As I sipped my coffee and surfed the news this morning, I saw that Angelina Jolie has written an Op-Ed for the NYT, explaining her choice to have elective, preventative surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes. This follows her piece two years ago discussing her choice to get a double mastectomy.
Social media has erupted, as it did two years ago, with messages of support, and calls for more women to open up about their own experiences with these surgeries. I never expected to write about my surgery, but I found myself putting down my coffee, opening up Word, and almost being late for class as I sifted through my own memories.
Nine years ago, I was treated for fast-growing tumors on my uterus. They came with a long, Latinate name I no longer recall, as another term loomed over the diagnosis: cancer. After a week of hand-wringing, a biopsy revealed that the tumors were not malignant after all.
I vividly remember how hot my face felt the nurse called to explain that no, I did not have cancer. I immediately called my husband with the good news and, wondering over his silence, realized he was quietly crying with relief.
But I still had those fast-growing tumors. My gynecologist reviewed the options. I could have the tumors removed, a fairly routine surgery. They were likely to grow back, however, and repeatedly, after each removal. They would, if left unchecked, interfere with my health, and could return in cancerous form.
The second option was a hysterectomy. I was thirty-five and did not have any children.
I knew immediately that this was the option I wanted.
Matthew and I had discussed children. While we both like kids, neither of us felt especially desirous of having them. I used to joke that my biological clock was broken, as I never felt the urge to reproduce like some of my friends, both male and female, did. When I got my monthly period, Matt and I would high five and cheer, “No babies!” To make sure we were on the same page in our marriage, we’d revisit the conversation about having children regularly, always boiling down to, “Feel any urge to have kids yet?” followed by “Nope.”
Given that history, one might think that the decision to remove my uterus, and thus my ability to have biological children, was without tension. It was not. Yes, I knew immediately that the hysterectomy was the best decision for me. We didn’t plan to have any children. We didn’t want even the slightest risk that the tumors would return malignant. This was the logical choice.
We live in a world, though, that complicates such decisions, connecting reproduction as it does to identity, to self-worth. I felt this long before the surgery. I noted how many conversations with new female acquaintances in their twenties and thirties began with “do you have children?” I realized that when a healthy, married, economically stable woman chooses not to have children, many people are astonished. Complete strangers would ask me, “Why don’t you have kids?” as though the answer would be their business, as if my childless self were an anomaly in need of explanation. Some good friends would argue with us, claiming Matthew and I were, somehow, the sort who “should have kids.” Putting aside the implied belief that reproduction is deserved by some and not others, I was always struck by the suggestion that I was under some social obligation to replicate. Despite my instincts otherwise, I occasionally wondered if something were indeed wrong with me for not wanting what so many people believed I should want. Maybe I was low on some hormone, or wired incorrectly. I’m sad now that I ever had those moments.
I give our parents credit. My parents never pressured us, never once made me feel uncomfortable for my choice to be childless. My husband’s parents were clearly disappointed, but didn’t try to make us feel guilty for depriving them of grandchildren.
In the months after the surgery, I was surprised to find myself feeling fraught. I’m a feminist, a critical thinker, and a teacher. Why did I find myself wondering if I were somehow less of a woman now that my uterus, an organ I’d never planned to use anyway, was removed? I was frustrated by my irrational response, and it took me a good year to work through it.
With the wisdom of retrospect, I know my feelings grew out of the long history of my reproductive decisions being treated as something to be publicly discussed and judged. This hit home when one family member asked me, post-surgery, if the tumors had been caused by my use of birth control—as if I had caused my illness by taking measures to remain childless. This implication was rare, thankfully, but the pained apology in people’s eyes when I told them about my surgery was not. The most common response to hearing of my hysterectomy was “I’m so sorry,” something no one said to my husband when he had is appendix removed. This response came from a well-meaning place, I know. I’m not angry with the kind people who assumed that this childless thirty-five year old without the ability to have biological children must be heartbroken. I am angry, however, that we live in a culture that trains people to assume, immediately, that heartbreak must have been my response.
I am now almost forty-three years old, and new acquaintances no longer ask me, first thing, whether or not I am a mother. It comes up, to be sure, but further into the conversation, and usually in context. This may be indicative of social progress. No one pries when I say that no, I don’t have kids, perhaps this time indicative of my age. Or perhaps it is because the women I’m meeting are often well into their forties as well, and they know better, from experience, that we don’t all want the same things.
