The problem of allies: lead, follow, or get out of the way

Bite Me heartSo yesterday, on Facebook, I posted this synopsis of my proverbial (Thanks, Alex Kudera!) long day without much comment:

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
8:00-9:30--commute home

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.


*Oh, by the way, Nicholas Kristof: you want engaged academics? Come meet my adjunct activist friends.

Keep it Secret

WorldWearyMoiShort 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.

Occupy Wall Street II—Agendas

ProtestorFolks 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.

Stupid Rules of Which I'd Like to Rid Myself

Badgirl MoiI don't like making New Year's resolutions, but I usually take on a project of changing something about myself, big or small, each year. Sometimes they're on-going, life-long projects, like getting a grip on my temper (notice I didn't say anger; there's a real difference. I've come to realize that anger is just fine; it's what you do with it that can be a problem.) Sometimes they're just small things, like getting some clothes that don't make me look like I'm wearing a sack. A lot of them are anxiety-producing rules for good behavior from the 1950's middle class upbringing I had, the one that was always at war with my dad's blue collar "lack of manners." I've made peace with my affection for using four-letter words, which, like smoking on the street, I was taught ladies never did. I've made peace with the fact that I'm not ever going to be a lady. I can simulate one, and I clean up well, so that's okay. Some of them are social control rules I learned growing up in a small town or as a pre-feminist, and were part of the reason I embraced feminism and fled to New York. And it's funny how many of these rules come to me in my mother's voice, too. She was great at communicating her anxiety about other people's opinions of her to me. Some of these, though, are self-imposed and come out of my own social anxiety about being "correct" and accepted. I suppose some of that is only-child anxiety, but they're not relevant now. I have a huge, accepting, beautifully varied family of choice now.

I still have these rules in my head, 50 years later and that's boggling in and of itself. It's time to let go of some of them. Here's a few of them. Don't laugh. I said they were stupid.

  1. Not ending sentences with a preposition. Fuck that.
  2. Certain foods can only be eaten at particular times of day (breakfast food must be eaten at breakfast; dinner leftovers aren't breakfast food; etc.). 
  3. All barns look good painted red.
  4. The bed must be made every day.
  5. Act your age.

That's probably enough for the moment. And not all of these are completely bad, like making the bed every day. I like getting into a neat bed at night. But some days, that three minutes it takes to make it is just more than I have. So what? I will stop feeling bad about it.

I should explain that #3 is a saying of my mother's meaning that wearing red, especially if you're fat, invites unfortunate comparisons. I've had a life-long aversion to the color because of that, even though I look good in it. How stupid is that?

Number 5 needs some explaining too. I've always had this distinction in my head between being an adult and being a grown-up. Grown-ups are boring and all about responsibility and maturity; adults are mature and responsible, but still know how to have fun. Now that I'm 50, I feel a totally unreasonable internal pressure to be a grown-up. There's a lot wound up in this: looking younger than I am, being a very responsible and precocious child, discussions about dressing age appropriately, a society that wants older women to fade into the woodwork. I've been dressing more conservatively as I got older, thanks in part to corporate jobs, and I kinda miss my loud colors and wild earrings and socks and shoes. Living in New York also did some of that, where black is just easier to take care of, but this is a fashion capital too, and I'm an artist, so I'd like to get some of my funk back:  cobalt hair, a visible tattoo. I'm tired of the camouflage, because it's becoming counterproductive. I'm short, round, older and rapidly becoming invisible. Nice in that I don't get harassed as much, but annoying as hell when I'm trying to get waited on.

And what is age-appropriate? I don't necessarily think the schoolgirl look is a good one for 30-year old women, but I don't think forcing older women into widows weeds is a good idea either. So what's age appropriate? And who gets to define that? Same with behavior. Tantrums aren't pretty on anyone, but I'm appalled by my growing anxiety to be home before midnight, as though I were Cinderella. WTF is up with that?

I'll let you know how it goes.

sexist self-righteousness a la mode

HotheadP Warning: just venting. Nothing really constructive here. Today in sexist self-righteousness, from the NY Times Ethicist column:

Our small nonprofit, the Opportunity Fund for Developing Countries, offers scholarships to African boys and girls who agree to keep up their grades, stay out of trouble and refrain from pregnancy. When a 20-year-old orphan we’ve supported for many years had a baby, we revoked her scholarship. (Significantly, we have never dropped a male’s scholarship for impregnating a female.) [Emphasis mine] Now she wants to return to school. We’d like to readmit her to our program, but won’t that set a precedent? DEB DAY OLIVIER, SALT LAKE CITY

To restore this girl’s scholarship may well set a precedent, and I think it should. As you seem to realize, to apply this rule only to one sex is strikingly unfair and violates your own agreement with the students. What’s needed is a new policy, one with a better response to young people’s lives than “just say no babies.”

By definition, nobody welcomes an unwanted pregnancy. As Cynthia Lloyd, an authority on population and education issues and a lead author of the book “Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries,” put it in an e-mail exchange, “Obviously in Africa, many young women who get pregnant have not necessarily made that choice willingly or with any control.” I admire your wish to help these students avoid obstacles to education, like too-early parenthood, but I admire even more your reluctance to let an imperfect policy inflexibly applied thwart a young woman’s desire for an education and a better life.

What form should that new policy take? Here I defer to educators and experts in family planning. Lloyd suggests one that you might consult: Codou Diaw, executive director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists, an N.G.O. operating throughout the continent from its headquarters in Nairobi.

When you restore this girl’s scholarship, as I hope you will, you can announce your intention to change course. It is commendable to gauge how effectively your policies serve your ends, and to amend or abandon those that are ineffectual.

UPDATE: Olivier told me by e-mail that they did not continue this girl’s scholarship but that she may reapply next year.

Fail. Fail. Fail.

Abstinence_by_jaig_1_ Not only the part about dropping this young woman's scholarship without considering how she got pregnant, whether she had access to birth control, or if she even wanted to get pregnant, but big ol' FAIL for never dropping a young man's scholarship for impregnating another young woman. Because, in case you hadn't noticed, it takes two people to get pregnant. If you are trying to enforce an abstinence only policy (which is what sounds like is going on here), then everybody has to abstain and everybody gets the same penalty. Not that I think abstinence only is a useful policy, but why punish only women for failing at the unworkable? If it's wrong to get pregnant, it's wrong to make someone pregnant too.

Beyond that, to enforce that policy on a 20 year old adult is completely unrealistic and unethical in itself, especially without offering alternatives. According to their own annual report, this organization provides no access to birth control, only HIV/AIDS "training," which I would bet consists of saying "don't have sex; you'll get HIV." If you don't want young women getting pregnant, it's a proven fact that just saying no doesn't work, especially in poor countries where women have fewer rights and resources than they do here. Not addressing the facts of violence (and just plain ol biological imperatives), and condemning women alone for the outcome is the worst kind of self-righteousness: do as I say, not as I do. Make my dogma work without the resources I have access to. It absolves men from taking responsibility for their own actions while condemning women, often, for being victims of male violence and at the least, of male irresponsibility. Why do people not get this?

I know: because it serves the patriarchy not to. But it particularly irks me when women don't get it and bind each other's feet.