by Lydia Field Snow
After reading Sherry Linkon’s brilliant piece “Working-Class Academics and Working-Class Studies: Still Far from Home?” published by the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, the floodwaters of connections opened up in my own mind about what has been a source of conflicting ideas and emotions wracking my brain lately. This paragraph struck home particularly:
Indeed, changes in higher education have made the problems worse, as too many working-class academics find themselves caught in part-time or short-term teaching jobs, unable to break through the class barriers that seem to preserve most tenure-line jobs for people from professional class backgrounds. We also see the class hierarchies of higher education in the struggle of state universities to survive continuing budget cuts and attacks on tenure, even as elite private schools compete to see who can raise tuition the most while keeping acceptance rates the lowest. Far from being resolved, class divisions in higher education have gotten worse, despite the more visible presence of academics from the working class and efforts to increase and deepen attention to class in both the curriculum and research.
For the past year, Northeastern Illinois University—where I teach as an adjunct—has been operating without a budget. Recently a stop-gap measure procured some short-term funding for the state universities, and the union president sent out several different emails about how the paychecks of members of UPI 4100 would be calculated. These furlough and sacrifice days may continue into the fall if the budget is not passed by the Illinois legislature in the next week or so. “Following this email will be a series of specific emails with formulas for each employee group. You can use the formula for your group to calculate and confirm your total salary reduction for spring 2016, and the amounts and dates of specific pay periods impacted.”
Who are the members of the University Professionals of Illinois 4100 at NEIU? They are Instructors, (Non-tenure-track faculty), Academic Resource Professionals (Non-tenure-track library faculty), Teaching Professionals (Tenure-track faculty), Academic Support Professionals, and Resource Professionals (Tenured/tenure-track library faculty). Each of these groups had a different complex formula that was agreed on by the union and the administration for salary reductions in the spring of 2016.
Due to low enrollment, one of my classes was cut in December, so I went from teaching four classes to three. The decrease in classes actually provided me with a huge advantage because, the 20% cut in pay I would have faced now did not apply; instead I was actually paid for my part-time work and I had time to pick up another job elsewhere to make up for the missing pay. My own take on this is that it’s probably illegal to take furlough days from an employee that is hired for only a 4½ month contract, but I could be wrong, so don’t quote me on that one. Maybe they were afraid of the ramifications from the part-time faculty themselves losing 20% of a paltry sum? Who knows? Many part-time faculty called or emailed me petrified that their already 50% load would be cut by another 20% pay cut. So for once, the adjuncts were the lucky ones. The thing is adjuncts always have a plan B. If not in the works, it is always in the backs of our heads working towards a solution. We have problem-solved our way through this terribly contingent professional life, and we think on our feet and job search and network in a way most academics cannot even begin to imagine.
It was probably the lowest morale I’ve ever experienced in any job in my life. For the last six weeks of the semester, the university handed a 20% pay cut to every working person part- or full-time working, from department chair to civil service and custodial staff. There was a palpable silence in the hallways. Tenured faculty office doors with furlough day signs on them entreating students to call their state representatives, empty classrooms, bathrooms with alternative cleaning schedules posted, and students who stared at me while I lectured, not asking questions or engaging or even texting, just looking at me with this gaze that cut through my energy and focus like a sharp stone.
I did my best. I showed up. I taught my classes and I let students talk about it in class. I didn’t entreat them to get on university sponsored buses to go down to demonstrations in Springfield or even to call their state representatives. I did provide time during class to talk about it, and a litany of grievances came up.
“I just want to go to school. I still have to get through all the same material and I have fewer lectures, fewer advisors and tutors available. This one physics class I’m taking is impossible to begin with and the professor hasn’t shown up for over a week. I’m trying to save money on daycare so I can transfer to a more expensive school. Why are we responsible for saving our own university? Isn’t paying tuition enough of a sacrifice? I haven’t even gotten my financial aid because of this mess. Will they really close this place down because I can’t afford to go anywhere else? I’m just going to drop out, I don’t need this pressure, it’s way too much as it is.”
One day I noticed a slow tear going down the face of a young freshman while we were talking. She caught my eye and quickly she brushed it aside. I can’t really adequately describe what it was like to see the shocked faces of my students during those terrible weeks.
