Monthly Archives: September 2014

30

The number was a door, someday to be opened,
not now – never now – but just as the sun falling
into the sea catches lovers by surprise every time,
time shepherds us to the darkness, and we must go.

I, like all, had assumed it a door to nowhere,
built for no purpose but to befuddle future
occupants, those sold a home, sight unseen,
filled with living rooms long since outlived.

Mysteries live only to be solved, so solve
we must, albeit the children of cadavers
be the sole benefactors of our grace.
Mysteries live for murder alone.

Doors are made to be opened.
What lies on the other side, nothing
we can see, yet we see so clearly what lies
this side of the door, this side of not knowing.

Dread, the joy-taker that makes ashes of fire
ere the fire has licked its way to the last ember,
that ages the wine to vinegar even as the grape
looses its last succulent drop beneath the tread.

We are dragged to it, as I was dragged, as a child
is dragged to the woodshed, tears welling past
clenched eyelids, refusing the waiting doom
that waits no longer, hour come round at last.

It was the first year of the second decade of the third
millennium, the seventeenth day of the tenth month,
the first minute of the second half of the twentieth hour,
when I at last left dread behind, in trade for knowledge.

We forget so much, when we are born.
We forget, for instance, that doors
go nowhere only in the foolish plans
of architects too clever for their craft.

Doors hold no secrets, once opened,
as death holds no fear, for the dead.
I am past thirty, and the glass is clear:
green hills flowing, unfolding forever.


The Fastest Kid in Class Gets Left Behind: Winning, Losing, Writing in Spite of It All

We all sat next to the wall at one end of the gym, where the P.E. teacher had told us to wait while she paired us up to race one another to half court and then back again. When it came time for me to run, I did so, sprinting back and forth at a breakneck pace while my competitor ran beside me in a swiftly diminishing parallel, his arms and legs pumping with the kind of graceless regularity one might see in a politician answering questions for reporters during his morning jog.

It was the first time I ever remember winning anything that mattered to anyone else, the first time I remember having that feeling of besting someone else, of demonstrating my superiority. I remember the praise of my peers, the warm glow of suddenly being in the spotlight. I don’t remember a thing about how the kid who lost the race reacted. Who ever does? The reason that winners write the history books is the same reason that negative results are seldom published in academic journals: we have an urge to duplicate success, but the thought of failure is too frightening to contemplate. Failures are to be forgotten, quickly shunted down the nearest memory hole, lest negativity prove to be infectious.

I don’t know why I won. Maybe it was because, though neither of us was particularly athletic, I lacked weight while he had it to spare. Maybe I was just faster. Or maybe it comes down to the cliché that I read dozens of times while grading developmental writing responses to the prompt, “What are the qualities that a great athlete must possess?” A great athlete “wants it” more than the next person, to paraphrase all those students who were, in turn, plagiarizing countless interviews with sports figures, who are not held as accountable for vague usages as someone is in a writing class.

Did I “want it” more? Did winning matter more to me than it did to the one who lost? Maybe it was a question of stakes: there was no tangible reward for winning, no trophy and no cash prize, only the approbation of my peers. But maybe that was reward enough.

Or maybe it had nothing to do with the reward; I certainly don’t remember my need for approval being the impetus for my speed. And though I know we are rarely the best judges of our own characters, I’ve never thought of myself as a highly competitive person. In fact, the older I became, the more losers started to bum me out, and I felt less and less desire to create more of them by my actions.

Unfortunately, even though I generally avoided sports, life is filled with zero-sum games. Viewed through one lens, any adjunct making the leap to tenure track is a win for us all – there’s still hope! – viewed through another, there are significantly more who sit by their phones, waiting for calls that never come. I am only with the woman I am now because I did not let the broken heart of a friend who also had feelings for her stand in the way of my happiness.