What do I want out of sharing my story? I’m not sure, but the reactions to Jolie’s public accounts of her surgeries do suggest to me that more of us need to share our experiences.
I want it to be ok that I chose, before tumors chose for me, not to have kids.
I want people to be more thoughtful about when, why, and how they ask women and men about their reproductive choices.
I want people to be more thoughtful about how they react to mastectomies and hysterectomies. Joy and congratulations that cancer or other complications have been avoided might sometimes be a better response than sorrow.
Mostly, I hope that someday a woman recovering from a gender-specific surgery will not have to wonder what this means, who she is.
My body matters; it is a significant part of my identity. But it is not all of who I am.
In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, former MLA president Michael Bérubé proposes a New Model of Tenure, one that on its face is extremely rational, that appears to be an agreeable means of returning security, academic freedom, and professionalization to higher education’s labor system.
While I admire Dr. Bérubé’s efforts and intentions, I also think his proposal suffers from what my friend and colleague Kevin Mahoney calls “abstracted thinking about labor.”
Yes, in the abstract, Bérubé’s proposal is a solid one. But he does not here take into consideration what will happen to the actual people, the Mas and ABDs who have been teaching at institutions in the current system, sometimes for 10 or more years, were universities to adopt his plan.
The proposal needs to include, as an integral and principal part, a means of protecting the faculty who are already in the system. Protecting those who have taught our classes, taken last minute- appointments, and lost money when we tenured took a class from them last-minute Protecting those who have been at our colleges and universities for years with rotten compensation, little or no benefits, and, at times, the disdain of the tenured elite.
Now, he admits that this IHE article is not sufficient to explain fully the proposal, and encourages readers to check out it forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, coauthored with Jennifer Ruth, for all of the details. Perhaps I am jumping the gun, and my issue with his plan is dealt with, and well, in that text. I hope so. For the sake of anyone who might jump on this particular bandwagon without reading the book or without thinking about its concrete effects on the current teaching force, I offer some food for thought.
Bérubé notes that in his book, he and Ruth “propose a teaching-intensive tenure track for contingent faculty. It would constitute an extension (and, we think, a revitalization) of the tenure system, with tenure awarded on the basis of successful teaching, as determined by tenured colleagues within the institution. It would thereby give contingent faculty members access to meaningful peer review -- and substantial job security.”
Hear, hear. Yes. I am in agreement with Bérubé so far. We do need to reward teaching in higher education, value it far more than we do, and to extend the protections of tenure to those for whom teaching, not research, is the crux of their work.
I appreciate, too, Bérubé’s assessment of why tenure is needed. He agrees with the AAUP that without tenure, academic freedom is crippled. Even with a multi-year contract, non-tenure-track faculty will have to reapply for their jobs on a regular basis, can still be “nonrenewed” (aka fired) because an admin, WPA, or senior faculty doesn’t like their teaching style, their criticism of the department, their research findings. He quotes the AAUP’s “Tenure and Teaching-Intensive Positions” statement, which argues that positions without tenure, “while improving on the entirely insecure positions they replace -- offer limited conceptions of academic citizenship and service, few protections for academic freedom, and little opportunity for professional growth.”
Again, yes, sir.
But the rub is in his nagging question: “What is to be done about the deprofessionalization of the profession?”
His proposal for teaching-intensive tenure is one that only applies, you see, to those with terminal degrees, the real “professionals” in higher ed. Here is where we part ways:
“Our teaching-intensive tenure track would give priority to the holders of terminal degrees (including M.F.A.s in creative writing and the performing and visual arts…. The deprofessionalization of the profession is underwritten by the undermining of the Ph.D. It is telling that more rigorous professions such as law and medicine have no similar arrangement by which people who completed most, but not all, of the credentializing process are licensed to practice.”
I agree that the PhD has been undermined, and that a return to a system that defines it as the standard would have its advantages. But the proposal (in the article—perhaps it is covered in the book) does not address what happens to the legions of MAs and ABDs currently in the system. This is not some small detail, to be worked out in a book’s appendix or considered after an institution has adopted a teaching-intensive, terminal degree based system of tenure. Without consideration of the concrete ways in which his proposal—any proposal to reform labor practices—will affect the real, human beings in our classrooms, without some foregrounding of the discussion in grandfathering or protecting our current faculty, I cry foul.
