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

Friday, January 23, 2015

Flipping Some Tables

A few weeks ago, I worked myself into a proper outraged adjunct state to sit down and write a blog post.  It would've been a good one, too, and I already had much of it mapped out in my head as I normally do before I ever sit down at the computer.  Then something happened that made my adjunct anger and the issues I was thinking about seem mightily insignificant:  Eric Garner's killer was not charged though the medical examiner ruled that choking caused that man's death.  This set off a wave of protests worldwide and brought attention back to the Ferguson protests that had never ceased, only slipped from the front pages.  The hashtags signifying #BlackLivesMatter and #HandsUpDontShoot blazed into the public consciousness.  Social media filled with shots of marches, die-ins, and public displays of many kinds by folks who could no longer bear in silence the state brutality against black people in America.  College and university students walked out and sounded off--this time no one needed to ask where America's youth were.

From my rural location I watched millions take to the streets.  Then the criticism began.  So very many people hurt and hurting.  I felt there was nothing for me to do.  I wondered about my students from fall who had needed time every class to speak about Mike Brown.  Would someone let them talk now?  Were they shouting yet?  I wanted to.  However, I became acutely aware of speaking FOR others instead of letting them speak.  I did not know what to say and so I simply said nothing here in this space until now.  I used my social media accounts to boost information for demonstrators, to provide facts and figures to rebut those determined to discredit the movement.  I stand with the people in the streets for this cause.  For my students.  For my friends.  For Black Lives.

So much seems wrong in America right now.  I watched citizens get tear-gassed with canisters made in the state where I live.  I saw a child gunned down by police in seconds as he played in a park with a toy.  I saw shooting victims denied care and left to die in the streets.  I saw passersby heckle the demonstrations and hurl hate at them verbally.  This has always been here in America, but now it is out in the open.  The question has become, "What then shall we do about it?"

Keane Badmin TableI say that all of us, activists especially, are called to stand together.  I do not mean that I want to take over any other cause, but that many of our causes are interrelated.  The Fight for 15 living wage crew, the Adjunct Activists, the Black Lives Matter movement, transgender rights, immigrant issues, the missing and murdered students in Mexico, the healthcare workers fighting for rights, the besieged public school teachers--all of these things are the causes of the people NOT the 1%.  We should be side by side.  Together is our strength.  I have seen it shut down the mighty bridges of New York City and the wide, busy highways of Southern California.  We live in a world where someone at Keane University thinks that buying a table for $219,000 for a select few administrative uses instead of spending money to hire permanent faculty (only 257 out of 1,472 are tenure track) or student support staff is perfectly fine.   We live in the world where most of our lives are disposable, with some, such as Black lives, being viewed as even less than others.  Those of us fighting all these separate fights, some of which intersect and compound the difficulties of involved individuals, need each other's support and care.  Together we can make something different, something better than we have ever had.

That is my New Year's challenge:  not to go back to some romanticized past, but to think in new ways and create new things that harm less and benefit more.  It will not be easy but it will be worth it in the end.  The power is with the people, if only we realize it in time.

If anyone gives demonstrators any grief over their revolutionary activities and asks them to calm down and only be peaceful, the following picture is more than useful.  Justified outrage has its place.

What Would Jesus Flip?

I say revive the practice. Maybe even start at Keane, but bring some friends because that one looks heavy.

Friday, November 14, 2014


 Rarely does a week go by now that I do not see an article or a tweet about another campus of adjuncts joining a union or organizing in some way to fight for a living wage.  Considering we are the bulk of higher education faculty and on the whole are not paid very well, that should not be a surprise.  However, what continues to surprise me are the reactions to adjunct organizing efforts by many tenure track faculty.  A few folks' reaction is to stand up for us, while others warn us.  Some want to silence us, and others avoid us and our efforts. Not all these responses are optimal.

Gold StarI did discuss some of these issues before in my post "Adjuncts, Assumptions, and Activism," but I think there are things worth reiterating.  First of all, I do know and have met some very strong tenure track adjunct allies.  These are people who not only talk and write on our behalf, but actively work on their own campuses and in higher education as a whole to assist adjuncts.  In fact, if you would like to join this group of friends and don't know where to start or what to do, check out ally Seth Kahn who just posted this entry on his Here Comes Trouble blog, that, while a direct response to a specific person, is also very good advice to anyone looking to get into the effective adjunct ally category.  Additionally, adjunct badass Miranda Merklein, over at the Fugitive Faculty blog posted "Ten Steps to Becoming an Adjunct Ally." I think that these readings are very helpful to those looking to get involved or step up their activist ally game.