Maybe I was the fastest kid in my class, but I may have just had a slow class. Competition is a relative thing, although when one is younger, the scope of one’s abilities is more difficult to determine. Losing a race to another kid in your class has to tell you something: you will not be a track star. You will not be an Olympian. Your face will never be used to sell shoes. Maybe the kid you lost to will grow up to do any or all of these things, but you will not. Because if you aren’t even the fastest kid in a class of sixty, in a small town of less than a thousand, why would you ever dream of competing regionally, nationally, or internationally? One race, and your horizons are altered for life.

On the other hand, maybe you are the fastest. Maybe you win every single race against every single person in your class; maybe the races aren’t even close. Where are your horizons then? When you are demonstrably the best, and when you are told again and again that the only way to make your mark in life, to succeed, to get ahead, to win, is to find what you are best at and to pursue it relentlessly… where are your horizons then? Are you the best, or are you only the best of those in your immediate vicinity?

I never tried out for track. I was fast, but I didn’t want it. I didn’t care about running, and so I never thought about where I was ranked outside of the narrow group of contenders that I faced in school. What did I care about?

I cared about writing. And I wanted to be the best.

So I became the best writer in my class. And, in turn, I thought about what it meant to be the best writer in the region; in the country; in the world.

Of course, I had no serious competitors: when you’re the only one who cares at all about winning, winning becomes a trivial matter. And since I was the only one who seemed remotely interested in writing anything beyond the bare minimum that was required for class assignments; since I was the only one who was standing up before the class and sharing my stories; since I was the only one who loved writing the way my classmates loved football or fishing or any other activity that took precedence in their thoughts… I began to think that my tiny corner of the world was representative of the entire thing, and that since I was the only one who was interested in writing, I would be given the task of being a great writer by default. I would do the job no one else wanted.

Going to college and participating in a creative writing program should have served to knock sense into me, to dim my expectations. The presence of faster runners, even if their speed was difficult to judge when compared to my own, should have made me realize that there would come a time when I would strain to keep pace, only to see a slight backwards glance of pity as a fellow competitor bolted for the finish line while I fell over, too tired to carry on. But by the time I found myself arguing with my thesis advisor over which changes were good edits and which changes were butchering my intent, it was too late. I was committed.

Of course, a decade out of grad school spent falling far short of the starry-eyed dreams of success I once had, the last few years of which have been spent struggling (and often failing) to provide for my new family, has finally managed to dispel my dreams of becoming a runaway success on the strength of one brilliant novel pounded out in the space of a few months. As it turns out, it was not a faster runner that did me in but rather the realization that another cliché is true: the race is not always to the swift, nor to the skilled, but time and chance happens to us all. And I have matured enough to realize that I chased success as a writer without ever having a clear understanding of how to achieve it, what it was I was chasing, or when I would know that I had found it.

I see now that there is more to writing than being the best, and that, in truth, there is no “best.” Writers may compete for seats in MFA programs, may compete for staff positions at newspapers, may compete for the attentions of agents and publishers and readers, but in the end, there is no race, and the only runner that a writer competes with is the writer him or herself. If writing puts food on the table, it is a good thing for those who need to eat, but it does not make it good writing. Nothing does. Even assuming that the now-irrevocably fractured canon of English literature someday deigns to allow your writing into it, there will always be critics who strive to declare it overrated.

Maybe redefining success sounds like a euphemism for failure to those who have found it through conventional means. But success in writing for me is no longer tied inextricably to some goal that I may never reach, whether due to a lack of desire, a lack of talent, or simply a lack of good fortune. And I am all the happier for it.

It is in that spirit that I decided to publish my first novel myself while working on my second, because while I believe that my work is good, it probably does not have the “mass market appeal” that would entice an agent into picking it up. And I would rather see it out in the world, garnering a few readers here and there, rather than never having been read at all.

And if it defies the odds to become a success? Well, my horizons may have changed, but it doesn’t mean I’ve given up. I’m still out there, running as fast as I can. If you’re a writer, I’m sure you know the feeling.


