Your Dissertation Lit Review was a Waste of Time, and Other Lessons from the Service Economy

The last few posts have described my latest post-academic gig at a tech firm where I am paid hourly to do administrative work. (“Administrative” is a fancy word for “secretary,” of course.) The office where the firm is located is temporary. The firm may be temporary too. Who can tell? My employers seem to have a lot to do, though I am only vaguely aware of the services they offer to the people who pay them.

My employers sit at computers all day and have frequent conference calls with clients. They complain constantly about being overworked and about the stress they’re under to make this new company a success. Inexplicably, I am very sympathetic to their plight and would like to help them succeed. Yet, from a proper perspective, their success means nothing to me.

I am rarely told what I will be doing each week in advance. I am instructed (usually by email) to file this and to mail that. I do these things. But I am never sure what the context is for these actions. Why must I file this and mail that? It’s not as if I need to know why I am mailing something in order to address the envelope properly or to hit the “print” button on the printing machine. I can certainly do those things without understanding the larger purpose. But my effort feels disconnected from any meaningful context. The partners operate as if I don’t need to know anything more than the action to be performed in its stripped-down, utilitarian form. Moreover, if I perform the task and perform it well, I have no sense of the outcome. Did my actions result in the employers earning more money? Did it result in more business for the firm? I never know.

I believe this experience is called alienated labor.

It may be alienated, but that doesn’t mean it’s mindless. There’s a lot of concern these days that workers are going to be replaced by robots, that there won’t be jobs anymore, only tireless machines. This is not a particular fear of mine. I know that I won’t be replaced by a machine because I am one. I am a particular kind of machine, a robot of the service economy.

I sit in a state of suspended animation and wait for instructions. When I receive them, I sputter to life and perform the task with a smile. Then, when the mission has been accomplished, I grind to a halt and I wait for the next to-do list to arrive in my inbox.

At least, that is what my employers imagine I am doing. I am actually not doing that. I have other paying jobs, and I have friends, family, and writing and reading projects that matter to me. When I am not following the employers’ instructions, I am engaged in my human life. Yet, each time they email a new task, I know they expect me to do the job right away. They would not like it if I replied: “I will do this task as soon as possible. Right now, I am busy doing something else.” Such a reply would be confusing to them. As soon as they issue instructions, they assume that my gears click into motion at that precise moment. I am a technician of the age of information, a life form conjured from chemical-laced dust. When I am not doing something for them, I do not exist.

The service economy, which is all there is now, is a marketplace in which workers are expected to know only how to perform the acute task in front of them. (To be fair, in my case, maybe that’s all I want to know.) I have been told many times by one of the firm partners that he has no time to train me so he would like me to watch and learn. Watch and learn. It sounds like a warning, a slogan stitched onto a flag at the gates of The Only Factory That Will Ever Hire You. At some point, my employer seems to expect, the tiny bits of disconnected data that leak into my inbox each week will add up to something that represents a whole. But if it doesn’t add up to something, it doesn’t matter anyway.

My service to my employers, I have concluded, is to not know anything.

In some ways, the focus on acute tasks and on discrete, portable skills is the exact opposite of academia. (That is one reason I found myself so woefully unprepared for the part-time office work that became my fate the moment I entered a PhD program in English.) I wrote a dissertation that contained an extensive literature review: many pages devoted to explaining what other people had said about the topic I was writing about years before I had ever heard of it. This was an important and necessary part of the work. In learning to be a scholar, I learned to frame my arguments by historicizing them and by providing context and purpose. It all seems hilarious in retrospect.

There is no historicizing in the service economy. There is no context that really matters in a globally connected world of instant communication. Learning context and history takes time, and time is money. Who wants to pay for that?

Perhaps the neo-conservatives were right and it really is the end of history, just not the history they had in mind. The end of history, for workers, means the end of the need to know anything except how to perform the next task on a list of tasks thought up by someone else. Employers no longer need to invest in education or training. In the future, we’re all mechanical Turks.

