Friday, September 5, 2014

Form-ing Dissent




At any time when a group starts to make enough noise and get enough attention for their cause, someone vocal will arise to oppose and deride them.  Adjuncts have been making lots of good noise, getting press from many sources, and generally raising awareness of the plight of approximately 76% of faculty in the United States.  It is not surprising, then, that this past week--the week preceding Labor Day, no less--I reeled in a nice big clownfish on another platform and we saw the publication of a particularly odious anti-adjunct piece.

It may come as a surprise to readers, and even some adjuncts, that many of us do have a community of comrades.  With all the social media platforms, this is easy to do.  In fact it is almost essential for some of us, who need community to work smarter, commiserate, and celebrate with, just as any worker would.  While many adjuncts lack offices and communities at their schools because they either are not granted the courtesy of office space or they cannot use any given space since they must run to another school, these communities exist nonetheless.  It was in one such community, discussing all the things adjuncts do that are not really covered by our pay and the hours allotted on our contracts that someone suggested we itemize these essential-to-higher-education tasks.  Important things, such as letters of recommendation for students, office hours, answering and composing email, and attending meetings, for example.  Jokingly, I said someone should humor me with a form for this.

Since I had some time and needed the laugh, I made a very rough draft.  This was much improved and beautified by Bri Bolin.  It was an instant Twitter hit and even I was surprised at its popularity;  to date it has 92 retweets and 99 favorites.  All afternoon and into the evening folks enjoyed and shared it.  Invariably, it made someone unhappy:  I was admonished that we adjuncts should just be glad with what we were getting because submitting this would cost us our jobs.

Yes, someone thought that we were plotting a nationwide paperwork-based rebellion.  Would that that were true.  Into my microcosm of adjunct-land otherwise known as my twitter feed came a presence to speak to me of my folly.  As other adjuncts could not resist chiming in, we were all told that if we had skills and diligence, we would find a place in the world of work that valued us.  We were also told that teachers in Tanzania have it much worse.  I have no doubt that many places in the world have terrible conditions, but I wasn't talking about them.  I was talking about right here in the US of A!  It isn't as though there are not plenty of classes to be taught; it isn't as if upper level administrators aren't raking in six figures at many schools; it isn't as though the administrative class hasn't grown exponentially in the past 20 years.  I was addressing a specific disparity in the country where I live and work.  I'm actually surprised I didn't get told to move if I wasn't happy because that's another nice piece of advice anyone who ever disagrees about anything in the country is given.

Later, an entirely awful article was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Note that I am providing a link via a nice service called donotlink because it will not up the page count of whatever odious article a person would like to share.  I am not going to deconstruct this article here because enough people already have, and there is no more I can say that wouldn't involve angry swearing:  Amy Lynch-Biniek's "Dear Tenured Faculty:  Retweeting Isn't Enough"; Seth Kahn's "Yeah, but..." which builds on Lynch-Biniek's piece; Marc Bosquet's "Offensive Letter Justifies Oppressive System that Hurts Both Faculty and Students", hilariously published in the same venue as the original; Andrew Robinson's "The Big Boy Boxer Shorts"; and finally Nathaniel Oliver's masterful takedown "Grading Stukel." The short of it is that a tenure track person thought it was necessary to state that adjuncts asking for a living wage and benefits were "whining" and furthermore, if we had only worked as hard as this author had, we would not have this problem.  Because we are whiners and not willing to face the facts that not everyone lands their dream job, among other sins, we had no business teaching students.  Additionally, the author chose to drag Margaret Mary Vojtko just days before the anniversary of her death actually saying that this dead woman should've put on "her big girl panties," which I'm certain would have definitely helped her beat both cancer and the lack of decent pay.  Arg.  Macrocosm.  This article, published in a major higher education venue, received many views and even comments agreeing with the author, though I am starting to believe all these folks who rail against every pro-adjunct piece and support the anti ones are either Badmin, Badmin Handmaidens (my term for anyone who aids and abets badmin), or spooked tenure track faculty who still don't get it.

So, adjuncts, the detractors will say work harder:  bootstraps; don't whine:  i.e. ask for fair compensation for services provided; remember it could be worse:  Tanzania, I am told (my apologies to Tanzania); and meritocracy:  your skills will save you in the end.

More realistically:  organize with colleagues or even a union, if you can.  The bloated administrative beast that is American higher education cannot grind on without us.  We can stop this.  Look at the fast food and home health workers!  The criticisms leveled at them are the same directed at us.  Many of them also work multiple jobs with disastrous results, such as the recent death of Maria Fernandes.  Are we ready to take to the streets and face down our critics?  Are we ready to be that brave or does our tenuous tie to white collar, aspiring to the middle class mentality being a college teacher confers constrain us?  We have the majority.  If we all walk out, we bring the juggernaut of corporate higher education to a halt.  Think about the form above.  How much work have you done and for how many years that has been basically volunteer labor for the academy?  Isn't it time we were properly compensated? Isn't it time that every worker was?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Adjunct Architecture

For most of my adjunct colleagues, school has either already begun or will do so in the next few days.  I would like to sincerely wish everyone the best of luck:  may your classes fill and run, may they not be stolen by anyone, may your commutes be traffic-free, and may your vehicles/bus passes stay running and valid.  If I could wave a wand and make all those things so, it is the very least I would do for the battalions of adjuncts returning to service.  In a session at the recent COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) conference in New York City, adjuncts were labeled "Pillars of the University."  This is the truth.  With some estimates of our numbers nationwide at 76% of faculty, indeed the superstructure of the corporate higher education cannot stand without us.

