Resisting Burnout is Revolutionary: Marisol Cortez at ASLE

by Sarah Jaquette Ray

At the 2017 ASLE conference, Marisol Cortez, of, talked about the importance of slowing down our feverish reactivity to “multiplying crises” of environmental injustices, climate change, the ascendance of white supremacy, etc.  (You can find her paper now published here).

Marisol and her partner, Greg Harman, have experienced debilitating mental health problems, prompting them to leave their secure jobs for the precarious lives of freelance writers and activists.  She talked about the “disabling assumption” that our “bodies can sustain constant conflict, constant crisis.”  She bemoaned the fact that all such action– chasing fire after fire, working, working, working to resist– reflects a logic of capitalist extraction, a “production imaginary” undermining capitalist growth ideology, that affects corporate life for sure, but also academia and even grassroots activism.

earth snail
In contrast, she said, deceleration, degrowth, is a praxis of environmental justice.  The “logic of ‘not-enoughness’ is disabling to activism.”  In other words, the overwhelming feeling we all have to increase the amount of work we do in response to the increased urgency and onslaught of crises is not sustainable to the “marathon” (Bullard’s word) of environmental justice.

Thinking of the “pace of life” expectations around productivity (in the corporate sphere but less obviously so, in the grassroots sphere) as “disabling” is so brilliant. Cortez just blew my mind.

Finally, Cortez rejects “resistance” on the grounds that it nurtures conflict– the very conflict that disables us.  It “internalizes not-enoughness”, while “deceleration rejects our exhaustion with resistance,” which can be “boring” and “joyless.”  Drawing on Gloria Anzaldua, Cortez proposes instead that “inner work, public acts” is a better mantra to live by.   I love that Cortez engages disability studies’ critique of productivity in her talk, politicizing self-care and mental health as central to (as opposed to an elitist luxury getting in the way of) environmental justice.

She cites the 2017 anthology Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era as a key inspiration for her ideas; in it, an essay on “care” — especially care of the self– argues (as I understood Cortez’s summary to say), that we should resist the debilitating forces of production, exhaustion, not-enoughness, action, extraction of our labor, acceleration, accumulation, and the emotional and affective results of these values (despair, nihilism, impotence, depression, etc).

Although the feminist in me bristles a bit when somebody tells me that “care” is the antidote to capitalism, I take her point. I never feel I have the time it takes to properly care for myself, my family, critters, and my friends and loved ones. I resent those humans and non-humans that demand care from me, because I am compelled, torn to do the important work so needed to resist, valued “work” that I imagine happening external to the banality of my domestic life.

But what Cortez is saying, I think, is that I needn’t feel so conflicted, and that if I prioritized care, I might care for myself as much as the other critters that need care, instead of cutting self-care in favor of hard work and care of others.  In short, Cortez’s paper prompts me to rethink the complexity of “care”, especially as the discourse of “self-care” surfaces as the key to long-term scholar-activism in a post-election moment.

I was struck by the arguments about temporality implicit in Cortez’s paper.  She talked about the work of environmental justice that is invisible even within the counter-hegemonic work of justice, the slow, daily, monotonous work that is taboo and uncool in the fight to “resist”: meditation, writing, thinking, creating, tending to relationships, tending to our joys and loves. She says that our unwillingness to “count” this work as valuable is a reflection not of our selfishness or our inadequate commitment to justice, but rather of the capitalist logic of extraction and productivity.

If Rob Nixon’s theory of “slow violence” helps make visible the forms of violence caused by environmental injustices dispersed and displaced across time, then perhaps what we might call “slow activism” (which may not even look like activism as we know it) surely is the response to surviving it.


SarahJRaySarah Jaquette Ray teaches at Humboldt State University, where she also leads the program in Environmental Studies. Her research and teaching focus on environmental justice, race, identity, and environmental discourse, affect, and pedagogy. She confesses to spending most of her time these days wishing she could find time to write about pedagogy, interdisciplinarity, parenting, resilience, climate justice, friendship, eco-grief, and critical hope. Sarah maintains the blog “Writing at the End of the World”, where this post first appeared, and serves on the Executive Council of ASLE.


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?

Teaching as Vocation, Profession, and Job

Mark Twain once memorably remarked, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The same could be said of teaching. It’s what we do, it’s part of our identity, it’s what we get paid for. But do we really understand it? Do we really want to think about it? Above all, do we really want to look closely at our own practice and try to improve it?

My own experience suggest we do not. As a young assistant professor at an avowedly teaching institution, I was put on the “teaching methods committee”, which sounded like a great assignment until our first meeting. After about half an hour it became clear that everyone around the table thought of themselves as good teachers, were comfortable with their own methods, and were reluctant to engage in any surveys, interviews, observations, or discussions that might lead to questioning or challenging the methods of their colleagues. I could feel the resistance build, thicken, and congeal; by the end, it was stiff and opaque as wax. No change or knowledge would be coming from this committee.

What was going on? I liked my colleagues; they were all devoted teachers, well-read and empathic toward students; they were good citizens in the campus community. Why would they resist learning and self-improvement? Why would they not want to engage their colleagues in dialogue about our essential work?

In my own case, the resistance seemed easy to understand. I was young, untenured, and under the gun. It was an anxious state, but I was used to it. Everyone expected people like me to be earnest, motivated, and nervous. But what about the others? Something else must account for their resistance.

