Thursday, February 27, 2014

On Being That Which You Question

It's been six months, but most of the time it feels like I've been in the Faculty of Graduate Studies for as long as I can remember. My days as a full-time PhD student feel like they happened a very long time ago, and a lot has changed. My writing related anxieties (and they were many, and sometimes debilitating) have entirely disappeared, replaced with an affection for my dissertation and the writing process that brings me much joy. No longer worried about making myself attractive on the job market as a Canadianist, I'm delightedly pursuing my other academic passion, which is writing, reading, and talking about doctoral reform, graduate professional development, and post-PhD pathways. I have a decent professional wardrobe, and I finally figured out a quick but put-together hairstyle (a.k.a. have been too busy to get a haircut and it just happened to grow out nicely). Instead of frequently being the oldest person in the room, surrounded by students, I'm quite often the youngest, and more often patronized than I would like. I usually identify myself as a fellow PhD student when I'm working with graduate students, but not when I'm working with other staff. I have people to delegate to, and wish there were more of us to share the work. I've seen inside the sausage factory, as Kim Yates delightfully puts it in her great essay about taking a staff position post-PhD, and I'm only mildly horrified.

Some things, however, remain much the same:

1) Impostor syndrome doesn't just go away when you change jobs (file this under "things I knew but chose not to believe"), and it has cropped up in all sorts of weird places. Like at our monthly Research Officers meeting where my predecessor, now in a different Faculty, commented that my pay band was totally out of line. I was just about to chime in with "I know! I can't believe what I make!" when she continued "they SO don't pay you enough. That job is hard." Oh. Or when I presented at a big provincial conference for higher education professionals earlier this month and worried that I would reveal that I was doing my job totally wrong, and then found out that I was doing it pretty much like everyone else, and pretty damn well for someone who is learning everything as she goes. Or when I was invited to give a talk at another university and realized that I get to take a train (my favourite thing!) and be away from the office for the day and get paid for it (rather than, as with conferences, end up in the hole).

2) My academic credibility hasn't vanished overnight; if anything, it's increasing in some areas. I'm getting asked to do more invited talks than ever before. I have a major new publication on the books, and I'm working out a collaboration with one of the country's major advocates for doctoral reform. My academic network is expanding across the border in useful and interesting ways. And perhaps best, I get to do the work, to build the reputation, to do the research, to share the knowledge, without having to reenter the structure of the professoriate. At the same time, I'm realizing that finishing my PhD remains necessary to achieving my #alt-ac goals, which is a good question to have answered.

3) And speaking of vanishing, neither (I'm both pleased and disconcerted to find) has my wariness of academic administration, despite my being firmly ensconced within it. I'm admittedly not very far into the beast--I'm only one step away from our graduate programs on the organizational chart, and when I'm not liaising with the government or other granting agencies, I work directly with graduate students, faculty, and student services. A fair part of my job is teaching, mostly in the realm of professional skills and grant writing. Critiques of administrative bloat, outsize salaries, and blatant self-interest are, for me, in sharp contrast to the leanness of our Faculty's operations--we have a reputation for being the busiest and toughest Faculty to work in--and just how deeply the folks I work with care about grad student success. Those critiques don't seem to apply to us.

But then I attempt to mentally picture the structure of the university that sits over my head, in all of its many many layers, and realize that I can't completely wrap my head around a structure of its size and complexity. I realize just how newly created the positions are of some people I work with (even my position has only existed in its current form since the year I started my PhD), how many of those new administrative positions there are, and how desperately we fought during our last adjunct strike to get two tenure-stream conversions. I hear from Aimée that her office has curtains from 1972 while the administration building at her university is doubling in size. I try to explain to our President's manager of communications, who started not long before I did, how polarizing a figure he (and his salary, and his car, and his housing allowance) was during our last labour dispute, which was centred on fair compensation and job security for contingent faculty. I see efforts duplicated, resources misdirected, politics getting in the way of getting things done. I work to bring to the table the perspective of graduate students, the people we're serving, a perspective that sometimes gets lost with a group of people who never were grad students, or who haven't been one for a long time. And I try to reconcile my long years of being a graduate student, at a university where grads tend to have a critical and indeed antagonistic relationship with administration, with my few months as just one of those administrators. That reconciliation hasn't happened yet. 

