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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On Being ‘Substantial’

Well, what has Post-Academic In NYC been up to these many days? Lotsa stuff, what with three part-time jobs plus top-secret political activities to attend to (ha, they are not top secret at all). Good news is that I did not get arrested yesterday. Bad news is that some of my friends did. I am going to the jailhouse soon to see if they are ever going to get out or what.

Meantime, I am teaching again! What is it like being back in the college classroom you ask? The first few sessions made me feel horrified and, at the same time, like I was in the right place. (Horrified In The Right Place is the name of the book I will never write on adjunct teaching.)

I’m supposed to be in the classroom, I thought to myself. Teaching is who I am.

I only felt this way for a second. Only for a brief moment did I allow myself to entertain the idea that the universe intends me to be a low-wage adjunct. I quickly stamped out the thought like Lady Macbeth out-outing the damn spot. First of all, the universe intends nothing. Secondly, I refuse to see part-time teaching as a calling. I do not accept that view of adjunct work anymore.

I will endeavor to be a decent teacher; it’s not the students’ fault and all that. But every time I feel a creeping sense of general commitment or purpose, I will stamp it out. It will take discipline, but I am a committed stamper.

What else can I tell you about?

I had a job interview! Yes! It was for a real-live, full-time job as a college administrator-type person! I applied for the job months ago, out of desperation and in a state of panic. But they called, so I went. The job didn’t seem that bad. I might even have liked it.

The thing is, I am ridiculously overqualified. They only asked for a B.A. degree on the job ad. So why did I apply?  And why did they call me?  I would say that only the universe knows, but the universe knows nothing.

I went into the process with an open mind, until I was asked the first question: “What qualifies you for this job?” I listed my qualifications. That was my mistake.

Rest assured I did not list my qualifications in an asshole-ish way. I know that I am not smarter than my potential colleagues; I do not know more than they, and I would not go into an interview (or any job) with the idea that my particular background makes me better, or even more qualified, than others. I simply listed my past experience and how it relates to the job I was interviewing for.

After I finished talking, the members of the committee relaxed back into their chairs. The guy who had asked the question paused and said, “well, that sounds substantial.”

Ha! Yes, it does, doesn’t it, sir. I am quite substantial. That is a word that means, in this context, not employable. It is as if the committee had said to me: “Indeed, you have a lot of skills and experience that no one will ever pay you for!”

The rest of the interview was polite enough, but I could tell it had ended the moment they relaxed back into their chairs and told me that my experience was “substantial.”

College administrations do not want candidates with ‘substantial’ experience doing the very things they are hiring someone to do. ‘Substantial’ is weighty in the bad sense. Committees, such as this one, know that, by hiring a ‘substantial’ candidate, they will get someone who already has a particular point of view developed over time while doing work directly relevant to the job. This is not necessarily a good thing.

In my case, my perspective has been informed by a decade of work, research, and writing. Employers do not want that. Instead, they want someone who can do the job, but who doesn’t have any opinions about the job yet. Such opinions they would rather provide along the way themselves. People with already-formed opinions born out of experience and through immersion in the relevant literature don’t always make the best cogs in a giant university bureaucracy.  At least, it seems that way.

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Teaching is a Job

This is a difficult post for me to write, which is why I have been stalling for days and days. The first thing I must say is that everyone is right. Djuna is right:

I’m just a bit confused about the decision to temp at actual corporations instead [of teaching as an adjunct] which seems like even more demeaning work in a far less stimulating environment. Before (and sometimes while) I went to graduate school I too worked as a temp and a legal secretary at a law firm and then as a program manager at a couple of non-profit organizations in NYC and to tell you the truth all of those office jobs were, for the most part, boring and exhausting — and the non-profits were equally hierarchical and patriarchal. While adjuncting might not be ideal it seems like the lesser of two evils?

Many of us working outside the academic bubble would acknowledge that the non-academic world is not less hierarchical or less demanding than the academic world. My recent experiences have confirmed this. As a temp over the last few months, I have seen the inner workings of various organizations, including a law office, a non-profit, and a couple of corporations. All of the people (the underlings, at least) who work at these places seem miserable and bored (or they’re too young to know that they should be miserable and bored). Yet, the only thing that frightens these employees more than keeping their boring jobs is losing their boring jobs. Several people I have met, including full-timers and long-term temps, are absolutely terrified of getting fired or, in the case of the temps, watching the short-term jobs dry up like leaves on the vine.