There are several issues here, and I don’t know the answers to any of them, but I do know that the elite academic universities are inundated with applications, and they are looking for working class kids just like the ones in my classroom from disadvantaged neighborhoods and tough inner city high schools: highly motivated, super smart, and ready to succeed in any academic environment. The point is they don’t want to go to Harvard or the University of Chicago. They want to study in their neighborhood and live at home and help take care of their elderly grandmother who needs to be driven to chemo every week. Or they have two young children that they have in the daycare center at the university, and waited to get them in for two years before they even started taking teaching certification courses. Most work twenty to thirty hours a week at least; for many, part of that money is being sent to families in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Korea, Hungary, Poland, Pakistan, Sudan, Puerto Rico, Mexico—the list goes on. Some of them are sent ahead of their families to get educated and then bring their parents when they can find work and a place that will house them.
There is a fundamental misunderstanding about class in higher education. I used to think that if I could motivate my two sons to be absolutely brilliant, athletic, and musically or artistically talented they would get into one of those elite schools. After all my father and mother both graduated from Harvard—my sister did too. Hell, my grandfather even graduated from Harvard. I was hoping my boys would be the fourth generation to attend. I dragged them to soccer practices, track meets, piano lessons, we spent more money on all those after school activities rather than groceries, and I bartered too for them as well. I gave voice lessons in exchange for piano lessons; I taught music classes at a community music school so my son could take cello lessons there and be on a scholarship. And then it hit me. Somewhere during my older son’s junior year, I knew he wasn’t going to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or any of those Ivy League schools.
It’s not that he isn’t a brilliant kid, but he didn’t care about pleasing teachers or taking classes he wasn’t interested in. He resented the constant pressure to succeed and he didn’t care about going to a university that he’d never seen or felt drawn to attend. He got through all those required science and math classes but just by the skin of his teeth, and the upper level humanities classes were AP driven and required so much written homework that he started to look like a walking zombie. After all, we brought up our boys in Evanston, and all he ever really wanted to do was go to the University of Illinois-Urbana, and that is exactly where he went, and both he and our family went into debt because of it. Now he is teaching English in South Korea so he can hopefully make a dent in those loans. Also he can teach and be paid well, have access to free health care and his own apartment with the rent paid every month, as well as be paid to prep for his classes and work with other well-educated teachers from all over the world.
It’s not a sad story; it’s just real. And of course I blamed myself for not quite pushing him enough, or having a well enough paying job, and my parents for not understanding what it was I was expected to do for my children. It was an impossible job. And I miss him a lot. This is his second year teaching in Korea. Most people I know think it’s romantic that he’s teaching overseas and ask me repeatedly when I will go visit him. Again, this is a class issue. We will not visit; we are trying to pay off his student loans as well as his younger brother’s loans and college tuition. We haven’t taken a vacation in three years. I have several jobs and piece together a living, but it is nowhere near enough to pay off the debt we are in as a family. Luckily my husband has a good job with benefits. Yes, we are middle class and live in a house with a backyard. Things could be a whole lot worse but it’s not okay that my own son can’t find a job here that has decent benefits. Hell, I can’t find a job that has decent benefits, and I’ve been teaching for almost my entire professional career in positions that are contingent and low paying.
I have taught as an adjunct or part-time Music Instructor at Northeastern for ten years now. I have tried in every way possible to do the absolute best job I could to teach my students, and I am devoted to them in a way that I don’t think I can possibly communicate adequately, but I have come to the end of that bottomless adjunct pit of energy and reserve. When I am being asked to entreat my own students to save public education, I really have hit that impenetrable wall of adjunct superpowers. And I am seriously angry that these elite institutions continue to fool what’s left of the middle class of America into thinking that it’s fair to our society to continue to foster this imaginary world of privilege for the elite students who manage to succeed in their institutions.
How many times did I hear or read in the newspapers when my children were growing up, “If you work hard and you give your kid the right tools they will be able to succeed and get a full scholarship at one of these elite institutions!” Every year the Chicago Tribune chooses the most highly successful high school seniors and showcases their talents, brilliance, volunteering and leadership skills with large colored photos. I would read through them imagining my two boys holding their diplomas and letters of acceptances clutched in their hands. The point is, even if they had been able to achieve this, this whole thing sucks for everyone else. Sure, they could have been given special internships, and sent overseas to be in elite groups that studied in London or Paris. But to me success is not about becoming rich or powerful, having more money than you know what to do with and giving it away to let everyone know you’re a hero. The point is now I realize I’m glad they didn’t succeed in that way. What they are doing is making their way in the world on their own terms, in their own way.
