The Dark Side of Free Education

There’s been a lot of buzz in the last week about New York State’s new promise to offer free tuition at its state (State University of New York-SUNY) and New York City (City University of New York-CUNY) systems, most of it excited and positive. Bernie Sanders got on board. Everyone in my Facebook feed, including most of the educators I know, is excited. I’ve seen the same reaction to Stanford’s decision, and the plans elsewhere for free community college as well.

Frankly, I hate it.

Don’t get me wrong: I think tuition for all students should be free (though that’s not exactly how this plan works). Education is not a privilege, it’s a right, and an investment in the future good of any civilization or society. It’s criminal that we load students down with debt just to get something that’s required for them to even begin to “get ahead” in life (and many of them still can’t do that because of the structure of our economy). I applaud any school that can make this happen—except if they do it on the backs of adjuncts. Here’s what I mean, from Inside Higher Ed‘s summary of the new annual salary survey:

Released today, AAUP’s annual survey finds that … the average total pay for part-time faculty members at a single institution was $20,508. Average pay for part-time faculty members teaching on a per-section basis only (excluding professors teaching part-time during phased retirement, for example) was $7,066, with serious limitations to the data…. Dunietz, of AAUP, emphasized that the statistic is “not meant to indicate an average pay per course,” but rather the average salaries of those part-time faculty that are paid on a per-course basis. “Some of these faculty may teach two or three courses, and the data that we have doesn’t differentiate between cost per course,” he added.

The “part-time” designation is also highly misleading. Many of those part-time professors are part-time at several institutions, due to course caps that keep them from teaching a full load at any one school, so no one gets stuck with their insurance and benefits costs. They are, in fact, often teaching anywhere from 5 to 12 classes, in person and online. Meanwhile, according to the same AAUP survey, college presidents are now making 3.5 to 4 times as much as full professors at research institutions.

Regarding CUNY and SUNY “salaries,” Lynne Turner, of the CUNY Adjunct Project, notes,

The starting compensation for CUNY adjuncts is a meager $3200 per 3-credit course, whereas at both Rutgers in N[ew] J[ersey] and the University of Connecticut systems equivalent adjunct pay per course hovers at around $5000 to start—and they are organizing for more. The CUNY Adjunct Project where I am a coordinator and many others are pressing for a real campaign for a livable compensation of $7000 per course—but it won’t happen unless we stop being complicit with the silence rendering invisible CUNY’s poverty level adjunct compensation.

At CUNY and SUNY, adjuncts teach approximately 60% of the courses. This means that a majority proportion of faculty is making about $20K/year, cobbling together a career from the scraps dropped from the high table of the CUNY chancellor and his $18K/month apartment or the SUNY chancellor’s $200K pay raise. NFM and others have written over and over again about how “Adjunct working conditions are our students’ learning conditions.” Because of lack of institutional and financial support, contingent faculty are less able to take risks in either the classroom or their own research, try innovative new teaching strategies, or mentor students. Despite their lack of support and job protection, adjunct faculty still manage to do extraordinary work, sacrificing unpaid labor for both their discipline and their students and winning both teaching and research awards. As one commenter on the compensation story said,

At my C[ommunity] C[ollege], two adjuncts won “part-time teacher of the year” and had published three books and five journal articles between them. The next semester they both lost their classes due “bumping” by a new TT faculty member. Adjuncts have zero academic freedom, yet these two managed to be of great benefit to the students, students who pointlessly protested the non-rehires to our governing board. There is NO other profession in which there is almost zero correlation between performance and compensation.

So what are CUNY and SUNY students getting for free? Overworked, underpaid, exploited adjuncts with no job security or academic freedom, mostly, especially in those crucial core courses of their first two years. This is not a good deal for anyone.

But I’m most disturbed by the number of educators, both full time and adjunct, who are cheering it on. Why is this okay? Sure, it sounds, on the surface, like a great deal for students, but if you’re an adjunct it’s at your own expense. Why are you not asking when we’re going to start supporting and paying the workers who do the actual educating living wages, as part and parcel of helping our students succeed? When one group is exploited to advantage another, there’s nothing good about that, nothing fair, nothing right, and nothing sustainable. And if you approve of it, you’re part of the problem.

Stop cheering. Get up and demand better for all of us, students and faculty. Chop from the top, as my friend Lydia says, if that’s what it takes to make it happen.