One woman, a full-timer whom I sat next to for days at the Skyscraper Office, rarely uttered a word to me. (I’m just a temp, why bother?) The one conversation we did have involved me explaining to her the stress of temping and feeling like there might not be any work next week. She said wryly, “You think those of us with full-time jobs don’t feel that way too?” Then she advised me to go back to teaching because “people here will stab you in the back.” Yeah, because that could never happen in academia. What I have learned is that work sucks for most people. Perhaps I sound like a twerp. But, as a person who has had some kind of job since I was 14 years old, I stand by that statement. Why is working for wages such a soul-sucking enterprise? Let me get out my Marx and write another post about that later. For now, I will say that:

Caitlin is also right.

[D]espite the intrinsic interest of [teaching] . . . the material taught, and the stated mission of educating a citizenry and pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, universities are institutions that are often every bit as large, profit-seeking, hierarchical, demeaning and exploitative of their employees as for-profit corporations.

Indeed. It’s not only that people (including my sullen Skyscraper Office mate) don’t understand this fact; it’s that the notion of intrinsic value has been used to keep teachers from leaving bad jobs and from demanding better pay and work conditions. Many of us enrolled in grad programs because we thought working in a college and wearing tweed would automatically insulate us from the mean old corporate world that we despised. Well, the joke’s on us. This is not an accident. It is by design. If you haven’t read Debra Leigh Scott’s magnificent opus, “How the University Was Killed, In Five Easy Steps,” you should drop everything and read it. Scott describes how universities are now run like corporations, which is why they exploit 70% of their teachers, pay top administrators like Kings, and then plead poverty as an excuse to raise tuition. Why do we keep putting up with it?

There are 1.5 million college teachers in the US and one million of them are part-timers or are otherwise working on contingent contracts. What happens if they all decide not to show up for work one day? The American university system would simply grind to a halt. It’s not like it hasn’t happened in other places. In Canada, students have been on strike for months to protest increasing tuition. Assuming an adjunct strike could continue here for as short as a week or as long as a semester, the fallout would be enormous. There are literally hundreds – maybe thousands – of academic departments across the country that would cease to exist on the day the adjuncts disappeared. The only strength we have is in our numbers.

Of course, as Caitlin’s comment suggests, there is almost zero chance of a direct action like that ever happening in the US because (for one thing) so many adjuncts think of their work as a calling, as something with intrinsic value. The corporate managers know this, and they have used it against us. There are several campaigns coming out of Occupy Wall Street that are focused on organizing mass strikes. I still have hope that it could happen, and I will be there when it does. It’s the only way to ever change anything.

As for me, I am not even sure that teaching has any “intrinsic value” for me anymore, which is why, when my old boss from The College Where I Used to Adjunct, invited me to come back and teach two courses this fall, I was certain to decline.

But then I didn’t. I slept on it (it was actually less like sleeping and more like laying awake all night in a panic).

My old boss had emailed me at just the right (from her point of view) moment. I was in between two rotten temp jobs. I had recently applied for two full-time jobs for which I thought I was highly qualified. I had received no response, not even a “thanks for your application.” Furthermore, as anyone who reads this blog knows, many post-acs (including me) have a fraught relationship with our previous “work” and our former “fields.” We prepared for years to enter labor markets that do not exist. And being bounced around on the economic tides of history is a hard thing to reconcile. I feel like I am supposed to be a professional. Graduate school taught me to expect that. Teaching allows many of us to continue in the illusion that that is what we are, even though we are not and may never be again.

The other day, I was at a social gathering where new people were introducing themselves. One woman said, “I’m Terry, and I’m an English Professor.” See how she did that? She labeled herself as a professor in the same sentence in which she told us her name. Academic identities are hard habits to break, even when you know you should just walk away. It’s especially difficult when walking away means, on some level, embracing the new role-du-jour that the temp agency has assigned to you.

Finally, teaching is a job. I have made that argument on this blog before, and it occurred to me again during my night of not sleeping. When the temp agency calls to offer me a job as an admin assistant or as someone who types words into Google all day, I feel that I must say yes, almost every time: “Yes, temp agency, please sign me up for that boring job that I will hate. Thank you very much.” (True story: the owner of the temp agency called the other day to talk to me about a job. At the end of the call, she thanked for all my “good work.” I replied, “it’s my pleasure!” No, seriously, I really said that. Then I hung up the phone and got drunk.)

