Adjuncts

Plague Poems #12

PandemicMoi

Lucky

Lucky I moved before this happened,
so I’m not cooped up
in a run-down, over-subdivided, low-ceilinged fourth floor walkup
with my sullen roommate’s two cats shitting everywhere,
and a stifling eight by ten room
for work and privacy
to share with a fractious calico
of my own.
Lucky my new place is rent stabilized
and still affordable
so I don’t have to go on rent strike.
Lucky I am not still teaching
four classes at three colleges in two states
and trying to get them all online
on different platforms
at the same time,
knowing this is the end
of my precarious teaching career.
Lucky I have a job
that allows me to work from home
and sent me there early on
with technical support and assurances
of continuing employment—
lucky enough to be able to share
my puny stimulus check
with friends who haven’t yet gotten
their unemployment checks
or welfare.
Lucky I’ve got a good computer
to work from during the day
and Zoom with my friends for a small fee
and stream entertainment from
at night, when I’m restless and sleepless
and scared.
Lucky to have picked
a low density neighborhood
where I get an ocean breeze and
hear carillon bells every day at six
and only the occasional ambulance
taking the sick and dying to the hospital.
Lucky I have great healthcare
if I do get sick,
so a ventilator wouldn’t bankrupt me
if it didn’t kill me.
Lucky I’m white,
and my doctor would take me seriously
if I needed a test.
Lucky I don’t need anything more
than a handmade cloth mask
and lots of soap to stay
uninfected.
Lucky I can afford
to have my groceries
and nearly every other need
from liquor to cat food to vibrators,
delivered by people
less lucky
than me.

‒May 3, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


On Bubbles and Lost Time

Dark Side CookiesSheesh, did I. It's called Facebook.

I spruced up the blog a bit this weekend, to bring it up to date. Changed the layout and banner. Added some new/old content in the sidebars. Checked the links. In doing so I rediscovered some places on the web I hadn't been to in a while: interesting blogs, magazines, web comics. Things I miss, that I hadn't realized I missed until I saw them again. You'll see them over there on the right in the sidebars. In the editing, I discovered some of them were gone, or had come to a conclusion, or their authors had moved on to new projects, or to new places on the web. Most of them dated from about ten years ago, which is an eternity in interwebs time, and a fair amount of time in realspace. All things change; nothing is immutable. But I also spent part of this weekend starting a new account over at MeWe, which is largely antithetical to the conclusion I came to today.

I think I'm done with social media.

Crazy cat lady
Posing outside my office at NJCU with fellow adjunct activist Bri Bolin's signifying gifts.

For two reasons: one is that it is a huge, exhausting time suck of the "somebody is wrong on the internet!" type, and two is that I can't be part of the (sociopolitical) problem any more. I was initially pretty skeptical of Facebook when it arrived and killed my first account after a few weeks. I didn't like that it lived on, zombie-like, for weeks afterward, either. I was a lot more fanatical about my privacy back then. I've now reached the conclusion that it's impossible to have any privacy in an internet world without living totally off the grid like the Unibomber, so what the hell. It's not like my life is so utterly fascinating or that my secret thoughts are so dangerous that I'd be injured by them getting out. Embarrassed, probably, but not actually, you know, ruined in that Victorian sense of reputation. As I get older, I give fewer and fewer fucks about that. I'll never see any of you people again anyway. (Ah, the lessons New York has taught me!) I mean, I've already had this picture (above) circulated on the web back when it actually could hurt me, so what's the difference now? (In case you're wondering, the hat and mug are an in-joke with a somewhat vicious history. My fellow adjunct activists and I were embracing what was supposed to be a slur. I love that mug, and that hat is warm.)

I don't remember how I got sucked back in to Facebook again, but I dove in head-first with gusto the second time around, the way I tend to do with new things. It's a bit like infatuation with me; I can't get enough of it at first and then the fire dies down, eventually. Except it didn't with FB. I love the fiddling with settings and getting things to look just right (which is why I end up working in production so often). I also like to meet new people and make new friends. And before I knew it, Facebook was my principle "place" of social interaction, which is not a good thing, at least for me. I know chat rooms, BBSs, Tumblr and FB have been lifelines for folks with social anxiety or who live in the boondocks and can't find anyone like them to socialize with. And I think that's the beauty of the Internet: the opportunity to meet other people like you (and not like you). I rolled around quite a lot in Fandom-space through the Internet, and met some wonderful people I still think of as friends, though I'm not very involved in that subculture anymore. I've met some very cool friends of friends on FB, too, folks I would love to meet in "meat space" someday. Some of them, like some of my activist friends, I've actually been lucky enough to hug in real life. And for activism, social media is a godsend. It's not the be-all and end-all, by any means. Nothing beats face-to-face live action. But it's a great way to plan and connect and get the word out (c.f. the Hong Kong protests, most recently), although it can be a two-edged sword, when the government gets hold of it.

