Friday, April 3, 2015

Academic Parent: Some of Both, Not Winning at Either

Recently, I was hired full time.  In the past, I have worked full time and then some as an instructor at one school and then at two.  I know what it's like to run myself ragged.  However, in the past I always had at least one day off during the week.  Even the semester that I had six classes, I had Fridays off.  It made far more of a difference than I knew.  This is my first full term back with three children and I work all five days a week.  To say that I am exhausted would be a massive understatement.

Then the worst happened:  the child whose illness is mentioned in "No Rest for the Wicked, or an Academic Parent" got much sicker.  Very. Much.  Ever since we moved this child was unwell in some way.  Conjunctivitis, unhealed surgical wound, a cold, horrifically chapped lips.  It worsened:  low-grade fever, mild diarrhea, no eating.  Then, whatever was wrong doubled down frighteningly fast with high fevers that popped right back up as soon as the medication wore off, worsening diarrhea, and increased sleeping.

During this time we went to one ER twice, another once, had a follow-up procedure about the unhealed surgery wound from October, and he was cared for as much as possible by a mother who had raised another child to his late teens without killing him.  I wailed to my own mother, five hours away,  "I don't know what to do now. I don't know!" I was falling apart but surely she would know.

She had no answer.  That was the night of the second local ER visit.  I could feel that something was deeply awry with this child, already small, who was wasting away before me eyes.  He refused to sleep alone. I would pull clean pajamas on his bone-thin legs and arms.  I would rock him and snuggle him in the night hoping to pour my own strength into this small person who no one seemed to be able to fix.  He didn't even smell right.

It's at this point I should mention that my new place of employment chose to not give me health care though I am currently full time.  They like people to be full-time for two terms before giving that prize.  For this job we moved to a different county and though I'd made a million calls and spent at least 24 hours on hold, I still did not have everything transferred.  I kept trying to enroll the children in CHIP but something was blocking it.  I was tired.  I was worried.  And I was the mercy of the broke-ass American healthcare system.  With the assurance, finally, that this child was covered by the state, I found a pediatrician.  That man likely saved my three-year old's life.  He actually listened to what I said and he helped us.

Children's Hospital Fountain at Night
The Children's Hospital Fountain at night
In less than five hours we were en route to a different major hospital than we had been working with to this point.  There, after five very frightening days of testing, waiting, and watching that little person lie listlessly in a bed with IVs, monitors, and a feeding tube all hooked to him, we finally had an answer:  at the age of three, my child was diagnosed with Crohn's disease.  All of his life, unless a cure is found, he will deal with this.  As horrible as the diagnosis was, I felt relief.  I had a name for all these things that were wrecking him and it could be lived with.  When words like cancer are being quietly put out there as possibilities, Crohn's doesn't seem so terrible.  My father died of cancer and it is an ugly way to go.

Have you forgotten that I'm in a new job yet? For two of the long hospital trips previously, my Dean did approve leave for me.  However, for this visit we were in the hospital for more than a week.  Holy of holies, it was Spring Break.  What if it hadn't been? What then?

I can't answer that.  I don't want to.

We are settling into our new lives as a family of a child with a chronic illness.  I read about it.  I think about where all the bathrooms are if needed when we go out.  I know about medicine logs and keeping track of doses of things.  I think harder about what foods I will put on the table at the end of my day.  But then my life as an academic tugs at me:  What about those conferences? What about committee meetings that run late? What about research and publishing?

Those are the times that I want to scream and never stop.  I want to break all the things and set stuff on fire.  I can't be the best me there and the best me at home.  I can neither stop working nor count on help regularly at the needed levels at home. I know why so many women leave academia now.  No matter what we do and are capable of doing at our jobs, everyone expects us to also do the very best at home and with our children.  Well, it's too much.  I'm doing the best I can do.  Everyone is still alive and for now, I still have a job.  When that's my mantra to keep going, I worry about myself and all the others out there under conditions I can't even imagine.

It shouldn't be like this. It should not.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

National Adjunct Walkout Day

A on fire

lthough tomorrow, Wednesday, February 25th is officially National Adjunct Walkout Day, many folks are using this entire week to get the message across:  Without Adjuncts, Your Schools Cannot Function. Ideally, this day would shut most of higher education down, making clear the 75% reliance on contract workers that keeps the system lurching along.

I know that many adjunct and contract workers out there support this idea wholeheartedly but they cannot walk out.  Some of them have planned teach-ins, alternate activities that include viewing documentaries or hearing speakers on the adjunct issue, some will wear badges, maybe some will wear red.  There will be many who will outwardly do nothing at all.

