Escape Workplace Hell with Erasogram®

Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that “Hell is other people.”  And Dante constructed his Inferno by wedging like-minded souls into very close quarters.  You don’t have to attend the MLA Convention to see this principle in operation today.  Just think for a moment about your own department, or classroom, or campus.  No wonder some administrators dream of an ideal university that has neither faculty nor students.  Fortunately, there’s no need to look to another world for solutions.  Just punch up our latest, most revolutionary app:

Niether For Nor Against: Notes on the Institution

Working as a department chair for seven out of the past ten years I have heard my share of faculty who appear to think that the administration is an “other” and that the only viable position to take as a member of the faculty is to oppose what “those people” are doing.

Last night, sitting with a group of students working our way through Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” sequence, one of them called attention to the poem, “I Hear It was Charged Against Me.” We had spent the good part of the past week working through Whitman’s late (and great) essay “Democratic Vistas,” and we had talked about his approach to social and cultural change. “I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,” Whitman begins his poem. “But really I am neither for nor against them.”

Might Whitman’s response to the charges against him– neither for nor against–be a useful position from which to think about the institution and the positions we occupy within them? In fact, the institution (and our relationship to them) was among the most engaging to John and me when we began talking about these issues seriously. And clarifying just what we are talking about when we talk about institutions (and our relationship to them) has proved to be among the most useful for participants in our Staying Alive workshops.

Here is how John and I describe the academic institution:

1) as a business

  • Consists of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders
  • Runs on money, part of the economy
  • Produces education, evaluation/sorting, and research
  • A feudal organization (hierarchical, not a democracy, nobility vs. serfs)

2) as conservative, immobile

  • A reptilian brain
  • Motivated only to survive & grow
  • To it you are skilled labor, a function not a person
  • Does not care about your personal growth

We can talk about humane values and community until its time to harvest the garlic and potatoes and cabbage. And we should all be deeply engaged in those day-to-day acts that can make our work more humane–in good part by recognizing and valuing every member of the institution. But as we go about our days, we should remember the nature of institutions. That is, when we are working as members of an institution (“both in and out of the game”) we must have a much more informed sense of where we are (“and watching and wondering at it”).

Such was my point in arguing for shared governance: taking part in improving the condition of the institution but not proceeding as if the institution has your (or anyone’s) best interests in mind.

Rethinking Failure 2

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth back in the mythical 1960’s, people were always looking over their shoulders.  The school had a rugged outdoorsman mentality (it was all-male in those days), which compensated rather actively for the intense class work and studying that went on all week. Weekends were devoted to blowing off steam via drinking, skiing, partying, or road trips.  The more studious and intellectual were always looking off wistfully at places like Harvard, thinking that’s where we should have gone, while the more rugged among us vigorously performed our ruggedness as if to prove that, in spite of our smarts, we actually were real men.  In short, you had to succeed both physically and intellectually.

It was little better in grad school.  At Yale there was no rugged outdoor ethos; instead, you had metropolitan envy.  People were always looking over their shoulders at New York, and a kind of star system prevailed.  Prematurely gray faculty with book-white skin plodded between the department and the library, their outsized reputations trailing behind them like stellar magnetic fields.  Between classes, at lectures, during social events you could watch graduate students circling into orbit.  Everyone was thinking about position, reputation, and success.

Either way – and not just in the Ivy League – school was all about success.  It was about meeting goals set by the institution and its agents, the faculty.  We were encouraged to internalize these goals and discipline ourselves to achieve them.  School rewarded us according to performance.  It functioned as what Foucault would call a “governmentality,” and I mean to lay some emphasis on the last four syllables.  As Thoreau observed, “It is bad to have a southern overseer … but worse if you are the slave driver of yourself.”  It no wonder that schools would not teach, nor want to teach, about failure.  The subject is taboo.  And yet it sits on everyone’s mind.

Note how we speak of “failing” a course.  It could be construed in the sense of letting down or breaking down, as in “I failed you” or “the equipment (link, chain, bolt, coupling, component, mechanism) failed.”  Notice here the connotations of betrayal, disintegration, or collapse counterposed to the expectation of integrity, reliability, or strength.  Also of interest is the vivid “flunk”, a word of obscure origin but with a sturdy Anglo-Saxon heft.  It has overtones, as well, of “flush”, “thunk”, or “sunk”.  The onomatopoeia suggests an inert object falling and hitting the floor or sinking into deep water. Inertia is key: the object has no more energy or life, no power of self-motivation.  You can say, “He flunked the course” or simply, “He flunked,” or more expansively, “He flunked out.”   Charles Livingston (American Speech 21:1, 16-18) connects it to “funk”, meaning “to shy away from, avoid, back out.”   This sounds plausible, but where did the “l” come from?  It also occurs in “flop” and “flub”, whose connotations resonate with those of “flunk.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that “flop” is a variation of “flap.”  I suppose a flap would flop if it opened and hit the ground.  As for “flub” it, too, is an Americanism “of obscure origin,” arising circa 1920.  Since “flunk” (also an Americanism) first appears circa 1800, its “l” does not descend from either of these but may share a common ancestor.

So, if you flubbed your exam and flunked the course, or worse, flunked out, it would certainly create a flap at home!

But we digress …

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?

Preparation and Strain

“When you get right down to it, considering the long years of preparation and strain, it’s hard to find any position so poorly compensated as tenure-track college faculty—except, of course, most of the rest of college faculty, the majority who don’t ever become eligible for tenure and earn even less.”

