An Adjunct Catching Fire: Part 1

Our #BurnItDown firestorm on Twitter this past weekend did a lot of great things—among them this two-part guest post from Adjunct Mockingjay. She felt inspired by this post from a former adjunct who was tired—very much so—of being a tribute to please the whims of university administrators.

Her bow is strung. Her quiver is loaded. Her aim is impeccable. #Badmin, watch out for your apples. The odds are about to shift.

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An Adjunct Catching Fire 

by Adjunct Mockingjay

I’m one of the Katnisses of the world: I stand up for myself & defend others, but then go PTSD in a closet.

PART 1

As a grad student, I had my research stolen by a rockstar scholar who yelled at me while calling me stupid. During her office hours.

That yelling is literal, not hyperbolic. A fellow class member walked in during the tirade and Rockstar apologized for yelling at me—she was smart enough to apologize in front of that student.

But maybe I should begin at the beginning.

I went to a Top 20 university for grad school where I took a Women in Media class from a rockstar scholar (hereafter, “Rockstar”). I had quoted her in papers as an undergrad, so I was excited to take a class from her.

It began innocuously enough: Rockstar said she was giving us the power to direct and teach the class. I am now instantly skeptical of any professor who uses this approach because the way Rockstar employed this pedagogical method exploited our class in two major ways:

  • as a knowledge mill so she could rip off our ideas for her work;
  • as a way to avoid actually teaching; and when she wasn’t pleased with what a student had to say during their presentation, she humiliated them in front of the entire class.

During the first class, we brainstormed a list of topics we wanted to cover, then we had to be responsible for “teaching” the class that week. The responsibilities included: finding readings to distribute to the class at least a week in advance and giving a 20-30 minute talk about the topic and leading the rest of the discussion.

effie and katniss at reaping_0

We had enough material to get us halfway through October, because students were to present their topics each week (to fill the three-hour class). Rockstar said after that point, she would take charge of the course. Sometimes there was more than one student assigned to a topic, so what ended up happening was the class got so far behind because only one or two students had the chance to present. Another student and I were literally the last ones scheduled to go on October 19th. But the class ran so far behind that she and I did not get a chance to present until the last day of class. In December.

This may not sound so bad, except when you know that our class was scheduled to run once a week, 4:00pm to 6:50pm. But we never got out on time. Class ran until 9pm at a minimum, and sometimes we were getting out at 10pm. Once, we got out at 11pm. (But only once.)

That’s right, she kept us in class for two additional hours—sometimes three hours—every single class. (I can’t even fathom doing this to undergrads.)

After a few weeks of this happening, and being harassed, without fail, at the bus stop while I waited in a sketchy part of Los Angeles at 10 o’clock at night, I politely said at the beginning of class the next week that, after a particularly scary bus stop encounter, I needed to leave on time because the bus stopped running regularly after 7pm.

Rockstar was aghast that I would suggest such a thing and demanded that someone drive me home after class.

Now, maybe it wouldn’t have been so awkward if Rockstar hadn’t issued this order as an angry command, but putting me in the position where I couldn’t be self-sufficient made me uncomfortable regardless. Also, this was my small way to foment a polite rebellion. I thought that other people would jump in and back me up about ending the class on time; or, at the very least, the professor would be mindful about our class time once it was brought to her attention that I was being harassed at night, especially since we were forbidden to allow our classes to go long when we taught our undergrads during the day.

Instead, Rockstar used this as an opportunity to officially announce three hours was “simply not enough time to cover the material every week,” and that we needed at least an extra hour. She joked that she had asked for a longer time slot but was told that the university didn’t have longer class sessions for grad students. To her credit she did poll the class right then and there. She asked someone—anyone—to disagree. I was not surprised that no one did. I reiterated my bus dilemma as one last desperate measure.

But, by an essentially unanimous “vote,” it was decided that class would officially go at least an extra hour every week—and I ended up being carted back home on a weekly basis by a number of rotating classmates who said it wasn’t that far out of their way and could give me rides.

In addition to the weekly stress of our “bonus” class, the practice of having students run the class didn’t go smoothly. Rockstar would be silent during the presentation, and often would tear the student apart in front of the entire class afterward. One week, a student presented on Something’s Gotta Give. She spoke about Nora Ephron, pleasure, and problematic feminism, and posed a question: How can we recuperate problematic work such as this one?

