Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ten Steps to Becoming an Adjunct Ally

As faculty continue with organizing efforts, it is more important than ever that tenured and full-time allies take action in support their colleagues and students as we struggle to take back our colleges from corporate mismanagement. It’s a commitment that takes real action as well as a gestalt, if you will, of consciousness regarding how the crisis is understood as something real, relevant, and urgent.

Such commitment also requires being honest with students about their options to secure a life where they will be able to afford to buy a house and raise a family, common life goals the majority of their professors may never be able to attain. Obviously, financial mobility is something higher education will not be able to provide unless we can biopsy the corporate element and return higher education to the public good. Here are some direct steps tenure-track and other full-time faculty can take to support adjunct faculty:

1.)    Stop advising us to quit our jobs.

It is critical that full-time faculty understand that giving adjuncts advice like, “Just leave and go do something else” or “You might need to move elsewhere” is both impractical and insulting. (Do people really say this? Just look at the comments section of any article about adjuncts in IHE or CHE. Or read this piece on retiring job-market platitudes.) Many of us are constantly applying and interviewing for other jobs. The problem is that alternative jobs are largely unavailable, and it turns out our skills are not as transferable as Career Services departments continue to claim. (If they told their students and former students the truth, after all, they too would learn what it means to be expendable.)

At the same time, two-tiered faculty have to be honest with each other: our institutions do not really want to lose their adjuncts. Who else will teach all these students? The adjuncts who are able to get out, like during the recent ACA cuts that reduced our salaries to less than $15K annually, often have other support or income, which is part of a larger debate regarding the post-academic "privilege divide" in general. For those of us without such assistance, we are not just figuratively but literally trapped in exploitive employment, so our only option is to create change from within. With all due respect, you can be part of this change or you can step aside. Either way, telling adjuncts to “Just hang in there” does little, if any, good.

2.)    Do not to talk down to your adjunct colleagues.

We adjuncts are not na├»ve. We understand human behavior indicates seeing the world through a lens of self-interest and self-preservation. We are all guilty of this if it can even be classified as such. We adjuncts do not expect our FTTT colleagues to drop everything, but we do need you to pick a side for the public record. Instead of just talking about the problem, or dissecting and expositing about it, we will need you to actually stand on the right side of history and organize with us in real time—right now. There will be plenty of time to dissect everything that happened later. Who knows, we might even end up with new schools of thought that we can pick apart in the future when we all have the opportunity to pursue our research interests. How about attending our chapter and union meetings? Or publicly helping adjunct faculty by, for instance, offering your upper-level majors course to an adjunct and taking an intro-level one instead?

I know that not everyone supports the idea of unionizing, but we wouldn’t be doing this if we had other options. We’ve been asking nicely for a long time and nothing has changed. Be, as Elizabeth Keenan wrote last fall, a tenured ally.

3.)    Stop correcting our tone and address content instead.

Being the tone and/or language police instead of taking direct action is like rubbing salt in the wounds we cannot afford to treat (because many of us have no healthcare). It’s a waste of time to criticize how we are making our grievances than to respond to the content of our concerns. We’re talking here about the professional livelihood of 70–75% of university faculty, not a critical writing exercise.

I know it’s more convenient to side with the administration and put the blame on us, or to say that our condition is a result of collective individual failures over systematic inadequacies. It’s much easier to fall back on platitudes or say “That’s just how it is,” but those who take that route might at least acknowledge they are doing so on purpose to avoid taking risks that might sabotage the illusion of stability from within a structure that is obviously growing more and more unstable.

4.)    Don’t confuse luck or fortune with merit-based accomplishment.

It makes no sense that 1.2 million professors trying to hold it together in our roles as teachers, social workers, hustlers, and desperate, triannual grovelers, are suffering from lack of decisiveness. We practically live on hope and determination, but the truth is we can’t hold it together much longer. This is why we are making the transition from educators to activists and labor organizers, because without a major intervention on behalf of all faculty and students, this ship is going down and its effect on the economy will be severe. University administrations are taking more and more steps to erode academic freedom and the security of tenure. We need to be on the same side. Now.

5.)    Be patient. Then, empathize.

Please understand that because the relative comfort tenure-track faculty, senior administrators, and student support (dis)services enjoy rests on the backs of adjunct faculty and our indebted students, it makes all those who benefit appear to be equally guilty—even if it can be argued that the arrangement is much more complicated. Of course we are going to be snappish and angry. You might, too, if you had to teach 6-7 courses per semester at three schools for insecure, poverty-level wages.

All differences aside, we will bury the hatchet when you take deliberate action to support our battle. This will require you to refuse to participate in our further exploitation and that you attend our chapter and union meetings. Also, use the job security tenure grants you to stand up to administration with us. If you think it’s scary for you, imagine doing so when you can be fired by email (or by lack of email). Consider what it’s like to sign-in to Banner at the end of every semester to enter grades only to see your employment status listed as “TERMINATED.”

6.)    Address the bigger problem as a whole.