What corporations need is a “technical workforce,” the New York Times has explained. “Companies say they need engineers with more than high school, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree.” This is what Henry Giroux meant when he wrote, in his essay on the fury of the young, that “what the ruling class wants are technicians.” Employers prefer people who make and do whatever is asked of them quickly and efficiently without too many questions.

This preference, now so concrete to me in my post-academic life, exposes one of the great lies of liberalism. We’ve all been told (we’re still being told) that employers want to hire people who can think broadly and have the capacity to deliberate in a critical fashion about a wide range of problems. This is bullshit. Employers want nothing of the kind. They want organisms, vaguely sentient, that respond to stimuli in predictable and profitable ways. Then they want silence and waiting until a new task becomes evident, until the next, inevitable keystroke sparks the machine to life.

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Beer of the Apocalypse

My last post was about my new sort-of job at the tech start-up, where offices are rented only by the month, the building is guarded like a prison, and the job is ultra-temporary (because it could end tomorrow or go on indefinitely, but no one – not even the boss – knows for sure).

Since I am not really a “techie” and my only skill is pretending I know how to do things even when I don’t (and then quickly learning how to do it later, when no one is looking), I have been trying to figure out how to be useful. The problem is, I’ve been on payroll for over a month, and I’m still not sure what my job is.

Occasionally, the bosses will email and ask me to “file a thing” or “write a thing” or “go and buy stamps.” I used Google Maps to find the nearest post office. I’ve come to realize that most of my tasks involve interacting with Google. I spend a lot of time creating Google docs and spreadsheets or updating them. Sometimes the instruction is: “create a Google doc and link it to a Google Spreadsheet and then email it to Mr. Smith at his Gmail address.”

I’ve determined that, if Google ever goes down for real, vast numbers of people will throw themselves off the nearest bridge in despair because all the things that mattered to them in life will be gone – poof! – forever. (It’s a good thing there are about 700 bridges in NYC.) Human life in 2014 is just a series of documents linked to “profiles” that we create with our machines (which are everywhere and nowhere) and then use them to try to connect with each other, surrounded as we are in measureless oceans of space.

The feeling of being set adrift on the waves (or should I be using cloud metaphors?) of the “new economy” is not only fueled by freelance life. It’s part of the actual content of the work. Yesterday, my boss wrote to tell me that he was happy with my efforts so far but that he was too busy to read and respond to my emails regularly. He also said that he doesn’t have much time to tell me what to do next, so he advised me to be “proactive” in figuring out how to use my time and then to let him know, at the end of each week, how many hours I worked and what I had done to fill them.

On one hand, this seems great. I’ll just do what seems vaguely helpful each week, tally my hours, and then go home (or shift positions on the couch in my apartment, since I usually work from there). But there’s something anxiety-inducing about the request to “do useful things” without direction. (And Googling “what should I do?” isn’t helpful.) How am I supposed to know what to do? I have never worked at a tech start-up before or been terribly focused on usefulness (I have a PhD in English, after all).

At least, if I was going into the office everyday, I could take advantage of the free beer. That might dull the feeling of dread. I’m convinced that the end of the world won’t be signified by the moon turning to blood and by wormwood and all of that crap. Instead, maybe oblivion looks like everyone dressed for Casual Friday, typing feverishly into their MacBook Air computers while listening to iPods. Until the batteries run out. Google may own all of our deepest thoughts, but Apple definitely has a monopoly on distracting us from the approach of the end times.

If only I could get my computer to dispense free beer.

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I Used To Worry About The Future

I got a part-time non-academic job. Again. Readers of this blog will know that I have made several attempts to escape the adjunct grind. For a while, I temped for a Fancy Wall Street firm where I accidentally ate someone else’s salad.

Once, I worked at a non-profit foundation for a few days. I was doing the job that a trained monkey could do. (At least they had one of those fancy European espresso machines!) Aside from being dead bored all day, I had to endure the fact that my boss was about twelve years old. If you want to feel ancient, try doing the bidding of children. It’s quite illuminating.

A couple of summers ago, I spent a few weeks on the top floor of a Manhattan high rise working for a hedge fund. I joined an army of women answering the phones and making copies for Very Important Men who were busily – if the financial statements that I saw on their desks were any indication – privatizing higher education. That was some grim shit, which is why I went back to adjuncting. I guess.

