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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Clueless in Academe

I had just logged in to update this blog (finally) when I stumbled on Lauren’s brilliant post about the latest jobs report for PhDs. I especially like how she calls out M. Berubé for being clueless about the real problem which, indeed, has nothing to do with the fact that people don’t like Shakespeare anymore. When we talk about a labor crisis as if it’s merely a symptom of cultural decline, we don’t sound much different than a talking head on Fox News blaming the recession on single mothers. In fact, here is an assessment of remarks Berubé made at a recent conference in Washington D.C. with which I concur.

What I had intended to post today is on a related topic. I had another conversation with a would-be Humanities PhD student and it made me want to throw myself off a bridge in despair. Instead, I write.

In the last months, I have become friendly with one of the women (and they’re all women) with whom I share an office at my current adjuncting gig.

She told me some time ago that she was preparing to apply to the same program from which I graduated. She is interested in my field, and she’s about my age. So obviously we’re soul mates now.

I did not say anything about this grad school plan of hers at first. I vacillate between warning people right away or waiting for them to ask. Who am I to tell someone I just met what to do with her life?

Recently, she started complaining about all the bureaucratic stuff required for her application. I took that as an opening. I said, “are you sure this is the right decision for you?” I proceeded to tell her a little about my experience, my current situation, and about all the people I know in the same boat. In fact, I hardly know anyone not in that boat. It’s a heavy boat. And it’s taking on water.

Immediately, upon hearing that I have left academia after completing the program she wants to enter, she gave me a pep talk. “You have to go back on the market. Don’t give up!”

Good grief.

I know she’s trying to be nice, but why does everyone fall back on this standard response to life’s challenges? I felt as if I were talking to one of my students, many of whom write the same paper over and over again in every class: “things are tough for a while, but if you persevere, everything will work out and you’ll be a stronger person” blah blah blah.

I explained that I have no plans to return to academia. “I am just telling you to go in with your eyes open,” I said.

“Oh yes,” she said, “I plan to apply for a 5-year fellowship. Then I can really take my time in the program.”

When she said this, I realized I was not talking to someone who is just stubborn or believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that she will beat the odds. Nor was I talking to someone who had done research and decided to ignore it.

No, I was speaking to a whole new species of Wanna-Be Academic: the person who has absolutely no clue about anything related to graduate school in the Humanities.

How was I to continue the conversation? What strategy would I choose?

I said, “five years? The time-to-degree is more like 9 years. That is true nationally and also in the program you are trying to enroll in.”

She blinked, unconvinced. “Really?”

“You will not finish the degree in five years. No one does, especially while teaching.” (Of course, I did not mention that most people who enter that program never finish at all  – ever.) “So,” I continued, “there’s a good chance that at the end of five years the money will run out and you will find yourself back here sharing this office with me.”

I tried to be serious/funny. Like, “isn’t it amusing that one could work for five years and end up back at the beginning? Doesn’t it make you want to cry?”

I also advised her to do some research. “Have you talked to anyone else who has been through the program or is currently enrolled?”

She admitted that she had not. Nevertheless, she dug in her heels. “I guess I am just convinced this is the right career for me. I just love teaching.”

I still can’t believe anyone thinks earning a PhD in a Humanities field is preparation for teaching. Nor can I fathom that anyone would take the path of grad school without doing at least a little Googling to find out things such as: how long do these programs generally take anyway?  Or, even better, what are people on the internets saying about getting a PhD these days?

Nope. Nothing. Our conversation was perfectly pleasant. I was extra careful not to lecture. But I advised her to do some research before diving in. She is very nice and seemed more concerned about me by the end of our conversation.

“It sounds like you’re burned out,” she said sympathetically.

That comment made me a little angry. For the record, I am not burned out. I have never been less burned out in my entire life.

Frankly, I was offended to have my experience dismissed as a case of simple burn out, like a week in the country would cure me. If I were an accountant talking about the terrible job market for accountants, no one would call me burned out. Yet, somehow, a post-academic can’t be trusted to know what’s up.

Now that I have written all of the above, I feel guilty for saying these things about my friendly office mate. The job market is not her fault. Still, I hope she doesn’t get into the program. I really don’t.

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What Do Superstorm Sandy And The Adjunct Crisis Have In Common?

Once again, the East Coast is recovering (barely) from a major hurricane. Sandy was far, far worse than Irene, last year’s superstorm. At least thirty-eight have died in NYC and millions have been displaced. Some have lost everything. Seems like we’re getting one of these unprecedented storms every couple of years. We’re going to have to stop calling these monsters “hundred-year storms” and refer to them as “last week’s storm.”

I am one of the lucky ones. I live on a hill and was spared the worst. In fact, my SO and I never lost power, which is why we are hosting some Sandy refugees from the blackout zone this week.