But maybe, as tiring as the internal contradiction can sometimes be, that's a good thing. I don't want to become an administrator who forgets what it's like to be a student. I don't want to accept the structures and the processes of the university as the status quo if there's a better way we could do things. I don't want to feel entitled to my job, or indispensable, when most of my academic friends are still vying for an infinitesimally small number of stable faculty positions. I don't want to identify as an administrator to the point that legitimate critiques of the structure I'm in make me defensive, or challenge my sense of identity, rather than inspire me to work on the problems they identify. So I'm going to hang on to that questioning, that suspicion, that critical distance, that impostor syndrome for as long as I can. I took this job because I passionately believe in the value of graduate education, and because I want to be somewhere that lets me make a real and tangible difference in the lives of graduate students and in the ways that the academy supports and trains them. And if I can keep on asking those questions, I'll do those things better.

But remind me to read this in ten years.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In Defence of Turgid Prose: A[nother] Response to Nicholas Kristof

A couple times recently, I've had to answer the very difficult question of what kind of "impact" my dissertation project might have on the world. The first time I was faced with it when I was required to present a very embryonic piece of my proposal at a university colloquium: one of my co-panelists, from the philosophy department, asked me what relevance my dissertation on medieval dream visions has to the contemporary world. The second time I've had to answer it was last week, during a phone interview for a prestigious fellowship. Both times this question came from other people working within the academic sphere, and thus people who we might assume are on "our side"--but both times, I stuttered and faltered for much of a substantive answer. It's a question that I would like to work out better for myself and become more fluent in addressing--and I can, I think. Indeed, we should want the work we invest so much time and energy in to have some sort of life-changing quality, if only in terms of the degree to which we perceive and continually re-perceive the world around us.

But that said, as most of us know, the term "impact" carries a lot of baggage in the context of the modern, corporatizing, increasingly neoliberal institution; academics in the United Kingdom have been plagued with this word "impact," often meeting with funding refusals if the impact of the research project is gauged to be minimal or, worse, politically threatening. The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof's inflammatory article from last week on why academics have become "irrelevant" and "marginalized" calls upon this very language of impact as part of its attack: "A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience." Much of the problem, he claims, is based on academic publishing's composition standards, which to him promote "turgid prose," and one should also note his embedded snub at leftism in universities, and his defense of Republican-dominated economics. He cites a Harvard historian who, as an exception to his rule, writes for The New Yorker: academic institutions produce “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

Kristoff's editorial has produced a medley of variously excoriating, thoughtful, and defiant rebuttals--including Corey Robin's, which remarks upon Kristof's complete disregard of the material conditions that prevent untenured scholars from fully engaging in the public sphere ("It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism"), and Laura Tanenbaum's, which manages to say almost as much as Robin does in 2% of the word count (The very form of her brief address, in intelligible and concise prose, launches a challenge to Kristof's assumptions). The New Yorker also chimed in with the rather defeatest claim that it is not professors who are "marginalizing themselves," as Kristof suggests, but "the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal." Kristof's comment that academics are "slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook" has inspired its own string of disgruntled pearls in the form of the hashtag #engagedacademics. A month ago, I tried to plea for more engaged and reckless politics on Facebook. And additionally, Mr. Kristof, may I hold up for your scrutiny the existence of Hook & Eye (which, though powered by women writing within the academic institution, is certainly not confined to that institution in terms of readership or concerns, as I think each contributor has demonstrated at various points).

