Support groups can be empowering, but unless appropriately structured, they can result in a downward spiral that leaves everyone with unresolved anger, hopelessness and no clear direction forward, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore.
A friend who teaches classics at a fine liberal arts college told me that she had met the president of the institution walking across campus. He greeted her, and they chatted for a few seconds. Then the president asked, “How can we justify putting resources into Ancient Greek 101 where the enrollment is eight, while the enrollment in Economics 101 is 189?” My friend reported she had become flustered because she was unprepared for that question. She told me she believed that we needed to be doing a better job of making the case for the classics, the humanities and liberal education in general.
Wait a minute, I thought. That’s his job, or ought to be. Her job is to advance and transmit knowledge in a core humanistic discipline. What’s his game? Intimidation? Making himself look good because, in fact, he was not about to let the teaching of ancient Greek end on his watch after more than two centuries on that campus? Or was he genuinely asking for help?
Still, I thought, she is right: we do need to improve the understanding of why studying the humanities is important for today’s students (and administrators). Maybe, I thought, I should pitch in by writing an op-ed piece for Inside Higher Ed making the case for these fields.
But the phrase “making the case” stuck in my craw. It sounded so courtroom, so defense attorney, or rather so much like the message behind a now-terminated presidential candidacy: “Trust me, we know best.” It is surely self-serving.
After all, like most people who write such pieces, I have made my living on the humanities. Of course, I want them to flourish, but who will pay attention to an obviously self-interested spokesperson? Preaching to the choir may win praise from like-minded colleagues but will never be seen by the people who most need to rethink the assumptions that shape contemporary higher education: that college is a commodity sold to student-consumers, it’s all about “workforce readiness,” its goal is “return on investment” and only the STEM disciplines can guarantee success after graduation. These unexamined premises pose the most insidious threat, not just to humanists, but to all students over their lifetimes.
So it’s worth brainstorming about alternative strategies. Here are a half dozen possibilities. A brief brainstorming session with friends and colleagues can, I am sure, produce other, perhaps better ones. However, these are, as we say nowadays, cost-efficient -- that is, they do not take a lot of time away from teaching and scholarship. The effort is focused on helping people outside academe do the heavy lifting. Alumni, civic and business leaders, parents, and undergraduates themselves have more credibility than professional humanists, and they can surprise you by their articulate enthusiasm. And, yes, they can have more impact than another op-ed piece “making the case.”
That’s even more likely to be the case with shorter pieces. Here’s one example: Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, published a powerful op-ed piece, “College Is Not a Commodity,” in The Washington Post not long ago, attacking one of the clichés that are so prevalent these days. The essay is an evergreen that merits a second wave of circulation on social media. In fact, it should be handed to any college administrator who seems to talk commodity talk when they should be thinking hard about how best to educate today’s students.
Second: Check the departmental website. Does it really address the questions that parents and students are likely to have about majoring in the field? Ask some students to grade the content. They’ll probably want to see if claims about the desirability of such a major are backed up by strong evidence and clear argumentation.
Douglas MacLean, a professor in the philosophy department at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got thinking about that after Marco Rubio made his famous pronouncement, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less (sic) philosophers.” Answering that claim led to collecting data, as MacLean explained in a Time magazine article, some of which was posted on the department’s webpage. MacLean notes, “Studies have shown philosophy majors have outperformed nearly every other major on the law school aptitude test, the GREs and the GMAT, the admission test for business schools. (They also outearn welders.)”
Third: Ask former students to reflect on their educational experience in the humanities and then disseminate their observations. One way to get the discussion started is to provide the link to comments by students on other campuses, such as the remarks in Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece “College, Poetry and Purpose.” Ask if the experiences cited there match their own. Then put students’ own stories on the departmental website and out on social media. Ask, don’t tell. It doesn’t all have to be glory hallelujah! Find out what graduates working outside the academic humanities have found valuable in their education, then help their message be heard. And keep the email addresses for the following strategy.
Fourth: Put the alumni office to work. Vanessa Ryan, associate dean of the graduate school at Brown University, describes a plan that worked well there: “In 2012, I organized a TEDx [talk] on life, learning and liberal education, bringing back eight alumni from different career paths, including a doctor, an engineer, a film producer and a person in finance. It also features two current Brown faculty members and a current Brown undergraduate, selected through a student challenge event. Each speaker reflected in short talks on the value of liberal education. You can find the videos here and our website here.” Alumni Relations officers love events of this sort and can help organize (and pay for) them.
Fifth: Set clear responsibilities in institutional leaders’ jobs. When selecting a senior administrator -- a dean, provost, chancellor or president -- ask if the job description includes the ability to articulate the value of a broad liberal education. If not, why not? The same questions apply to incentive packages that are increasingly part of senior-level compensation. Making this criterion explicit early on gives leverage once the person is in place -- and especially when performance reviews are conducted.