–Lee Kottner


The New Enemies List

Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

–George Orwelltexasvigilantes

Remember Richard Nixon’s enemies list? How paranoid and absurd that sounded? Remember CoIntelPro? How not absurd and dangerous that was? That craziness is starting again in the wake of the Trump election, not just with the threat of registering Muslims, but also aimed specifically at professors. Not long after the election, fliers were distributed at Texas State University  that read, “Now that our man Trump is elected and Republicans own both the Senate and the House—time to organize tar & feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off all this diversity garbage.” At least two Jewish professors have received hate messages.

Helping to spur this hatred on, and making its targets easy pickings, is the new Professor Watchlist, developed by 22-year-old conservative Charlie Kirk, who defines its mission as “expos[ing] and document[ing] college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” Kirk is the new wunderkind of the conservative witch-hunters. Funded by his organization Turning Point USA, the watchlist is an echo of an earlier site,, itself a now-defunct offshoot of Campus Watch, whose mission was “monitoring Middle East studies on campus.”

The complaints listed are mostly of the “you made us learn something we didn’t want to, or do something we didn’t want to, or expressed an opinion we didn’t like” type that one often hears from students when we challenge them to look outside their current beliefs. Many explanations of “ideology” and “indoctrination” are taken out of context. Many complaints are about professors’ personal lives, most about women and people of color — what organizations they gave money to, their activities outside of class, their Twitter accounts. The complaints are all personally submitted by students and substantiated by what the site calls “a variety of news organizations.” In reality, these are largely anything but mainstream, credible news organizations:,,, Project Veritas, PJMedia, and so on.

While it’s true that some of our colleagues have done and said some ethically questionable things, there is an enormous difference between, say, Holocaust denial, Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, and sexual harassment and both free speech and pedagogy. That difference is what this website fails to distinguish. What may look questionable or weird when reported by a disgruntled student, may, in fact make sense in the context of the class or lesson plan—whether the student reporting it is able to see it or not. That’s part of the learning process. Karen Roothaan parodies the problem perfectly: “Watch that Professor M.T. Pockets! He is always telling his students about his miniature little paycheck and his lack of health benefits. He even gets them feeling sorry for him and they bring him old clothes and other useful items. He is basically a proto-communist.”

The new site may seem like nothing more than an annoying version of Rate My Professor without the chili peppers, but it’s far more dangerous. It’s undoubtedly no coincidence that the site’s “featured professors” are often women and people of color. There are previous parallels in the 1930s targeting the founders of AAUP itself, which grappled with similar issues of “Americanism” in public thought. As Rebecca Schuman points out, even though Kirk insists there is no call to action here,

I also have to wonder whether the intentions of his watch list make a difference—and whether this is a bell that can be unrung. It doesn’t matter if the site wasn’t meant as a No-Goodnik Intellectual Kill List one day after Richard Spencer and his Jungen screeched Heil Trump. Intentionally or not, the Professor Watchlist, simply by being a self-styled watch list, has aligned itself with the ugly, frightening new political status quo.

The very existence of a list of “targets” is all too tempting for the unstable in a nation that has campus carry laws.

asimov-antiintellectualismWhat also makes a site like this dangerous is the chilling effect it has on teaching and academic freedom, especially on adjuncts. Learning is a messy, awkward, sometimes painful process that students often resist with every fiber of their being, either because they think they already know what they need to know, or because of the emotional consequences of being challenged to provide evidence for their arguments or to acknowledge the validity of others’ arguments, or to realize that their arguments have real world consequences. Our primary job as teachers is, we all know, not simply to fill students’ heads with facts, but to help them learn to think, and to grow emotionally and academically, to see the world with an analytical eye, and to sort out their own convictions. That often means challenging those (quite often) received ideas they carry around when we first meet them. Not uncommonly, that leads to some interesting “discussions” in class that may offend or upset students. But booting students out of their comfort zones is part of our job. If we are not supported in doing that, we risk giving our students less of an educational experience than they deserve, and failing them, and the country.

Henry Giroux, in a Facebook post in which he shares the recent Inside Higher Ed article on Professor Watchlist, calls this resurgent atmosphere of anti-intellectualism “Orwell’s academic dystopia.”

The notion that these self-appointed apostles of political purity confer the title of anti-American on views they disagree with makes visible how ignorance and repression feed each other. What they don’t realize is that they are an updated version of the darkest replicas of the secret police and censors that were indispensable to authoritarian regimes reaching from Pinochet to the interrogation chambers of the former East German Stasi. The only thing being exposed here is a climate that has been ushered in with the election of Donald Trump that trades on a culture of fear, hatred, censorship, and bigotry. Shared fears hold it together along with a culture infused with the toxic registers of political fundamentalism and ideological rigidity. This type of trolling constitutes a fundamental condition of the alt-right, which is the creation of a white public sphere based on the destruction of all those others nominated to be impure, worthy of suppression, deemed pathological, and eventually subject to exclusion, imprisonment, or worse.

