Monday, March 16, 2015

an interlude... in progress...


Politics, Poetry, and Bread

1.

When I go to Canada I park on Sandwich St., which goes through the historic Olde Sandwich Towne, in Windsor. Sandwich Towne was first settled by the French in 1749. Sandwich, Kent is in the district of Dover, in the county of Kent, in south-east England. A medieval town, its name came from the Danish and in a way means a place by the bay or mouth of the river. In 1028 the monks at Canterbury got permission from the King to collect toll money and ferry people across the river. I always say the medieval time is where capitalism began. Richard the Lionheart landed in Sandwich in 1194 and, Wikipedia tells me, in 1255 Sandwich welcomed its first captive elephant  (a gift for Henry III from the French). The title of Earl of Sandwich was established in 1660 and there have been 11 Earls of Sandwich so far. The current, “John Edward Hollister Montagu, 11th Earl of Sandwich (born 11 April 1943) is a British entrepreneur, politician and nobleman.” Olde Sandwich Towne in Canada has a festival with food and music and events in the early fall. Although there is still some medieval architecture around town, it’s a pretty quiet area barely a mile from The University of Windsor campus. The couple of pub-style divey bars on Sandwich Rd. are on my list: Divey Bars in Random Places to Visit.

As the story goes, the word sandwich, for meat between slices of bread, may have begun with the fourth Earl of Sandwich (in the 1760s) who ate the creation (in the name of efficiency) at the gaming table instead of leaving for regular meals.

2.

There is now also a chain of sandwich shops called the Earl of Sandwich.

The Wikipedia entry on the etymology of “sandwich” is apparently directed at audiences with no familiarity with English (language) or any cuisine that includes bread, meat, or cheese in any combination:

A sandwich is a food item consisting of two or more slices of bread with one or more fillings between them. Sandwiches are a widely popular type of lunch food, typically taken to work, school, or picnics to be eaten as part of a packed lunch. They generally contain a combination of salad vegetables, meat, cheese, and a variety of sauces or savoury spreads. The bread can be used as it is, or it can be coated with any condiments to enhance flavour and texture. They are widely sold in restaurants and cafes.

The sidebar adds: “Many sandwiches are handheld and portable; this one [pictured] is made with salami.”

Or maybe this was written by a fourth grader, which is totally possible since it is on Wikipedia. In any case, if I had not recently given up flour and wheat (just since lunch a few hours ago) I would go make myself one, a sandwich, with meat filling two or more slices of bread. The multiple baguette photo examples shown here look too good to ignore. I feel like I will have to rethink my flour/wheat plans.

3.

In Canada we are reading Nicole Brossard’s, “Poetic Politics.”

“I would like … to make space for questions regarding different rituals, different approaches, different postures that we take in language in order to exist, fulfill our needs to express, communicate, or to challenge language itself: hoping that by playing with language it will reveal unknown dimensions of reality.”

I park 20 minutes away from the department office, on Sandwich St., because a parking permit on campus costs some exorbitant amount. After also paying $10 per trip to cross the bridge to and from the U.S. After also paying for a work visa (a new one every semester). To teach a class in which only some of the students want to read essays about poetry. A class in which most want to write poems and stories, that they want to be great, without reading anything else (theoretical) about writing.

“I have always said that writing is energy taking shape in language.” Dear Nicole, energy is taking shape in my classroom as I challenge them, and they rebel. Of course, eventually, I know, they will come to find your words indispensible.

4.

In fact I don’t think it’s actually possible to stop eating wheat or flour. The French have been eating baguettes for some time now and they are not suffering from “wheat belly,” the latest fear trend in the American diet wars. Still, when I begin reading about what has happened to wheat, I am traumatized, become depressed. Is there no realm in which everything has not been altered with chemicals, genetically modified, produced through unsafe practices creating cancers within us as we breathe through each moment of our lives? One might imagine that wheat is grown like it has always been grown, cut down, cultivated, used for its various purposes including all sorts of flours. But au contraire, it has been bred into something different altogether to grow more quickly, have a higher yield, and be more resistant to destructive forces. This new wheat was cultivated in the 1960s and because more can be produced faster on less acreage, it has taken over the industry. This new wheat also has considerably more gluten and fewer nutrients than the older stuff. Although now they say one shouldn’t go gluten-free unless one has a specific health issue affected by gluten. The increase in the new wheat seems problematic, and may even be contributing to the gluten allergies that seem to be spreading. Until even more recently, the new wheat hadn’t actually been genetically modified, so it has stayed off the radar of people making waves about genetically modified foods. Of course Monsanto now is leading the charge in genetically modified wheat—among other seeds and foods—and unlike Pinky and the Brain who try and fail, Monsanto is succeeding in taking control over (the food production of) the world.

