Tag Archives: higher education

The Ones Who Walk Away: #NAWD

I read a story, when I was an undergraduate taking a course on the American short story, called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” written by fantasy/science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. If you’ve read it, you know that it’s the type of story that is brief enough to be scanned in a few minutes’ time but laden with endless layers of meaning; in other words, a perfect assignment for students of literature who have better things to do with their time than study literature. Of course, I was the type of student who was idealistic enough to believe that, as my father would say, “words have meaning,” and that a story like Le Guin’s merited study, merited the time spent chasing down the phantoms that it stirred in the mind of one not yet old enough to have matters of ethics and philosophy rendered moot by the brute force of the material considerations of life. If I’m being honest, I am still that student, allowing the written words of others to possess me, to catch fire in my imagination, when it is the spaces between, the absent spaces, that I perhaps should have been studying more carefully.

At its core, “Omelas” is a parable about a fictional city of the same name, a place that Le Guin describes as sort of a personalized utopia, an Edenic chameleon that takes the form of whatever best possible world exists in the mind of the reader, unlike comparable “utopias” like A Brave New World, whose merits as an idealized state vary from reader to reader. By crafting her world thus, Le Guin forces the reader to confront the true conflict at the heart of her idyllic society rather than be distracted by the more common objections raised by such works. And what of the conflict? In short, it is the horror that all citizens of Omelas must face, when they reach an age where their parents feel they can begin to comprehend it, that their society prospers only so long as a young child is held prisoner in the worst imaginable squalor and neglect. No reason as we would understand it is presented for the necessity of the child’s mistreatment, only that it must be, and that if it were not so, Omelas would fall into ruin, and the perfect happiness of its inhabitants would be destroyed forever.

Of course, upon first discovering this terrible open secret, citizens of Omelas have an impulse to help the child, to feel disgust at their society for thriving at its expense. But for most citizens, their anger is short-lived; it soon gives way to the same kinds of rationalizations that all of us our prone to make, when confronted with systemic evil. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and the child would not even understand charity, if charity were afforded it, having gone so long without, and some things just are,” etc. We have all had these thoughts, I am sure.

But then, there is the title of the story, “The Ones Who Walk Away.” What of them? Some of Omelas’ denizens recognize the horror, and, caught in the dilemma of being unable to either condone the horror or condemn it, unable to either resolve it or continue living in a society that seeks no resolution, they simply walk away, leaving the city for the darkness and the wild beyond its walls. No one who leaves returns, and Le Guin is purposely enigmatic on the subject of their fate. All that we know, at the close of the story, is that there are some who have made a choice, when faced with an irresolvable conflict, of walking away. Of refusing to remain complicit any longer.

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day, #NAWD on Twitter. The brainchild of an anonymous adjunct that, as a nebulous thought experiment, has doubtlessly crossed the minds of countless adjuncts over the past few decades, #NAWD has been endlessly picked apart online, as with every other action that adjuncts have contemplated in their attempts to rectify what a number of academics have characterized as a “crisis.” As someone who “walked away” a while back out of the conviction that my continued struggles as an adjunct were doing no one any favors – not my school, which refused to provide me with the institutional support necessary for student success; not my students, who could not help but suffer when I was forced to give them less than the attention that they deserved as a consequence of my extreme course load that, though full-time by any reasonable accounting, did not come attached to a living wage that would allow me to stay off government assistance while continuing to do what I loved; not my family, who realized long before I did that what I was doing was less of an apprenticeship than it was the pursuit of a stillborn dream, yet who could do little to sway me from my self-destructive course of action; and not myself, whose idealized notions of the life of an academic had become little more than ashes in my mouth after spending so many years struggling against a gradual slide into penury.

Eventually, I could see no course of action that made sense but to walk away. Ever since, I’ve been scrambling, but as an adjunct, I had grown used to scrambling, and while my current status as a freelance writer and editor has yet to make me as fiscally solvent as I would like, I have no regrets. Unlike when I was an adjunct, feeling like a pawn in the games of heartless corporate administrators, I now feel that I have some control over my work, the ability to sell my labor, if not at mythical “fair market” wages, then at least in more direct proportion to the actual labor I have spent in pursuit of the capital needed to keep the fiscal wolves from the door. For those who are still adjuncts – and believe me, I have the utmost respect for those who continue to teach in such degraded conditions, even if the sole reason is financial necessity – I would recommend taking the brilliant advice of “freelance academic” Katie Rose Guest Pryal and treating the school for which you adjunct as any other client.

