by Lydia Field Snow
Recently I’ve been talking to a fellow adjunct organizer, Andy Davis in California, who teaches at Cal Poly Pomona in the Interdisciplinary General Education program. He and I are involved in collaborating with a group of artist activists designing projects that capitalize on the power of the arts to change minds and hearts for Campus Equity Week 2017. Its theme captures our need to both conceal and reveal our complex identities as members of the precarious academic workforce: mAsk4campusEquity.
Andy and I are heading up the Historical Re-enactment and Other Performance/Performing Arts and we have been have been brainstorming 2-3 hours a week about the connection that Halloween in 2017 will also be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his revolutionary 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. It was a campus protest because Luther was teaching at the University of Wittenberg as an “ordinary lecturer” and posting his theses on the door of the cathedral was a standard method of engaging in a scholarly debate. As Andy has so eloquently stated, “There are distinct parallels between the corruptions that were taking place in Luther’s time and what is taking place today. Both systems supported an increasingly remote administrative elite through the exploitation of true believers.”
Well, last week I was particularly down when he called. Not only did my mother in law pass away at 93 after a long struggle that involved my husband bearing the weight of all of her financial and healthcare decisions from long distance, we also as a family lost our dear beagle after 13 years. The previous week I deduced, after 6 years of consistent summer work, that I was not going to be invited back to my summer job as camp counselor at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, this on top of having 20% of my remaining adjunct salary cut through the end of the semester through Northeastern Illinois University’s “Furlough Plan.”
Then I was emailed by my union that there was going to be a press conference where the students were going to talk about their student jobs being cut over the break and how Governor Rauner’s budget fiasco was harming Northeastern Illinois University’s students because of the mandatory furlough of 1,100 faculty and staff. They implored as many faculty to show up as possible. At first I was furious at the college’s administration. Even in my sad state, it doesn’t take a whole lot of intellect to see that the ones being hurt by the pay cut are the faculty and staff. Let’s stop calling it a furlough because, unlike last year when the union was able to bargain that we actually take those furlough days, the administration made the unilateral choice to shut down over Spring Break. So what difference does that make if you’re still expected to teach at the same time for the same number of students? Adding insult to injury, the union thinks the press is more concerned about the students losing their jobs for a week and being hired back again than they are about part-time faculty who won’t be able to feed their families, or about staff who won’t be able to afford to pay their rent, heat, and electricity bills?
Anyway, Andy and I talked and he helped me make sense out of it. “Well of course that’s crazy. What can you do that will make adjuncts more visible?” I suggested, “How about make a sign that says Chop from the Top?” And he said, “Chop from the top, don’t kill the tree!” So in my grief-stricken state I went to Office Depot and bought a big piece of poster board and some enormous sharpies. I am just about the least artistically inclined person visually, but that night I did my best to create my sign, changing it to “Chop from the top, not from the Tree,”—(I think upside down and I’m not even sure it makes sense, but artists have that prerogative.)—I found photos of the Tree of Life, which was my mother-in-law’s favorite sculpture, on the internet; she had one in the living room that I often stared at over dinner, and I brought it in under my arm the next morning before the demonstration, hiding it behind my cabinet in my shared office space.
When I got to the demonstration, there were few people there and it was cold, and I had forgotten my gloves. I held up my sign on the steps of the Classroom Building and several students came up to me and smiled, “Oh I love that sign! Thanks so much for coming.” My fellow union members looked away in shock and horror when they saw me and my sign and I just kept thinking, Andy thinks it’s ok; I am just going to hang out here with my sign. Photographers came up to me later and photographed me. I held it up for over an hour despite a frozen shoulder injury I’ve been coping with due to grading papers for 2 years now. I have no idea how I did it.
And then the students started speaking. I can’t tell you how moving it was to hear the Northeastern students speaking about what our university means to them. And they didn’t stop with just the ability to go to college and be the first one in their family to graduate, or the undocumented immigrants that bravely graduate and have found work here in Chicago, but also talked about the other challenges they face. Working and going to school and taking care of sick family members, not having transportation and getting to work or school late. The mental health issues they face dealing with all of this stress. One young man bravely said, “I am here to tell you I suffer from depression, and yes, I am going to graduate and it’s important to talk about mental illness. Governor Rauner is not only hurting public higher education but social services for the mentally ill. We are fighting for our right to not only get educated, but to live, to be in community and support one another. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the social worker that supported me and convinced me to apply to college.”
Soon I was standing there with my enormous sign and tears were streaming down my face. These are my students and this is why I am here after 11 years as an adjunct. It was so powerful to hear the strength in their voices, the tremendous hope they have for the future. It was like I was staring into the face of love and yet standing outside it at the same time. Of course Andy and I had talked about the definition of the word adjunct the day before: “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” Everyone else was hugging each other, the union members were passing out fliers that only spoke about Rauner and the budget impasse, not about the impending 20% pay cut for their members. But there was Andy’s voice in my ear, Luther wanted to debate the administration. He didn’t give up. We need to be heard. And in the end I learned something that day. I learned that the students’ voices are more powerful. They are more powerful because they are our future. But it’s important to talk truthfully about things too. Not every move has to be about publicity or gaining the public’s approval, or getting attention on Twitter. It’s important to be visible as adjuncts and to not let them bury us under the rug as “inconsequential.” We are the face of higher education. We are the reason these beautiful students are graduating because we teach most of the classes and we are the ones who are facing so many similar battles economically and psychologically. When we finally do combine forces we will be unstoppable.