Monday, September 29, 2014

One Year Later: Margaret Mary, Burning It Down, and What Comes Next

Margaret Mary Vojtko Memorial Card

Today, September 29, is the remembrance day for Margaret Mary Vojtko.  Dan Kovalik's piece broke the story on the 19th and by the month's end, her sorrowful tale resounded worldwide.  Here we are on the day dedicated to her:  one year later, one year louder.  The death of Margaret Mary stands as a lightning strike in the midst of the drab chaos adjuncting can be.  It was her death that shook so many into realizing that the story could end the same for them.  It was her death that made many who do care about teaching and learning conditions realize the situation was indeed dire.  It was her death that put many of us on the path to activism.  When we win any victory, any recognition, it also belongs to Margaret Mary.

When I drive into the City of Pittsburgh and past Duquesne, I imagine her spirit there.  When I waiver on publishing a post, or speaking to a reporter and using my name, I think of Margaret Mary.  I remember how cold, so very cold I felt inside though the day was blistering hot when I read Kovalik's article.  This could be me.  Oh god, this could be me, my brain whispered as I stood at the start of my first multiple-school teaching year.  That feeling has driven me ever since.  I will not let an entire generation of scholars go down in flames. I will not let students be deprived of the educations they are paying large sums of money for.  I will use my words and time to work for better.  If I have to, I will also use actions.

This weekend, Twitter citizen @downwardlymobilePhD, with the help of others, planned and carried out an adjunct online forum that allowed for truth telling and airing of grievances, and I also participated in the event.  Given the marker #BurnItDown, the hashtag raged much of Saturday afternoon and into Monday was still garnering new hits.  Anyone with a Twitter account can, of course, search the hashtag and see the full stream of tweets.  Raging Chicken Press created a Storify of some tweets called "Ripping Back the Veil of Exploitation in Higher Ed" that gives a good summary of the tone and the truth many adjuncts face. I just wrapped up my Saturday class as this event began and was still amazed, as I scrolled to catch up and join the fray, how similar to my own experience total strangers' adjunct lives are no matter where they call home.  This is indeed a worldwide crisis at this point and adjunct issues often garner hits not only from the US, but Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Certainly, these fiery tweets will be read as complaining and whining by some.  That happens nearly every time an adjunct speaks out.  However, for many of us, our scholarly community--the people who understand exactly what this life is--are our on-line adjunct colleagues and we need these moments of shared experiences to affirm our solidarity.  Make no mistake about it:  solidarity amongst adjuncts exists not only on campuses as we unionize, but now it extends across state lines and country borders.  One success at a small school is a victory for everyone.  It is a slice of light seeping in.  Our cause now regularly appears in publication and news venues.  We are not whining so much as standing up for ourselves at last.  We dare to challenge the current state of higher education with our BurnItDown mentality.  We care about the workpain of adjuncts and other downgraded--both in salaries and hours-- and entirely necessary campus employees.  We care about our students and do not like that they pay for educations but are given climbing walls and waterfalls.  It is this last part, this care for our students, for the art and craft of teaching that has lead many adjuncts to ponder, "What next? What can we do to start again? To create something better that meets the needs of students and teachers without exploitation and unnecessary expense."  That answer will come and it will be beautiful and varied as the people who now fall under the term "contingent labor."  Make no mistake, we may take a day to air our grievances, but we never stop working towards the ultimate goal of better for all who want to take part.

Strength is in numbers, as Margaret Mary knew when she sought out the union.  I hope our efforts would make her proud.  If she knew how many her life inspired to speak up, to challenge the system in quieter and equally effective ways, I think she would be pleasantly surprised.  Thus, today after Burning It Down, we remember her and are renewed in our quest to find a better way.

(Oh, and Happy First Payday to those of us who've been waiting until the 30th of Sept. to get some much needed monies for our labor.)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Form-ing Dissent

At any time when a group starts to make enough noise and get enough attention for their cause, someone vocal will arise to oppose and deride them.  Adjuncts have been making lots of good noise, getting press from many sources, and generally raising awareness of the plight of approximately 76% of faculty in the United States.  It is not surprising, then, that this past week--the week preceding Labor Day, no less--I reeled in a nice big clownfish on another platform and we saw the publication of a particularly odious anti-adjunct piece.

