adjuncts · affect · careers · guest post · inconvenience · Uncategorized

Guest post: Reflections on Adjunct Labor, Feminism, and other Inconvenient Truths

This post is by Virginia Konchan.

I’m an American citizen with Canadian permanent residence since 2014. I moved to Halifax from Montreal in December 2019, and while I am not teaching this semester (I was formerly teaching part-time at Concordia University), I have been corresponding frequently with several former students I had in various literature and creative writing courses over the years, in the US and Canada.  One is moored on a writing residency in Finland, working on his novel; another, a gifted poet, is quarantined in Boston, doing marketing and PR remotely for a health insurance company:  her days are consumed by new policy changes, telemedicine, and Zoom meetings about how to offer emergency resources to customers struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.  And a third, also a poet with tremendous talent, is teaching a full-time academic course load at a college in Washington State as an adjunct professor; yet several others are in graduate school, working toward degrees in poetry, literature, and the humanities.

My former student who is adjuncting and I have recently been sharing adjunct war stories and new poems.  Her experience of adjunct life was so painfully reminiscent of my own life as an adjunct in the States, and as a sessional instructor in Canada, that it made me cry. I cried out of deep sympathy for her plight, and those of all academics with precarious, non-tenured positions.  And to add to that endless, non-remunerative academic labor, the isolation and loneliness of quarantine.  And to that, the fact that her hundred or more students that she is now conferencing with through Zoom (while dealing with system crashes and delays) don’t understand the difference between her academic rank and that of tenured professors, and thus impatiently expect her prompt email responses, thorough feedback, and emotional support.  While the adjunct crisis remains a culturally ubiquitous topic to the point of redundancy, it may bear repeating, especially now in our global and financial meltdown, if only with the hope of underscoring just how broken and dehumanizing our capitalist-driven institutions of higher education are, particularly after the waves of privatization, corporatization, and the latest statistics on academic contingent labor (non-tenure-track positions of all types now account for over 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments in American higher education:  the Canadian figures are better, but not by much).

So, while just one more voice to the chorus, I know my former student’s Sisyphean deadlock situation well because I’ve only ever had itinerant stints in academia myself, despite having been on the North American job market for over five years, with a PhD and three published books, searching for a tenure-track professorship or even full-time appointment, as a lecturer.  I know what it feels like to feel completely expendable, to rely desperately, without any governmental or family safety net, on that $20k/year salary, only to have your course load slashed or reduced to zero the following semester with no notice, and to always wonder what other colleagues are discussing in faculty meetings, where adjuncts aren’t allowed.  To duck my head in the hallway or at the copier in embarrassment to avoid making eye contact with other, more important faculty, and lastly, to try, with a kind of fruitless passion known only to other supplicants, to rise to the challenge every day, greet students with a smile, field their queries, and prolong my “office” hours (at most of the universities where I worked, I shared a makeshift cubicle space with dozens of other adjuncts, a constant influx of students and faculty making a quiet conversation impossible), despite the fact that by semester’s end, an adjunct’s intellectual and emotional reserves are beyond spent:  sometimes irrevocably so.

I realize this mental, emotional, and spiritual depletion I am describing is not unique to adjuncts, yet it’s worth noting that the last few posts on Hook & Eye have been by only one tenured professor, and the rest by students (one other by an adjunct and alt-ac laborer).  Yet all these posts suggest, regardless of the writers’ academic positions, that academe, perhaps globally, is undergoing a structural crisis revealing how, in the words of Hannah McGregor, our care is “being leveraged to ensure that the university maintains its institutional and imaginative force in the midst of this crisis, rather than being exposed as a site of neoliberal profiteering,” and wherein, as Brenna Clarke Gray puts it, paraphrasing Samuel Beckett:  “I am trapped between an intellectual awareness of my own exploitation (I can’t go on) and an emotional need to enact care on behalf of those who are owed it from an institution that cannot pay its debts (I’ll go on).”

I can only speak on behalf of my own last 13 years in academe, as a student, graduate student instructor, and adjunct, but it seems both that the crisis of which others are speaking, and which I myself have always felt in the low rungs of the ladder I occupied, is both particular, and universal, and a pressure felt uniquely by women in academia, regardless of their position or rank.  I have routinely seen, in the various Ivory Towers where I studied or worked, female faculty members shoulder greater administrative burdens than their male faculty counterparts; take on a lion’s share of the emotional labor and care work that is part of what can make teaching so rewarding, at least in theory; and suffer greater consequences as a result.