The point is, when someone calls offering to pay me a low wage and no benefits to sit in an office and file papers for hours, I (often) agree to do it. Why should adjuncting be any different? The idea that I couldn’t take a full-time job if I found one while teaching is not exactly right. I could – and would – walk out the door in the middle of the semester if a better opportunity came up. Why should I have any semester-long loyalty to the college that abuses me?

So, in case you haven’t guessed, I agreed to teach two classes at my former college. For money and for the freedom it allows me to, more or less, set my own schedule to complete some other projects I have on the horizon. I am not proud of this decision and have regretted it in the days since, especially now that I am writing syllabi for the first time in almost two years. (Read: I am doing a lot of work before I’ve even received a paycheck because of the “intrinsic value” of shaping young minds.)

But I only signed on for this one upcoming semester. I plan to still temp on the days when I am not teaching and during school holidays. And I will keep my eyes open for more regular employment. I plan, in other words, to do everything. At least until December. I figure that the life of an itinerant worker means I can’t really plan for the future. I can’t see around the corner. I can only see what comes next.

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Is Adjuncting Better Than Temping While Looking For A Real Job?

This week I am temping again at The Skyscraper Office. It’s not that they like me; it’s that I’m the temp they know.

This is the place where every person who steps off the elevator and sees the view for the first time has a mental breakdown. It’s funny because most people cannot enjoy the view in mute stupefaction, as you might expect. They start oohhhing and ahhhing and taking photos with their stupid Smartphone like tourists and say, “isn’t that magnificent!?” It’s not a rhetorical question. They require confirmation. That is why, for those of us sitting in the reception area, a primary function of the job is pretending like we still give a shit about the view.

Here are some things that happened on the same day (or maybe on consecutive days, who can tell?) which will provide some information about my mental state as well as help explain why, in my next post, I need to address, rather urgently, the question: why did I quit teaching again?


The other day it was discovered by the Chef (yes, they have a Chef at the Skyscraper Office) that one of the VIPs would be eating two meals on site. (This usually doesn’t happen.) That day, the only protein the Chef had on hand was chicken. So – the horror! – the VIP would be served chicken twice in one day.

This was a terrible problem for the Chef and his staff. Urgent calls were made. Curses were uttered. There was simply nothing to be done: Mr. VIP would have to eat chicken twice in a single 24-hour period. Would heads roll? Would the Chef be fired? Would the world, in fact, end? We all hoped for the best outcome.

The day’s strangeness did not end there.


That afternoon, word went around the office that there had been a suicide at a building around the corner. Some poor soul had jumped from a $1,000/night hotel balcony (21 stories up) and landed on a parked SUV. It was awful.

The same guy who had to eat chicken twice that day (and whose opinion of the Chef’s blunder was still unknown) had never spoken a word to me before. Yet, on his way out the door, he said to me grimly, “Don’t walk by the [blah blah] Hotel on your way home.”

There you have it: The VIP of Chicken does not want the receptionist/temp to accidentally see the suicide thing happening around the corner on her way home. Isn’t that nice/weird?

What do these events have to do with each other, you ask? I have no idea, but surely it’s something. That, or I’ve become one of those crazed paranoids who thinks everything is connected, because of the CIA or the space aliens.


Further evidence of my growing insanity: There is another temp who sits next to me at Skyscraper. (They are having a hard time keeping full-time receptionists from quitting in disgust, it seems.) At one point, she and I became so loopy from the boredom of the job coupled with the terror of doing anything wrong (or maybe it was just the altitude) that we fell into a fit of uncontrollable laughter at the sight of an incorrectly placed question mark on an email we were about to send. It totally changed the meaning of the sentence, as question marks tend to do! And that was just so hysterical!

It’s a good thing no one walked into the office at that moment, because we could not have stopped almost peeing our pants for anyone, even the CEO.


That night, I arrived home and discovered that another smart, thoughtful person had commented on this post. Djuna has basically called me out, and for that I am grateful:

“I’m just a bit confused about the decision to temp at actual corporations instead [of teaching] which seems like even more demeaning work in a far less stimulating environment. I understand that you’re looking for a more promising permanent job while temping but why not do that while teaching?”