But now I am out in the real world again. So what am I doing? I got hired to do administrative work for a start-up! There are lots of tech start-ups in NYC. More, even, than in San Francisco! It’s like 2001 all over again.

What could possibly go wrong?

Most of these companies are destined to fail, of course. But in the meantime, the young people and their fancy ideas for “apps” and whatnot want to look cool and hang out in sleek offices. A whole architecture is developing around pop-up companies that want to rent temporary space on a month-to-month basis.

Twice a week, I’ve been going to one of these places to work. It’s mostly 20-somethings walking around in Casual Friday clothes (all week!) working on Macbook Airs with headphones in their ears. What kind of things are they making? What services are they providing their mysterious clients? Who knows? It’s not important. The only thing that matters is that they are only renting space by the month, so don’t bother to get to know your neighbor. If the companies don’t make money, the workers can bounce back to the Brooklyn coffee shops where they used to type, and no one will even notice they left.

The “new” economy is like that. You don’t get anything as luxurious as a permanent desk or a space to work in that isn’t your living room couch. And you have to bring your own computer and smart phone. Many formerly “white collar” employees now are essentially independent contractors. If you have portable skills and all your own machines, you just may be worthy of a (part-time) job.

When describing the position to me at the interview, one company partner told me their goal was to jettison old models. “Many established companies are so inefficient. They have way too much overhead,” he explained, by which he meant the laughably outdated practice of investing in permanent office space and, you know, hiring people.

The pop-up office may sound cool and casual (ours has pool tables and a bowling alley for stimulating creativity!), but it’s actually a highly policed environment. Employee comings and goings are monitored. If your start-up is paying for 5 employees to use the office, for example, you can’t have a 6th person showing up all the time. Each worker needs to show his or her ID everyday (or use a special card connected to their name) to get in the door. It’s kind of creepy. But they try to distract you from the creep factor by giving you free beer at the cafeteria. No, I am not joking.

And all the offices have glass walls so you can see what everyone else is doing, but of course everyone is doing the same thing: staring at computer screens. One guy on the floor below us is clearly a day trader. His office is about the size of a closet. And he stares at two giant monitors where he watches stocks go up and down all day. All around his screens are taped yellow sticky notes with vaguely inspirational messages. “Look for deals!” “Don’t be afraid to take risks!”

How odd to think of the day trader working in a temporary office advising himself to take risks! His existence there is already a product of the immeasurable uncertainty that most of us – not just post-academics – face everyday. Day traders try to make money by taking advantage of small shifts in the market (whatever that is). There’s no long-term plan because there can’t be.

That may sound depressing, and it is. But I think it’s one realization that helped me get out of adjuncting. I used to worry about the future. I wanted a career, to know where my next paycheck was coming from, to be a professional. But now I know that is not really a reasonable expectation. Risk is an unavoidable characteristic of impermanence. And, these days, the only thing you can count on is impermanence.
















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Notes from Rage-istan: A Response to Steven Krause

Steven Krause, a Professor at Eastern Michigan, has entered the debate started by Rebecca Schuman who called out the UC Riverside English department for giving job candidates a scant 5 days notice for MLA conference interviews.

Krause is pretty sure the rage expressed by losers of the academic job lottery is unwarranted because we should have known better. In all-too-familiar fashion, Krause writes:

“I have to wonder what it was they thought they were getting themselves into when they started down the PhD in literature path in the first place.”

Then he argues that if those of us living in Rage-istan had just followed our passions into a more marketable field, such as Composition and Rhetoric, than we would have had more luck, like he did, and wouldn’t be so angry.

Here’s a factoid for you: I am a Compositionist. My PhD is in English but my field is Composition and Rhetoric. I wrote a C/R dissertation with a well-known advisor. I played job market roulette for three years. I had several interviews (and am quite familiar with the general stink of the MLA convention). I was unsuccessful, obvs.

