wanted: fair trade education

Of late, I found myself on several university campuses in an entirely new capacity: not as a grad student, not as a TA, not as an adjunct professor, but as a parent of a soon-to-be rising undergraduate. The university’s quintessential consumer-extraordinaire.

I found this something akin to one day shoveling coal into the furnaces that powered the Titanic and the next day (or decade) getting an invitation to frequent the Lido deck. The only problem: my experience in the bowels of that boat gave me reason to question the soundness of the ship. Which set me inevitably to grumbling about how those exorbitant tuition dollars I’m supposed to hand over get spent.

And it’s all downhill from there.

As an undergrad, and even as an early grad student, I walked around my college campuses feeling all dewy-eyed about the great halls of academe. The naiveté of youth must fade, thank god, but I never expected to feel quite the way I did on these recent campus tours.

As I endured five identical tours at five different universities, the slime of my own cynicism grew so prolific I feared I might leave a trail of it on the sidewalk behind me.

When the proud tour guides led us through the brand spanking new athletic and workout facilities, each expected me to ooh and aah with my son, but I could only wonder how a regiment of state-of-the-art ellipticals, positioned with an optimum view of the mountains, could supersede the need for a crew of composition instructors who can afford something more than Ramen for dinner.

We toured the newly turfed athletic fields, the mall-sized food courts, and a slew of smart classrooms in recently erected business school buildings. As one guide gushed on about the still-under-construction suite-style luxury dorms, I oozed a thick smear of cynical sludge on the ceramic tile just inside the sliding double doors of the brand-new student center. Do you give free massages too? I wanted to ask.

I’ve followed the problem of student-as-customer and lamented the progression of edutainment for years, but now it feels ever more personal because as a parent, I’m expected to buy–and buy into–these things.

I looked around for the cavalcade of high-paid administrators who had built these amusement park-empires, but they must have been cloistered in their towers for the afternoon—eating steak tartar out of silver dishes, no doubt.

Then the guide announced: “They do a great job preparing you for grad school here. So when you go, you’ll be ready.”

“When you go?” We heard this at several schools. When did grad school become an expectation? For which careers? All of them?

I’ve got to hand it to them. This is a clever sales tactic—kind of like creating brand loyalty for Camel cigarettes among elementary-aged kids. Persuade the new students that a bachelor’s degree won’t cut it before they’ve even had a chance to move their Xbox Ones and PS4s into their freshman dormitories.

No one mentioned how these unemployed college graduates would pay for grad school after four (or five?) years spent selling everything but their organs to pay for tuition. Another student loan perhaps? Or for top-tier students, a low-paid TA-ship with a loan on the side?

And then we got to the “excellent” part of the presentations: the teacher/student ratio. I had to keep moving because a puddle of goo had begun to form around my feet. Again and again I heard promises about personal attention, accountability and the family that is the university community.

“Really?” I said under my breath from my curmudgeon’s place in the back row. What happens to that ratio if we calculate professor to number of classes taught instead of number of students in each class? Then we also have to count the students and the grading for the three additional classes the professor teaches at the community college down the road to make ends meet.

If the professor has 25 students in each class and three classes at each institution, that’s 150 papers to grade for every assignment. How’s the ratio looking now? Does that instructor have time or energy to meet with my child about his latest paper grade?

So much for “family.”

Before going on these tours, I imagined I would heckle the tour guides about adjunct labor in a way that would educate other parents who may not be aware of this hiring practice. You will be so disappointed to hear that when the time came, I lost my nerve…entirely.

I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t arrive prepared that each tour would feel so much like a Disney ride – a sanitized explication of university life intended to celebrate and sell, the script delivered by volunteer student-guides who showed us only the pretty parts of campus with uninterrupted smiles that dared me to contradict them. I believe the student-guides were genuine in their enthusiasm. I understood the families on the tours had signed up for just this kind of show–as had my son. I didn’t have the guts to ruin it for any of them.