As I listened to the raging wind and rain outside on Sunday and Monday, fearing that the windows would explode at any moment, it occurred to me that Superstorm Sandy and the adjunct crisis in higher education have a lot in common. They both have their roots in neoliberal capitalism that reduces everything to the profit motive, destroying our ecosystem in the process.

We constantly hear that, to have a healthy economy, we must promote growth. Politicians from both parties say this again and again. Industries need to expand so more jobs are created and more people will have money to buy the stuff that corporations are selling. Companies will then have to hire more people to make the stuff that people are buying. And the cycle continues.

The problem is that the growth imperative increases carbon emissions and depletes natural resources, contributing to global climate change. Warmer oceans and higher seas mean bigger storms.

As Pat Thomas wrote last year in Alternet:

“The mantra of ‘growth’ has become a kind of mental monoculture. Many businesspeople and economists can’t see any other point of view and don’t really want to. And yet every argument that we make in favour of growth falls down at the feet of one simple fact: the resources upon which growth depend are running out. ”

What’s the connection to education and the adjunct crisis? The exploitation of adjuncts is an effect of the ideology of infinite growth. As Andrew Ross recently wrote in Dissent:

“Salaries of full-time faculty have been stagnant for a long time, and the massive conversion of tenure track jobs into contingent positions (more than two-thirds of professors are now off the tenure track) has sliced the teaching payroll at almost all institutions.”

The culprit, according to Ross, is “expansionary growth” in which every public good or resource must be crushed under the churning wheels of the we-need-more-stuff machine. As more and more classes are staffed by adjuncts at lower rates of pay, more and more buildings are sprouting up across American campuses. The College Where I Adjunct is building a multi-million dollar technology center a few blocks away. But the administration cries poverty when adjuncts ask for a raise. “Universities,” Ross explains, “have become a vital part of the urban growth machine.”

Colleges under the spell of the growth imperative care more about new buildings and higher enrollments than about fair employment practices or quality teaching. They care more about growth than they do about fulfilling some old fuddy-duddy mission to educate the public. In fact, these days, if a college isn’t growing or expanding, no other measure counts.

That kind of thinking makes teachers an exploitable resource – another thing to be used up and thrown out.

We weren’t ready for Sandy because we haven’t yet begun to acknowledge that we’re growing and expanding ourselves out of existence. Likewise, those occupying (disappearing) privileged positions in the university aren’t any more knowledgeable about how bad things have gotten in the basement of the academy.

I was observed in the classroom last week, two days before the storm hit, by a long-tenured professor. She has no idea what life is like for me and the dozens of other adjuncts who teach in her department. Yet, that didn’t stop her from advertising her ignorance.

“I was an adjunct once myself!” she beamed. “We have to look out for each other. We’re a sisterhood.”

No, I am not joking. A professor, tenured for decades, actually said this. To my face.

I wanted to say, “Fuck you. We’re not sisters.”

But I just smiled, as is the post-academic’s way.

It’s this kind of denial, this complete and blatant misunderstanding of the facts, that makes me think the whole system needs to be overthrown. Reforms aren’t going to do. This refusal to see the obvious also prevents us from addressing the growth imperative that fuels climate change and Superstorms like Sandy.

Want more good jobs for college teachers? Want to save the Earth? Like some smart people once said,

“All Our Grievances Are Connected.”

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Dissertation Publication Consternation

Recently, I had coffee with a former supervisor from my academic days. It was very nice of her to want to meet up now that I am adjuncting again – temporarily. We used to work together rather closely on some projects back when I was an idiot graduate student who thought that working on “some projects” with full time faculty would help me get a job of some sort.

We had a nice chat about what I’ve been up to and local politics and the various stresses that she experiences as the Chair of some committee or other. It was just two girls talking.

Until…the questioning that I suspected would come (but still hadn’t prepared for) began.

“Have you been trying to publish your dissertation?”

Hmmm. Let’s think about this for a moment, have I been trying to publish my dissertation?

“Uh, well,” the words were all jumbled in my mouth. “I, uh, sent off a couple of proposals two years ago. I got some interest, but, you know, it’s a long story and I, uh, not sure now, uhhhhh.”

It was something like that. I can’t speak well in conversations in which I know that the other person thinks that if I just did something more, that if I just did the right things in the right order, I would be where she is in a few years: pulling in a full-time salary and benefits and chairing some worthless committee.

She was perplexed at my non-answer. She furrowed her brow. “What’s your diss about again?”

I was stumped. I said some words in response, but I could not remember in that moment what my dissertation is actually about. I’ve pondered the question in the days since and, honestly, I only have a vague idea even now. Her question reminded me, yet again, of the dominant mode of thinking about academia among academics: that if you don’t have a job you obviously want one and must still be hoping to get one, no matter how long you’ve been out of the game.

The conversation also reminded me of that time I was in junior high and my mom was getting on my case because I did so badly in Math. She was afraid I wouldn’t get into a good college or whatever, and she said sternly, “you could do better in Math if you wanted, but you just don’t care about it!”

