Monday, January 19, 2015

January 19 is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

"The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society."

--Martin Luther King, Jr., The Purpose of Education

But the function of most educational institutions today is not to give students experience thinking intensively or critically, but to instead (pretend) to focus on efficiency. Standardized tests are an efficient way of showing educational progress (which stands in for thought and knowledge). Public schools are turned into charter schools to eliminate inefficiencies like rules, regulations, school boards, accountability, etc. (and to eliminate job security/benefits/pay/retirement/support/etc. for teachers, to eliminate accountability and regulations that ensure students are getting what they need, to reduce support staff like counselors and nurses in schools, to reduce resources like extra-curricular activities or academic support for students…). People who want to be administrators in K-12 and higher ed. often now have graduate degrees in administration but may not have ever taught in a classroom, thereby streamlining the business model and reducing the role of educational philosophy, theory, research, and hands-on knowledge about effective teaching and learning. Colleges and universities are cutting programs (via the business model) based on “real-world” logics about profit and use-value; that is, programs that are of little “value” in the business world are seen as antiquated and irrelevant to students who simply need to be prepared to work and not to think, for example: foreign languages, philosophy, various humanities programs, and others. Also, of note, English departments seem to be shrinking non-real world programs like literature and focusing instead on writing programs—like composition, which is a money-maker for universities because all incoming students need first-year writing credit; and within composition programs there is more and more focus on technical and business writing, which again focus on skill vs. learning/thinking/engaging. Creative writing programs also seem to be growing, for probably various reasons, but especially at the graduate level, creative writing is a boon for colleges that attract lots of graduate student applicants who will then supply free labor in the teaching of undergraduate writing classes while working on their degrees. The over-supply of people coming out of graduate programs (MFA and PHD) then have to compete for a decreasing number of full-time higher ed. teaching positions; the teaching positions changing from tenure lines to part-time positions with little pay, no benefits, etc. etc.; this is supposed to be a model of efficiency though it only works because the inefficiencies are taken up by workers in departments who have to do the extra labor to perpetuate the system (the administrators or full time faculty and staff who do the ridiculous jobs of scheduling and hiring part-time people to fill all of the positions, and the messiness that all of that might entail, for example).

MLK, Jr. was also pro-labor/pro-union. He recognized the relationships between critical education (engaged thinking and intellectual activity beyond basic reading and writing literacy), respected and paid labor, and real-world “success.” Success, in these terms, means being able to act and participate as an equal member of society, and to have opportunities for education and professional work regardless of race, gender, or class status. Success does not actually mean making millions or billions of dollars each year at the expense of the basic rights of others. It does not mean giving corporate and business tax cuts so great that other institutions are threatened (public education, social welfare and resources for people struggling to find their way to better jobs) and so that business see historically record profits while middle-class wages remain stagnant and poverty increases.

President Obama recently talked about his plan to make community colleges free for students who want to work hard and succeed, which is in fact called, “Building American Skills Through Community Colleges.” This is an excellent idea in many ways; people working minimum wage jobs and who can’t afford college tuition would have access to programs that would help them get better jobs, which would pull more people out of the cycle of poverty. It falls short though in many ways including emphasizing the importance of education (not just skills), the value of four-year colleges (in terms of education) and the sky-rocketing costs that make them less accessible than ever to poor and even many middle-class families, and it lacks any mention of teachers who are already underpaid at community colleges and four-year institutions. If community colleges expand by opening up to more students, the colleges will most likely compensate by hiring more part-time faculty at lower pay-rates. Without investment in the colleges’ infrastructure to support this potential influx of new students, and specific investment in the teaching faculty of these colleges, this is a doomed and failed plan before it even begins.

This is a lack of critical thinking on Obama’s part. And a perpetuation of a thought-less system whose only goal is efficiency, when even that falls short; to be efficient means to get something done in order to more quickly arrive at an end goal. But in the case of the business-model of education, the end goal is never reached. We don’t really get more and better skilled workers, but while we are under the illusion that that is what’s happening, the bottom is falling out. We won’t realize how engaged, critical education is a key component to the development of technical skills, and the importance of these in relation to social and economic progress, until it is too late. Or is it already too late?