Ha ha, yeah, so there’s that. What am I doing anyway? I will attempt to write a response in my next post and, perhaps, by doing so, I can figure it out and reclaim a bit of mental clarity in the process.

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What Working For An Hourly Wage Has Wrought

Before I was a glamorous temp, I was an adjunct or worked some academic “fellowship”-type jobs. I signed up for direct deposit and every couple of weeks some money would show up in my bank account and it was enough to pay rent and buy my favorite food of tacos. It was never a lot of money, but somehow I didn’t perceive it as an hourly wage, which is weird because I could easily have done the math and figured out what I was pulling in per hour.

Actually, maybe I couldn’t have figured it out that easily because, what counts as “teaching” anyway? Is emailing students part of the work of illuminating young minds? What about when you’re standing in a museum looking at a pretty painting and  – ding ding ding! – you get an idea for something to do in class? Is that a teaching duty that should be added into the hourly calculation? Probably. But no one actually does the math on stuff like that.

The point is that when I was just getting some money for things that I did, even though I never had a lot and was always running out at the end of the pay cycle, I never thought about what I was earning per hour. I did some stuff and I got money for it, that it.

How things change! I have a whole new perspective now that my worth as a working person/human being has been precisely calculated on an hourly scale by a barely-visible, all-powerful organization called “the temp agency.

My psychology has responded accordingly. I have gotten into the habit of calculating just how much of my time on Earth all my expenses are actually costing me at the average rate of $15/hour.  Here are some recent examples.

Ice Coffee. This is an expense that is hard to escape in NYC because these frosty drinks are as ubiquitous as fedoras in hipster Brooklyn, and it is so god damn hot in the summer. When you see someone walking down the street with a milky ice coffee on a humid day, you have to get one too. Cost: $2.50 – Amount of time I have to work to pay for it: 10 minutes.

Lunchtime Sandwich. Here things start to get tricky because I have been eating my lunchtime sandwich from the corner deli during my unpaid lunch break from the temp job. That means that not only am I not earning my hourly during that time, I am spending money on food-fuel so that I may return to the site of labor and work some more. This presents a unique problem for the Math-challenged English major. Does the sandwich (which costs around $8 in Manhattan) actually cost more than $8 because I am not getting paid to eat it? In other words, what is an equation that would allow me to calculate the exact cost of the sandwich in actual labor time considering that I paid to eat it while not getting paid (to eat it)?

I confess it is a conundrum for the newly initiated.

Shoes For Work. I have reluctantly purchased a few items of clothing to wear to various office gigs. (Though one is expected to work for a low wage, one is not expected to dress like it.) Last month, I had to buy a $30 pair of shoes (at a discount store, obviously). I had to work 2 hours to pay for those shoes.

Yet, in a way, the shoes and the sandwich present a similar problem.

I had to work to pay for the shoes according to a scale of labor time measured in dollars. Yet, if I didn’t buy the shoes, I wouldn’t be presentable for work. So because I had to buy the shoes in order to work and then I had to work for 2 hours to pay for the shoes, are the shoes worth more or less than what I paid for them? I think what I’m asking is, What are shoes needed to work to pay for the shoes actually worth?

Do you see how the difficulties pile up? I have realized that it is not just a matter of how much I earn versus how much I spend. There is some cosmic shit going on! To wit:

Faxing My Timesheet. Every week I have to fax my timesheet to the temp agency so I can get the money they owe me (which is a percentage of the much larger amount that the employer paid them). If I work on the day the timesheet is due, I cannot get home in time to fax it, so I have to fax it from a business that charges me $1.50 for the service. That means I have to work 6 minutes to pay for the fax that I must send to prove that I worked. If I don’t send the fax, I will not get paid. But if I don’t work, then I don’t need to send the fax, so in that case it doesn’t cost me 6 minutes of labor time.

((Head Spinning))

Finally, these hourly calculations are altering my behavior in ways that I previously thought impossible.

Alcohol. I enjoy a nice cold glass of vodka or two at the end of the work day. Sometimes it has some juice in it or a little lemon peel is quite nice, but I am not particular.

The other day I was standing in the liquor store preparing to make my vodka selection, something I have done a million times before, on autopilot. This time, in response to my new found penchant for performing complex mathematical calculations in my head, I examined the prices more closely. The bottle I usually get is $35. That means I would have to temp more than 2 hours to pay for it.

I paused and considered the options.

