Let Them Eat Cake…But Not OUR Cake

How can you not read something by someone calling herself “Lady Spitfire”?

The first guest post I hosted went very well, and I’m hoping this one does just as well. This piece struck a chord with me, and it’ll do the same with many other current and former adjuncts who are…

*equally valued in the department…except when it comes to #fancy parties with the dean, high-profile job candidates, donors, or boards of trustees;

*expected to maintain an active research agenda…but are deemed ineligible for funding workshops hosted by the department or school;

*encouraged to travel to conferences and boost their professional profiles…while given practically no funding or logistical support to do so.

Because I’m nothing if not a gentleman, I’ll let the lady take it from here. Lady Spitfire’s party has started. (Seriously, how can you not love her name?)


 

Let Them Eat Cake…But Not OUR Cake 

Lady Spitfire

I was recently invited to our annual meet and greet/welcome back party at school. It was swimming with administrative sharks suits. You probably know the drill: chubby white men laughing at their own jokes, Stepford-like wives desperately trying to mask their contempt while fiddling with their pearls, and (every vegetarian’s wet dream) a smoked pig carcass, complete with a shiny apple in its mouth. I had to wear a polyester dress, which crushed me on every level imaginable, but I was told it was a necessary evil for the greater good of camaraderie.

 

Gosford Park fancy

The day before in our departmental meeting, we were causally told, “Oh, you can bring your significant other, but adjuncts are not invited, only full-time faculty.” Sitting between two part-timers, I could hear grumbling, something muffled between “fuckers” and “figures.” I left the meeting thinking I should have said something, but I did not. Later, however, that nonchalant comment really began to piss me off. So, I did what any red-blooded woman would do: I let it fester and build to the point of unbridled rage.

When I arrived at the business causal soiree, I staked out my territory strategically: cocktails, cool people to talk to, unpronounceable strawberry desserts…and the dean. She is a nice enough woman. I have no qualms about her. However, and perhaps this is unfair as an educator, there always seems to be an “us” vs. “them” line in the sand in academia. With us—being the lowly workers in the field—really knowing what it is like to toil on the front lines, and them—stiffs in their fancy offices—making lofty judgments about pedagogies and “flipped classrooms,” even though they haven’t stepped foot in one in the last 25 years.

So, like a tiger stalking its prey, I waited for an in. I didn’t know how, or if, she would react, but I wanted to ask her one question. When the crowds parted, I stated my name and shook her hand. We made small talk about the weather and traffic, and then I asked her, “Why aren’t adjuncts invited to this dinner?”

She took a sip of wine and said, “Well, it’s for full-time faculty only.” I said, “I see. Did you know that we have 30 full-timers in our department and 37 adjuncts? I guess that makes them the true faculty majority then, huh?”

She then gave me one of those smiles. To the outside world, it could be interpreted as “Well, it was nice talking to you.” Knowing I hit a nerve, I interpreted it as “Bitch, not now. Not here. Who do you think you are?” The small talk soon dissolved, and she quickly disappeared into another crowd of fatties laughing at their own jokes, complete with crab dip this time.

Gosford Park Maggie

In looking to the moral for this story, I haven’t one. I just know adjuncts (having been one myself for a number of years) are marginalized. To put it mildly.

Whether it be an ever-popular misplaced invite, or not even being listed on the faculty webpage, it’s that underlining feeling: the haves and have nots. You are part of the department, more than half, but you don’t have a name. You are what’s-her-face down the hall. You are the person they call in a crisis, just days before a semester begins, but they cannot spare an office space for you. Sorry about that. We do, after all, really need that broom closet for those crappy old printers.

I left the party not feeling happy or sad, just numb. It would go on for hours. Many suits would get shitfaced drunk and hit on GAs. They would throw out overpriced food that could feed a family of four for weeks. Walking out of the double doors, I passed a few co-workers—adjuncts—going to their night classes. They were smiling genuine smiles, actually happy to get to class. As I fumbled in my purse to find my keys, I burped up that decadent strawberry dessert. It tasted like pig.

Gosford Park meh

My Long Academic Goodbye

This is the first of what I hope are several guest posts. Kathryn M. Peterson contacted me after one of my (ahem, many) tweets about the petition I cowrote and offered to write something about the adjunct situation. I happily accepted, because I knew she’d do something good and because I want The Consulting Editor to do different kinds of things.

Kathryn’s fine piece is also listed on Chronicle Vitae’s #QuitLit spreadsheet. When you’re done reading this, visit the #QuitLit list for more voices and stories of other long (or short) academic goodbyes. There are almost 80 stories so far, hopefully with more to come.

I’m always happy to let people do guest posts about anything related to academia, adjuncting, or activism. You can be you. You can be anonymous. You can be pseudonymous. (Interested? Comment below or email me.) Regardless, the most important thing is that you get your story out there. The more that adjuncts and others on academia’s Island of Misfit Toys take control of the narrative of contingency, the more success we’ll ultimately have, and the more we can #FixHigherEd.

 

*****

My Academic Long Goodbye

Kathryn M. Peterson

I remember the day I decided not to seek a tenure-track job.

I was standing in my backyard after Hurricane Ike, looking over the fence at my neighbor’s flattened house, and talking to a friend about the academic job market. It was a weird thing to talk about right then—I guess I was trying to see where all the pieces of my life fit back together. I was in the middle of writing my dissertation for my Ph.D. in Creative Writing. I was also worried that my novel was becoming something other than what my program valued—more commercial and less literary.

“What will the academy think?” I asked her. “Will this be the kind of novel I can justify for tenure?”

“Honestly, Kathryn, you sound really hot for the book. Why not just go for it and forget what the academy thinks?”