Somehow, in my embrace of all things social media, I wound up running not just my own but my union adjunct caucus's page, and New Faculty Majority's social media: blog, Twitter, FB. And after the election, the League of Nasty Women FB group. I went from adjunct activism to political activism. And I have spent hours a day on FB, shitposting and information and news posting for, literally, years. 

Years. Egads.

As I mentioned in the previous post, it was its own kind of lifesaver for me at the time, for at least five years. But I find instead of expanding my world, it's narrowed it to the issues of the day. Especially since the 2016 election of the Not So Great Pumpkin (apologies to Linus), I've been utterly absorbed in working to counteract the horrible crap he and his bigoted, greedy minions are foisting on us. It's felt like both a cause and a mission, in a way none of the obligatory proselytizing I did when I was younger ever did. But I have what I call a vacuum cleaner mind: if it's in the way, I suck it up, and the steady diet of politics and injustice I've been living on is beginning to take its toll. Quite a while ago, I decided I can no longer do nothing but wait for god to clean up our messes, as my former religion dictated. But I know also this is not something I can do alone, and it's not something I have any control over. I can speak out, be a good ally, vote, but I can't reach people who won't listen, and the ones who do listen don't need much talking to. As for that "someone is wrong on the internet" factor, I'm learning to let that go too, which is a good thing. I don't have to win every argument or even join in. Let the antivaxxers Darwin-Award themselves out of existence. A sign, maybe, that I'm finally maturing and don't always have to have the last word. Just sometimes.

I realize now that I miss literature. I miss poetry. I miss browsing through the internet for interesting articles not on politics or social justice. I miss following a couple of webcomics I was following before. I've been confined to the links in my bookmarks bar, which consist largely of newspapers and social media and work tools, and that's just crazy. The interwebs are vast and wonderful. There are still books being written, new poets to discover and read, things not directly related to politics and social justice to write about. I'm not sure whether what I've been doing is an addiction, an obsession, or—at least for the last few years—a form of self-care, but I'm ready to move on now. Even as I was doing this, I knew it couldn't last, but what I hadn't counted on was quite how much it would wear me out.

One of the other things I did when I was sprucing up the blog was have a re-read of my raison d'être for it ("Dowsing for What?" in the sidebar). I started this about 10 years ago, after my folks died,and I finally made the move to stop calling myself a Jehovah's Witness. I was much more concerned with spirituality and religion then; the tag line for this blog was then "Finding a new way to believe." I've changed that now to just "Finding my way." I haven't become an atheist in the meanwhile and I doubt I will, but I haven't become a Buddhist either, which seemed likely at the time. I wouldn't even call myself a monotheist, because the whole notion of god seems fairly limiting somehow. I'm trying to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect. The universe that we know is just too vast and unknowable for what passes for religion to be a viable option. I keep coming back to Arthur C. Clarke's assertion that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic; the corollary being that any sufficiently different and/or advanced life form seems like a god. If energy is conserved, as it seems to be, we do have a kind of immortality. And if the Many Worlds hypothesis is true, "I" may exist everywhere, which I find both kind of hilarious and negating of my uniqueness in a very Buddhist way.

Galadriel dark queen
Don't draft me to run for office.