By the time I graduated, I was getting wise to the horrendous employment situation I was facing. But all my advisors told me I would get a job, that I would be “snapped up in no time” (exact words from one mentor).  It took me some time to realize that people who have had jobs for years might just be a tad out of touch.

But my experience is anecdotal. So I want to more directly address this oft-told tale that “Comp/Rhet PhDs have it easier,” one of the most enduring myths in academe.

Let’s turn to one of the major journals in the field for some evidence! A special issue of College English devoted to labor highlighted some statistics that should embarrass and shame us all. “[A]lmost three-quarters of all faculty members in higher education are now working in part-time, non-tenure-line appointments,” explained Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe.

Palmquist and Doe don’t think C/R folks are better off either. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition,” they wrote, “have been affected most by this growing reliance on contingent faculty. Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.”

It is patently ridiculous to assert that the vast armies of part-time writing teachers at American colleges and universities do not affect the number and quality of full-time jobs. Perhaps Composition PhDs were better positioned once upon a time, but this is not an argument that can be made today with any credibility. It’s time to put the myth of Composition’s exceptional status within English Studies to rest, once and for all.

The important thing that more fortunate faculty (especially those with tenure) need to know is that you don’t have to feel guilty. Guilt doesn’t help anyone. You’re no more responsible for the state of affairs than the adjunct teaching in the classroom next to you. To fix what ails higher education does not require you to give up your job or anything else, except your illusions.

Maybe you got your job because of an institutional connection. Maybe you really were better qualified than other candidates. Maybe you just got lucky. Simply put, it does not matter now. Speaking up in solidarity with the growing numbers of qualified, talented, passionate people who are being flushed out as a waste product of the academic labor system is what is important.

I want to make a final point about the myth that C/R graduates are in an exceptional situation with regard to their chances of finding full-time employment. It has to do with the kind of world we’re implying exists when we make such assertions, whether they’re true or not.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that C/R grads are having an easier time finding full-time positions.  Should that really give anyone comfort? Should C/R scholars be relieved that a crisis that relegates many of their colleagues to low-paid invisibility and leaves many PhDs in the broader Humanities underemployed has not yet landed at their door?

“Those other people should have been smart like us,” is not a program for institutional change that I want to get behind.

The Humanities are important. They are part of getting an education, at all levels, and should be viable career choices to those who are passionate about them.

The well-meaning advice that part-time faculty should have made different decisions implies a universe where the only choice we have is to take a cold, hard look around us and make “rational” decisions based on what we see. In that scenario, someone who loves poetry (the horror!) and wants to study and teach verse for the rest of her days has to accept a life of penury and marginality as the price of following that dream.

I don’t want to live in that world, and I don’t think a lot of other people do either.  Maybe, instead of adapting ourselves to the world as we find it, we might find the resolve to finally change it.

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There Is No Academic “Profession”

Unless you’ve been buried under a draft of your unfinished dissertation for the last few days (or sleeping off your Christmas dinner and various related bouts of drunkenness), you’ve noted the blog/Twitter war that broke out between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka) and Claire Potter (@tenuredradical).

On her blog, Schuman justifiably took the UC Riverside English department to task for announcing they would contact applicants to be interviewed for a position in American Literature on January 3, a mere five days before the MLA conference at which such interviews would take place. Potter no likey Schuman’s post. She thought it was too rage-y.

I won’t go into the particulars of the argument because quite a number of people smarter than I have already weighed in on the matter, mostly in support of Schuman because, duh.

But I can’t resist expressing exasperation in response to Potter’s latest post. She deflected the issue that Shuman originally wrote about – that search committees are often “elitist and out of touch” – and instead treated her readers to a long-winded discussion of all the ways people have said things on social media that they later came to regret. Then, moving completely away from the subject matter that started the whole conversation, Potter made the pronouncement that

Social media is, indisputably, now a professional issue: it’s time to figure out how to weave conversation about its uses and abuses into our ongoing professional development, at all levels.

I have no issue with encouraging civil discourse on social media, and there is no place for personal attacks anywhere. But Potter’s idea that somehow there exists a thing called a “profession” and that people “at all levels” are part of it is laughably absurd.