I have one more cry to add to the anti-Kristof chorus, in particular against his attack on what he deems turgid prose. Is academic writing so turgid? And if it sometimes attains a level of obscurity, is that always a bad thing? Of course, we all want to be heard and understood, and our prose should never be obscure for the sake of obscurity--only the worst kind of writers opt for flowery writing in order to doll up a weak argument. But sometimes, I submit, obscurity can serve a political purpose. Faced with a governing institution that demands we translate the value of our research into economic and marketable terms, it may be a political and ethical act to resist the urge to simplify and make our research legible to the vocabulary of merit and progress. This idea is not mine, of course--I'm drawing it from none other than Judith Butler in her excellent essay "Ordinary, Incredulous," in the brand new book, The Humanities and Public Life, published by Fordham University Press (omg, an academic press engaged in the public sphere! Shocking!). As she defiantly puts it, "[i]f obscurity is sometimes the necessary corrective to what has become obvious, so be it" (33). Her essay addresses the problem of speaking out in favor of the humanities without falling into the very language of instrumentality that is used by its detractors:
Socially and politically, we are in a bind because the imperative to 'save' the humanities often propels us into states of urgency in which we imagine that the only future left to us will be one secured precisely through those metrics of value that are most in need of critical re-evaluation. Oddly, our very capacity for critically re-evaluating is what cannot be measured by the metrics by which the humanities are increasingly judged. This means that the resource we need to save the humanities is precisely one that has been abandoned by the metrics that promise to save the humanities if only we comply. (32-33)
This is the double bind: we want to prove to funding organizations and the government that the work of the humanities is valuable. But in order to do that, we need to fulfill their criteria for what constitutes value and what doesn't--we need to speak the language that the neoliberal institution demands of us, and that language is often coded in instrumental terms of tangibility and productivity that are antithetical to the very nature of the humanities. What we do must have concrete use value that is recognizable to the broader world. But as Butler describes, much of the value of the humanities lies in their ability foster critical re-evaluation, to learn to read and reread the world and texts around us--to question and challenge the pervasive "climate of the obvious" (25) that assumes that profitable "impact" is something to be desired. So we resist "use value" and tangibility through our practices of reading and critiquing, and these critical capacities are antithetical, indeed actually dangerous, to the metrics that are offered to the humanities as saving resources. So, in short, if we want to save the humanities we have to abandon the humanities.

Butler asks, "[i]s instrumentality the only way we have of thinking about what it means to make a difference?" (29). She challenges us to think about the notion of impact in different ways, to redefine what it means to speak to the "public" and to reclaim the humanities as a valuable--I hesitate to say profitable--resource for society (and if anyone is a public intellectual, it's J.B.!). Sometimes our careful and deliberate critical re-evaluations of society may result in prose that is viewed by some, like Kristof, as "turgid." But through this putatively obscure (but actually just nuanced, evaluative, and sensitive) prose, we may learn to challenge and perhaps redefine the metrics of of the obvious that are forcing us, in this current difficult academic climate, to give an account of ourselves as academics working within the discipline of the humanities.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In praise of blank spaces

My phone battery died just as I was about to take the dog out for his walk last night. This infuriated me. I use my dog walking time to call my parents every day, and sometimes my sister, and if I can't get anyone on the phone I listen to work-related podcasts. What on earth was I going to do for half an hour while walking the dog, with no phone?

[Pause while some of us try to remember a time before iPhones, and how we used to walk dogs then too, somehow ...]

What I did was this: I listened to my own boots squash through the snow. I looked at how all the neighbourhood condo construction projects are progressing. I noted the progress of the sunset through bare trees. I felt the tip of my nose get cold. I felt the in and out of my own breath, and then, finally, the un-crunching of my shoulders away from my ears.

Like white space in visual design, just doing nothing during my walk gave everything else a bit of room. I needed it.

Last week I was on the verge of tears. Then I took the holiday weekend to drive Way the Hell Up North and back, with my daughter. Now the washing machine is busted and I have insomnia from reading too many books at bedtime. When I woke up yesterday, I felt like hell. 7am felt like 2am and the day got worse from there. I had one phone meeting about a workshop I'm running in the spring, and wrote one email. That was it. I didn't even load the dishwasher, or read one page of research, or grade one participation activity. I had two naps, and went out for lunch. I berated myself on Facebook for wasting my own time, but then continued to waste it, all day. I skipped yoga. I watched two episodes of 30 Rock with my husband and called it a night. Ugh.

I'm a big advocate of making efficient use of my time (see the quite popular post on the 30 minute miracle to that effect). But in the same way that a one page research summary of 400 words can sometimes convey more and better information than a margin-fiddled, font-optimized one page research summary of 900 words, sometimes, the 30 minute miracle I need is more white space.

So today I'm asking myself:
  • What if I walked across campus to class without using that time to eat my lunch?
  • What if I could wait at the bus stop without reading all the top stories in the New York Times?
  • What if I could walk the dog without having to stop to scribble notes from the podcast I'm listening to?
  • What if I could just watch Magic Schoolbus with my daughter instead of also trying to answer student emails at the same time?
There's a point at which, I find, efficiency ceases to increase returns, and starts to become counterproductive. Certainly, it's difficult to adopt a position of mindfulness when you're trying to walk to class and eat at the same time, or puzzle out the balance between security and freedom on the internet while on the nature trail. Somewhere beyond the point where I could see that 15 minutes of time in my office between meetings could be well used, I forgot that sometimes it's enough to do one thing at a time, even if that one thing is to lie down on the floor with the cat on my chest, feeling her purring.

