Dr. Margaret Sallee, Associate Professor, is seeking participants for a study on the experiences of academic commuting couples, or couples who spend at least two nights a week apart on average. At least one member of the couple needs to be employed as a college or university faculty member. Participants will be entered into a drawing to win $75 that can be used to purchase a book for your campus or community library. Participation requires the completion of an interview that lasts approximately an hour. If you are interested, please contact Margaret at email@example.com
NFM Board memberSeth Kahn ruminates on the activism part of professional organizaiton activism.
We care a lot. We know other people who care a lot. We know how to formulate action plans and write press releases. What’s missing, our Phase 2, is the willingness (?), ability (?), resolve (?) to express to each other our collective commitment to being ethical and proactive. We nitpick at ideas. We talk ourselves out of taking obvious stances. We argue relentlessly about individual words in 1000-word statements. We refuse to commit to principles because we can’t already know what will have happened when we try to enact them.
Or, things we’d like Badmin to experience, just so they know what it’s like.
Note: If you, as president, are unaware of and/or unsympathetic to the difficulties the majority of your faculty face in carrying out the mission of the college (which it is your job to support and further), you are unfit to hold your office.
Every College President Should Experience Adjunct Monetary Problems
- Live only on food stamps for one month of every year. No sneaking into any campus parties and raiding the snack tray either!
- It’s okay if they sneak into parties, etc. for food, provided someone is there to record it and post a video of a college president sneaking snacks into his/her pockets.
- Also, at the party, at least 3 people have to ask them what they’re doing there since “only faculty” were invited.
- They may visit the campus food pantry.
- Have their paycheck come in late twice a year, so they can understand what so many adjuncts experience on a routine basis.
- No dipping into savings to survive, either, since adjuncts have no savings.
- Also, if they are ill, no fair using insurance that the adjunct would not have. So if it’s life-threatening, hmmm, Margaret Mary says, “Hello, welcome to my nightmare.”
- If a member of the family is ill, same thing. Get a glimpse of what it feels like to not be able to help your loved ones, even though you have done all the right things—got a good education, are a model employee…. You might as well have not bothered with the perks and benefits that admin says you are worth. And if you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?
- You could call this experiment The Lord of the Fries since so many adjuncts work fast food or might as well with the pay they get—and these particular adjuncts will be stranded, like we are and remain, on OUR island. Ironically, it is not OUR savagery that they will have to survive but one of their own making.
- Be required to use personal laptops to connect to the classroom projectors since there are no podium PCs available. Oh and if they have a Mac they need to also carry the adapter.
- An adapter which they have to pay for, out of pocket, because the institution’s FT faculty all have PCs and have no idea why the department would need to buy an adapter.
- Have to use their personal cell phone to conduct all business.
- Be sure to charge for that from the limited cash they are allowed during the time frame so the experience mimics reality. So less for food/gas/etc.
- Pay $50-$75 monthly for wireless internet access at home so they can respond within 24 hours to all student emails and discussion threads for their online course. An online course for which they are paid no more per credit hour than a regular course, and for which they must sign a contract waiver allowing the institution to retain rights to the course shell. Meaning the institution can replace them at any time with younger, less expensive, or even robot instructors/presidents.
- Be required to tote around their food and drinks (with igloo ice) for the day since they have no private offices with refrigerators.
- They must take in at least one roommate for the first year.
Presidents Should have to Experience Life in the Academic Trenches
- Work in the tutoring center one day a month so they will know what the students actually are thinking.
- Presidents and administrators should have to teach one course a semester, and one of the two courses per year needs to be an intro course, so they keep thinking of students as people and faculty as colleagues.
- or developmental, since they like to complain about retention, or
- Teach 6 different classes on 4 campuses and spend most of each day driving between them toting everything they need to teach, or
- Teach an intro course of 100 students each year… without a TA,
- Preferably in a small classroom with old brown chalkboards, no projector or computer and four desks too few for the students because they lost the equipped classroom they requested months ago to a full-timer whose schedule changed.