Though it may seem like a small, juvenile website, it marks the next step in a dangerous trend that began before Trump was elected and has only been emboldened by that election now. The interpretation of ideas students don’t like as “un-American” or “too radical” is the real problem here. Who gets to decide what an “American” idea is? Or define what’s radical and what’s not, and from what point of view? The benchmarks for such evaluations are hardly fixed or easily defined. It’s highly ironic that this watchlist, focused as it is on one particular ideology, completely overlooks the fact that contingency is a far bigger threat to academic freedom across the political spectrum than a handful of professors in classrooms. After all, conservatives are less likely to have representation and academic freedom on campus because of contingent employment than because of the presence of liberals or leftists on campus; students are just as likely to find themselves offended by conservatives as by liberals, and coming under the same scrutiny by fiscally conservative administrations. Conservatives aren’t any cheaper to employ than progressives and that’s all that actually seems to matter right now.

Since I first began writing this, the watchlist has grown to include at least two dozen contingent faculty, including graduate teaching assistants. For adjunct faculty, this watchlist creates a deeply chilling climate in corporatized universities that already rely more on student evaluations than peer review to hire and fire their instructors. Because of the precarity of their appointments, contingent faculty are already much more cautious about experimenting pedagogically in the classroom, introducing new material, or even grading appropriately for fear of student complaints. Once contingent faculty appear on this list, a university more interested in “protecting its brand” than in free and open academic inquiry can easily hedge their bets and bypass a potential professor who dares ask hard and uncomfortable questions of both their students and society at large. This, in turn, further chills free speech, open inquiry, and innovation.

So what are the remedies? In the spirit of “the remedy for bad speech is more speech,” the Professor Watchlist Redux (“a website dedicated to satirizing sites that try to squelch academic freedom through intimidation, innuendo, and other sophomoric methods”) is a good start. If you’ve been a reader here, you know how we feel about satire. At the very least, however, we must also demand that all academic administrations uphold and protect the rights of academic free speech. The right to publish such a site may be covered by the First Amendment (where it doesn’t descend into slander or libel or promote violence), but the right to denounce its purpose and content does too. That right needs to be exercised, vigorously, especially in defense of the most vulnerable among us.

revolutionary-act-orwellWe must also call upon college administrations to make thorough and impartial responses to student complaints about instructors, considering the pedagogical context and foundations of each situation. Rutgers University has already failed in this capacity by putting adjunct professor Kevin Allred on leave for complaints about his Twitter account postings. On the strength of a student complaint alone, and the over-reaction of campus police, Allred was subjected by NYPD to an unnecessary and humiliating psychiatric evaluation then placed on leave for tweets no more incendiary (and with actual pedagogical purpose) than anything Donald Trump has said on that medium. Without the assurance of academic freedom from our own institutions, the process of education will be severely curtailed, and molded to reflect the ideology of those in power. Free inquiry and free speech in academe must be protected to help protect it everywhere else.

As colleagues, we must stand up for each other against attempts to silence any of us, no matter where or whom they come from — students, administrators, department heads, fellow academics, outside sources. Now is not the time for silencing or being silent.

–Lee Kottner

Why “Class” Matters

by Lydia Field Snow

Flickr/John Walker

Flickr/John Walker

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.

Lydia Snow with UPI

Lydia Snow with UPI

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.


Branding Education

WalSmart U 4-RCBI’m heading back to class today, seeing all the college banners snapping in the January wind, and it’s got me thinking about teaching—and branding. This post started, in fact, in a discussion with Lydia Field Snow about branding at Northeastern Illinois University. One of the first things corporations do when they emerge into the world or take each other over like amoebas absorbing their food is brand or rebrand themselves. In corporate jargon, they do this because, as the NEIU marketeers explain,

A brand establishes a first (and lasting) impression of a product, service or institution. [Their emphasis.] Think of any successful clothing label, automotive company or higher education institution. They all have a unique, distinguishable mark and a set of attributes that differentiates them from competitors.

Brands often evoke an emotional response and an affinity with consumers. When you see a particular logo, you may think of safety (Volvo), innovation (Apple) or quality healthcare (Mayo Clinic). A brand is conveyed through consistent visual, written and physical practices which means consistent logos, messages and delivery of services or products.

NEIU, it seems, has swallowed the full dose of corporate KoolAid. They even have an Identity Guidelines page, just like every corporation I’ve ever worked for. Another marketeer, Deborah Maue over at Inside Higher Ed, defines it this way, pitting brand against reputation: “A higher ed institution’s brand is usually related to typical educational results [my emphasis] such as alumni successes, graduation rates or career preparation. Reputation can be influenced by many things, including the experience of its students while on campus.”


