Friday, July 31, 2015

I Am Tired Just Thinking About It

The last day of July. Sometimes when August happens, I panic. But I think I have already been panicking. Lately. Maybe all summer. Let me be clear: I have no reason to panic, about anything. I work. I have money. I pay my bills. I have some cash in the savings and occasionally put some into retirement accounts that I have set up myself. I own a house. I have a loving if high-maintenance dog. I have an excellent and supportive domestic partner. Although I have spent a lot lot of time working this summer (on writing and professional development, mostly unpaid, and some union work), for the most part my schedule is my own and it is flexible. 

I am or will panic because I am not ready to go back to teaching full time in the fall semester. I say full time, but really I will be working more than a full time teaching load at three campuses. I will have five classes as it now seems, though the final details are still working out. Some people freak out about doing four classes at one time, at one place. Last year in the fall semester, I had seven. I am feeling especially grateful that I don’t have to do that again. I’m not even sure I could. I already feel exhausted just thinking about it. I was trying to consider teaching only four at two campuses this fall. It would be financially possible. But the numbers on paper are not the same as when they come in the check, after taxes. The bills that I have to pay don’t give discounts because I lost 30% of my check to taxes. When I say I am making 35k or 40k per year, I really mean it’s only about 20k or 25k or whatever is about a third less. And now, electricity costs more, groceries cost more, and my partner and I are trying to buy a different house and also put money into retirement. But I am made to feel like I should be grateful to earn 30k. That money in a retirement account is a privilege and a luxury. I have to get special permission to teach an extra class even though the full time load for part-time instructors doesn’t actually pay a professional full-time salary. I am supposed to dedicate my full time working hours but the institution won’t actually pay me a proper full time salary. I would like to quit the third job, but the two campuses of the same school won’t allow me to work enough to make enough money. 

So many people have it so much worse. A lot of people would be ecstatic to make 30 or 35k. I shouldn’t complain. But in fact, these are related issues. The service industry is fighting for $15 because the current min. wage is not a living wage. More people with families and mortgages and bills are working min. wage jobs. The educational system is being decimated for so many, a majority, who don’t have access to private schools or who don’t live in the few wealthy neighborhoods with superior public schools. The reduced value on and quality of education has put more people into the service industry instead of into professions. And people in professions like nursing and teaching have been turned into contract employees with lower pay and less job security and benefits.  The service-industry world serves the profits of a few but not of the many. 

And so my point is, I did not expect to still be here come this fall. In many ways, I did not expect otherwise, but a part of me had hope. And I worked that hope into action: I have been trying to write and publish and do as much professional development as I can fit into my schedule. I published a teaching essay. I have failed at publishing other academic essays. I am failing at getting much at all of my creative writing published. At so at this point I am focusing my energy on teaching and academic/prof. development within the teaching context. I wouldn’t say I have given up on my own creative writing, but out of necessity I’ve had to push it to the edges of my time and effort to make space for kinds of writing that will help me to get a full time job. That means thinking and writing about teaching/pedagogy in general, and toward a full time job teaching composition in particular. My degrees are in literature, cultural studies, and creative writing. The composition world is friendlier toward cultural studies and creative writing, but I have a ways to go to “prove” myself as having converted to the field. A prejudice against literary people lingers in the air. And I just don’t have enough energy to keep trying to do all of it. Although to me these things all go together, and all go into my teaching and my dedication to that, teaching experience alone is not enough and apparently one needs to be able to market oneself. I don’t really know what that means. I’m just trying to refocus myself and my disparate experiences into a version of me that will make sense to hiring committees. I’m not faking it, or changing myself; I’m just re-packaging or something.

I have had two interviews for full time jobs at community colleges, which I have been rejected for. I am a weird fit for a community college even though I have taught at a number of them and am totally dedicated to teaching, and have many years of experience to show that. The last interview felt totally rushed and the questions were all questions that were a bit off in some way from the questions I expected, like it was a specialty test of some kind. I must have sounded like a rambling idiot trying to come up with answers I hadn’t expected to think about. I had another interview for a full time, though one year temporary position. The interview I thought was really great, and I would have loved working in that department. But as with most of these things, many people more qualified than me applied, and I didn’t get it. I also later discovered that I had a missed fixing an error on my cover letter. Could this have been the determining factor? I think not, but maybe. Maybe I am not a careful enough person to have a full time job. 