- Or, prep a totally new course only to have it cancelled the day before it’s scheduled to start… without getting paid.
- Teach in a room where the technology doesn’t work when no one answers the Help Desk phone.
- Teach an 8:30 am class and pick up copies on their way to class when the copy center opens at 8:30, but the only person who opens the copy center isn’t around. So they’re late for their own class, and then have to teach without their copies.
- Or pay the student rate of $0.30/page to print the original to make copies from because their home printer is out of ink. But, oh yeah, they need to load in increments of $5.00 to be able to print, so they will perpetually have $4.70 available to print still! Woohoo!
- Or not be given the code needed to print on campus, so everything must be printed at home.
- They should have to haul all of their office supplies to work every day and have no secretarial help or support, and be locked out of their offices.
- And be locked out of their offices and have a 7:30 or 8 am class—so NO ONE is around to help open it up. And if lucky enough to have access to a phone, it’s in the office.
- They should not be able to reserve a computer lab for their students to work on their research projects, so just have them bring in their personal work to the classroom, but discover the campus wi-fi doesn’t work in their assigned classroom. So they will provide students with access via their own personal hot spot device for internet access on student work days, since cancelling class is not allowed.
- Explain again to a class of 50+ why there are no comments on their papers (just a rubric attached with numbers circled) because even that took more than 30 hours of time for which they are not compensated. And try to stifle the fact that they are ticked off that they spent that much time on the grading, because they could have been working those 30 hours at a second job, which pays an hourly wage and has (some) benefits, unlike indentured servitude as a part-time instructor. (See Adjunct Monetary Problems, above.)
- They should have to hold student meetings at the local coffee shop, campus food court, or library.
- And then get shushed by students for holding conferences in the library despite reserving space with the sympathetic librarians.
- And be told they MUST hold (uncompensated) office hours.
- Have BlackBoard update their servers on Sundays—which is deadline day for most online courses—and so commence the blowing up of their email accounts from anxious students on the one weekend day they decide to take off.
Presidents Should be Required to Experience the Humiliations of Academic Vagabondage
- The chancellors should refer to presidents as an “administrative vagabond.”
- Presidents should have to submit to the tyranny, incompetence, and ill-humor of at least one imperious and indifferent administrator.
- Presidents should be forced to attend meetings where they are completely ignored, and be made to come into those meetings on their days off.
- Or be forbidden from attending meetings and thus have no access to the decision-making processes that directly impact their livelihood.
- Maybe they could stand beside the closed door—in case they are needed in the meeting.
- Or be forbidden from attending meetings and thus have no access to the decision-making processes that directly impact their livelihood.
- They should hold a single seat representing administration, amidst a proportional shared governance body in which adjuncts hold seats reflecting their numbers—double that of full-timers.
- They each have to explain over and over—No, I HAVE a terminal degree. YES, I am still an adjunct.
- Especially when applying for housing or a new emergency credit card to pay for gas to travel from school to school or for food because the creditors can’t verify your income because of the college pay schedule (see Adjunct Monetary Problems, above).
- Presidents should also be required to run into their students at inopportune times, such as while in line at Job and Family Services or at the local Free Medical Clinic.
- Or working as a waiter/waitress on off-hours.
- Or while dumpster diving! (see Adjunct Monetary Problems, above)
- They should talk to the larger public about a living wage and health insurance, only to be called a “free-loading libtards” who should get a “real job.”
- They each should definitely write a blog piece/letter to the editor/article that gets trolled by all the higher ed elite and libertarians.
- With lots of nasty, insulting memes. because—tenure.
- The presidents must experience chronic lack of eye contact from admins and FT faculty—to the extent that they begin to question their existence.
- And must be interrupted when in an actual discussion as if they aren’t even in the room.
- They should not be allowed to park on campus until they finally do get paid and are “in the system.”
- But, of course, they must pay to park, and receive a parking pass from an office that is only open 8:00 – 3:00 despite teaching a night class that runs from 7:00 – 10:00 pm.
- Eliminate the faculty-only parking and combine it with commuter parking, so they have to arrive 30 minutes early to find a place to park.