Finally: Hijack Parents’ Day. Parents are understandably worried about the hollowing out of the economy and the horror stories they hear of students with huge debt loads who can’t find a decent job. Again, both data and descriptions of the actual lives of recent graduates can help allay their fears.
Most important, however, is a carefully structured dialogue among parents themselves. Make sure they have before them the 2014 Purdue-Gallup Index report, a study of more than 30,000 college graduates, showing what aspects of education make a positive difference in the workplace and the community. That report should move the conversation from nervous chatter about debt loads and return on investment to an exploration of what parents really want for their kids and what can best build satisfaction over the long run.
Once you introduce the idea of satisfaction in life, it should be possible to problematize (as we humanists like to say) assumptions about success and rewards. Such discussions play out on the humanities’ home turf: many humanists have thought long and hard about discourses and how they change over time. Here’s a chance to move from theory to practice. That’s what is most needed right now: not making the case but developing richer and more meaningful ways of thinking about what a college education should be.
W. Robert Connor has served as director of the National Humanities Center and president of the Teagle Foundation. He blogs at www.wrbertconnor.com.
Until recently, I justified adjuncting at a community college because out of the seven institutions where I’ve taught, it was in many ways the least abusive -- partly owing to the established paradigms and controls of the sector in general.
Specifically, this community college:
tolerated my public activism;
provides benefits to a small number of adjuncts and created an associate faculty tier that pays slightly better than the extremely low national average adjunct rate;
invites adjuncts to faculty meetings (despite the absurdity of this show where all faculty cannot vote);
charges tuition that is relatively fair and keeping with community college standards;
rewards innovation and provides training opportunities; and
has unionized full-time and part-time faculty, albeit under one collective bargaining agreement that should be renegotiated with a closer eye on adjunct labor (or adjunct faculty should get informed and organize a distinct agreement).
But in the end, it’s exploitative and I quit. An authentically innovative institution would pay all their workers a professional salary with benefits and prioritize job security. I quit because community colleges help perpetuate the labor crisis in higher education by shortchanging adjunct faculty at a time when community colleges are in the national spotlight and positioned to collect more taxpayer dollars through, for instance, presidential candidates’ proposed free tuition plans. I quit because I lost respect for the administrators for whom I worked and that posed a conflict of interest. I quit because they never respected me. And I quit because my energy and intellect are better spent fixing the crisis instead of contributing to it while they walk all over me.
I briefly questioned whether or not I’d lament the loss of .edu affiliation and quickly realized there’s nothing prestigious about associating with a morally bankrupt system. Indeed, doing so goes against the grain of my personality and professional aims. Another inconvenience of quitting cold turkey is that I’ll have to pay to access research databases as an alumna at another institution. I’m not too worried about losing colleagues, because the majority of mine are fellow activists and students gained through social networks and membership in disciplinary and professional organizations. Ultimately, the personal and professional impact of not quitting, in my particular situation, far outweighs the benefits of staying.
This in no way suggests that adjunct colleagues should follow suit and quit their many gigs; rather, I believe they owe it to themselves, their students and their families to fight for better working and learning conditions. It’s often said that teaching is a calling, and it’s time to question whom we are currently serving. For me, questioning the system opened new pathways to fight for the reform and revaluation of higher education, and I’m well fitted for that. So please, adjuncts: fight for your profession. I’ll be fighting hard, too. Solidarity.
Washington State is leading the charge on part-time to full-time faculty conversions at community and technical colleges, which gives hope for authentic reform. House Bill 2615 is promising, but I’m unwilling to stick it out for another six years to see if the long-term strategic plan is passed and implemented. It’s a necessary step in the right direction, however, and this type of progressive governance signals positive change. This is certain: people power pressures legislators to write effective reform bills, so, readers, please keep up the pressure and cast informed votes.
I thank Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant for giving me the final push of courage to quit. She spoke at the Seattle University Fast for Justice action organized by Washington Faculty Forward on April 14. The rally united faculty members, students and allies who fasted for justice, called out Seattle U for the apparent hypocrisy of their mission versus practice and then joined in a multisector labor march on McDonald’s, Wells Fargo and Starbucks. Sawant is a former “severely underpaid” economics adjunct at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, and her words resonate with me: the system is “… fundamentally unjust and unacceptable. … This is a fight against the privatization and commodification of higher education” in a rigged economy.
Here I’ll borrow a quote from my adjunct colleague Alan Trevithick, who teaches at Fordham University and is deeply invested in the movement for adjunct justice and equity: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected -- the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative” (“The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). If the supposed best of colleges won’t behave according to doctrine, it should be all too clear that the worst are flat-out robbing students and faculty members.
