It Gets Better—and Other Enabling Fictions

In the summer of 2001, I received word that I had been  appointed to the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR). Our work over my three-year term of service included establishing for the first time Recommendations for Entry-Level Full-time and Part-time Faculty Members that have been published annually by the MLA since 2003. Currently, the MLA recommendations are set at $6,800 per course for members off of the tenure track. When we established these recommendations, we knew that faculty and chairs and deans would use these numbers in arguments for per course pay commensurate with the demands of the work; those of us who are employed as faculty, however, were under no illusions that the baseline numbers were aspirational, and that the reality on the ground would be different.

 

More recently, in his President’s Column “Non-Tenure Track Faculty Members and the MLA: a Crowdsourcing Project,” Michael Bérubé calls attention to the MLA guidelines for adjunct salaries we developed over a decade ago. He also mentions Josh Boldt’s The Adjunct Project. What turned out to be most interesting to me, though, was a link on Boldt’s site that led me to other thoughts on adjunct faculty. “All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy,” I thought, recalling Emerson’s comment in “Poetry and Imagination.”

I first discovered, on Boldt’s blog,  a “reblog,” “Just Not That Into You,” that originally appeared on the blog “Music for Deckchairs” by Kate Bowles. (There is a list of links at the end of her posting that offers a further chain of associations.) “When is it time,” Bowles asks, “for adjuncts to walk away/stay/lobby for change?” Then I found myself reading Amanda Krauss, at The Worst Professor Ever, commenting frankly, in an engaging and edgy voice, on the paradoxes of academic life, from the perspective of someone who decided that the life of a college or university professor is rife with more enabling fictions and illusions than a sane person can bear. (For a sample, have a look at “I Don’t Need your Stinking Tenure.”) In Krauss, a reader finds an irreverent if occasional pursuit of central themes in the Staying Alive Project.

Krauss’ voice also appears on yet another blog, The Professor is In, by Karen Kelsky, (a former tenured professor and Department Head with years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). “Be careful What You Wish For” echoes the quiet desperation we often hear from faculty. Krauss comments,

most tenure-trackers I know are medicated, lonely/estranged, and barely holding their overworked lives together. My tenured acquaintances aren’t much better off; a recently-tenured friend suggested that there should be a tenure PSA playing off the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign — except that the point of these ads would be that it doesn’t get better after tenure.

Perhaps she needs to find new friends. But she has a point: academics are often motivated by arbitrary external rewards and “going places,” as she ironically puts it, on the way to overcoming that “last” obstacle, “before everything got super awesome.” She goes on to say that “surveying what I saw, I determined that academia systemically didn’t allow, let alone reward, any sort of work/life balance. Quite the opposite: narcissistic assholes thrived because they were most willing to do whatever it took to win.” And she concludes,

Even if you’re a perfectly lovely person, it’s no fun to be in an environment that fetishizes external validation. I’ve seen folks so wrapped up in other people’s visions of success, they literally can’t articulate what they, as an individual, want. I’ve seen people get tenure, only to discover that it’s the only thing they have — and that, instead of providing any joy, it continues to interfere with finding meaningful relationships.

Finally, there is also mention of a piece by Penelope Trunk called “My Financial History and Stop Whining About Your Job” that is followed by an impassioned string of commentary about institutions and the market that are instructive and, once again, intersecting with concerns we are seeking to make visible here. What one finds at these blogs are people  engaged in an ongoing conversation about life and work that we will continue to cultivate.

Four-Way Vision and the Warrior

In yoga the warrior poses are the most resolute postures, combining strength, flexibility, and balance.  Body and mind are integrated and aligned.  Energy flows into you, through you, and out of you toward what is coming.  At this time of year, when career decisions come down, we all need warrior skills to meet the challenges offered by desperate situations.  One essential principle might be called “Four-Way Vision.”

Consider the Warrior II Pose, also called viribhadrasana or Warrior B.  You stand with both feet firmly grounded, one pointing ahead and the other rooted behind; you spread your arms into a T and sink forward, looking straight ahead over the middle finger of your forward hand.  You can feel energy rising up through your feet and legs and shooting along your arms.  Your back and torso stand straight up, as if a steel lightning rod ran from the crown of your head down your spine and into the ground.

Warrior II Pose

Now think about what this posture betokens.  Your feet connect you to the earth; they are your foundation, grounded on your wisdom and skills, the fruits of your experience, education, and character.  You draw strength upward from these sources, which can never be taken away.

