8 March 2015
I began researching part time faculty working conditions in 2010, the year I had abuse shouted at me by a peer at a local university who confused himself for the boss of me.
He’d tricked me into a casual get together with him, inviting me for coffee by email, the subject of which was: Let’s Get Together, a false message at best. When I arrived at his office at the appointed time, he began accusing me of something I hadn’t done. When it got to the point where he told me the person accusing me had an excellent reputation, implying that I hadn’t and so wasn’t to be believed, I realized this was no coffee chat.
Of course I felt confused, as I so often feel from the way so-called grown up people behave, and so I tried to tell him that he was listening to one of his mentees, and that he might try to get to know me a bit better before making assumptions about my character based on hearsay. He didn’t like this, and he ended up yelling at the top of his lungs.
When he did this, I pictured my huge, dearly departed alcoholic husband yelling right in my face about my liberal politics and calling me a hippie puke, neck veins bulging, face red as a fire truck, and I thought, “You don’t scare me, buddy, I’ve got you beat. I’ve been yelled at by an enormous, raging alcoholic.”
But George was an old-fashioned man’s man, a gentle giant whose bark was far, far worse than his bite. Not that he wouldn’t use physical means to defend himself or, especially, others. Because of his upbringing and his personal ethics formed by years of protecting those weaker than he, the idea that a man would hit a woman was foreign to my husband. Yelling, yes. Hitting, never. But I didn’t know this about my abuser of the moment. I collected myself, and calmly told him he needn’t worry, that nothing of the sort would ever happen again. I said this because I knew right then and there that after the semester, I would refuse to work with a department and people who foster such abusive practices.
Even though I’d been mistreated and didn’t deserve the severity of my aggressor’s manipulations, I knew neither the chair nor anyone else would care that this man had harassed me this way. The man who’d tricked me with his passive-aggressive email was a favorite in the department. He’d had a bad attitude about me for years, and I could tell that he believed his chance had come to instigate trouble for me. I knew I’d get no help because whenever I’d spoken to other part time faculty about the atmosphere of wanton backstabbing and abuse in the department, they’d change the subject or simply sigh. Meanwhile, the chair pretended to ignore the negativity, for doing so allowed others to do most of the dirty work for him. He knew exactly what was happening – the lying, the spying, the backstabbing – he just didn’t always know all the details. In politics, we call this plausible deniability. In life’s day to day happenings, it’s a rotten way to treat fellow human beings.
I was clear I’d been bullied, but I wasn’t clear as to what I could do about it other than run and tell my mom. It occurred to me that there was something much deeper fueling the rage behind my aggressor’s assault. The tension in the department reflected the atmosphere on the campus, and I realized this was not the same atmosphere of investigation, deep thought, and learning I’d come to know in college in the late 70s. I wondered what had happened to education. What happened that causes seemingly reasonable, highly educated people to behave like starved dogs fighting over a bone? The benefit I gained from being bullied was to focus my energy on finding out.
One thing I discovered quite quickly is that adjunct faculty are a symptom of a far-reaching epidemic: privatization models set up to casualize the work force. In other words, sacrificing hard fought labor rights for corporate profit by creating a flexible, at-will workforce.
But my view after only a little more than two month’s worth of researching privatization became that we will really get nowhere unless we concert efforts on all levels of education – K12 through PhD institutions. I didn’t come to the idea of joining efforts right away. It took another few weeks to realize that the voices I was seeking were not being highlighted. In fact, just the opposite, they were often being ignored, muted or suppressed. But that was half a decade ago, and today more and more people are aware that terms like Student Success and accountability are doublespeak meant to fool us into submission.
From this point of view, it makes no sense, for example, for contingent faculty to waste time and energy arguing against tenure. It’s already being done for us. And us doing so not only widens the two tier chasm between educators who should be focused on joining forces, it actually helps corporatizers achieve the goal of an all precarious, all the time workforce. When we think tenure, we should think union-busting. That’s the way our oppressors view it. Regardless of how we feel about our unions, these are part of the bedrock of a democratic society that broadens access to our freedoms. Being anti-union undermines our desire to empower the silenced majority. Too, think about how much easier it is to be taken advantage of while we’re at each others’ throats.
But we can choose not to see ourselves as enemies fighting for leftover bones. We can reject the black and white, us v them polarization model so in vogue today and consider alternate ways of working together. When you stop and think about it, it’s going to take a whole lot of people to save education – and our democracy – from the ever-ravenous jaws of privatization.
Let’s face it, for a long time now our general mood in lobbying and negotiating efforts has been defeatist and reactive: accepting contingency as a norm is in the back of our minds, and the structures of our organizations for change are not set up for the challenges brought by 40 years of austerity measures. But in order to address these problems, we need to take a different approach, so instead of allowing ourselves to be swept into the national fervor for shutting down discourse, let’s challenge ourselves to open discussion based on our differences. Isn’t this what we teach our students?
In order to add the necessary force behind our efforts and amplify our calls for equity and genuine concern for students, we need to imagine more fluid leadership structures, ones that allow for much freer interplay between advocate and advocated for, and that can create multi-voiced, proactive planning. This cannot happen if we adhere to leadership styles that mimic corporate structures and focus on obsolete notions of speaking privilege. We who spend our lives teaching students about free speech are engaging in practices that silence one another. We shut down discussion in fits of emotion instead of seeing differences as opportunities for exploration. This irony doesn’t have to exist if we commit ourselves to building bridges rather than constructing walls.
Way back in 1961, President Eisenhower warned us to stay alert and keep informed because he could see that greed + access to public funds not only creates economic disaster for the lower and middle class but undermines our democracy. We are on the verge of missing DDE’s window of opportunity to maintain an alert, informed citizenry that can check the abuses of a privatization complex. Spreading the message that our lives are being legislated in favor of private interests needs to run deep, and this includes every person connected to education. Our advocacy has stalled at a crossroads for a very long time, and it’s time to realize that we cannot reach any consequential sense of unity or solidarity without some painstaking self-examination that includes forward thinking solutions of inclusiveness. Ultimately, we must take responsibility for teaching ourselves how to create new models of working together in meaningful ways.