Burn It Down: The Lonely Death of American Higher Education, Part 1

Today I give you Part 1 of a dual guest post. It’s the brainchild of former adjunct-turned-dean and current activist, Robert Craig Baum. He and a friend/former colleague–who wants to be known here as Nikolai Adjunctski–wanted to share some of their stories and experiences. They’ve given us a clever & funny kind of creative interview.

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Baum/Adjunctski will give us…strong opinions about the current state of higher education. Happy reading, and stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.


Nikolai Adjunctski was an adjunct from 1997-2010 in the Twin Cities; his anonymity needs to be respected as he is involved in a class-action labor suit against one of his institutions. Adjunctski holds a doctorate from both American and European universities and will soon publish the Anonymous and The Coming Insurrection, which inspired “Burn It Down: The Lonely Death of American Higher Education.” Robert Craig Baum, better known as Migrant Intellectual and FancyNewDean has been ordered by the Board of Trustees to shut down Lebanon College in Lebanon, NH, where he served six months as Dean of Academics. He is the author of the legendary Itself as well as the forthcoming Thoughtrave: An Interdimensional Conversation with Lady Gaga and What Remains (On the Life-Giving Dasein of Suicide), all on Atropos Press (Brooklyn and Dresden). Baum holds his PhD in Philosophy and Integrated Liberal Arts from the European Graduate School, MALS in American Studies and Literary Theory from Dartmouth College, and BA in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.

(Part 1)

P.I.T.A. UNITED

RCB: We first met where?

ADJUNCTSKI: You were big-time August Wilson Fellow and I was stupid actor and adjunct.

RCB: Guru Coffee?

ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. Don’t remind me. Nicoltte Avenue. Minneapolis.

RCB: You were Samuel in Samuel’s Major Problems.

ADJUNCTSKI: Yes.

RCB: Then you punked out on us: I had to play the role then the play never got produced.
ADJUNCTSKI: I did not punk out on you, my friend. You were just too full of yourself. It was hit you in the face or walk away, and that time I chose to walk away.
RCB: I didn’t realize until looking at your CV that you were also a doctoral student at UMN-Twin Cities in Cultural Studies.
ADJUNCTSKI: You never asked.
RCB: Well, it’s usually something a new colleague or actor volunteers.
ADJUNCTSKI: You never asked.
RCB: What do you remember about that time? 1998-2001?
ADJUNCTSKI: You were so f**king full of yourself.
RCB: Shut up.
ADJUNCTSKI: So (laughing) Seriously, my friend. You were full of yourself but in a good way. You know like when you’re a kid in a candy shop. You had everything. I lived in 24-hour cafes and under the bridge that collapsed in ‘07. I had nothing. Absolutely nothing.
RCB: I was full of myself but . . .
ADJUNCTSKI: . . .not full of, how do you say in polite company?
RCB: Shit?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. You were not full of shit. Just full of yourself.

RCB: It was really nice to have funding. And the Fellowship guaranteed I would teach the Senior Seminar. Most of my colleagues on the East and West Bank were teaching intro courses and other wage slave populated courses.

ADJUNTSKI: And now?

RCB: I’m on my own.

ADJUNCTSKI: How long?

RCB: Since the Fellowship ended in May 2001.

ADJUNCTSKI: So, you adjuncted for more than decade?

RCB: From 2001-2003 I was really on my own; then I reconnected with the Theatre Department. I attempted to get back to the Black theatre research. In September 2004 (almost ten years to the date of this dialog) I was accepted into the European Graduate School. I wanted to pursue both, the UMN-Twin Cities doctorate and then the Philosophy PhD but . . .

ADJUNCTSKI: Well that was stupid.

RCB: You, my old friend, are absolutely right. I should’ve just walked away when I walked away, as the Underworld tune goes.

AT-WILL ADVENTURES IN THE TWIN CITIES AND TWIN STATES

RCB: How long did you adjunct in the Twin Cities?
ADJUNCTSKI: For about nine years after you left.
RCB: 2001-2010?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. And you?
RCB: 2003-2011 in New Hampshire and Vermont mostly. Online 2007-2011 also at the same schools.
ADJUNCTSKI: Working contracts that don’t pay as much as fancy Fellowship must’ve been hard for Mr. August Wilson Fellow?
RCB: It was stressful not getting paid on time; and, in every case, every class, every campus, what was maddening (to the point of needing therapy) was not getting paid for all of my work.