So I feel like I am giving myself one more year to keep doing this. But I feel like I keep saying that. This summer, I didn’t want to give up my summer and so didn’t apply for other, non-teaching jobs that would start before Sept. And now I have a full teaching schedule for Sept. so the need for a different kind of job seems lessened. But how will I feel in Dec.? And I have spent the summer basically working on developing myself further as a teacher and academic/writer, so every time I think about doing something else, I think about how much I have invested in doing this over the past 15 years. And I keep seeing other people land jobs that they love or have been waiting for, some in teaching and others in other fields. Other people apply for jobs and get them. I am trying to be hopeful and work toward some kind of professional success but it is draining, disheartening, like trudging through mud sometimes. It is hard to continue to be motivated when the potential results are so ambiguous, and when faced with so many rejections all of the time. Even though I now feel like I do have some stability in terms of work and making not-entirely-terrible pay, I still feel relegated to the kiddie table. This is not a world in which teachers are given any professional respect. And for part time teachers, the ambivalence is even more apparent.

In the meantime, I have now over committed myself to writing papers to present at a number of conferences this fall, one or two papers to submit as possible book chapters, and since I’ve now been working on pedagogy and teaching through some amazing workshops and online classes/discussions, I now have to spend some time carefully revising some of my syllabi. I am excited for some new approaches to teaching. And I am daunted by the time and energy I’m going to need to get any of it done before the semester actually starts…

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

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

from the archives...

After dividing by

I am living between languages. Landscape and geography, space and new falling leaves. It is October and there are no real jobs. Having moved out of and into location, into and out of work. Now settled into life on this new east coast, I learn there are groups of fibers within particular subsets of groups. A fiber in this sense is a set or column of everything that gets mapped to a single number. Any integer divided by 3 will fit into 0, 1, or 2. Write it down:

map …-2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3…into 0,1,2 with the rule X maps to the remainder of X after dividing by 3.

This gives us columns of numbers for each of 0,1,2 (for example for 0 we get a set that includes: …-6, -3, 0, 3, 6, 9) and this makes a fiber.

I think of fiber optics, another topic I don’t entirely comprehend. But this is different from sending digital information through time and space. This is about how each fiber, made up of all of its elements, exists. In some sort of social discipline this group theory would make sense to me. We are divided by seemingly random factors and placed into sets. We are parts of sets and subsets. We are defined through location, relation, the connections we form. We find our places on the individual fibers of the larger social tapestry.

Though defined simply, mathematical groups are complex in structure.  In group theory you can only add or only multiply or only subtract or only divide. Whereas, in the finite fields the possibilities are more unlimited, though possibly not totally unlimited. In the finite fields everything behaves like you expect it should. You can add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

To be or not to be finite. When really, nothing seems to behave as it should.

The infinite fields include all of the numbers as we know them, all fractions, anything with a decimal point. The possibilities are…infinite.
I am by default in a dialogue with myself. And even a group of one can be infinite in its concerns. Sometimes I can’t understand my own words. Languages circle and swirl. Everything is not easily divided by 3. I have landed between columns.

I once heard someone say that a person’s values change depending on the group s/he is with. For example, when you are in high school you may have a set of friends and acquaintances and then when you go to college you acquire another set. Because of this new group of people by whom you are influenced, your own personal values may change. It is inevitable. No one lives in a bubble.

In group theory numbers map neatly into a series of integers. We divide by 3, take the remainder, create a clear table of fiber columns. You may be a positive or negative integer. Depending on how your integer self divides by 3 may determine which fiber column you fall into.

I leave it to my integer self to determine.

In the morning I will rise before it is light and go to a job. I will answer phones and file for the day. Or many days. Shift context and conversation. My connections, relations will change. Soon the snow will start and more dark becomes winter. I place ideas into columns, fibers made of words and images, but the columns blur, or they are too long and they twist and turn like performers of a modern dance. I have become a subset of myself, mapped on to the integer 1, this fiber set becomes indefinite. I learn it is not so easy to fall into a fiber column, not so easy to remain within any clear table of knowing. I learn that mathematics is philosophical and inexact, there are different kinds of infinity. I know that nothing maps neatly but I believe in it anyway, want this proof to be made elegant, believe in the poetics of the group. But my integer self is unruly, in dynamic relationship with others, a language of division and progression that I won’t come to know for some time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

...another strategy is to ignore the explicit and tend toward sweeter imagery, like scents and shaded nuance. Following a map, a predetermined round of luck. I have read a book in which the colors vibrate, photos tell a story of crumbled architecture, a literal metaphor for our current times. This, of course, has nothing to do with stale flesh, but I am trying to ignore that at the moment. It sounds like putrid political banter or the empty jargon of men with shiny teeth and photogenic hair. Get on this page, interface that, let's iterate. Stinking discourses of the mainstream. And none of us is outside, huddled together in this center of privileged misery. This is why the poets turn romantic or lean into narrative confessionalism.