Columns exist all over the world in buildings that have stood for hundreds of years.  Some are plain looking, some are fluted, some are inscribed.  Some, like the ones in this picture, have grime from years of exposure to the elements, they have fissures, they are in the shadows, but still they stand.  Adjuncts, this is an appropriate metaphor for many of us.  I feel this even more keenly than I did last year.

I no longer work for what I referred to here on this blog as School One.  This week, as the students return to my town, I feel left out of that energy for the first time in four years.  I feel it.  I have to drive past the school nearly every time I go out because it dominates the landscape.  At School Two I have one class this term.  This was not retaliation for anything, but it was a choice I was forced to make.  Without the larger salary from School One, I could not afford the childcare, gas, bus, and other expenses of a 120+ mile round trip commute twice a week.  I could not afford to work.  I kept one weekend class because my family can handle the childcare, saving that money.  This is simply to keep my foot in the teaching door, and, in a sense, to keep my sanity.  I'm one of those cracked pillars.  I have been caught in my calling.

So that is where Year Two of being The Unarmed Education Mercenary begins:  one class and they are already mine.  I am a pillar.  I am still standing.  I am still working to get adjuncts doing the important work of teaching the nation's students more reward for their mostly underpaid labor.  Join the battle.  Stand with the Pillars.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Signal Boost: Petition to Investigate Higher Ed Labor Practices RE: Contingent Faculty

The Unarmed Education Mercenary has been taking it easy lately, trying to get well and spending some time with the family.  Soon the day will come to make decisions and construct syllabi, but the adjunct battle never ceases, thus I am here to bring an important petition to the attention of any readers who might have missed it on social media this week.

Several adjunct activists and allies from across the country composed this petition to David Weil, Director of the Wage and Hour Division at the US Department of Labor, to open an inquiry into the use and abuse of contingent and non-tenure track instructors by colleges and universities nationwide. Titled "Open an Investigation into the Labor Practices of our Colleges and Universities in the Employment of Contingent Faculty," it quickly reached its original goal of 500 signatures, which was raised to 1,000.  That mark, too, was surpassed in less than 24 hours and signatures continue to be added.

Already two articles highlighting the petition exist.  Inside Higher Education's "Adjuncts Urge Labor Dept. Inquiry into Working Conditions" from July 16th gives a brief look, but Justin Peligri's article for USA Today, "Underpaid and Overworked:  Adjunct Professors Share their Stories," goes further.  In this July 17th piece Peligri interviews two of the petition's authors, Joseph Fruscione and Ann Kottner, as well as three students who have been taught by adjunct professors.

Please read the articles and especially the petition.  Sign and share.  Let's see how many signatures that we can get.  The adjunct crisis will only be solved with action.  The more publicity we can garner, the more light we can throw on the situation, the better our chances become.  Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions, thus the exploitation of adjunct labor is a cause for faculty, students, parents, and anyone who cares about the state of higher education in America.

Thanks everyone!  Even at rest, I'm ready to rejoin the fray!


UPDATE 12:37 pm 7/18:  Petition co-author and blogger Joe Fruscione provides an update on the signature count as well as more insight into what the authors and signers hope to accomplish in "That Petition You've Been Hearing so Much About."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

One Year of Adjuncting

Last summer I began this blog upon receiving the "Good News," which was the email subject line, that my hours at my formerly full-time temporary faculty position were to be cut.  It was late in the summer to be looking for piecemeal work, but I managed to find some classes over 60 miles away, thanks to a friend.  It was either that or find a cheaper rental place for my family in a town that has neither loads of safe, cheaper rental places for families or other teaching jobs.  Though I truly had been an adjunct all those years of full-time work, I had not ever considered myself one until that moment I took on two schools.  I was wrong.  I was always disposable to the system.  Now I was to find out just how precariously many of the nation's 76% of higher education faculty truly do live.

I started the fall term with an abundance of optimism -- really what choice did I have?  I could either teach six composition classes for two schools or children would not eat and bills would not be paid.  An added bonus was that the fall breaks for both schools lined up, giving me real and much needed rests.  For the most part, the fall was okay if not absolutely maddening in the amount of work that I did.  It was during this never-ending onslaught of grading that I became more involved with adjunct activism, and it was quite likely that involvement that kept me from losing my mind entirely.  Even the sometimes two hour plus commute--of which it sometimes took over an hour to go about three miles--gave me time to think, plan, and compose in my head.  My smartphone became my best work tool, giving me a place to take notes down on the fly, check all of my email accounts, do research, keep track of my to-do lists, and about four million other things that would have been impossible even six years ago.  Without constant access to my files and the internet, my work would have been twice as difficult.