The cash cow brand

So how does branding (and, wow, I cannot get that picture of sizzling hot iron out of my head when I write that) work with a university, which produces no products and offers no services? Wait, you say, isn’t education a service? Well, corporate Badmins think it is. It’s like health care, which is also often defined as a service but is instead a suite of actions designed to reach an ultimate goal of health. Health is a relative term, though. There are degrees of health, and research is showing treatment to be quite an individualized undertaking, including everything from mental or physical therapy to surgery to customized pharmaceuticals or just learning to eat well and exercise. Like education, healthcare depends upon individual expert practitioners backed by a support infrastructure (including some really cool technology). Trouble starts when non-experts (like insurance company clerks) start making medical decisions based on profit and loss. When you start thinking of healthcare in terms of a service delivered for profit, you get a lot of sick, dying, or dead people, and a lot of extraneous, unnecessary expenses. There’s a developing conception of healthcare being holistic, too, not in the New Age sense, but in the sense that it involves not just the whole person,, but the larger social conditions people inhabit and experience, like poverty, stress, discrimination. You can hardly call maintaining and improving the health of human beings a service or a product in this light. It becomes, instead, a large-scale social and political undertaking of the utmost importance, involving all of society and a vast array of methods and actions. It is innovative (like Apple), hopefully safe (like Volvo), and hopefully high quality when provided by groups of physicians and a support infrastructure as well-funded as the Mayo Clinic. It’s not any single “thing” or “process” that can be easily memed or summed up in a slogan though.

Sounds a lot like education, doesn’t it?

WU branding-MM

Expensive banners: Crucial internal marketing tool. Students might forget why they’re here, otherwise.

I’ve been thinking about how to best describe education from the inside for a long time, and haven’t been able to find even an adequate analogy. It’s different things on different days, from different vantage points, in different departments, at different levels, at different points in one’s life. The best I can come up with is the idiom currently used to describe the socio-economic situation and problems of the poor: The Struggle. Like healthcare, there is no product, though some people in business view students that way. There’s not even an endpoint of “being educated” any more than there’s a true perfect endpoint of “being healthy.” There is a huge difference between just “knowing stuff” or “having skills” and “being educated,” in fact. Wisdom is wound up in there somewhere, as is application, experience, and common sense, analytical ability, and even self-knowledge. We’ve long eschewed “talent” in our quest for equality, but it has some part to play, as do levels of privilege accorded to different races and genders. The new bywords in education are “grit” and “resilience,” but I’m not sure they actually mean anything.

If we define healthcare as I did, as “a suite of actions designed to reach an ultimate goal of health,” and it’s the closest cousin to education, I propose that education is “a suite of actions and methods (pedagogy) designed to help those involved reach an improved and improving state of intelligent, informed adulthood and continue learning throughout their lives.” How do we do that? We engage in healthcare by using tests, technology, and intelligent, informed deductions (that someone taught us and that were gleaned along the way). We engage in education the same way. The tests and technology are tools we use to shape the raw ability of humans to comprehend ideas and concepts into a functional intelligence that analyzes, continues to learn, and devises new ideas and solutions—and maybe creates and enjoys art along the way as well. Notice there is no specific directive about what’s to be done with that developed intelligence—not “get a job in the corporate world,” or “become an artist,” or even “go on to medical school”—any more than insurance companies can tell doctors what’s the best treatment or best specific outcome for their patients.

As in healthcare, there are tried and tested techniques, but education can be and often is a lot more freewheeling than healing. The instructor might be an expert, like a physician, but the processes of teaching and learning are not like prescribing a pill or undergoing a course of therapy or surgery. You’re not healing something that’s not working, or working the wrong way, or is outright broken. You’re changing it, changing the whole person. And when I say you, it’s not you-the-instructor, it’s you-the-instructor-and-the-student together. Learning, like the new model of healthcare, has always been holistic and collaborative. Socioeconomics affects learning as much as it does health.