Consider the contract instructor who has been teaching at your institution for ten years. Maybe that’s you. Were your uni to adopt this proposal, an admin might say,
We have realized that we are mistreating our adjuncts, and that we were undermining the doctoral degree and our own majors by not exclusively hiring faculty with the terminal degree. So, good news! We’re replacing all of our adjunct jobs with teaching-intensive tenure-track jobs! Isn’t that great? Since you have an MA, though, I’m afraid, we have to let you go. Bye.
At this point, many of our contingent faculty colleagues have been teaching for decades. After years of poverty-level wages, most don’t have the resources to return for or complete the terminal degree. They have loads of teaching experience that won’t necessarily help them to get alt-ac jobs. And now they will be unemployed. Legions of them.
This should not be a matter to be figured out later. People's lives and livelihoods should never be an afterthought.
This is National Adjunct Action Week, and today is National Adjunct Walkout Day (see #NAAW and #NAWD on Twitter).
I’m an odd duck. As I’ve noted in this space before, I used to be an adjunct. That was a long time ago, though (8 years!), and I am always very much aware of my position of privilege when I write about contingency in higher education. As my friend Seth Kahn has reminded me, we must always be cautions when we presume to write about or for others. I was an adjunct. Now, I’m “The Man,” a tenured professor.
This week, that position has especially given me pause. NAWD was conceived by an adjunct, and the many actions around the nation today, from teach-ins to walkouts, were mostly planned by adjuncts. I wanted to organize something on my own campus. But I kept thinking, who am I to presume? I want to help, but I don’t want to talk for or about a group that can and wants to speak for itself. But I want to help. But…..
So, yeah, that kept me up last night.
A better anxiety to have, however, than fretting over whether or not my contract will be renewed, or that I will do this summer with no health insurance, legit worries for many of my adjunct colleagues.
So, fellow tenure-track and tenured allies, here are two things you can do. I sent these emails to my KU faculty today. Small actions, but, I hope, ones that might lead to more action. The first refers to MLA’s Action for Allies. The second is a press release from PrecariCorps, founded by Joseph Fruscione, Brianne Bolin, & Kat Jacobsen. Feel free to copy, paste, and send!
As some of you may know, this week (Feb 23-27) is National Adjunct Action Week, a nationwide grassroots effort among adjunct faculty and allies to work for adjunct faculty equity. In PASSHE, we're fortunate enough to have better working conditions for temporary faculty than many institutions, but reflection on our practices is always a good idea. We have much room to improve.
The Modern Language Association has created a way for all faculty, tenure-track and adjunct, to work together to reflect on and improve adjunct working conditions.
The link below will take you to an MLA survey. It asks questions about hiring policies, evaluations, course assignments, contract length, and more. http://actionforallies.commons.mla.org/evaluative-questionnaire/
The survey isn't designed for MLA to collect data. Rather, they are providing a tool departments can use to get a conversation started. Each person who takes the survey is asked to provide an email address in order to receive a PDF of your responses. Then, you can use your answers as a basis for discussions in your individual departments. MLA doesn't keep your email address or use it for anything other than to send you the document.
This is one small way of showing we value our colleagues, no matter their employment status. I hope you'll consider taking the survey and starting a conversation in your department today!
PrecariCorps is pleased to announce that we are now able to accept donations on behalf of the thousands of adjunct professors in American higher education. Feel free to distribute the attached press release to anyone in your professional or social circles who is in a position to either make a donation or receive financial support.
See here for the donation page: http://precaricorps.org/about/donate/. Although donations are not yet tax deductible, we've recently received some money from tenured faculty members, and we hope to receive more in the coming weeks. We've already had several adjuncts apply for our Hardship Relief or Faculty Development funds.
We know that many full-time professors, activists, leaders of professional organizations, and others have been advocating for adjuncts for years. We now want PrecariCorps to be a simple, generous way for tenured and other full-time faculty, emerita, administrators, alumni, and any other interested parties to take simple, generous action on behalf of adjuncts.
For media inquiries, questions, or more information, contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org), visit our website: http://precaricorps.org/, or simply reply to this message.