Simply put, there is no such thing as a higher education “job market” or “profession.” In an age when almost three quarters of faculty are teaching off the tenure track, it is beyond me how anyone can take seriously the idea that people who teach at colleges are part of anything, really. Even the word “profession” sounds pretentious.

I don’t mean to suggest that academics and would-be academics have stopped pantomiming “professional” behaviors. Far from it! There is a charade that gets played out every year wherein various people, most of whom already have jobs or attended Ivies or published a book with a prestigious press (probably all three), play musical chairs with one another and listen to their peers read various profound papers. Of course, each year some new faces are introduced into the mix, but hardly enough to justify calling the brutal conference interviewing season “a market.”

If we’re going to call for an end to internet incivility (a cause I heartily support, though I don’t believe Rebecca Schuman is a culprit worth mentioning), I think we should also demand an end to uncritical and empty uses of the terms “job market” and “profession,” as if those are facts of the universe.

Again, there are 1.5 million college teachers in the United States, and 1 million of them are contingent. How is the word “profession” a relevant or useful term in light of that reality? Why should any of us pay attention to “advice” from someone who nurtures such a fantasy? What is stoking the rage of adjuncts and graduate students is not the ability to lob 140 character rage bombs into the ether. Rather, it’s that people like Tenured Radical still get to frame the operative questions, even thought they don’t know much about the reality on the ground because they don’t have to know.

Of course, Claire Potter is far from the first person to assume the relevance of a word – and a concept – that is virtually meaningless. The MLA has an entire journal devoted to Humanities professors who want to work out their class anxieties in print, after all. (It is called “The Profession.”)

So what do we have in academia if we don’t have a “job market” or a “profession”? Helpfully, that question was answered more than a decade ago by Marc Bousquet who explained that what we have in the place of anything that resembles a market for job candidates is, well, shit. That’s right: we have graduate programs in the Humanities whose business it is to lure in gullible graduate students, using them for cheap teaching labor before flushing them out as a waste product of a system that no longer needs them. That’s the point that Tenured Radical keeps evading (at least in this instance) for reasons that remain unclear, as I’m sure she knows the statistics as well as anyone.

I’m in favor of civility and general niceness as long as we can all agree to talk about things that exist.


ADDENDUM 12/28: Bad Attitude has made an important comment about this post, which helps illustrate how urgent it is to unpack these myths of “the profession” from multiple angles and points of view. We need to learn and speak out about all the particular ways the majority of college teachers, as a group, are made disposable.

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Testing Mania

As an adjunct instructor of English at One College In Particular, I am required this semester, thanks to a new program, to send my students to the testing center to take exams that are written by people who never met the students in my class and who don’t know my students or what I am teaching them. Other tests, I am to give in class myself.

Yes, this is the state of American higher education now:  a low-wage teacher (but one with a lot of letters behind her name) is hired to teach a class. But she must automatically, and without question, agree to give up several class sessions to examinations. This semester, I was told when to give students various tests and what kind of tests they would be. I was also told that, if students did not pass this one REALLY important test, they could not pass the course at all, regardless of how they performed in, you know, the course.

The problem is that the three required tests have nothing whatever to do with my course (well, they are supposed to take 3, but I am only giving them 2 because I can get away with it). These are tests that I did not design, and I only find out if each student passed or failed. I get no additional information.

When testing day comes around – or even the horrid “test prep” day, another deadly beast – it is like a very small, but ear-piercingly loud air raid siren goes off in the classroom. We all know that the bombs – sheets of paper covered in questions with lists of potential answers – are going to start dropping onto students’ desks with all the precision and accompanying terror of Luftwaffe parachuters. The students will pick up their pencils with nervous, clammy fingers, and they will be assessed. All the contingency and happy accidents in the universe – all the dappled things – will be swept away or stuffed into the desk drawers out of sight in preparation for the arrival of the correct answers, which will at that moment assume a great importance in the world.