I changed brands. I purchased a $30 bottle, saving myself something like 12 minutes of labor time (you fancy math people will have to correct me on the numbers which I know are wrong).

But the thing is, if I wasn’t working a miserable temp job, I wouldn’t drink as much vodka, probably. So then I could get the good stuff and just drink less of it. But I couldn’t afford the good stuff if I wasn’t working, even though the fact that I am working has increased my consciousness of wage slavery, which has prompted me to both drink more and to purchase the less expensive bottle.

Of course, I could forgo the juice or lemon peel to save money, but – come on now – I am not a savage.

So, as you can see, my attempt to figure out how much things actually cost and how much my life is worth (which, it turns out, is the same as figuring out how many ice coffees I can afford in a month) is very difficult indeed for the hourly temp.

Instead of thinking about it, I will make my vodka drink and watch some Dressage.



*Of course, I worked for an hourly wage for years before entering the grad school precarious employment mill, but it’s easy to forget, especially when you think you’ve left those days behind now that you’ve been accepted into the Grad School University. After all, one has no problem accepting low wages for an apprenticeship on the road to academic bliss.

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Aging and Humiliation

I am typing this from my latest temp gig.  I am working for a non-profit organization. The office is white and quiet, except for the tapping of keyboards. There’s a fruit bowl and a roof deck, but no one goes out there.

I can have all the espresso I want.

Working for a non-profit is not exactly the right phrase, though. Honest to God I am being paid (a few bucks an hour, granted) to do a job that a monkey could do. No joke: a semi-trained circus animal could absolutely do what I have been asked to do in half the time I am being given to do it.  It requires knowing little more than how to Google stuff and operate the copy/paste function on the computer keyboard.

Someone went on vacation and so I was hired to do this thing, which that person could have done on a Smartphone during their 30-minute subway ride downtown before hitting the beach.

I am confused but trying not to overthink it.

In the time that I am not/working, I have managed to complete a post for my other blog, write various communiqués to the people I am plotting world domination with, and go on an (unpaid) lunch break, during which time I’m pretty sure none of the 20-somethings who “work” here even looked up from their shiny Macbooks long enough to know I was gone.

That’s what is getting to me this week, as I continue to come to terms with the fact that I spent ten years preparing for a career that no longer exists and that I do not want.

I am old.

Well, not that old. I haven’t gone gray yet. My knee only aches once in a while. I do not watch JAG. As of today, I am not using Depends.

But when I first arrived here at The Non-Profit, I noticed that all the employees are in their 20s. Early 20s. I think they’re all fresh out of college, and this is their first job before they go off and actually make money, or get bored enough to quit and go to law school like their parents want.

In fact, the worst part about it is that my supervisor, the one who explained the monkey’s job to me, is around 22-years old. She looks about 15 though.

I keep thinking: how did I get to the point where I am being bossed around by a mere child?

It’s probably awkward for The Boss too. She’s probably asking herself, “why is this old person still temping?” Perhaps, if she is the wistful type, she might even wonder, “What happened in her life that brought [post-academic in nyc] to this point?” Then, after deciding that she can’t possibly answer that question (because the lives of others are unknowable or something like that), I imagine that The Boss simply made an object lesson out of me. “I shall never end up like her,” she promised herself.

Yes, it probably happened just like that.

I would not want to go back to my 20s, even if I could. Gross. One cannot help getting older. Just as one cannot help traveling in a boat pulled ceaselessly back into the past, or some Great Gatsby shit like that.

Recently, my old boss from The College Where I Used to Adjunct emailed me and asked me to come back and teach there this upcoming semester. It would be delightful to have me, she said. They have a pair of classes with my name on them. One is a course in my field for majors.

Am I interested? She would really like to know.

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Impertinent Questions

I am working on a longer post about temping at The Skyscraper Office. It is an epic tale of anger and sadness with global implications! I am completely serious.

In the meantime, I am compelled to write about a conversation I had with one of the other secretaries/receptionists about graduate school. I have been pondering it for a couple of days.

(Incidentally, I have met some interesting people while temping. I am utterly fascinated by the brief glimpses I get into their lives. I want to write a book about each of them. I kind of love them all, a little bit.)

Emily is 25 years old and has been working at The Skyscraper Office for less than a year.  She is smart, kind, and ambitious. But she hates her job (all the low-level people do), and is desperate to leave. “If I could just get a position making ten dollars per hour in a non-profit,” she sighed, “I would quit in a second.”