So here's to the blank spaces and what they do for us.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In Praise of Sleep

It's Reading Break! Phew....

Somehow I've managed to get halfway through my first semester of teaching, and coincidentally, half way through my first stack of papers. I've been grading leisurely this past week, with curling in the background (the Canadian Women's Curling Championships ended a week ago), finally with space, it seems, to breathe.

This past weekend was one of the most relaxing I've had in quite some time. With no teaching pressures for the next week, I wasn't trying to cram every spare moment with reading, writing lectures, or class prep of some sort or another. I took my daughter to an indoor playground, baked muffins, slept in, lazed around my house in my pajamas, and vacuumed my whole house for the first time in (gulp) over six months. It was really nice.

If I haven't said so before, I'm going to say it now: teaching for the first time is intense and exhausting. Selecting books and writing the syllabus aside, the weekly lecture writing, assignment creation, and grading (my students do weekly reading responses), has made me, well...a bit frazzled. So far, I've been managing (with only a week of major slip-ups) to stick to my semester goal to keep my teaching prep to teaching days, write two days a week, and spend daily and weekend time with my family. But it has come at a cost: my sleep.

Sleep has been shown to be essential to all kinds of things: memory, focus, and concentration, safety, immune function, cardiovascular health...I could go on. But one of the things I've just started to piece together about myself and sleep is that when I don't get enough of it, my stress levels go up exponentially. It doesn't matter if all my work is done or if I'm fully on top of all my responsibilities, if I'm not getting enough sleep, I'm stressed. Period. And stress, apparently, does not do good things to your brain.

You'd think being several years into a PhD program would mean that I would have already figured out this crucial bit of information. But, believe it or not, PhD + Baby ≠ deep and intimate knowledge of the value of sleep. Although I've learned to deeply appreciate the moments when I have the "luxury" of sleep, I've failed to make it a priority.

This reading week, I'm determined change that, and I'm hoping my resolve will stick around for the semester. 

Do you prioritize sleep? Or is it often the first thing that falls to the wayside when you're busy?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Animal Magnetism

I want to write something about being a university administrator in an time when the ills of the university are being blamed, almost solely, on the bloatedness and the bad decision making of the administrative ranks. I can't, just yet. I haven't figured out how to write it in a way that accurately reflects the inherent contradiction of simultaneously being a graduate student, one critical of the administration, and one of the very administrators of which I have so long been critical. I also haven't figured out how to write about that contradiction in a way that doesn't make me feel like I'm risking my professional stability and credibility. So instead, I'm writing about pets. Give me time. 


Collectively, the ladies of Hook and Eye have quite the menagerie of furry companions. Erin has her two gorgeous rescue pups, Felix and Marley. Aimee shares her lap with a cat named Lulu and a whippet named Buddy. Boyda has sweet marmalade Theo. And I have this handsome guy. His name, for reasons of size, sweetness, shyness, and my partner's unaccountable love of terrible teenage dance movies, is Moose.

I didn't think I wanted a cat. When we rescued Moose just more than a year ago, the deal was that I'd get a Greyhound rescue and my partner Alex would get a cat. As we waited for the Greyhound organization we had chosen to schedule a pickup run to an American racetrack, we went looking for a feline friend. I don't know what it was about Moose's adoption listing, but it caught me despite (or perhaps because of) its open acknowledgement of his shyness and anxiety. We went to visit the home where Moose had been fostered for the last year, for a whole year after being abandoned, and didn't get to meet him. He wouldn't come out from under the sofa. And yet I still knew he was the one for us. His foster mother dropped him off, on trial, and then we didn't see him for a month. I still don't know where he was hiding. But one day he decided to relocate to the office, amidst my binders of comp notes. He soon decided that the sofa was his spot. And then the living room armchair. And then our laps. A year later he's friendly to strangers, chatty and cuddly, and absolutely essential to my mental health.

