Cultural Capital Doesn’t Pay the Rent
This pairing of two smart and interesting women is my first done on a volunteer basis: after the first column ran back in December, Miranda Merklein and Jessica Lawless emailed me (independently of each other) to ask if they could participate. I knew Miranda somewhat from Twitter, but Jessica not at all. Miranda requested to be paired with Jessica, in part because they’re both writers who already knew each other. Their experiences of creative performances, gender roles, teaching, and what Jessica calls below “the brick ceiling laid over our heads at every turn as we tried to build careers” make them ideal participants for the kinds of discussions I’m trying to generate in this column.
Jessica Lawless is adjunct faculty at Santa Fe Community College, where she teaches gender and culture studies courses and also volunteer service courses. Before that she taught media studies, video production, American studies, and studio art courses at the University of California at Irvine, California State at Fullerton, Pitzer College, Scripps College, and Claremont Graduate University. She has a B.A. in visual art from Antioch College, an M.A. in cultural studies from Claremont Graduate University, and an M.F.A. in Studio Art from UC Irvine. Another lifetime ago she co-founded the organization Home Alive in Seattle. She is a regular contributor to Make/Shift Magazine: Feminisms in Motion. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her partner Von and two fabulous cats, Sadie Viva and Coco Glamor, where she writes, makes art, and volunteers with the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico, when she isn’t looking for work.
Miranda Merklein teaches between six and seven English composition, literature, and developmental courses per semester between Northern New Mexico College and Santa Fe Community College. Previously she worked as a freelance journalist, staff reporter and photographer at a number of publications in New Mexico. She is also a mixed-genre creative writer, producing work she calls “prosery.” She has a Ph.D. in English/creative writing from University of Southern Mississippi, an M.A. in liberal arts from St. John’s College and a B.A. in political science from College of Santa Fe. She owes $160,000 in student loans.
Miranda Asks Jessica
MM: Where did you think your education was going to lead you and where are you in that career path?
JL: I was in my 30s when I started grad school. I was working my way out of some tough situations, being homeless, on welfare, and living in a domestic violence shelter. I also was engaged in grassroots feminist and anti-violence work, building a collective organization in response to a friend's rape and murder. I had friends and mentors who were professors, artists, and activists; their lives looked great to me. I thought having graduate degrees — and teaching at the college level — would be a way to have a stable income while staying engaged in art and activism. I had a lot of work to do to package myself as academically viable, but I did. I earned an M.A. in cultural studies and an M.F.A. in studio art, my terminal degree.
What I didn’t know at that time was how flooded the market was becoming with M.F.A.s. It was basically a Ponzi scheme. Schools were growing programs by recruiting students into degrees that had no meaningful academic job market. Ironically, I was one of the few in my program who wanted to teach. There was a pervasive attitude in the art world that those who can’t do, teach. I never encountered this attitude toward teaching until I was in the academic art world.
When I graduated I landed a great one-year sabbatical replacement position through those mentors I kept a relationship with. I had a full-time salary and benefits. I could afford membership and conference fees to the professional associations I needed to actually be on the job market. My position included travel expenses; I could also attend the conferences, a necessity since that’s where many job interviews are conducted. These are more of the ways contingent faculty are effectively locked out of career advancement. We aren’t paid enough to afford these fees and travel on our own. Yet many interviews are conducted at conferences where candidates must pay their own way to attend. (JF: For more on this, see Rebecca Schuman’s recent column on doing away with the conference interview.)
My first year out of grad school I was doing O.K., and the next year was fine too. I taught at the same college and picked up more classes in the consortium that school was a part of, including graduate-level courses. I was an adjunct but was paid well and still given access to perks like conference fees and travel. It was limited but still manageable. Then the recession hit.
The one-year, 3/2, renewable contract I had had was cut to one class with no promise of future employment. I was still on the market but without the full-time salary and travel benefits it became impossible to attend conferences, which meant it became impossible to build my C.V. competitively. I was showing, curating, and publishing. But like so many of friends and peers, we were creating alternative spaces and channels to do this. For me this wasn’t actually any different than what I had been doing before I earned my degrees.