Dear Sharon Olds, tell us the story of your grandmother again. Sigh. We want catharsis within rational means. Don't make me emote beyond my capacity. This is exactly why fresh flesh works best. The purely physical denotation cannot be dismissed or set on the side of interpretation. Oh Susan Sontag yes it is still always about interpretation. And we are getting worse at it. The leaves of intellect falling into spaces of settling concrete, sidewalks paving over our deepest insights. Dear Susan Sontag the photo has been altered my hopes have been altered the image is just finally so clear. Dear Charles artifice is simply for the sake of artifice and we will absorb. We are sponges. Playing on slick surfaces and shiny baubles. We love letters printed without serif and cartoons that depict the genuine stereotypes of real people. We want our lesson with our oatmeal maybe even dashed with raisins. Our news with the flash. Our memories like Polaroid’s, developing into clarity before our eyes.

The poetry has become political, music lullabies like sedatives, painting what one does with one's house after too much deliberation. If gratuitous means explicit then let's be clear. I no longer wonder as I wander but I whimper and strain. The rainbow papers and obstructive justice are only like the sweet icy desserts, after a long winter, in which each individual flake of snow is still falling, frozen in space and time.


In the past few days, not unusually, some stories about the horrific situation of adjunct labor in higher ed. have come up on Facebook. Secondly, an essay by a career-adjunct, “Treadmill to Oblivion is a nakedly sad look at the reality of teaching in higher ed. for so many people: one busts one’s ass for students, departments, institutions and gets less than nothing in return (one gets disrespect, cancelled classes, ignored concerns and ideas, zero collegiality, etc.). Certainly some part-time instructors have it worse and some have it much better. The number of classes this person has taught in total, and in each academic year, in person at various schools and online, is staggering. The stories s/he tells about getting and not getting classes, politics and relationships, the often general disregard for this person as a teacher and professional are sometimes confusing, the details falling in on each other, the pain and emotion infusing the language so that we as readers may not know the whole story of each story, but we feel it more intensely because of its being laid so bare on the page. Twenty-five years is a long time to get to the end of and realize you have been screwed and laughed at for so long. Surely this person had many good experiences over the years; most instructors in this position focus on the experience of teaching and working with students. Some have great experiences with those they work with in their departments or those who do the scheduling and logistics. This person had worked with some good people and had good teaching experiences. But there is so much more that s/he had to push aside, for years, one example after another, of professional disregard and abuse, push aside in order to continue to just do the work. The accumulation of these kinds of details, when one faces them square on, can be daunting. I feel the weight of that here, in this essay, the full force of each anecdote compounding one on top of the next. This person has had it, and the exhaustion fills every character, space, word, sentence of the essay. The narrative veers toward the main idea: s/he is cutting back on the teaching load; tired of being continuously treated like super-crapola, s/he is moving in with a friend to save money and focusing on their own writing, for once. I am in fact a little worried about this person, when s/he begins this *easier* teaching schedule in the fall and begins to focus more on theirself[sic]. This may feel like a relief at long last. It may also result in a traumatic reaction to the realization of working these many years and going nowhere. When one begins to see a thing up close, it is harder to un-see it later. 
Last fall I taught seven classes at three schools, and have decided I cannot do that again this fall. At the moment my expenses are manageable and I don’t have any kids, I already own a house and I recently replaced my old car with a less-old car. I feel like maybe I can “afford” one less class come September…though I haven’t decided that definitively. Surely one cannot turn down classes when offered, because who knows what will happen in the next semester? The person who wrote the essay above (who chose to remain anonymous) has kids in or graduated from college and paid or helped pay for that, as well as other normal kinds of expenses that people have in the world. 

