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 

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).