and we bleed
like all animals.|
And prick each other
with guns and bombs and
fear most of all
until we see an enemy
who does not look like us
as though our own tribe
were not capable
of the same atrocities.
Like the snailwe pull ourselves inside
our imaginary walls
and close the doors—
or think we can.
But the guns and bombs
are just tools,
the real enemy not other people.
When we look at each other
only through borders
we can’t see
what a wide and splendid world it is.
–For Beirut and Baghdad and Gaza and Paris, Nov. 14, 2015
Jason Brennan is at it again (Wayback machine link, just in case, because Jason has a bad habit of deleting anything that receives criticism he doesn't like) and I've decided to tackle him here, rather than on the NFM blog, because it's a waste of NFM resources to reply directly to this nonsense. But I'm happy to waste my own resources doing it. School doesn’t start for another week.
A quick recap: Brennan (PDF) surfaced a few months ago with an article (now deleted; see above) about how adjuncts (more on that term later) are responsible for their own suffering by agreeing to teach for poverty wages, when they could just go sell insurance instead (hence the moniker Prof. Geico). Not only is Brennan likely to delete his posts if they get too much of the wrong kind of attention, but he’ll delete comments he doesn’t like and both he and his crony Phillip Magness aren’t above closing of the comments portion of their blogs altogether while freely commenting on dissenting venues themselves. Brennan, as his group blog indicates, fancies himself a "bleeding heart Libertarian," which seems largely like an exercise in contradiction, since Libertarian hearts bleed for no one but themselves. In his new essay, "The Valorization of Envy," he proudly calls himself an "academic 1-percenter" whose work is certainly NOT made possible by the underclass of adjuncts teaching general education classes to free him up for research. That's probably more true now that adjuncts at his home institution of Georgetown have unionized.
Before we go much farther, a word or three about the term "adjuncts," especially as it comes into play with a crony of Brennan's, Phillip Magness, whom I also wish to address here. Within adjunct activist circles, the word "adjunct" covers a world of hurt: it generally includes any contingent faculty whose working conditions are precarious and untenured and/or off the tenure track: full-time contract professors and program managers with some benefits and security but almost always lower pay than tenured or tenure-track; part-time professors with extended contracts, paid by the credit hour; part-time professors hired semester to semester or "just in time"; part-time instructors who have full time jobs in industry (the original meaning of the term); part time instructors who rely solely on academic work for their income; visiting professors; graduate teaching assistants; postdocs. There are a number of terms used to refer to these working conditions: adjunct lecturer, adjunct professor, adjunct instructor, adjunct assistant professor, instructor, lecturer—you get the idea. In Canada and Australia, they are called sessionals, in the UK, fractionals. The problem with the terms is that universities are free to call these workers whatever they want, so there is no single term that covers them all or all the different positions they occupy. The commonality is in the precarity and exploitative nature of their positions, in contrast to the (now less so) security of tenured faculty, who, no matter how the statistics are cooked, remain a mere 25% of the faculty (down from 70%). So when I say "adjunct" in this essay, the term includes all these various working conditions. I'll come back to this when I address Magness's specious arguments.
On to Jason Brennan's newest essay.
In "The Valorization of Envy," Brennan sets out to critique Richard Goldin's Counterpunch essay, "The Economic Inequality in Academia." First, let me just say what a dick it makes you seem if you think that people working for equality and fairness in society are merely envious of "people like you." It also makes you look stupidly arrogant if you think everyone who's not like you envies you. It's like reducing Freud's concept of penis envy to the envy of the actual organ rather than the undeserved social power it represents. It's a juvenile argument that should be confined to the playground, but it's also one rooted in a deep fear that the people working for social and economic justice will redistribute the wealth before you get yours. And in a deep hatred of the very concept of equality. But enough of the free armchair shrinkage. Brennan's undoubtedly got a good health plan that would pay for the professional variety. But he'd have to admit his insecurities first.
Reducing Goldin's analysis to an "envious rant," as I just reduced Brennan’s critique to a juvenile argument filled with ad hominem insinuations, doesn't replace sound argumentation. It's fun, but it proves nothing, and it really has no place in the academic conversation. Attributing motive and making personal attacks are the kinds of tactics used by those without solid ground to stand on. So let's see what kind of ground Brennan's on.
First we get the argument that there aren't as many adjuncts as the activists like New Faculty Majority (characterized on Phil Magness's twitter feed, especially me personally, as "crazy cat ladies") claim, for which, see above. Brennan cites his pal Magness, who makes artificial divisions based on the vague nomenclature used by under-reporting universities to characterize their precarious faculty. Aaron Barlow of AAUP's Academe blog posted a host of graphs to refute this, but again, it depends on how you define adjunct faculty. Unless Brennan and Magness agree to stipulate that non-tenure-track full-time faculty share issues with "just in time" part-time adjuncts, there's not much more to be said.
Part of Brennan and Magness's refutation of this idea of commonality is their focus on R1 universities like their respective institutions, Georgetown and George Mason. I'm not sure why they're so blinkered about this, except that they both work in such institutions. They are a small fraction of the total number of higher education institutions (around 400 or so out of approximately 4,700 total, not counting the for-profit sector). Where R1s fail to employ Magness's narrow definition of adjuncts, they happily employ and exploit graduate assistants and postdocs. More than one college has cut the number of part-time instructors to replace them with grad TAs because TAs come even cheaper and have a harder time unionizing because of their student status.
Next, Brennan claims that "contrary to what everyone keeps saying, the number of tenure-track faculty slots has been increasing over the past 40 years." Nobody has said this. What we have said is that the proportion of non-tenure track to tenure track has been increasing. That's a big difference. Furthermore, the table he and Magness cite as proof actually shows the proportion of full-time to part-time, without any tenure distinctions at all. We can assume that part-timers are not tenured or tenure-track, but we cannot assume that all full-timers are tenured or tenure-track. But that same table shows the proportion of part-time to full-time hires narrowing drastically until they are neck in neck. So even if only half of those full-timers are untenured, the growth of untenured is still outstripping tenured. Here's a better graph illustrating that growth. Note the growing proportion of non-tenure-track faculty of both kinds, just from the turn of the century. It's even greater from the 1970s.
Next, after some more fun but semantically null snarkiness about postmodernists and Koch infiltration and accusations of lying about making minimum wage (the credit hour fallacy, anyone?) Brennan turns the lens back on himself again, reminding us that he is an "Academic 1 percenter":
I’m not making bank because Georgetown exploits adjuncts. Martin Gilens isn’t making bank because Princeton exploits adjuncts. R. Edward Freeman doesn’t make bank because Darden exploits adjuncts. Rather, the exploited adjuncts are getting exploited elsewhere, at community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, third tier/low output “research” universities, and the for-profit colleges.
The implication, of course, is that Brennan's "making bank" because he's an academic hotshot.
First, I would ask him how many general education courses he teaches, and if the answer is none, who does teach them. Because that's generally where the adjuncts are. And because the adjuncts are teaching the most time-intensive courses with the most grading, that frees him up to do his research, while adjuncts, often scrambling between two or three institutions, have no time or monetary support to do research. While anybody can apply for a Fulbright, adjuncts are generally ineligible for travel funds to go to conferences and for sabbaticals to have time to pursue their own projects. That's just as true at Georgetown as anywhere else. In fact, Georgetown's own Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor produced a report that illustrates this. (See especially pages 9 & 10.) If Georgetown pays its adjuncts better than most places, it's because their union helped negotiate a good contract and because Georgetown has a long history of just employment practices as part of its Catholic ethos. Brennan seems not to realize that he benefits from those too, but more so than his adjunct colleagues. FYI, Dr. Brennan, Georgetown employs about 650 adjuncts. That's hardly the "few" that you claim. Perhaps they are invisible to you in your elite tower.
The next bit of Brennan's argument is largely an ego-driven assertion of the supremacy of research over teaching, of the sort I've heard before from people who don't like teaching. It's a chicken-and-egg argument without winners. They're both equally important. Some people do one better than the other, but it's impossible to say that research hasn't been overvalued in the academy when someone like Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, asserts that "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964" with the pressure of publication currently in vogue.
Brennan then complains about Goldin's characterization of academic hiring practices as a lottery. I can see why Brennan doesn't like this, as it makes his own hiring look less merit-based. Again, that's not actually what Goldin says though. He calls it "something of a lottery" (a difference without much distinction, true) but then goes on to explain that hiring committees have been found to pretty much replicate themselves in their hiring practices: white, male, Ivy. It's one of the major problems in STEM disciplines, especially physics.
Finally, Brennan gripes peevishly, "If madjunct crowd [sic; adjunct activists] sincerely believed that academia is a lottery, they would not act surprised or indignant that they lost and would move on with their lives." In other words, just shut up and take what we hand you, whether you think it's just or not. I've got mine, fuck all y'all. This is apparently the best argument Brennan and his Libertarian tag-team partner Magness can make, because neither of them can do data analysis for shit.
In many ways, all of this is beside the point. The core issue here is the uncollegiality of Brennan and Magness’s attitude. As fellow educators, what is the point of their hostility to financial and labor equity for their colleagues? Or is it that they don't really see adjuncts as their colleagues? (Ironic in Magness's case, because he is one.) The phrase that comes to mind is “punching down,” because none of the people this dynamic duo are griping and complaining about have any power to do anything against Brennan and Magness but what I’ve just done: excoriate them in public via an obscure blog or some other publication. What they’re doing is a bit like kicking puppies. Or crazy cat ladies.
So what makes you all such shitheads? What are you afraid of if adjuncts gain equity in pay and position? Why waste your time on people who are virtually powerless? Why the name calling and derision? Who took your toys, boys?
Crazy Cat Lady, huh?
UPDATE: Phil Magness responds on Twitter (where I have been blocked) with more of his usual selective editing and complete lack of cogency. I guess I hurt his feefees, but it's okay if he slams an entire class of colleagues.