- Wait, since when are adjuncts allowed to have cars?
- Share an office with 30+ other people that has two ancient computers, one of which no longer can interface with the network, or without a dedicated desk, phone line, or computer and have a maximum of 36 cubic feet to store their stuff.
- What office? Who gets offices? Make them work from home!
- Or from the above-mentioned vehicle.
- When public transit isn’t operating, accommodate students who can’t attend—but when presidents’ cars break down they must take public transit to get there no matter what (even if public transit isn’t accessible in their neighborhoods)
- Be asked, “Why didn’t you call a cab?” (when they don’t run in suburbia and there’s a huge fee to call one out).
- Or get to the campus by public transportation—and fight to get a seat on the shuttle (yellow school) bus which runs every half hour!
- Not be trusted enough to be given a key to to their own classrooms.
- Have to use their own private cell phone to get security to come open their classroom.
No One’s Brought Up the guillotine?
- Have to reapply for their job every year, or even semester.
- Since it’s a limited “engagement,” to make it real, reapply every other day.
- And—hey, the paperwork will get lost, too.
- Have them see the first two emails about adjunct hiring and votes when they are the only one in the department. Then see who responds publicly and know that some comments are “off channel” and directly about them.
- Have them get pregnant and have to hide it so they don’t get removed from consideration from the next term’s hiring.
- Or ask them to cover for an adjunct colleague who calls from delivery to tell them that she has all final exams ready for them in a drawer.
- Perhaps, also, be on notice of a possible cancellation of their positions up to the day before the first day of the semester
- Have them go to their union only to be told the contract doesn’t really cover someone in their situation. Even though it’s horribly unfair, there’s not a thing that can be done.
- And be rejected for partial unemployment when classes get cancelled last minute because of the education clause.
- The president should have No guarantee of work in the summer. Except for like maybe 10% of college presidents—selected by the most arbitrary and capricious of methods.
- Or if they get a job lined up, and a day or two before the course is scheduled to begin, the university offers them the same job for 1/2 the pay due to “low enrollment”—and if they accept the contract reduction, but enrollment goes back up, they are NOT reimbursed for the originally agreed-upon figure.
- Also: give the presidents a work schedule and pay timeline, then change it 4 or 5 times and at the last possible moment before the semester starts. Then make them teach several classes, even though the books for those classes won’t arrive for several weeks because the instructors were changed at the last minute.
- Maybe the presidents should also work 2 bartending or serving jobs on top of teaching at several different campuses, so they have no time to do any research to help get a full-time job.
- If the presidents do force their way into your office (Chair or Dean) to make an absurd request (food, more work, etc), praise their efforts profusely, but tell them that higher-ups (who they do not know and will never meet—make up some names and give them authoritative titles) won’t approve it because “it’s unfair to others” and—laugh as you pull this chestnut out—”budget cuts.”
- After “our administrators” have worked 6 or 7 semesters, “give” them a two-year temporary fulltime appointment—for which they must work an extra 10%—and assign them to launch a new mentorship program for new adjuncts. As the two-year appointment draws to a close, “our administrator” will be shadowed by a full-time faculty member who, along with other full-timers higher up the food chain, will go on to win a prestigious national award for the program the President started. They will hear about the award in the department newsletter!
- No golden parachutes or awards of tenure when there’s “no work for them this semester” either.
- Three days before the semester starts, email the presidents informing them that their services are no longer required, as their positions were absorbed by tenured faculty members. Note that you will keep their information on file if you have need for their services in the future. Be sure to spell their names name wrong in the emails.
- After enduring a 3-hour panel interview that took place on their schedules on less than 48 hours notice where they then waited 2+ weeks to hear that they got the position in the first place,
- Offer them a position only after completing an unnecessary 5-week course for no pay on how to teach online.
- And then write them up if they miss a late submission assignment while grading because they are not current, even though students are given 2 weeks to submit work after deadline.
- Or fire them and have campus
thugspolice, allow them to get one cardboard box of personal items and escort them promptly from the property.
