Earlier this week I attended a “faculty innovators” lunch offered by the computing center at my university. I like the people who work in that office and know how underutilized they are. We have some staff members who are genuinely want to hear from faculty about projects and tech use in their teaching, and these lunches are supposed to give us opportunities for that kind of dialogue.
In some ways, that dialogue happened. In other ways, it was kind of a disappointing meeting for me. Two people dominated the discussion, and when the computing staff members graciously asked follow-up questions to their long and mostly not-tech related commentary, the faculty members treated us all to more unrelated commentary that was, I think, pretty idiosyncratic. As in, “here are all my beefs about things at this school,” and said beefs were not beefs centrally about technology use, nor were they necessarily beefs that others in the room had. But these beefs somehow became something that the computing staff needed to care about, because two people were talking at length about them. Of course you can’t always know how idiosyncratic your beefs are until you air them and see how others respond, so I don’t really begrudge those who talked about their own concerns the whole meeting too much.
I think I could easily find myself doing the thing they were doing–my tenure woes often railroad all kinds of social interactions I have these days––but I’ve been airing them here, where nobody has to listen to me, and so at least in this one meeting, I didn’t even think to bring them up.
What disappointed me about the meeting wasn’t really that I wasn’t able to get a word in edge-wise. It was that at one point, one of the talkers–in another discipline and department–said to me, “you’re lucky you teach literature because you don’t have to do all this stuff. All you need is your textbook.” Then she added “I know because I used to teach literature and I still sneak it in my classes.” This comment came after an explanation of how she worked 60 hours a week on her teaching. Another person from a third department said he was shocked that she spent that much time, because he never did. This response led the other talker to then lay out something very similar to what I had written about in a post on course planning and why it was never simple and is always extremely time-consuming. When she was talking about the time she took to develop lessons and materials and to respond to student work, I remember thinking, “yes! so true!” a lot; I recognized a lot of what she was saying as the same stuff I struggle with. And I felt, as she might have, irritated at the other guy for suggesting one simply didn’t have to spend that much time on teaching. That kind of attitude always makes me feel resentful. Like, “how nice it must be for you to feel that way. If I was irresponsible like that, I could make things easier on myself too!”
I see in my own response that it’s not just resentfulness but also judgment of an almost-moral sort. I don’t like that I feel this judgment, but I can’t say I didn’t feel it. Which is why, when the talker then turned things on me, as if my job was so much easier than hers, that I was really taken aback. We were at a tech-innovators lunch, and she said to me that I had it easy because I didn’t need to use tech, just my textbook. Whereas I had felt real solidarity with her when she was talking about her workload, she was thinking of me as yet another person who wasn’t doing as much as her.
As a scholar, I could respond to her comment with an intellectual response. “Well, it’s interesting that you refer to books as if they too aren’t technologies with evolving material forms” or “you see, in my work on early modern print culture…” As a teacher whose subject matter is historical, I could also offer a number of ways in which sharing both words and images are central to my classroom practices–without both, it’s hard to bring students into the worlds represented in the works we read, blah blah blah.
But mostly I was thinking of what she said as a person. And a person who is sometimes tough and other times thin-skinned. And since then, I’ve been wondering about the causes and consequences of this phenomenon in academic and public settings.
The thing that gets me is that I do this too. In that meeting, as I already mentioned, I was already feeling implicitly embattled by the male colleague’s suggestion that one could spend more time on research and less on teaching at our university. When he suggested 60 hours was too much, I thought to myself “yeah, sure, if you only have 60 students and don’t teach writing, sure. But I have a lot more students than that and I have to teach writing.” I have to admit that that colleague lost all authority to speak on matters of workload for me when he said 60 hours was too much, because I assumed he didn’t have as many students as me, or as difficult a subject to assess. Never mind that he’s right that 60 hours a week is too much. So it’s almost humorous that just as I was feeling that way about him, the other person in the conversation turned it my way and she suggested the same about me.
Now, I could easily let all of this go. The conversation was actually really civil–no raised voices and no obvious anger was expressed. When the same person suggested that a colleague in Journalism, who arrived late, was also “lucky” she didn’t need to do x or y, that person just laughed it off. I didn’t say a word to contradict what this person had implied about the ease of my teaching either. I didn’t really feel that it was necessary to dispel of her anything. I know I work hard, I know I struggle with my job and career and personal aspirations; I don’t need a colleague in another department to know this about me.
I probably wouldn’t even say anything about it here, except for something I saw yesterday in relation to that same blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago about course planning. In that post, I made the point that it’s hard to stomach words about teaching from people who we see as being “elite” members of the profession because they don’t teach nearly as much as we do. I also noted that the “we”–the non-elites–were actually a pretty amorphous group ourselves, and that actually even amongst the bigger “we,” there was considerable variation in our loads. I also tried to acknowledge that people who taught even more courses/students than I did could rightly say that my own comments did not apply to them. That was the point of my post, that anytime people start conversations about teaching, it was a reminder that our workloads are really different, and what works for some of “us” won’t work for those who are even more burdened. I didn’t get into the financial end of things in part because I was talking about workload, and compensation is obviously related, but also a whole ‘nother can of worms. I left it at “BUT: our working conditions are always related!”–and made this very point in more concrete terms in a couple other posts too–and noted that people needed to speak up when people’s comments about teaching did not apply to them.