ADJUNCTSKI: By the time of the 2007-2009 crash, I was numb to the whole thing. I taught my students. Did my work. Went home. No curriculum development. No committees. Just teach class, go home. And even then I was still not getting paid for all my work, either, comrade.

RCB: Well, not to burst your bubble, Nikolai, but I was only making $17,500 while also paying for my own health care for me, Shelly, and George (about $300 a month). The next year when we moved back to Vermont, my household income was about $7500 for 2001-2002.
ADJUNCTSKI: I made $27,000 at the restaurants–mostly off the books. Catering too. I think I averaged about $1850/three-credit contract around the Twin Cities.
RCB: So much for fancy fellowship?
ADJUNCTSKI: So much for fancy anything.

KINDERMIN

ADJUNCTSKI: What is wrong with higher education?

RCB: Too many bureaucrats, not enough teachers. And now, the corporate cohorts from the development wing have moved into the curriculum team sector, the accreditation team sector, and the marketing & recruitment sector when they were always better seen, not heard. I preferred it when they resided miles away–or at least a few buildings away. And they’re now grabby, wanting more and more power now that we’re in the bust economy (still).

ADJUNCTSKI: Like children.

RCB: What do you mean?

ADJUNCTSKI: The bureaucrats, the so-called “badmin”–they’re children, petulant children who need to be punished.

RCB: Exactly.
ADJUNCTSKI: And this description is not at all exaggerated. They behave like children. We’ve talked about this before, yes?
RCB: Yes. Often. (laughing) Welp, there goes my next academic gig?!
ADJUNCTSKI: Who needs it? This way they treat us. Who needs them!
RCB: So, children?
ADJUNCTSKI: Children believe in their version of the world so strongly that only counter myths, other stories, can shift their behavior. They do not yet understand how to incorporate new points of view or–heaven forbid–re-evaluate their own. They must be taught. In feedback loops. Too many administrators believe in their vision of the world with equal strength but do not take to learning better ways to get the job done. They become petulant.

RCB: So, what do you do about that?
ADJUNCTSKI: Discipline them. Timeouts do not work with these people, comrade. You must discipline them.
RCB: How?
ADJUNCTSKI: Refuse to leave their office after they slap you in the face with fewer courses than contracted or promised. Enter their closed door meetings with five, seven, ten adjuncts demanding equal pay for equal work.
RCB: How far would you go?
ADJUNCTSKI: I have already been banned from three campuses, my friend. How far do you think I will go?
RCB: I’m guessing far.

ADJUNCTSKI: I will burn down buildings next time. I will burn tires and disrupt operations and call on cyber friends to shut their entire operation down the next time any administrator steals from me. They steal our labor, our intellectual property, smile at us as they say “it’s just business” and I am starting to wonder, my friend, if we, the teachers, need our Lenin moment.

RCB: Where teachers pick up guns?

ADJUNCTSKI: Oligarchs are oligarchs and they tend to not change until they have gun in face?

RCB: I cannot advocate violence, Nikolai.

ADJUNCTSKI: That’s because you grew up privileged on Long Island and that fact clouds everything you do.

RCB: What’s so different now?

ADJUNCTSKI: We had to give them a chance. Education was changing rapidly again, with the new technology, course modules, new Federal and state money. We needed to hold back. They promised to take care of us. Remember? Remember how many times?

RCB: Endless. And they’re still making the same promises. Hold on, just one more term. It’ll be different next year. And my favorite: hey, if it were up to me, I’d hire you for three times the salary. Well, stupid, it’s very much up to you because you are the f**king Academic Dean who hired me and who authorizes pay increases.

ADJUNCTSKI: Throw the worst administrators to the dogs; those #badmin who have endless job titles and reams of paperwork to support their endless job titles. (You ever notice how these people have the thinnest human resource files? As though they’d actually been collecting an exorbitant paycheck to produce nothing, like some manager in a Kafka story?) Demand the resignation of anyone who denies adjuncts timely and equitable pay. (You ever notice how administrators always have their salaries paid on time yet adjuncts and other at-will workers have to wait six weeks?) Gather together on campuses around the world and tell your stories, tell the moment in your professional life you finally said enough is enough. (You ever notice how the smartest, strongest people who study equity for a living and teach about social movements are the last ones to “get it” when talking revolution?)


Coming tomorrow, Part 2: Burning it down and walking away.
iron man explosion

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