The flexibility that I have as a freelance has allowed me to refuse to work for those who are clearly out to exploit my labor – the SEO charlatans who pay writers pennies to churn out garbage articles, the “academics” who hire ghostwriters to plagiarize essays and even whole dissertations, and all manner of clients who operate under the deeply misguided assumption that quality writing springs out of an author as readily as oil from a freshly-tapped well – but in retrospect, I should have viewed the academy not as something special, some child of Socrates with no desire but to operate as an intellectual beacon in a world of material darkness, but rather, as a corporate scholarship monopoly, a knowledge factory that treats the content produced therein with all the reverence that Kraft holds for a jar of Cheez Whiz. There is good work to be done in the academy, no doubt, but academics should remain eternally aware – those who are not already – that this work is done in spite of, rather than as a result of, the material realities of the corporate university.

A part of me feels strange for continuing to discuss a topic that should not “matter” to me any longer; it would seem that I have no skin in the game, at this point. And #NAWD, while enormously satisfying on an emotional level, may amount to little in terms of bringing about real change in the academy. But life is strange, and it is long, and the material struggles we face on a day-to-day basis often blind us to the history in which we cannot help but take part; we rarely see which stones we throw create ripples in the wider world, and which leave the waters unmoved. I’ve always felt that my words were these stones, and though many of them have sunk to the bottom, unseen and unremarked upon, it is my hope, unrealistic though it may be, that the stones thrown by myself and countless others will accumulate, will build, and one day, the work that adjuncts do will be recognized, in a material sense, for the valuable contribution to society that it is.

But in the end, I have more words than I do solutions, and I am only a bystander in this affair. So, here’s to #NAWD. Here’s to the ones today, the adjuncts who have chosen to walk out, teach-in, or walk away. You are worth more than you are valued, and valued more than you know. Keep fighting the good fight, and for those who have it to spare, consider donating to a cause for adjuncts, such as the PrecariCorps or the New Faculty Majority. I am formally affiliated with neither, but I have the utmost respect for their efforts.

#solidarity


Ivory

Adjuncts

We were beasts, hired for our memories,
gentle even before the goad;
lumbering and gorgeous,
we went where we were led,
went where we were taken.

We had power; we bowed beneath
our burdens, nonetheless.
Still the citadel rose, pallid
blocks of accrued capital
bearing witness to our labors.

We were promised a home,
promised a hermitage;
minds innocent and quiet,
we saw the shrunken garrets,
and still, still said nothing.

We could say nothing;
our tongues had been flayed,
commodified, and auctioned.
We no longer knew our names,
no longer knew our worth.

We slept; we dreamt
of glories gone by, glories
to come, vanities, all.
We woke; we had coffee.
We waited; we had liquor.

We watched the wrinkles deepen
in the hides of our comrades,
listened as the wind failed them,
felt the tremors as another gray
mass was claimed by age, by gravity.

We worked harder, worked longer,
worked faster, worked cheaper,
worked for peanuts, worked for good-girls
and atta-boys, worked for nothing,
worked for love; worked for nothing.

We were in crisis; we were the crisis.
We blamed ourselves, blamed each other.
We turned on each other, gored
the flanks of our neighbors,
drew blood. Went back to work.

We rolled our jaundiced eyes
as rogues were put down
in the periphery. Not us.
We were too tired to stampede.
We were money; we were spent.

We deferred, demurred, declined;
decided to be undecided; abstained.
We needed to study the problem.
We were the problem; we hesitated.
We bought lottery tickets.

We watched the tower climb
and called it progress, fell
at the base and called it fate.
Once, we had wondered:
where did they get all that ivory?

We wondered no more.
We had stepped over scores
of carcasses, shorn of their teeth.
So much indentured meat, rotting.
Not us. That way? Madness.

Madness.


Straight Talk About “Straight Talk About ‘Adjunctification’”

Privileged rhetoric about contingent faculty members leads to angry rebuttals from former contingent faculty members

In response to this article, which has unsurprisingly generated a number of angry comments, tweets, and blog posts, I wrote the following:

Professor Jenkins,

Like you, I realize that over-reliance on contingent faculty is only growing worse. Like you, I have followed the discussion closely, only to conclude that there is no single solution to this problem. And like you, I believe that the only way to alleviate adjunctification is by comprehending its nuances before taking steps to reverse this trend.