So in that post, I did what my colleague did to me by suggesting that Tenured Radical had it easier than most of “us”––though I did make an effort to acknowledge that I was sure she worked hard at her teaching, that everybody does who actually cares about the job. I think one of the worst things we do as academics is impugn people’s work ethic. And yet…it’s very hard not to. We all know people that we are pretty sure don’t work as hard as we do. I think that about people in my own department. I think that about people I meet at conferences. And now, in addition to my colleague in another department, some folks have made clear on the New Faculty Majority’s Facebook page, have suggested the same about me, or at least suggested that I dismissed the factors that make their workload very different from mine.
I’m not on Facebook, so I can’t participate in that conversation there, even though I can see it. I did respond briefly on twitter that I thought the comments were uncharitable, and unfortunately, I also used the word “unfair.” I should know better than to use the word unfair. Basically, only privileged people use that word, and it automatically earns those who use it the appearance of a whiny baby or teenager. “I can’t have the red car? But that’s soooo unfaaaaaair!!!”
What I meant was that I think the characterization of me and my post was unfair. Here’s what the comments said:
I don’t know if I suggested there was no class system in my post; I certainly didn’t mean to dismiss the economic factors. If anything, I meant to say to acknowledge that it wasn’t helpful to say there were 1% and the rest of “us” because the rest of us were all in very different positions, some of them significantly suckier and more deplorable than others. For what it’s worth, I don’t think mine sucks, though I of course know my employment situation is a bit of a f#$king mess. I specifically mentioned the New Faculty Majority in my post because I wanted to make clear that members of these ranks were teaching at multiple institutions, and it was harder still to generalize about teaching load because those loads were obscured by institutions that limited how much they could teach at any one place. I should have said it more explicitly, but that’s what I was going for. I never meant to suggest they don’t teach much–in fact, I meant to say they HAVE TO teach a lot more, and do so all over the place, in a way that means their actual workload doesn’t get calculated in the way it should. I really should have laid that out more explicitly, but I am a windy-prose writer, and I’m always thinking these posts are too long. (My prose style has been called “elliptical” by some.)
In my post, I admitted that my 3/3 is a light load compared to some. I also said I was lucky to teach what I teach. I know this. I am privileged in many, many ways. And I’m sure for precisely these reasons, it was a bit rich that my post was about how some professors are privileged and don’t know how much work others are doing. It seems to have implied for some people, anyway, that I didn’t know how much work adjuncts are doing.
I don’t want to further offend by saying, “well of course I do!” or “some of my best friends are adjuncts.” I don’t know what to say, really, except that I have always wanted to convey respect for adjuncts and dismay for the conditions in which they are forced to work. And in almost every post I’ve written on this blog, I have stressed the point that my own career problems are very much tied to those that adjuncts have faced, and though I know I’m in a significantly better circumstance financially, the long-tried attempts to keep our labor conditions separate are only exacerbating the problems that are detrimental to all of us and our students. I think our students will survive, but I don’t think we will this way.
Last semester I did a class project on adjuncts because I wanted students to learn about academic labor and see for themselves what their university was doing. I am trying to do this work in the way I can. As for the question of when I finished grad school, well, that information is in my bio. I think this kind of question suggests that people in the FB thread might not have actually read my post. If you really want to know my age and experience, it wouldn’t take hardly any effort to know that if you just click on the tab above.
There, it says I left grad school in 2005. My understanding of adjunct labor, though, started in 1996, when I started grad school at Ohio State. I shared an office with a person named Pat (and about 20 other people). Pat had finished her PhD a couple years prior to that. One day I came into the office and said I had trouble parking. Did she have any tips about times where parking would be easier to find? Pat said no, and noted that she wasn’t able to park on campus; as an adjunct, she wasn’t eligible for parking. Until then, it had only briefly occurred to me that it was weird that I, a newly minted BA, was sharing an office with a somewhat newly minted PhD. But when she said she couldn’t get a parking decal, I saw the bigger picture start to emerge more clearly. Obviously, parking is only one tiny facet of this picture; office space only another of many. At the time, OSU didn’t give health insurance to grad students, but we could use the medical school for low cost care. Between that and Planned Parenthood, I was covered, but I was also young and didn’t think about my health. But I did see the way things worked for my office mate and I was appalled by it–even though I was 22 years old and clueless about almost everything.
I left OSU after 2 years and went to Texas, where the composition program ran almost entirely without adjuncts. Lester Faigley presented this fact as a point of pride to the new class of graduate instructors. I didn’t think about adjunct labor at my own institution much for that reason, though I did read CHE and other publications that occasionally did a report on it. It wasn’t all that often that they did such stories, as far as I knew, but I was cognizant that I was in a bubble even then.