Ally CookieNow, here are some words about allies in general.  Please, please do not go looking for what some like to call "ally cookies."  Basically, that is a reward expected to be given out by whatever group the self-professed ally has chosen to assist. Groups suffering from any type of disparity do not have time to be baking cookies and handing out accolades to allies.  Also, please do not presume to speak FOR the group, professing to know just how they feel or what their situation is like without actually consulting the group in question, especially if you yourself have not ever experienced the world in their way.  That Ally Spokespersona was an impetus for me to start this blog.  I was so damn tired of seeing posts about adjuncts and our situation by people who were not adjuncts and had never been!  When I complained to a friend about this, he said that an organizer suggested using any platform to draw attention to the cause was good.  I countered that letting people speak for themselves was better.  That being said, people are afraid.  Afraid to speak out and lose their jobs.  Afraid to get harassed by trolls.  Afraid to be shamed by the public for the truths they have revealed.  Thus, this blog was born.  Do I still worry about those things? Sometimes.  Especially right before I hit "Publish." So ask  yourself, Ally: "Am I speaking up on behalf appropriately by amplifying their side authentically or am I speaking when I should be making space for someone of that group to speak safely?"

Velvet RopesTenure track people, those solidly safe behind the velvet rope of tenure (perhaps not those still in their probationary period):  please use your positions to make a difference.  The more permanent people that teach, the larger the faculty percentage to stand up for teaching and learning.  Please speak up for those who are not able to do so, whether that is because they fear for their jobs or simply they are not invited to the meetings.  Those are good places to practice good allyship:  adjuncts might not be at the meetings, or they might be there but feel unwelcome to add to the conversations.  You could talk to some beforehand and agree to take their statements or concerns and read them at the meeting, keeping them anonymous, if need be.  You could petition to have adjuncts attend the meetings or be invited to workshops and trainings, if they are not.  Once, temporary faculty were excluded from the free lunch at faculty orientation day.  Only new tenure track people were allowed to eat on the President's dime.  Tenure track allies who helped plan the day were angry that we adjuncts were left out.  They found another group on campus who was sponsoring the day to provide us lunch.  That might seem like a small gesture, but it has stuck with me over the years.  One small step to erasing disparity may start an avalanche.

Police BadgeThen we have a few varieties of unhelpful vocalizers.  Recently, I was part of a successful adjunct unionizing effort.  Because of my open support, as well as my speaking and writing about the adjunct exploitation crisis, I catalogued some interesting encounters.  More than one permanent faculty member said to me, whilst sagely shaking their heads, "Oh, its a good idea, but it won't work.  We tried and couldn't do it.  They'll stop you, too. Be careful."  They didn't. We won.  Honestly, many of us had little to lose and very much to gain, therefore, we could not be frightened away from organization in large enough numbers to affect the vote.  These folks were not really against us and they weren't actively standing in our way, yet they weren't making it any easier either. This group belongs with the larger  demographic who would like to tone-police adjuncts:
    We aren't being careful.
    We are too angry.
    We are too whiny.
    We are too loud.
Stop this.  Stop telling adjuncts, or anyone experiencing some sort of adverse situation to express themselves in a way that makes you more comfortable.  Seriously, it isn't about you.  It isn't.  Let the person talk, cry, rant, or rave.  Maybe they have never gotten the chance to speak up.  Maybe their concerns deserve to be shouted.  I observed the other day that what I dubbed the Cult of Happiness is a real thing and its missionaries are relentless with their inspirational posts, verses, and maxims.  The true goal of this sect, I believe, is to prevent everyone everywhere from ever experiencing and expressing the full range of human emotions.  These folks have not only taken their Soma, they are pickled in it.  They will not stop until everyone is as blissfully happy and unaware of anything remotely upsetting.  These are the handmaidens of disaster.  They'll be throwing flowers at the the mushroom clouds.  Trust me.  The opposite of the Shh... Just be Happy Crew are the Shh...You're Giving Higher Ed a Bad Image Squad. They do not want to hear our critique, because quite frankly, they've got theirs and by golly, they deserve it more than we do.  Or something. Reasons.  These are the ones who will barge
Hashtaginto a discussion and shout "Not ALL tenure track people act this way"--thus the title of this piece.  On-line, just about any time someone makes a statement about how one group, as a whole, treats another, there is a vast rush by someone to be first to say Not ALL: men, white people, gamers, police, etc.  It's true. Log onto any social media site and watch.  It happens in real life, too.  Stop this.  Why are you defensive?  If you feel the urge to "Not ALL" anyone, use that as a cue to stop, think, and then refocus.  Stop yourself from saying those words.  Think about what you might do to NOT be one of those people.  Refocus your response in a positive way to assist the person or group that felt oppressed, offended, or demeaned--the appropriate response might be silence while really hearing, planning what you can do to make this bad thing never happen again in your presence, or even giving the less privileged group a way to safely present their side:  all without expecting to be rewarded at all.    