For the life of me, though, I cannot understand why, after readily admitting the harm that adjunctification causes to both educators and students – and therefore, to the academic endeavor as a whole – you would take the time to pen an op-ed in The Chronicle that does nothing but restate the same tepid arguments that adjuncts have heard countless times before, the typical fence-sitting justifications of an unjustifiable system where some few win big, many more lose dearly, and the former rationalize the reduced fortunes of the latter with all the intellectual rigor of a modern-day Pangloss.

I could speculate – as many doubtlessly will – that your, at best, highly equivocated support for adjuncts stems from your status as an associate professor, department chair, and academic dean, which has removed you from the material considerations that you “dispassionately observe” from your privileged perch. If you are not currently struggling to make rent, struggling to survive on food stamps, struggling to maintain a minimum standard of living while providing valuable service to an institution that refuses to support large numbers of its instructors with the basic job protections and equitable compensation that you take for granted, then you have absolutely no right to dismiss the frustration and bitterness that your adjunct colleagues must overcome every day in order to do their jobs effectively. Of course, as you put it, “some” adjuncts are necessary, and adjuncting isn’t “always” a bad thing, and “not everyone” is tenure-track material, but surely you see how weak these equivocations are, and how readily they can be employed to soothe the consciences of those who would otherwise be more forceful in their advocacy for improving the working conditions of adjuncts? By perpetuating the stereotype of the “happy hobby prof,” a retired septuagenarian offered a relatively generous stipend to supplement his Social Security and corporate pension benefits to pass along the lessons learned from his many years practicing [insert subject here] in the private sector, you are complicit in the exploitation of the majority of adjunct instructors and professors in higher education, those who would like a better job but simply cannot get it. If it makes you sleep better at night to assume that candidates deserving of tenure are few and far between, slipping through the cracks of a largely meritocratic system, so be it, but I hope you understand that such a stance appears laughable to those of us who have seen firsthand just how capricious the hiring practices in academia can be.

I have read my fair share of adjunctification apologia, and what bothers me most is not the bald elitism that so many in academia code as “merit.” Nor is it the uncritical acquiescence to the decisions made by aggressively anti-labor, anti-education politicians, corporate donors, and college administrators – those with even a passing familiarity with how capital functions in society understand that siding with those who have money will always be a safer bet than siding with those who do not. No, the thing that bothers me most about articles such as yours, Professor Jenkins, is the unbearable condescension that is shot through each word. As someone who must have taught any number of composition courses over the years, you are surely familiar with the dictum that, as a writer, one must know one’s audience. Writing in The Chronicle, you are writing for an audience of academics, highly-educated people who have been trained for years in the art of researching, constructing, and deconstructing arguments. And an argument that is based on a brand of financial expediency that requires those at the bottom to bear additional costs while those at the top reap greater and greater rewards will never convince anyone except those who benefit by being willfully ignorant of the suffering of others.

You say that you, in your position as dean, were forced to either hire adjuncts or not offer particular courses at all, but where you see a fait accompli, I see an opportunity to draw a line in the sand. Why did you not say to your superiors, “We have too many adjuncts, and the ones we have are not given the institutional support needed to accomplish the mission of our college, therefore, we cannot in good conscience offer these courses to our students”? When you make compromises that lead directly to the exploitation of your colleagues, you cannot absolve yourself of the responsibility for their welfare, and by extension, the degradation of academic integrity that adjunctification entails.

As to your point about teaching as an adjunct for three years to get the experience necessary to apply for a full-time position at a community college, I can tell you – as someone who did just that – that such a prospect is rife with difficulties. After spending six or more years going into debt to attain a degree that will allow one to teach, one is expected to then work for poverty wages for three years after that, and even if somehow one is able to survive these economic hardships, one must then wait for a full-time slot to open up… and then one must compete not only with every other starving adjunct at one’s institution, but with adjuncts at countless other colleges that have collectively decided that supporting instructors is not a priority for institutions of higher learning. Effectively, this system leads to perpetuating a socioeconomic class system that puts the lie to the pretensions of meritocracy that academia has for itself: those who can afford to absorb the financial shocks of working with little to no pay for year after year are those who are most likely to succeed.