After I finished the PhD (9 years total), I worked for nearly a year at a desk job at the university, salaried for half of that at about 27K/yr. It was a “good” job to me because I was making more than I had made as a grad student and I didn’t have school loans (thanks public/state education–they used to work). I was lucky to have this low paying job. I got it because the office needed somebody in a pinch and I was free. And it was an office where there were a couple English PhDs already working–probably the only reason I got the job. I was super, super lucky, and then I got luckier: after 2 years on the academic job market, I got a full-time faculty job.
And I got a job at a place with an AAUP chapter. Texas is a right to work state, and though I was a member of the Texas State Employees Union, that unit couldn’t bargain on our behalf–they could basically help us organize, help us reach all employees by translating material in different languages, etc. It was new to me to be in a union that could actually bargain. I owe my 2-year extension to the AAUP.
And my AAUP chapter is, by all accounts, now more concerned with adjunct labor than it’s ever been. We have about 1000 adjuncts working at any given semester, and roughly half of them are members of the union. One (non union member) is a former student of mine, another is a collaborator, a union rep, and (I like to think) a co-conspirator. She and another member of the Composition department (67% adjuncts) came to my class to talk about what it means to be an adjunct. Just asking them to come made me feel badly–I didn’t want to be the reason they spent an additional hour on campus–but they were great and so helpful for my students and, I hope, were glad to have an opportunity to enlighten students about things the university doesn’t tell them in their promotional materials.
I don’t say this to say I’m the best advocate for adjuncts. I know I’m not. My own job is insecure, and though I try to be brave, I also bend over backwards to couch what I did in the classroom in pedagogical terms and was very desirous the whole time to avoid the stress of having students question my motives for bringing the subject of academic labor into a class that could be about lots of other things. I still remember my time teaching at texas, where you could be accused of “politics” at any moment, and find yourself on the defensive instead of teaching your class. And I’m also not the best advocate I could be because I’m still young, still “junior” in many ways, and still figuring out what I am supposed to do or can do. I’m disgusted with the way universities run, but I have a 2 year contract, need physical therapy, and want to finish my book. I can’t help wanting to hold on to my insurance while I have it, retreat into my book, finish that personal goal, and then figure out how or whether to leave academia. I fear they’re going to terminate me one way or the other anyway, so in these two years on salary, I have a lot to do.
But I am privileged even with that 2 year extension. I know. However, I’m still not sure this fact alone validates the comments up there. I’m “grousing”–I used the word “kvetching” in my own post, so I’ll allow the charge of “grumpy” and “grousing”–here on this blog because I’m not on Facebook and am not going to open an account there.
What is crushing is that I think we’re all so pushed by these factors outside of our control that we’re starting to compete for last place. Who’s being shit on by our academic institutions the most, who’s working the worst hours, in contrast to who’s doing the least for anybody and just taking up resources and space. The worst part is knowing there’s all kinds of truth there amidst the knee-jerk assumptions. We know deep in our hearts that this or that person isn’t really stressing or laboring–and there’s SO much confirmation of this lack of effort everywhere that allows us to maintain these deeply held feelings! But how do we treat one another when this is how we think?
I know I’m not in last place–I’m not even a contender. I guess I never intended to say I was, though I think like anybody, when Tenure Radical was telling us to change our assignments, I just wanted somewhere to say “Okay, I will, but you know that’s hard, right?” I keep coming back to this idea that in addition to our own sense of how hard we work, we do a lot of projecting of the opposite on others, assuming their privilege and finding that privilege in and of itself to be reason to dismiss anything they say. Again, I’ve done it–and again, find myself doing it against my best efforts–too. Being on the “other side” of it in the past week is a small shock to the system, but it’s not surprising. The academy has always been this way, I suppose, except it seems a little bit new to me to think that the competition now works in both directions. Obviously people don’t really want to be in the worst position in academia, but we all seem to have trouble when we perceive others as having less to complain about and find them complaining.
I don’t know how to conclude this post. I think it is not unrelated to other conversations going on in more prominent places, like here and here. I don’t want to ask for greater civility because I once had to teach a Stephen Carter book and, well, usually calls for that kind of conduct are really just gross (and this guy explains why quite well). I’m not always one of those “can’t we all just get along” people either, though I do want to have friendships and good working relationships. Nobody has any obligation to like me or identify with my experience, and I don’t want to appeal to people to please respect me or be my friend with the assumption that I somehow deserve that. I don’t. Regardless, I also don’t want to be a jerk to anybody, period. So I guess the best way to end is to just say if anybody still thinks I’m grumpy and whiny and a jerk, do so, but know too that I am genuinely sorry that I’ve come across that way, and, admittedly, am sorry that I could possibly truly actually be that way to some people.
I can only say to that I want a better academia than what we have, and i’m still trying to decide what my place in this one should or will be. Exchanges where I feel defensive may be instructive about that, and maybe even productive for me and others too. They also may make me stop writing here, block everybody that I feel hurt by on twitter, and focus on my book and teaching. I should do those last two anyway. People have the right to dismiss what I say and shrug and maintain I am part of the problem. They may be right.
Update: as I was finishing this, I saw a tweet from Maria at New Faculty Majority:
I really appreciate this response, very much. This organization has done so much to get us all talking. So I will just end with: thanks to everyone/anyone who’s reading for also listening.