Friday, August 5, 2011

There are no words today, only action

I was all set to write a post about how we remain obsessed with the Ivies and those top, elite colleges, to our own detriment. And I'm not just talking about how families will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get little Jimmy and Suzy into Yale or Duke, but how we, in academia and the media, keep pushing these colleges as the standard, for better or for worse. Three items:
Nothing from a regional state school (or community college). Nothing from a PhD from a less than elite program. Nothing about the variety of experiences that are found in higher education, from how English is taught to the experience of the workforce therein. 

And then, I read about an adjunct professor in community college who killed himself. 71 years old, history of depression, and all I can think is, did he not get help because he didn't have health insurance? And I remember reading about another adjunct who worked through his cancer treatments because he couldn't afford not to. He passed away from the cancer (sorry, no link; I saw it on facebook, in a private note, and I don't have permission to share). And how some are trying to create an Adjunct Emergency Fund. And. And. And. And.

So, I'm sorry if your experience at Brown and with elite MBA students isn't all that you imagined it would be; most of us are teaching our "mediocre" and "non-elite" students how to write quite well, thank you very much. And, I'm sorry I'm not the kind of role model you're looking for in English. Or, maybe I am, but you can't be bothered to meet me. Finally, I'm so, so happy that you're academic fairy tale has come true. Doesn't mean that it has for most people.

Ivory tower, indeed. 

For the rest of us, it's real life, and it's about time others started realizing that. Although, most people reading this blog already do realize it. Preaching to the choir. Now, it's up to us to actually DO something about it. I wrote this. I'll keep writing this. 

I need to figure out what else it is I can do. Because these words that I write, while reaching an audience, can only do so much. 


  1. You are absolutely right. There's an entire nation out here that gets overlooked every time academics obsess on the Ivies.

  2. Beautiful post, Lee.

    Did you catch this one from the Homeless Adjunct:

  3. Related: How many articles do we have to read about R1 universities that complain about the quality of teaching and the use of TAs in the classroom. SLACs exist, but you'd hardly know it from the press. You don't go to a pizza joint looking for Thai food, and you don't go to R1 looking for personal attention in the classroom.

  4. hey, i think TAs can teach basic writing skills. profs should be doing better things with their time. this is coming from a TA at a public R1.

  5. Old time stockmen say, "if that horse were made out of mud and you had a handful left over, you wouldn't know where to put it." Fits here too. My initial reaction was where I would share first, but I also want to hug it to my chest just a bit longer. I'm thinking a lot about the doing too.

    As a former adjunct, TA at a public R1 and before that enough other things that where I am in the system does not define who I am, I think even Grade 1 tenured at R1 (e.g. top cats at the top of the U-tree) need to take a turn teaching basic writing, intro courses, lower division surveys, etc just for the education therein, to remember where they are and not to be blowing smoke when they advise their disciples.

    The experience might be hard on the students but possibly an overdue lesson in humilty (not for the students).

  6. I think you've got good points here, I certainly can understand the desire to want to do something about all this, and I too have spent my academic career off of the elite track. I did want to offer a few thoughts though.

    First off, there is something just wrong with the idea that these folks who killed themselves did this because they were adjuncts. From what I can tell, they killed themselves because they were mentally ill. That's tragic and awful, and I feel for those people who lost their battles to depression and for their families, and it makes me worry about people I know who battle those demons.

    But I don't think adjuncting leads to suicide anymore than any other occupation can lead to suicide.

    Second, I think that one of the problem of part-time labor at universities of all sorts is the abundance of supply. In other words, while the long-standing trend of hiring part-time instructors to teach college classes is obviously problematic, the fact is there are lots of people who eagerly take those jobs. And I say this as a professor (and former adjunct-- more on that in a second) who specializes in composition and rhetoric, a field that evolved out of/is closely tied to "freshman comp," a course that is taught almost everywhere and a course that is mostly taught by TAs and adjuncts. Where I teach, we have many MANY more inquiries to teach part-time than we have sections to teach. So as a result, the pay and conditions are not very good.

    Third (and I guess this is tied to the supply issue too), it seems to me that making a living by stringing together part-time teaching is not a very good idea. When I adjuncted, I had a full-time office worker job, and that was a good combination for me. A lot of our part-timers have some combination of things in and out of academia, and that makes some sense to me. But if you are trying to make a "career" out of part-time teaching at a bunch of different places, well, that's just not wise. IMO.


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