Your head, spine, and torso connect you with the sky, with heaven.  This is where your hopes and aspirations, your best values, and your creativity all come from. The heavenly energy and the earth energy meet in your eyes and shoot out through the arm along which you gaze. This arm reaches out to meet the challenge.  It focuses and directs all your energy forward, but it also touches and learns.  It does not shrink from contact.  It lights up and ignites whatever it meets.

Your other arm reaches back to draw strength from those behind you, that multitude of comrades and supporters who have a stake in your struggle.  These are your parents, friends, teachers and mentors.  They all care; they all want you to flourish and succeed. They back you up and push you forward.

A warrior needs to remember and practice four-way vision in order to stay balanced and meet the challenge.  Can you turn what comes at you into what comes to you?  That is the question.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Person

Those who work as adjuncts or part-timers give varying accounts of their situation.  For some, it works; for others it doesn’t.  But the basic facts remain pretty consistent: low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest status in the profession.  How can you make such conditions work for you?  It depends on who you are and what you want out of life.

Until recently, most adjunct faculty were experts employed elsewhere, who were brought in for special knowledge and skills that the regular faculty lacked.  They were recruited for particular programs on an as-needed basis.  Because they were employed elsewhere, their pay was in the nature of an honorarium, and their work was considered largely pro bono.  People took adjunct gigs out of a sense of social or professional responsibility, for the opportunity to teach and in that way to give back some of what they had gained.  Teaching was a refreshing change from their normal work life.  They did not think of themselves as professional educators.

Part-time faculty also realized some benefits.  Frequently, they were people who had left the work force to raise children or take care of aging parents, or, as faculty spouses, found themselves stuck in place and had to take the best option available for maintaining some sort of professional life.  Some part-timers were eventually able to work their way into full-time positions; others found the freedom and flexibility preferable to the up-or-out demands and legendary stress of the tenure track.

With the erosion of regular faculty positions and the abundance of available Ph.D.’s, adjunct and part-time work has now become the norm.  We now have thousands of adjuncts and part-timers making a career out of it.  These include many with terminal degrees and extensive publications.  But it is difficult to see how one can live on $21,000 a year, which is the average going rate for teaching ten courses.  And that emolument does not include the “psychic dollars” one gains from a regular position, with its sense of institutional citizenship and all the supports that go with it.

On September 5 of this year, Marc Bousquet posted a blog in the Chronicle’s “Brainstorm” section called “Meet Maria.”  Maria holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and suffers from mental illness.  She held and lost several tenure-track jobs before being reduced to adjuncting, which left her destitute and on the brink of homelessness.  She is now training to be  nursing assistant, which is a dirty and dangerous job that pays around $12 an hour, but at least, she says, you can find a position.

Maria’s testimony is heartbreaking, lucid and full of self-awareness.  She accepts responsibility for her situation, and she’s trying to make lemonade out of lemons by organizing a research project on health care workers.  Her goal, she says, is to keep from becoming homeless, and she has plenty to say about the trials of adjunct life.

As I read this story, it occurred to me that adjuncting and part-timing can feel like a kind of professional homelessness.  You lack a “home institution”, an “institutional home,” a place where you belong.  This is a pregnant metaphor – and we’ll examine more  in the weeks ahead – that tells us about the values and beliefs that underlie behavior.  We all want a home; we all want to feel at home; we all want and need to belong.  But we also judge people by where they belong – by their houses, their neighborhoods, their institutions.  Poverty and homelessness make us uncomfortable – they might be contagious!  In the eyes of regular faculty, adjuncts are tainted by failure, which is assumed to be their own fault.  As Maria observes, “Who wants to spend time with a loser?”

The issue, for those who adjunct or part-time, is how to turn the situation to advantage.  How can you thrive in a state of professional homelessness?  Thoreau, who advocated not owning a farm, liked the freedom to wander throughout the town and enjoy the best part of the landscape, which always yielded an “instant and immeasurable” crop without any labor on his part.  He also conducted an active literary and intellectual life without any connection to a university.  “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport,” he declared.  Nevertheless, we have to remember that he did frequently avail himself of Mrs. Emerson’s apple pies.