Do not judge those adjuncts.  Every action, every word we speak against this crisis is taking a risk and some cannot afford to do that.  As the sole breadwinner for my family, I know what that feeling is like.  Speaking up and also fighting an abuse of contract has cost me work.  Activism is not without penalty.  That person who appears to be avoiding any contact with Walkout Activities may be deeply grateful for what is being done but they're too scared to say so.  I have received anonymous messages of similar content thanking me for what I do and say.  Some of these people have even said that they wish they could help.  That's okay.  I'm fighting for them as much as for myself and the rest of us.

Tomorrow many adjuncts will take a risk.  If you can, join them.  Look for events in your area.  An on-line search should produce results.

A better system for adjuncts is a better system for students.
Part-time work should be a choice, but it should not be the default position for academic jobs.
Together we can make something different.  Something better.
Join the adjuncts and work for the students.

Here's your A.  Wear it proudly.


Monday, February 16, 2015

When Everyone is Contingent, Then What?

winter windowI find myself in the strangest situations.  Recently, I was hired through a national search for a grant funded full-time position.  "Hurray!" say the readers of the blog.  Well, that's what I said, too, even though I knew that I would have to reapply for my position every year.  This situation was not unlike another full time temporary gig I held for many years.  Reapplying is nothing more than an another added annoyance to many adjuncts.  We do it so much that we're really good at it.  I'm not going to say that I never worry that I won't get rehired because that would be lying, but I'm reasonably assured that I do a great job and will likely be back.  At least, that was the case at my old, really well-paying gig before I became The Unarmed Education Mercenary and complained about what they did to us.

After signing and mailing my contract back, I found a place for my family to live, began forwarding mail and changing addresses on important things like car registrations and my driver's license, I got A Very Disturbing Email from my new boss.  This person was letting me know that the Dean-who-is-not-my-Dean (not the Dean who interviewed me and offered me this job) only wanted to allot 50% for my position in the new iteration of the grant.

Well then.

What did I want to do? Cancel the move.  Throw a giant, apocalyptic fit.  Burn things.

My friends said not to go.  Some of them were more colorful in their choices of words to reject the position they had just got done congratulating me for getting. On the whole, it was Not A Good Day.  My eldest child, whose life I just upended by announcing this move to another county said, "Well, we might as well go because I am NOT unpacking those boxes unless we take them to another house.  There's too much tape on them.  Besides, everyone already feels sorry for me for moving and it would be kind of weird if I didn't go."  Then there's the matter of my employment.  If we stayed I would have only one class at the lower paying school furthest away.  That wasn't enough to live on.  We could, I suppose, have gone on all the assistance programs because I'm sure we would've qualified.  At least at the new place, the income would be good for a semester.  Son the Eldest was correct:  it was time to jump.

So jump we did and in the middle of a winter storm.  It has snowed at least three times a week since then.  I work in a department with some of the best people who care deeply about the students they serve and guess what?  None of us are permanent.  Each one of us has to reapply for our jobs.  We are still expected to do service and scholarly work, and we do.  What we do not have is any kind of security in our lives.  Will our grants be refunded? Will we be the ones rehired? Can I find 50% more work to do on this campus now that I've dragged everyone here?  I would be lying if I said this is good for my morale.  I love it here.  I would gladly spend my career here serving the students of this school.  I can do good things here, and yet, every single day I worry about next fall.  And next spring.  And the semester after that.  This is what it is like when everyone is contingent and everyone is worried:  it is a major distraction.  Will we say or do something that will keep us from being renewed? Will someone more qualified than us apply and take away our jobs?

Is this any way to run an education system?

No.  No it isn't.  If anyone out there making decisions about education would first please ask the question "Is this best for the students and the students' learning conditions?" I wonder how that would change things.  What are we here to do in higher education? Do we even know anymore?

As for me, I'm here to serve the students and thereby make a living to provide for my family.

What about you?

Friday, January 30, 2015

Rocking the Economic Boats of Higher Education

In his essay "Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor, Poorer," Robert B. Reich discusses the changing composition of the American workforce, groups it into three categories--routine producers, in-person servers, and symbolic analysts--and describes their past and possibly future trajectories as three boats; the first two categories are falling and the third rising.  It is within this essay that he visits the decline of unions and the subsequent rise of executive salaries. These factors are not unrelated and I believe the second labor uprising in America may be the only way to overturn the boats of Reich's apt metaphor and construct a new and better way forward.

