Wednesday, May 20, 2015

to essay

...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