I asked some of my colleagues to give me single-word descriptions of either teaching or education and here’s some of what they came up with: rugby, work, impossible, murky, labor, challenging, transformative. This is The Struggle all over. Every time we enter the classroom to confront ideas and concepts, it’s all those things and more. It takes work to learn, it takes work to teach. Every class is both labor and laboring to give birth to a new state of understanding for both student and instructor. Class discussions can be just exactly like a rugby scrum, as can sitting down to corral ideas into a paper (and sometimes, as one friend said, it takes an enema to get them out—thank autocorrect for that one). Some days it seems impossible, and it is, but it happens anyway without anyone knowing quite how. That’s the transformative moment, when both instructor and student become someone new. It’s also, as another friend points out, enigmatic. Often our thoughts are murky and it takes a long time to clarify them in our own minds, let alone our students’ minds. Every class is a new challenge. Every new subject is a challenge. Every paper is a challenge. Every reading is a challenge. Every discussion is a challenge. Another of my colleagues calls it thankless; it can be years before students understand why we asked them do the projects we assigned them or read the books we asked them to, and what they learned from it. Another colleague, who works in K-12, offered gardening as her word, and I think that’s absolutely apt too. We are cultivating ideas, thoughts, creativity, and character in our students and in our own research, weeding out fallacy and murky thinking.

How do you brand that? You can’t even call it a defined process, let alone a product or a service.

What you can brand is everything else. Like healthcare, education depends on an infrastructure to support it: one that includes at least some basic technology now, like computer access in classrooms and reliable campus-wide wi-fi (though truthfully, good teaching of concepts requires not much more than chalk and piece of slate). More and more, that infrastructure is coming to include luxury dorms, Olympic quality gyms, semi-professional sports teams, recreational climbing walls, and starchitect buildings, as well as an administration that outnumbers the faculty. None of these are really necessary, but they create a visible image that the university can brand: We have a president we pay a seven figure salary who used to be a state senator or Captain of Industry! We have a student union designed by Morphosis! We have a champion basketball/­football/­hockey/­bowling team! We are the University of Cool Stuff!

And for that, President Captain of Industry needs a marketing department to sell his school to prospective students who are being trained to see education as a commodity. (That used to be called Recruitment.) Now there are “internal clients” for the marketing department, too, and they must observe the rules of brand usage at all times, lest the University of Cool Stuff brand be watered down or applied incorrectly. God forbid the library should use the logo or tag line on a banner in the wrong way or with the wrong colors. Catastrophe! We might be mistaken for Some Other University!

How does all this marketing further the mission of an educational institution? How does this help students learn? How does this make sure they come out of the University of Cool Stuff with knowledge and tools to help them live productive, enlightened lives? It doesn’t. There’s nothing in any brand connected with what actually goes on in classrooms. Branding perpetuates itself, and the corporate culture it springs from. It bloats administration and takes money from faculty salaries. The money spent on glossy brochures and logo design is far better spent on hiring and supporting excellent teachers. At least one university agrees. Imagine if 75% of your doctors nationwide were poorly paid and only had 4-month contracts with the local hospital? How much faith would you put in that system? How good do you think it would be? (Ask nurses about this; they’re becoming the contingents of medicine.)

But what about the competition, the marketeers wail. They will steal all our students!

This is where the corporate model slams headfirst into the ridiculous climbing wall. Universities and colleges are not competing with other universities or colleges unless you see students as cash cows supporting your overspending on outlandish buildings and spa facilities to build the personal reputations of upper administration. All that glossy marketing crap has taught students to value the physical plant over what the faculty offer them. What kind of work your college’s scholars and teachers do should be the selling points, though most administration seem to feel “those books and articles don’t do anything for a university’s bottomline” as evidenced by lack of support for adjunct research. The student-faculty ratio. Class size. Personal attention. Mentoring. Internship opportunities. Activities that build skills and character. How do you sum that up in a word or a tag line, except with meaningless nouns like “excellence,” or “quality”?

The truth is, one college or university is much like another within their own tiers, unless you consider the intellectual differences that set them apart: the faculty research projects, the world-renowned scholars, the endowed chairs, the special scholarship programs, the award-winning teachers. And this is where a preponderance of unsupported adjuncts dooms your college. When 75% of your faculty is faceless and disposable, unsupported for research or professional development, nothing sets you apart.

Brand that.

–Lee Kottner

Student Success Depends on Adjunct Faculty

Dana Biscotti Myskowski

-Dana Biscotti Myskowski

Last semester, a student of mine who is very bright but doing poorly in my class came in for conferences. She was having a hard time making that adjustment into full responsibility for herself (she’s a first-year) and clearly overwhelmed. We’d spoken a few times after class and in conferences and I offered to help her find some campus resources that could make the transition easier, or at least give her someone to talk to.

But the one thing she said that really struck me during our long talk was that I was the only professor who had taken time to really talk to her. I told her the truth: that it was probably because her other professors are also adjuncts and don’t have the luxury of teaching at one school full time, like I’ve had this semester, thanks to my parallel employment at the Writing Center there. And it was a pleasure to be able to give her that time, to try to make a difference in her life outside the classroom. When I mentioned this later to a tenured faculty member, she added that it could just as well have been her tenured colleagues, and explained that they are so protective of their time on campus because of research, committee and other service commitments that they often don’t have time for students either.

