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