One of the first things I said about Moose after we got him, and after he decided that it was safe to come out of hiding, was that I wished I had known I was a cat person before I started my PhD. On those days when I studied or wrote alone (and there were lots of them), having him around could have made a world of difference to my working days. It certainly does now. Between a full-time job, a dissertation, a handful of other ongoing academic projects, and a couple of blogging gigs, I spend a good number of my evenings and long stretches of my weekends glued to the computer. I used to get more frustrated with that, more resentful, than I do now. I used to be less productive, or at least less painlessly productive. And Moose has lots to do with that. Instead of being greeted by a glaring to-do list when I get home, I'm greeted by the thud-thud-thud-thud of Moose running down the stairs to say his very vocal hellos. I never have to eat dinner alone, because the Mooster is usually crouched over his kibble bowl just outside the dining room. And when it comes to starting work and sticking with it, I don't usually have a choice. Moose likes to herd people, and so he herds me up to my computer and then he sits on me. It's hard to argue with being forced to sit and work--and even harder to get up and do something else, like raid the fridge for no good reason--when the creature doing the forcing is twelve pounds of adorable fuzz who is soundly asleep and dreaming of mice.

Having Moose around has been good for me in all sorts of other ways. I'm oodles calmer, and regularly suffused with all of those lovely purring- and fur-stroking-induced endorphins. I'm less prone to anxiety. I'm never lonely when I'm at home alone, which I was sometimes prone to being. I'm less focused on myself because I have no choice but to focus on what this tiny and totally dependent creature needs of me. I am, in a word, happier--and that has done wonders for all aspects of my life, academic and otherwise. There is very much something to be said for the unconditional love and support of a furry friend or two, particularly when the going gets rough. We live in a pet-obsessed culture, where our Facebook feeds are filled with children reading to shelter cats, with grouchy felines, with toddlers and puppies taking daily naps together, and with our friends (guilty!) posting snapshots of their cuddly companions. This does not surprise me. Just as fashion tends to favour flowing fabrics and florals during times of economic and political instability, social media favours photos of felines. Animals, even just on social media, make many of us feel better. Erin and her colleagues on the picket lines in New Brunswick certainly know this, as their Mafa Picket Lines Pets tumblr attests. It's no surprise that some of the smartest and most effective women I know share their lives with animals. They're smart and effective because they do, and they do because they're smart.

What about you, dear readers? Do you have furry friends, and what part do they play in supporting your mental health and happiness?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Fragments from the Frazzled

1. Yesterday, invited by a cool grad student / Research Support Facilitator / Hook & Eye reader, I sat on a two hour panel about social media and academics at McMaster University. I talked about Hook & Eye more than I thought I would, particularly during the obvious and inevitable but vexed question of how much of your personal life should you share on academic social media. You know where I land: we're human beings, and this kind of sharing I have found to be very empowering. And I was happy to hear myself interject into what could've been a Twitter versus Instagram conversation this: "Well, I'm a feminist. Back in the day we used to say the personal is the political, and it still is." It made me happy to do that. Thanks for the invite, Pamela Ingleton!

2. In that vein: I've been working flat out, full days with no long phone calls to my sister or leisurely walks home, getting up before dawn, typing before bed, since January 2. I've worked from home precisely one day. I have two inches of grown out hair that desperately need cutting but I don't have time to spare the 2.5 hours for the salon. My meetings are scheduled back to back to back, and I've taken to putting my braces in my pocket so I can eat lunch with one mittened hand at 2pm as I walk the 15 minutes beyond the edge of campus to get to my class. I'm always one or two minutes late, hangry, frozen, constricted. There's no breathing room.

3. I think the snow is really beautiful. I like looking out at 5am and guessing the temperature from the texture, the sparkliness, the edges of the snowbanks. I'm pretty good at it. Snow makes me feel competent. I grew up up North; I like to wear Sorels and wrap my scarf over my nose.

4. We have three open searches underway in my department, two tenure-track and one definite term lectureship, and probably 2 more DTLs to be advertised imminently. I've read so many job files, been to so many talks and meals and meetings and then special meetings and then votes and then re-votes that I'm completely burnt out. I have to read 8 more long list files, somehow, before noon today.

5. I'm teaching an online course that I just finished designing. I built this cool interactive thing with all kinds of low-stakes engagements, and then several graded homeworks, and all kinds of bells and whistles and provocations to keep the students engaged. I really worked hard at it, from a pedagogy and a technology point of view. Internets, I myself go DAYS without logging into the course. I keep forgetting about it. I'm appalled.

