The Fog

Academe hides lots of realities in fancy words, writes Steve Street, including the truth about who teaches.

August 12, 2010

Students come not to college but to college, where buildings become halls, classes seminars, teachers professors. A professor’s job is more than teaching, of course: two-thirds more, in the common division of teaching, research and service. But whatever the fraction, the hidden portion can have an effect on students like pea soup, if not purple haze. Academics are often accused of dumbing down our offerings. But it’s more complicated than that.

And it’s not entirely academia’s fault. The culture at large, with its common wisdom that a college degree is the new high school diploma, and caricatures of educators from Jerry Lewis’s to Eddie Murphy’s, can warp students’ expectations of what we’re about and how to get the most from us, as well as diminish our value. So too can our instinctive American equation of cost with worth distort what we’re about. George Orwell’s advice "never use a long word when a short one will do" can seem like a rip-off if you’re paying thousands of dollars in tuition for it (at that price, a spade should be an "implement for the manual effectuation of soil removal," at least).

But academics’ famous self-involvement, insularity, and preoccupation with the minutiae of maintaining our institution, even under the guise of making it better, can thicken the fog. Our simplest communications and instructions, filtered through our institutional constructs, can seem to the uninitiated like conundrums and mazes, necessitating special keys, passwords, and maps of our own design and marketing. “…from the moment you arrive on campus,” reads the promotional copy of one institution, “[ours] has a special support system in place to make certain you have every chance to succeed. We call it the First-Year Experience.” That same term calls up 193,000,000 other Google hits. How special can it be?

On the other hand, in a recent professional venue I heard a term for the first time: “agentive,” which sounds like “offensive” but apparently applies simply to students learning actively instead of passively, a goal or “desirable educational outcome,” though the form in that case might be “agentiveness,” or maybe “agentivity” … I’m not sure… someone must know…what authority can I ask? .... Actually, don’t those questions indicate the very opposite of the behavior the word’s intended to urge?

College: where common experience is made rarefied and simple truths complicated.

One of our simplest truths is that our two-tiered institution enables a few of us to work extremely hard for the title of “professor” and a guarantee of lifetime employment at a livable salary, plus opportunities to follow our career bliss, feather our intellectual community, and other less measurable benefits, while it keeps many others of us – a majority now, nationwide – working extremely hard for as long as we can hold on, semester by semester or year by year, sometimes with the help of food stamps, to do some of the same work as the others.

To point out that this situation arises from job-market supply and demand, or that many adjuncts have tenured spouses or other careers or sources of income or health insurance and so don’t really need a fair or living wage, or that “real” professors have responsibilities besides teaching, or that now is not the time to address such matters … is to change the conversation from the central facts of inequity, which are, as Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, said recently in a more particular context, “germane to every moment of every class."

Central facts such as two faculty members at the same institution teaching different sections of the same course for pay differentials like 43 percent (that’s how much my own salary once dropped when I taught the same course at the same institution under two different kinds of contract). Or the same two faculty members’ widening salary differentials, even with the same annual pay-increase rate (at 3 percent, e.g., in five years the gap between initial base salaries of $70,000 and $15,000 grows by almost $14,000, from $55,000 to $63,758).

Or this new wrinkle, where an adjunct I know works. The teaching program has an all-contingent faculty (only the director’s on a tenure streamer). A handful of full-timers teach eight courses each on yearly salaries and two-year contracts. Thirty part-timers each teach from one to three of the same two courses – but on per-course salaries that, if multiplied by eight and subtracted from the others’ yearly salaries, leaves about half. The full-timers say they’re worked to death. They’d like to balance the workload, the others the money, but none of them have any security beyond their current contract, so they all sit tight ... and the fog’s so thick you can’t see who’s come to faculty meetings, my friend says – or, worse, who’s come to class.

Facts like these indicate inequity. Facts like these indicate exploitation. Facts like these get in the way of education. Facts like these make even a concept like “teacher” problematic. Facts like this don’t bring to mind what people imagine when you are talking about professors.

And to change the conversation from such facts is to obfuscate all the topics, education included. In a first-semester classroom, a teacher’s call for questions at the end of a presentation on, say, paragraph structure might be met with a conversation-changing “What’s due Tuesday?” or “How many pages is the paper supposed to be?” A focused teacher might need a second to shift gears, though from some students’ point of view, if it’s all about college, it’s all connected. In fact, any two items that come up in a classroom might seem more clearly connected to each other than either of them is to anything else in life, whether as lived or as surfed online.

But whether between paragraphs and page length, equity and economics, or any given college subject and college, from the gaps in changed conversations arises an intellectual fog like sulfur dioxide from a volcano. Inhaling sulfur dioxide can cause breathing problems unto death; our fog causes thinking problems unto confusion, paralysis, and anti-agentivity, as we academics might call it – not just a dumbing down but a stupefaction.

Non-tenure-track faculty are teaching almost half the undergraduate courses in public educational institutions in the country, according to the American Federation of Teachers’ compilation of U.S. Department of Education data, at a cost to our employers ranging to less than a quarter, in a U.S. News & World Report estimate, of those who have to spend a third of their time, in that common wisdom again, serving the institution itself, often enough on committees charged with searching for, vetting, scrutinizing, credentialing and honoring only the 30 percent of faculty that sit or will sit on other committees and teach the other half of courses, while the 70 percent of contingent faculty continue, unseen for the fog.

As everyone involved in it knows, education is a delicate business. So our institutions need to be delicate, too. Colleges should be glass houses: like good prose, they should be transparent, not fog- but sunshine-filled. Then students and the general public wouldn’t have quite so many misconceptions about college, because they could see right through to what should and would engage them, if they didn’t have to try to make sense of our institutional structures and strictures first.

And conversations about equity wouldn’t have to be changed or prolonged for decades, as this one has been, because equity would be the unquestioned assumption, as common and real and readily understood as “career window” is now. And we’d all have to stop throwing stones and get on with our work.


Since 1980, Steve Street has taught writing and literature -- off the tenure track -- in over a dozen American colleges and universities in four states and abroad.


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