- Or at least witness it happening to a colleague so they’ll be sure to be very careful and very quiet.
by Jessica Lawless
No Justice No Service was held ten days after National Adjunct Walkout Day (NAWD) and just over a month before the nationwide Fight for Fifteen day of action on 4/15. This was strategic. Bay Area #NAWD was organized to bring together the adjunct and the fast food workers’ fights against income inequality. We did turn out for No Justice No Service during NAWD, letting folks know there was a follow-up event to keep up our momentum. Similarly, No Justice No Service was another opportunity to bring together adjunct faculty and fast food workers while ensuring turnout for the 4/15 day of action.
In early 2015, Black Lives Matter activists in Oakland launched Black Brunches. Black activists walked into restaurants in gentrified—predominantly white—neighborhoods and read aloud names of black trans and cis folks murdered by state-sanctioned violence. During No Justice No Service, several of the Black artists staged a Black Brunch style intervention. Lukaza Verrisimo- Branfman, a CCA student, wrote a special roll call naming fallen labor activists alongside the names of Black people murdered since the beginning of 2015. As a non-black person standing in that art gallery, I found it chilling to embody the sensations of sorrow, helplessness, anger, and confusion about my role in the face of the violence she had referenced. It was a moment to confront what we are doing to ensure Black lives do, in fact, matter.
No Justice No Service was the first time the bargaining teams of the five newly unionized Bay Area colleges came together face to face. This was strategic for metro organizing. The bargaining teams gave joint updates on each of their school’s progress. The contingent faculty on stage, many of them new activists, were given a round of applause welcoming them into the broader labor and social justice movements of the Bay Area.
Students participated as equal artists. Zach Ozma and Grace Chen gave tarot readings. The CCA Students of Color Coalition restaged a sculpture they made during the organizing campaign: a wall with large text reading “Stay Neutral” that had originally been set up at a captive meeting held by the President and Provost. Mills MFA writing students read poetry and prose. The SFAI student group, The Poster Syndicate, held a print-in in front of the gallery.
Inspired by the Los Angeles and the Bay Area festivals, long-time adjunct activist Bri Bolin organized a day-long festival in Chicago. Fight for 2015: Chicago Art, Education, and Justice Festival was held at Columbia College on April 15, 2015, as a part of the day of action. Our networks expanded.
Because of the concrete organizing successes of the print-ins and No Justice No Service, art in its broadest forms was accepted as a part of organizing at our local. When we held a protest outside of SFAI’s yearly fundraising gala, it included a poetry security force; a giant puppet, St. Precaria; a performative “prayer for precarious workers;” and a brass marching band. Instead of the usual print-in, the Great Tortilla Conspiracy printed with edible ink the Dean of Faculty’s face on tortillas that were made into quesadillas that demonstrators and gala attendees ate.*
During the summer when campuses were quieter, Lauren Elder, who had worked on No Justice No Service and is part of the CCA Contract Action team (CAT); Jessica Beard, an SFAI bargaining team member; and I planned a series of creative workshops called Adjunct Action/Art in Action. Our goal was to make clear the narrative of the “oppressed adjunct professor” was now the narrative of the “standing up and fighting back adjunct professor.” Partnering with the Center for Digital Storytelling, participants in the workshop wrote their stories of struggle as an academic. It was a cathartic experience that built genuine solidarity. We took those stories and created puppets, in workshops led by Lauren Elder, which were used at CFA and SEIU actions during the fall semester. Finally, we storyboarded an Instagram campaign for a future launch. Faculty and organizers from different schools and unions, as well as community organizers, attended the workshops. One attendee went on to become a bargaining team member at her school. Jessica Beard became an organizer with California Federation of Teacher’s higher ed campaign. And Lauren Elder was hired by the California Faculty Association (CFA) to lead a puppet-making workshop as preparation for an action.