Joseph Fruscione, on behalf of Brianne Bolin & Kat Jacobsen
Cofounders of PrecariCorps
Written on December 30, 2015, in the bathroom of the Hyatt, Bloomington, IND
Last night, I fell asleep shivering, convinced I would never be warm again. This, after a day of traveling from PA to IND: waking at 3:45am to make the 6am flight to Chicago, delayed, then sprinting to make the connecting flight. If you haven't seen two asthmatics run down a concourse, one with both shoes untied, the other gripping an inhaler, then you haven't see my pitch for a new holiday classic comedy. Once at the hotel, I went to bed early, and immediately realized I was ill. My husband piled blankets on me, and I fell asleep between shivers.
I awoke at 1:30am with a pain in my stomach brought on, perhaps, from doing what travelers too often do: eating ery little in transit and then overcompensating upon arrival. I ate like a woman preparing for a half-marathon in a culture where one's capacity to be loved is measured by caloric intake. I lay there, full of carbs and regret, at least not shivering any longer. Instead I was hot, my feet generating enough heat to brand my footprint into a herd of cattle. Which, by the way, I'd use as my mark were I to take up ranching.
I stripped off my socks and held my belly, trying not to wake my partner, yet secretly hoping he'd awake, soothe me, and tell me that this too shall pass, like the chili dog with extra onions I foolishly downed at a Reading Philis game. In that state, I imagined that the gurgling noises coming from my stomach were my intestinal track laughing, mocking my bad decisions: ga ga ga oy oy oy.
I've reached the end of the hotel stationary. Pray for me.
Tenured and tenure-track faculty keep writing anti-adjunct essays, and The Chronicle keeps publishing them. I won't comment on the choices of that particular news source. Instead, I'll recommend you check out the #ChronicleFail hashtag on twitter. The latest in these attempts to get adjuncts activists to just shut up and accept their working conditions comes from Rob Jenkins. He actually writes, “For one thing, adjunct teaching provides jobs for thousands of people. Not the best jobs with the best pay, true, but paying jobs nonetheless.” This, hot on the heels of Arizona State's English department deciding to increase adjunct faculty loads from 4/4 to 5/5 with no change in pay. (Have you signed the petition rallying against that move?) Administrators and tenured faculty alike regularly defend actions and attitudes like these, citing everything from budget constraints to “meritocracy.” I find the “but it's a job” argument particularly offensive, as it suggests that workers have no right to question the workplace. Without critique of working conditions, we'd have no weekend, no safety regulations, and no child labor laws.
As a rhetorician, I'm stymied trying to find a way to reach my fellow tenured & tenure-track colleagues when logos fails at every turn. The Content Class are able to ignore the material working & living conditions of adjuncts. “Stop whining and be grateful you have a job” is the refrain, sometimes phrased more delicately, sometimes not, a magical incantation used to quiet low-wage workers in every field. The Content Class simply ignores the facts, that these professors are asked to teach the most populous, most important classes with fewer resources, less time, and little to no professional development, in a working environment in which tenured colleagues often belittle them—if they even know their names. Logos rolls off of their backs.
Pathos seems to have just as little effect. If you know that your colleagues are on food stamps, have crushing debt, and struggle to pay medical bills, yet you feel unmoved, no impulse to be an ally rather than an antagonist, I can only conclude that you are emotionally impervious.
No car company is selling you the latest model with promises of improved MPG or with images of puppies and babies in the backseat.
So, I turn to ethos. I don't want to, because I know I'm inviting trolls. I know this is not the polite or politic approach. But I'm going to just write it, anyway, as a last resort. It's Christmas time. Consider me the Ghost of Christmas Present.
If you pen one of these anti-adjunct essays, if you rationalize systematic labor abuses in your comments on articles or social media, your character is questionable.
If you vote in favor of policies that further diminish adjunct power, if you will compromise the working conditions of your contingent colleagues to shore up your own, you are not a good person.
You might volunteer at the local soup kitchen and take in stray cats, but that just proves that cognitive dissonance is a real thing. Like the Walmart executives who hold holiday food drives for their employees instead of paying them a living wage, you aren't fooling anyone.
Why don't the adjuncts just quit, if the job is so bad, and decrease the surplus population? Other MAs and PhDs are just waiting to take their jobs! See, Ebenezer, that makes you a bad person. It demonstrates that you are fine with the exploitation of an entire class of workers, as long as some people are so in need of a job that they will take one that demeans them. “They want to be exploited! Otherwise they'd be unemployed or working for an even more exploitive organization” is not an argument that speaks highly of you.
