The Doublespeak of Let’s Get Together

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.

Let's Get Together

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.

Privatization will make political representation obsolete

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.

Brawl Cloud

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.

Schadenfreude & Adjuncts

Much has been written about the working conditions of part time professors for good reason: they stink. The more we talk openly about the academy’s hypocritical two tier system, “a system which not only exploits the 70 percent of the faculty with contingent appointments but cheats the current and future generations of students in profound and long-lasting ways,” the more likely change will come. But along with the need for equity and academic freedoms for all is the need for relief from the daily emotional harm being done on campuses across the country. I’m talking not only about the head games played at adjuncts’ expense but the attitudes that shape these games.

One form of the head games stems from a sense of entitlement that often goes along with being a professor. Don’t get me wrong, I carried this sense with me into academia. I believed the hype that retirements and the Boomer-fueled student population growth ensured enough tenure track openings for hard working and well qualified temporarily-adjuncting applicants. I expected that as one of many well qualified temporarily-adjuncting workers, I would be given materials, space, and time to meet with students and prepare for class. I assumed I’d be accorded the same respect and dignity I’d always associated with the professors with whom I‘d worked in grad school, which is why, based on the abundant in-class discussions we’d had on equality and the variety of –isms, it never even dawned on me that pay equity was virtually nonexistent. I even thought that there was something wrong with being an adjunct: you were either on the short list to get hired, or you were somehow found defective and thus delegated to the loser pile of permanent adjuncthood.

Caution Schadenfreude

I thought I’d paid some dues as a grad student, but I had huge lessons ahead.

Any delusional sense of entitlement disappeared when I ran into a widespread, unfortunate, deeply entrenched persona non grata and/or persona non esse attitude toward adjuncts. It hit  me strongest when our email inboxes got hijacked by a weeks-long reply-all discussion of new office furniture and computers for full timers. This consumer-laden discourse occurred smack dab in the middle of budget cut negotiations in which not only were overload hours being cut, which meant adjunct jobs were being cut, but we were also being asked to take a pay cut. While some of us tried to carry on a serious discussion about the adjunct double whammy (which many either didn’t catch or didn’t care about), we were vehemently told by both full timers and fellow part timers to stop cramming their mailboxes with “trifling whining.” Okay, so pretty, sparkly, new furniture and computers, yes. Jobs and wages, no.

An even sillier example of this entitlement is musical office chairs. I work at a campus with a designated adjunct office. Since apparently such a designated office is rare, we are fortunate to have it. At least, this is what one of the chairs told me when I started looking into more office space for the adjunct hordes. “You’re lucky to have one at all,” said the chair. A couple years back I requested new chairs be switched out for some broken ones. Facilities was both kind and efficient, for the very next day I was greeted by six new chairs. Our relief was short-lived, though, for it wasn’t long before the chairs one by one mysteriously disappeared, replaced of course with worn out, broken chairs. This event happened not long after – for reasons unknown –  the locks to the adjunct office were switched to conform with the same key used to open the building. Now everybody had a key, not just adjuncts. Where’d the chairs end up? Who knows – anywhere but for use by adjuncts.

Silly? Yes, but very telling.

Such silly “mean girl” tricks are played on adjuncts every day, from plopping your contagiously sick students in the adjunct office to take a test, to referring to us as dispensable during budget discussions like you have a bad taste in your mouth, to hyper-vigilance on the part of some chairs who apparently don’t trust that we adjuncts can do our jobs so we need babysitters. To clarify: I’m not talking about recently graduated new hires who could use some help. No, these are people with five plus years experience who are being micromanaged to the point of being bullied. I contend that the two tier system is a form of bullying that allows the “mean girl” mindset to go unchallenged.

The United States doesn’t take adult on adult bullying very seriously, mainly due to our form of capitalism which encourages intense competition. To too many of us, bullying is just a part of competing. In “Academic Bullies,” staff Chronicle Review writer Piper Fogg states that  academic bullies may roll their “eyes at your new idea. . . , spread rumors to undermine a colleague’s credibility or shut their target out of social conversations.” Along with countless others, I know I’ve been a dupe for all these forms of abuse. After realizing this several years ago, I began researching online to find out what I might do. I was quite taken aback to find a list on the UK website Bully Online, which under the subheadings “Isolated,” “Subjugated and Controlled” and “Eliminated” pretty much sums up the everyday life of an adjunct professor.

An underground swell of academics have been writing and blogging for more than a  decade about the common occurrence of bullying on campus, coming to a head in 2008 in calling for legislation to include workplace bullying in laws against “discrimination for religious, sexual or cultural reasons.” The heading for this site, Bullying of Academics in Higher Education, reads: “The bullying of academics follows a pattern of horrendous, Orwellian elimination rituals, often hidden from the public.” Herein lies the “mean girl” attitude of the entitled, accompanied by an odd sense of what I can only name the schadenfreude of bullying.

Last month, in her review of Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, containing essays about two decades of the adjunct movement, Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty reported editor Keith Hoeller’s overview: “the book’s biggest takeaway is that the adjunct faculty movement is really a civil rights movement. If equality for all faculty really matters, he said, “‘we should be against [rankism] just as much as we are against racism and sexism. Contingent faculty are not inferior. They are equal and should be treated as such.’”

One startlingly simple way to effect positive change and help repair the broken system from within is to look deep inside to discover if you are, as they say, a part of the solution or a part of the problem. Do you secretly (or openly) believe there must be something wrong with people – including yourself – who can’t seem to get off the adjunct track? Do you treat adjuncts differently than you treat full timers? Full or part time, it doesn’t matter: don’t internalize the oppression. If we harbor negative attitudes of inferiority or dispensability toward adjuncts, we are only playing into the corporate game, making it easier for the corporatization of the academy to tighten its grip, subsequently making such ideas as academic freedom and its no longer necessary guardian, tenure, obsolete.