What was different was that alternative and grassroots spaces were filled with so many of us who were now “pedigreed.” It was a strange shift in concept of outsider, especially in the queer feminist worlds I was a part of. It created new class and racial divides, as well as an intensively competitive atmosphere where academic elitism was no longer only relegated to the upper echelons of the art world. And we were competing for the cultural capital of certain coveted adjunct faculty positions. So we were in competition for crappy paying jobs with no benefits, the carrot being a faulty sense of securing a path to the very few coveted tenure-track teaching positions. It wasn’t what I imagined or intended when I took on $80,000 of student debt. Eventually I had to file for bankruptcy.
We escaped LA for a New Mexico and a small town where we figured we could get any sort of retail or service job and reassess our options. Strangely, Santa Fe had more possibilities for employment than LA did in 2009. I landed some classes at the community college and got on contract at an educational nonprofit while my partner worked his way up from a dishwasher to a cook in a local restaurant. Four years later I’m still an adjunct. I’ve really had to shift my thinking about what it means to be an adjunct professor. It no longer is a steppingstone to a tenured position. (JF: Was it ever? Not for many people I know, and many more I don’t know.) It’s low-wage, insecure, contract work. But it’s what I am most trained to do after getting my degrees.
MM: I’ve noticed that you teach a lot of gender studies courses. How is gender a factor in your experience as an adjunct?
JL: Well, I view the world through a gender lens. And race and class. So gender, in its most intersectional conceptualization is absolutely a factor in my experience as an adjunct.
One way is that, teaching at a community college, the majority of our faculty is female, as is the majority of our upper administration. So the sense of inequity we are up against includes a horizontal oppression, if you will. The narrative that we are individually at fault for not making our careers work it is compounded by our supervisors being women who have “made it.” When historically marginalized groups gain access to power we often see those in the group that haven’t gained institutional power through a lens of individual failure rather than collective solidarity. And of course: academia is so individualistic this mindset is really hard to challenge.
Gender is concretely connected to my economic situation. My partner is gender-queer on the trans-masculine spectrum. He’s male but he doesn’t have the socio-economic privilege of being a cisgendered male. He has been earning his culinary degree and working in college cafeterias as a cook seven days a week at two jobs, but being queer and relatively low-income, we don’t have any legal arrangements of shared finances. He makes very little money but has more job security than I do. He has health care and retirement benefits. We’re a prime example of the changing concepts of class in this economy. He wears a uniform to work and is invisible to the campus community, yet has more job security within the institution. I wear what I want, don’t punch a time clock, and am given that cultural capital of being a professor by the outside community. But not the institution. Of course cultural capital does not pay the rent. Or health care, or my student debt.
Because I have the advanced degrees in our relationship, I supposedly have the advantage when it comes to earning power, but this simply isn’t true as an adjunct. I feel frustrated at not being able to provide for us after investing so much time and money in my education and career. Being queer cuts through any normative narratives about being a woman, about spousal hires — about all of it. Despite having a lot of social advantages, marriage equality won’t create economic equality in my life. It isn’t going to make a difference for us in terms of class mobility. And in terms of being queer, I haven’t been on a heteronormative timeline, so in building a career in my 40s, trying to “re-career” and look for work outside academia, I am definitely up against cultural prejudices against older women in my job searches.
MM: What do you think are possibilities for change within this situation?
JL: I think change has to happen on multiple levels, as the problem is deeply systemic. I like the (necessary) efforts toward adjunct unionizing. We need to create alliances with other academic workers, administrative staff, maintenance, food services, who have been fighting for equity in their jobs on college campuses for years. Part of this is recognizing that, as a work force, we are at the intersections of faculty, culture workers, and contract laborers. It’s a unique position but also representative of the ways class lines are collapsing at this moment in history. I also strongly believe we have to find ways to address our emotional collapse, the loss we have experienced in having a brick ceiling laid over our heads at every turn as we tried to build careers. We have individual and collective grief that has to be recognized in whatever organizing we do. Which means we have to look to feminist, of color, queer, and working class movements, and leftist movements that have addressed collective marginalization and have active debates about what it means to create movements where some are successfully assimilated into dominant culture and others are still left behind. These are models that will be useful as we strategize how to work with full time/tenured faculty as well as within our own complex and stratified ranks. We’re smart people trained to do our research. There is no need to reinvent the wheel; we need to design wheels that take us to the many places we want to go.
Jessica Asks Miranda
JL: What was your moment of coming to consciousness about the harsh realities of life as an adjunct?