When I hear people talk about deregulating higher education, I wonder where their motives lie. Students are severely shafted in this century’s subprime higher ed scheme through the rising cost of tuition, textbooks and incidental fees that make it impossible for most students to pay out of pocket. Community colleges used to be affordable, but now, 78 percent of first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid. And at two-year private nonprofit institutions, it spikes to 90 percent. This means many students face a lifetime of making impossible payments on high interest loans, and they need relief, now.
All things considered, the most reasonable and ethical decision for me is to quit because I have a full-time job that pays the bills and my core beliefs aren’t valued in this academy or any number of others that minimize the labor crisis. And I’m quitting for my colleagues across the nation who aren’t in a position to up and leave for other work that shows them the dignity and respect they’ve earned the hard way: the “right” way, according to the rules of American society. Well, as the American Association of University Professors confirms in “Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16”:
The majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent (part-time tenure-track positions make up about 1 percent of the academic labor force).
Undeniably, many faculty members also struggle to keep the heat on and gas in their cars to get between jobs. That is the reality of intentional economic hardship, and once it’s ended and we are able to reflect on it and regulate it, shame on the designers of failure.
Without doubt, the college will manage in my absence and immediately hire another qualified, flexible unit to pick up teaching where I leave off, because I am replaceable in the current system: we all are. I do hope students find this explanation and understand why I chose to quit the system that isn’t working for me or them in order to collaborate more effectively in the solution.
My employment agreement states: “This memo is not a contract for employment and may be rescinded should the class(es) be canceled or for any other reason,” quid pro quo. The total appointment amount for teaching two courses was for $7,086 spread out over 10 weeks. That’s $2,362 per month before taxes, which is approximately $4,000 to $5,000 less than many of my tenured colleagues with comparable Ph.D.s are paid per month. (Rates vary.) Overall, this institution paid me a measly $24,125 per year for nigh a decade of sustained service to the community college, with minor fluctuations. It’s hard to hold my tongue when I consider the cumulative effect of being underpaid.
Of course, I wasn’t expected to serve on committees, advise students, conduct research or publish, as full-time faculty are (all of which I did on my own accord, though, without pay). Honestly, I’m sadly burned out, as are no doubt thousands of part-time instructors nationwide who are extreme adjuncting to make a living in our gig economy. The bottom line is that labor exploitation is degrading and disrespectful. I’m quitting with my dignity, however, which really is all I had left to lose in the moral vacuum of the neoliberal university.
So what now? As Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue in The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, the higher education labor crisis isn’t caused by a glut of Ph.D.s: “To wit, there are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.” The authors move on to cite hiring practices as one of the ugly problems, concluding: “… if you don’t believe that a profession should abide by professional hiring practices, you have nothing to complain about when your profession finds itself deprofessionalized.” Indeed, institutions bear a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of students (stop calling them customers), which means they ought to raise the standards, invest in instruction and put an end to dodgy business practices that cheat students and faculty members. It’s important to stress here that Bérubé and Ruth’s proposed hiring practices include the revaluation of nonterminal degree holders, too. This is not a sweep.
Obviously, any viable proposal to raise the standards and fix the crisis will court trade-offs, and those may include the evaluation of cost drivers (such as nonessential administrative staff that pose a negative net worth to the institution), shrinking the faculty and maximizing labor efficiency, along with other cuts that free up funds that should be spent on quality instruction that leads to student success. What Henry. A Giroux calls the neoliberal war on higher education isn’t sustainable, and it’s time to reclaim it ethically and just as intentionally as the CEOs who crept in and jaded it with oppressive profit-over-mission business deals.
Back to quitting my McJob: it’s unremarkable how easy the physical severance is. That is, after a decade of teaching in this particular institution, I haven’t taken up any office space or accumulated any books or stacks of papers. In fact, the only physical trace of my presence that I’m leaving behind is a Faculty Forward Network “Invest in Instruction” sign that’s pinned to a portable wall in a shared office space. In time, my digital footprint will fade from the course schedule, adjunct faculty Listserv and so on, until it’s a memory of a chapter well spent with amazing students.
Higher education desperately needs to be revalued. Everyone with a hand in it needs to stop what they are doing -- which is often just maintaining the status quo -- take inventory of the $1.3 trillion in national federal and private educational debt and do something to change it.
I am not an adjunct anymore. You’ll find me in the streets at labor rallies and marches and @TiffanySKraft, with a laser focus on higher education and the rigged economy.
Tiffany Kraft is a former adjunct and current higher education activist/organizer with Faculty Forward Network. All statements and views in this piece are her own.