“In the administration of higher education, this means a delicate balancing act, in which management continuously tries to seize control of institutional mission without killing the academic goose laying its golden eggs. The history of workplace change in higher education over the past forty years is a slow, grinding war of position or culture-struggle, with administration continuously pushing to see just how partial or inauthentic it can make the autonomy, integrity, and dignity of academic endeavor without inducing the faculty to fall out of love with their work. Likewise, the history of corporate management’s effort to imitate the success of higher education workplaces can be expressed as, “How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?” That is, the managers desperately want to know, how can we emulate higher education in moving from simple exploitation to the vast harvest of bounty represented by super-exploitation?”

These words are from Mark Bousquet’s 5 May posting, “My Credo: We Work” on his blog devoted to subject of how the university works (The title, by the way, of his book How the University Works).  Andrew’s response to one of my postings, “Beginnings and Endings,” reminded me why reading Bousquet is so useful. While I have not read his book, I have found in his ongoing critique of higher education much fertile ground for my own thinking. However as I try to explain in my response to Andrew, my interests on this blog move in a different direction. The words I cite above, to exemplify this difference, are for me an incentive to explore the challenges of doing the work one loves with all one’s energy and heart (read the blog posting for a very helpful comparison of the wages faculty accept to other public service jobs) while playing into a system that simply does not give a hoot about the costs of work done with honesty, integrity and heart. If Bousquet is even close to the mark (and I think he is), it is no wonder people harbor bitterness or cultivate resignation.

For me, right now, it’s back to work on the student writing I’ve been reading since 5AM this morning, and then more work on a piece of writing I need to complete, before climbing back up on the ladder to continue painting the house in the afternoon sun.

Endings and Beginnings

Some Thoughts on Identity and Integrity

I’ve always been interested in considering more fully the too often neglected relationship between the developing inner life of a teacher and the varied paths teachers’ lives actually take. A number of years ago I found in the writing of Parker Palmer a useful starting point. In Palmer’s terms, a professional identity is a “moving intersection” of a reflective inner life and the outward expression of that life in the integrity of one’s work. Palmer, an educator, adds that this kind of “inward integration” enables the “outward connections on which good teaching depends” (15). In his book The  Courage to Teach Palmer goes on to say that “a vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self-in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm” (30). For Palmer, the costs of this division between dominant professional narratives and individuals who adopt them are not incidental. For “When I violate myself,” he goes on to say, “I invariably end up violating the people I work with. How many teachers inflict their own pain on their students, the pain that comes from doing work that never was, or no longer is, their true work?” (30). For me, Palmer provides a way to see more clearly how professional identities are determined through acculturation and accommodation-to the values, politics, and persons, of particular institutions, as well to the often harsh realities of academic labor.

Identity,” as Parker Palmer defines it, “lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death” (13). But how do we seek such connections in the diverse and often exploitative conditions of the academe? How do we make the right choices in institutions that do not have out interests in mind? Colleges and universities are, after all,  businesses that consists  of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders; that run on money and are  part of the economy; that produce a product called education; and that involves evaluation and sorting of individuals. How do we navigate the feudal organization of the academic institutions that are sustained by perpetuating calcified hierarchical structures complete with modern versions of nobility and serfs? How do we cultivate identity and integrity in institutions that operate with a reptilian brain, motivated only to survive and grow and that use individuals sustain the organism rather than as distinct persons with differing needs? How do we find alternative narratives that might allow us to break from the abstract norms of the profession, even if this means leaving higher education in the interests of wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death?

When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

I’ve been thinking a lot about staying alive by thinking about place.  One of the common situations for those of us that pursue intellectual work is finding one’s way into a life, as Wallace Stegner once put it, where a sense of place is a sense of motion.  I’m interested, then, in the consequences of mobility–the ways we respond to the risk of departures, the enigmas of arrivals, the ongoing challenges of coming to terms with a place-among those of us whose intellectual lives take us (whether by circumstance or by choice) in unexpected directions.

John has written eloquently about the challenges of mobility in “The Road of Exile,” the first chapter in his book The Cincinnati Arch. My own path back and forth across the country-from the oceans and mountains of the West to the fields and forests and rivers of New England-has kept me off kilter as well. A few years ago I wrote a commentary on some of the problems that many of us face as we undertake the move from graduate school to (if we are fortunate) to another college. “Where do you Teach?” questions the commonplace story of graduate students, trained in university-based programs, seeking the few coveted positions but mostly (and unfortunately) settling for jobs at second- or third-tier schools. As the story goes, there are desirable jobs, with course releases, research funding, upper-level seminars, and smart students; and there are less desirable jobs, with barely tolerable teaching loads, lower-level courses, and less-talented students. The myth is as pernicious as it is destructive. As I say in my commentary, “With the values and practices of the research university accepted as the profession-wide standard, we devote fewer of our intellectual energies to teaching, as well as to the ever more important engagements with public audiences who benefit from our work; we diminish the commitments of faculty whose intellectual work is organized around teaching undergraduate students, and whose reading and writing often arises from that work; and we disadvantage new PhDs struggling to imagine rewarding careers in English programs located outside the doctorate-granting institution.”

A few weeks ago, the subject of staying alive by thinking through place emrged in a commentary by the philosopher Gregory Pence in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “”How to be Happy in Academe,” Spence makes the case that to be happy in the academic world you need a job. He argues that while difficult to come by, academic  jobs require you to “work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field.” I guess Spence is mostly on the mark-at least as far as he goes. For in fact there is something very agreeable in the in the idea that we need to develop a sense of purpose and meaning right where we are.

But I really don’t think he goes far enough. My experiences tell me that the pragmatic advice in his “How to” essay neglects, even plays into, the seductions and betrayals of our professional lives. And my hope is that we might discuss further the ways our migratory patterns intersect with our struggles to build and sustain meaningful professional lives.