Thursday, January 08, 2015

livin' the dream

Does this situation of contingency “mean” more when it affects people who otherwise seem important or successful in some way? That is to say, is it worse that there are many creative and scholarly people publishing and producing art “successfully”—along with the baggage that idea entails—in their intellectual lives, but that do not have access to full time teaching that offers benefits, job security, and reduced general anxiety? Does it become a “real” issue when it affects people we recognize? Certainly it is a travesty that one can do so much “right” in pursuing full-time academic work and still not be granted access. Certainly many people are more qualified and harder working than their meager contingent teaching appointments make apparent. And now, we are seeing more stories of the variety of “successful” people put in positions to fall short (remain precarious) in the academic world. Maybe these stories catch us by surprise because we think that if these people aren’t achieving the dream, then who can?  But these stories also help to widen the perspective on the larger issues in academia, a world that is being held up and held together by exploited, mistreated, emotionally abused part-time laborers, often because the part-timers have so much to offer. If one is an artist or writer or professional intellectual, it becomes a tradeoff to have what seems like flexibility and space to be those things even while being constantly beat up by this new world order. I know people (everyone knows folks) who have “decent” jobs in this new world order—the idea of decent having been distorted to unrecognizable really—that are not high paying and may or not have much long-term potential. But some of these decent jobs seem like miracle jobs in relation to what so many other people are doing. And I don’t mean high-paying like we should all make $200, 000; I mean I see tenure-line people making $60, 000-70,000 or more (reasonable pay in this contemporary world of inflation for educated professionals?), and lecturers making $30,000-40,000 (which does not go as far, and is a kind of pay rate that is only going up millimeters at a time). Should one in fact focus on the pay, or think of the miracle jobs as including security, which so many jobs across the spectrum of labor cannot in fact provide these days? Does this make the more secure-contingency situation better? Or should we delve further to continue to expose the structural breakages helping to perpetuate adequate, or even inadequate and substandard situations of professional teachers, artists, writers, creative people, and intellectuals? Some good things are happening, in terms of exposure that is. Three well-known (in the creative writing world) writers in the Bay Area decided to lend a little to this exposure and discuss their experiences as contingent professionals, and speak to the structural catastrophe of what seems to be a neo-liberal model of higher ed. institutions. It is a structure in which departments, and even individuals, in positions to make decisions about others’ lives and welfare constantly disregard the “good” for other things that may or not in the end be “cost effective.” In any case, one can find the whole interview here: Adjuncts Speak Out

By way of introduction, interviewer Sara Wintz writes that she:
…sat down with three Bay Area Adjunct Writing Instructors (*and poets!) who are leading the charge locally toward better working conditions for adjuncts and better learning conditions for students as part of “Adjunct Action: Bay Area.” This is part of a nationwide movement called Adjunct Action: a project of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), where over 22,000 unionized adjuncts have already won improvements in pay, job security, evaluation processes, and access to retirement benefits.

There is so much of value in this interview, and this passage below by Stephanie Young says so much. Common to so many stories is this narrative of “who’s in charge”; one can feel a sense of security in a teaching situation if one feels like the person/department/administrator doing scheduling, assignments, or making decisions is supportive and friendly to shared interests. And this relationship or situation can go bad in a second. The security was always only a fantasy and the contingency is the only reality. Feeling like one is a part of something is a huge part of being a person in the world. When everyday life is made of up work through which you are continuously disenfranchised and disregarded, this can result in an accumulated emotional toll. The internalization of this kind of “inadequacy” that Young points to here is also so common. It can become hard to feel like a person with skills or ideas of value when what you have been doing that seemed of import and value can be so easily dismissed or taken away completely.

From the middle of the interview:

STEPHANIE: I got to work with a particularly great group of students this spring, both in workshop, and individually, on two exceptional thesis manuscripts. For the first time in 10 years I participated as a faculty member at the end of year celebration for grad students. In terms of intellectual and creative contributions I felt more like a full member of the department than I had before.

At the same time, it wasn’t until we unionized that I began to realize the extent to which I’ve felt the need to diminish myself in certain ways, to support the hierarchies around tenure. There was an SEIU metro organizing meeting last week and I showed up late, I was getting over a cold, but I was also operating the way I usually do–thinking oh, I can sit in the back and observe and that’s fine. And then I was called on to report back about the union process at Mills and suddenly understood that I was expected to show up and participate fully. And any member of the union who showed up would be expected to do the same. Emotionally it was this huge shift to realize I didn’t need to obscure my ideas or authority or go through circuitous routes to make something happen. I’ve enjoyed a lot of collaboration and respect in my working relationships with the outgoing Dean of the English department, and certainly with Juliana [Spahr], but in full department or other larger faculty meetings I’ve felt a great deal of internal pressure to defer, to remain or appear unthreatening. It’s not about tenured versus adjunct faculty, it’s that we’re stuck together in this system wherein tenured faculty, structurally, have certain kinds of power that adjuncts are not supposed to have, and when adjuncts do it makes everybody very uncomfortable—including adjuncts. I think Christian’s right about this Kafka-esque thing where the more stability you have, the more power and thus the more threatening you are, and the more precarious you become. Tenured faculty may be supportive of your stability, but who’s in power can change at any minute, at both the department and upper administrative levels. This provost supports you, the next one doesn’t. (Adjuncts Speak Out)