In the fall, Local 1021 held our membership convention. I invited No Justice No Service artists to install art as a part of the convention. Alicia Bell on behalf of Black Magic Arts Collective set up altars to Black laborers. Danielle Wright created a provocative piece about Black women’s hair as it connects to concepts of labor. Catherine Powell from the Labor Archives and Research Center brought a display highlighting women organizers during the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, and Dawn Kceul from the Debt Collective and Strike Debt created an interactive project tallying the collective debt of convention attendees.
Also in the fall, two other events were organized collaboratively between SEIU Local 1021, CFA, The Labor Archives and Research Center, and The San Francisco State University Poetry Center. These were spearheaded by Steve Dickison, a poet and adjunct at CCA as well as the director of the Poetry Center, and Tanya Hollis of the Labor Archives and Research Center that is housed on San Francisco State University’s campus. The first event, Poet | Artist | Activist: Let’s Make a Plan, was held at the Labor Archives and focused on engaging students in art and activism. It featured Chris Higgenbotham, Christian Nagler, and Cassie Thornton. The other event was a panel at the Second Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair in San Francisco. Adjunct Action|Poets in Action featured Stephanie Young and David Buuck from Mills, Hugh Behm Steinberg from CCA, and Jessica Beard from SFAI. They each read poetry or prose about adjunct organizing in the movement. Shelia Tully from CFA and I moderated the follow up discussion.
While I was focused on the above events, Jonathan, my co-worker at SEIU, was building a coalition between AFT 2121 (San Francisco City College) CFA, SEIU 1021, and Jobs with Justice SF. They convened a hearing about the state of higher education in San Francisco. Among the many things happening that evening, the Poster Syndicate set up a print-in. The hearing resulted in an important report making recommendations to the city supervisors and SFUSD Board of Directors.
Meanwhile, our work was being noticed by SEIU International. Jonathan and I were invited to present on using art as a part of public campaigns and to support new organizing at our state-wide organizing convention. Our work was also being noticed by other artists and curators. Cassie Thornton and I were invited to Charge 2016, “a three day convening presented by Art League Houston to 1. platform artist-led alternative models of sustainability 2. advocate for equitable compensation for artists 3. consider artists’ work in the larger economy.” We were asked to present on No Justice No Service and adjunct union organizing with artist/adjunct professors.
At Charge 2016 Cassie and I had the opportunity to explore new ways of collaborating. In addition to presenting about art as an organizing tool, we designed an organizing 101 workshop that used self-defense techniques for embodied learning. The shift in the room when we used those techniques to move from agitation to action was palpable. It was also fun, something much needed when we are fighting the exhausting state of precarity that defines our daily experiences.
When Mills College announced severe budget cuts, Jonathan included Cassie as part of the union actions fighting the proposed department closings. She was paid for her time as artist which allowed her to pilot a new project called Institutional Dreaming, a reinterpretation of Laurie Anderson’s Institutional Dream Series. Laurie Anderson used her dreams to study the impact public institutions had on her psyche and sense of vulnerability to bureaucracies. Cassie is creating spaces for collective dreaming of utopian visions that can restructure the privatization of formerly public institutions that is putting us all in a debt crisis.
Many lifetimes ago, I co-founded a feminist self-defense organization. I revisited self-defense as community building in my MFA thesis project. An effect of learning self-defense is that the embodiment of facing ones fears and/or history of sexual and physical assault seeps into the subconscious and shifts the outcome of recurring violent dreams. Cassie and I are exploring learning organizing skills through feminist self-defense techniques and then capturing the dreaming process as a way to harness our power and shift the vulnerability we feel under neoliberalism onto the institutions. Give us a shout if you are interested in hosting a workshop!
As I wrote in the beginning of this piece, caught in the trap of adjuncting for nine years led me to believe I was no longer a practicing artist. Getting hired as a union organizer felt like the nail in that coffin. I never could have foreseen that this new career would provide opportunities to do the things I thought I’d be doing as an academic: developing my art practice, curating and programming, presenting at conferences, writing and publishing, pushing the boundaries of my field. It’s been one more lesson in NOT accepting that you just never know what your life or your advocacy can be the catalyst for.