Coming back around to another example, the first story on my mind happened to someone I know, who posted and then removed it from Facebook. The person teaches at a school, has been teaching there for four or five years, has been encouraged and respected and sympathized with for the low pay and conditions of *the part-time instructor*… A full-time (maybe temporary, not sure) position was posted for fall, s/he applied and had an interview, s/he didn’t get the job. One could go on at length with more details, and in response to inane questions/responses that rationalize that they must have hired someone better, more qualified, with more publications and experience, and etc. But I would argue that this person is as, or more, qualified than others in all of these ways, surely gets excellent teaching evaluations (however problematic thinking about the use of evals is in relation to quality teaching and etc.), and is a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher. The point is, when faced with the decision, committees sometimes go for the fancier or name-recognition candidate instead of being loyal to those right next to them already doing the work. Or, because s/he is right there doing the work already, it is assumed that s/he will continue to be right there doing the work and so getting someone else, from outside, is just another bonus (why reward the person for doing what s/he is already doing?)… I had a similar experience a few years ago. It’s likely that at that time I was not well-practiced in my interview skills, and for a while I told myself that’s why I didn’t get the job. But I had been teaching in a department for a few years when a low-pay, full-time instructor position became available and I didn’t get it. But in addition to that, two others in the department also applied, and none of us got it. Any of us would have been a good choice for the job: one had been teaching those same classes (that the job called for) in the department for a while, one had a book published, one was almost finished with a Ph.D. Certainly we were all qualified and had good teaching records, credentials, backgrounds, were dedicated teachers. And the committee hired someone with no published book nor Ph.D. but had some other fancy thing on their resume. That person stayed in the job for one year, and then left for another job, and then the department was not allowed to re-hire for the position. At another school, a full-time position (lecturer, not tenure-line, which means less pay for arguably comparable work but less requirements for research or etc., though so many people apply for these jobs now because though they are qualified for tenure-line positions, there are few to none available) became available, I had a first interview, and they gave second interviews to three people who had been teaching in that program for longer than I had. They hired someone well-qualified and already in the department and doing the work. I was glad for that. In theory, one might do the work part-time and eventually be hired into the full-time position. The problem is that the full-time positions don’t come around very often, so in the meantime, one can be part-time for years with no guarantee of a full-time spot.

For about six months of the year for the past few years, I have a part-time job sending out job applications for full-time teaching positions. It’s not really a *job* because I don’t get paid, but it takes hours of time and energy. Two especially great-looking jobs, near-enough to commute to instead of having to move, were posted recently; I spent extra time preparing materials and thinking optimistically. Both jobs were cancelled due to budget or whatever issues. Most of the other jobs never offer interviews. I am doing the same work that others do for two or three times the pay, they have health insurance all year long instead of only for part of the year, they can plan on other things for the summer instead of worrying over money and summer-teaching possibilities. It’s not the fault of the people who have the real jobs; some of them are also trying to change the system in whatever ways possible. The problem is that teaching in higher ed. has been outsourced just like manufacturing went to China (or wherever) and phone support went to India and all over the world. College instructors are academic migrant workers. Teaching is no longer a job, not a profession, it is a career that has basically disappeared; and this is what is so difficult, constantly, to comprehend. 

In another story this week, a tenure line professor quit her *comfortable* job in protest to her university’s eliminating some of the full-time instructor positions that she had secured for the teachers in her department ( Some see this as a great protest from an ally of contingent labor, and in response to the problems in the system. Others see this as failing; she could have stayed in that position and continued to fight for those instructors instead of leaving for another job that she had already lined up. She didn’t actually lose any security like the instructors did whose jobs were eliminated. It’s not an easy answer. The system is so bad and has infected so many people at every level. At one school where I work we are trying to have a conversation with HR about how instructors are offered and scheduled classes. We have a bargaining agreement with simple language on this. We have had multiple grievances. We have suggested a document,   with accessible language, a proposal for a user-friendly practice that can be implemented across campus so that department heads can offer and assign classes transparently, fairly, and within the requirements of the bargaining agreement. But the HR people insist on their own versions of proposals that convolute the language, make the practice more cumbersome and complicated for everyone, and help the instructors little (and certainly don’t do much to think of instructors as professional teachers and employees of the institution, instead continually treating us as peripheral and not really necessary to the functioning of the institution even thought we are 50% of the teaching faculty of the place). This seems like a combination of incompetence (they don’t know how to use words and sentences to express ideas and create employee-friendly practices and policies even though when the words come out of their mouths, that’s what they say) and vindictiveness (they actually hate us and do these things on purpose). I don’t know the answer. I just hope that I am not still doing this in 25 years. I have set a timer.

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