Just to be clear: It is not the idea of assessment that I find so abhorrent. On the contrary, I assess my students’ work all the time. I read papers – sometimes multiple drafts – and provide comments targeted to each individual student. That is the kind of activity that I always thought was meant by the term “assessment.” At the very least, if OCIP would like to know how the students enrolled in my course are performing in my course, I would think they would ask the person they hired to teach it! But that seems too sensible.

Standard definitions of words also turn out to be too sensible in the midst of testing mania. I find that “assessment,” for example, has come to mean something I cannot quite define except to say that it means whatever Bill Gates says. No, I am not joking. I have a game that I play in my own head each time I either read an article in the newspaper that discusses testing or demonstrates a new kind of test that is supposedly able to do whatever it is tests do better than the previous tests did.

I also play the same game in my head when I am at OCIP flipping through actual test booklets and test-related material. The game is this: if you read the fine print long enough (and maybe add in some Googling), you can almost always trace every test back to a billionaire, like the guy from the Walton family or the Lumina Foundation. Both of them pay for a lot of students to take a lot of tests. Usually, however, you can trace tests, test rationales, and testing materials to Bill Gates or his foundation. He’s involved, somehow, in everything. It is simply a fact that, once you’ve accepted your place on the Monopoly Board of life, there is no way around him.  Bill Gates is the Jesus Christ of American Education/Tests.

The most troubling thing of all is not that Bill Gates hangs over my classroom like a disappointed parent. It’s that my students’ performance on these tests – not their grade in my class – determines whether they will pass my course.

And this all seems perfectly logical to the administrators, at least to those who entertain my questions about the abundance of tests. Most of them don’t know why I’m even complaining. After all, I’m a lowly adjunct, and what do I care?

I tried to engage my Chair the other day on the subject of tests. I explained that I was not loving the idea that students could fail my class because of a test that they did not take in my class and that I had not written or, you know, even looked at. I explained that it felt like the course I was teaching wasn’t really the course I was teaching. It seemed more like a test-delivery vehicle that was disguised to look like a college English course.

The Chair looked at me in what I can only describe as annoyance with a dash of genuine shock. “Your students can pass your class if they fail the test,” he explained. “But they just can’t move on to the next course in the sequence until they earn a passing score on the test.” This all seemed perfectly reasonable to him. Students could “pass” my course, but they just couldn’t take the next one.

It then occurred to me that the abundance of tests in education these days is changing not only the definitions of words we thought we knew. It’s changing how we think, altering our logic. To “pass” a course now does not necessarily mean that one has done well enough to proceed.

More troubling, the Chair’s attitude was apparent in his response to my question. He looked at me as if I was the crazy one. “Why are you even asking such an impertinent question?” is what I’m sure he was saying in his mind. It’s as if to raise concerns about the Orwellian universe we have all entered is beyond the scope of polite discourse. His response, and the way he spoke, made me feel that to even ask, “hey what’s the deal with all these tests,” was rude.

One does not want to be rude, especially to one’s direct supervisor. So I slinked away back into the classroom with my students, by which I mean the Kafka-esque drama that features us. I was teaching a course; and the students were taking one. But somehow neither one of us feels like we are in any way responsible for the outcome, whatever that may turn out to be.

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On Shit

Ahoy there post-academics!

August is the cruelest month because it’s still summer (the weather feels like it), but alas one has to start thinking about work, even though lowly adjuncts are not paid for thinking.

This late-summer I have been thinking a lot about shit.

To explain, let me tell you a story. In the spring, I received a phone call from an old friend who teaches at what I will call Pine Tree Valley College. PTVC was hiring some lecturers. Would I like to apply? My friend tells me she will make sure my cv gets reviewed. What the hell? I thought. I’ll be doing the same job I’m doing now except getting paid more.

I dusted off my old job letter and sent it in. A week later I got a call for an interview. I’m like a robot in interviews because I’ve done so many of them over the last 4 years. I turn on autopilot and talk about my research blah blah and my teaching philosophy blah blah.

I did not get the job. I shrugged and went back to my life.

A week later I get another call from PTVC. Could I come back in and talk to the Chair again. She has a proposal for me. What now, I wondered with exasperation. In the meeting, the Chair said that the committee really liked my interview but thought I was overqualified for the job I had applied for. Would I be interested in a different position if they could create one for me?

