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I’ve been wrestling with some ideas for a while now, and they seem to have coalesced in my head over a couple of coinciding events. The first was #TvsZ, which I wrote about on Monday (see the Storify of my adventures!). The others were the appearance of three related articles on my Twitter/social media radar. The first is an interview with the founder of Minerva University, a start-up which hopes to be an Ivy-League for-profit online institution.

Minerva plans something better. Nelson says classes will be designed by A-list faculty from other universities, acting as consultants. But once the lesson plan is on paper, they will be presented to Minerva students by newly minted PhDs; Nelson says academic jobs are so hard to find that he should have no problem attracting instructors.

The next is short piece about how Deans’ views of adjuncts differs from the reality of how they use them. There was a little bit on hand-wringing about access, budgets, etc, but at the end of the day:

Ms. Kezar said that deans didn't think non-tenure-track faculty were always teaching the courses they were best suited for. For instance, only 38 percent thought full-time non-tenure-track faculty should teach high-enrollment courses and only 21 percent thought part-time faculty should do so, the data showed. In reality those kinds of courses are heavily taught by members of both groups. Remedial classes were also thought to be a poor fit for non-tenure-track faculty, but, again, almost 100 percent of those courses are taught by such faculty, Ms. Kezar said.

Finally, another organization is offering university administrators “advice” on how to “strategically manage” adjuncts (not to mention selling an over $500 webinar on the same subject). The content of the post itself isn’t all the objectionable, but the fact that administrators would be willing to pay through the nose to attend this webinar rather than just, you know, ASK THE ADJUNCTS YOU HAVE ON YOUR CAMPUS is infuriating. In all of these cases, adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty are treated as budget lines, strategic challenges, resources to be both exploited and appeased.

Even at my own institution, where I am comparatively well-treated, there is an attitude that I am not so much a person but 18-graduate-credits to teach five sections of students, regardless of what else I may bring to the table. When course caps were raised on our Freshman Writing classes, it wasn’t taken into consideration that we typically teach for or five sections of the class (two extra students times five classes times five papers equals fifty extra papers during the semester, not to mention the extra conference time, extra feedback time, etc).

As I am typing this, The Hedgehog Review sent me an email promoting their latest issue on Work and Dignity. Unsurprisingly, they speak about teachers:

Rose: If you’re in the situation so many teachers are now in, all across K–12, where you’re given scripted curricula, and you’ve got to raise those standardized test scores, your latitude is pretty constrained.

Crawford: Which makes the teacher feel like a functionary.

Rose: Yeah, there’s been a lot said lately about that feeling. Talking about the dignity of work, I think there are more than a few teachers out there who feel that the dignity of their work has been demeaned on multiple levels. One level is that every time they open a newspaper or turn on the radio, they hear something blasting teachers, but also in terms of their day-to-day work, they’re living under all kinds of constraints that reduce rather than expand their latitude to use the skills they have.

Crawford: I think there’s a kind of fetish for replacing every instance of individual discretion with the rule of neutral procedures.

Rose: Yes, a technocratic impulse. I think that’s huge right now, regardless of where you fall across the political spectrum. I think that a lot of people, Left and Right, are increasingly attracted to technocratic solutions for social problems.

The also talked about people searching for dignity through their peers, and how this validation has turned us all into workaholics (a sentiment echoed in a different way just recently by Kathleen Fitzpatrick):

Crawford: I think part of the cause for that feeling, that sense of lost dignity, is a feeling of insecurity at work, a feeling that everyone’s dispensable. Sociologist Allison Pugh talks about the one-way honor system. What she means is that workers have become fungible and replaceable, and the idea of loyalty on the employers’ part has gone out the window. But at the same time, employees remain very committed. They talk about their identity being tied up with their work. In the interviews Pugh did, they describe themselves as workaholics. Their relationship to their work is a reflection of their character, and it’s all about showing up early and staying late. There’s this huge asymmetry in the workplace that Pugh has put her finger on.

Fitzpatrick doesn’t get into the question of dignity, but certainly explores the element of outward displays of how busy we are, that if we are not busy, then we are not really working hard enough, trying hard enough, that we are lazy, that we are not worthy (or that we have earned our lower status because of our behaviors). OK, maybe some of that is me extrapolating:

Stress has become, I think, the contemporary sign of our salvation. This doesn’t take us all that far from Weber, of course. But simply being too busy to relax isn’t enough; it’s the need to make visible to those around us how busy we are, to prove our worth by forever demonstrating how little time we have for leisure, that I think begins to carry us into Veblen terrain. It’s not simply about deferring pleasure; it’s about the pleasure we take in deferring pleasure, a pleasure that’s all about how the deferral looks to others.

This weekend, I played #TvsZ for no other reason than to have fun. My husband (on the tenure-track) was puzzled by my dedication to the game. When the organizers presented at Duke, they were questioned as to how to make the activity “count” on a CV. In my job applications, the essence of my being has been reduced to two pages, tightly scripted, sent off into the ether in the slim hopes that somewhere, someone connects with it. But, at the end of the day, when one is faced with 200, 300, 400 applicants, we all become nothing more than another stack of pages and list of publications. I am continually being seen and understood in ways that deny or marginalize my humanity.

#TvsZ will never appear on my CV (at least, I don’t think it will), but the connections I made, the lessons I learned, and the fun that I had will have a more lasting impression. It was a way for me to re-assert my humanity, re-assert some control over my professional life. I’ve written and presented about how the real power of “the digital” comes from being able to re-assert our humanity through this kind of intimate and informal contact with one another; simply sitting together (even virtually) and not doing much is a way to find our dignity, our humanity, in a system that works hard to dehumanize and decontexualize ourselves at every opportunity.

Perhaps there is no dignity in being a zombie and playing a game over social media. But there is little dignity is what I do every day, little recognition, little humanity in the system many of us work in. People thanked me for my contributions. There was no monetary reward, no line on the CV, nothing that we could commonly point to as what should motivate academics, particularly one who is not on, but aspires to be, on the tenure-track. Instead, I made some new friends, got some honest thanks for my contribution, and enjoyed myself.

What can’t we bring some of that back into our institutions? 


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