The good people of Concord thought of Thoreau as a loser, but he didn’t think of himself that way.  Nor did Maria.  That is at least half the battle.  If you have no home, you can be at home everywhere.  Perhaps it is time to rethink the uses of failure.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Profession

A recent study reported in the Chronicle demonstrates that tenured and tenure-track faculty do not seem altogether opposed to the increasing reliance on adjuncts and part-timers.  You would think that all professors would care enough about the erosion of their profession to defend its cherished structures and practices, including full-time status and tenure.  But it turns out that, while they are willing to defend for themselves, they are unwilling to do so for others.

Indeed, there seems to be a kind of Faustian pact between the regular faculty and the institution where adjuncts and part-timers are concerned.  The latter teach mainly introductory courses or discussion sections, freeing the former for upper-division and graduate courses.  Institutions have long recognized that faculty are willing to be paid in security and prestige as much as in cash. These, in fact, account for a good portion of the “psychic dollars” made famous by Governor Brown, and, best of all, they don’t show up on the books.  But in order to maintain prestige, you must have a pecking order, and job security across the board creates management headaches.  The solution?  Prestige and job security for the few, the proud, the privileged; hard work with scant reward for the rest.

The regular faculty buy into this arrangement, some cheerfully, some with misgivings, but they all accept it and some even defend it. Thus, they become part of the problem.

I have observed that faculty tend to be politically liberal.  They vote democratic, support environmental reform, advocate equal rights, champion the oppressed, decry financial abuse and corporate greed, all that sort of thing.  Professionally, however, they tend to be ultraconservative.  Just take a mild swipe at tenure, academic freedom, peer review, or the prestige of someone’s institution and watch what happens.  I once asked a senior colleague, who acknowledged the usual catalog of inequities, whether he would be willing to give up tenure if it led to a fairer and more just system.  He blanched. “They pay me with tenure,” he said.

Comments like these remind me of Dr. Paul Farmer’s wistful remark about the rich liberals who extol his medical  projects in Haiti:  “They want to save the world at no cost to themselves.”

As for prestige, everyone knows that reputation counts for a great deal in academia.  Almost the first thing people want to know is where you teach.  Once they pry it out of you, you can read instant judgment in their faces.  They have pegged, labeled, and filed you, like a card in the hand, or in a catalog.  Forget about your story.  Forget about what they might learn by listening or asking.  It is very hard to escape this sort of thinking, no matter which side you are on.  Internalized shame is as common as outward humiliation in our world.

Indeed, hierarchy and prestige seem to have grown naturally from the rich soil of privilege and comparative judgments, which may begin with the simple and inescapable fact that professors have to grade students almost every day.  We acquire the habit of judgment and discrimination so early that it becomes instinctual, even unconscious.

If I were to give you a random list of institutions, you could easily rank them by reputation and influence.  I would bet that a random sample of your colleagues would rank them pretty much the same way.  At the top would be research institutions with no students at all, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, followed by doctoral universities, and on down through master’s institutions, baccalaureate institutions, and two-year colleges all the way to community colleges and technical schools.  With some exceptions for antiquity and elitism, colleges rank below universities.  It’s clear that our profession considers teaching less prestigious than research, and basic courses less desirable than advanced courses.

All this suggests that the profession itself supports the adjunct and part-time system because it, in turn, upholds the system of hierarchy and prestige.  When strapped for cash, they can still pay you off with privilege.  If it works for you, it works for them.  It just doesn’t work for the people at the bottom.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Institution

The Chronicle issue on adjuncts and part-timers quotes a number of people who have reconciled themselves to life with a heavy but uncertain teaching load, low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest level of status that you can occupy and still be called a professional.  Some of these folks appear resigned, some seem embittered, some seem content with the tradeoffs, and some even appear to enjoy the life or at least see its advantages.  Those who accept the life seem to choose it for the freedom to come and go, maintain a flexible schedule, and continue to work with students, which they love and which provides meaning and purpose; these benefits, to them, outweigh the inequities and insecurity.  For them, apparently, it all comes down to balance.

I applaud everyone who aspires to a balanced life and chooses accordingly, but at the same time it’s hard to stomach the inequities and injustices perpetrated by the adjunct and part-time system.  And I’m not talking just about faculty, but about students and their parents as well.  Ask me, a  parent of college students, what sort of people I want teaching my daughters, and I will say smart, empathic scholars of good character who embody the virtues of creativity, knowledge, wisdom, and intellect, who teach with love and care about their students.  I want people who will care about my daughters, who will nurture their development as whole persons; I want people my daughters can get to know and who will inspire them to learn.  I want to entrust their education to institutions that devote themselves to promoting and nurturing such values.