It may come as a surprise to readers, and even some adjuncts, that many of us do have a community of comrades.  With all the social media platforms, this is easy to do.  In fact it is almost essential for some of us, who need community to work smarter, commiserate, and celebrate with, just as any worker would.  While many adjuncts lack offices and communities at their schools because they either are not granted the courtesy of office space or they cannot use any given space since they must run to another school, these communities exist nonetheless.  It was in one such community, discussing all the things adjuncts do that are not really covered by our pay and the hours allotted on our contracts that someone suggested we itemize these essential-to-higher-education tasks.  Important things, such as letters of recommendation for students, office hours, answering and composing email, and attending meetings, for example.  Jokingly, I said someone should humor me with a form for this.

Adjunct Consulting FormSince I had some time and needed the laugh, I made a very rough draft.  This was much improved and beautified by Bri Bolin.  It was an instant Twitter hit and even I was surprised at its popularity;  to date it has 92 retweets and 99 favorites.  All afternoon and into the evening folks enjoyed and shared it.  Invariably, it made someone unhappy:  I was admonished that we adjuncts should just be glad with what we were getting because submitting this would cost us our jobs.

Yes, someone thought that we were plotting a nationwide paperwork-based rebellion.  Would that that were true.  Into my microcosm of adjunct-land otherwise known as my twitter feed came a presence to speak to me of my folly.  As other adjuncts could not resist chiming in, we were all told that if we had skills and diligence, we would find a place in the world of work that valued us.  We were also told that teachers in Tanzania have it much worse.  I have no doubt that many places in the world have terrible conditions, but I wasn't talking about them.  I was talking about right here in the US of A!  It isn't as though there are not plenty of classes to be taught; it isn't as if upper level administrators aren't raking in six figures at many schools; it isn't as though the administrative class hasn't grown exponentially in the past 20 years.  I was addressing a specific disparity in the country where I live and work.  I'm actually surprised I didn't get told to move if I wasn't happy because that's another nice piece of advice anyone who ever disagrees about anything in the country is given.

Later, an entirely awful article was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Note that I am providing a link via a nice service called donotlink because it will not up the page count of whatever odious article a person would like to share.  I am not going to deconstruct this article here because enough people already have, and there is no more I can say that wouldn't involve angry swearing:  Amy Lynch-Biniek's "Dear Tenured Faculty:  Retweeting Isn't Enough"; Seth Kahn's "Yeah, but..." which builds on Lynch-Biniek's piece; Marc Bosquet's "Offensive Letter Justifies Oppressive System that Hurts Both Faculty and Students", hilariously published in the same venue as the original; Andrew Robinson's "The Big Boy Boxer Shorts"; and finally Nathaniel Oliver's masterful takedown "Grading Stukel." The short of it is that a tenure track person thought it was necessary to state that adjuncts asking for a living wage and benefits were "whining" and furthermore, if we had only worked as hard as this author had, we would not have this problem.  Because we are whiners and not willing to face the facts that not everyone lands their dream job, among other sins, we had no business teaching students.  Additionally, the author chose to drag Margaret Mary Vojtko just days before the anniversary of her death actually saying that this dead woman should've put on "her big girl panties," which I'm certain would have definitely helped her beat both cancer and the lack of decent pay.  Arg.  Macrocosm.  This article, published in a major higher education venue, received many views and even comments agreeing with the author, though I am starting to believe all these folks who rail against every pro-adjunct piece and support the anti ones are either Badmin, Badmin Handmaidens (my term for anyone who aids and abets badmin), or spooked tenure track faculty who still don't get it.

So, adjuncts, the detractors will say work harder:  bootstraps; don't whine:  i.e. ask for fair compensation for services provided; remember it could be worse:  Tanzania, I am told (my apologies to Tanzania); and meritocracy:  your skills will save you in the end.

More realistically:  organize with colleagues or even a union, if you can.  The bloated administrative beast that is American higher education cannot grind on without us.  We can stop this.  Look at the fast food and home health workers!  The criticisms leveled at them are the same directed at us.  Many of them also work multiple jobs with disastrous results, such as the recent death of Maria Fernandes.  Are we ready to take to the streets and face down our critics?  Are we ready to be that brave or does our tenuous tie to white collar, aspiring to the middle class mentality being a college teacher confers constrain us?  We have the majority.  If we all walk out, we bring the juggernaut of corporate higher education to a halt.  Think about the form above.  How much work have you done and for how many years that has been basically volunteer labor for the academy?  Isn't it time we were properly compensated? Isn't it time that every worker was?