And, among other structural issues in higher ed., this is not unrelated to institutional racism. For people of color the situation of contingency is even worse. (See this: The New Old Labor Crisis). And many have begun to speak about the racism that happens even for people who have more security and credentials as tenure-line faculty (among other articles, there is this: The Problem with Affirmative Action). 

The neo-liberal narrative wants us to believe that freedom from constraint allows open access to anyone who can attain it. But in reality this extreme conservatism relies on exploitation and oppression of women and people of color and the poor to create and maintain wealth and privilege for the white people at the top of the pecking order.

Black faculty and the departments where they are found in the greatest numbers have been the most vulnerable since their inception. When the AAUP was issuing its first report on adjunct professors in the early 1980s, black students and faculty had been protesting the ghettofication of black scholars in adjunct roles for almost 20 years. In 1968, black students took over an administration building at Columbia; among their demands was a call for more tenured black faculty.

This has always been happening. And the current high-speed version of the trend to replace full-time/tenure positions with part-time/contingent labor seems to want to solidify not just the power for the privileged, but to send a message to those who never had access to that privilege.  In the meantime, the institution is destroying itself. Of course, Marx thought that capitalism’s demise was built into the structure itself, that it too would destroy itself; instead it has morphed and become more powerful. So what about the future of higher ed.?

To find out more about this mini-essay project see the Introduction:The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015 

Sunday, December 21, 2014


It is at this time of year that I think I should find something else to do. One might assume that is because at this time of year, at the end of the fall semester especially, it seems impossible (overwhelming, exhausting, etc…) to read and grade final assignments and to assign and upload official end of semester grades. It seems more impossible when one has to do that for seven classes. Indeed, I am in denial of a major panic attack at this very moment. But, in fact, it is at this moment that instead of doing final grading—in time, before the deadline, after which  institutions shut off the option for any final grade entry in the computer and one has to show up in person and file the grades by hand—at this moment I am sending out job applications for jobs that do not involve teaching. At this time of year I see the very real possibility of having too little work to support myself come January. The planning for winter semester always happens optimistically early in the fall semester, sometimes earlier. I get scheduled for classes, and then imagine that more classes will become available as the winter approaches, though, the last few winter semesters, the opposite happens. One semester I was entirely left off the schedule and only miraculously was found some classes at the last minute. Other semesters, sections that I was scheduled for didn’t enroll fully enough and were cancelled. Teaching seven classes in the fall isn’t about raking in money because it’s available for the taking. It’s about having to survive and pay bills for the rest of the year that is not Sept.-Dec. If I keep doing this, I think, should I take eight sections next fall? Or, I wonder, can I sit in an office from 8-5 every day, including during all of the summer? And how might I enjoy doing work that doesn’t involve teaching, or reading and learning about texts and ideas, or having conversations with students about texts, ideas, and the world? I wonder how I will do work that doesn’t include watching students learn and grow and mature, and learning about how interesting they are as writers and as people. I am sure there is other work in the world that I might find fulfilling. But I have been teaching since 1994, and so I also think about why I have to give up doing something that I enjoy, something that I am good at, something that benefits so many students, something that is supposed to be of value in the world. I can see the ways in which so many students learn and benefit from the classes that I help facilitate. I say help and facilitate because I have learned, and am still learning, how students make and do a class. I organize and schedule and give assignments and facilitate conversations and activities. But I have to open the space so that students can engage, participate, and make the class what it will become. Some classes become more than others. And some students get more out of the classes than other students get. But at the end of every semester I see how much we have all done, how far we have all come since the beginning. This semester I received some extended thanks, in person and in writing, from at least two students. But regardless of the explicit, the implicit and fulfilling happens when I read their final papers and projects; when I see in their written reflections, in their own words, what they have done over the course of the semester; when I remember how I didn’t know anything about any of them on the first day and how much more we all know now about each other and about the ideas we have shared over the past weeks. One challenging aspect of teaching so many sections is that it takes longer to learn students’ names and get to know them as people. And I think about how many fewer people I will know and learn from when I have to give this up to go do something else. In the middle of any semester, the teaching becomes challenging. Students get tired, they stop reading, they slack on assignments. But that is part of the process of learning and critical thinking. And by the end of the semester, things like these happen:

Small Steps Creating Big Impacts
A Study in Hope
Women in STEM
America – Creating a Better Country for All
Civic Engagement
Organ Donation 

Social Change in the Present 

To find out more about this mini-essay project see the Introduction:The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015 

Friday, December 12, 2014

On Writing and Publishing

I want to stop writing. It is like quitting smoking. I should stop. It is getting me nowhere. It may be bad for my health—not the writing so much as the trying to write, the trying to publish and failing, the emotional toil of dealing with the rejection, the extreme emotional toil of dealing with the rejection which signals that I will not become “professional” as a writer, that the kind of professional work I want to do (academic/teaching) I cannot do professionally without the right kinds and numbers of publications. And so giving up writing is, in a way, giving up the academic professional pursuit, which in some ways would be better for my health. Pursuing writing and publication in the hope of a full time academic, teaching job entails stress, self-annihilation, emotional destruction, critique, and devaluing of anything that is good about oneself. Instead, I have come to focus on the symbolism (everything bad) that comes with each rejection. I am talking about creative work (poems, creative essays, weird short fiction) as well as academic writing (critical essays on any variety of mainly contemporary writing topics). The academic rejections are easier to take—maybe because I haven’t been doing that kind of writing for as long as the creative, and haven’t sent/had rejected as much, and have internalized my own inadequacies as an academic (writer). But when one has been a “creative writer” for so long, and so much work is consistently rejected, one has to start to question the point of doing it at all, let alone continuing to send it out for inevitable rejection. Even when one know the editors of a journal from grad school, and still one’s work is rejected there, then it must begin to become clear that there is so much writing in the world that is better, smarter, more clever, more stylistically brilliant than one’s own. A real writer might argue that writing, and process, and the experience of writing are important, and publishing should not be the focus. But not having time to make brilliant writing is a stress that I wonder would be better just let go.

To find out more about this mini-essay project see the Introduction:The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015

The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015

The Introduction:

I would like to pursue a series of mini-essays, each on a topic of interest to me, and maybe of interest to others. We are teachers who have become emotionally (and maybe physically) battered by the destruction of the educational system in general, and the dismantling of academia and the college/university system in particular. In more particulars, there is continually reduced interest in the importance of education as a value and little (to no) investment in teachers who are invested in offering kinds of comprehensive and quality educational opportunities to their students. At the college/university level, full-time work is farmed out to increasing numbers of part-time instructors. 

In the fall of 2014 I agreed to teach seven courses at three different schools (well, two of the schools are U of M and so share some resources, which made the extra jobs a bit more manageable) which in all reality is not actually possible. Or, well, it is possible because I did it. And I honestly don’t think I had to let too much of my own teaching philosophy and work ethic go to the wayside in order to manage that workload; though of course I have often had to work 60+ hour weeks in order to manage it. Part of me believes I should have put more of my pedagogy and work ethic aside in order to feel like a regular, professional, working person instead of trying to kill myself. The payoff is that this year (2014) I will make around $40,000 (when I do the tax return, I am estimating, but since I don’t have a salary and I try to calculate, I never really know how it all works out until I do the taxes). That sounds better than the horror stories you read about in the national news about “adjuncts” making poverty wages. But I will add here that the tenure-line faculty at two of the places I work, teaching the same classes, teaching two or three or four sections each semester, make $60,000-$70,000 or more, per year. And they have benefits which include job security (they know which and how many classes they will teach each semester), health and retirement, and also some kind of insurance I had never thought about that people have with full-time, benefits jobs: if you have to stop working for health or other reasons it offers you financial support (this is in place of, or in addition to, social security, or disability insurance which you may or may not be entitled to depending on the reason one is unable to work). 