Of course, there are not many jobs for ten dollars or any other wage in non-profits these days. Emily, a woman with working-class roots, has little choice but to stay in the corporate world for now. What else can she do?

Of course, she is doing something to get out of an unhappy situation: applying to grad schools! She is enthusiastic about earning an M.A. in a social science field. She hopes it will open new doors for her.

This is a dilemma that many people face in their 20s. A few years out of college and they’re staring down the barrel of unfulfilling careers in industries that appall or bore them. In some cases, they earn little more than they could have made without college degrees.

Grad school seems like a good/the only option.

I did not warn Emily away from grad school when she announced her plans because it is not my place to do so. She is planning to enter a field that I don’t know much about. Perhaps there are jobs galore. I don’t want to be a total buzzkill, after all.

Later, the subject of grad school came up again. Emily and I were talking about office politics and gender. I said, “Do you ever wonder why all the assistants and support staff are women and 90% of the hotshot executives are men?”

Of course, Emily had already considered this reality and was quite upset about it. She said that her main concern is that all the women assistants sit in open cubicles in the middle of the room where they have no privacy. But all the penises get private offices along the windows (where they have that gloriously unobstructed view of the city). Emily said she suspects the office is organized this way because the lower-level people are not presumed to need any privacy. They’re just drones.

I agreed but added another possibility. “The bosses are afraid of what the assistants might say to each other,” I suggested, “if they could talk in private.”

Emily’s eyes widened. She was really into this idea. “I would like to know more about office architecture,” she said wistfully, like it was a crazy dream.

A switch got flipped in my brain. I was on autopilot. “Emily,” I said, “people go to grad school to study this stuff. If you choose the right field, you could write a thesis about this office, the seating arrangements, the gender relations, and what all of it means or doesn’t mean.”

We both talked excitedly about this prospect and discussed different ways the study could be conducted and what some of the implications might be. Then the phone rang or the boss needed a coffee brought to him on a (literal) silver platter, and we both had to go back to work.

Later, I recalled this conversation with some horror. When Emily told me about her thinking, and about the way she was framing her questions about gender in terms of ‘office architecture,’ the only thing I could think to do was encourage her to follow her interests in grad school!

Jesus Christ, what was I thinking?

I’m not saying she shouldn’t go to grad school. It’s not my place to say. There are blogs for that. Still. As the older, more experienced woman, why didn’t I tell Emily to take her Deep Thoughts to…..??

See, that’s the problem. Maybe there are other things Emily could do. But what?

Grad school is such a weird place, which perhaps accounts for the contradiction between my own experience and my advice to Emily. Even if you are thinking about questions of the world in grad school, you are not in the world.  Though grad school rarely provides the kind of  Ivory Tower existence that many presume, student status still grants one a temporary reprieve from gritty reality. This is why working as a TA or an adjunct is appealing for a while (and why some hang on to those jobs far too long). Though part-time college teaching is a (low wage) job, it also feels like a training period, a kind of limbo where you get to think about things that may matter eventually but don’t right now. Graduate school is a kind of living theory, a place where you get to inhabit generalities towards some specific, ill-defined end.

That is why the end of the PhD ­– with no job on the horizon ­– is traumatic for many. All of a sudden, you’re not pretending to be an apprentice member of the intelligentsia anymore. You’re just an office temp with a PhD and a monthly student debt payment. Theory must eventually give way to that gnawing sense (which was probably in the background all along) that this was fun while it lasted, but now what?

I’m not saying that most grad students pursue higher degrees to escape real life. They want to contribute something along the way. But what is that something? Is it any less important to ask that question now that we’re out of the game? There are parallels with activist work, which I also have some experience with. Many activists want to produce thinking and don’t want to dirty themselves with the way that thinking may or may not have some impact on people who are not them.

Where else might one ask critical questions these days and still prepare for some kind of career not in academia? I guess what I’m saying is that grad school is a good place for making inquiries, which is why I proposed it to Emily. But if the post-academic experience has taught me anything, it’s that merely being able to ask impertinent questions, satisfying as it may be, is not enough. One has to take those questions a step further (or is it actually a step back?) For example, say Emily enrolled in grad school and carried out her research. Would it be likely to have any effect on The Skyscraper Office? On any office? On any woman anywhere?

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