What am I to think of a university that staffs two thirds of its undergrad credit hours with adjuncts and part-timers?  No doubt many, perhaps even all, of these people are dedicated and competent teachers, but what is the institution telling me when it pays them so miserably and gives them no stake in the institution?  It tells me just what it thinks their work is worth, which is 75% less than that of the regular faculty.  It tells me, further, that it is perfectly willing to exploit them but does not want to be held accountable for their performance.  If they don’t do a good job, they can simply be fired – for that matter, they can be fired for any reason at all – and that’s the end of it as far as the institution is concerned.  But what about the students who have taken their courses?  You guessed it: they are on their own; we wash our hands of them.

No institution can afford to admit that it exploits its own students or, more accurately, their parents and the state taxpayers, who are the actual customers.  Yet they charge the same tuition regardless of who does the teaching.  How many administrators or trustees would want their own kids to attend a school that takes no ongoing responsibility for its faculty, where teachers come and go, where most feel no sense of belonging or ownership of either the program or the community?  Sadly, these economic and professional realities undercut the institution’s claims to put students  first.  Too often, it seems, the business of the university is not education, but simiply staying in business.

The Adjunct and Part-time Challenge

Back when Jerry Brown was governor of California the first time, the state went into one of its periodic budget crises, and the good governor decided to freeze salaries throughout the state university system.  When the faculty objected, he told them they should be content with the “psychic dollars” they got from teaching.  Very well, they replied, then we’ll just pay our taxes in psychic dollars.  Unfortunately, market forces eventually triumphed over wit.

I thought of this exchange while reading the Chronicle’s big issue on adjunct faculty, which hit the stands two weeks ago.  Everyone knows that the tenured ranks are shrinking as people die or retire, and that their positions are not being replaced, but rather filled with part-timers and adjuncts who are paid starvation wages, receive no benefits, and enjoy few or none of the professional respect, standing, opportunities, or institutional support normally accorded to the so-called “regular” faculty.   In fact, over half of all undergraduate course hours are now taught by adjuncts or part-timers, so it is they who should be considered “regular.”  But they are not treated so by either the profession or the institution.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody wrings their hands about the  adjunct situation, but nobody does anything about it.  At least that’s how it sometimes feels.  But in fact, a considerable movement has begun to unionize part-timers and adjuncts, and to advocate for better employment conditions. The Chronicle has run stories of organizing and successes on various campuses, where tangible gains have been made. And the feature issue just mentioned has shone a bright light, which, if not harsh or glaring enough (for this writer, at least), still has the merit of publicly acknowledging the problem and identifying some of the blind spots that infect both the profession and the institution.  It also raises the question of balance, which makes it especially pertinent to this series.

The Chronicle reporters surveyed hundreds of part-time faculty teaching in the Chicago area; they also looked closely at one school, Oakton Community College, whose president, as it happens, began her career as an adjunct. At Oakton, full-time faculty make around $86,000 a year on average, teaching five course per semester, whereas the most an adjunct can make for the same load is around $21,000.  This shocking disparity prompted diverse reactions.  Some part-timers claimed to be content with the tradeoff: no committees, flexible scheduling,  freedom to moonlight, and, of course, those priceless psychic dollars.  Others felt undervalued and exploited, bitter about receiving unequal pay for equal work, and resentful at being treated as second-class citizens when their credentials and skills were as good or better than those of the regular faculty.

When asked about these reactions, administrators and regular faculty gave familiar responses.  The president of Oakton said she had encouraged departments to include adjuncts in their meetings and mailings, and to involve them in curriculum and planning. The regular faculty claimed to be reaching out.  But neither the institution nor the regular faculty suggested equal rights or equal pay.  Administrators claimed that their adjunct pay scales fell within the norm; regular faculty claimed they had more responsibilities and worked longer hours than adjuncts.

In the one case, it is simply market forces.  As long as there are people willing to teach for $2100 a course, colleges will hire them.  It’s simple, convenient, and expedient  — as long as you operate under a factory model of education.  In the other case, you are merely rationalizing privilege.  No one can tell me that any college or university in this country (apart, perhaps from those where research is the sole mission) pays its regular faculty three times as much for their committee work and scholarship as it does for their teaching.  And it’s absurd to make such an argument for a community college, where teaching is supposedly the main thing.