Now, back then, my mother was making an accusation. But in the years since I have seen her statement less as an accusation and more as a description that is quite accurate. I am invested and committed to things that I care about. Other stuff? I can’t even remember it exists. My SO always tells me that I know what’s happening on all the really good TV shows, but I can’t keep the main plotlines straight on the bad ones: “wait, who is that teenage vampire sleeping with again?”

Anyway, my coffee companion continued to question me about my attempts at publication and what had happened and where I left things. She said, “I know someone at [such and such] publishing house, so why don’t you send me your proposal and I will send it to my friend?”

Why didn’t I just say no? I don’t want to publish that book. I have no interest. I do not care about it. I’d have to revise it to include all the literature from the last 2-3 years. Good grief. The thought of having to do scholarly work in my (former) field while adjuncting, making coffee for corporate executives, and hoping that it all eventually comes to something is about as appealing as sticking a fork in my eye.

But I was flummoxed, once again, at the disconnect between the views of full-time faculty and the real world. My former colleague was earnestly trying to help me. I wanted her to believe that the end of my career was just a glitch that would soon be corrected, even if I don’t believe it myself.

I still haven’t sent my dusty old book proposal to her. I probably won’t. It’s passive aggressive, I know. It strikes me that she, like many others, doesn’t connect the dots. She teaches at a university where there are hundreds of adjuncts. She supervises many of them. And, yet, she seemed kind of confused about the reason I don’t have a job. Frankly, it’s bizarre.

I have to memorize a speech for the next time (and there will always be a next time). I could say that I want to do other kinds of work now and engage different audiences. My dissertation was not a waste of time because I didn’t publish it. It sent me down a new path, one that, in the end, I’m grateful to have found.

Or, I could go the pithy route. It could go like this:

“I am no longer interested in pursuing an academic career or in conducting scholarly research because there are no jobs available, and I don’t believe that fact will ever change no matter what I do.”

Simple as that.

*On a related note, the most popular post on this blog by far, is  “How To Finish Your Dissertation When You Really Hate That Shit.” …. In case you too want to finish your dissertation and then find yourself, in a couple of years, unable to remember what it’s about.

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The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement

I had decided to title this post, The Tyranny of the Thesis Statement. Then I Googled it and noted that someone else has already written that essay. Good for that guy! I am glad that I am not the only one who thinks thesis statements are horrible things that we ought to do away with forever, like every other shibboleth of old-timey writing instruction (I’m looking at you, five-paragraph essay!).

I cannot tell you how much I loathe thesis statements and everything they stand for. In my own work, I refuse to write thesis statements or anything that resembles them. I sincerely believe that no piece of decent prose contains anything that might be mistaken for a thesis statement. Thesis statements and good writing are utterly incompatible.

Furthermore, I most certainly will never – no matter how emphatic the department grading rubric – advise my students to write thesis statements. Why? Because I choose to treat student writers like the intelligent people they are. And – to the degree that it is possible – I choose to teach writing in a manner that takes into consideration the way that good writing is actually produced. No writer ever claimed s/he came up with a rad thesis statement and then went on to build an awesome essay around it, just like her 8th grade English teacher told her to do. I do not believe that such a scenario has ever occurred since the invention of the written word.

So why are students obsessed with thesis statements?

In my classes, most students have been told all their lives that they have to write thesis statements to write well. Most of them also had to pass some stupid writing test to graduate from high school. This is why they are traumatized. Even though I never mention thesis statements in class, students still ask me about them. They ask if they can “clear” their thesis statements with me before writing, as if I am an air traffic controller of the written word. In workshops, they advise each other to write better thesis statements and to include them in the first paragraph of every essay. Because that is where thesis statements live. Since I never utter the word, I marvel at how well the students police each other. They are haunted by the ghost of thesis statements past.

Here’s the thing about thesis statements that confuses me the most: what the fuck are they? A thesis is a sentence you’re supposed to put in your essay that states, unequivocally and without doubt, what your point is? Is that a practice we really want to encourage young people to engage in? Why would anyone who really cares about writing or thinking want to do that?  What about inquiry or exploration or – god forbid – figuring out what you are saying after you write something? What about the reality that writing is a messy, brutal business that no formula or series of rules could possibly prepare you for?

That brings me to the real reason I do not care for thesis statements. I despise them not only because they turn writing into a formula or a container for content, like a cement mixer of the mind. I also detest thesis statements because I strongly oppose the idea that we should aspire to know things for certain as either a consequence or a precondition of writing. It’s better to teach students – and to remind ourselves – to admire ambivalence and contradiction and to think of writing as a way to cultivate those things, not abolish them. That is what very good writing – a rare and beautiful thing – should be: a reflection of a commitment to knowing nothing at all and to writing forever into that void.


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