The Adjunct’s Paradox: An Argument for Academic Freedom for All

xkcd

Academia vs. Business

Although the Salaita case has given tenured professors new reason to watch what they say on social media, contingent faculty, as this letter points out, have never found much security in an ideal like “academic freedom.” During my time as an adjunct, I took it as an unwritten rule that anything I said, whether in class, in a faculty meeting, in a private conversation with a colleague, or online, could and would be held against me. And I acted accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong: as someone who was raised in a rural Alabama town, I learned early on how dissent can turn someone into a pariah. Although I was hardly a rebel, I read widely, even at a young age, and my opinions became a bit too controversial a bit too soon. When my sixth grade science teacher brought up the topic of evolution, and I said that it sounded like it made sense to me, he led the class in mocking me for my ignorance, and I spent the remainder of my time at that school defending myself on the playground from attacks by former friends. Having been raised in a home where the concept of evolution was not routinely demonized, I was legitimately surprised by their reaction.

My experiences in school no doubt led to my scrupulousness about not sharing my own personal beliefs in the classroom, while doing my best to ensure that my students were given free rein to explore their own ideas. Although a community college tends to have a more vocational outlook (the idea that faculty are only there to train students in skills that will be needed for their entry into the workforce) I gradually found myself teaching more and more in the spirit of the same liberal arts education that I had received. On some level, I knew that I was taking what could be construed as a political stance on education, but I didn’t feel like an activist at the time, only someone who was interested in giving students the best education that I could provide.

Gradually, I found myself in an awkward position. On the one hand, I was keenly aware of my need to “keep my mouth shut” if I wanted to ever get a full-time position. I had heard of an adjunct at my school who was “not asked to come back” over some comments made on her blog that, while I agreed were disparaging of our students in a particularly crass way, nevertheless made it clear how tenuous of a grip I held on my own job. On the other hand, I felt the need to share my ideas at faculty meetings, where I was encouraged but not obligated (or paid, of course) to attend, because without “distinguishing myself” in some way, I assumed that I would be stuck in adjunct limbo for far longer than my meager earnings could withstand.

I doubt that I am the only one who has found him or herself in “The Adjunct’s Paradox,” the dilemma of feeling compelled both to speak and to stay silent, deathly afraid that either course will doom one’s chances of advancement. Of course, this feeling of job insecurity is seen as a basic tenet of top-down, neoliberal management philosophy: those who speak up and say the right things are promoted, those who speak up and say the wrong things are let go, and those who are silent are kept in their place as long as they remain so. And though I recognized the scientific validity of evolution even at an early age, the misuse of Darwinian theories to guide economic policy has always struck me as both cruel and short-sighted.

While I could argue that a dictatorial management style is rarely good for business, I will allow, for the sake of argument, that a ruthless drive to maximize profits may indeed be the most efficient method of doing so. However, the conflation of corporate “best practices” and academic “best practices” is a weak analogy at best, for while the former are concerned primarily (if not exclusively) with the production of profits, the latter is concerned with the production of knowledge. And while a climate of fear might (and I emphasize might) work to increase profits in the short-term, it does nothing but inhibit the sort of deliberate yet creative work that is needed for ideas to be tested and refined in an academic setting.

Though I regularly received excellent evaluations from students and from the chairs of my departments, I was not hired when there were job openings for full-time employment, and I have reached my limit in terms of trying to survive on the meager earnings of an adjunct, so I am looking for work elsewhere. And while my failure to be “promoted” could be ascribed to my criticisms, tentative as they might have been, of what appeared to be a gradual conversion of the developmental education program from faculty-led to technology-based, it very well could have been something else entirely. In the absence of evidence, I can do little but speculate.

Increasingly, we are seeing the use of “performance-based” funding in higher education, and of course, whenever funding is tied to performance, the temptation to rush to a consensus and silence dissenting voices (even the ones in our own heads) becomes pressing indeed. And without the protections of academic freedom, how can adjuncts not be faced with the constant struggle of either siding with misguided administrative directives (whether stated or implicit) or going against the grain at the risk of losing their jobs?