Some of you may benefit from a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. Were you an adjunct once? If so, try to remember that more and more, time spent as an adjunct disqualifies teachers for permanent positions in the minds of many hiring committees. Remember that you are a rare bird having gotten your permanent gig. If you never worked as a temporary professor, know that you are just as rare a bird.
What of the Ghost of Christmas Future? If you take an anti-adjunct, anti-labor stance now, how will you be remembered? How will history treat you? We have tomes written by smart people rationalizing discrimination and subjugation. We read them in efforts to understand how ignorance was perpetuated. You are not on the right side of history.
But it's not too late. Like Ebenezer, you can be better than your word.
Once, a guy on an airplane asked what I do for a living. I said, "I'm a teacher." "What grade?" he replied. When I answered "Er, college," he asked, "Why'd you say you're a teacher, then?" Not the only time that's happened.
I used to teach high school, ninth and tenth grade. When I decided to leave that job and return to higher ed, it never occurred to me that I'd stop being teacher in some people's eyes. I've always seen teaching as my profession, both when I was Mrs. Biniek and now that I'm Dr. Lynch-Biniek. But I've come to understand that many among the general public believes the titles doctor and professor put me in a different class. Once, at a gathering of my husband's family, I overheard a cousin telling his son, "She's a professor," in a hushed, awed tone.
Images of me, sitting in a leather chair, making a thinking face.
Having come from blue collar roots, I get this. Professor is a status marker, an indication that I had the means [and student loans] to get a degree. I have studied and written a lot. But am also remarkably frustrated that elementary and secondary ed teachers, whose job is far, far more difficult than mine, don't get the same respect. My Dad taught high school English for 35 years. My husband teaches high school chemistry and theater (what a combo, I know.) They work more hours and deal with far more challenges, than I do.
Oh, my job is challenging, for sure, But when I briefly taught high school (lasted three years), no one ever learned of my chosen career and said, "Wow, you must be smart." Nope. I got, "Why can't these damn kids read?" or "You must be a glutton for punishment."
Spent this "day off" completing a conference presentation, creating a video for my online class, making flyers for Forum (hey, wanna write for Forum? Let me know!), and tweaking an article proposal. Now I have writer's neck. You know it? That tension and pain that builds when you hunch over a keyboard?
That's not going to cause permanent damage, right?
And while I love my job, I wanted to complain about it. To gripe about all-this-damn-work and how I feel guilty if I even think of taking a day off. I took to the Twitters, ready to do so.
I'm so glad that I follow so many smart, vocal, academic activists, 'cause reading their Twitter streams reminded me that I need to shut the f up when I feel so put upon--put upon by my privilege.
[Do you follow @MirandaMerklein? or @GracieG ? How about @pankisseskafka and @ProfessorEx74 ? You should!]
Yes, all that work that literally translates into a pain in the neck is a privilege.
I have the funding to attend that conference I'm preparing for. Many of my part-time or "visiting" colleagues in the US aren't give the material or intellectual support for professional development.
That online class that eats up more time than my f2f courses? I volunteered for it. I never felt the pressure, that so many professors do, to take any and all course sections available, both to demonstrate dependability to their employers and to make enough money to pay the bills.
My tenured position means I have the time and flexibility and resources to write articles and edit Forum.
I'm not teaching six or seven or eight course sections, making anything besides grading papers an impossibility.
On this "day off" that is really a day of catching up on work for so many US academics, remember that, if you're tenure-track or tenured, the work you do is made possible by a labor system that piles work onto contingent faculty. You can research and attend conferences and write articles because the academic labor system exploits faculty in a system of cheap teaching that privileges a very, very few.
That is worth devoting some of that research and writing to labor issues. Maybe even all of it.
Spaghetti Monster help me, I'm considering going back to Facebook. I know this is an insignificant, first-world-problem in the grand scheme, but I want to work through my ideas in writing--something I encourage my students to do all the time. You're welcome to eavesdrop.
I can't remember how long ago I deleted my Facebook account. Three years? Four? Maybe. I gave it up for a variety of reasons.