MM: I knew the situation wasn’t ideal going into it, but I really didn’t know, or wasn’t honest with myself about, how bad it was globally until about a year ago. I took stock of the handful of full-time jobs around me versus the hive of desperate adjuncts, studied the job market in earnest, and as the Magic 8-Ball says, “Outlook does not look good.” It became clear that not enough tenure-track positions were being provided by the institutions, even though they rely very heavily on adjunct labor. Then, in September I read “Death of an Adjunct” by Daniel Kovalik in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette regarding the treatment of Margaret Mary Vojtko by Duquesne University. Shocked into a new, more painful alertness, I knew I was staring down my own future and that the dream of education I had believed in wholeheartedly was turning out to be more of a nightmare. Margaret Mary’s life was my life.
JL: We are part of the academic generation where women are earning more degrees than men yet neither one of us has benefited from this fact in terms of career or economic stability. How does this affect your perspective on supporting our students in earning their degrees?
MM: I absolutely love my students and I want them to succeed. At the same time, if a young mother asks for my opinion about going to grad school or obtaining a four-year degree in music, I have to be honest. School can be a place to gain a basic degree, vocational training, a temporary hideout from a bad economy, a goal in sobriety, but it’s not a long-term solution or investment. The lost time (professional development) and financial injury can really cripple a person and undermine his or her future success.
For instance, I was once a bright-eyed student trying to use education to pull myself out of poverty. At 19 I could use my student loan money to leave my dead-end retail job, section 8 housing, and public assistance. My two children went to daycare at one of the schools where I work today and I took classes. I learned how to type, quickly fell in love with philosophy, literature and political science, and I plowed straight through while patching the boat with piecemeal contracts from freelance writing. The kids would ask why we did not have this or that, and I’d remind them that it would all pay off in the end. We would have a nice house supplied by my future good job as a college professor. Though not impossible, it’s like expecting to win the lottery. I guess I thought that the degree supplied the job. (JF: So did I. So did a lot of us.) I never thought that it would take so much more money to afford to apply for jobs at conferences and that there would be 100 applicants for every available position. I didn’t know then that I would lose so much valuable time with my own children to an enriching smoke-and-mirrors act.
Just by existing, the message I’m sending to my children and the students I teach is that education is a road that leads directly back into poverty. I don’t have to say it explicitly. I had to return to public assistance in 2011 for a period. In fact, I’m so much worse off than I was at 19 as a recently divorced teenager in Northern New Mexico. I was a stereotype, but at least I could put food on the table. So, of course I cannot recommend pursuing any kind of art or humanities degree for anyone without disposable income. It’s not wise for trauma survivors either. I try to teach writing as a tool for survival, because not being able to communicate effectively makes things so much worse. It’s a difficult thing to know your students feel sorry for you.
When I see students excited to cash their loan checks, I cringe. I currently owe $160,000 that I will likely never be able to pay back. The money keeps rolling in, but students need to understand that it’s not free. Bank accounts can be confiscated and they will not be able to expunge this debt through bankruptcy. Sallie Mae and other “servicers” are not federal employees. They are private corporations on a quest for profit and they are ruthless.
JL: What do you think are possibilities for change within this situation?
MM: We need a global revision, unionization of the entire industry longshore fashion, to ensure a living wage, benefits and due process. Adjuncts cannot wait around any more for things to get better. They won’t. The optimistic adjunct is an endangered species in need of an alarm clock. Sympathy from colleagues is great, but transformation takes real commitment. We need to stop looking at higher education as an elite profession because it’s no longer white-collar work. It’s precarious, the 1930s all over again, and we need to use those same organization strategies to improve our condition and restore faith in a profession that was once honorable.
Jessica and Miranda raise a lot of pressing questions about how writing, gender, and income/debt affect the contingent professor. Their thoughtful responses deserve, I think, equally thoughtful comments and feedback. Their talk of student-loan debt rang true for me and, I’m sure, will do the same for many others.
In particular, Jessica brings up a great point about conferences costs being prohibitive for contingents: limiting the potential for interviews and networking makes more and more contingent faculty (appear to be) less marketable and ‘connected.’ How do — or can — underpaid and overworked contingents manage? What responsibilities to professional organizations have? I also liked Miranda’s comment about how institutions are — knowingly — filling teaching needs with contingent labor: this is pretty much the norm now, but at what cost for students and their education?