Sounds exciting, right? I was not that excited. I have learned not to be excited about anything I hear from department Chairs. But I said, sure whatever.

It took the department several weeks to get back to me. But eventually I was called back for another interview. Fine, OK.

At the interview, I was asked the usual questions. What is my vision of cheesemaking? If I could make cheese any way that I wanted, how would I make it? What kind of support would I need to make cheese well and what could the college do with a lot of really good cheese?

Dutifully, I answered their questions and smiled politely. At the end of the interview, I was informed that PTVC would like to hire me. Here’s the rub: they would like to offer me a part-time job. In this position, I would do the work that was done by two full-time people in the cheesemaking factory that I had worked in before.


I believe they thought I would see this as good news. But I could also tell they were nervous that I might say no. If I said no, who would make the cheese? They all expressed a great fondness for cheese.

What should I do? I died inside just a little bit.

As I left the meeting, all I could think about was Marc Bousquet and his theory of excrement. “Nearly all of the administrative responses to the degree holder,” Bousquet wrote,

can already be understood as responses to waste: flush it, ship it to the provinces, recycle it through another industry, keep it away from the fresh meat. Unorganized graduate employees and contingent faculty have a tendency to grasp their circumstance incompletely—that is, they feel “treated like shit”—without grasping the systemic reality that they are waste.

So it’s not that I’m just in rut. I won’t climb out of this hole. I live in that hole now. I am shit. This is the kind of sewer job people get offered when they’ve already been flushed.

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Sweet Are The Uses of Spite

I’m still here. It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy (as long as I don’t think about my precarious employment status). Soon, I hope to write a real post to answer such burning questions as “what is enraging PAINYC this week?”.

But first I want to mention that something surprising has been happening on this blog while I have been drinking wine and not looking for a job. My post, “How To Finish Your Dissertation When You Really Hate That Shit,” continues to get page views and responses almost 2 years after I published it. WHAT? There are 57 comments (and growing) on that humble missive in which I suggest that it is possible to finish the dreaded dissertation by cultivating spite.

“Spite,” I wrote, “motivates in the absence of any rational context for making progress and in the knowledge that all your effort will most likely come to nothing.” Still true.

It is gratifying that people are still commenting on the post and using that space to talk to each other. The notion that spite can be useful seems to resonate. Why is that? What does that say about dissertations, about grad school? Obviously I believe in the power of spite, but the popularity of the post was still unexpected.

Perhaps spite is an emotion that can be cultivated for all sorts of purposes. Maybe spite needs to be reclaimed as a source of power in terrible times? Is it purely an individual strategy or could it be used for collective purposes? What do you think, post-ac blogosphere?  What are the uses of spite?

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Bad Girl Back in the Classroom

Here I go again. This time will surely be the last. I do as little as possible. I cram the assigned reading 20 minutes before class, just like the students. I wrote the syllabi after classes had already started. And I’m breaking all the department’s dictatorial rules about the photocopier. We are not supposed to make class sets on the office machine because it is just too darn expensive for an English department to pay for such things as paper.

Instead, we’re supposed to send jobs to the big office downstairs with all the industrial photocopiers. We can pick up the copies a couple of days later. Obviously, that won’t work for me, as I have already expressed my lack of a desire to do any advance planning of the courses that I am teaching.

So I make copies on the department machine while no one is looking. I will keep doing it until the photocopy police take me away in cuffs.  One day I had to jump the subway turnstile (because the ticket reader was busted) right before coming to work and making illegal copies.

I was a bad, bad girl on that day.

I am determined not to adjunct again after this semester. Did I mention that? Possibly I will teach one evening class, which will allow me to look for, you know, a job.  But I’ve said that before. I’m hoping it’s true this time.