When I was a JW, one of my frustrations with it was the neutrality in politics they practice. Unlike the Mormons, with whom they're often compared, they don't vote, they don't lobby, they don't run for office, they rarely go to court, unless it's to fight for a civil right that sustains their public preaching and right to bang on  your door on a Saturday morning. I grew up during the Vietnam war, and even though I was in a military town, there was enough dissent about how right the war was to make me sympathize with the anti-war protesters. Like most young people, I was full of zeal for right and wrong, and my religion prohibited my participation in such "worldly" things, or I'd have been a hell-raiser a lot sooner than I finally came to it, in my late fifties. Who knows where that would have led? Jail, probably, like Jane Fonda, bless her. Sadly, she's got a lot more energy than I do right now. and I find, after immersing myself in activism and politics for the last five years, that I am not just tired, but less passionate than I was. The infatuation has worn off. I would never run for office because people like me should never have power (c.f. Galadriel; Dunning-Kruger; and Good Intentions, Road to Hell Paved With). Also, that window is closed now. It's time for people younger than me to step up, and time for the Old Farts™ to give it a damn rest. You had your chance and blew it. Lead, follow, or get the hell outta the way.

This doesn't mean I'm abandoning the field entirely, or that my own personal code of ethics and morals does not continue to be offended by the Fuckhead in Chief and his Dark Minions. Or by his enablers. I'm looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg. The last straw for me, with you, sir, was your approval of Brietbart as a "legitimate news source." But before that, I watched with disgust and dismay as the algorithms your company developed silenced anti-racist, anti-bigotry, anti-fascist, anti-rape culture, feminist, and other progressive activists while leaving the hate-mongers to spew their shit simply because they were white men. Any platform on which women cannot say "men are trash" without being censored and thrown in your stupid FB jail, while men can threaten women with rape and violence with impunity is a misogynistic hot mess. If calling out racism gets you censored, but being racist doesn't, that's a hot mess. Fuck that shit, Mark. You are part of the problem, and you're responsible for skewing our election by taking money from Russian trolls without compunction and refusing to do your duty as a private citizen to stifle hate speech in your business. Your cool little creation that aimed to connect people all over the world is turning into 4chan, and you're letting it. Not to mention that you expect people to sift through the sickness and violence posted to your platform without providing them with mental health benefits. I cannot be party to that anymore. Hence the MeWe account.

 

20181130_215419-ANIMATION
Jillybean has a bath.

I'm not sure how that'll work out. I'll probably maintain my FB account for a good while, and I've promised to stick around at the League of Nasty Women until the 2020 election, but I'm weaning myself off it. I abandoned Twitter quite some time ago because it really is a sewer and I'm too long-winded for that kind of character count. I ditched Flickr because I think I'd like to do something professional with some of my photographs, but I'll keep my Instagram account at least for sharing pictures of the Jillybean Calico. (Here's another.) And Pinterest has been really useful for a lot of art projects and world building; also, the infatuation has worn off there, too. It's just occasional fun now. I never did much with my Tumblr account and the platform has turned into a puritanical rule-bound shit show now (in a way that has nothing to do with curbing misogyny, bigotry, or white supremacy), so that's just as well. I've got 616 "friends" over at FB. There are people not following me over to MeWe that I haven't yet formed meat space social bonds with that I will miss, and it means I'll have to try harder to stay in touch if I want to keep them. But so will they. It's our own special kind of bubble, and I'd like to get out of it, at least until the bigots and fascists get chased back under their rocks again. 

And as Auntie Maxine said, I'm reclaiming my time. I've got other things I want to say, and I'll be saying them here. Follow along if you like, and feel free to argue with me here.


The Valorization of the (Academic) 1%

Bad capitalistJason 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.

F-t-p-t-faculty-1Next, 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?

Crazy Cat Lady
You want Crazy Cat Lady? Here. Let me get my Docs on.

 

 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.

Cat lady response

 

 


Failure of Leadership: Money, Power, Privilege

RadicalMoiI'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.

OutofbalanceAnd 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.


Shock Parents! Enlighten Students! Embarrass Badmin!

Adjunct Wage Theft MoiTell 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.


Call for Submissions: Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat

SupermoiOkay, 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 teachingpoor@gmail.com.


Not Exactly Fan Mail

Adjunct Wage Theft MoiA 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.

  1. Give adjuncts more control over course structure and text choice. We’re trained educators, not amateurs. Supervision is better than directives.
  2. Offer orientations and workshops to create community and support good teaching.
  3. Provide some kind of space to call our own in which we can meet with students.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. Expand the library. Could it have a whole floor to itself? I don’t know what’s on the second floor. Nobody goes there.
  2. Please, please, upgrade the restrooms, which are often out of soap or towels, and grubby even when they’re “clean.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Offer some kind of childcare either on-site or nearby.
  6. 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.

Yours sincerely,

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.