*To see pictures of our events go to the photo albums on the Adjunct Action Bay Area Facebook page
There are many more people who made each event and project possible. You know who you are. Know how much you are appreciated for being a part of this amazing journey.
by Jessica Lawless
I started with the first step to any campaign and put together an organizing committee. The OC consisted of Stephanie Young and David Buuck from Mills College, Lauren Elder from CCA, Christian Nagler from SFAI, Cassie Thornton, a CCA alum, and Jessica Tully, an SFAI alum. We were a mix of poets, artists, and organizers. Adam passed on his notes and materials from the LA event. Local 721’s communications team gave us strategic advice, saying it drew more people than any other public event the local had ever done and they would lend support any way they could. That was the key to greenlighting the project within the chain of command at 1021.
The OC met almost weekly for six months, no small feat since a key struggle with adjunct organizing is, unsurprisingly, attendance at meetings and longevity of OC and bargaining team members. Faculty may not be at the same school during the semester following a union election or the entirety of a first contract campaign. And obviously contingent faculty are not working regular daily shifts at one worksite. Finding a time people can meet for another unpaid commitment is a very real organizing challenge. The consistent attendance at the art event planning meetings impressed my supervisors as they learned that collectively producing a public event was familiar territory for the adjunct professors who are artists and poets. This was positive for our purposes but it was also a reflection on the double whammy that artists who teach face. We sell ourselves short in two systems that do not provide adequate compensation for our labor. For a variety of reasons, artists have a troubled relationship with the art market while the art market has a troubled relationship compensating the labor of those who create the work the system profits from. Lise Soskolne, in her essay On Merit, does an excellent job of laying out this contradiction. Our planning sessions included how to address this double whammy as an aspect of what we were doing.
What we were doing became No Justice No Service: Bay Area Art, Education & Justice Festival. It was held on March 8th 2015 at The Lab, a gallery in the Mission district of San Francisco housed in an old labor hall. We brought together installation, performance, and spoken word artists alongside writers, printmakers, Bay Area educators and professors, students, unions, and social justice activists. Our focus was to make evident the interconnectedness between artists, contingent professors, student debt, labor, the Fight for Fifteen, and Black Lives Matter. Jennie Smith-Camejo, the 1021 communications lead for the project, met with us over and over trying to find the right public messaging to attract attendees. These meetings would end with her saying, “I think I get it.” On the night of the festival she said, “OK, I finally got it just now.” Her final revelation mimicked the process of making activist art.
Below are the reactions of other people who were involved with the festival:
As an artist, the work of co-creating No Justice, No Service was to engage in community cross-overs that were fresh, surprising, rewarding and enduring: artists and organizers sharing space, ideas, respect and appreciation. I have not felt part of a broad and vital social movement for decades and this has been a thrilling re-entry.”
–Lauren Elder, Artist, CCA Adjunct Faculty, No Justice No Service organizer
No Justice No Service festival impacted me tremendously. I learned about different movements I was unaware of, such as the Adjunct movement. I couldn’t believe people with Ph.D.’s were getting paid poverty wages. These are professors that teach the future of our country for crying out loud! It enlightened me that our issues with big companies/colleges in America are deeper than it seems from the naked eye. This festival also gave me the chance to perform my poetry for the first time. It was an amazing experience. Since No Justice No Service festival I have been more involved with helping different movements and using my poetry to broadcast different injustices around America.”
–Chris Higginbotham, Fast Food Worker/Organizer, Poet, Photographer, and Middle School Teacher, No Justice No Service artist
No Justice No Service took several forms as part demonstration, performance, teach-in, and even yoga studio to highlight the fight for adjunct unionization. The event brought people from various struggles together in an effort to continue engagement and foster connection between labor unions, Fight for 15, #blm/black.seed, income inequality, student debt and more. The connections fostered have continued between the various groups and constituencies via relationship building and exploring how these struggles are interconnected. ”
–Irina Contreras, Artist, School and Community Programs Manager, Museum of the African Diaspora, No Justice No Service MC
Lauren, Chris, and Irina do an excellent job describing the success of the day-long festival and its lasting reach. For me personally, No Justice No Service began to answer a question I was chewing on since I began working for the union: “What are the aesthetics of labor in the 21st century?” The visual and artistic aspects of labor have been defined by Soviet Era propaganda, WPA murals, and Woody Guthrie. For some of us it was Ani Difranco and Billy Bragg a generation later. All of this is fantastic, but if we are trying to revive the labor movement I believe we should be looking forward rather than back. As an artist who has always worked at the intersections of social justice and visual culture, I’m now interested in art operating as an organizing tool rather than a separate sphere that occasionally crosses paths with grounded activism.