So, in my pathetic way, I asked about adjuncts in a low voice from the front row—or worse, I slunk up to the guides after the tours were over and asked: did they use adjuncts?

They were ready for me.

Every one of them said, “Yes, we do employ adjunct professors” with more interminable smiles. But then, “No, I don’t know what percentage of the faculty they make up.” Two guides assured me that adjuncts are good teachers too, so I shouldn’t worry.

All of the guides invited me back to Admissions where they could answer my question more thoroughly…and collect my contact information to ensure the child of a parent who would probe into such sensitive matters would never go to that school.

No, that last part only happened in my imagination. But it’s true I didn’t pursue my question at Admissions. It’s true I feared it might reflect poorly on my son’s application.

And suddenly this felt like a really creepy business. Was I being paranoid? Probably, but I found myself in a vulnerable position: At the public universities, my son must compete for admission. At the private ones, he must compete for a financial package that will make the difference between our affording the school or not.

I need the sales people in admissions to like us, not usher us out the door for fear I might make a scene.

Voting with my wallet has always felt like a common sense strategy to me. I don’t buy meat or produce at the grocery store because I don’t like big agriculture. I buy fair trade coffee because I care about who picked and processed the beans. But where can you buy a fair trade education?

We need more parents to ask this question. If a school has fat administrators, skinny adjuncts and a long line of brand new stair machines, maybe that’s not the kind of place to drop your life’s savings.

Except I’m a captive consumer. I don’t know where I might find anything different.

Despite my griping, I’m excited about this next phase of my son’s life. I anticipate the day he’ll come home from college on a break and tell me about the cool class he’s taking and the awesome professor who teaches it. We’ll chat about it over dinner. He’ll recommend books for me to read from the syllabus.

But then we’ll wonder: Is that professor on food stamps?

And that sucks. For everyone.

Right now, the Fair Trade Movement focuses primarily on farming, food and home goods. But the fact the movement exists at all illustrates the will among Americans to make ethical purchases. Forget U.S. News & World Report. Wouldn’t it have been cool if I could have asked the tour guides, “Where does your school rank at Fair Trade USA?”

That is, of course, if I could muster the gumption to speak up.

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the perfect job: life after academe

If you’re leaving academe feeling despair because you’ve missed out on the “perfect job,” never fear. Of course you know this, but I’ll tell you anyway: there is no perfect job. Even today’s professoriate suffers a variety of hardships: bigger classes, fewer raises, increased pressure to publish, a customer-oriented culture that emphasizes entertainment over education, and the biggie for me: the moral quandary of working side-by-side with an ever-growing force of underpaid contingent laborers.

Still. Perfect job or not, leaving academe is hard. Figuring out next steps can be even more daunting.

More than likely, the job you do right after quitting academe will not be the one you want to do forever (mine wasn’t). Perhaps you take it because you have to pay the bills now. Or perhaps it’s the only thing that comes along. Or perhaps it falls into your lap and you don’t know what else to do (me).

Whatever the reason, just remember first, that nothing is permanent and second, that your work doesn’t define you. The culture of academe suggests the opposite, heaping judgment on those who work outside the academy, but once you get away, the echo of those voices will quiet.

Looking back, I can see that each of my jobs has brought together a different balance of the same four things: financial need, ability, interest and time. As these factors have changed over the years, so has my work.

Here’s what that has looked like:

After graduating from college with a B.B.A in marketing, I needed to make enough money to buy a car and move out of my parents’ house. I also wanted to show just how high a woman could climb on the corporate ladder: to the top. Then I discovered the mind-numbing tedium of corporate life. With so little invested in the purpose of my work, I found the days soul-suckingly empty.

After four years in an otherwise good job (great boss, good pay, challenging tasks), I couldn’t take the boredom anymore. In pursuit of something more creative and less bound by the mandate I spend eight consecutive hours behind a desk, I quit and enrolled in an M.A. program. I thought perhaps I’d get a writing job, or teach. While in school, I supplemented my husband’s income by working a variety of jobs: part-time nanny, full-time office manager, full-time marketing assistant. Instead of the upward mobility I’d originally sought, these jobs offered a low-stress 40-hour week that left me with time and energy for my studies.