So who does, and why is that important?

I remember  how hard my first semester in college was, and I didn’t have half the responsibilities or the worries about money (she’s paying her own tuition) that my student does. I was a first-generation college student who had found my way to a tough college on my own, without much help from parents (who had no experience), school counselors (who should have), or recruitment officers (who just weren’t there at my rural school). I remember crying over my grad level marine biology textbook (I’d placed out of 101/2) and thinking I wasn’t smart enough for this college stuff. And I remember how great it was to be able to go to my profs and confess those fears and have them disabuse me of them, sometimes gently, sometimes not. I always knew I could talk to them, and get help, and hang out, and learn more from them outside the classroom. They not only helped me navigate their classes, they helped me navigate that four years of growing up that I did. While I was probably never in danger of dropping out, I was certainly in danger of giving up and blowing that first semester, that first year. Without the mentoring of my profs, school would have looked very different.

This is what the adjunct system is depriving students of and why student retention is suddenly such an issue at so many colleges. When you deprive faculty—any faculty, but especially the contingent majority who teach incoming first-year students—of the ability to be mentors, especially to first-year, non-major students, you put them at risk for dropping out, especially at schools serving working class and minority students. The business model of expedience and convenience fails to take into account that as much learning goes on outside the classroom between professors and students as inside it. Real work happens outside the class, not just in preparation and grading, but in mentoring, when it’s supported.

Professional counselors are necessary, but not for every student. In fact, it’s a disservice to students to pawn them off on professional counselors instead of allowing faculty to do advising with non-majors. Instead of farming out those functions of advisement to administrative professionals, support the professors who know the whole picture and who can get to know the whole student. The non-major advisors and counselors have hundreds of students to deal with as opposed to having that burden spread among all the faculty and giving them a dozen or so students. When the majority of your faculty are adjuncts, this is obviously impossible though. So structured as it is, colleges are, in fact, creating the very problems of student retention that they hoped to head off.

Learning doesn’t just take place in the classroom. In class isn’t the only time that students should be able to see their professors. College administrators need to stop confusing teaching with lectures and classtime. The college experience—complete with full access to all your professors—is just as important to student success as class time. Nowhere does the phrase “adjunct working conditions are student learning conditions” become more critical than in the first year of students’ academic careers. Just where they need the most support they find the least. As my student and I agreed in our discussion, college is not just about academics. It’s about having time to grow up and figuring out how to. Our current market-based colleges don’t allow for that. They’re only interested in moving students from high school to the employer cubicle in the cheapest way possible.

That’s not education.

-Lee Kottner

Five Trends to Watch in Higher Ed in 2016

We’ve done the year-end round-up, and now it’s time for the 2016 projections. All the education pundits have their own pet trends for the year, but no one, it seems, is paying attention to where the core action is. You can’t have higher education without educators, and 75% of us are now contingent, disposable, and/or roundly ignored in faculty senates even if we’re tenured. Much of mainstream media that covers education still acts like educators, especially adjuncts, are peripheral to education. The focus is on student protests (and not about student debt, either), new administrators, sexual assault (a worthy focus, agreed), and moaning about the cost of college—but not where all that money is going, or where it’s clearly not, which is to academic salaries. We’re offering our own analysis of what to keep an eye on in the coming year.