First, it was a time-suck of epic proportions. I spent more time than I'd like to admit scrolling through friends' pictures and posts. Twitter can be time-consuming, too, but I personally find scrolling through a timeline of 140 character tweets less daunting. And really, having one less account to check saves me just a bit of time each day.
Second, it occasionally got awkward. There was a lot of pressure (perhaps only my perceptions, but I still felt it) to friend people I'd rather not. Folks I went to high school with, but haven't seen since I was 16 (some of whom didn't even like me then, or vice-verse). Distant relatives with political and social views so divergent from mine, that seeing their posts pop up in my newsfeed made me cringe. (My mother once showed up at my house and asked, "What is the facebook, and why have you unfriended your cousin?") I have never felt the pressure to follow on Twitter. There are no "follower requests" to accept or deny, no assumption that if I don't follow you, I don't like you. I can also follow, but then mute a person if need be. Not that I do that. Ahem.
My growing interest in internet privacy and the control of my own data was the straw that broke my account's back: I just don't trust Mark Zuckerberg to care about users, beyond the cash he can make from us, at all. Of course, I still use social media, so I know my data is not safe and sound and completely in my control. My data is mined on Twitter, yes, but I do feel that 1. I have more accessible control over my security, 2. Twitter has been more transparent about their uses, and 3. the company has consistently responded thoughtfully and well to the user-community's concern (often indignation) over changes to interface and security. I can't say that about FB. I use all things Google. I have more trouble rationalizing the trust I have put in this megalodon. Sure, their moto is "don't be evil," but we've all seen that tested, and Google hasn't always passed. I do think, though, like Twitter, that Google has made much greater efforts to be transparent, and it has made my control over security settings easy and accessible. Bottom line: of all the skeevy social media platforms, and they all have a level of skeeve, I think Zuckerberg's is the skeeviest. (Now I want to create a Skeeve Scale of Social Media. That needs to be a thing.)
Yet now I find myself considering a return.
My growing activism in higher education labor reform is very important to me. I've connected with a lot of really inspiring people on Twitter, had great convos, shared their work (read: retweeted), and even met up with them beyond the screen. I've participated in # chats that have taught me much. But most of these people at one time or another have asked me, "Are you on Facebook?" Many people I'd love to learn from and interact with are not on Twitter, but are friends on the BlueBook of Face. They have networks and groups that share stuff I don't find on Twitter. I know I'm missing a big part of a national conversation that is really central to my professional life.
What really threw me happened yesterday, when my best friend, a guy with not a single social media account, a job in IT, and a healthy mistrust of The Man, said, "You know, I think you should go back to Facebook." What?
I've written it all out, and I still don't know if I can give Zuckerberg the keys
I have the privilege of teaching a Masters-level graduate class in this semester, ENG 502: Introduction to English Studies. The purposes of this course are plural, but one is to discuss the relationship between their graduate educations and the labor market. What might they do with this degree, both in and out of academia? How can they strategically plan their coursework and theses to fit their career goals?
With all the talk, policy debate, and scandal surrounding student debt in the U.S., I feel it is an ethical imperative that I address the complicated relationship between education and employment. Yes, those with college degrees still make more over a lifetime than those without. Graduate degrees, however, are coming under increasing scrutiny, especially for those who want to teach in higher education.
Today I read "Labor Pains: From Adjunct to Organizer" by Jessica Lawless, over on Miranda Merklein's blog Fugitive Faculty. Lawless's story is one of a person who did everything professionally right, and yet, she shares, "I was in critical debt from investing in my academic career. I was paid less than almost every other job I worked before I had graduate degrees." She ultimately left academia for work unrelated to her expensive degree. This is the ugly truth I must share with my graduate students who dream of becoming professors: you are likely to find adjunct employment with little pay and no benefits. You may have real difficulty paying off your student loans. You might not be able to afford working in your chosen field.
Students in this course will read Lawless's story, and they will also read MArc Bousquet's How the University Works. They need to know.
While I know this is the right thing to do, I also know that I may be shooting myself in the professional foot. Enrollments are down in graduate English programs nationwide. Will I add to the ranks of those who change their minds, leave the program, once they read about the state of labor in higher ed? Very possibly. The grad program my colleagues and I are building with care may be damaged by this truth telling. Most immediately, if enrollments continue to drop, my grad classes may not continue to roster. I may not get to teach them often or at all. In the bigger picture, I think grad programs like ours have a lot to offer students intellectually. I value education beyond its role in job training.