My female colleagues in the States and Canada have shared horror stories with me (I, too, relate) ranging from a variety of stress-induced conditions (sudden hair loss, rashes, insomnia, OCD) to alarming situations where Title IX complaints they filed against male coworkers poisoning the department with sexual harassment and veiled threats were either dismissed or not supported by HR and other faculty members, regardless of gender.

At this point in the history of neoliberal academy, and given the crushing immediacy of the pandemic, might our current broken moment of systems collapse provide a uniquely valuable time to evaluate these forms of brokenness, and seek a way forward: collectively and personally, intellectually and somatically?  It seems less and less relevant (especially now, when questions not just of safety and survival, but situated value of academic labor and publishing loom large), what buzzwords we use to describe these various forms of exploitation: invisible or shadow labor, ghost work, zombie capitalism.  The ugly facts remain that while articles appear regularly (scholarly and in pop culture) on the adjunct crisis (referred to by poet and professor Catherine Wagner as a “sharecropper estate” in her 2010 essay “I Am a Poet and I Have”in the Poetic Labor Project, a term usefully reworked into David Perry’s 2014 essay in Chronicle Vitae, “Sharecroppers.  Migrant Workers.  Adjuncts?”),every single agent who is imbricated in the system, from students paying $100k/year in tuition, on loans, to university presidents, seem helpless to stop the bleeding, or stop the system in its tracks.

We live in a globalized, and increasingly automated and roboticized world, where all human labor, academic and otherwise, is constantly threatened to be “phased out” by machines (I personally cannot stand the term “labor-saving device,” as that labor is usually not “saved,” it’s simply transferred onto a more flexible worker, willing to work for less and under more hazardous conditions, until everything is mechanized).  And yes, there are marked differences between the structure of higher education in American and Canada:  for example, I was paid nearly triple as an adjunct at Concordia than what I made per class in the US (it differs radically in Canada by province:  in Atlantic Canada the pay is similar to the lower end of the US scale),though was only granted one course per semester because of part-time union restrictions, and thus my annual salary was even less.  But whether late capitalist or quasi-socialist, the imperatives of higher ed remain the same:  publish or perish; don’t complain; and follow the relentless pursuit of industry, efficiency, speed, and utility until you die, or until we face a global pandemic, as we are now, trying to imagine a path forward from this institutional calamity.

Lately, I find myself thinking in particular about affectual relations, and moments of bonding or connection that supersede Sianne Ngai’s concept of spectacle-induced “stumplimity,” particularly in speaking to my professor friends who share stories with me of their students’ plights, efforts to complete coursework, and moments of wisdom, hilarity, and poignancy online (my cousin’s entire class failed to show to a schedule Zoom conference last week, and the one student in attendance wouldn’t speak a word, instead merely staring at her while she peppered him with questions for as long as both could bear it; another friend cites “actual fear, working with/for parents, taking care of others, not caring whatsoever, knowing their grade cannot go down, being actually ill, not having access to school, bouncing around from home to home, and sheer ennui”) as reasons for her students’ lackluster attendance on Google Classroom.

I have also been re-reading Naomi Klein’s excellent book The Shock Doctrine(2007), recently, as, along with stumplimity, and outbursts of compassion, fear, uncertainty, and joy, I think our current moment is, affectually speaking, marked by the aftermath of shock (Klein speaks of it in reference to psychiatric shock therapy and the use of “shock and awe” as war tactics in the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq), as we begin to realize anew just how deeply embedded our psyches and even central nervous systems are by the 24/7 news cycle, our vicarious experience of tragedy, and the various forms of cultural mediation through which we experience the world, including social media self-curation, which tends to set our consciousness and being apart from the representations of ourselves we are presenting.  For me, over time, these processes have resulted in what Freudian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich refers to as “character and body armoring”:  learned coping mechanisms of obedience and thralldom that obstruct a more expansive, energetic, spontaneous interaction with ourselves, our world, and our here and now.

To say nothing of sensitivity to our or another’s pain:  last week, for example, with my to-do list far outpacing my now-scattered attention span, and my emotionally-deregulated sensibility causing me anxiety, I instead chose to maniacally clean my house from top to bottom for 8 hours:  the furor of my labors even scared my cat. At the end of the day I sat down and looked at my hands:  they were badly cracked and bleeding from the scrubbing and harsh chemicals, but I largely felt indifference toward my own injuries and the trauma-fueled nature of my frenetic cleaning spree, as they were self-imposed.  They didn’t even feel like my own hands.