  1. educate-agitate-organizeAdjuncts and the wave of faculty unionization. Oddly enough, none of the year-end roundups or projections for the new year that I’ve read so far have mentioned the massive wave of academic labor organization (see the previous post for a run-down) and what it means for colleges and universities across the country. Two significant developments in this field might give adjuncts more clout than we’ve had before. One is the upcoming verdict in the Friedrichs case, which, in the case of blended unions, makes the dues-paying membership of adjuncts imperative for the survival of unions formerly dominated by full-time tenured members. It also makes an active membership in exclusively adjunct unions all the more necessary. The other development is the new attitude of the DOL toward higher ed faculty unions, especially those at religious-affiliated institutions. Fight it as they may, colleges like Duquesne and Loyola are likely to be on the losing end of opposition to the unionization of their adjunct faculty. No matter how many they fail to rehire or convert to full-time, the writing is on the wall: we want better pay, more security and more tenure-track lines. CUNY and Cal State have showed that at least some of us are willing to strike to get what we want. Tenured faculty are going to need to ally themselves with adjuncts to regain the power they are losing and have already lost to shape curriculum and university mission. There’s more and more pushback against Right to Work legislation, but there’s no reason not to organize whether you have a legal right to collective bargaining or striking or not.
  2. Adjuncts and the forgiveness of student debt. Many adjuncts are not just educators Used to have dreamsbut student loan debtors themselves. Many of us had to take out enormous loans to pay for our education, believing that we would be heading for secure, decently paid jobs on the attainment of our advanced degrees (thanks, advisors; please stop lying to your graduate students just to keep your programs alive). Many of us were TAs and didn’t always get tuition
    remission for our labor (the department giveth, and the bursar taketh away). Now we’re saddled with an even more enormous debt than most of our students will be, thanks to the out-of-control increases in tuition, coupled with the decrease in number and value of grants and scholarships for advanced degrees and shift of emphasis to loans. In 2014, Senator Dick Durbin introduced a bill to expand the Federal public service loan forgiveness program (which already demands at least 10 years of on-time payments from debtors) to include adjunct professors. This bill is still pending and needs some modification to provide any reasonable kind of relief for adjuncts whose average income is $23K, which puts us squarely in the 51% of the population making less than $31K/year, a crime in itself  (see #5). Any modification of it could only benefit other students who are now graduating as indentured servants to their loans.
  3. Adjuncts and the Department of Labor. Remember that 11K+ signature petition to the DOL to get them to look into the hiring and wage conditions of adjunct faculty? That was just an attention-getter to ping former professor David Weil; as a matter of fact we’re going to be having some longer and deeper conversations with him about how labor regulations treat faculty. Next up: crafting some new rules and legislation that don’t let white collar higher ed “knowledge workers” fall between the cracks on overtime, salary, and unemployment under the FLSA.
  4. studens first, faculty lastAdjuncts and the quality of higher education. Apparently, the government is worried enough about the quality of higher ed to start imposing the kind of quantitative metrics on it that it has imposed on K-12 with standardized testing and reporting.  Supported by organizations like The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Higher Ed for Higher Standards, and the Collaborative for Student Success, the buzz words student completion, student success, performance based funding are creeping over from K-12 to shape higher ed policy. A careful look at most of these organizations shows they are supported by corporate sponsors and college presidents and chancellors, many from the world of business or not lifetime educators themselves, who are shifting the emphasis of higher education away from the education of good citizens to the education of good (compliant) workers. The adjunctification of the university is part of this plan, as is the silencing, dissolving or diminished standing of faculty senates as they represent fewer and fewer tenured faculty. Others are starting to realize this too. Parents, students, and educator driven affinity groups such as the Badass Teachers Association are our allies and we need to continue to embrace them and get the word out. It’s not metrics that are going to save higher ed; it’s educators doing what we have always done: making education better from within.
  5. Adjuncts and the intersectionality of the struggle. The year end wrap-ups in higher Stop criminalizing my studentseducation are full of handwringing about on-campus student protests: Black Lives Matter, protests about how sexual assaults are handled, divesting from the prison system, protesting tuition hikes, boycotting Israel, taking down Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oxford—those students are sure getting uppity. Adjuncts need to take a cue from our students and get our butts out on the picket lines. We’re largely female, often people of color, overwhelming poor ourselves (unless we’re lucky enough to have a partner who supports us in a more lucrative profession) and we’ve got just as much to be pissed about as our students (see above). The struggles of our students are often just another manifestation of our own struggles based in the widening inequity gap and the corporatization of, well, everything. We’re natural allies.

If last year is any indication, this is going to be another busy year for adjuncts. We’re gaining momentum and making changes. Join us.

The Problem of Allies: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

This post first appeared on Lee Kottner’s personal blog, Dowsing. Reprinted here by permission.

ScarletA-icon-smallSo a while back, on Facebook, I posted this synopsis of my proverbial (Thanks, Alex Kudera!) long day without much comment:

Here’s my day as an adjunct today; it’s not typical but it’s not unusual, either:
9-10:30—commute to York College, Queens
10:30-12—office hour (paid), class prep
1:50-3:30—commute to New Jersey
3:30-5—union executive committee meeting (paid; which I’ll be a half hour or so late for)
5:00-6:00—commute to Manhattan
6:00-8:00—mandatory (paid) faculty meeting
8:00-9:30—commute home

I do this periodically to make my life as an adjunct instructor visible to people that it’s usually invisible to, and who should know about it because my working conditions affect them: students, parents, the general public. Later, two good friends, people I love dearly, both tenured full professors, asked me the equally proverbial “why do I do it?” question. My pissy response after that long day was this:

Why do I do it? Why do you do the work you do? Why do you teach in China for $3,000? Why did you take the job as assessment officer? Why did you keep going back to academe when it was so hard to get a job? Why do anything worth doing? I and other adjuncts get tired of answering that question. We do it because the job is worth doing and because we want to see others paid what we’re worth. Nothing changes if the only response is to leave and let it be someone else’s problem. That’s what full time faculty have done for the last 30 years. That’s how we got in this mess. That’s not a question an ally asks. The real question is why I should have to do this when you don’t.