I'm generally a big picture kind of person, though my own focus for activism right now is pretty narrow. In case you haven't been watching my every move, I've been spending the last couple of years concentrating on education labor activism but my personal impulse is to be outraged by every sort of injustice: racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality, war, greed, you name it, I'm pissed about it. I've always believed that everyone should have equal opportunity, a fair and level playing field, and the right to be treated in every way with dignity as fellow human beings.
I have to give my parents credit for that. In many ways, they were a lot like Alice Dreger's Polish emigre parents. My dad was a working class, old school FDR/JFK Liberal and my mother was a deeply religious woman constantly outraged by injustice. Dad's belief in civil rights and free speech were unshakable and he had a real soft spot for underdogs, even if it did take him a while to come around to feminism. Mom was more the avenging angel type and would have gladly carried one of those Biblical flaming swords, had they been issued to mere mortals. So I grew up in a kind of Truth, Justice and the American Way household, without the jingoistic patriotism. In my house, everybody deserved respect and a fair break. Is that so hard?
It sure seems to be. And I've been thinking a lot about why, lately, as I get ready to teach my research course that focuses on economic inequality this summer. Human failing is the obvious "Duh!" reason for injustice, or what we more frequently call human nature. We have it in us to be absolutely selfish, vile shits, but we also have it in us to be amazingly altruistic. The sheer number of beautiful, generous, uplifting things we do for each other is one of the best parts of the internet, along with cat videos. We make cheap artificial limbs for kids and dogs. As individuals, we collect massive amounts of money for the victims of natural disasters. We turn our ingenuity to making the lives of refugees and the poor easier. We get out in the street and protest injustice even when popular opinion is against us, changing those opinions in the process.
And still, what we see in the news, and in our lives, is a grossly unequal and unjust world where far too few people hold not just most of the money, but all the cards. Two immediate examples, one petty, one part of an ongoing battle: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's administration spawned, among other scandals, something called Bridgegate, in which Christie's cronies "conspir[ed] with Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly to close the lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 to 'punish' the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie in his re-election bid." This doesn't sound like much; traffic sucks in New York and New Jersey most of the time anyway. But this was an intentional obstruction that created a public safety hazard and held up EMS vehicles, resulting in at least one death. Christie and his cronies grossly inconvenienced and endangered thousands of drivers and helped cause the death of a 91-year old woman because somebody didn't play pattycake with them.
I'll just let that sink in for a moment.
The second example, much more immediate and appalling is the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. Charges have just come down today against six police officers who not only illegally arrested Gray, but then proceeded to beat the crap out of him somehow in the back of the van he was being transported in. It's too early to say exactly what happened, but it seems clear that neither Mr. Gray's safety nor dignity were paramount in the minds of the cops who picked him up. His pleas for help were ignored and he was not secured safely in the back of the van. Somehow, he acquired a spinal injury that killed him between the time he was cuffed and when he arrived at the station. The New York Times has highlighted a practice called the "rough ride" or the "nickle ride" used all over the country to rough up suspects without having to physically touch them, a form of torture not quite as egregious as that practiced by the Chicago Police Department but nonetheless abhorrent.
A third example, larger and even more systemic than the deaths of black people at the hands of police, is the denial of living wages to workers all over the world, and the sequestration of the majority of wealth in the hands of a few, and the way that gets talked about by others with relative privilege. Far too often, as in the case of this white, male, privileged tenure track asshat, it leads to a rhetoric of blaming the victim for the very injustices under which they are suffering. Likewise this equally phantasmagoric piece by David Brooks, in which he asserts that poverty is not really about lack of money but social psychology. The poor are poor because they want to be, because they're lazy, because they're incapable of taking "advantage" of a broken public school system handed over to shysters, an overpriced higher education system that leaves them tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or of non-existent living wage jobs. Meanwhile, living in poverty has a whole host of deleterious physical, psychological, educational and social effects. So, we fuck children up by not helping to provide secure, healthy living conditions and then blame them for failing. It's a brilliant strategy with all kinds of denial of responsibility built in.
This is where we come to the title of this post. All of these examples illustrate a failure of leadership—or the success of a certain kind of leadership inimical to the welfare of the people these leaders are supposed to be serving. If we posit the idea that political life in a democracy (hell, any political life), especially leadership, should be grounded in morality, compassion, and justice, then the leaders have, in these cases, failed spectacularly. Or succeeded in upholding a morally bankrupt, bigoted, unjust social order. Take your pick.
Humans are herd animals, by and large. We like to be together, we like to be led, we like to follow for the most part (see also: crowd theory). Even so, we are rightly suspicious of the motives of leaders who emerge from the crowd. Lord Acton famously said "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." What seems to actually be true is that the exercise of power heightens already existing personality traits. If we are compassionate, moral people when we're given power or find ourselves in power, we tend to exercise it with those qualities in mind to the best of our abilities. Nobody's perfect, but we've had some truly compassionate presidents in my lifetime, and before (FDR, JFK and Jimmy Carter all come to mind, despite their human failings). We've had plenty of the other kind too: the sorts who are more interested in power and personal advantage than they are in service to their countrymen or anyone else. I don't think you need examples of those. *Cough*Bush-Cheney*Cough*
Money, however, seems to have a more universally deleterious effect on people. Money creates a buffer between us and the rest of the world. When we have enough of it to live comfortably, it reduces stress and makes our lives easier and healthier (see above). It also allows and encourages us to be generous. Poor and middle class people give larger percentages of their income to charity than the wealthy and uber-wealthy do. Anything in excess of a comfortable income seems to turn us into greedy asshats for whom there is never enough money. We think, hey, I've made it; I don't care about the rest of you. This kind of contempt is the polar opposite of what we should want from our leaders, whether they are political, financial, or intellectual leaders. Sadly, that's mostly what we've got now: police departments that see a large proportion of the people they serve as insurgents; educational leaders who see children as nascent criminals and sources of income; political leaders who see citizens as potential terrorists and their own nation as a battleground; business leaders who see natural resources as exploitable commodities.
Leaders like Chris Christie and the chiefs of particularly abusive police departments foster an atmosphere of contempt in which abuse, selfishness and cruelty thrive. Christie is known for being a particularly petty jerk who verbally abuses constituents who challenge his god-like self image. It's not surprising that his administration should cook up a juvenile scheme like Bridgegate. That's the kind of tone that Christie sets; he has all the diplomacy and maturity of a 12-year-old schoolyard bully. Likewise, the kinds of police chiefs who look the other way when their officers brutalize or racially profile the public they're supposed to "serve and protect" foster contempt for their own communities. Broken Windows policing sounds good in theory, but without including respect for the people in those communities, it fosters the idea that everyone who lives there is currently a thug, practicing to be a thug, or used to be a thug and might be again at any moment. We then stray far from the principle of innocent until proven guilty and common sense, not to mention the spirit of the law. And if our elected leaders allow the (often useful) paranoia of intelligence agencies to be the pervading attitude toward our nation's citizens, that fosters distrust, hatred, and disrespect of everyone who does not look like "us." Who that "us" might be in a nation of immigrants from all over the world eludes me, but there are plenty of "others" to go around in the minds of the frightened. Right now, it's Muslims who are the potential terrorists of choice, even though lone wolf homegrown white supremacists like Timothy McVeigh are far more dangerous.
What concerns me most in all of these examples is the almost complete lack of compassion for our fellow citizens. More and more we as both nation and individuals are exhibiting not just a lack of compassion but an outright contempt for others who have less power, less money, less luck, less stuff, less education, less privilege than we do, whoever we are. We are "punching down" more instead of lifting up. In the courses I teach, we talk about inequality and social violence of many kinds. Most of my students are first generation college students (like me); many are first generation Americans (like my dad). Most of them buy into the "work hard, get ahead" American dream and are shocked to discover it is out of reach for most of us. But when they read about the fraying safety net we have, they immediately bring up welfare queens and foodstamp fraud, even though many of them have used those services themselves. The rhetoric of our privileged leaders is teaching these kids not to work hard but to hate themselves and their families for failing when they can't realize the return on their own investments. It's hiding from them who the true culprits of their oppression are and turning them against each other. It's an excellent tactic for social control and our leaders are making very good use of it.
But this doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. We're currently living in a society that lionizes socio- and psychopathic personalities. If you think I'm exaggerating, think about who we admire most: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, bankers—none of whom actually produce anything—the Forbes 400, most of whom (with some notable exceptions) are vile, exploitative creeps. Example: The Koch brothers (numbers 3 & 4), the Walton family (numbers 6, 7, 9 and 10). Even when they mean well, as I suspect Bill Gates (#1 with $81B) does, money seems to give them an excess of paternalism that is completely misplaced, as though knowing how to make a fortune means you have the intelligence to solve all the world's problems, or even know when there is a problem. Gates's meddling in education is a prime example. According to Bill, our public education system is failing and needs the expertise of Microsoft's genius to fix it. Instead of listening to actual experts in the field—you know, people who've been educators their whole lives, who have degrees in it, and years of study and experience—we should let Bill tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. And now we are eviscerating public education, and firing our best teachers on the basis of an untried testing regime that makes kids hate learning. But that's another post.
Worse than the moneymakers are the politicians, like Christie, that they buy with those billions: ultra conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Bobby Jindal, the Bush boys who apparently really hate poor people, women, minorities, immigrants, or anyone who can't give them money for reelection. Why do we elect these people? Evil must have better PR. We're not just voting for them though. We're validating their frightened, narrow, cruel worldview and often parroting it. We're encouraging their failed leadership and becoming part of the problem.
Stop voting for petty, mean, selfish assholes, people, lest you become their victims. Better yet, maybe it's about time the compassionate, honest people who care about justice showed the leaders we've got now how it's done.