During the M.A., academic work seduced me into striving for a professorship. Where money had been a driving factor behind my corporate job, in academia I saw an opportunity to do intellectual and creative work, earn respectable pay, and work varied hours. Also, where corporations promise upward mobility and increased salaries, universities promise prestige. I can’t say I wasn’t enticed by that.

By the time I started the Ph.D., I had a 6-week old baby. I quit the office manager job to attend graduate school full-time and stay home with my son. After a year, I got funding and worked as a TA making $12,500/year. Because we could scrape by with that and my husband’s salary, I was lucky to graduate with minimal debt.

When I graduated, my kids were 7 and 3. I was exhausted, and we were broke. Of course, the only job I could get was an adjunct job paying $2,500/class. I took it because I felt I had to teach while on the market for a tenure track job. As a parent, childcare becomes a major work priority. Since the adjunct pay was so low, I couldn’t afford to hire a childcare provider, so I only taught one class per semester.

After three failed years on the market, I decided to quit for several reasons: 1) The adjunct work was unsustainable: I couldn’t parent, publish, present, network, write job letters and teach all at the same time—especially without funds for childcare; 2) I saw quitting as a form of protest. I did not want to be part of the adjunct problem. 3) Between parenting and academe, I’d had no life for years. I was tired; 4) Both of my kids had special education needs that required extra attention and patience, but all my time with them felt stressed and rushed; 5) Our growing family had gotten more expensive—I needed to make more money.

Also, my daughter became ill about this time, requiring I be more available at home. After so many years of putting career before family, my priorities changed again. I turned the tables and put career last, becoming a tutor for students with dyslexia.

One year, I taught college students about intertextuality in African American literature. The next I taught 7-year-olds how to spell “cat.” On the university’s prestige-o-meter, I’d fallen far. But I didn’t have time to care.

Tutoring was a flexible job that paid me the most money for the least amount of time. With just a 10 hour work week, I earned $2,000 per month. That’s almost as much as I made in an entire semester teaching one class at the university. When I upped my hours to 14 per week, I made over $30,000 per year for part-time hours.

Even better, I was deeply invested in my students and in literacy (a subject not unconnected to my training in literature). I was good at it. I worked in and out of my home, made my own schedule, and had no additional grading/prepping. For a time, the work was intellectual. I attended conferences, learned about the brain, opened my eyes about education in a way that all my own formal education had ironically never done. I didn’t expect it to hold me forever, but in the moment, it was the perfect job.

This brings me to last year. As of then, I’d been tutoring for nearly a decade. My daughter was much healthier and on the brink of middle school. The memoir I’d been writing off and on for years still languished on the back burner. Despite a good hourly wage, my part-time hours limited my overall income while cost of living had increased dramatically. Intellectually, I knew tutoring full-time would be tedious, so I decided it was time to refocus on my career.

Figuring out my next step over the past year has been another difficult transition. After much soul-searching, I finally decided that, in addition to the need to increase my income, my main priority is still: time.

When I started out in business, I was very ambitious. I never set out to get rich, but I did set out to make something very respectable of myself: the status of a corporate executive, the prestige of a university professor.

But tutoring young people in this most basic skill of literacy has humbled me. I didn’t get famous or rich. I didn’t make a bold feminist statement about women and work. I didn’t impress anyone with my credentials. Instead, I made a fair wage while truly changing the lives of my students in great leaps and bounds. And while I did that, I settled into a simpler life.

Between my work in special education and my daughter’s food allergies/sensitivities, I’ve learned a lot about the ills of processed food and big agriculture. Consequently, we are locavores. Since I make my own schedule, I can shop at farmers’ markets, cook fresh food, put my hands in the dirt of my garden, avoid traffic and save gas by riding my bike for short errands like the grocery store and the bank. I can meditate after lunch—sometimes. There is a rhythm to this life that I can only call spiritual. A nine-to-five schedule would disrupt that. It’s not that I don’t want to work a 40-hour week, it’s just that I want to pick which eight hours of the day to work (I work best late at night). This need goes all the way back to my dissatisfaction with my first corporate job, so I feel like it’s important to listen to it—if I can.