Is this the nuclear fallout of what we all came to academia seeking:  a life of the mind?

British writer and journalist Laurie Penny, author of several books including Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism, and Bitch Doctrine:  Essays for Dissenting Adults, in her recent Wiredarticle “This is Not the Apocalypse You Were Looking For,”writes with great clarity about the awful truth that the most vulnerable among us, whose lives are sacrificed during the pandemic, are not the monied, insured, and protected:  they are the healers and carers, the nurses, doctors, cleaners, and drivers, those “whose work is rarely paid in proportion to its importance.”

Capitalism, writes Penny (who has also written cogently on related topics of self-optimization, and panic, pandemic, and the body politic, for Wired) “cannot imagine a future beyond itself that isn’t utter butchery,” and that is why, over the last two months, “There has been no vision, because these men never imagined the future beyond the image of themselves on top of the human heap, cast in gold.”  Personally, I don’t want to live in a world where the talking heads of global capital suggest that “a certain amount of brutal death is a reasonable price for other people to pay to protect the current financial system,” yet that is the world I was born into and now inhabit.  But the pandemic cannot be—imagine that!—solved by state-sponsored eugenics, violence, militarism, or any other handy tricks of capitalism to erase the fearful other.

So where does that leave us?

In a similar “desert of the real” that the other writers on this blog have described, and yet, to quote Penny one last time, “The end of the world has never been quite so simple a mythos for women, likely because most of us know that when social structures crack and shatter, what happens isn’t an instant reversion to muscular state-of-naturism. What happens is that women and carers of all genders quietly exhaust themselves filling in the gaps, trying to save as many people as possible from physical and mental collapse . . . emotional and domestic labor have never been part of the grand story men have told themselves about the destiny of the species—not even when they imagine its grave.”

I’m not a necromancer of any kind, even with regard to capitalism’s malaise, but this statement brings me a measure of peace because it’s not in direct opposition to my body’s own intelligence, my mind’s own form of logic, and my multifaceted emotional life, the way capitalism so often is.

So while I myself am not in any position to offer a critique or way forward, necessarily, at this juncture, any solace I’ve found over the last month has been born of this:  the knowledge that, to quote Hamlet, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is no quick fix, nor one-size-fits-all solution:  no one really knows.  But there is, perhaps more now than ever, a growing awareness of a natural order of things in the natural world, and while not a model (ideological, aesthetic, economic) one can seek to follow in a societal sense, perhaps that’s what makes the small inroads we are all making day by day, from within a revisited ethics of care and solidarity, the best (albeit anti-theoretical), position of all.

VK author photo sushi
Author of two poetry collections, Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon, 2018 and 2020); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as coeditor (with Sarah Giragosian) of Marbles on the Floor:  How to Assemble a Book of Poems(University of Akron Press, 2022), Virginia Konchan lives in Halifax.
classrooms · inconvenience · teaching · Uncategorized

Classroom design and architectural determinism

You can learn a lot about an institution from its classrooms. The politics, values, and pinch-points inadvertently reveal themselves in infrastructure, I find.

In general, the classrooms I teach in attempt to squeeze too many students into a space designed for fewer of them. That’s problem number 1. One of our alumni, who took his degree in the 1970s when our building was new, remembers all of his classes having between 8 and 15 students (some of them smoking!) in classrooms that now have tables and chairs for 18-25. If someone at the back needs to get up, pretty much everyone else has to stand up and move out of the way.

Problem number 2 is that when these rooms are “redesigned” or “refurbished” the after condition is often worse than the before. The brown brick classrooms in my building, with chalkboards and pull-down screens and projectors bolted into the ceiling have now all been repainted retinal-burn white, have whiteboards that are actually wall paint and can only bear one brand of marker and be wiped only with a special rag (most classrooms have neither rag nor markers available) and instead of a screen there’s a giant wall mounted TV the people keep hitting their heads on. The instructor console is bolted to the wall now, so you have to turn your back on the class and stand up and lean in to use it. I hit people with my butt a lot this way.

The upward pressure on class sizes is visible here, as is the trend to one-size-fits all, vendor-led classroom design. There was a time when we taught classes of 12 students, and this time haunts us in the rooms we’re left with: too small for what we’re trying to do now, the awkwardness and discomfort of the new arrangements physically felt by everyone.