Tell your stories to PrecariCorps in 300-500 words. What's PrecariCorps and why should you care? If you're an adjunct professor anywhere, you know what the wages and treatment are like. Unless you're the kind of adjunct who has a full-time industry job and moonlights because you like to teach, you're making poverty-level wages for those contact hours, teaching up to 9 classes at multiple universities/colleges/on-line for profit diploma mills to make ends meet with no guarantee you'll have anything to teach next semester, let alone next year or over the summer. This is the new academic precariat and we're 75% of the faculty now. Our wages are a fraction of what similarly credentialed experts make in industry, yet we often can't get jobs outside academe because we're overqualified. That's a fine Catch-22, yet many members of the public don't know that their tuition dollars are not going to our salaries, or that their taxes are subsidizing us the same way we're subsidizing WalMart workers: via social services we need to pay our bills: Obamacare, food stamps, unemployment (if we can get it), WIC and other forms of welfare.
That's where PrecariCorps comes in. Their primary purpose is "Improving Lives and Livelihoods of Contingent Faculty with Hardship Relief Funds or Grants for Faculty Development. To accomplish our first goal, PrecariCorps will offer contingent faculty donations through one of our programs, the Hardship Relief Fund or the Grant for Faculty Development. Applicants may email a completed application to receive either a donation to help them pay one bill or help them travel to one conference." To this end, they're applying for 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization.
Think about that for a minute. Imagine if public school teachers in pre-K-12 were dependent upon charitable donations to survive while doing their jobs, instead of making a middle class living (though that has become more rare now too). Imagine if engineers, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and other highly qualified professionals were in the same boat. Would you want a doctor who couldn't pay off her med school bills and had to scramble for work among four or five different offices, never knowing where they'd be and making it impossible to see the same doctor twice? Oh wait, that's what it's like at many clinics for the poor. And we see how well that works by the mortality rates for the poor.
At the same time, professional administrators make many times what adjunct professors do, and never set foot in the classroom, never do the real work of a university, which is education. At many institutions of higher education, there are now twice as many administrators as faculty, full-time or otherwise. Twice as many.
Guess where that tuition money is going.
So to my mind, a large part of PrecariCorps purpose is to highlight the shame of our academic system which is being sucked dry by an overabundance of parasitical administrative positions at the cost of the quality of some of the best education in the world. Hungry, stressed, impoverished teachers don't and can't do their best work when they're worried about survival. No one does. It's time we decided who was more important in higher education and start supporting our educators and not via charity.
With many thanks to Robert Craig Baum for production editing.
Okay, I have officially lost my mind. Here's what I hatched with a bunch of cronies over the weekend. We already have publisher interest. I am boggled. I think the project is suddenly taking on a life of its own. Get on board with us:
Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat
The career of college professor, giving back to the society that provided for them through education, was once a respectable path to the middle class. That class position is now slipping through the hands of the very people who helped create it, thanks to the erosion of tenured and tenure-track positions in favor of short-term contract positions without security. What should be rags to riches stories about the power of education to lift people out of poverty by providing a pathway to better jobs have become, for many academics, stories of stagnation, downward mobility, and outright impoverishment under the burden of massive debt uncompensated for by the very academy that helped contract faculty incur it.
Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariate will be a collection of voices from the world of so-called adjunct or contract college instructors who now teach 60-75% of all college courses in the United States and are paid wages equivalent to Walmart workers. In the tradition of Studs Terkel’s Working, Teaching Poor will honor both the difficulties and the triumphs of this new class of impoverished white collar laborers in the academic trenches, detailing personal struggles with the resultant poverty produced by low wages, crushing student loan debt, lack of healthcare and retirement provisions, and the professional and cultural costs this system levies on individuals and the students they teach.
I welcome creative non-fiction, biographical essay, short stories, poems, comics and, in the spirit of hacking the academy through digital humanities, may eventually expand to multimedia and a permanent archive of work similar to Story Corps.
This project is in its very early stages and I’m looking to see what kind of interest there is both in contributors and publishers before defining it or looking into other funding/publishing sources. I have publishers in mind (AK, Haymarket, Soft Skull, Atropos, Verso, ILR, Atticus, Riverhead), but also welcome suggestions. I do want this to be more than a self-published ebook though, and perhaps something truly groundbreaking if we can make a collaboration work.
Send your queries and submissions to Lee Kottner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A couple of years ago, I was still teaching at the College of New Rochelle when they got a new president. I was still feeling my way into adjunct activisim at the time, and still fearful for my job there, such as it was, but also nearing the end of my rope. The crappy pay, the gigantic amount of ridiculous, ass-covering paperwork (filled out by hand. By hand!), the filthy facilities, the lack of support, the standardized syllabi and assigned textbooks—I wonder why I stayed so long. Anyway, when the new president arrived, I thought I'd write her a letter so she would not have the excuse of not knowing what was going on at her satellite campuses, because I knew the chances of her coming down from her beautiful campus in New Rochelle to the dumpy building that served us in the South Bronx were nil. I never sent this because I was too fearful. But I'm posting it here now because I burnt that bridge—and the smoke smelled great.
* * *
Judith Huntington, President
The College of New Rochelle
29 Castle Place
New Rochelle, New York 10805
Dear President Huntington,
First, congratulations on your new position at the College of New Rochelle. I’m looking forward to seeing what changes you make as a “new broom.” In fact, I’m writing to you to suggest a few of those changes myself. First a little background.
I have been an adjunct professor at CNR’s JCOC campus since 2008. I started off as a tutor in the writing center, and then went on to teach Journal Writing, Modes of Analysis, LTCA, Writing Research Papers, Logic and Argumentation, and the TEE writing lab. During my time in the writing lab, I fell in love with the students at the JCOC campus; they are so hungry for knowledge and they work so hard to overcome obstacles that would completely flummox many people. My admiration for these students is the main factor that’s kept me coming back to CNR for the last three years.
Unfortunately, this semester, I will not be back, and this was a very hard decision to make. Although I was offered a section each of LTCA and Modes, I’ve taken a section of College Prep English with the CUNY-affiliated Brooklyn Educational Opportunities Center (BEOC) instead. Sadly, my major motivation for this choice has been money. I love teaching Modes and LTCA and I’m good at it (last semester, all of my LTCA students passed their exit exams). Many of the students I first meet in the TEE lab sign up with me for other classes, too. But BEOC pays me almost $70/hour for 8 contact hours/week which include mandatory office hours. I net more teaching a single no-credit course at BEOC than I do teaching two 4-credit courses at CNR. I’m also teaching a section each of Comp I and Comp II (3-credit courses) at New Jersey City University (NJCU) in Jersey City, even though the commute is an hour and half versus the half hour to JCOC, and not simply because they offer $1,200/credit.
Much as I love the students at JCOC, I’ve been frustrated by my inability to offer them the level of instruction they deserve. I’m not even referring to the fact that CNR is the only institution I’ve ever taught at where I have no control over my own syllabus and where my texts are chosen for me. Even as a graduate assistant at Michigan State, I developed my own syllabus, ordered my own texts, and structured my class as I saw fit (with supervision, of course, at that stage). My real complaint is the fact that I have no place to meet students, and they have no way to contact me or turn in papers to me outside of class other than email, which CNR discourages.
The lack of support for adjunct instructors at CNR is stunning, frankly. Not only do we have no offices or even cubicles, nowhere to leave our texts or meet students or simply sit to prepare materials, but there is little sense of community. When I joined NJCU this summer, I was immediately assigned an office with a computer and a telephone, and my own mailbox where students could leave work for me (also true at BEOC, though there I have a cubicle). I was also encouraged to attend what turned out to be a great orientation session which included meeting textbook reps and a pedagogy workshop that filled three hours of the afternoon with great information and suggestions. CNR holds a faculty meeting which it requires adjuncts to attend every year, which I, honestly, have skipped each time, though I’ve made it a point to attend the adjunct instructors’ meeting at the start of the semester. I’ve skipped the faculty meeting for several reasons: the fact that it’s scheduled on a Saturday morning and eats up most of the day; the fact that I’m usually working either freelance or another teaching job when it’s scheduled; and the fact that I don’t feel I’m paid enough to give up five hours (seven with travel time) of my weekend. I’m already burdened with more physical paperwork (in triplicate, filled out by hand) at CNR than I’ve ever seen at any college.
The lack of support extends to facilities and equipment as well. JCOC is the only school I’ve ever taught at where I have no access to copying facilities and have to bring my own paper if I want to print something on the computers. Asking instructors to send big copying jobs to a central facility for reproduction a week in advance is perfectly reasonable, but I can’t even make 25 single sheet copies at the last minute for my class. Instead, I’ve used my own laser printer and paper to make copies for class because I’m never sure if the printers at school will be working. Very often, they’re not, which is frustrating for both me and JCOC’s students. Needless to say, no one reimburses me for my paper or toner costs, which can amount to more than $100 a semester. “Plan better,” you say? Easier said than done, when one is teaching four or sometimes five classes at three institutions spread across the 6,720 square miles of the New York Metropolitan Area. Not to mention that, at least the first time around, I often know what classes I’m teaching less than two weeks before they start, and sometimes with as little as two or three days notice. Lack of access to copiers also makes spontaneous changes to a class when new material presents itself difficult if not impossible.
The computer facilities, or lack thereof, pose other problems for both me and my students. There is only one smart classroom in JCOC and it is mostly used for placement exams. For anything but night classes, this poses a scheduling problem if I want to use that classroom to, for example, show my students how to access the library databases and do research. In addition, if I want to show something available on the internet, there’s no way to show it in any classroom but this one. Finally, because there are no facilities like Blackboard for doing so, I always run a private webpage connected to my personal website for each of my classes where students can check the schedule and from which they can download any handouts they may have missed, watch a video on proofreading by Taylor Mali, and find links to good research sources on the web. I’m not sure if other adjuncts do this, and it’s fortunate that I know enough HTML to do so. But none of us should have to use our own resources for this.
The limited computer facilities pose special problems for JCOC’s students in particular. As I’m sure you’re aware, most of these students have very little money; many are on public assistance of some sort. For many of them, the only computer access they have is at school. If they have a computer at home, they may not have internet access. If they have a computer and internet access, they may not have a printer, or be able to afford paper or ink/toner. Often, the only paper available at school is colored paper, and yet, we require our students to write their papers on computers and and print them on white paper. Isn’t paper for the printers included in their student fees?