Yet I can't put a program or my class schedule over truths that will affect students not just intellectually, but materially. I can't not tell students that the odds of making a living wage as a prof in the current climate are very small. I can't rationalize by thinking, they have to work 60 hours a week at three adjunct gigs to make ends meet, but check out those critical thinking skills!
Simply put: if a graduate program is not teaching about the labor market's connection to the degree, it is unethical.
Should be an interesting semester.
To my tenure-track and tenured colleagues,
A lot has been written in response to Catherine Stukel's letter to the editor published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Is That Whining Adjunct Someone We Want Teaching Our Young?” I've been heartened to see so many write back in support of contingent professors everywhere, whether they are called TAs, GAs, adjuncts, temporary instructors, visiting lecturers, or the like. I found myself wishing that more of the responses were written by tenure-track or tenured professors, and then I remembered, oh yeah. Maybe I should speak up beyond retweeting.
I have been a TA and an adjunct, a freeway flyer and a “part-time” employee working 50 hours a week. (The only job I had that brought me less respect was public high school teacher.) In 2006, I landed a tenure-track job and am now a tenured assistant professor. While many of my colleagues throughout academia might see that mobility as a sign that I somehow proved myself more worthy than the legions of adjuncts from whence I came, I know the truth: I'm just lucky.
Don't misunderstand. I don't discount the hard work I have done to get here. Graduate school was a beast, and I got through it with a dissertation I am proud of. My scholarly record suggests that I've spent more than enough of my “free time” parked in a library or in front of my laptop. My teaching record demonstrates my dedication to my students and to the craft of educating. I'm collegial, shown not merely via my service on committees, but in my willingness to help colleagues however I may. I did all the right things to earn a tenure-track job. But here's what I own and too many tenure-track teachers willfully refuse to admit: my adjunct colleagues have worked just as hard. Many have much more impressive resumes than I. So why do I have this job, while they work for ¼ of my pay, often with no benefits? Luck. I was in the right place, at the right time, with the right set of qualifications. The hiring committee liked me. Significantly, the committee was populated by people who didn't hold my years of adjunct teaching against me, a phenomenon that still confounds me. I'm really good at what I do, but so are lots of people who the system of higher education treats as disposable.
That luck played a role in my employment is further buoyed by the fact that tenure-track jobs now make up a mere 25% of positions in higher education, something well explained by Marc Bousquet in his own response to Stukel. Here, some professors might take this as further proof of their own worthiness: I landed one of these rare positions, ergo I must be a cut above. Nonsense. Ok, you're smart; we get it. But one's employment status is simply not indicative of one's professional worth.
Consider, first, that adjuncts are often hired to teach more courses than permanent faculty, often general education courses that, in my opinion, are far more challenging to teach than upper-division courses. Think you're a good teacher? How much more would you have to up your game if you exchanged that 2/2 load for 4/4? Or 5/6? More more? Imagine teaching not seminars of majors, but lecture halls filled with freshmen. Your contingent colleagues regularly teach such loads, and often without the same institutional support you enjoy. Often without office space. Or printers. Or computers. Still think you're working harder?
Think your scholarship is impressive? Those adjuncts that want to get a tenure-track track job are also researching and publishing, just as you do. (Of course, not all share your dream of tenure—they just want decent pay and health benefits for working hard.) Keep in mind, of course, that they are doing this scholarship while also teaching the aforementioned heavy load of courses and without graduate assistants checking their work. That anyone gets anything published as an adjunct is a small miracle, given the constraints, but they do.
For every brilliant paper presented at a conference by a tenured professor, a brilliant idea is unshared by a contingent professor, unable to spare the time to explore it in writing, or the airfare to join you on the panel.
The only way I am able to reconcile working in a field that systematically abuses the majority of its workers is to dedicate my service and scholarship to addressing the problem of labor in higher ed. Too many lucky tenured, though, believe as Stuckel does, that they are special snowflakes. Or, they turn their eyes away, saying “I can't change it,” or “I need to focus on my students.” I call bullshit. We can change it, and improving the working conditions of all teachers is focusing on your students. The time for silence is over. In fact, there never was a time for silence. Become allies to your adjunct colleagues. Do something. Say something. Retweeting isn't enough.