Ultimately, your contempt for adjuncts manifests itself most profoundly in the shallow metaphor that you use to describe the difference between someone who is “tenure-track material” rather than merely a “part-timer.” When addressing the “silly” assertion that if someone is good enough to be hired part time, that person is good enough for the tenure track, you write that this is akin to saying that just because someone is your friend, that person would make a good roommate. I have rarely heard such a glib dismissal of one’s colleagues from someone who professes to be sympathetic to adjuncts’ concerns. Why not simply say what you really mean, that there is no need to buy the cow when you are getting the milk for free? Perhaps you possess some uncanny insight into human nature that allows you to be the unerring arbiter of whom is most deserving of the privilege of a living wage and health insurance, but do you actually believe that when a position opens up that anywhere between one and five hundred adjuncts apply for, only a select few have “what it takes” to be formally and institutionally recognized as a full-time instructor? And what of those congenital “part-timers” of which you speak with such derision? What ineffable qualities make them inappropriate for a tenure-track appointment, yet well-suited to teaching students, the core duty of any faculty member?

Admit it: academia is a game of musical chairs, and some will always be left standing when the song is done. You are doing all that you think you can to improve things for adjuncts, but you are only one person, with limited power. Fine. But stop asking us to see a silver lining in the storm cloud of adjunctification. It is an unalloyed tragedy in academia, and though we may, as individuals, be able to do little to combat it, we will certainly not accomplish anything by concealing our frustration and anger with the situation. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” as Frederick Douglass once said, and I must concur. Faculty both on and off the tenure track have “worked together in good faith” with administrators for decades, only to see a steady decline in the working conditions of all faculty, while administrators have only proliferated in number, power, and compensation. Unless we are happy with the idea of a majority adjunct professoriate – which is harmful not only to professors, but to students, colleges, and education as a whole – then we must be clear, unified, and unequivocal in our support for adjuncts’ need for, if not new tenure lines, then at a minimum, proportional pay and access to the same benefits and facilities that tenured instructors receive as a matter of course.

Are these demands impractical? Are these expectations unrealistic? Perhaps. But if practical demands and realistic expectations only lead to the same managed insanity that higher education has become, then I see no need to advocate for the status quo, which does an admirable job of perpetuating itself without the need of help from others.


No Green Light for Adjuncts: Teaching Gatsby on Pennies a Day

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

“’Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”

I waited for him to stop reading, inwardly ecstatic that a student had so readily volunteered to “engage” with the text, although in hindsight, I had no good reason to care. The Chair of the Department of English and Humanities sat in the back of the near-empty classroom, taking notes and evaluating my performance, but I had long since realized that no matter how brilliantly I shone or how dully I went through the motions, it was over. I had worked as an adjunct instructor for close to four years, teaching as many as five classes per semester for, at most, thirteen grand a year, and after losing out once again to another candidate for a full-time position – which would have meant being compensated three times as much as well as receiving benefits, in exchange for doing pretty much what I had always done – I could no longer justify what I was doing as anything else but slowly sinking into poverty for the sake of a dream.

I had taken these last classes out of habit and out of desperation, deeply hurt that my years of service to the small town community college where I had once sat in a classroom and discovered The Great Gatsby for the first time had been met only with suggestions that I teach at online for-profit schools that lived under the perpetual threat of indictment by the federal government or at “local” colleges that were over an hour’s drive away. Apparently, this was the way a number of teachers in higher education made their living: taking work one class at a time, hiring themselves out as mercenaries to whichever schools would take them, and, if they were lucky, finding a way to “efficiently” teach seven or eight classes in order to scrape together just enough money to keep them above the poverty line. And though the route to efficiency might require substituting rote Powerpoint presentations and computer-graded multiple-choice tests for open-ended discussions and careful analysis of student papers, as long as students kept passing courses and paying tuition, would anyone care?

After class one day, I had stopped by the office of the man who had introduced me to Fitzgerald’s novel, back when I was a student. I told him that I had spoken highly of him that day in class, and I thanked him for inspiring me to pursue a degree in English.

Taken aback, he could only apologize. “There’s no money in the language arts.”