Consequently, in this next leg of my work life, I’ve decided to supplement my tutoring by increasing the freelance writer/editor work I’ve been doing in bits and pieces for years. If I can do that from home, I can manage my own time. So far, I have several regular clients, so it looks very promising.

I remember one of my advisors discussing her past work as a “copyeditor.” She practically spat the words when she said them. I shared her judgment at the time. How ridiculous that seems to me now. My intellectual life lives on not only in my continued interest in literature, but in my interest in food, the environment, education and the brain—and in the kind of writing/editing I’m qualified to do. It’s my life that defines me, not my job. As a “copyeditor” (no spitting), I hope to fit my job around my life and interests, which at 47, have grown more important to me than professional status or prestige.

That is the plan, for now.

My point in detailing this zigzagging career path is to show how career aspirations and employment needs/opportunities can change over time. While some of these transitions have been extremely difficult for me, all of my jobs have enhanced my understanding of myself and the world around me. All have been steps to the next thing.

If the transition from academe finds you adjuncting, waitressing, pushing papers in a job you hate, or if you’re otherwise unhappily employed, know it is just one step on the path—not an endpoint. While there may be no overall perfect job, the one that pays the bills today, or keeps you from sitting home feeling lost, may be the perfect job for now.

So, if you’re on this post-ac path with me, the best advice I can give is to forget the judgments of academe, do what makes sense for you now, and see where it leads.

adjunct community, “Lucy Snowe,” and the trap of adjunct work

A vibrant on-line community has erupted around contingent faculty in the last five years. Articles about adjuncts and the atrophied job market have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Slate and beyond. When you add the blogs and Twitter accounts that have popped up everywhere regarding adjuncting, unionization efforts and transition from academic life, it seems a massive snowball has formed over the much troubled village of academe.

Real change may still be far out, so far that I have trouble imagining what it will look like when it finally comes, but the potential for graduate students and adjuncts to build community and organize exists on a large scale.

I am so happy to see this community form. When I worked as an adjunct from 2004 to 2006, I didn’t even know the other contingent laborers at the university where I worked, let alone those who held similar jobs across the country.

But I did have Lucy Snowe.

Not the Lucy Snowe of Brontë fame–although I’m sure the pseudonym is inspired by Brontë’s teacher-protagonist in Villette–but a Lucy Snowe who worked as an adjunct writing instructor for almost 20 years and who wrote three articles for the CHE between 2003 and 2006.

Back then, the Chronicle still materialized on my doorstep–and I didn’t even think that was quaint. When I read Snowe’s article, I’m Professor Nobody, in March 2004, I folded it up and “filed” it in a stack of books in my office.

I wouldn’t begin my own adjunct work until after I graduated that coming May, but I still recognized this public accounting of adjunct life as a novel thing.

Not even my friends wanted to talk about our plight. We had all endured at least one job search by then, so the burden of shame already weighed heavily upon us. As my colleagues graduated, they scattered to the wind, preferring, I suppose, to face the odds and lick their wounds in private.

The blogosphere was in its infancy at the time. If I’d known to look, I could have found an online source of support in the blog The Invisible Adjunct, but I was what marketing professionals call a “late adopter.” I had heard people talk about “web logs” in 2004, but I didn’t really know what that meant, and I had my hands full with young children, teaching, research and job searching. Surfing the internet never crossed my mind.

I’m sorry for that because I think The Invisible Adjunct would have been a huge support to me as I followed along in her footsteps. IA posted from 2003-2004. She quit adjuncting and blogging just as I graduated and began my first term appointment. (The blog’s archives have been offline for years, but you can read about it here. There’s also an article in the CHE: “Disappearing Act” by Scott Smallwood, but it’s behind a pay wall).