In reflecting on this meeting, and many situations like it over the years, I’ve found it helpful to think about teaching across the three dimensions of persona, profession, and institution. As a vocation, teaching is something that many of us love to do for its own sake. It comes naturally, draws on our native ability to empathize and communicate, feeds our spirits with the satisfaction of nurturing our students’ growth. To pursue your calling is to follow your bliss, to feel the joy that comes when your work and your identity move into phase.

Teaching at its most satisfying and effective always rests on a personal transaction between the teacher and the student, where the teacher’s passion and excitement sparks a kindred interest. That is why most learning actually occurs outside of class, and why teaching is so hard to evaluate. What works for one student may not work for another, and the results may not be apparent for years. True teaching arises out of relation, as Martin Buber observed, and how can you measure a relationship?

Evaluation is of most concern to the profession and the institution. The profession consists of one’s (mostly senior) colleagues, who function like a club or a guild: to get in you must qualify and must also be chosen. In practice the boundary between these criteria tends to blur. Much time and effort go into rationalizing decisions about the merits of someone’s work that have been made quite subjectively. And “peer review” is simply another name for professional privilege, besides being a contradiction in terms: how can the parties be considered equal when one has the power to judge the other? All professions work to secure their own existence; they assiduously protect their identity, status, and privileges, and academia is no exception. When you are on the inside, tenured and all, one of your privileges is not having to be evaluated; that’s one reason, I think, that my senior colleagues on the teaching methods committee did not want to investigate. They did not want to rock the boat by challenging, even implicitly, the privilege of their colleagues. That’s how they all got along.

The institution also comes into play. In this context, teaching is merely a job. More on that next time.

Publish or Perish: It’s Not What You Think

We all know that in academia, publication is the coin of the realm, no matter what they say about teaching. The old maxim “Publish or perish” nails this harsh truth to the door.  But there is more to it than meets the eye, as I learned years ago from my undergraduate mentor, who gave me my first lesson in staying alive.

I met Peter Bien as a freshman at Dartmouth.  He was recently tenured, renowned as a teacher, famous for packed lectures and demanding assignments.  I was a hotshot freshman, infatuated with all kinds of arcane knowledge from quantum physics to Finnegans Wake and eager for a career in teaching.  I took his freshman seminar, where we read Ulysses, and the next year he invited me to give a talk in his course on the modern novel.

At the time I thought Finnegans Wake was the coolest thing ever written, and lecturing in his class would be like playing basketball with Michael Jordan.  I spent weeks generating nifty ideas, choosing evocative quotes, and diagramming narrative structures and cosmogonic cycles. (This was the 1960’s, long before Powerpoint).  When the big day came, I arrived at the lecture hall laden with books and notes and lugging an overhead projector. The talk went smoothly and ended with a burst of applause.

Professor Bien and I walked back to his office, he silent, I flushed with excitement. I expected some sort of acknowledgement, at least a pat on the back, but he said nothing.  Finally, I mumbled something like, “Well, that went well.”  More silence.  Desperate, I added, “I hardly expected applause.”  He turned to me with a faint smile.  “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t put too much stock in the adulation of undergraduates.”

Talk about a punch to the gut! This was my mentor and role model, a campus legend, and I was certainly one admiring undergraduate.  How could he say that?  Worse, how could he feel that?  He must have realized at once that I was way too young for this kind of truth offered straight up with no chaser.  He quickly added , “You must realize, and you will, if you get into this business, that your students are always coming in fresh and new, while you are always growing and learning.  It is important to subject your ideas to the scrutiny of your peers; otherwise you will never know if they are any good.  You need to publish in order to stay alive.”

Over the years this conversation has stood in my memory as a landmark.  Even then, Professor Bien led a very convincing life, balancing teaching and scholarship with fatherhood, citizenship, and spirituality. He respected his students too much to withhold the tough love that was intertwined with his passion for the material.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that scholarship is about more than making the grade or clearing the tenure hurdle.  It’s about feeding the fire of your curiosity and creativity to produce enough light and warmth to nurture your students, your community, and your own life as well.

The Trouble with Teaching and Scholarship

In 2007 the MLA Committee on Professional Employment published a Report on evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion. The following year, Dana Ringuette observed that his institution had (for some time) been doing eighteen of the twenty recommendations. He concludes that the conversation about scholarship has been overdetermined by the PhD granting institutions and that research professors have not thought through “what it means to be primarily a teacher in a community of research, writing, and scholarly exchange” (“We Need to Talk“). The ambivalence and uncertainty about the relationship between scholarship and teaching, Ringuette goes on to say, suggests the need for a far reaching conversation about what we do.

Scholarship and teaching–reading and writing on the one hand, and teaching on the other–are difficult to sustain no matter where one happens to be. To some degree, academic institutions  expect those on the tenure-track faculty to engage in scholarship through the phases of their academic careers. And given the relatively high teaching loads and expectations for service to the college and community the same questions come up year after year. What is the between scholarship and teaching? How might we nurture our intellectual lives as both scholars and as teachers? The persistence of these questions suggests the need for new language to define the relationship between scholarship and teaching. We need to move beyond de-contextualized generalizations about the life of the mind and inspired manifestos about our humanistic commitments. And we need more than definitions of teaching as a form of scholarship. Instead we need stories that foreground our lives as teachers and that define our intellectual work around our primary function and teachers and educators.  In short, we need fewer complaints about intellectual lives out of step with the mission and values of our colleges and more examples of striving to take advantage of the less-then-ideal situations in which we find ourselves.