Lecturing on Gatsby, scribbling with a faded magic marker on a whiteboard in a cold bare room, I prodded my students to come up with their own interpretations of the text, and when that failed, I gave them my own reading, which, were I not a precariously-employed adjunct in a small town in a deep red state, I would have been able to properly label as “Marxist.” Without invoking this verboten name, I spoke of the glittering, gilded, hollow lie that is the American dream, where the hoarded wealth of a dynasty compounds into perpetuity while the sudden stolen fortune of an upstart outlier evaporates in one summer’s vain attempt to reify the Alger myth. And absent the media proxy wars waged by “left” and “right,” absent the vapid, vaguely warmed-over Cold War propaganda, absent the dubious claims of class mobility that I, as a teacher in an open-door community college system that markets itself to students as an unequivocally sound investment in the future… well, if I were bolder, I would have merely said, “Ecce homo.” We were all adults; we all knew the score.

I wasn’t the only high school dropout in the room who had looked to a college education as a means to a fulfilling, comfortable life. And I doubt that I was the only one currently on food stamps, either. A small class meant that I came to know each student intimately, for even when I was evasive about my personal life, they were explicit about theirs: I heard their stories of drug addiction and miscarriages and privation, and I went home to a fiancée I could not afford to marry and a child I could not afford to adopt and a home I could not afford to own, and the world of Gatsby seemed at once so close that I could smell the manicured lawns of West Egg and as distant as Daisy’s haunting green light across the water. And though, like Gatsby, my dream seemed so close that I “could hardly fail to grasp it,” I had realized my folly: no pushing, no straining, no striving would transmute the leaden weight of five adjunct courses into the golden halo of a full-time appointment. I had borne the load for years in the misguided sense that I was sacrificing my present at the altar of the future, all the while woefully unaware of how little value my labor held to those who saw me only as a tantalizingly small number on a balance sheet.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Gatsby is a relic, of no use in this technocratic, neoliberal age. Maybe the attempts to rebrand the humanities as “digital” are only a desperate attempt to stave off the obsolescence of our discipline. Maybe the very idea of a liberal arts education, an education designed to broaden, rather than narrow, one’s horizons, is quaint, childish, and, that most grave sin of all in a society obsessed with an ever-escalating GDP, “not worth the money.” As the corporate model of commodifying people into living capital grows increasingly ascendant, we find ourselves locked in an economic arms race, students borrowing vaster and vaster sums of money to compete for fewer and fewer decent jobs, and those among us who might shed some light on these structural inequalities are all too often only to be found huddled in hushed obeisance in the shadow of the ivory tower, learned monks with obligatory vows of poverty, begging bowls extended.

Unlike Gatsby, I never aspired to wealth, and I knew that, as a teacher, I would not attain it. I will admit to being shocked by my slow slide into poverty, though, and the callous disregard that the institution that I worked for held for my well-being. On an individual level, I had administrators, faculty, and staff who clearly sympathized with my plight, refusing to dock my pay on my rare absences from class, pointedly mentioning that I wasn’t being paid for work that I had been contracted to do, and writing glowing letters of recommendation whenever I applied to a full-time position, but the system itself was rigged against me, as it is rigged against all adjuncts.

If a tenured professor could be compared to an old house, increasing in equity year by year, an adjunct is more like a new car, losing value with every mile a school puts on us, as we race from one campus to another. The longer one remains an adjunct, the less likely it is that one will ever make the leap to full-time status as a faculty member, because in higher education, experience is taken not as a measure of one’s skill as a teacher but only as an indication of how little one is willing to work for.

For a time, I bought into the Hegelian master-slave dynamic of higher education, the notion that my time was not worth that of my tenured “betters,” which is a thought process that I suppose was easy for someone like me, a small town guy from an almost entirely non-academic family background, to fall into. However, if we view teaching as a service provided to students – and the customer service model is increasingly being applied in higher education – then what sense does it make for students to pay the same price for a class whether it is led by a fairly-compensated full-time professor or an abysmally underpaid adjunct? Hiring adjuncts saves colleges money, but the savings are not passed on to students, whose grotesquely inflated tuition is spent instead on lavishly-compensated administrators, student athlete-exploiting sports programs, and gorgeous amenities that will look good on college brochures: in short, everything but the faculty who form the core of a vibrant college education.