6. My yoga teacher training homework for the month is 95% complete. It's also late.

7. My Christmas tree is still up. The cat seems to have unplugged one of the strings of lights. I'm calling it my mid-winter tree. What happened to me?

8. I've helped craft 25 annual performance reviews of my departmental colleagues. First, my colleagues are awesome. But. It's taken probably 15-20 hours of work on my own, plus easily another 15 hours of committee meetings so far. We've got another three hour meeting scheduled this week. It's not done yet.

9. Oh, and since I'm on the program committee for DH2014 in Lausanne, I've reviewed well more than a hundred conference and panel proposals.

10. I just missed an extended writing deadline. The writing is so far from done that I despair of writing back to the editor.

11. I feel it's possible, at this point, that I could burst into tears at any moment. It's not that I'm over scheduled, although I am. It's that I can't seem to get on top of everything. It's that I have to carry my shoes and a computer and huge textbook across the frozen tundra for a really long walk just to get to class. It's that I can't eat when I'm hungry, and I have braces and that complicates everything. It's that I'm so busy assessing everyone else's awesome research (job candidates, grad student chapters, student papers, faculty colleagues, DH conference proposers) that it makes me super itchy to get back to my own at the same time that it's nearly impossible to do so. It's that our hiring process is such a big deal but such a terrible rush, and I don't know how I feel about definite term lecturers (it's complicated; I'm really thinking about it). It's that I try to do a little research (graphic memoirs) in bed at night between collapse and sleep, but then the insomnia hits from not having enough blank space in the day.

There's nothing exceptional here. This is just my job and my life and there are months or semesters that go like this and it is what it is. Still. The personal is the political; the professional is the affective; sometimes, never letting them see you sweat, as the ad used to have it, means none of us have permission to feel overwhelmed and competent at the same time.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Adjunctivitis and the PhD

You guys (/girls!), things are bleak. As I tumbled down the rabbit hole of related articles for this post, I found myself variously in need of taking a shower, having a drink, listening to this song on repeat, something. This post was hard to write.

You may know that on January 24, the US House Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff released a report on contingent faculty in higher education in America entitled "The Just-In-Time Professor." Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed observes that this report "marks the first time Congress has so formally acknowledged a situation that adjunct activists have long deemed exploitative." It's based on an eForum that Democrat Rep. George Miller of California initiated in November 2013, asking adjuncts to respond to an online survey, and 845 adjunct faculty in 41 states (some of whom have been working for over 30 years, and some only a semester) responded. Here's what the report concludes, worth typing in full:
The eForum responses were consistent with news reports and other research that indicate contingent faculty earn low salaries with few or no benefits, are forced to carry on harried schedules to make ends meet, have no clear path for career growth, and enjoy little to no job security. The contingent faculty trend appears to mirror trends in the general labor market toward a flexible, 'just-in-time' workforce, with lower compensation and unpredictable schedules for what were once considered middle-class jobs. The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself. (2)

Yikes (and AMEN). The numbers are shocking, or at least may be to those outside academia: as Flaherty's article summarizes, in spite of claims that adjunct profs are better educators than tenured profs, 98 percent of respondents believed they were "missing opportunities to better serve their students because of the demands on their schedule." Median respondent salary was $22 041, and on average, respondents had been adjuncting for 10 years. Most respondents (89 percent) teach at two or more institutions, and they often rely on family members and government assistance to make ends meet.  Further, 75 percent have no access to health insurance (you may also know that in response to the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide full-time workers access to health insurance, many American institutions have cut maximum course loads for contingent workers). A whopping 49 percent of respondents stated that they teach between 8 and 10 classes a semester, though it's important to note that this is based on those respondents who provided such information, which is difficult to measure given their constantly fluctuating workloads. Adjuncts often do not have offices or access to secretarial help, and must foot the bill for classroom books and handouts. In many cases they have staggering debt leftover from their own postsecondary education that they cannot afford to pay off.

Adjuncts are, on average, the highest educated and lowest paid group of workers in the country.