It takes little to no formal education to realize that the current way of running higher education is unsustainable. Our federal government recently reported a gain of $41.3 billion in student loan profits. With students increasingly in default over these loans and with poverty-induced IBR plans requiring zero payments annually, it’s hard to understand how these "profits" are anything other than debt-laundering, which harkens back to the recent housing market crash that devastated our economy. Call it or don’t call it a bubble; it’s still bad news. Many of us adjunct professors who constitute the majority of teachers in academia are unable to pay our loans; those of us without family assistance can’t even afford food much of the time while we live in constant regenerative crisis. We either qualify under the IBR reduced payment program, or we have defaulted and are being chipped apart by invasive debt collection tactics and wage garnishment.

7.)    Speak out against corporate Higher Ed.

Look what’s on the horizon for us. I saw red when I learned of the national MoveED campaign backed by Lumina Foundation for Education (the nation’s leading administrator and private guarantor of education loans) to raise U.S. education rates to 60% by 2025. “The new network,” the news release states, “is focused on building a collaborative platform with thousands of partners to make attainment beyond high school America’s cause—especially for 21st Century Students which include: low-income students, students of color, first generation students and adult learners."

This would be great news if higher education were to be offered for free as it once was, but that’s not the plan.

Well, it looks like we’ll have an increase in job security after all, some FTTTs might think, maybe with more tenure-track lines opening up. Yet this is not so much the case from where I’m standing. If more of our tenured colleagues spent significant time in the classroom the fatal flaw in this campaign would be apparent: the majority of students do not want to be in the classroom. Learning still takes place, and we have plenty of meaningful discussions. Yet overall, students treat higher education like a job, the kind of job that you can’t wait to leave as soon as you get there, the kind of job where you try to get away with texting under the table for the better part of class and miss as many days as possible without penalty.

Students commence in grade-grubbing behavior because that behavior is rewarded on the corporate campus. Merit-based accomplishments are laughable in an environment of such extreme grade inflation, but adjunct professors are rewarded for this behavior and discarded if they refuse to play. We can stop participating as a means of protest. I’ve even thought about disavowing my former enthusiasm with MLA format, however pathetic that sounds, anything to throw a wrench in this machine that's going to run us all into the ground. 

8.)    Investigate your campus.

The most important holiday for the average college student on two- and four-year campuses is the day colleges release loan disbursements. When I was in school I lived for this day as well, but I was a bit more clueless in the sense that I thought I was investing in my future, in the glorious life of the mind, that I was on my way to building a rewarding career with education as a means of financial mobility, but I was wrong.

Also, ask around about how many adjunct faculty members your university employs. Meet some of them; take one or two to lunch. They have stories and experiences to share, and they need allies with (more) power.

9.)  Take direct action.

I invite you, tenured colleagues, to survey your students anonymously this week and see just how many of them believe financial mobility through education is still possible. Aside from an iota of faith, they don’t. They will repeat the slogans they gleaned from admissions counselors, pamphlets and recruitment personnel, but it’s empty rhetoric. They are attending school to get those checks every semester because it’s one of the only ways to survive, temporarily. Conceptually, students know that they will have to pay that money back, but it seems so far away, so unreal.

We know you care about your adjunct colleagues’ professional standing; we most hope you begin (or continue) taking these and other actions on behalf of our students and your colleagues off the tenure track. Tenure-track and other full-time faculty need to take this change in consumer consciousness from students seriously because we only have a limited time to act before the corporatized campus becomes an irreversible staple of American life, where education will become the byproduct instead of the goal, just like we learned of our precious Ph.D. and M.F.A. degrees. This crisis puts all of our jobs in jeopardy.

      10.)  Your move.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How the Adjunct Crisis Hurts Students and the Importance of Fighting Back

Another version of this post recently appeared on the Academe Blog.

Contract professors, commonly referred to as "adjuncts," are frequently told that basic necessities like a living wage and health care are not “in the budget” of the institutions that employ us, where we work full time hours as contingent, part time labor in a semester-to-semester purgatory state of what-ifs, often at multiple colleges with little to no control of our teaching schedules. We are the lowest paid, albeit terminally educated and skilled, employees at our institutions where we are treated like untouchables by virtually everyone on campus except our students who, until recently, had no idea we were teetering on the edge of financial ruin and emotional collapse. When we approach management about an increase in pay, a living wage, our intentions are questioned and we are accused of putting our own monetary needs above our chosen profession, teaching. At the same time, the people who are in it for the money—college presidents, upper administration, sports coaches—continue to earn raises like we collect white hairs while watching our students and our own children fall deeper into debt.

Tenure track and full time faculty speak of themselves as “we,” as in “we, the department”; contract professors, whether or not we are given the more dignified title of "lecturer," are the outsiders, the “you guys,” separate and inferior no matter how long we have worked at a particular campus or how many classes we teach. “Thanks for helping us out,” they say. “We appreciate your flexibility.” While I realize this internalized superiority is not necessarily a result of conscious intention, it is damaging nonetheless, especially because the "statusism" ideology is continually reinforced by the polarized working conditions of the two-tier faculty campus (see Jane Elliott’s Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes exercise). Although I consider myself lucky to have worked with many interesting and considerate colleagues in a variety of roles in my professional life, I would not be surprised if it were suddenly “in the budget” to build separate bathrooms for adjuncts; that’s how deranged the adjunct crisis has become, at great cost to our students and higher education.