The bureacratization, managerialism, and business-ing of higher education is manifest in classroom redesigns that very, very clearly took no input at all from either students or teachers: I imagine it was all vendors, IT people, plant operations, and budget staff who did this. The rooms are literally unusable. So in one room I have to hit students with my butt to show some powerpoints and half of them have to move seats in order to see it. In the other room I’m teaching in right now, where there’s never any markers and no cloth, the classroom clock is hung in the middle of the painted-white-board wall that is most often obscured by the pull down screen. The students are seated stadium style (there are only 25 of them) and the rows are too close together, or too close to the wall, for me to walk past them without touching some part of my torso against the backs of their heads. No.

Yeah. I “erased” this as hard as I could.

It’s depressing.

In my ideal classroom the seating is flexible, so we can move it if we have to. I need the seating spaced enough that I can easily walk around the room. At the very least I should be able to walk to some vantage point where I can see their laptop screens. Crowded classrooms with inflexible media arrangements enforce a separation of the front of the room from the rest of it, a separation I feel keenly when I can’t even manoeuvre my way to my students to answer a group-work question, or hand back a marked paper. I can’t walk around during writing time to see what people’s screens are showing. This classroom turns it into me and them, not us. I hate that.

In my ideal classroom the technology serves teaching and learning, rather than serving as the kind of sun around which we must all orbit. Most of the projectors, for example, cover the whiteboard area, and can’t be ‘muted’–which means if the projector is on, it stays on and you can’t use the board. If you turn it off, it goes through its whole routine, and then again if you want to turn it back on. Flexible, it ain’t.

There are always tradeoffs in any situation, I understand. But as I watch all the rooms around me get retrofitted to be somehow uglier, more crowded, and even less usable than before, I fear we show a different set of values as an institution, a kind of carelessness or committee-think that has forgotten that classrooms are for students, and they are for teachers, to work together, to build something magic. All the phone calls because the TV is not working, or not being able to use the paintboard because someone else used the wrong marker, or shouting across the room at people because you just can’t get to where they are? That’s not it.

What does your ideal classroom look like?

academic work · accomodation · commute · family · free time · inconvenience · kid stuff · open letter · parenting

4:30 is the worst time in the world

Dear Academic Scheduling Powers That Be,

It has come to my attention that you continue to schedule visiting speakers, and assorted other events where I have to sit down and take notes, at 4:30 in the afternoon, usually for 90 minutes.

This must stop.

You see, 4:30 is the worst time in the world. There are a number of reasons I can imagine that this time slot appeals to you; however, as I hope to convince you, these are outweighed by several more compelling reasons why this is absolutely the worst time in the world.

I know you think that 4:30 is kind of the Luxembourg of time slots. It aims to offend no one, and split the differences in the most innocuous way possible. I can almost hear you puzzling it out! Most people are mostly done teaching at 4:30. Administrative meetings, too, don’t tend to be scheduled to run to the bitter end of the standard workday. 4:30 seems innocuous research-wise, as well: who is still writing at that time? They’ve had a full day to live the life of the mind already. I know that it seems like 4:30 forestalls all those faculty objections of too-busy, I’m teaching, it’s a research day, I have lots of meetings that seem to diminish attendance to embarrassing levels. Surely loads more people will be able to attend a talk if we stuff in a time slot that’s mostly taken up by commuting and staring bleakly into space!

But. Consider: with this 4:30 time slot, are you not, effectively, suggesting that attending this rigorous and demanding research talk is not part of the work day? And thus not part of work? Is this a discretionary, fun activity? Like a cocktail party that would traditionally substantially overlap the time period in question? The French call these “cinq à sept”, because this kind of party runs from five until seven–note carefully, please, that there is booze and nibbles generally served at this time, which is never the case at these talks you’re scheduling at 4:30.

I think attending research talks is part of my job. Your scheduling thus confuses me on this front. Do I do a full day of teaching and research and meetings and then this too? Or am I doing this instead of something else? Is it part of the work day, or not? You know, I’m here in my office most days by 9:15, and I stay until 4:45 or 5, having eaten lunch at my desk while reading or grading. By 4:45, I’m kind of not really smart enough to take in a lecture. I need booze, and nibbles, and possibly to put on track pants. If I’m being perfectly honest, 4:30 in the afternoon is an absolute ebb, energy-wise, mood-wise, and metabolism-wise for me: I am tired, and crabby, and hungry then, you know, from going full tilt on the life of the mind for a full day by that point already.