In addition, many of my students come into my classes without a good knowledge of how to use Microsoft Word or access the Web. They don’t really understand the difference between email and a web page. They don’t know how to attach a file to an email. At least one course (TEE) has a required computer component. I’ve had more than one student fail that part of the course because they were working full time and had no computer access anywhere but school, and the hours are limited. I’m sure that requirement works just fine at the main campus, but not at JCOC.
The students at JCOC lead very complicated lives. Most have children and many are recovering addicts who deal with domestic abuse, homelessness, violence in the neighborhood, and the bureaucracy of public assistance, which can be Kafkaesque at times. One of the largest causes of absenteeism at JCOC is lack of childcare. Since JCOC serves a population that is mostly older adults, most of them with children, it would help both retention and attendance to have or support some kind of childcare on-site or near the campus. Access to reliable childcare would go a long way toward improving students’ ability to attend and finish school. Occasionally letting mothers bring their children to class wouldn’t hurt either. I’d rather see them in class with a child than missing in action. There must be grants for this.
Finally, a small thing: scheduling classes that run from 5:30 pm to 10 pm or 10 am to 2 pm with meager 20 minute breaks and not allowing students to eat in class is cruel and unusual punishment. Bad enough there is no cafeteria serving decent food and only fast food in the neighborhood. If they’re hungry, they’re not thinking or learning well. If I’m hungry, I’m not teaching well either. Needless to say, this rule is largely ignored, but it seems senseless and mean to even post it.
So far, this letter has largely consisted of complaints. I’d like to propose some improvements, too. Some refer to general educational policies, some specifically to JCOC itself.
Offer your adjuncts a living wage and treat us with dignity.
- Give adjuncts more control over course structure and text choice. We’re trained educators, not amateurs. Supervision is better than directives.
- Offer orientations and workshops to create community and support good teaching.
- Provide some kind of space to call our own in which we can meet with students.
- Cut the paperwork. The grading system is cumbersome and inconvenient for just about everyone. Adopt an on-line grade submission program. I can recommend a good school management program that includes this and many more convenient features.
- Give us access to copying facilities for small jobs, and decent copying machines.
I realize that in New York, adjuncts are a dime a dozen, but when you find good ones, whether they’re terminal MAs like me, or Ph.D. candidates, it pays you (and your students) to keep them, and the best way to do that is to pay us a living wage. If we have to teach 5 low-paying, grading-intensive writing classes to make ends meet, we’re not serving anyone’s students, including yours. Both CUNY and NJCU are good models for this, probably because they both have unions. Both offer good wages and benefits and attract good teachers who stay because of that. And to be blunt, it’s the kind of working conditions we find at CNR that attract adjuncts to union organizing. If you want to keep unions at bay, make them unnecessary.
Improve computer facilities and training for students.
- Wifi in the classrooms is less important (and sometimes just another distraction) than having more smart classrooms and functioning, fast, computer access and working printers with paper.
- Make sure the first thing incoming students learn is how to use those computers, before requiring that they do so. Speaking as a former power-user word processor, Microsoft Word is now a far more complex program than it used to be, and not as easy to use as just learning to type used to be. I spend too much class time teaching students how to use Word at a basic level.
- Adopt a college-wide system such as Blackboard to make communication outside of class easier and classes more interactive for students. This is especially important in a commuter school like JCOC
Improve building facilities and the school experience for students and faculty.
- Expand the library. Could it have a whole floor to itself? I don’t know what’s on the second floor. Nobody goes there.
- Please, please, upgrade the restrooms, which are often out of soap or towels, and grubby even when they’re “clean.”
- Even a small cafeteria is probably out of the question because of space limitations, so allowing students to bring their own food to class and consume it there would help keep them alert and allow them to eat well.
- If students can’t have a real bookstore onsite, maybe the teaching supply store in the neighborhood, Tannen’s, could function in that capacity. One of my greatest pleasures as an undergrad was looking at the books for other classes. It’s a great way to spark interest in reading and learning.
- Offer some kind of childcare either on-site or nearby.
- Make the student lounge more inviting.
Implementing any one of these suggestions would go a long way toward making CNR in general and JCOC in particular a better school for both students and faculty.
I don’t know if I’ll be back at JCOC again (possibly not after you read this letter), but I want to reiterate how much I love teaching there, despite the conditions and pay, simply because of the students. I’ve never taught students who rewarded my efforts with so much hard work, so much eagerness, so much enthusiasm and intellectual desire. I feel like I have been shortchanging them because of the conditions at JCOC, and that’s not right. I put up with the conditions and poor pay for those students, but I can’t continue to make that sacrifice indefinitely. No true professional can. No true professional should have to.
Thank you for your attention and patience in reading this letter. Again, I wish you all the best in your new position.
Ann E. Kottner
* * *
One condition I didn’t mention that exists specifically at this college and at too many others is student exploitation. This particular campus operates like far too many for-profit schools do, by selling their services to underprepared students and then giving them little or no support. Many of my students there were getting GEDs at the same time they were pursuing their bachelor’s degrees. The curriculum committee, in their wisdom, decided to institute high stakes tests at the end of not just one but three levels of writing classes, the first of which employed Pearson’s expensive (and problematic for this group) computer components. This is two too many tests, in my view but it is doubly criminal because the school has no writing center and offers virtually no outside support for a group that particularly needs it. The only so-called tutoring available is largely unsupervised peer tutors who are very unreliable and poorly paid—one per shift. One. I’ve taught all three of these classes and seen students pass the class but fail the test and thus have to retake the whole class again, sometimes two or three times, digging themselves deeper and deeper into debt, and having to repurchase Pearson’s access codes each time. These conditions exist at too many colleges, where students are seen as cash cows that feed the salaries of administrators.
I post this now because these are precisely the conditions addresed by the petition to the Department of Labor that I helped write. If you haven't signed that yet, please do, if you care at all about the kind of education our students are getting in every college in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, the UK, France, Chile, Argentina, and too many other countries. Sign and share. We'd like 10K by Labor Day, although the petition runs through September 30th.
(Crossposted at Cocktail Party Physics)
If you’ve been in academia at any time in the last 30 years, you know that the composition of science education is changing. In the Humanities, the last 30 years have seen a nearly complete reversal of the proportion of tenured faculty to contingent faculty (meaning part-time adjuncts, grad students, postdocs, and full-time adjuncts on 1-3 year renewable contracts) until tenured and tenure-track faculty are now only about 25% of those employed by public and private universities (PDF). As tenured professors retire, they are being replaced not by more tenure-track hires, but by several expendable (and cheap) part-time contingent faculty. In STEM disciplines, things are a little different (in 2008, approximately 39% of STEM PhDs in the academy were postdocs or contingent faculty)*, and getting worse, but many new PhDs find themselves on a near-perpetual postdoc carousel, with little hope of a permanent position, making as little as $39,000/year. Meanwhile, academic administration positions, costs, and salaries have grown at twice the rate comparable numbers for faculty have.
Regardless of whether you have any sympathy for poor PhDs who’ve spent at least 10 years of their lives training for jobs that are now rapidly becoming extinct, you should care about what it means for scientific literacy. The slogan one hears around disaffected adjuncts these days is “Our working conditions become student learning conditions.” And there’s a great deal of truth to that slogan. When professors are hired at the last possible moment, often less than a week before classes start (sometimes the same day), there is no time for anything but the most formulaic preparation, sometimes just barely ahead of one’s students. Many contingent faculty are only allowed to teach part-time (because benefits! Heavens!) and thus must teach at several different colleges to make ends meet, which means a lot of time on the road—time that could be better spent grading, setting up labs, meeting with students, or prepping for class. If you’re a contingent faculty member, you have little time for forming mentoring relationships with your students, and that means you can’t really help them along in their careers, either. You also have little to no academic freedom or job security, and this can present problems if you teach, say, evolutionary biology in the South.
But mostly what this means is that, no matter how fine a teacher, no matter how innovative a researcher, no matter how eloquent a communicator you are, students aren’t getting the full benefit of your abilities, and careers are being stillborn. In both STEM and the Humanities, we’re losing a whole generation of researchers and scholars. What to do?
Change is brewing, in the form of unionization and direct actions from adjuncts themselves. Adjuncts have formed their own advocate organizations such as New Faculty Majority, the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education (CACHE), and the international Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL, which is meeting in August in New York). Meanwhile, SEIU, the UAW, and the United Steelworkers among other unions, have organized thousands of adjuncts at dozens of colleges and universities around the country just in the last year. And adjuncts are taking individual action themselves.
Which brings me to the petition currently making the rounds on Change.org. Written by a small group of activists that includes adjuncts, tenured professors, and former adjuncts now working in industry or “post-ac” jobs, the petition is addressed to the new director of the US Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division, David Weil, asking him to open an investigation into the hiring, employment, and other labor practices of public and private higher educational institutions. What we hope to accomplish is both the laying bare of the pernicious practices that treat our most highly educated workers as interchangeable cogs, and the first steps in reforming the university for faculty and students.
If you care about education, if you have kids in college, or will, if you are an adjunct or a postdoc, or just a concerned citizen, please sign this petition. It’s important that the labor practices of colleges and universities get a close scrutinizing from the Labor Department, since they so closely parallel the union-busting, wage-thieving practices of the worst industries in the country (think Walmart and fast food). Whether you believe there is a “STEM crisis” or not, higher education can’t afford to continue abusing its scholars and researchers—nor can the country.
*National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2012. Characteristics of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers in the United States: 2008. Detailed Statistical Tables NSF 13-302. Arlington, VA.