Forget what the academy thinks. Not so easy, since the job I’d trained for for over a decade was what I’d always hoped would support my art. Not so easy, since by that time I’d spent the past decade or more trying to squeeze myself into an artistic and intellectual box.

I stood there, looking at the large pecan tree that had smashed our fence and was still suspended precariously against another. I considered that we had recently purchased our house—a house, that, had it been a mere ten yards away, would have no longer existed. I also considered that we were building a life together that was geographically tied to Houston, since Mark works primarily for NASA.

I ran down the options:

  1. Find a place with both aerospace work and a vibrant college community where we could both get jobs. (Possible, but not likely.)
  2. Go on the job market widely and just see what I could find, and then see if he’d be willing to have a long-distance marriage. (Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.)
  3. Or, and this seemed the most logical, I could stay where I was, finish the Ph.D., and then look for work outside the academy.

I already had been doing freelance writing and editing for most of the time I was a graduate student. Before Mark and I were married, I often worked three or four part-time jobs to support myself through my M.A. and later my M.F.A., since the T.A. stipend I received was barely enough to cover rent, and did not always come with a tuition waiver. The holes in my academic CV were obvious: the lack of publications and a mere handful of conference presentations. My non-academic resume, on the other hand, had potential.

In the end, the decision was pretty much a no-brainer. Mark and I would have a better life if I did not seek a tenure-track job, period.

I would also be less bound to convention and be able to write what and how I chose. So that day, standing there looking at the dirt dangling from tree roots and piles of gray branches lining the streets, I made the choice. I would finish the Ph.D., but I would not seek a tenure-track job.

I felt at peace for the first time in a long time.

But then there was the teaching. I had been, since 2002, teaching college classes at a medium-security Texas state prison, as an adjunct. For each of those classes, I receive(d) the nearly average $2500/semester that many adjuncts get. I worked my butt off for that job—often spending 12-15 hours a week just on one class. The prison students were so eager to learn, and it was very clear that I was changing lives.

But I was making no more than $13,000–$20,000 a year. Even after I defended my dissertation, there was no increase in my salary, and no acknowledgement from the administration beyond some vague promises that the creative writer at the campus “might retire, someday.” I stupidly held onto that, thinking that maybe I might actually get hired and that everything would just fall into place.

It didn’t. The more the University became corporatized, and the more state budgets slashed the prison program, the more precarious my situation became.

The final watershed moment came when, in 2011, my car broke down in the middle of a four-lane highway, and I just barely managed to get over to the side of the road before it stopped completely. Sitting there, in the parking lot in front of one of Texas’s ubiquitous strip malls, I realized I could not do it anymore. Had I been on my own and not married, I would have no health insurance, no way of paying most of my necessary bills, and certainly no money to pay to fix the car. I could not keep living like this.

It was that night, after we sold my totaled car for scrap, that I made the decision to look for other work. By some combination of chance and divine design, I found it—immediately. The work pays well and is rewarding, in different ways from the academy, but still rewarding.

I’ve continued to teach occasionally at the prison, usually just one class. But even that has worn thin. Now that I have my art and work that is finally paying me a respectable salary, I need to let go.

But God, it hurts.

When an inmate says to me “I did a second degree here because I really want to take your playwriting class,” it hurts. When an inmate walks back towards his cell after class and says “Now I go back to not being human,” it hurts. But most of all, it hurts because I know that as busy as I have become, I just haven’t been able to do the kind of job I want to do.

So I turned in my grades this morning and cried. I still don’t know if it’s the end, but I can no longer in good conscience continue feeding this system. I can no longer be part of the all-too-great supply of highly qualified individuals who work for what in many cases effectively becomes minimum wage. I have a friend who works full time at one college and still does not make enough to support her family, so has to adjunct 4, sometimes 5 more classes on top of it. Another friend teaches four classes at the same campus each semester and yet somehow, the university claims she is not full time.

How is this legal?

There are so many problems with the university system that it is hard to know where to begin a reform. But if those of us who have support by other means (spouses, other jobs) would leave, that might be one important step in the right direction. I also wonder what the impact would be if for at least one week, ALL adjunct professors and ALL adjunct allies did not teach. I know this is radical. But if all of us got together, around the country—hell, around the world—and decided this, what would happen? Would they be able to fire ALL of us?

We need to take desperate action if we want to begin to make changes. I realize that, now that I am pretty much out of the academy, I have nothing to lose, while most of my adjunct colleagues still do. But if we continue this tacit acceptance of what is essentially an abusive situation, nothing will change.

We need to begin now to take practical steps, like fighting for a government investigation into university practices. But just as importantly, we need to reconsider how we think of ourselves and our own self-worth. This situation simply cannot continue. This is not fair to any of us, and we need to stop taking it. Our students are worth more than this. So are we.

Quiet Plebs, a Provost Is Talking

Why read the work of a real provost when you can read the work of a “provost” who’ll make you laugh?

PAN KISSES KAFKA

Inside Higher Ed has a recurring column called Provost Prose. Today’s is about a tropical cruise a provost took his daughter on for her sixteenth birthday (obviously), and the many important direct parallels between that cruise and the modern university customer experience.

Some of my friends did not like this post, and made this known to me. As a result, I put out a call through my high-class back channels until I located a provost of my own, who was also highly offended by this column. He found it “tonedeaf,” he says, to the “real issues provosts face–which, as we know, is the number-one issue of higher education today.” So I asked him if he’d mind writing a short guest post for me–unpaid, of course, because the prestige of appearing on this august blog should be enough. He readily agreed. So here, without further ado, is:

PROVOST PROETRY

by T…

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