My family has stopped asking how the academic job market is going. Sort of. My SO was visiting a relative the other day, and she asked him if I wasn’t throwing in the towel too soon: “Surely, if she just keeps applying!” So, people have stopped asking me, but they are still asking my SO if I am not just a little crazy to give up such a wonderful career as a Professor. Pretty soon, they’ll stop asking him and move on to those outside my circle. My mom will come for a visit, stop the postman delivering my mail and ask, “Have you heard my daughter talk about any plans to get a job at a university?”

That could totally happen.

You know what else could happen? Revolution. I’m getting involved in a group on campus that is trying to organize a labor action against the university. There are a zillion adjuncts. We could do a lot if we did it together. It has to be handled very carefully because the Taylor Law in New York State makes it illegal for public workers to strike. So if you just stop coming to class as an individual, either out of spite or because you just don’t feel like teaching that day, it’s fine. But if you declare, as a group of adjuncts, that you won’t come to work as a form of protest, well it’s the jailhouse for you, sister!

I’m not too worried about breaking the Taylor law. Isn’t that the point of a strike, to do something you’re not supposed to do?

Some adjuncts want to work on the campaign, but they are a little skittish about getting found out by their department Chairs. They are afraid of losing their fellowship (if they’re students) or just getting fired outright.

I have not a single fear in that regard. I don’t know why. Maybe my relatives are right and I am a little crazy. Or maybe it’s that, though I despise adjuncting, I have learned something from the students I teach.

I’m teaching a class of students who want to be professors or teachers. English teachers. What a crazy dream is that in times like these! They’re wonderful people. They deserve far more than the paltry amount of time I can give to them.

They don’t seem to know or care that there aren’t many jobs in higher ed, and K-12 is being gutted as well, what with Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind in the process of destroying the 400-year history of the American Common School. Not that that history was all grand all the time or anything. Some African Americans in pre-civil rights Mississippi might have something to say about that.

Anyway, I look out over my classroom of students (mostly women) who want to be English teachers. Like me, I presume, though they don’t know that I am not a real teacher at all, but a temporary stand-in for the professor who should be there – who would be there – instead.

I’m not going to use my classroom as a forum for speeches about how screwed up education is in this country, about how it’s been taken over by technocrats who’ve never taught a day in their lives, or about how Wall Street bankers, who see a vast untapped market in public education, are vulturing in for the kill.

I won’t say any of that. But what I will do is help organize the adjuncts at my college without fear or shame. I don’t care if the bosses know. They can throw me in the slammer. The students, who have chosen to study Humanities despite everything, have made me quite unafraid.

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All The Dead Teachers Are Women

Like many others, I’ve been contemplating the universe in utter despair after the shooting in Connecticut last week. I’ve spent far too much time imagining those teachers in the last moments of their lives, in the schools where they taught. Since I read Columbine a few years ago, I know better than to believe the stories of heroism in the face of death that are already being accepted as fact. Horrible events lend themselves to myths that turn out not to be true in the end, no matter how badly we want them to be. Yet, I’m still hoping Victoria Soto’s last moments unfolded exactly as described, though it would be better of course if there were no story at all.

Against the backdrop of tales of women’s heroics, there are of course the anti-feminists who blame it all on the fact that no man was there to pull a Flight 92. Then there are the more thoughtful notes. Djuna’s comment on my last post is one of them. I am pasting it here without comment for now.

While it isn’t exactly the focus of your post the fact that you share an office with all women, implying that the majority of adjuncts you work with are women (?), seems significant to me. I can’t help but wonder if the majority of adjuncts in the US in general are women? Maybe you’ve posted before on this angle of the issue but I feel like it’s one that’s generally ignored. Not directly related to what you’ve written here at all, but it’s been perplexing reading the recent news stories about the horrific murder of 6 women teachers and 20 children in Connecticut and the angle the media has taken on the deaths of the women. Their murders seem to be reported as “sacrifices,” i.e., they sacrificed their lives to protect the lives of their children, and now this line is being used to argue against cutting jobs for teachers because they apparently lay down their lives for little children despite not getting paid very much or offered much in terms of respect for their labor. Perhaps all of this is completely unrelated but I can’t help but wonder at the connections between the adjunct labor issue and the patriarchal system that structures the way we measure the worth of women’s work (and their lives) in general.

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