Then winter came.  On the last Tuesday of fall term I fell on the ice outside my house as I took off to walk to School One.  I fell straight down.  This resulted in the destruction of my trusty old laptop that was in my backpack on that day and, worse, I injured my hip joints and continue to limp even now.  This was the beginning of the no-insurance-health-meltdown.  Though I only missed one class all Fall term due to illness, the Spring term was disastrous.  It should be noted that School Two provides no real sick leave.

Any of my US readers know that this past winter was utterly deplorable.  Once I cancelled classes on my commute day for a complete whiteout.  Once I cancelled it for an ice storm that left roads impassable.  A third time, when I was within an hour of my destination, a large truckload tiedown hook was launched from the road and through my radiator.  Luckily, I'd kept my AAA membership and my vehicle insurance covered almost all the costs.  If I hadn't had these safety nets, I likely would not have been able to get home that day or to afford the repairs.  Despite any other scrimping and saving an adjunct must do, from experience if I'm going to drive anywhere for this job, those two things are worth every penny to have.

In February, my smaller son brought home a cold from daycare.  After a week of coughing on me, I became ill.  This was no minor cold when set loose in my system.  For two weeks it raged and then, just as I began to feel better, some upper respiratory flu attacked me.  All of February and March were miserable.  I coughed so hard I either cracked a rib or pulled something important in my side.  Sleep?  Not lying down.  So here I was, dragging about two schools separated by 60+ miles, limping, coughing, and teaching.  I traded my trusty backpack for a small wheeled bag marketed as a mobile office.  Another good investment.  This bag even has a padded pocket for my new-to-me laptop that should protect it better than the sleeve did and I wouldn't be as much at risk for dropping it from on high.  The only drawback is that when I ride the bus downtown to School Two (parking is so expensive it is more cost efficient for me to park on my friends' street for free and take the bus), it can be a pain to heft it up the step and then keep it out of everyone's way.  However, I can take all the things I need, as well as heavy textbooks and papers, more easily than before all without hurting myself.

For most of February, March, and April, while the weather in my area was less than optimal--snow, ice, whiteouts, more snow, freezing cold temperatures--I coughed and snuffled my way through the five  classes.  My spring breaks did not line up, but this at least provided two "easy" weeks; therefore, I only had to work at one school each week.  I thought that I would get some insurance help straightened out during this time, but instead I got much sicker and spent the off days of the one week in bed and then the off days of the break two weeks later trying desperately to stay awake long enough to grade the monster stack of writing that accumulated during the worst of the illness.  There were things students needed back in order to continue, so those were prioritized.  I took the honesty approach with the students.  They already knew I taught at two schools because I made that clear from the start of term as part of my introduction, and they knew I was very ill.  I promised work would be back when needed.  I offered extended rewrite deadlines.  I used email services routed to my smartphone to keep up with everyone, having instructed them that was the best way to reach me and get quicker answers to any questions or any needed help.  The students also suffered with the wretched sickness at both campuses.  The weather and flu took their tolls on us all.  Somehow we made it to the end.

By the end of April for one school and the middle of May for the other, we completed the spring term.  Students wrote some great things.  Some of their reflective portfolio letters were fabulously specific in the things they learned and how they would apply them in other classes and writings.  I did not lose too many from my rosters and most of those were folks who withdrew from the universities fully early in the term.  I did lose a few more in one of my developmental classes than I would like, but that is not uncommon. I cannot help but think that if I only worked at that one school I would have had more opportunity to chase them down and keep them in the course.  Teaching developmental sections takes more care, more effort, to retain students who struggle for a various intersection of reasons.  They are courses I've been entrusted with in the past, just never as a two-school adjunct.  That isn't doing the best for the students.

So now it is June.  I have finally stopped coughing.  I do not always feel very good.  I still have trouble with my left hip.  I am in a battle with assistance agencies over medical, food, and income help as I enter summer with no work.  I've been applying to jobs inside and outside academia.  Would I do this two school adjunct thing again?  I would really prefer not to, but it may once again be the only option available.  My position at School One, the original job that I had and the one that paid the best is now gone.  All of the adjuncts in my department there were replaced with graduate students.  Fifteen folks lost their jobs.  The other adjunct options in this area pay far less and are term-to-term contracts whereas this one at least provided an entire academic year's guaranteed amount of pay.  Losing this is the next level down:  term by term work only.

This is one year as a two-school adjunct in short.  It does not address the good things:  the fun of classes; the great things students said, created, and wrote; and working with other adjuncts to organize, unionize, and draw attention to the cause.  This is my truth of one year.  This is the state of American higher education for many of the 76% of adjuncts teaching at our colleges and universities.