After the student was done posing her questions to the class, we were all silent (as was normal) while we formulated our thoughts, and Rockstar went on a tirade about how we were no longer allowed to use the words subversive, problematic, or recuperative for the rest of the semester.

Another student gave a presentation about fashion, using Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette as an example of fashion as text–I want to say the argument was about visual excess and hyper-consumption, but I can’t quite remember what the presentation was about, per se, because all I can remember is what happened after the student was done. In a tone of voice that sounded like she was smelling dog shit, Rockstar said, “That’s it?”

After sitting in class with these kinds of scathing critiques from Rockstar, and after a speech she gave at the beginning of one session where she specifically said that students were not doing a good enough job at running the class, I went to Rockstar’s office hours six weeks before I was supposed to give my presentation on women in comics.

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(Not this kind, unfortunately.)

I asked for advice on what my approach should be for my presentation: representation of women in comics, women comics writers, or an ethnographic study of women who read comics? I said I was leaning towards representation of women in comics, and, in particular, romance comics because Harlequin started publishing their most popular romance novels as manga, printed entirely in pink or purple ink. I thought this might be the way to go because we’d already covered romance novels and soap operas, so it’d be building on things we’ve already discussed in class, and I could also talk about globalization and hegemonic femininity.

But trying to talk about the intention of women comics writers felt impossible without tracking down creators to interview, and doing an ethnographic study of readers felt beyond the scope of the presentation–and like a burden of reading for the other students–so I needed to narrow it down, but didn’t know how to choose. I brought in the Harlequin manga titles I wanted to talk about.

Rockstar called me stupid for not knowing more about comics, and she called me stupid again for needing help.

Yet she asked to borrow the Harlequin manga.

I kid you not: she called me stupid. But I left out that she yelled at me for needing help and she yelled at me that I was stupid.

I let her borrow my manga. (I still don’t know why I did that.)

I went to her office hours the next week–because I’m a glutton for punishment–with alternate presentation ideas. Maybe I should do TV instead, since we were doing TV the week before I was scheduled to go? Could I switch my topic since apparently comics are obviously not the way to go?

She yelled at me again. But a fellow student walked in while she yelled at me–because the door is open during office hours. Rockstar made sure she apologized in front of the other student. Probably not for yelling at me, I suspect, but for being seen yelling at me.

I went back a few weeks later to pick up my manga, and Rockstar told me that she was putting my ideas in the revised introduction to the second edition of her book.

I was struck dumb and after a few seconds said, “Okay. Glad I could be helpful.”

She didn’t yell or call me stupid. But I also didn’t ask for help. I collected my manga and left without sitting down.

Did she just tell me she was stealing my ideas? Is that supposed to make it okay?

Rebellion should never be polite.

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4 thoughts on “An Adjunct Catching Fire: Part 1

  1. I can’t wait to read part two but I’m outraged at this treatment of students. I only had the misfortune of dealing with a “Minor Rockstar,” and that was quite enough. Great piece.

  2. I once remember thinking that becoming an academic “rock star” was the only path back to the tenure-track ranks that I had left when I decided to follow my wife to her new job in a different city. My previous post, though well paid, had not felt right at all. So I set about becoming a rock star in the only way that I knew how: I did a lot of work, original work, endless work, as an independent scholar, until the publications began to pile up. Which they did. But I didn’t get to be an academic rock star. I realized you couldn’t be that without an institutional anchor legitimating your status. As an independent scholar who had been doing research in the wilderness for many years, I was never again accepted into the tenure-track ranks, even with a pumped up CV that represented (I think) original contributions to my field.

    Having read Adjunct Mockingjay’s post, I now realize that my ambition had been misguided in another fundamental way. Being a rock star probably changes you. It probably convinces you that you deserve your status and the privileges that go along with it, including cutting corners and becoming a generally malevolent personality. So perhaps Plan B succeeded by failing. I am happy being a babysitter, and I treat my young student very well. But I still think adjuncts, contingent faculty, and grad students deserve justice.

    #BurnItDown

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