Tuesday, November 26, 2013

In Defense of Professional Educators

A long time ago in a faraway land I went to a very fine undergraduate school that, though small, was known for its education department.  In addition to several methods courses I was required to take in each of my subject content areas, I also took a large schedule of professional education courses.  Foundations of Education introduced us to philosophers and major schools of thought that have influenced and continue to influence education today.  Education Psychology instructed us about work in psychology that could apply to education, instruction, and developmental levels/issues students may have.  Classroom Management, Reading in the Content Areas, Education of Exceptional and Diverse Students, and finally Curriculum and Instruction rounded out the requirements along with gradually more involved observation and teaching experiences in real classrooms.  I cannot even begin to jot down and catalogue all the information from those courses that I use every single time I plan a lesson or teach.  Much of it became habit over the years.  Sometimes I still dig out one of those textbooks to refer to or check my memory of concepts.

When I went to graduate school, very few pedagogical courses were offered in my program:  one for teachers of literature and one for teachers of composition.  I believe there were a few for English as Foreign Language instructors, but I was never able to fit those in because they were outside my program.  Okay, the composition courses I took were outside of my program, but I was already able to see that a literature professor would also be teaching a great deal of composition.  I felt that I should've taken a more in-depth course on students with special needs, but that too, being housed in another college, was an impossibility to arrange.  Coming from an English Education background, I did not see writing and literature as separate as did most of the people where I now found myself.  In fact, at least one of my professors openly scoffed at education majors, and as I got to know more people in my program--people who intended to teach--I was surprised how few of them had never taken any education courses, nor did they plan to take the few offered to us.  It seems that by virtue of taking higher level literature courses, all would be magically endowed with the properties of teaching and learning.  Anyone All But Dissertation must just know how to impart this knowledge they had gathered.

I disagree.  Teachers don't just happen.  Teachers are made.  Certainly some people have a knack, an inborn talent and drive to teach, but there are those who can be made stronger by learning about the art and science of teaching.  I'm tired of hearing educators in American continually run down by the media, and heck, just anyone who has a mouth.  Students are failing.  Blame teachers.  Never think to blame the unfair distribution of funding or the relentless gauntlet of useless tests teachers are forced to direct curriculum towards in order to keep administrators off their backs.  Lazy, overpaid teachers?  Just hire Teach for America folks.  Pittsburgh is attempting to do just that right now, despite having a large pool of qualified teaching candidates being turned out by the multitude of local colleges and universities.  Wouldn't local graduates be more invested in local students instead of people brought in for two years, then let go?  Since when did the PROFESSION of teaching cease to be recognized and become something that anyone can do?  Why is the public school teacher, who takes classes about the profession seen as less than the university professor?  I think that we've come to a sticky place in American education.  Either we value ALL teachers and the craft of teaching, or anyone can do it and it isn't worth more than the meager salaries most of us make.

If you're reading this and you never took one professional education course, yet you teach well, I applaud you.  I don't want to take anything from that accomplishment.  However, I do not want to hear any denigration of the ones who do take that route, because I am not here for that anymore.  Education courses are not useless.  Professionally trained teachers are not the nationwide scapegoats for education.  Are there bad teachers? Sure, just as there are bad mechanics, bad managers, bad singers, bad of everything.  Should programs change to reflect new developments in technology, pedagogy, and science? Certainly, and the best ones work to do so by staying up to date on the latest research.  Teaching is not a stagnant profession, but a vital and growing one of which I am still proud to be a part.

So have a nice holiday, all my American teachers, who likely at least have part of the week off this week.  A special thank you to all the Native American teachers.  Every day we should be thankful for this planet and its gifts.  We should be more than aware of this and we have not followed your example.
To my worldwide audience who may be winding up their terms, I wish you a delightful holiday between semesters.