Ostrich PillowHowever, the most dangerous reaction is to act as though ignoring the adjunctification of higher education will make it go away, or at least make it not exist for you.  It is not going anywhere.  It is going to get worse if we do not collectively make a stand and stop this disease from taking over every inch of education.  Please stop hiding your heads under your desks, in books, or the very appropriately named Ostrich Pillow.  This position not only looks hilarious, but it directly supports the administrative directive to liquidate all protections, such as tenure, due process, or freedom of speech.  This is really one of those "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention" moments.  Kindly wake up and read those posts I linked to above.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

No Rest for the Wicked, or an Academic Parent

Are you tired? I am.  My accelerated course just ended.  Many of my colleagues are probably in midterms.  Another group of us who still hold out hope, or perhaps just out of habit, are also applying for the sparse crop of permanent jobs.  In the middle of all this, two of my children got sick.  The eldest threw up at school and I had to go get him.  Never mind that throwing up is something he has always done a lot, if a student upchucks at school, someone must go get that person.  That was my Wednesday morning.  Already my middle child, who is still a preschooler was feeling poorly.  Since both of those kiddos had a checkup scheduled for Thursday, I thought "Hey, we'll make it to that and get it all taken care of at once."

No.  No that was not to be.  Instead my Wednesday evening included a trip to the local ER and then one to the children's hospital in the city.  The preschooler was not well.  It was one of those things that happens.  It just happens. No reason.  No nothing the child did wrong.  No nothing we did wrong.  He just got very sick very fast.  We returned home again a little after 4 a.m. on Thursday.  Ever since then, I have been following a care routine that the child is not a fan of.  I have been giving him very sticky medicine that he is not a fan of.  For three days he seemed to be getting better, but then this evening, as I hoped to settle him in early for some rest, he complained of being too hot.  He was.  The nagging worry I have carried in my stomach over him for about a week chomped harder.  I took a temperature and sure enough it was elevated.  I checked the discharge instructions but it was, thankfully, not high enough to call the doctor.  Some Advil was given and I decided to stay up and check him every little bit.  So here I am up, writing some things and thinking.

Little ShoesHe's small.  I had forgotten really, how very small.  As I tailed the ambulance to the city I could see his car seat strapped to the stretcher with him on board.  I could not make out his little face nor his hair that's too long and needs to be cut but hasn't been because I need more hours in my day and another me to get him to the stylist that doesn't make him cry.  So very small in his greenish hospital gown lying on a big gurney-type bed in the examination room.  So small that we had come all that long way to specialists who could work on, sedate and employ the right tools for little folks.

I wanted to scoop him up and pour all the energy and light that I had left into him.  And even though I'm supposed to be the grown up and know that the hurt caused by the treatment would make him better, I wanted to hide him from their hands and instruments that were making him cry out in pain.  "MOMMY!"

And after it was over, I sat stroking his fluffy hair, watching him sleep the sleep of the drugged, I thought, "Oh my god, I have five papers left to grade and they're due Friday and I'm an adjunct and what if I don't get them done and they're at home and I'm not and who knows when I'll get back there?!" That is what ran through my mind.  I was fairly certain that the child would be fine.  I was waiting for him to awaken, and my work intruded.  Here I was, miles from home for who knew how long, and my grades were undone.  Accelerated term students need their grades quickly before the second round begins.  I doubted I could get an extension.  I wondered how that would make me look.  I wondered if it would cost me my job.  At a time when all I really should be able to focus on was my kids, I was worried if our emergency would be a problem.  Perhaps my employer would've been understanding, but I don't know, nor do I have any protection as of yet.  Just one more wobble as I walk the precarious line of adjunct faculty life.

Now, it's time to go check my small patient's temperature and hope it stays down.  We have another checkup scheduled Tuesday and I hope we can just go there without further adventures.  The oldest one is fine after the barfing.  The papers got graded and the final grades submitted.  As always.

This is how you eat the Adjunct Elephant:  one giant bite at a time.
Elephant Mom and Baby