I keep reading. Surely organic wheat must be safe from this colonization. But I can’t find any clear answers. It is hard to know if organic wheat comes from pre-modified forms like Einkorn or heritage varieties of wheat, or from the newer version. So surely one can use the pre-modified kinds of wheat, if one wants to make her own bread for every purpose all the time. I want to think that since this news is lately coming out to the mainstream there may be more transparent information about what kinds of wheat is used and where. But I think the “Wheat Belly” craze came and went fast. I want to imagine that organic wheat is not the conventional, less-nutritious, new “dwarf” variety, but there isn’t much solid information out there. And that Stanford report said that organic food was not any better or more healthy than non-organic foods. That made the national news, though in fact, the report found organic food to have fewer pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria, thus, one might conclude—which the report refused to do—better for health. And how many people saw the less publicized critiques of that report questioning the methods, funding, and findings? Remember when Oprah said something “disparaging” about beef? Don’t mess with the food industry, that is the lesson here. Dr. Davis, in his Wheat Belly, argument claims all wheat is the same and it is all bad. But he also claims that instead of wheat you should eat more meat and animal products, which I also find a little suspect.

In France it is more likely that traditional forms of wheat are used instead of the newer Frankenwheat. There are up to 200,000 varieties of wheat around the world, but we have come to use only a few strains for most of the world’s bread production.

The Heritage Wheat Project in Canada is working to circulate and re-introduce more varieties of heritage wheats into the mainstream and to increase some of the grains’ nutritional values. I wonder what kind of wheat they use in the bread at Whole Foods that so many people pay lots of money for because they believe it is better? Maybe I should buy my bread at the food coop, which I also can’t afford. Or I can get serious about making bread at home, by first crushing the wheat into flour, naturally the important first step. And then I read this on The Natural Recovery Plan website:

The archeological fossil record indicates that the introduction of the agrarian diet coincided with a massive decline in the health and vitality of the population. Prior to this time there was no evidence of degenerative diseases or tooth decay, but with agriculture both men and women lost considerable height which has only now been recovered after 10,000 years. There is also evidence that there was a massive increase in infant mortality at this time. So it may be that wheat - hybridised or not - was never good news for human health.

5.

One can draw connections between any random elements. I find that my food politics relates to my thinking about language, writing, the ways that I exist (or try to) in the world. This usually results in my feeling like a misfit. What is wrong with eating the same wheat that everyone else is eating? What is wrong with generic story structure and organization in fiction writing? Why can’t I just write accessible narrative poems?

Because, as Brossard writes, “I have often said that I don’t write to express myself but that I write to understand reality, the way we process reality into fiction, the way we process feeling, emotion and sensation into ideas and landscapes of thought.”

Because there is more to life, and to language, the potential is greater if we allow ourselves to open to that. Brossard:

            So by changing the perspective, the themes, or the style, somehow you deceive the conformist reader in her or his moral or aesthetic expectations …. At the same time, you provide for a new space of emotion and you make space for new materials to be taken into account about life and its meaning; you also offer the non-conformist reader a space for a new experience—traveling through meaning while simultaneously producing meaning.

            These interventions send a message in which the poet says: I don’t agree with prevalent moral or aesthetic values. I am not respecting the status quo. There is more to life than what we are thought to believe, there is more to language than what we are used to expecting.

We offer the readers and we offer ourselves these spaces, and for some of us, the status quo just doesn’t offer enough possibilities.

6.

Once I decided to go vegan. Or maybe I decided to go raw, eat only raw foods. You can actually make rice if you soak it in water long enough and do some other preparation. I remember looking up recipes and making a large supply of some kind of cabbage salad. Then I suffered a quick and serious bout of heartbreak about a boy I was crushing on. I don’t remember the boy or what happened. But I do remember the raw foods only lasted three days at the most (maybe only one day even, it was a doomed venture from the start), and then I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies and ate most of them myself. I was a regular vegetarian who still ate fish for almost 10 years, a lifestyle choice which makes it hard not to eat bread and pasta. I started eating meat in part because I was tired of pasta, and in part because I have always enjoyed a variety of foods and flavors. I like to cook and eat especially good food, which is also hard to do without good bread. Potentially life threatening factors aside, surely it must be OK to have a quality baguette on occasion, and maybe a supply of bread made from non-wheat-flour grains on hand.