Reich reports the steady decline in union membership by young working men without college degrees from "more than 40%" in the 1950s to "less than 20%" by the end of the 1980s.  More recently, according to The Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the rate of union membership in 2013 was 11.3%.  This total includes workers regardless of gender while Reich's data is for males only.  However, even with the added boost of all workers counted the percentage still has fallen drastically.  Growing up as a child in West Virginia and listening to presentations about Mary Harris "Mother" Jones and the dramatic battles to unionize the coal fields, I never dreamed I would live to see these struggles rejoined.  Jobs disappear, salaries dwindle, and American workers either suffer from underpayment or unemployment.

Now we witness the corporatization of nearly every institution in America.  (For a multi-decade breakdown of the economic and political assault on American higher education, check out this fine post from The Homeless Adjunct:  "How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps.")  Instead of seeing college and university students as, well, students, they are being considered, marketed to and sometimes referred to as consumers.  Colleges and universities pay big bucks to develop a marketable "brand" that can be easily packaged and sold at recruitment fairs to the eager high school seniors and their families, as well as non-traditional students via on-line, streaming, and even television ads.  Higher education administrators schmooze like corporate CEOs.  Amenities get top billing along with sometimes faked diversity in mailers.  Where does education and the working conditions of faculty providing the educational product fall in the budget?  Where do the people who keep those glossy magazine spaces glowing and livable get allotted a place? I'm afraid we've fallen out of contention.  We are not, for the most part, trendy and ad-worthy.  We are, however, all key factors in why students stay.  The kind custodian who cleaned my freshman dorm floor had far more interaction with me and much more impact on my living conditions, checking on my friends and I, striking up conversations, than any administrator.  Plus she cleaned the toilets.  I do not mean that derogatorily.  She was a more highly visible face of the institution than a president I saw only at formal functions, photo ops, and in the school paper.  The professors who called me when I suddenly disappeared from class during a sudden and vile bout of flu didn't just teach me English and music history, but that I was a person who mattered to them.  Were any of us visible to those at the higher echelons other than as props to marketability and good PR when we achieved sports, artistic, or academic accolades worth headlines?

Reich returns to the history of industry and compensation:  "At midcentury, the compensation awarded to top executives and advisers of the largest of America's core corporations could not be grossly out of proportion to that of low-level production workers.  It would be unseemly for executives who engaged in highly visible rounds of bargaining with labor unions, and who routinely responded to government requests to moderate prices, to take home wages and benefits wildly in excess of what other Americans earned." While his essay is written specifically about industry, it can be applied also to higher education.  How many college and university presidents walk the halls and sidewalks of their campuses, getting to know the students, staff, and faculty who comprise their domain?  How many students would recognize their administrators?  These mythical folk seem to move in a sphere beyond the average campus citizen.  Once I received an invitation for the Homecoming Ball.  The ticket price was $100+ --I laughed and tossed it in the recycle bin.  Who sends their alumni and adjuncts mailers like that in this economy? One example of being completely out of touch.  When the people in charge have little to no idea of the day-to-day reality of those working for them, when they do not have to deal with all those groups face-to-face on a regular basis, these people, WE, become objects, mere factors in a budget to be treated as numbers to tug and arrange.  We cease to be people with lives, families, and futures.  This is what, I feel, Reich was getting at in the previous quote:  without a constant reminder of how a CEO's life and salary compares to and affects those under them, the distortion becomes not only possible, but highly likely.

Reich closes the essay with the following statement - "The salaries and benefits of America's top executives, and many of their advisers and consultants, have soared to what years before would have been unimaginable heights, even as those of other Americans have declined."  We now live this reality.
This chart, produced from a survey by The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources in 2012-13 shows the incredible MEDIAN amounts for administrative salaries in American higher education:  "Administrators in Higher Education Salaries."  The highest median salary, with a PhD is for a CEO with $431,575 per year.  While the Adjunct Project shows a wide range of salaries based on location and degree, the median per class is $2, 987.  Multiply this by the number of courses taught and it would take roughly ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR, that's 144, classes to equal the median pay of the highest administrator.  Four to five classes, if combined across schools is a lot of work for one term!  I taught six in the fall for two schools.  I have five now because some did not run and were cancelled.  To be slightly more realistic, approximately thirteen courses per year would give an adjunct a $40,000 income IF that adjunct could secure the median adjunct rate of $2,987.

This is where we have come to in most of American higher education.  Across the country, interest in unions surges among adjuncts.  We have no other recourse on our own. Alone we are expendable, vulnerable.  Together we can stand up to this tide of disparity.  We can begin the wave that upsets the boats.  We can create an alternative to the untenable future before us, and if we can do it, this can spread to other fields and professions.  We can create a new metaphor for work, perhaps a sustainable one that considers quality of life for everyone, not just those at the top.

Maxine Salary matters