Here's just a tiny sample of their stories:
 During this, we lost our home. We could no longer afford to make the payments on my poverty wages and my domestic partner's wages from her job. We moved in with a friend and now had to commute an hour each way and a half hour between schools. I was driving three hours a day and teaching five days a week switching colleges during the day. I had no office space, so I often carried all of my work with me. Piles and piles of manilla [sic] folders in the back of my failing car. (8)
During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty. (8)
[W]ith two small children, living with food stamps in my mother-in-law's house, I just can't continue to subject my family to this. It is beyond embarrassing. (9)
During the Fall of 2013 I taught [a course at my school for three days a week] while working 40 hours night shift at Walmart to make ends meet. My take home remuneration for [the] course was $796 per month for the duration of the semester. I literally was paying the college to teach the course! (15)
I taught four course[s] in the fall, but was not told until the day before spring semester started that I wouldn't have any classes for the spring. I was unemployed with no notice. (22)
Living with friends/family, selling one's bodily fluids, subsisting off of food stamps, working at Walmart, dealing with sudden unemployment. This devastating report could signal the beginning of hope for institutional change, maybe, perhaps...or at least the issue is beginning to receive official state recognition. I was happy to see that PBS, who has labelled the issue "adjunctivitis," is featuring adjunct faculty this week as part of their Making Sense series, and Paul Solman's 8-minute video report is a succinct summary of the problems facing the contingent labour force today. (n.b. around 3:40, Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education blithely declares that "in some disciplines, particularly occupationally oriented fields, you may be ahead by having an adjunct faculty member who's got extraordinary levels of real-world experience." Wait, what? Who? Where?)

Along with the release of the report on Jan. 24, adjunct professor and unionization activist Arik Greenberg presented his story in Washington. After 11 years working as an adjunct, Greenberg is burdened with a tremendous amount of student debt and is in danger of losing his family home. "I've followed the rules to realize the American dream," he says, "but I am now living the American nightmare."

Given the urgent nature of these issues, I don't find articles like this one, which was popping up in my social media feed this week, especially helpful. Written by an adjunct faculty member who seems unaware of the eForum report, and featuring an image of a youthful woman gazing hopefully off into the distance, sun shining on her face, this is the story of one adjunct professor who happens to be, like, okay in terms of prepwork, pay, commute, and institutional resources, despite being a precarious worker at two colleges with no guarantee of continued employment (and there is also no mention of how much time or support she has for her own research). The clincher: she has a husband in higher education who "makes a decent salary." 

What's the purpose of circulating articles like this? We need to address these problems, not just convince ourselves that we will be fine as long as we find a partner who makes more money than we do. I'm angry and frightened, and stories like Marshall's only lessen my fears by a modicum, as they are clearly (as the author herself admits) the exception to the rule. My partner and I are both students. We have no job security, our families are not wealthy, we have leftover student loans from undergrad. The reality is that our dissertations may be academically original but professionally irrelevant, and by the time we finish--roughly two years from now--we will have been in graduate school (MA & PhD) for about eight years. What are we supposed to do?

There are no easy answers, of course, but I would love to hear from you. Adjuncts, what are your stories? Are they more like Greenberg's or Marshall's? Do you have any advice for us PhDs? Should we all prepare for #alt-ac and #post-ac careers? Is there anything you wish you had done differently? Please, let's continue to generate a database of stories, outrage, and advice as we address the abysmal state of a profit-mongering institution that relies on contingent workers for, on average, 76 percent of American educational positions.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Walking the Line Week 3: Emotional Labour

Two weeks ago as I prepared to head out to my first shift at strike headquarters my partner told me that Pete Seeger had died. It seemed both an ominous and, strangely, also auspicious coincidence. Celebrity death is a bizarre thing to negotiate. There is, on the one hand, a sense of the loss of someone familiar. On the other hand, there is a simultaneous awareness of distance: most of us don't know the celebrity who has died. For me, the loss of an activist who has inspired me amplifies these paradoxical feelings. Three weeks ago I walked to strike headquarters thinking not just of Pete Seeger, but of Emma Goldman, of Woody Guthrie, of the many people who have spoken up bravely and unwaveringly for fair working conditions and human rights.

In the second week of the strike as I headed out to my first shift on the line I was thinking about the contradictions of being a contract labourer on strike. My resolve was strong, but the things I couldn't say -- the criticisms and close readings I would normally perform here simply didn't feel safe. In the past four years I have continually circled back to the paradoxes of writing a blog as a contract labourer. I initially (naively) felt that I could write posts explaining the complications of being a contract labourer. I've tried to do that, but let me tell you: as someone still on the job market there is so much that I can't actually write about. Yet. Honestly, it is exhausting and infuriating.