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

In the News

...or headlines that are on the periphery of the news...

A few articles, among the many that are circulating daily...

1. A Review of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, Utah State University Press, 2012. Edited by Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, Angela P. Harris. 

This is a collection of essays, on various topics, about issues in academia particularly from the perspective of people of color. I have long had this theory that the increase in contingency (decrease in tenure-line positions) is in direct proportion to women, people of color, those other than economically privileged white males going further to earn higher degrees, Ph.D.s and the like, and entering the academic market. As the traditional academic world started opening to these nontraditional possibilities, it started to shut itself down. Certainly the business model-economic constraints contribute to the reversal of teaching positions (40 years ago 75% of faculty were tenure-line), but the narrative focuses on this economic situation, at least in part, as a deferral from the institutionalized racism and sexism that it protects and reiterates. From the review:

"The 30 essays in Presumed Incompetent expose a nasty truth about Academia: it is not above the realities of everyday American life. It, in fact, reproduces and reinforces society’s inequalities, stereotypes, and hierarchies within its own walls.

"That academic women, especially academic women of color, are often presumed incompetent, is probably not surprising to most. The virtue of this book is that it enables the reader to see that these experiences are not individual experiences nor are they the result of individual flaws. Keeping this insight in mind, these essays become more than just “stories” or anecdotes. They point to the larger structural and cultural forces within Academia that make the experience of being presumed incompetent for women of color far too common.

...

"Lugo-Lugo also touches upon a second, though sometimes less explicit, theme of this book: the corporatization of higher education.  There are several layers to this phenomenon that affect women of color disproportionately. For one, contingent labor now makes up the vast majority of faculty positions in this country.  White women and women of color are disproportionately represented in these contingent ranks. Women of color only make up 7.5% of all full-time faculty positions in Academia (pg. 449). Given this reality, the presumption of incompetence gets reinforced and magnified for women of color. But there is another aspect of corporatization that is considered in the essays in this book. These are the essays that discuss student evaluations of teaching.  Because students increasingly come to the classroom with a consumerist mentality, they feel entitled to a certain experience, a certain grade, a certain “kind” of teacher. Lazos’ chapter, in particular, is a must-read for anybody who wishes to understand the factors that impact students’ evaluations of their professors. Departments chairs and members of committees on tenure and promotion will also find this chapter useful since they are responsible for evaluating a faculty member’s teaching effectiveness and student evaluations are a primary source of that information.


2. "Love in a Time of Contingency" (titled slantedly after one of my favorite novels by Marquez)
http://thefeministwire.com/2014/07/womens-and-gender-studies/

This is from a year ago, but so relevant and important. In fields especially like Women's and Gender Studies (as well as other humanities, social sciences, etc) our academic politics don't match the fight against real world sexism, racism, economic oppression... Scholars exhort feminist political arguments in research and teaching, but ignore the perpetuation of marginalization and violence within the very institutions they are working. 

From the article:

"As Jennifer Ruth poignantly showed recently (though not speaking in the WGS context), we are all complicit in perpetuating these dynamics, including those working in “middle management.” While not making sweeping higher ed policy decisions, these “middle managers” are the actors, Ruth argues, who make the everyday decisions that continue to perpetuate this system: department chairs who accept non-TT positions to “grow” their programs, TT faculty who ask for adjunct coverage so they can finish that book. Those working in WGS should be held accountable when their actions uncritically perpetuate a racist, classist, and ableist system whose increasing corporatization is leading to a “winner-take-all” market for a tiny minority of faculty and increasing contingency for the rest. Significantly, 76% of faculty are contingentwith women and people of color making up a large percent."


3. This article from a journal out of Louisville (http://louisville.edu/journal/workplace/issue7/schell.html/) is from 2001 or just thereafter. It analyzes the rise of contingent labor, especially among first-year writing teachers, and points to political movement happening across social sectors (protests against the WTO, rise of union interest among contingent workers, etc), and it calls out to those teaching in areas in which we "profess" politics or critically engaged pedagogy to also act these in our real, academic, institutional lives. This article disturbs me because I wonder, like the environmental apocalypse that is  upon us, how long does it take for the sounding alarms to turn to real change?