Thank you all for reading my thoughts.  You'll never know how much that has helped me during this insane, two-school term that is nearly done.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Adjuncts Can't Even Rest in Peace

When I woke up this morning, I found that a friend of the blog tweeted me a link to a new article discussing recently deceased Duquesne adjunct instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko.  When I saw it was from Slate, I was excited to read it, for a good friend of mine had been interviewed for this article.  The person who sent the link did so with no initial commentary, so as soon as I had a chance, I read.  Actually, I was a little bit behind my travel schedule because I read the whole thing.  I wish I had waited until after work to read it, for I've been raging about this read the entire day.

L. V. Anderson's "Death of a Professor" is a sad, sorry excuse to drag down a rally point for adjuncts nationwide.  Blunt enough?  Let me continue.  This is not simply a rant by someone too close to the issue.  I know what a rant is, by the way, I taught about them in one class this morning and was only prevented from making one about this very subject by the fact that I was getting observed.  While the last paragraphs lament the plight of adjuncts and their treatment by universities even calling for change, I cannot forgive all that comes before those lines. First of all, Anderson misspells Margaret Mary's last name several times:  it's Vojtko, not Vojkto.  Basic reporting: get the names correct.  Especially if one is attempting to tear down the martyr of the contingent working poor who also write.

The article begins with a recap of the main points regarding her death and the subsequent publication of Daniel Kovalik's article that brought intense scrutiny to not only this case, but the wider treatment of adjunct faculty nationwide, perhaps worldwide.  Kovalik's position as senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers is mentioned, as it almost always is.  I should have known which direction this was going from that moment on, but I kept reading.

Next, the viral history of Kovalik's article, the Twitter hashtag it inspired (#IAmMargaretMary), and several related blogs and articles that took up the cause are mentioned.  The article even tips its hat to the unfairness of the conditions under which she lived and died:  the conditions of the working poor in America.  Oh, but then Anderson writes "But was that true?'  This seems to imply that we have all been--gasp--lied to about Margaret Mary VOJTKO.  Still I read.  What were these new truths?

It seems that the TRUTH about Margaret Mary Vojtko is that she grew up in the Pittsburgh area in a staunchly union family.   She considered becoming a nun but after taking a job at her father's suggestion so that she could make a more informed decision, she did not join a convent.  Cousin Gerald Chinchar is quoted as saying she "had too much of an independent streak."  Now, here's where my alarm bells started to ring, not because of her cousin's words, but the way in which they were likely to be used.  An independent woman?! In the 1940s?!  This is followed by her romantic history that includes at least two men who she fell for but never married.  Then we learn that after her father's death she pursued more degrees:  French, Latin, medieval studies and even an RN were all areas of expertise.  Ah, I see it now:  independent, educated, unmarried woman who also decided against taking religious vows that could have provided for her.  Well, well.

Finally, Vojtko arrives at Duquesne, fluent in five languages and able to play violin, among other things.  She teaches "French for Research" and language classes for undergrads.  Though Anderson admits Vojtko took her teaching seriously and that some students doted on her, keeping in touch after leaving her courses, it must be pointed out that she does not use the computer well and eschews technological course instructional programs.  How dare she reject corporate course management systems universities have plunked down big bucks for?! What kind of Luddite are we dealing with here?  How in the world did any of us ever get by without them?  (I must admit I only learned to use BlackBoard this year because my new school relies on it.  Many of my students express frustration levels with it as well, and they're not a quarter her age.)  The digs keep piling up.

Margaret Mary with ScarfThen we learn that Margaret Mary Vojtko even had a passion for history, particularly union history relating to her background and volunteered with the Homestead Historical Society.  Yet this, too, is not left unproblematized:  we are told she was a hoarder and obsessive over artifacts.  Yes, her house and the one next door that her deceased brother purchased are full of items.  Has this author met any academics?  I don't know any without some oddities, myself included.  Personally, I find hoarding to be one of those things I can easily forgive, unless it involves animals.  I come from a family who couldn't throw out something unless it was absolutely broken or completely wrecked without a struggle or at least a long conversation.  We're from the country.  We have sheds and barns full of stuff because...  Well, because someone might need it and then we wouldn't have to buy it, just dig it out.  We weren't raised to be throwaway people, as I'm sure the Vojtko children weren't.  Can this be taken too far?  Yes.  Is it a mental condition?  I think so, but it doesn't make her less human or less deserving of her place in this story of the adjunct uprising.  However, Anderson still isn't finished airing  83 years of dirty laundry.