Though free market fundamentalists are quick to ascribe all of this to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, what has become clear to many inside of academia is that, in prioritizing bureaucracy, athletics, and aesthetics over instruction, higher education has lost its way. Where education should be seen as a social good, a basic form of infrastructure that we invest in for the betterment of society as a whole, it has instead become, like health care, yet another means of profiting off of those who can ill-afford it, yet who need it desperately. And, as is again the case with health care, we ignore the hidden subsidies that higher education relies upon to continue operating: professors on food stamps, professors on Medicaid, professors on disability, professors on social security, professors with trust funds, professors with working spouses, professors with all manner of alternate sources of income that, were they to vanish overnight, would all but annihilate the modern-day American professoriate, and higher education along with it.

The costs of adjunctification, the increasing reliance on contingent educators, are hidden, but they are felt nonetheless. A vital system of higher education depends on a professional force of teachers to be its backbone, and adjuncts, though in many cases doing an admirable job in spite of the dearth of resources given them, cannot fulfill their duties to the fullest when they are overworked (an inevitability when so many rely on multiple part-time jobs in order to make anything close to a reasonable living) and underpaid (also inevitable when one is paid only according to time spent in a classroom rather than for all the work that goes into teaching, work that is accounted for in the salaries of non-contingent teaching positions).

Although working as an adjunct has made life difficult, I don’t expect anyone’s sympathy, although I have of course been grateful to those who have extended it. On an individual basis, I see the rationale for the personal responsibility argument, that those who attempt to make a living by being an adjunct are making a mistake, although I know that for many, avoiding adjunct work is easier said than done. I have a friend who has adjuncted for seven years: on less than ten grand a year, he lives in government housing and is forced into innumerable sacrifices on a day-to-day basis, but with a master’s degree in history and a chronic, crippling medical condition, his job options are limited. Personal circumstances often make the “choice” of adjuncting into an economic necessity: even exploitative work is better than no work at all.

However, although my friend is not the only one who has suffered greatly due to the precarious, poorly-compensated nature of adjunct work, we make a mistake by looking at these cases as simply tragic, isolated incidences rather than as signs of a larger, more disturbing trend. Rather than seeing education as a vital part of public infrastructure and funding it accordingly, we have increasingly bought into the idea that education is a matter of personal responsibility alone, and that those who want to pursue it should shoulder the burden themselves. It is this short-sighted corporatist mentality, that all investments which do not bear fruit within the next fiscal quarter are bad ones, that has taken over higher education. And were I not the recipient of this down-sizing, I might feel more sympathy for harried administrators who contend with shrinking budgets by “cutting labor costs” – a cold corporate euphemism that elides untold examples of heartbreaking personal sacrifices, but never mind that for now – but I can’t help but think that, once a school has seen that it can continue to operate, at least nominally, while using a majority “part-time” workforce, why would it ever go back, even if the trend of education defunding were to suddenly reverse itself?

As the recent fast-food and Walmart worker strikes have demonstrated, corporations, once addicted to a supply of cheap labor, will only improve worker conditions under the threat of organized labor action, and higher education, having succumbed to the same bottom-line mentality that drives the decisions of private sector restaurant chains, will only improve when adjuncts realize that if we want a living wage, we will have to fight for one. In any labor dispute, there is the tension between speaking out at the risk of losing one’s livelihood and remaining silent at the risk of remaining exploited forever, and I believe that the tipping point is quickly approaching where more choose to do the former rather than the latter.

If I were an optimist, I would say that change is imminent, that the scattered efforts of adjuncts to create organized labor movements and work with legislators to achieve better work conditions will result in widespread reform, and that, in time, the “professor on food stamps” trope will be seen as just an unfortunate chapter in the history of American higher education. But as I face the prospect of abandoning my profession while watching a friend slowly wasting away in pursuit of a dream continually deferred, I can’t help but be filled with an overwhelming sense of futility. When educators are forced to fight for their very survival, what does it say about the value we place on education itself?

My teaching career may be dead, but my convictions about what higher education should look like have not perished. Adjuncts might be fighting a losing battle, but even if they are, I know that their cause is just. And I know which side I am on.

Go to any college in the country, and there you will surely find someone like me: an adjunct barely scraping together a living in the hope that just a little more work for just a little bit longer will result in a full-time faculty position. It is this belief, vain as it is, that sustains so many of us, who, like Gatsby, see our futures receding year by year, even as we run faster, stretch out our arms farther…


“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


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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Nathaniel C. Oliver

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tindari

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A Hopefully Formerly Depressed Human Vows To Practice Self-Approval

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