Reflecting on No Justice No Service, Cassie Thornton and I identified our artistic production during the festival as “live curation.” Similar to live video mixing or DJ sets, our material was the event itself. We were making program changes for six hours solid, mixing everything from the artists, performers and speakers, to the organizations tabling, the installation artists, the slow food cafe, the print-in and the stenciling happening outside the gallery. Our actions were a performance in their own right. Through live curation we were able to explore how performativity is an aspect of concrete social change rather than art performing political ideologies without affecting change. In No Justice No Service we created a liminal space that interwove artistic labor, social relations, and the precarity of living under neoliberal capitalism. I am beginning to understand 21st century labor union aesthetics as a mergence of social practice and art thinking (See Thinking about Art Thinking by Luis Camnitzer in e-flux journal #65).
Ok, but back to grounded organizing.
by Jessica Lawless
Two years ago I walked out of the classroom in the middle of the spring 2014 semester to become an organizer on SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign (now called Faculty Forward ) in the Bay Area. Nothing is as simple as a single sentence. The transition from academia to civilian life after nine years of precarious employment as an adjunct professor* doing side gigs and being on a job search was and has been a financial and emotional roller-coaster ride. Adjuncting was a financial and emotional ride also, but more like the “rotor”–that one where everything spins and then the floor drops out from under you. One of the floors that dropped away for me was my art practice. I didn’t have money to keep up on current software or buy materials. I didn’t have head space to find my creativity when I had to go on and off of unemployment and constantly look for work. For two years before I left teaching, I kept trying to tell myself it was okay I wasn’t an artist anymore, that other things in my life were okay besides my career and art practice. Of course those are the two reasons I incurred an unreasonable amount of student debt. Not surprisingly, my self-talk didn’t work. I was deeply depressed and had wound myself up into an angst-ridden ball of self-flagellating failure. When I got my new job, I was obviously glad to be out of that mess, but I was sure it cemented the fact that I was no longer an artist.
Today I am clear I am still an artist. I found my way back to my art practice through organizing—in part because I am not living as day-to-day as I had been, so I am able to focus on other things besides (not) getting by. In another part, it is because as an artist I have always sought out where and how art and activism meet and I’ve had the opportunity to bring that inquiry to my job. It wasn’t immediate and I didn’t do it alone.
Right before I walked out of the classroom, Adam Overton, another artist and former adjunct professor, put together an audiobook of Joe Berry’s Reclaiming the Ivory Tower. Adam brought together adjunct artists and activists to read sections of the book. Adam and I knew each other from when I lived in Los Angeles and we worked together on The Audacity of Desperation, an art show I organized with Sarah Ross. Since I was involved in national adjunct organizing on-line, I helped Adam find participants. It was right around this time we were each hired to work for SEIU. The Higher Ed campaign was focusing on art schools in California. Adam was hired at Local 721 and assigned to Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD) in southern California, and I was working at Local 1021 and placed at California College of the Arts (CCA) in northern California.
When the Adjunct Action campaign kicked off, Robby Herbst, another Los Angeles-based artist and perpetual adjunct professor, put together a project that included an SEIU organizer. To round this all out, on a trip to LA shortly after I began working as an organizer, I was telling Nancy Popp, another precariously employed artist, about my fears of no longer being an artist when we ran into Robby at an art opening. He was excited I was working for SEIU, and we made a plan to figure how we could collaborate.
