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