We are now into week three of the strike here at Mount Allison, and while my resolve hasn't been shaken I am feeling tired. I am not simply tired from the strangeness that comes of interrupting a rigorous routine of teaching, researching, and applying for jobs. I am tired from the unavoidable emotional labour of being on strike. Two years ago Aimee described emotional labour as the invisible work that we do when we teach students not only to master writing and communication skills, but also to develop social savvy through historical awareness, self-reflexivity, and creative critical thinking. I would add to that definition that emotional labour includes the time spent in office hours, on email, or doing just about anything while thinking through a problem that a student has brought to you. Emotional labour includes taking the time to think through how to address justifiable student frustration, anxiety, anger, and misunderstanding in the classroom and, as is the case here in Sackville, when the classroom gets temporarily closed in order to work towards sustainable working and learning conditions. For me and my colleagues here emotional labour will eventually involve not simply figuring out how to productively and ethically salvage a semester, it will also involve choosing how to take the time to address students's questions about job action even as we ourselves may be working to understand the ins and outs of a strike. When we talk about the academic mission -- itself an overdetermined and under-defined phrase -- I think about the necessary fusion of emotional labour and critical praxis. We, each of us, teach the histories, contexts, methods, and practices of our disciplines. We also have the responsibility to model and carry out the undervalued but absolutely necessary critical and affective work of emotional labour.

This morning, as I headed out for my second week of 8am picket shifts my partner told me that Stuart Hall has died. Another incalculable loss, I thought. Yet, while Hall has left us he has also left us with his words, which I will borrow now:

                      "The university is a critical institution, or it is nothing."

I trust my students. I trust that they are developing the critical reading and thinking skills I work to model for them. I trust that they can take Hall's statement and put it to work as they continue to do their own difficult emotional work of navigating what is happening here, and I know that when I meet them back in the classroom even though we will all be tired I will be ready to do that emotional work with them.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Saving the World

At a time when the question of why the humanities matter is repeated daily, when reports on the success of its graduates go unheeded, when program prioritization processes almost invariably reveal that arts and humanities programs are the last of the university's priorities, when libraries and archives are being decimated by the federal government, it's nice to be reminded that the humanities could indeed save the world:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Walking the Line Week 2: Contradictions of Contract Labour

When I completed my PhD in 2009 there were certain things I didn't anticipate having to deal with, and a strike is one of them. (Of course, that may have been because I went to school in Alberta where one now risks punishment if you utter the word "strike") I was far more concerned about finding sessional work in a boom town in the first fall of the recession. I landed my first contract position in the spring of that year and for the first time became a member of a faculty union. I had very little idea what that meant. In fact, I took the advice of a mentor and sat down to read the entire collective agreement. Let me tell you: it was worth the time.

Today is Day 8 in the second week of the strike at Mount Allison. The faculty and librarians have walked the picket lines in subzero temperatures. Most contract faculty, myself included, have been given strike duty at headquarters. The thinking here is that many of us are on the job market. Indeed, some of us are in the process of applying for positions at this university. Working inside keeps the most of the precariates out of the spotlight. I appreciate the thoughtfulness that has gone into this scheduling.

And yet, there's no protecting precariates when the union is on strike. Not really. We are both in the union and one of the very issues on the table at negotiations. Some of the central issues my union is striking over have to do with attempting to get living wages for sessional workers. It is impossible not to be in a contradictory position as a contract laborer on strike. Do you keep a low profile? What does that mean? Do I stop writing blog posts about academic issues that are currently affecting me? Or not?

I don't have the answers to these questions, nor do I have a clear path for navigating the ever-increasing complications of contract labour. But today I made a decision for myself. It was a small one and of little consequence, but it matters to me. Today I did my first picket line duty outside. I walked the line with my colleagues (not all tenured or tenure-track) from faculties and departments I may never otherwise have met. We talked about the strike. We talked about our lives. We had an incredible interdisciplinary conversation about rape culture on campuses, how to talk about it in the classroom, and how to combat it in daily life. It felt good to meet these people. I learned things from them and was reminded yet again of the vital kinds of work university professors do everyday. 

I support the union. I depend on the union to stand up for my rights and the rights of others. Would I rather be in the classroom? Of course I would. So would everyone. But faculty and librarians are on strike because they are fighting for the academic mission. So here are my final (brief) thoughts from the picket lines: being on strike is hard on faculty. It is hard on the students. And as someone working very hard to gain a more stable foothold in the academy it feels both risky and necessary.