I’m pretty sure I hurt some feelings with this response, but as an activist-educator, I can’t pass up the chance to use this as an object lesson to allies. I’ve confronted this question before in real life and in a performance piece I wrote. It comes up all the time in the adjunct world and it’s one of the weapons used against us by management/administration and the entrenched privileged. “Why do you keep letting yourself be exploited? Why don’t you just get another job?” My friends asked me this out of concern for my health both physical and financial, and I love them for that, but as academics I wish they were also more my allies in this struggle. Because their words make it harder, not easier, to keep doing what I’m doing.

One of the first lessons I learned as a baby feminist in the 70s was the slogan “The personal is political.” The conditions of my life as an adjunct and as a union activist really can’t be separated from my personal life. Those conditions are my personal life. Teaching is as much a part of my identity as being a writer or a feminist is. Like my tenured colleagues, I sank a lot of time, money, and effort (though not as much as they) into becoming an educator. Whenever I could (i.e, whenever I could afford it), I kept coming back to it because it felt like vital work, and because it was soul-filling and not soul-sucking like the far more lucrative job of writing advertising copy was. I want a return on my educational investment that makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, not perpetuating a sick, exploitative system. Because even while I’m signing those sick, exploitative contracts, I’m subverting that system every time I walk into a classroom and open my mouth.

Asking me why I keep doing what I do isn’t the same as asking how I keep doing it, or commiserating with my exploitation. Because when that question is personal, it places the responsibility back on me rather than on the system that exploits me, with the subtext that I could walk away if I wanted to. That’s why that question pisses adjuncts off: because nobody asks why Tenured and Tenure-Track profs don’t walk away when they don’t get raises or are denied tenure or when administration exploits them by squeezing more administrative work out of them for the same money. Somehow, tenure has not only given academics security, but a right to love their jobs that adjunct and contingent faculty often don’t seem to have (more on this in a later post). (And please don’t say this in response. Please. Just don’t.)

Phrased another way, “why do you do it?” reads as “why don’t you get another job?” But an ally asks, “what can I do to help change this system that exploits you?” Or, if you’re a local ally, “how can I support you, personally, if not professionally, in making this better?” And why should I be supported? Yes, this is a choice I made, and continue to make every time I sign an exploitative teaching contract, but it’s no different from the choices that people working for justice everywhere make, whether it’s working for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or some other activist NGO, or on a political campaign. People who work in the non-profit world don’t often make a lot of money. Many of them go into dangerous situations to do what they do, and risk death, imprisonment, or torture to help others. Do I really need to remind anyone what civil rights marchers, anti-war protestors, or even the Occupiers of Zucotti Park faced? Social change does not happen without risk and sacrifice. Continuing to work as an adjunct and as an activist at the same time is my risk and my sacrifice.

I’m not trying to sound all noble here; my risk is relatively low by comparision, and mostly economic. But it’s precisely because I don’t have dependents and haven’t sunk all my apples into a Ph.D. basket that I feel I need to be one of the people in this fight. Many of my adjunct activist colleagues are single parents with kids to support and massive student debt, or people who don’t have a partner (like me) to support them, or people whose partners don’t make a lot of money either. My personal risk is pretty low, so I need to take a stand in this fight. It doesn’t cost me much except personal security and time, and I’ve always lived on the economic edge, mostly by choice, though also because of the same wage exploitation that we’re all suffering from.

Which brings up another point: how interconnected this fight is with economic justice for the dying middle class, of which my colleagues are a part, and the increasing numbers of working poor. Many of my colleagues from grad school teach at institutions that serve the working poor and have watched their school’s tuition go up and up and up until it is crippling and as unobtainable as an Ivy League school. Student debt load is killing our economy and crippling a generation of students. Administration ties that debt to poor adjunct salaries, as in, “if we pay you a living wage, we’ll have to raise tuition.” If we don’t expose this lie, we’re doing our students and our society a grave disservice. And we’re falling down on the job as educators. We are, instead, modelling economic and intellectual poverty and complacency for our students, instead of enaging with the political and economic realities of the world around us.*

This is why I do it: Because I can. Because I must. With or without your support.

*Oh, by the way, Nicholas Kristof: you want engaged academics? Come meet my adjunct activist friends.

–Lee Kottner