I am also a creative writer. I have an MFA in creative writing as well as a Ph.D. in literature. I have had little success getting enough “nationally recognized” publications to be considered for full time creative writing teaching jobs. I am finding that everyone publishing now is super brilliant, and I have less and less time to work on writing in ways that would also make it (or me) super brilliant. Sometimes though what is published is the opposite of brilliant, and then I think there is the luck of the draw, or some other factors involved in publishing. I also do more experimental and innovative kinds of work in my writing. You may see some of that on this blog too. But when I am teaching seven classes, I don’t have time or interest in writing. And when nothing is getting published, I figure I am not any good at that anyway and so maybe I should just give it up and make my life easier… but this is yet another continuing conversation/debate I have in my head on a regular basis.

I also endeavor to professionalize in various ways, in order to maybe one day actually be offered a full-time teaching job. I submit all kinds of writing (academic and creative) for publication, I go to conferences, I try and read new things in my field(s). But I have many fields. The creative writing. The teaching and pedagogy in composition and rhetoric. The fringe fantasy of publishing about, and ever teaching, literature. There is no way to keep up on any of these individually, let alone all of them. But what I have learned from sending many job applications and getting few to no interviews, is that my 15+ years of teaching experience doesn’t mean as much as having publications. Maybe there are other factors. The point is that this world of teaching and writing is an apocalyptic one. These being the things that I do, and really the only things that I do well, point to my professional life as also a complete disaster. 

I can find some personal and spiritual satisfaction knowing that I have affected many students in their educational lives, and I have seen them grow and learn and develop as writers and thinkers, and as people. And because I mostly have taught at places where many students are working, and coming from working class backgrounds, I feel like teaching is a further way to practice my philosophical and social engagement in the world around me. Nonetheless, this situation goes well beyond a “love of teaching” which many argue is why people like me are doing this contingent life/work (lack of) balance. I am disrespected by these institutions exploiting my labor and time. And the students are shafted out of a better quality education for which they pay large money in their tuition dollars. The dollars don’t go into classrooms and teaching faculty. The dollars seem to go everywhere else instead.

These are the things that I think about continuously, on a daily basis, while I also wonder what I have done so wrong in my professional life to have come to this place. And I wonder what kind of a world we are now living in, in which education is in so much freefall and implosion. That doesn’t even make sense (the words) because it has become impossible to comprehend (the idea).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of Laura Mullen's Enduring Freedom

Check out the new issue of Something on Paper, a lovely online poetics journal filled with amazing writing and thinking by so many great poet writers:

  Something on Paper

Darling on Mullen:

Friday, August 29, 2014

from George Orwell

"Why I Write" I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are: (i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money. (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations. (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. (iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature — taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.

Friday, August 08, 2014


On a day when lyrics have become fluted, like rain, flickering. As if announced, the entertainment portion of the event swallows any serious discussion. A correct calibration of nonsense, humor, desperation. A gentle brush, a silence. We long for anything poignant. Imbibe flattery. This generic unfulfilled wish is like constant flattery, a repetition of a single last hope. I am trying to describe the way that sci-fi captures each fault and promise of something better. In the stars a construction of syllables that equal personal expression and salvation. The intoxicating sound of eyelashes fluttering will lead us all into Nirvana. In the meantime, details shatter. Noise is metallic. We forget to walk through the park. Fashion has become political. We can’t remember yesterday. The pink sky behind industrial jobs blinds us to its pollution. We use the word temporary. Pain is like a weed that flowers by chance, dies off in winter. Only hiding out until the return of spring. We have come so far, a visual sensation narrates progress and the sun rise of each morning. Potential lies under the surface, bubbling. Bare tree branches represent the inconceivable. Hope has feathers you know, little else maybe. Concrete lies against wild nature. Grey and orange mix, become indiscernible. Storms linger. Silence repeats, holds back texture and choreography. A body impulse is more like intoxication, a drunken monologue of manic silence. We create a theory of expression. We claim our spaces. Watch political intention like soap on the box of media saturation. We imbibe the status quo. And we recalculate. In bold colors, against skin, using a thesaurus of words, dictionaries piled like castles, the power of language, we correct your misconceptions. You shatter. You blaspheme, spit nonsense, fake pleasure. We no longer love. We shame you and your deceptions. Our homes may be made of glass but the walls are covered with roses, tinted and peeling, but still scented sweet. We cook stone soup and name it future, an inspired culinary choice. Respect a slower pace. Practice the erosion of monotony. Combat violence in thought and action. We are endeavoring for a sense of meaning. Fill in the edges until the edges are full of power and commitment. We are 99% of the fed up and concerned with alternatives. We want you to give back: our money, our time, our dreams, our integrity. We are embarrassed for you. And we are moving out.