Some might argue that the worst part of the adjunctification of the academy is the staggeringly low pay and complete lack of benefits that many teachers in higher education now receive; as someone who has been attempting desperately to get by for the past few years on adjunct wages, no one is more sympathetic to this argument than I. However, I know that many people are not moved by stories of adjuncts on food stamps, adjuncts living out of their cars, or adjuncts dying in poverty. As intimately familiar as I am with the realities of adjunct life, I don’t expect the appeal to pity to work with those who hew to an Objectivist “just get a better job” viewpoint. I hope that even those who do not care about adjuncts on an individual level, however, see that job insecurity due to a lack of academic freedom and a drive towards narrow, outcomes-oriented assessment of teachers can’t help but harm the diversity of thought that is absolutely essential for academia to remain vital.

I’m not the first to make these arguments, but they bear repeating. Academic freedom should not be seen as a luxury of the tenured elite but rather as a basic protection of all those who are engaged in scholarly pursuits. After all, academic freedom is ultimately not about protecting people; it is about protecting ideas, the precious cargo that humans traffic in irreducible and haphazard ways, often just barely constrained by the strictures of institutional academia. Ideas are their own entities, and like all organisms, they suffer in captivity but thrive when liberated.


Book Review: Adjunctivitis by Gordon Haber

“He opened the windows and put his face in his hands, reminding himself that he had a loving girlfriend and worked in an honourable profession and that the inability to afford a twenty dollar bottle of whiskey did not indicate that he was a complete failure as a human being.”

Gordon Haber, freelance writer and former adjunct, speaks from a place of hard-won experience in his brief novella Adjunctivitis, which he is currently offering for free to adjuncts and education reporters alike. As much as anything in the book, his generosity in this regard illustrates his insight into the realities of adjunct life, where even a $2.99 purchase might seem a wasteful extravagance. By extending this offer to journalists as well, Haber is undoubtedly signalling his commitment to enlightening the wider world to the realities of contingent academic labor.

Adjunctivitis, however, is hardly a polemic. Instead, it reads as a slice-of-life approach to the difficulties that countless teachers in higher education now face, dealing with the everyday injustices of life as a member of academia’s lower caste with an understated wit and an eye for the telling detail. The novella, by personalizing a topic that can easily be abstracted into irrelevancy, works to remind all of us who are concerned with the direction of higher education that the human cost of adjunctification lies in the day-to-day trials that, over time, can turn even a devoted pedagogue against a career as an instructor.

The book follows Robert Allen Rabinowitz, a “five-year veteran” of undergraduate writing instruction. Working as a “freeway flier,” Rabinowitz splits his time between two Los Angeles schools, Fortas College and Compton Community College, in order to cobble together enough courses to earn a living that hovers somewhere between “substandard” and “impoverished.” Desperate for the financial security (and much-needed health insurance) that a full-time teaching position would bring, Rabinowitz struggles to keep his aging and unreliable Lexus in working order while eating rice and beans for the majority of his meals.

Unfortunately, though Rabinowitz has been assured by the department heads of both colleges that his diligence will be rewarded, the unceasing flood of poor student writing has begun to take its toll. He finds himself incapable of grading papers without vomiting profusely at howlers such as “Since the beginning of the universe, American society has always loved reality TV” and “Morals are important because without them we wouldn’t know how to act morally in society.” Briefly concerned that his symptoms may be indicative of some greater malady, Rabinowitz eventually realizes that he is suffering from a simple case of “adjunctivitis.”

Throughout the book, Haber uses a light touch when discussing a variety of topics that will surely be familiar to anyone who has taught in higher education, from the grueling process of essay grading to the tepid excuses of absent students to the petty squabbles of faculty meetings. However, though he is unfussily self-deprecating in his characterization of Rabinowitz, Haber demonstrates a sincere affinity for the transformative qualities of education, without venturing near the territory of over-the-top, “O Captain! My Captain!”-style antics (though Dead Poets’ Society does earn a mention). Rather, Haber dutifully details the nuts-and-bolts minutiae of classroom instruction (taking attendance, collecting essays, distributing reading selections) to ground Rabinowitz even as he moderates the sort of trenchant discussions that routinely alter the course of young lives.