Without an awareness of this small but burgeoning online community, I only had Lucy. I pulled her article out in 2005 and re-read it as if she were a cherished friend. So many of her experiences paralleled the things I’d written about in my journal: our exclusion from faculty meetings and meaningful committees, our invisibility in the department, our miserable walks to the mailroom, our motherhood, our passion for our work, our disgust with the tenured faculty who treated us like second-class citizens, our job insecurity, and our angst about the future.

Except Lucy had been at it for decades.

I would leave academe after spring semester 2006. I’d played the “market” three times, once as a grad student and twice as an adjunct. Some would consider that a quick exit. A lot of factors went into my decision. Kids, exhaustion, pride, my own helpless form of activism (don’t let the university exploit me). But one of those reasons was Lucy Snowe. By sharing her story, she showed me the future: adjunct work would not lead to tenure-track work. It was a trap.

In the eyes of academe, Ph.D.’s are like fresh vegetables. We degrade quickly once cut from the vine. In that sense, the further you get from graduation, the less appealing you become–and adjunct work proves a poor preservative.

After I quit, I published a farewell article in the CHE. Lucy published hers, The Long Goodbye, a few months later, in October of 2006. She and I made the same analogy: the university was an abusive lover, and we saw only one way to save ourselves: leave.

When I saw Lucy’s article, I felt validated. I was sorry that her career ended as it did, but the idea that someone else made the same decision as me, leaving what she loved because it didn’t love her back–went a long way to comfort me in my terror that I’d made a mistake.

So this post is a shout-out to Lucy Snowe, wherever she may be, for having the courage to share her story in the days when we had only a trace of a snowball.

Thank you Lucy!

the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma

I am a terrible complainer.

But I should clarify.

I rock when I’m ranting around the house about my kids’ messy rooms, fraudulent insurance companies or environmental desecration. But the complaints of an adjunct? This is a different and more difficult thing to do. If you hope to persuade your audience of an injustice that you have personally suffered, you’ll be better off if you can make them trust you, empathize with you…like you. Otherwise, they just might blame you.

Before starting my memoir in 2004, I read Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays about adjuncting published in 2001. I thought it was an important book, giving voice to a subject that, at the time, was shrouded in silence.

Still, taken together, the essays wore me out. I didn’t doubt the stories of hardship and loss. I empathized with the writers, and I wanted the message to get out, but despite that, I found the barrage of negative experiences overwhelming. I knew better than to blame the writers for their predicaments, but I wondered, would readers outside the academy be so generous?

How do you tell a miserable story without making your reader miserable? Without inviting blame?

I saw this as the challenge of my memoir–a problem I set out to avoid from the beginning. To do so, I decided I would tell the story of the whole person, not just the adjunct. I would pack the hard knot of my adjunct misery in a box padded with personal and palatable things like motherhood, marriage and my passion for graduate school.

By making myself real, I would illuminate the university’s exploitative labor practices without sounding like a whiner.

While I’m confessing silly little fantasies, I should admit I also told myself that I would keep a positive face while adjuncting–that I would view it as a temporary situation to be observed and commented upon, but not internalized.

You know where this is going.

I didn’t get through the opening paragraphs before face-planting on each of those ambitions.

The thing is, I couldn’t see it. Over the years, the writing and editing of this book has occurred in isolation, in the narrow spaces that opened between tutoring, parenting and grant writing. That changed when I got into a writing group this past year.

And the crux of the feedback is: I’m a lowdown dirty rotten complainer. A griper. A whiner to the Nth degree.

How the heck did that happen?