While Adam, Robby, Nancy, and I were in conversations together and with others about art and movement building, Malini Cadambi Daniel, the director of the SEIU International Higher Ed campaign, was interested in starting an artists’ think tank for organizing art schools. While we never quite got this idea off the ground, Adam and I began having regular phone check-ins about our jobs and our ever-shifting relationships to art. A key question we had was “how is the organizing we’re doing similar to how we each worked as an artist?” For example, Adam was a part of Ceci N’est Pas: Art between France and Los Angeles, an exchange that brought performance into artists’ homes rather than art spaces. As another example, I collaborated with Wil Nicholson on Debris: Notes from Outside the Surface, which was a video and installation where we worked together to create an alternative resolution to a crime that cut across race and class realities of the Los Angles art world.
In Los Angeles, Adam was hosting a cocktail hour for artists to discuss unionizing and other ways to create standards. Those standards grew into Art, Education & Justice!—an SEIU-supported event held at Human Resources on October 12, 2014. This event brought together artists, faculty, students, and allies “with a goal nothing short of fixing our broken higher education system.”
In terms of unionizing, Art, Education & Justice! was an example of organizing a metro campaign (the building of union density within a defined geographical area to raise the standards of a specific work sector or profession as a whole). The metro strategy at its best will build member-to-member relationships beyond a single shop or particular union. The event in LA made clear the relationships between the adjunct campaign and student debt activism. It presented a public face of the union that was new, innovative, and as one of my co-workers said, “Cool.” 150 participants experienced speeches, art installations, experimental music, and even an incantation. And a path was paved to organize a Bay Area version of Art, Education, Justice!
At Local 1021, we had been doing “Print-ins”: like “sit-ins” but participatory public screen printing. Art Hazelwood, visiting faculty at The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI calls all contingent faculty “visiting,” three years, ten years, twenty years, one is still a visitor) had a long history of doing similar printmaking actions and got the ball rolling. He did this in collaboration with his students, opening up a way for all students to work on the union campaign. My co-worker, Jonathan Nunez-Babb, took the print-ins on as an integral part of SFAI and Mills College actions, establishing this as a common practice for our higher ed campaigns.
The success of the print-ins led to talk by my supervisors of inviting contingent faculty to exhibit their work in the union hall or similar location. This kind of exhibit has its place, but it’s generally more free labor on the part of the artists. My chosen task became educating the union on the fact that professional artists are almost always asked for free labor in social justice movements and that as a union we should establish different practices. Additionally, I believed non-material based contemporary art practices made more sense for organizing.
Since I was hired at SEIU, I have found myself acting as a translator between union culture and academic culture. Now I had to figure out how to translate a form of art making, Social Practice, that is elite by definition since it is predominantly academically educated artists who identify their art making this way. As you may be thinking, non-material based art doesn’t have much meaning to people outside of a small faction of artists, curators, and funders. I was trying to make an argument to my supervisors that something immaterial can lead to concrete workplace improvements and raise standards for precarious workers. My artspeak translation skills were being tested in a new way.
*Regarding the debate about calling ourselves “adjuncts:” For me there is an issue of referring to any group by a single plural adjective. When we use “adjunct faculty,” or “adjunct professor,” I don’t have an issue with the word “adjunct.” In terms of the definition of the term, it is accurate to how administration thinks of us and has designed our working conditions. As one who has identified as queer for more than two decades, I am down with reclaiming pejorative terms. Queer once indicated a politicized identity. The movements of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s that acted up and fought back, telling the dominant culture trying to disappear us altogether or at the least keep us closeted, “We’re here, we’re queer! Get used to it!” I think a fantastic part of the adjunct movement has been reclaiming a pejorative institutional name, shifting the meaning to a strong movement fighting back against a practice intended to destroy academic freedom and the economic security an education once offered. So I call myself a former adjunct professor turned union organizer and wear it with pride. As the LGBT, I mean LGBTQ, I mean LGBTQQIA, I mean LGBTQQIAA2P I meant QUILTBAG movement has shown us, what’s in a name?