Here's my day as a adjunct today; it's not typical but it's not unusual, either:
9-10:30--commute to York College, Queens
10:30-12--office hours (paid), class prep
1:50-3:30--commute to New Jersey
3:30-5--union executive committee meeting (paid; which I'll be a half hour or so late for)
5:00-6:00--commute to Manhattan
6:00-8:00--mandatory (paid) faculty meeting
I do this periodically to make my life as an adjunct instructor visible to people that it's usually invisible to, and who should know about it because my working conditions affect them: students, parents, the general public. Later, two good friends, people I love dearly, both tenured full professors, asked me the equally proverbial "why do I do it?" question. My pissy response after that long day was this:
Why do I do it? Why do you do the work you do? Why do you teach in China for $3,000? Why did you take the job as assessment officer? Why did you keep going back to academe when it was so hard to get a job? Why do anything worth doing? I and other adjuncts get tired of answering that question. We do it because the job is worth doing and because we want to see others paid what we're worth. Nothing changes if the only response is to leave and let it be someone else's problem. That's what full time faculty have done for the last 30 years. That's how we got in this mess. That's not a question an ally asks. The real question is why I should have to do this when you don't.
I'm pretty sure I hurt some feelings with this response, but as an activist-educator, I can't pass up the chance to use this as an object lesson to allies. I've confronted this question before in real life and in a performance piece I wrote. It comes up all the time in the adjunct world and it's one of the weapons used against us by management/administration and the entrenched privileged. "Why do you keep letting yourself be exploited? Why don't you just get another job?" My friends asked me this out of concern for my health both physical and financial, and I love them for that, but as academics I wish they were also more my allies in this struggle. Because their words make it harder, not easier, to keep doing what I'm doing.
One of the first lessons I learned as a baby feminist in the 70s was the slogan "The personal is political." The conditions of my life as an adjunct and as a union activist really can't be separated from my personal life. Those conditions are my personal life. Teaching is as much a part of my identity as being a writer or a feminist is. Like my tenured colleagues, I sank a lot of time, money, and effort (though not as much as they) into becoming an educator. Whenever I could (i.e, whenever I could afford it), I kept coming back to it because it felt like vital work, and because it was soul-filling and not soul-sucking like the far more lucrative job of writing advertising copy was. I want a return on my educational investment that makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile, not perpetuating a sick, exploitative system. Because even while I'm signing those sick, exploitative contracts, I'm subverting that system every time I walk into a classroom and open my mouth.
Asking me why I keep doing what I do isn't the same as asking how I keep doing it, or commiserating with my exploitation. Because when that question is personal, it places the responsibility back on me rather than on the system that exploits me, with the subtext that I could walk away if I wanted to. That's why that question pisses adjuncts off: because nobody asks why Tenured and Tenure-Track profs don't walk away when they don't get raises or are denied tenure or when administration exploits them by squeezing more administrative work out of them for the same money. Somehow, tenure has not only given academics security, but a right to love their jobs that adjunct and contingent faculty often don't seem to have (more on this in a later post). (And please don't say this in response. Please. Just don't.)
Phrased another way, "why do you do it?" reads as "why don't you get another job?" But an ally asks, "what can I do to help change this system that exploits you?" Or, if you're a local ally, "how can I support you, personally, if not professionally, in making this better?" And why should I be supported? Yes, this is a choice I made, and continue to make every time I sign an exploitative teaching contract, but it's no different from the choices that people working for justice everywhere make, whether it's working for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or some other activist NGO, or on a political campaign. People who work in the non-profit world don't often make a lot of money. Many of them go into dangerous situations to do what they do, and risk death, imprisonment, or torture to help others. Do I really need to remind anyone what civil rights marchers, anti-war protestors, or even the Occupiers of Zucotti Park faced? Social change does not happen without risk and sacrifice. Continuing to work as an adjunct and as an activist at the same time is my risk and my sacrifice.
I'm not trying to sound all noble here; my risk is relatively low by comparision, and mostly economic. But it's precisely because I don't have dependents and haven't sunk all my apples into a Ph.D. basket that I feel I need to be one of the people in this fight. Many of my adjunct activist colleagues are single parents with kids to support and massive student debt, or people who don't have a partner (like me) to support them, or people whose partners don't make a lot of money either. My personal risk is pretty low, so I need to take a stand in this fight. It doesn't cost me much except personal security and time, and I've always lived on the economic edge, mostly by choice, though also because of the same wage exploitation that we're all suffering from.
Which brings up another point: how interconnected this fight is with economic justice for the dying middle class, of which my colleagues are a part, and the increasing numbers of working poor. Many of my colleagues from grad school teach at institutions that serve the working poor and have watched their school's tuition go up and up and up until it is crippling and as unobtainable as an Ivy League school. Student debt load is killing our economy and crippling a generation of students. Administration ties that debt to poor adjunct salaries, as in, "if we pay you a living wage, we'll have to raise tuition." If we don't expose this lie, we're doing our students and our society a grave disservice. And we're falling down on the job as educators. We are, instead, modelling economic and intellectual poverty and complacency for our students, instead of enaging with the political and economic realities of the world around us.*
This is why I do it: Because I can. Because I must. With or without your support.
Right now, professors and adjunct professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) are on strike to (among other things) protest the lack of a contract they've been trying to negotiate for more than a year with the administration. There was a time when higher education didn't need unions and when professors largely took care of the internal governance themselves, so the necessity of strikes was small. Now, everything has changed because universities and colleges are increasingly being run on a business model. But that model, clunky as it is elsewhere is a particularly bad fit for education institutions.
Why does our society only have a worker/manager dichotomy to describe how we make a living? It clearly doesn't apply to all the ways we work. Part of the problem with organizing the work of universities is that the law sees professors as managers. Who are we managing? Students? They're not workers; they're "consumers." Each other? Then how can we be managers? Oh, wait; that leaves the *adjuncts.* They don't manage anything and all they do is work. But what do the administration do? Aren't they managers? What are they managing? They're not managing the professors because we manage each other. They're not managing students because students are consumers. Oh wait: that leaves the *adjuncts.* No wonder administration wants more adjuncts. It makes the worker/manager delineation clearer for them.
And this is why a business model for education does not work. Education is a co-op. There is no owner of an educational "company" at a university. We see how poorly for-profit schools where there is an owner do the job. Boards of trustees exist to insure not just the financial health of the institution, but its ability to carry out its mission. Administration is not "in the business" of providing education, because education is not a service or a product. It's a cooperative endeavor between student and teacher with a largely intangible, unmeasurable result: the creation of knowledge. You can't "sell" that. You can only acquire it through personal investment of time and skullsweat, while others help you develop it and nurture it. When you pay teachers, you are supporting them in "work" that's intangible and unmeasurable, but which has a social value beyond any product and which forms the basis of all other tangible products. Starve teachers and you starve the nation and its economy. Fail to support teachers, whether K-12 or higher ed, adequately, and you do the same.
The 1:1 Fallacy—the notion that professors work one hour for every hour of class that they teach—is a useful but pernicious lie promulgated by college administrators as a way of calculating the hours of work performed by adjunct professors to determine their eligibility for healthcare benefits. Most adjuncts are still, nonetheless, paid not by actual hours worked, but only for "credit hours" or time spent in the classroom. But here's what an adjunct professor's weekly work schedule really looks like: six courses at three different schools.
School No. 1: Unionized university with traditional-age students, where I teach Composition I and II (two three-credit and one one-credit lab, for a total of 7 credits at $1200/credit = $8400/semester; max credits: 8). I love teaching college freshman, and this group is really fun. I like this school a lot, for many reasons, not the least of which is the pay. But the commute from where I live in the Bronx is two hours: subway to bus to commuter rail to taxi or another bus. Parking is not free, so driving is not necessarily faster and not cheaper.
School No. 2: Unionized college prep program affiliated with a multi-college city university system. Students are a mix of traditional-age and returning (older adult). The course is college prep remedial writing/reading preparing them for entrance exams. ($64.84/classroom hour; 7.00 hours/week = $8171.10/semester; generally only offers adjuncts courses in the fall semester, due to enrollment). This is my least favorite gig, not because of the students, but because of the schedule. It's two separate courses broken into 9 weeks, instead of the traditional 18 weeks. Fairly quick commute via two subways: only 45 minutes door to door.
School No. 3: Satellite campus of an non-unionized Catholic college located in a low-income neighborhood. The school offers GEDs with a bachelor's degree. Students range from traditional age to older adults (some in their 60s) from low-income backgrounds. Courses I teach range from a writing lab to basic writing and research papers to mid-level literature courses with a strong writing component. ($448.75/credit x 4 credits per mid-level class = $1795/semester plus one nine-week zero credit lab at $1200) This is my favorite group of students. Nobody works harder or has more hurdles to get over than this group. Many of them fail badly the first time out, often because their lives are so complicated and there is little to no academic support for them, but they keep coming back until they get it right. I admire them immensely and they've taught me as much as I've taught them. Commute is 45 door to door by bus.
Fall Semester total: $17,806.90 for six courses at three separate schools. That's a "good" semester monetarily, a "bad" one pedagogically: six classes, six separate preps, a minimum of 40-80 papers of varying length to grade each week.
DAYS 1 & 3
6:30 AM-8:30 AM (off the clock)
Stumble out of bed, wash, dress, make tea in my travel mug, and be out the door by 7:00 to catch the subway to the crosstown bus to the PATH train to a taxi or another bus to campus. Check my smart phone for student emails and texts about emergency issues when I'm above-ground. Text or email back. Sometimes it's "I'm going to be late" notices; sometimes it's "where are we meeting?" or "Do we have class?" if the the weather is bad. Sometimes I don't know before I leave home whether the campus is closed or not; some schools don't bother to notify adjuncts. Not every school has an alert system that will text or email you when school closes, either. Sometimes, even in the worst weather, it's still open, though students inevitably have the common sense not to come to class, even though their professors are required to. Tenured professors have the luxury of cancelling classes; adjunct professors don't.
