding.  I doubt this is a prevalent flaw.  The state in which I live has a governor so notoriously anti-education that his deep cuts to the state funding make a constant appearance in the various media outlets.  We KNOW that the schools are getting less from the state and have to make that up somewhere, either by raising costs to students or making cuts, or both.  We also know that tenure track faculty have little say in whether or not they will be handed another permanent position to hire--one, much less many.  We know.  I've worked for corporations less bureaucratic than the contemporary university.  Maybe it isn't that we don't understand politics but that we have little recourse, other than on election day, to access or influence politicians in significant or meaningful ways aside from speaking our truths.

8.  Loving to teach is a stupid reason to keep doing it.

I have really seen people tell adjuncts that they should stop doing their job because loving their job is not a good enough reason to stay.  I believe that miserable people who hate their jobs say this.  All the drawbacks aside, I love the work that I do.  I hate the commute to one school.  I hate the crappy pay and lack of affordable healthcare.  I do NOT hate teaching, students, the colleagues that I speak with, or the administrative assistants who make my life easier.  If I could be paid well enough to live on, I would be content to keep teaching, but I am not paid in such fashion.  It makes me sort of sick to think that I may never teach again after May 2014, but I have to put financial concerns first for now.  This is not a sustainable lifestyle for me, yet I would not fault one person for staying on as an adjunct because they love their work.  Hating work isn't a requirement of being a grown up, just a sad fact for too many.

Drawing derailers must mean that we adjuncts are doing something right.  We've made enough noise and caught the ears of enough people that the time has come to undermine our claims in any way possible.  I suppose the next move is to expose one of us as a fraud who isn't really an adjunct at all.  If I get hired outside the academic world, I'll gladly admit it here as soon as I regain consciousness and tell my family.

I wish everyone heading back to school a great start to the semester and a fine term ahead.  The madness approaches!  Stay warm in the Northern Hemisphere and cool in the Southern!

train tracks