From the article:

"The revitalization of academic unions and growing regional, state-wide, national, and international coalition building efforts among various groups concerned with contingent labor coupled with localized legislative action can effect change. In this essay, I will report on and analyze campus, municipal, state-wide, and national organizing campaigns to address the working conditions of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty, many of them first-year writing teachers. After that, I will discuss a proposed international week of action, Campus Equity Week, that is forthcoming, and will conclude with a discussion of the rhetorical strategies that literacy workers and others agitating for change can best adopt to achieve coalition building and organizing toward improved working conditions. "


"With a rhetoric that opposes binaries and encourages agency and coalition-building, we are in a good position to articulate a broad educational agenda that acknowledges worker rights and the fundamental need for a democratic, accessible, and diverse system of higher education."


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

Friday, February 27, 2015

with or without a profession


The system works because so many people have internalized the larger structure of power and exploitation. The institution creates a set of bad working conditions, and individuals implement those conditions by doing the work of maintaining the workforce. The institution says that teachers are peripheral, temporary, inconsequential, exploitable, replaceable, interchangeable, and the etc. Some individuals rise above these messages to bring care and thought into their work maintaining the workforce in their particular areas or departments. Some individuals on the other hand--either through overt interest in exerting power or seemingly less culpable thoughtlessness--create and perpetuate working conditions that are not sustainable for contingent workers. And by their contingency, the workers may not last long under such conditions unless they internalize their own inadequacy and believe they don’t deserve to be treated any better, not like valued workers or people at all. Certainly, any idea of professional respect becomes irrelevant because if these contingent workers were seen as professionals, the system and the individuals who perpetuate it would have to treat them entirely differently. And when one or more contingent, non-professional, expendable teachers starts to ask for more or to be treated better, the system and the individuals who perpetuate it crack down. Individuals are afraid to have their own power and control threatened. Or individuals who don’ t have power but are in better positions than the contingent, exploitable teachers are afraid to lose ground, or are too busy worrying about their own state of affairs in the world to be of support for the expendables. But they don’t realize their ignorance and thoughtlessness have consequences. One cannot choose when to be or not to be responsible to the welfare of others. If one is in a position to advocate for others, to support workers as deserving of respect, to promote their being treated as professionals, than she has a responsibility to do that. Instead, there is a lot of denial and choosing not to be responsible when that seems more convenient than taking any kind of stand. More disheartening is when an individual who believes that she has a personal philosophy or politics of advocacy for those mistreated in society, that she or he is on the side of those with little voice to advocate for themselves, insists on remaining ignorant about the situations of those immediately around her. It becomes easy to convince oneself that the part-time, expendable teachers are lucky to be given the opportunity to do the teaching, to participate in the things that go along with the teaching. One can even believe she is doing great favors for the contingent by being a kind of person who is better than one who would exploit others. But often this situation can easily and quickly come to resemble the example of the ignorant white women in the south, sending money and gifts to people in Africa while exploiting and abusing the African Americans immediately around them (I just watched the movie The Help, and although there are so many complicated things to say about this film (even while the movie often oversimplifies instead of complicates), it does a good job of showing stupidity and ignorance… though, unfortunately, the kind of ignorance that is less obnoxious is just as dangerous). One has to choose to be more responsible to one’s politics and to the concerns of others instead of deciding not to pay attention.

I have recently been working in two jobs in which I am treated with respect and as a professional teacher and thinker. I am also involved with the union which advocates that workers be treated with respect and fairness, and stands up for those who are being exploited. But the union can only make progress a little at a time when the challenge of mistreatment is so systemic and pervasive. The union works on behalf of the workers and toward the long future of better conditions. In the meantime, individuals continue, and sometimes ramp up, their anti-worker practices. Because I have begun to experience better working conditions, supported by the union and perpetuated by individuals who are more thoughtful and genuinely care about the conditions of the workers around them, I have come to see my larger situation is a different light. I enjoy being treated as a professional, which in fact I am, and this makes being invisible, and even mistreated, in the other job, more difficult to deal with on a regular basis. The problem is that the two jobs with better working conditions don’t pay enough and don’t have enough consistent work for me to stop doing the job that is beating me down. The institution, the system, still wins. This is a common problem among so many workers in our new world order. In fact, I know that I have it so much better than many people who really are limited by choices (few or none of them) and circumstances. In this job of poor working conditions, in which so many people beside me are being mistreated and disrespected, I can’t do enough to help them all, and this makes me feel even more defeated. In reality, if I didn’t have that job, I would survive by doing something else. But I also feel like the injustices should be addressed (again, at this moment, I hear the individuals who have the power within themselves to do better exclaiming, “injustices?” “You are lucky to have this job at all, you should be grateful and not cause trouble!” or some fake version of what an administrator told me straight to my face, “But you have to believe that we do respect and value our lecturers” and then immediately turned down the grievance about an unquestionable part of the bargaining agreement). I have been in a position, though without any actual power, to advocate for others. And I have come to question if it has yet done any good. More disrespect is being handed down. I have to choose to fight or jump ship. Weary of the fight with Fox News, even Jon Stewart is stepping to the side. By sweeping individuals who could and should do better into its wake, the system of exploitation is winning. That is, except in places where the individuals have decided to do better than the system expects of them.