8:30-9:00 AM (off the clock)
Arrive at School No. 1 and print and copy any last-minute handouts I need. I like to do this at least one class ahead of time usually, because I never know if I'm going to get hung up in traffic. And it's great that School No. 1 has a department that allows me access to a copier and computer. That's not true at all the schools at which I teach. Guess what? The schools that offer me access to a copier and printer are the schools where I print everything I need, including materials for schools that don't offer me that direct access. So the "generous" schools are subsidizing the cheap schools in the form of office supplies.
9:00-10:50 (on the clock)
Teach Composition I/Composition I and Writing Lab. Every class I teach includes 15 minutes of in-class writing on a topic I propose, unless we're having a workshop day where students read and comment on each other's work. On discussion days, they start with writing that has something to do with what they've been reading, and that we'll discuss in class. That's in addition to the 5-7 page papers they write every couple of weeks.
10:50- 2:00 (off the clock)
Office hours during which students may or may not drop by, and during which I do class prep: making handouts, reading, answering emails, reading and responding to student blog posts (another class requirement), keeping up with current events for their use in classroom discussion, and oh, yeah, grabbing lunch, somewhere in there. I actually have an office here, and a rather nice one, but not all of my colleagues in other departments do. I share it with three other people whose schedules occasionally overlap, but there are other computers we can use in the department common spaces for when that happens. It sometimes makes scheduling student conferences sticky though. Oh, and none of us have keys for either the office or filing cabinets, so I can't leave my laptop or anything else valuable in there. Like most adjuncts, I carry around pounds of books and computer equipment. And lately, someone has been stealing our sample textbooks to sell to students or back to the publishing company. By the bagful, literally. My totebag full.
2:00-2:50 or 3:50 (on the clock)
Teach Composition II. Same course pattern, different texts, literature this time, instead of non-fiction.
3:00-4:30 (off the clock)
Commuting to my next job, during which I read, either for fun or profit or check my smart phone for student communications. Thank God for e-readers and smart phones. Of course, I can't get the school email program to forward messages to my smartphone, so that complicates matters too, especially when a college insists I use only their email address and not my personal one. That means I'm on the computer late at night or early in the morning when I'm home.
4:30-6:00 (off the clock)
Arrive at School No. 2, where I have a cubicle with a computer, and access to a very cranky photocopier. Still no place to leave anything valuable, including my coat and purse, though there is an overhead bin to store books and papers in. On my short day, when I leave School No. 1 at 2 instead of 3, I have office hours (compensated) for School No. 2. Those students do drop by and they need a lot of help. They also email or text me a lot more. I try to have all of my copying for this class done ahead of time too, because there are usually two or three people ahead of me at the copier. The office staff are great about getting things copied if I get it in ahead of time though.
6:00-9:20 PM (on the clock)
Teach College Prep English. This is a combined reading and writing course, because, of course, you can't teach one without the other. I used to do both integrated, but now there are two people teaching this course because it recently changed from nine hours/week to ten hours/week and nine is the maximum adjuncts can teach at this school. So now, instead of nine hours, I get a little over six each semester, which means a net loss in pay, though the amount of work isn't much less. It also, I'm pretty sure, discombobulates the students pedagogically to have these two related and intertwined aspects of the course taught separately by a different instructor.
9:30-10:15 PM (off the clock)
10:15 PM-1:00 AM (off the clock)
Eat. Unwind. Crash.
Gross pay for day: $493.62 for what looks like seven hours of work. That's about $70/hour, if you don't include my four hours of office hours and prep. Add that and it takes my base pay down to $44.87/hour for my 11-hour workday. Tack on another almost four hours of uncompensated commuting time that costs me $25/day. We haven't even gotten to the grading papers part yet.
Days 2 & 4
10:00-12:00 (off the clock)
Stagger out of bed grateful for eight hours of sleep. Make tea, sit down to read emails and fend off disasters. Catch up on the news. Save a few articles for future use. Eat a little breakfast at the computer.
12:00-5:00 (off the clock)
Grade papers from classes at all three schools, do a little class prep for tonight's lit course at School No. 3. At midterms, fill out a ridiculous amount of paperwork for student evaluations. By hand. In triplicate. This school has no online grading system, a demanding recording keeping policy, rubrics, and dictatorial syllabi. I don't choose either my books or the way I construct my course here. I confess I cheat a bit. I make the papers longer but fewer. The syllabus also dictates an inordinate amount of written homework which I must read and grade, on top of the 5-7 page papers and the 10-15 page research paper. This class meets once a week for 3.5 hours for 18 weeks. The lab on Day 4 meets once a week for 2.5 hours for nine weeks, but has little prep and just a final portfolio review orgy. Somewhere in here I will grab lunch and/or dinner.
6:00-6:45 (off the clock)
Grab bus to School No. 3
6:45-7:30 (off the clock)
Office hours, which I am contractually bound to have, even though I don't have an office here. There isn't even a teachers' lounge. Usually I just hang out outside "my" classroom and wait for my students to find me. I'm also not compensated for this time. It's included in the fee I'm paid for the course.
7:30-10:00/6:00-8:30 (on the clock)
Teach the lit class or lab. I teach these classes without a break so we can all go home a little earlier than the schedule, and because it takes us too long to get started again if I give us a break. Everyone takes a bathroom break but me, which is fine, because the bathrooms in this school are like "The Worst Washroom in Edinburgh" from Trainspotting. Students are supposedly not allowed to eat during class because the custodial staff doesn't like cleaning up after them. I say screw that, especially since many of them are coming from work. Hungry students can't think. And I know the custodial staff isn't spending all their time keeping the bathrooms clean and in repair. They also tend to hustle us out of class if we stay until 10:00 so they can go home early too.
8:30/10:00 (off the clock)
Take the bus home.
9:15/10:45-midnight (off the clock)
Crash and burn.
Days 5, 6 & 7 (off the clock)
Get up late, do some errands, grade some papers. Field emails and resolve disasters. There are always papers to be graded. Always. At least two hours a day are spent grading papers, even on the days I'm not teaching. That's because two days a week are sixteen-hour days where I get no grading done. Papers take anywhere from ten minutes each for short homework to 40 minutes for longer papers to read, mark, and write comments on. 50 papers x 40 minutes = 2000 minutes or about 34 hours a week, just grading. Just grading.
School No. 1 gets 7 hours/week teaching time.
School No. 2 gets 7 hours/week teaching time + ½ hour of office hours.
School No. 3 gets 6 hours/week teaching time.
20 hours of teaching time + 34 hours grading papers + 12 hours prep and admin. = 66 hours/week
That's about $15.00 an hour.
By comparison, when I worked part-time for a large environmental consulting firm, I worked 25 hours a week and made $34.00/hour, or about $48,000/year gross. Teaching, I'm lucky if I gross $32,000/year, with extra freelance work over the summer.
Fifteen dollars an hour for someone with an advanced degree. And it seems pretty clear that I spend more hours working outside the classroom than inside, by an almost 2:1 ratio. But the benefits package must be great, you say. You have unions in two of those schools. But I'm part-time in all of them, which means I have no health care, and a pittance of retirement benefits from one school. And remember, this is a "good" semester financially. Most semesters I teach two or four classes at most. That's probably just as well, because nine months of this schedule at my age would probably kill me.
I've been teaching as a regular career again for about five years now, occasionally supplemented by freelance work, and been an activist and vocal shit-stirrer on behalf of adjunct faculty for about two years, beginning when I joined the union at New Jersey City University. In some ways, I'm not the typical adjunct story: I've worked in industry and made a good living, even working part time; I have a Master's degree (an MA, not a terminal MFA) not a Ph.D., which means that I'll probably never get any kind of tenure; I like teaching the general ed courses of composition and intro to lit and could settle down there happily. What gives me common cause with my Ph.D.-bearing sisters and brothers is the shit pay we get for the jobs we do, and the lousy working conditions that affect not just us, but our students. But before this, I've never really felt like I had a personal reason to complain, beyond that. I didn't have a dramatic story of deprivation.
Until my landlady decided to sell the condo I'm renting from her. Now I have a story.
I moved in here ten years ago when I was working part-time as a marketer for an environmental consulting company doing booming business. I didn't have benefits, but I took home $48,000/year and was vested in the company pension plan. I travelled a bit, bought some nice furniture, made a nice home for myself. That all changed, as it did for many people, around 2008, which is when I got downsized and started teaching again. My savings dwindled because I was making about half of what I had been, and my previously non-existent credit card debt shot up. And I don't mean it shot up because I was buying stuff I didn't need. It shot up because I was buying food and paying for medical care, which starts to happen more frequently when you're staring down or staring at the back side of 50. But even with my credit cards, I'm in less debt than most people. I live pretty frugally. I don't have dependents (aside from my elderly and temperamental cat, but that's another story). I don't even want a lot of things anymore. My major purchases now are books and cheap stuff to make art with, and the occasional train ticket to Maine. My credit card debt is my only debt (no house, no car, no education debts), but I can't get out from under it because of how little I make, and I keep racking it up, also because of how little I make and the precarious nature of the work I do.
But now that my landlady is selling, I don't have the money for a new lease (first and last month's rent, security deposit, broker's fee) saved up, or money for movers. Fortunately, my landlady is also a good friend and she and her wife are helping me out with fees and such, and other friends are loaning me money for moving expenses, because at 53, I'm too damn old to do UHaul. If it weren't for my friends and landlady, I would probably be SOL and have to sell or store everything I own and move to a tiny, shitty studio.
This is a story that a lot of people can tell you, about the slide down the financial ladder from the middle class. I was never very far up that ladder to begin with, which was fine, but when you're not, the bottom is a lot closer, and lot easier to get to, and my education was supposed to be what kept me off the bottom. But now, in our free-market world that rewards greed as "hard work," my hard work and education, and the hard work and education of millions of others, goes unrewarded, and in the case of students and especially those who go for advanced degrees, it's now punished with enormous amounts of debt.
I was lucky to escape that bit, but I'm being screwed, like so many others, by the new mantra that the business world has made sacred: profit at all costs. And that profit is not to the people who do the actual work. It's profit for people who already had money to invest in other people's work. It's profit made on the backs of all kinds of working people, from Wal-Mart's obscene billions subsidized by government aid to its workers who live on subsistence wages, to trained freelancers bilked of wages or made to wait months for payments and having to fund their own retirement and healthcare, to highly educated college professors whose wages are stolen from us by the lie that we only work in the classroom, and by a low value on that.