Apparently, another great secret that we have all been snowed about is that Margaret Mary Vojtko never ever finished her dissertation!  What?! Maybe she had more sense than some of us, would be my initial response to that.  Is this lack of a terminal degree supposed to make her LESS in my eyes, or make her unfit to serve as a rallying cry for the cause of contingent faculty?  Maybe to people who think that a PhD makes them better than everyone else.  I have one and I'm still an adjunct.  Lots of people are.  Lots of people have MAs or MFAs.  So what?  The adjunct life is rarely any kinder to the doctoral degree holder than those without.  In fact, at a beginning of the year meeting at one of my schools, a colleague joked with me that he never had managed to get his PhD, so he couldn't really expect more than bouncing between schools.  I told him the degree was no guarantee anyway, since I had one.  He was surprised.  Do I feel less inclined to care about Margaret Mary's life and death because of any of this? No, because none of it matters one damn bit in the end.

At the end of her life, as family members died and others disappointed her, she because more reclusive. Then Anderson claims that the Duquesne community did not abandon her.  What they did do was offer her charity.  Charity in a country that despises the poor.  Charity to a woman from a strong union background who had worked all her adult life, who was intelligent, and independent.  I know these women.  I come from a family like that.  Having to sign my children up for state medical insurance is humiliating to me.  I'm not a freeloader.  Margaret Mary Vojtko was NOT a freeloader.  If this article's purpose was to tear a woman down from a pedestal, it has not fulfilled its purpose.  For me it has placed her further ahead of us.  Margaret Mary is up there in the distance beckoning.  She waves a union sign.  She carries a beloved book.  She demands that we keep fighting for the living wage that ALL workers deserve, inside higher education and out.  The truth of her life is no less than, no greater than, no more valuable than any of our own.  Anyone who thinks that casting aspersions on the character of a deceased woman expiates even some of the guilt of the contemporary corporate university does not truly understand what we are fighting against because they are only standing in our way providing excuses for those in positions of power.  This is what we are up against.

For those whose lives challenge the status quo there is no resting in peace.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

It's All in the Way it's Framed

Contingent Framed
Framed  by me
Recently, I have been thinking about the way colleges and universities market themselves to prospective students and their parents.  It seems that it should be getting difficult to hide the ever-growing number of poorly compensated adjuncts from enquiring minds who want to know what their money will be purchasing for their student.  If we are indeed 75% of faculty nationwide, why has this recent upsurge in publicity regarding the adjunct crisis come as such a shock to the general public?

It seems that, despite our numbers, we are easy to hide.  Adjunct: a veritable palimpsest scraped out and carefully penned over by slick phrases such as, "95% of our courses are taught by PhDs," which obscures that many adjuncts also hold terminal degrees.  "Classes led by instructors with real world experience in their fields," which is a polite way of saying there are some people who teach and perhaps also were successful in a business world not this school.  That particular slogan conjures business and technical fields for me more so than humanities or even the arts.  It gives a school a nice corporate shellacking fit for consumption!  "Our student to faculty ratio is 15 to 1," which is a superb classroom situation if one can find it, but it does not say anything about the status of the one at all.  Indeed it is quite easy to lie while telling the truth when it comes to adjuncts.

I advise anyone going into post-secondary education, whether as a student or the parent/guardian of one, to ask some difficult questions at orientations and recruitment functions.  Without direct examination, the plight of adjuncts and the quality of the education they are able to produce--sometimes against great odds--will remain hidden in plain sight.  What if a room full of prospective students at every event asked
    1.  What percentage of first year and introductory courses are taught by contingent faculty?
    2.  Are those adjuncts full time with benefits?
    3.  What is the salary per class for adjuncts?
    4.  How much do the top three administrators make each year?
    5.  How much of my tuition goes to paying my professors, who directly control my education?