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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

of what benefit

When I found out that my health insurance would continue, and not get cancelled like it does every year in January, I was not only happy, but lightheaded, maybe even a little silly, and relieved. In fact it made me feel like maybe I am a real person. A person in the world with a job, and benefits, and a profession. That was short-lived. It turns out that the benefits were cancelled. The health insurance, the dental, the contribution that the institution puts toward retirement. I am trying to argue to have it reinstated, but with the institution there is little logic nor concern for real individuals’ issues. And in the end it is my fault, apparently. I should have known about the language in the bargaining agreement that said my coverage would continue if I averaged a 50% workload appointment over the academic year. I had originally thought I had to maintain a minimum of 50% each semester, but instead it is possible to have a continuation of benefits approved if one works 75% or more in the fall, and 25% in the winter. In the fall I had a total of 133% workload appointments across the institution, in three departments. Still, that one employer sends me one check via one human resources office every month. So I would argue I worked more than enough to average (leverage) benefits.

In fact, the system is set up to be impossible. I could have worked more hours in the fall semester (in addition to the 133%, I also had two more appointments at another institution and could maybe have had more). But in December, I didn’t know if I would have enough work come January to pay my bills and keep money in the bank to pay for the summer of reduced or no work at all. And so at this moment I have no health insurance. Again. And if it isn’t reinstated, I will become depressed. Again. Depression has become a cycle of abuse in my psyche for so long, only recently have I been able to forcefully target and overcome it when it takes over. This system of abuse that I have put myself into, this life of contingent academic employment takes a toll on my mental and physical health.

Last fall, I had a job interview for a full-time teaching position. I screwed it up. I didn’t get the job. Apparently I didn’t even get a second interview. I don’t think they believed that I am dedicated to teaching. They thought I was being utopic in my philosophy of getting to know students (“how many students do you think we have in our classes here?” one of them asked, like I am some privileged person teaching three classes of 12 students so I can get to know them all, when in fact I teach multiple classes of 25 students and do in fact get to know most of them, every semester). I talked about what I enjoyed about working with the students at that college, where I had worked previously, but I didn’t spend any time explaining in detail why I wanted that job, why I wanted to work at that place, why I want to continue teaching instead of quitting to go to work doing something else. Maybe they think, delusionally, the way that people seem to keep thinking, that I won’t want that job when I get a fancy teaching job somewhere else. But there are few to no jobs, not teaching college English classes full-time, not any more. I will have to quit teaching before I ever get a full time job, fancy or otherwise. Failing to land that job sent me into a chronic fit of cranky and depressed, probably for a few months.

A few years ago I also failed at getting the full-time job I interviewed for, teaching at a place where I now still teach part-time, the sting of which lingers just under my skin, and occasionally bubbles to the surface. In many ways that was a crappy job, with low pay and high teaching load. It would have been tons better than what I am doing now. Last year I worked my butt off at that (part-time) job with students, for students, and have gotten nothing in return. Of course I have gained the personal learning and enlightenment that comes with every class that I teach. I also had some of the same students in successive classes over that year, and got to work with some students later in their college careers who were, and are, amazing students and people. I have also learned a lot, and met a lot of people, through my experiences teaching at so many different schools. I enjoy learning new things and thinking about possibility. But the tradeoff is the stress, low pay, and lack of professional respect (mostly from institutions, sometimes from individuals). The stress of the tradeoff in trying to continuously maintain three jobs with no security and the fluctuating promise benefits may be too much greater than the possibilities for learning and experience. This is the conversation I have with myself regularly. And I play every role in the dialogue.


