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.
Missed a day already. Forming a new habit is tricky. Try, try again.
I've been writing, writing, writing a lot nevertheless, mostly syllabi for my classes, those good faith statements of intent we share each semester.
I have spoken about this issue before in conferences and such, but it struck me this morning, especially, as I pasted in my standard policy on plagiarism, just how much of our syllabi are, in fact, plagiarized. Boilerplate language required from the college; course description cribbed from the official one; bits borrowed from colleagues who said it better than I....I wonder if I can, at this point, correctly identify what language is 100% my own, which paraphrased, which stolen (often with permission, but still). I'm not alone in this: stitching together syllabi in this way is standard practice for teachers.
Let me remember this when I discuss attribution and plagiarism with students. We composition teachers sometime make the error of discussing standards of plagiarism in monolithic terms, when in truth they are contextual. I think tomorrow (maybe a good way to procrastinate my other work) I will annotate one of my syllabi, note what is mine, what is not, and attribute where I can. Might be revealing.
I've been debating for sometime what to do with this blog space. I used to write on a blog with my dear colleague, Mysti Rudd, a weird side-by-side writing space we called Mirror Prose, swallowed up by a server accident. Before that, long before that, in the wild first days of Web 2.0, I had a Live Journal. Just did a search and was pleasantly surprised to find that site still exists, though my corner of it has met oblivion. I haven't kept a blog up in some time time, though.
Today, none other than the wild-bearded, brilliant Warren Ellis inspired me to begin again. I subscribe to his newsletter (and if you enjoy the weird ramblings of the uber-creative, you should too). In it, he frequently posts to his own blog-like-thing, Morning, Computer. He makes himself write a bit each morning, freestyle. Today, reading it reminded me that my little Live Journal was called "Never a Day Without a Line."
So, while I'd love to eventually makes this space dedicated to a specific purpose, be organized and professional and impressive, in the meantime, it'll be my own version of Mr. Ellis's experiment: Morning, Laptop. I'm just going to write a bit each morning, over my bowl of coffee. We'll see where it leads me.