These are my long-held first paragraphs, the ones I just cut. I wrote them in my communal office during my first day on the adjunct-job nine long years ago:

“Here I sit, in my office. My first teaching gig since the Ph.D. and I can’t silence the voice in my head: “don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical.” Rather than come across as bitter and negative, I feel compelled to wow people with my resilience. How deep did I dig to find that wellspring of optimism? Impressive, isn’t it, how I can make good from the bad; how I am professionally and personally gratified by the essence of teaching, how I can rise above the pettiness of my employment status? But a coffee stain lies splattered in a sheet down the wall next to my desk. It’s brownish, amorphous and large. Maybe it’s not coffee? I note other, darker droplets that resemble blood. Not blood, I’m sure, but even so, when I look at them, I feel a thickness in my throat. Revolted, I turn away, but they lure me back like a crumpled car on the side of a highway.

I could clean the stain off the wall—obviously. But I think of this as more of an experiment than a job—I’m not really employed here, am I? I fathom myself an observer—an anthropologist of sort—curious about this culture of part-time work that has grown like unwelcome algae in the Petri dish of academia. My research questions: how long will that stain remain on the wall? Do the custodians ever come in here? Will an over-zealous co-worker scrub it off in the enthusiasm of his or her first day? Or will it just fade away like the occupants of this office?

My eye follows the brown trail down below my table and the voice in my head makes way for bitter words like irony, hypocrisy, exploitation…cynicism. And there it is. What a goddamned disappointment that is.”

The crazy thing is that I was surprised when my writers’ group asked me why I was so bitter on the first day.

“Bitter?” I said. “Which part was bitter?” I thought I’d started off like a firecracker.

Then I reread it through their eyes and it looked quite different to me. Way more negative than I ever intended.

I had a few days of crisis after this revelation. Workshopping a memoir is a funny thing because critique of the writing can so easily feel like critique of the writer. We’re not talking about made up characters here. We’re talking about a real person with real feelings, and as the case may have it, real bitterness.

Was I just a negative and miserable old curmudgeon, dissing my work before I gave it a chance? And was this my persona in general? Complaining about my kids’ slovenliness? The dog smell in the carpet? Fracking? The Tea Party? The botched roll-out of Healthcare.gov? Was it all just me?

Time to take a step back.

I separated myself from the critique, but in saving myself, I couldn’t save the writing, which on closer inspection had enough whine coming out off it to make my dog howl.

I considered the advice of my writing group. They wanted to remove all of my lovely and bitter turns of phrase, all of my biting criticisms, all of my damning judgments. Things like: “I knew the university would treat me badly. What I didn’t know, was that I would begin to treat it badly.” I had cherished that line. (And how clever for me to figure out a way to share it with you here).

While I saw their points, I felt frustrated by my original question: How do you tell a story like this without alienating the reader? I could feel my neck getting hot as we discussed it around our computers because some of this felt like the old totalitarian pressures of grad school that dictated we take everything with a smile. No one said it out loud but as a graduate student I knew: never let them see you sweat. No doubt this pressure lay at the root of my feeling that I should “wow people with my resilience” as an adjunct.

I had to remind myself that my writing group didn’t want to silence the story, they just wanted me to tell it in a way that didn’t make readers hate me.

I needed to complain and be likable at the same time.

Part of the problem is my personality. I don’t have flair. One of the “characters” in my book answered almost every one of our adjunct dilemmas with a laugh and a flippant “fuck that!” which only made me like her more. Why couldn’t I be brazen and shocking and charming?

Instead, I’m so…serious? reserved?

Whatever it is, I can’t change that shock-value complaints don’t work for me. I’ll never be that person who makes you laugh with the F-word, so I have to find another way. As I floundered around, one member of my writing group said, “get rid of all the value judgments! Just tell your story and let the reader decide.”

That is some brilliant advice.

Readers don’t want to be told how to feel about something, they want to be inspired to draw their own conclusions.

So I’m back at the drawing board. So far, I’ve excised all of the opinions, ruminations and condemnations from the first quarter of the book. I cut everything from that opening section but the story of the coffee stain, which I rewrote.

I feel liberated, like I’m uncovering something shiny from under a heavy pile of dead leaves.

How ironic that after years of teaching my students to “show don’t tell,” I’m finally figuring out how to do it myself.