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

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Amazing Grace



Jonathan Kozol talks with people who live in the most depressed and extreme circumstances, in neighborhoods in the South Bronx. In Amazing Grace he tells the stories of people he gets to know in the early 90s. At the end of a subsequent book, he points to some improvements in some of the neighborhoods since then, but makes note of much that remains the same. In particular, some neighborhoods in the South Bronx remain the poorest places in the country; in these neighborhoods, public education has not made any improvements and continues to exponentially fail most of its students; and although he doesn’t mention this in the more recent book, HIV infection has actually grown worse of late. In Amazing Grace, he tells the stories of the numbers of people who know numbers of people who have been infected and died of AIDS. These rates seem to be in line with other places where there has been little access to health education, prevention, and medication/treatment. How the rates of HIV can be on the rise now in these neighborhoods in NY (or anywhere in the world for that matter), when cases have been decreasing across the country for some time now, is incomprehensible. 


Among other amazing and incomprehensible details, in Amazing Grace, he takes a moment to show the fatigue that is omnipresent among people living in poverty who are beat down, and then beat down again, through every endeavor: from simply walking up the stairs to their 10th floor apartments when the elevator is broken and being beaten or robbed, to spending hours and days in  government offices reapplying for benefits and aid regularly cancelled and rearranged within inefficient and discriminatory bureaucratic systems. The benefits and aid were originally intended to help people get on their feet so they could catch up and move on. Now, there is never a way to catch up, nothing to move on to: there is no accessible, real education for the kids, there are few jobs for the adults, there are no resources available to help anyone develop skills or encounter opportunities so they can break out of the circle of poverty. The details, in the words of the people Kozol gets to know over many years, are more striking, personal, and distressing than any cursory summary can really acknowledge. The passage that addresses this kind of fatigue, this pushing the boulder uphill and going backwards, says a lot to show a story about the poor that is not the evening Fox News version of “the takers.” Here are some selections from that:


“…when I think about m y conversation with the woman who cooks for the children and the homeless people in the kitchen of St. Ann’s and her reaction to the way she was turned down when she had asked for medical treatment at Mount Sinai, it is the aching weariness within her voice that stays the longest in my mind. Some of this weariness, I imagine, must reflect the cumulative effect of many years of difficult encounters like the one she has described; and some may be the consequence of many other pressures and humiliations in her life. But weariness among the adults in Mott Haven does not always call for complicated explanations. A lot of it is simply the sheer physical result of going for long periods of time with very little sleep because of the anxiety that seems so common, nearly chronic, among many people here.


“There is a great deal of discussion in the papers and on television panels about “apathy” and “listlessness” and lack of good “decision-making kills” among the mothers of poor children… I rarely hear the people on these TV panels talk about such ordinary things as never getting a night of good deep sleep because you’re scared of bullets coming through the window from the street. In this respect and many others, the discussion of poor women and their children is divorced from any realistic context that includes the actual conditions of their lives. 


“The statement … that embattled neighborhoods like the South Bronx have undergone a “breakdown of the family” upsets many women that I know, not because they think it is not true, but because those who repeat this phrase, often in an unkind and censorious way, do so with no reference to the absolute collapse of almost every other form of life-affirming institution in the same communities. “Nothin’ works here in my neighborhood,” Elizabeth says. “Keepin’ a man is not the biggest problem. Keepin’ from being’ killed is bigger. Keepin’ your kids alive is bigger. If nothin’ else works, why should a marriage work?


“”Of course the family structure breaks down in a place like the South Bronx!” says a white minister who works in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. “Everything breaks down in a place like this. The pipes break down. The phone breaks down. The electricity and heat break down. The immune agents of the heart break down. Why wouldn’t the family break down also?

““If we saw the people in these neighborhoods as part of the same human family to which we belong, we’d never put them in such places to begin with. But we do not think of them that way. That is one area of ‘family breakdown’ that the experts and newspapers seldom speak of. They speak about the failures of the mothers we have exiled to do well within their place of exile.””


Most of us cannot imagine the conditions for survival in these most neglected places. But disenfranchising people is a continuing trend, and the practice is moving up the economic ladder: more lower paying jobs, less accessibility to quality education and resources for self and professional improvement, more attacks on organizations that help people to have job stability and pay (like labor unions), and more people in the middle classes failing to find stability and falling into the minimum wage work force and into poverty. The South Bronx is the extreme example, in a system of stratification, that seems to be growing worse. The stratification a result, maybe among other things, of a continued systematic racism that pushes people to the edges of society, refuses to offer any means of escape (and actively sabotages any real possibilities that come along), and them blames them for failing and dying. Those who transcend always have some story of serious and constant intervention from some outside force or a miraculous internal motivation and accompanied access to opportunities, or a combination of those. The majority, though, don’t turn into the exceptional examples that society then uses to blame the majority for failing to succeed, even though the narratives of the exceptional ignore the actual details that show what made success possible. 



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

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?




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

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