The second-class citizen stature of the adjunct is a theme that Haber returns to again and again in Adjunctivitis, not only in faculty meetings where Rabinowitz is faced with the unenviable task of presenting his ideas to the dismissive and obtuse ranks of the tenured gods, but in the world beyond the academy’s walls, where he cannot help but feel ant-like amidst the giants of L.A.’s entertainment industry-fattened gentry. Rabinowitz is on the very bottom rung of an endlessly tall ladder, a space he shares with his economically disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic students. For them, the promise of education is salvation, even if, ironically, such economic salvation has failed to materialize in the case of their instructor.

One by one, the minor indignities and overall air of deprivation add up to a crushing indictment of the contingent academic labor system, which relies on the exploitation of a casualized class of workers like Adjunct Lecturer Robert Allen Rabinowitz, who (to paraphrase Haber himself) in the absence of spousal support or an inheritance, will gradually starve. As Charles Bukowski said, “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” And while the problem of adjunctification has been explored by intellectuals for decades, translating the simple truth that adjuncts are exploited workers into the often obfuscatory language of academia, Adjunctivitis is a welcome artistic response to higher education’s dirty secret. Though I am loathe to utter the words “required reading,” in Gordon Haber’s case, I would make an exception: no one should be permitted to attend graduate school before first seeing where such a path might take them.


Meditations on Labor Day & a Poem: Ex Uno Plures

Adjuncting can have a way of demolishing one’s sense of self-worth, particularly if we begin to see ourselves not as individual scholars and teachers in pursuit of higher ideals but instead as interchangeable parts of an uncaring machine. We are all pieces of a larger whole, but, to borrow again from The Wire, “all the pieces matter.” The road to remembering myself as my own separate piece rather than one that is merely “adjunct” has been a difficult one, one that I could not have undertaken without the support of friends and family and an online community who saw the value in me that others did not and that, at times, I did not see in myself. I’ve rediscovered the joy I once felt in writing, and though the future is still uncertain, I have faith that it can be made better, if I may echo the sentiments of Josh Boldt. However, regardless of what vocation I transition to in this alt-ac/post-ac phase of my life – and my financial circumstances being what they are, “vocation” is a lofty term for what may end up being a stint, brief or lengthy, in food service – I still see myself as part of the academic and civil conversation, and I plan to make my voice known, not in the careerist hopes that my credentials will save me, but out of a sincere desire to see that the world my daughter inherits will be a better one than it is today. Progress is not inevitable; it is an unglamorous, tiring struggle, and our actions in service to this ideal often go unrewarded, even ridiculed. But there is work that one does for survival, and there is work that one does for purpose: as scholars, we do the former so that we can do the latter, and it is only in losing sight of the grander design – or in arguing that there is none, or none of any consequence, at any rate – that our lives become drudgery.

As an ex-adjunct with few allies in an outlier state where workers’ rights are routinely dismissed both inside and outside of academia, I have wondered if my efforts truly are futile, and perhaps they are. Perhaps there can be no change here; perhaps the power structures are too entrenched. In that regard, all I can say is that I must follow my own interests, my own beliefs; suppressing them has never done me any favors. And if I err, then I err.

Adjunctification is a problem, and I am a writer. The cardinal precept for a writer is to write what one knows, and though there is the temptation to steer clear of these troubling shoals, a writer must speak his truth, and I must speak mine. I am glad to see so many others that have done the same.

One of the earliest articles that I read in regards to adjunctification was this one, a transcript of the remarks of Noam Chomsky. I’ve long admired him for his work as a public intellectual; one of the proudest moments of my life is his response to a poem and a short message of thanks (for his support of adjuncts) that I once emailed him. There are academics who write about social issues only as a means to the end of tenure, and then there are academics like Prof. Chomsky, who work to alleviate as well as to educate. It should go without saying that his is the model that I wish more academics would seek to emulate.