Also, I really didn’t want to mention it, but you might not be aware that most daycares close at 5:30 or 6 o’clock. Maybe I could pick up my daughter early, like at 4? Then bring her to the talk with me? If only there were juice and nibbles, it might be possible! And if my husband goes to pick her up, I have no way to get home: we commute together. And if I take the bus home, leaving here at 6, if the talk ends on time, which it never does, I’m not there until 6:45, and who’s going to make supper and do homework in French with my kid, or get groceries or have time to go for a run or walk the dog or do my yoga homework before bed? I know it’s unseemly to have a personal life, but it is nevertheless the case that we must, as a family eat, and sometimes my husband likes to go to the gym, and I like to attend yoga classes, and we would all like to meet these basic needs and still be able to get to bed before midnight.

I’m sorry to be so troublesome about this, I really am–I know you’ve probably also heard loads from my colleagues who drive in from great distances to be here during the work day and would prefer not to spend the rest of their night in traffic, or to have to stay in a hotel. It’s just that I don’t want your feelings to be hurt when the same pitifully small number of people show up for the 4:30 talk as showed up for the 2:30 talk.

In conclusion, then, I ask you: is attending this talk work or not? If it is, please schedule it during the workday. Also, 4:30 is the worst time in the world.

Sincerely yours,

canada · equity · inconvenience

On Inconvenience

I was in Kingston for the day yesterday, giving a talk to grad students, staff, and faculty about how grad students can be strategic in the choices they make during grad school to optimize their flexibility post-degree. More on that later, since the gender issue became present in ways I hadn’t expected. But ever before I got to Kingston at all, I got held up at Union Station in Toronto, where I was supposed to be catching a train. On arriving at the station, late and a bit flustered, I was dismayed to find that no trains were running, and we were being put on buses instead. Ugh. Why the buses, it took awhile to find out. In the meantime, I stood I line, the time getting later and later, no sense of when we might leave, worried about missing my talk and the meetings I had scheduled before, and listening to people in line huffing and sighing and swearing. And then we found out that the tracks had been blockaded by First Nations people* near Nappanee who were protesting the refusal of the federal government to stage a full inquiry into the disappearance of Aboriginal women.

I emailed the folks expecting me that I might not make it, and calmed right down. Injustice trumps inconvenience any day.

But still. Via had known about the blockade quite awhile, and yet we had been waiting for a bus for most of the morning. Employees were defensive when people inquired about a timeline for departure. Many of my fellow passengers were, despite knowing about the reason for the blockade, still extremely annoyed. And when we went to finally board the bus–just in time for me to make it to Queen’s for my talk–reporters were on hand to ask us how we felt about the delay. They didn’t mention the blockade, or the reason for it, at all. Instead, they wanted to focus on the irritation and inconvenience to a bunch of largely privileged, largely white, people. My annoyance, indeed my anger, grew again.

And then we got into the Don Valley Parkway and learned that the buses had been delayed because someone had jumped off the Bloor Viaduct, despite the city’s efforts to make it physically impossible, efforts not accompanied by an increase in accessible and affordable mental health services. By this point, I was annoyed at myself for being annoyed. Injustice trumps inconvenience any day.

I made it to Queen’s just fine. The talk was great, and my meetings were rescheduled for after instead of before. I had the privilege of being paid to talk to people about a topic I care passionately about, of having bosses that allow me to do these kinds of trips, of having the kind of institutional and personal authority that means people invite me to talk, and listen when I do. I didn’t have to worry about affording the trip, or being discriminated against while I was on it, or mysteriously not coming home and having the government not care where I’d gone.  All I had to do was sit on a bus when I would have preferred to be on a train, to stand in line for longer than I might have liked. And to think about the reasons for the blockade, the very good reasons, and the extremes to which First Nations people feel the need to go to get the attention of the rest of Canada about something that is so very, so deeply, so terribly wrong. They’ve recognized that inconvenience can be a route to awareness and to justice, if people can look beyond their own privilege, and that the inconvenience of having to stage an inquiry is an injustice that the government has no chance of justifying. I just hope that their efforts have some effect, that injustice starts to trumps inconvenience in the minds of Canadians, and in our government, one day. Any day. And that I can figure out what I can best do to help.

*This isn’t the best link, but it’s nearly impossible to find a news source that emphasizes the reasons for the blockade over passenger frustration.