I’m waiting for someone to do something about those billions of dollars in endowment these elite universities have and pay no taxes on, and continue to have no intention of sharing with their communities. I’m sick of pretending that the whole thing doesn’t smack of privilege and that the way it’s set up is quite simply killing public higher education.
In an article from Diverse Issues in Higher Education, “Brown University Making Bold Bid to Assure Diversity and Inclusion,” Jamal Eric Watson outlines the radical changes taking place at Brown after student demonstrations in the past year demanding administrative changes to address racism on campus. He begins the piece with the following statement: “Spending $100 million on an ambitious diversity plan over the next decade might seem like a far-fetched idea for most colleges and universities.”
Later he states:
The university has expanded its emergency fund in Campus Life, which is critical for supporting students who may be unable to pay for expenses in the event of a crisis. A new center for first-generation students will open this summer and the university has begun assessing mentoring programs for both faculty and students.
“In total, the Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion Plan outlined a set of more than 50 concrete, achievable actions that will make Brown a more fully diverse and inclusive campus,” says Paxson, adding that many of these initiatives are already underway and university offices are tracking implementation on the Brown website on a month-to-month basis.
The responsibility for effecting change rests with all members of the Brown community. Collectively, we can create an academic community that embodies the social and intellectual diversity of the world, which is essential for allowing us to fulfill our mission of education and discovery. Across campus, we are committed to fulfilling this responsibility.
I think this is an incredible first step. Especially the concrete actions such as: “supporting students who may be unable to pay for expenses in the event of a crisis,” but meanwhile my students are being forced out of college altogether. The state cannot find a way to support its own public universities.
So if you are able to get into Brown or Harvard or Princeton, and then you find yourself supported by these programs and you manage to graduate and move on to law school, or even become the President of the United States, you still move out of your community, right? The students who stay in their neighborhoods and bring their parents over from Pakistan and work as a paralegal, music teacher, communications assistant, accountant, computer programmer, and every day work and buy food, support their communities by supporting the neighborhood schools and going to the neighborhood grocery stores, and listen to music at the neighborhood coffee shops and clubs, or eat at the restaurant around the corner from their apartment—these are the people who make up the fabric of our society. Without public education what will happen to our communities in Kankakee or Englewood?
Class matters because with or without Ivy League colleges and universities, we still need to provide education for everyone. This is how human beings learn to believe and trust in their own individual right to express their unique story. Together with their classmates they share their experiences in class, by playing their instruments in ensembles, dancing in the Talent Show, working on student council, whatever it is they are interested in and feel compelled to explore. I am humbled by my students’ courageous act to move forward, not only because they want to be rich but also because they care about their families and their communities. Until these elite colleges can address how they can help their surrounding communities by paying taxes on their land and assets, by making a concrete effort to include in the conversation everyone in society, not just the smart or successful people, we will not see effective change in our society.
Adjunct faculty all over the world are organizing for better wages, longer contracts, a chance to be a member of their academic department decision-making, and university wide inclusion. Class matters because we have experienced firsthand what it’s like to not make enough money to feed our families, or provide health insurance for our children or even ourselves. Many of us are organizing with the Fight for Fifteen movement and Faculty Forward Network because precarious employees are experiencing this corporate part-time, no benefits model. The corporate higher education model is based on the Ivy League paradigm. It’s painful to bring up these issues with friends and families because they are willing to believe that by “volunteering” and giving back to the community, it somehow makes the whole corrupt system a benign and democratic state. Academics understand class in a way that many others don’t because they have the “big picture” in mind due to conversations about the nature of society as an integral part of their training. But where is their empathy when it comes to the cuts in tenure, lack of resources for their colleagues, and large resources put into football stadiums, expensive dormitories, and over-paid administrators? Why is it so threatening to look at these issues and talk about them in department meetings or in a larger university forum with students? Adjuncts are the most important glue that holds all of the promise for remaking higher education because we are able to connect the dots, to see what is happening to our society. We are being driven out of academia by lack of benefits, poor salaries, contingent posts that quite simply aren’t worth it. And where are we going? We’re organizing, we’re writing, and we’re networking with each other for direct action and change because, when each of us looks into the eyes of the students sitting in our “class,” we understand that class really does matter.