I’m no longer an adjunct, but I still feel like one. The pain is still with me. Josh Boldt wonders if former adjuncts can or should keep talking about these issues, and while others may have their own opinions, I feel that I echo the sentiments of Bill Lipkin and Vanessa Vaile in saying that as long as any of us have the time, energy, and inclination to take part in this fight, we should continue to do so.

In closing, a poem, dedicated to adjuncts both former and present, and to all those who feel that their efforts may, in the end, amount to nothing:

Ex Uno Plures

Before the universe, humans appear so small,
anchored to a single, solitary solid.
Our Earth, among the countless planets, is but one,
but mark this, that in outer space there are many,
and space, without planets, would be just that, a loose
mass of nothing; therefore, the small defines the great.

And what of Earth, that imagination makes great?
It, too, could not be, without the basic, the small,
grains of the finest sand, scattered by the winds, loose,
are founding stones, by which mountains are made solid,
thus, one can again see how out of the many
a colossus can rise, united by the one.

Even the greater part, the Earth’s ocean, is one
more example of the minuscule being great;
the high clouds above unleash torrents, the many
drops of cloud-born rain, individually small,
become the waves that to ships feel hammer-solid
cracking hulls, drowning sailors in the sea so loose.

Dying lungs convert O² to CO², loose
nostrils let in poison molecules, one by one,
H²O, two atoms dancing with a third, solid
bonds, covalent, unbroken by heat or cold, great
structures, oceans, worlds, all rely on atoms small
working together as one, they that are many.

Atoms, the root of all things, these untold many,
can themselves be split, dissected; they, too, are loose.
Horrific, Holocaustic power condensed small;
what lunatic prophet could have foreseen how one
infinitesimal proton could hold such great
force, rendering into ash cities once solid.

But not even sub-atoms are truly solid,
protons are divisible, containing many
nigh imaginary particles, quarks (What great
hippie-ish names!), strangely charming how fast and loose
scientists, creating an arbitrary one
when undoubtedly there is something still more small.

Thus, all that appears solid is in reality loose,
formed from many disparate elements to create one;
nothing great can exist without the presence of the small.

Always, there comes a time when beliefs are too great
to be held within one mind and must be set loose,
disseminated widely among the many.
But always, the vision arises from the one,
declarations, manifestoes, theses, solid
when spread by press but born of pen, and will, so small.

From the most modest beginnings, a seed so small,
springs an Yggdrasil, roots spreading from low to great,
capable of cracking any foundation, regardless how solid.
Though the soil of such a grand tree may be loose,
shifting, it shifts not the peopled mass from its one
unswerving goal; beware the might of the many.

And when the human many become too many
to count, too many to fight, making law seem small
by comparison, making a new law, the one
unified at last from the vast many, the great
mass, majority’s might replaces right, their loose
dreams of self survive by group fiat, iron-solid.

But day supplants hour, year supplants day, the solid,
ruthless progression of time transforms the many
once more into the bickering, paranoid loose.
An anxious mob adores a scapegoat, someone small
who can be bullied by the all-powerful great,
become a faceless number, a cowed, beaten one.

A single voice crying oppression sways no one,
but the grasping mass grows discontent with solid
supremacy over the rebellious one; great
is the sweet cruel feeling of being the many,
but far too sublime to be divided too small:
autocratic urge, absorb all power once loose.

All depends on this new self-righteous mob, let loose
to assail the gilt gates of empty privilege, one
incoherent susurrus, but born of the small
voice that cried with hushed eloquence, tears made solid,
the pebble that spurs the avalanche of many
voices discontent, and the low topple the great.

We the people, we the loose, unformed, can become solid,
the will of the one can become the will of the many:
it takes something small as a vote to build anything great.


The Unarmed Education Mercenary

freelance academic/poet-for-hire/verbal hustler/classless teacher

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The Official Blog of the New Faculty Majority

Nathaniel C. Oliver

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A Hopefully Formerly Depressed Human Vows To Practice Self-Approval

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