There's a rather naive tendency in this country to tell people like me to just shut up and get another job, without realizing that many of us have sunk years of our lives into educations to do this job. It's not like we all graduated at 22 and went out into the work world. Our training goes on far longer than in most professions and our careers don't even get started, if we go straight through with no breaks to raise more money, until we are in our early 30s. Many of us, like my friend Rob who just got tenure for the first time at the age of 50 didn't start our teaching careers fully until we were into our 40s, because of the prevalence of contingent labor like me. That contingent labor exists, not because there's a plethora of cheap labor as the freemarketers would have you believe, but because there is a dearth of funding for the full-time jobs that should sustain the educational enterprise.
Where's that funding going? Part of the problem is lack of funding from the government for education, except when it comes to profitable student loans. But a good deal of tuition, which has been rising faster than inflation, goes to administration salaries (some of them exorbitant), luxury campus buildings, and high-tech teaching tools which are often invested in with the final goal of replacing those pesky human teachers. And it goes into the pockets of trustees who are turning our universities into job training camps for their industries, and saving them the cost of having to train their workforce, and who sell the universities buildings and tech they don't need.
I'm not talking about fairness here. I know life isn't fair; but neither does it need to be nasty, brutish and short anymore. I'm talking about morals and ethics and the kind of civilization we want to be living in and building. Or perhaps I am talking about a particular kind of fairness. Educators and working people are not asking for excessive amounts of money. We're asking to be compensated fairly for the work we do. "Fairly" in this case, means a sustainable, living wage for everyone, so that no one requires a government subsidy unless something catastrophic happens. My fellow educators and I have invested a great deal of money and time in making sure we are equipped to do one of the most vital jobs of civilization, especially a democratic society: not job training, but the education of citizens and the collaborative creation of new knowledge that drives advances in technology, medicine, law, and the other engines of a civilized world. Business and money alone do not create civilization, clearly. But well-educated citizens do.
What this means for me, personally, is to have some job security, a regular paycheck for more than 8 months of the year, to make wages on par with my full-time colleagues, to be able to participate in the educational community of the university I work for, to buy books without counting pennies, to be able to move without borrowing money from friends who work in the business world, to be the best educator and person I can be with the skills that I have. I would like the "luxury" (and it has become a luxury now) of being able to contribute to the future well-being of my society by educating young minds without going into debt I can never repay, relying on a government handout, or living with the threat of homelessness.
If that seems like whining, you're probably one of the barbarians at the gate.
I’ve been an educator off and on for about 10 years. The off and on part isn’t because I lack credentials, or lack the ability to hold a job, or because I’ve left for greener pastures. I’ve left teaching over and over again because I cannot make a living doing one of the things I love most, one of the things that I’m really good at. I’m an adjunct college instructor with a Master’s degree in English.
Education, especially post-secondary education, is an odd profession. To practice it, one must be highly credentialed, an expert in both the subject matter and the ability to impart one’s knowledge to or create that knowledge in others. And yet, teaching is a lot like writing: everyone thinks they can do it just as well as the professionals. In no other professional sector do the public and government officials feel free to tell the experts how to do their jobs.
Our society expects much from educators, as it should, but it doesn’t really think our job is that difficult, and it doesn’t really trust the professionals to do it as well as we know we can. If they did, there would be less bureaucracy, less demand that we quantify the unquantifiable, and less legislation governing our practices in the classroom. Imagine legislating the methods Boeing engineers have to use to develop new aircraft. Absurd, right? But what teachers at all levels do in a classroom every day is just as complicated and complex. We’re engineering minds, something both far more malleable and far more friable than any material aircraft engineers work with. And yet there is more jiggering of the work environment and requirements by non-experts than in just about any other profession, except, possibly, doctors providing women’s healthcare.
No other profession gets told how to do its day-to-day job as much as teachers do. Imagine telling a doctor or nurse how to dispense healthcare: what pills to prescribe, what tests to run, what course of treatment to follow. To be sure, insurance companies attempt to do this with their pay guidelines, but doctors often successfully buck against it by appealing to their own expertise. Who, after all is the doctor? Now, imagine telling an engineer how to build a hydroelectric dam. Imagine telling an airline pilot how to fly the plane. That’s what people do with teachers, even teachers who are literally masters and doctors. If universities are becoming obsolete, and I argue that they are not, it’s because they’ve lost their focus because of pundits and the inexpert, not their usefulness.
David Brooks, for example, makes me apoplectic when he talks about education. He confuses information with knowledge, lecturing with teaching, test scores with learning. His enamoration with MOOCs is especially worrisome. Online education cannot possibly replace the human interaction necessary to real education. At best, it can fill in a few gaps and make basic information more accessible, but no computer, no podcast, no on-line video will ever replace real-time, personal teaching. A reasonable facsimile of personal teaching can be done successfully online, live, and often is in places like Maine, whose university system uses teleconferencing technology of various kinds to unite students in remote parts of the state with classrooms at various university centers. That may be part of the new model, but it cannot be allowed to entirely supersede the old one. If the only educational interaction is a recorded one between teacher and student, students still lose. Lively, real-time, in-person discussions are also necessary. So are study groups. And so are late nights in the dorm or a café or a bar chewing over with your friends the ideas you’re learning.
All of these experiences are endangered now when people like Brooks—who is not a professional educator, but an occasional adjunct in the original meaning of the word—talk about moving universities on-line and replacing teachers, instructors, and professors with videos and on-line classes. Learning is a collaboration between teachers, students, administrators, parents, communities. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum all alone in a room. Standardized tests don’t produce it or even encourage it and neither does a standardized curriculum, because people aren’t standardized. We may have a set of concepts that we agree all students should know and be able to navigate, but how those concepts are acquired varies wildly from student to student, grade to grade, subject to subject.
What educators do looks easy, it looks simple, it looks like anybody could do it, and that’s because most of us are good at what we do. Bad teachers, contrary to popular opinion, don’t last any longer than bad middle managers do and don’t affect the overall performance of the system. Students can survive a bad teacher; we all have. We’ve all worked for a company with deadweight employees. Did the failures of that company get blamed on all the workers? No? Funny about that. Because when children fail, it’s always our fault, never the fault of poverty, lack of resources, and lack of institutional support. Not the kids’ fault, not the parents’, not the rigid curriculum we’re forced to used, not the tests we have to teach to, not teaching kids what to think instead of how to think, not the lack of books, libraries, computers, pencils, paper. It’s our fault. Not one single teacher, but every teacher.
On top of this is the outright hostility toward teachers who dare complain they are underpaid and overworked. People in nine-to-five jobs (and I’ve worked those, too) can’t seem to get past the idea that teachers get three months of “vacation” during the year, and that their day “ends” at 3:00 pm. I’ll be the first to say that there are a number of perks to the academic life, but none of them involve a two-month vacation or a day that ends at 3:00 pm. This is true whether you are an elementary school teacher or a college professor. The actual perks are that we get to do something we love intensely; that we’re intellectually challenged every day; that we are more our own bosses than most people working in offices. We have sabbaticals when we do pursue projects we can’t get to at other times; we have more than the average job security if we have tenure (but often far less if we don’t).
One of my fellow teachers recently described her summer work this way: “I’m really enjoying researching and prepping Volpone now. I’m using sources and influences such as Ovid’s Golden Age, Classical Legacy Hunting, Aesop’s fables, Bestiary tales such as Reynard the Fox, Morality plays and Commedia Dell’arte. All very rich and fascinating. Hopefully the students will find it just a fraction as interesting as I do!” And they do, because she makes it fascinating. That’s what good teachers do: open our minds to ideas and works we never would have considered ourselves, even if we had known they existed.
But if we don’t have tenure, or if we’re not on a tenure track, as nearly 75% of our college professors now are not, we have zero job security and opportunity to pursue our own new ideas. Many of us (for I am one of these professors), must scrounge for a new job every semester, and because we are barred from teaching full time at one college or university (to save on paying benefits, you know), we must scrounge for appointments at more than one university. This means most of us spend as much time on the road as we do grading or prepping for class—which we are also not paid for; only our hours in the classroom are, apparently, billable (imagine a lawyer only billing for time spent in court). We don’t advise, we don’t have a voice in university governance or curriculum development, we often don’t even have an office where we can meet students, or the most basic of office support. That means students can never develop intellectual relationships with us, turn to us for meaningful long-term assessment of their work or guidance in their careers, or even for a recommendation letter. If they want to take another class from us, they probably can’t, because we are stuck teaching—not in our areas of expertise—but introductory core and general education courses. Personally, I love those courses, but I would also love to teach a class on, oh, apocalyptic science fiction from the 1950s through the 21st century, to map how our ideas of the apocalypse have or haven’t changed, and how this reflects society’s biggest fears. That will probably never happen in the system we’ve got going now.
Here’s the current destructive game plan for education in this country from K-college: Defund public education and then blame the failures of the system on teachers so it can be privatized to push a curriculum where students are truly badly educated, so they’ll end up either in prison (another privatizing “industry”) or as unthinking, docile cogs that the rich can exploit for profit. This sounds like a radical, reactionary, nut-job conspiracy theory, but it’s what we’re already beginning to see happen. The students who come into my freshman composition class are terrified by the idea that I will not give them the answers for the test, whatever that test is. They have not been taught to analyze or think for themselves, and know how to read only in the sense that they know what the words are individually and in sentence form. They can decipher instructions, but not extrapolate principles or discern subtext.
The last thing an oligarchy or plutocracy run by a minority of wealthy people (the 85 top earners, for example, who now control as much of the wealth as 3.5 billion people) wants is a thinking, intelligent populace to challenge them. If you want unthinking, interchangeable widgets, build a factory—or a charter school. If you want thinking, truly educated students, give professionals the resources—and respect, which includes a decent living wage—they need and get out of their way. And, if you have never spent a moment on the teacher’s side of the desk, stop pretending that you know better than the people who have spent their careers there.