Because adjuncting and part-time work have become ubiquitous in academe, we need to examine it from the standpoint of navigating and balancing a career. It’s one of the braided streams of academic life.  The “standard model” that we introduced at the beginning of this blog is hardly standard today.  More and more people are finding that after grad school the only doors open to them lead to part-time or adjunct positions. It is hard to awaken from the sleep of reason to discover how powerfully market forces and the profession’s jealousy of its own privileges can blunt, bend, or break an academic career.

In the posts to come, we’ll look at the adjunct and part-time path from the viewpoints of institution, profession, and person.  What are the benefits and costs to each, and how can we find a soul-sustaining balance under such conditions?

A Writing Prompt

Write for five minutes about one person who you believe lives a convincing life in the academy.

victoria 007

I’m grateful for John’s recent summary of our workshop in Victoria. I thought I would follow with this specific writing prompt for those of you interested in the conversation about staying alive. As John mentions in his post, the most illuminating part of our workshop was listening to one another describe people we knew who live convincing lives in the academy. If you take this up, you might consider writing about someone in one of the four phases of academic life we identify: 1) graduate school, or apprenticing (immersed in culture; involvement and engagement; observing culture and persons; learning and growing; choosing work you love; investing in the self; 2) the warrior phase (creating Place, in the tenure stream, outside tenure stream, administration, nonacademic; looking to colonize structures and spaces; diversifying options; keeping moving; 3) the settler and householder phase (inhabiting places, or degrees of permanence; thinking within and beyond institution; learning and growing with students; cultivating a beginner’s mind); and 4) the eldering phase (sharing experience, story, wisdom; modeling health, growth, vitality; giving back to the community though mentoring).

victoria 010

The stories we shared in Victoria corresponded well to what we believe are seven virtues for living a fulfilling life in academics: centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity; imagination; and collaboration. Do you have a story to share?

Watersheds and Forks in the Road

A few years ago, when John and I began our conversations, we found in one another the words for a common vision: a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.

Our thinking led immediately to the organizing fiction of academia-the career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. Careers do indeed unfold along this path. (My dossier for promotion to full professor is currently under review.) Others do not. (You can read John’s narrative of facing a fork in his own road in his essay “Meeting the Tree of Life.”) We have both been in and out of the academic world long enough to recognize the problems with this organizing fiction. Some of our colleagues and close friends have worked toward satisfying lives in academia; other colleagues and friends have struggled to stay alive in the academy–whether in the security of a tenured tenure-stream position or in the sometimes tenuous position of the adjunct. And for decades we have worked with lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, part-timers, and contingent faculty in our roles as faculty mentors and friends. If anything, we have learned that there are many pathways, watersheds, and destinations in this profession.

One of the primary motivations in our conversations has been to better understand the organizing fiction of academic life. We see the fiction of graduate school leading to a tenure-track position as potentially destructive precisely because it naturalizes professional success by aligning with the phases of a life path. However our experiences have led us to see our profession as more like a braided stream: people move back & forth between institutions, whether teaching full-or part-time; take up administrative positions or jobs outside of academics in business, journalism, writing, or publishing; government or non-profit work in museums or foundations, or go in to Independent work such as consulting.

The organizing fiction of an academic career also obscures the real situation. According to the 2006 AAUP Contingent Faculty Index, non-tenure-track positions now make up sixty-eight percent of all faculty at degree-granting institutions in the United States. Too many talented people with PhDs find themselves on the job market year after year; others take positions at institutions simply because they need a job; others sign on as contingent faculty and hold out the hope that their ship will come in; still others resign themselves to doing work they love in situations they loathe.

I am grateful to Dave W. for responding to our outline of phases in an academic career. (His comment appears on the “Prospectus” page.) For his words offers me an occasion to elaborate a bit more about where John and I are starting from. (Something I’ve been wanting to do but have been too busy teaching.) Dave’s framing our point of view may also be useful as we launch this conversation. He says that assuming “a traditional path from grad student to tenured bliss reveals a lack of appreciation of the reality on the ground.” Indeed. But we are, in fact, deeply interested in that ground-the reality from which we are always starting from. We are interested in mapping the reality of academic lives in more subtle and meaningful ways. We are interested in the systemic contradictions in the expression of the privileged professor who says, “But we are scholars, not teachers.” We are interested in why (and how) humane people continue to labor in less than humane situations. And yes, we are interested in the ongoing and difficult work of constructing not comfortable but rather more virtuous and satisfying lives.