Would this change the visibility and status of adjuncts on campuses nationwide?  I think so.  Money talks in the form of decreased enrollments for schools unwilling to provide disclosure and a living wage for their faculty.  With higher education costs rising, students may look elsewhere for a school that values adjuncts, and thus their education more dearly than the salaries of the burgeoning administrative class.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why Aren't You on the Schedule?!

There is the post I began writing, and then there is this one.  I fully admit that I censored myself this time because, during a meeting at one of my schools, another blogger who writes about adjunct issues was named and had her employment status exposed to the full meeting.  How dare she criticize the treatment of adjuncts! Never mind that she does not work at that school, she still was named and a personal detail about her revealed.  I've been thinking about that brief moment more lately, yet here I am still writing.

It's that time of year when students scramble to get classes for next term.  At one place I am already in the system because my contract was full-year.  At the other, I was not since the contract was term by term unless their scheduling system was updated recently.  I know because my students asked me, "Why aren't you on the schedule?"  I've gotten this question before.  A lot.  Writing is a sequential subject at many schools with students required to take at least Composition I & II, whatever that place happens to label them.  When students have a successful semester of writing and want to continue in the same way, it is natural for them to seek out the same professor.  Likewise, if the teaching style did not match the students' learning styles, they necessarily look for a different person.  When a good portion of the sections in required courses do not visibly belong to anyone, it makes planning difficult.  It also sends a message to the students that these important required classes are at the bottom of the heap to be staffed:  Instructors TBA and STAFF are very busy, if scheduling systems can be trusted.  These must be incredibly talented folks to teach so very many sections in so very many general studies fields!

Professor TBA

When students ask me why I'm  not on the schedule, I tell them.  I've been doing this since they started asking me when I began teaching at the post-secondary level.  I do not use class time to speak on it because part of me is pretty sure that could be held against me.  However, these conversations often occur before class starts since I'm usually in the room early getting things set up, or afterwards when I hang around to answer questions and close up the electronics.  I explain that as non-permanent faculty I cannot expect to have certain sections or types of courses:  I must teach what, if any, things I am assigned.  Common responses include "But why aren't you full time?" and "You're the only professor I've had all semester that knew our names!"  Could they just be flattering me? Maybe.  If it didn't happen every time my name is not posted due to my nefarious status and relegation to TBA/STAFF, I would buy that.  If the students are in my major they often ask will I have something beyond the general studies level.  No.  No I will not.  Adjuncts aren't likely to get courses that full-timers often fight over teaching.

I don't preach on the situation but I give them direct answers regarding the status of adjunct faculty.  I remind them that the stereotype of the wealthy professor living in a beautiful home taking summers to travel abroad and write is, on the whole, fiction for most people whether at the temporary or new faculty level.  I don't begrudge those teachers higher on the totem pole their salaries, based on years of experience, research, and publications, but I am appalled at the walls preventing many of us from moving out of the academic gutter onto the sidewalk that leads to the gates of the comfortable.  I don't find the ivory tower image fitting for 21st century academia; I prefer more students and instructors from all walks of life to have access to higher education.  However, if the students are going to still be charged what are now exorbitant sums, the people teaching them deserve a living wage to provide that education.  Continually showing them that the foundational and general studies courses that comprise much of their first two years are, for the most part, only fit to be staffed by the itinerant faculty doesn't send the message that the classes are worth attending or caring about as much as higher level majors courses.  No wonder the general public's perception of higher education is that much of it is a waste of time hindering the student from becoming the wage-earning, highly trained worker! This is the current way it is presented for too many colleges and universities across the United States.  The value of foundational knowledge linked with predominantly adjunct faculty belies the importance of one and the true skill and worth of the other.