It's been almost a year since I blogged here and I admit I've kinda missed it. I like writing, and I've been doing a fair amount of it (novel, poems, diatribes, conference papers), an awful lot of it on Facebook. In case you haven't been keeping up there, I've gotten myself neck deep in activism of various kinds, mostly the petition signing kind for human rights, environmentalism, social justice of various sorts. But I invested in a pretty big way in the labor movement too, especially educational labor.
For instance, over the summer, I went to the UALE/Cornell Summer School for Union Women, which was a fantastic experience, and at which I made some great friends/contacts. My local, (or one of my locals) AFT 1839 at New Jersey City University, where I'm part of the executive committee, footed the bill, for which I'm extremely grateful, as I couldn't have done so myself. I was on employment for the first time since 1992 because even freelance work is thin on the ground right now. While I was up at Cornell, I met women from all kinds of unions and labor organizations, from all over the world: retail workers from NYC, telephone workers from Africa, forensic lab techs from Puerto Rico, make-up artists, auto workers, housekeepers, cafeteria staff, and a number of faculty members, many of them from CUNY's Professional Staff Congress (PSC) and from SUNY's UUP, both unions I also belong to. I quickly became known as the three-union woman, because I was the only contingent faculty member there (I think). It was a warm, fierce group, and I thank Marcia Newfield of CUNY's PSC for suggesting I go there.
Also on Facebook, I've been doing a lot of national organizing and this last summer, nearly became an on-the-ground organizer for SEIU upstate, at the urgings of my new best friend, Teresa Mack-Piccone, Texan English Ph.D. extraordinaire, who's organizing for them out of Albany. I think 25 years ago I would have been all over that job like white on rice, but I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy for it now. So my organizing has been quieter and a little more subversive. For Campus Equity Week, I plastered my New Jersey campus with signs that said A is for Adjuncts: Our working conditions are Student Learning Conditions, and encouraged folks to post how many adjuncts shared their office or where in their department in very public places. I'd like to follow that up this semester with some agit prop theater in the commons, but I'm not teaching there this time around, so we'll see how that goes.
In the spring. Teresa invited me to give a conference paper with her at the Washington DC SEIU HQ, where I got to meet Joe Berry of COCAL, Maria Maisto of New Faculty Majority, and reconnect with the inimitable Anne Weidner of UUP. We dragged along one of the few vocal tenured allies I've met, Seth Kahn of West Chester U, someone else I met through Facebook, and again met some amazing people fighting to get decent working conditions for adjuncts across the country. I really have to give kudos to SEIU, which is one of the few labor unions in country that's actively organizing adjuncts. The Steelworkers in Pittsburgh were chosen by the adjuncts to represent them, and the same with the UAW in Michigan, but SEIU has gone into DC, Boston, LA and now into New York and actively organized adjucts in a campaign that has been met with as much hostility as any mineowner's, including the hiring of union busting law firms. There's a good use of tuition and endowment money.
And the conditions, make no mistake, are killing us. In September, what I still think of as my semi-hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, ran a story called "Death of an Adjunct," detailing the miserable conditions 25-year veteran French adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko died in after not being rehired. I don't know an adjunct who isn't terrified that this might be us. More than a few of us are graying (remember, academic careers often don't even start until you're in your 30s or 40s), many of us have chronic conditions, children with chronic conditions, or have been struck down by cancer or other illnesses without any health insurance. Thanks to ACA, that might change, but that doesn't absolve the institutions we work for from treating us with the dignity we deserve. If you can pay for administrators, who add very little to the intellectual reputation of the university, you can damn well pay for the people who make or break your reputation as an institution of learning. More on that in later posts.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is that somehow I'm becoming the activist I always wanted to be. I have a cause (several, in fact) and have found my voice, and don't have any fear about using it out loud anymore. I don't have to hide my outrage, and I can use my writing as a way to accomplish something good in the world. This doesn't mean I've given up the creative part; far from in it. In fact, I stumbled into a great writing group and have managed a rewrite of the novel I've been working on forever, and I've been writing a lot of poetry. So this change I've been undergoing, from silent, not very good Christian person, to vocal, skeptical Buddhist fellow-traveller proceeds apace. I like where it's going.
Stay tuned for more about education and activism and education activism.
The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys, janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.
All that’s missing is the gods.
Short article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about students sharing personal information. I'm a little surprised that this professor is shocked by what his students share in class. When I first started teaching in the early 80s, my students kept journals. One of the things you discover as an English teacher is that the moment you give students a written outlet for their feelings and personal problems, they'll use it with a vengeance. For many of them it's the first time they've had a written outlet and they find it as satisfying as the rest of us who've been doing it for a long time. I kept a journal from junior high through my first years in the working world in my late twenties and then took to blogging (I'm being meta here, see?) and online forums like the proverbial wet duck, and was thus not as surprised as this guy seems to be.
Writing can be an act of catharsis, and once you've written something down, it no longer "owns" you. You're free of it; you don't have to hide it and it doesn't have to rule your life as a shameful secret anymore. And once you share it in writing online, something wonderful happens; you get instant feedback: support, love, and the knowledge that you're not alone, that other people have shared or are sharing your experiences. You also get people trying to help you fix your problem: they suggest therapy, good local therapists, rehab programs, coping strategies, resources, and share their experiences with various treatment regimens. Sometimes they just offer good life skills advice. They give you links to online resources, they even, sometimes, help you pay your bills. (You also get trolls, but that's another story.) From our teens at least through our twenties, we're trying to figure out who we are and how to live our lives. Sharing that struggle makes it easier. With luck, we can learn from others' mistakes instead of our own.
I also think it's good that some of this stuff comes out in public. The politie middle class society I grew up in hid a lot of nastiness: child abuse, spouse abuse, ugly marriages, alcoholism. It never got fixed because no one talked about it, and there was shame in talking about it, as though, even if you were the victim, you had somehow let the community down. It's as though we were all striving to be Mayberry in our little town, and the people who wouldn't do it anymore and spoke out were somehow bringing shame on us. Everything had to be a secret. This wasn't just my little town either. It's one of the universal fictions that the Civil Rights movement and feminisim gave the lie to, that we all lived like "Leave It to Beaver" and the "Brady Bunch."
If my students had not had the courage to share their stories with me, I would have a very different view of life than I have now. That comfortable middle class home I came from gave me very little knowledge of the suffering other people go through. Hearing my students' stories about abuse, rape, abortion, misogyny, discrimination, drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and the struggles of their day-to-day lives has made me a very different and hopefully more empathetic person—and it made me angry that they have to live like this. It also made me immensely proud of the students I had who were overcoming these hurdles in their own lives. The first step in changing anything is to admit there's a problem, and for too long, most of these problems have been underground, hidden by the polite fiction that they're things we just shouldn't talk about.
There's nothing shameful about taking medication for mental illness and struggling to get the dosage right while carrying on your life as best you can. There's nothing shameful in needing an abortion, except, perhaps the lack of available cheap birth control in this country. There's nothing shameful about admitting your relationship isn't going so well. There's nothing shameful in talking about your upcoming surgery (old people do this all the time, don't they?) no matter what part of the body it involves. There's nothing shameful in having thrown out your abusive boyfriend, or having to go to a shelter to get away from him (except for the boyfriend's conduct). There's nothing shameful in talking about your eating disorder, or the fact that you're still uncomfortable with your body, or even (gasp!) acknowledging that "hey! I'm fat!" There's nothing shameful about not being able to afford your books for school yet because your kids have to eat.
Screw all that embarrassed secrecy. Air it all out. Make people look at the consequences of poverty, bad political policies, misogyny, and racism. There are politicians, especially, who could use a good dose of Facebook realism.
Thought it was illegal to call in the army for domestic action?
Thought your goods and services were safe from seizure by the government if you were a law-abiding citizen?
These are powers now vested in the president's office, not just in Obama's hands. Imagine someone like Dick Cheney with these powers. Think Fascism can't happen here? It already has.
Learn about it and and speak out. Before they use it to take your voice away.
Folks in the media and elsewhere complain that OWS has no agenda, has no demands, has no solutions, but I think this is willfully naive and ingenuous. This is not like the 60s, where there were clear cut problems like discrimination and the Vietnam war. This is a failed system, a failed regime, that people are tired of being oppressed by, and if that sounds like pinko commie liberal rhetoric, so be it. There is so much wrong that we hardly know where to begin. Here's the list that I see, in no particular order:
- Enormous wealth disparities between upper management and workers
- Enormous wage disparities between people who actully produce goods and people who just move money around.
- The concentration of liquid capital in the hands of too few people
- Unconscionable tax inequity between the ultra wealthy and the rest of us
- Lack of investment in the infrastructure by the people who make the most use of it, i.e., corporations (see tax inequiety, above)
- Politicians who are unresponsive to constituents who cannot pay to have them re-elected, i.e., corruption
- Raging injustice, as exemplified by Troy Davis, who is only one among hundreds, if not thousands
- A gutting of our educational system by running schools and universities as though they were for-profit corporations or factories and learning was a "product"
- The elevation of profit over the well-being of workers and the nation itself (or the world in general; globalization hasn't treated foreign workers kindly either)
- The glorification of individualism to the point of psychosis (this covers everything from thinking the anonymity of the internet and the right to free speech give you the right to be an uncivil and hateful asshole to the inability to empathize with the plight of people who are not having the same luck in life that you are.) I blame some of this on the gutting of our educational system, where we used to learn to get along with each other.
And that's just my short list. These are systemic problems, social, political, and economic. How do you sum that up in a sign, or make into a list of demands, especially when the people to whom you would present that demand clearly do not give a good goddamn and haven't for the last 30 years? The only documents that would cover these issues were written in 1787 and 1789. They're called the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Maybe it's time for new ones.