A Cry for Help?!
Martyr me! Martyr me!
Put me on a cross!
Send me to the trailer park (The English Village*),
Put me in an abandoned chem lab!
I’ll work for free!
I’ll read papers ‘til my eyes bleed!
I’ll make the same comments on every paper!
Some will be positive!
I’ll turn papers into data and run them through the scantron machine!
I’ll teach comp online!
Martyr me! Martyr me!
Put me on a cross!
Put me on a cross!
For student learning outcomes,
*The “English Village” is the new name given to a collection of old trailer-classrooms formerly named the “T-buildings:” “T” for temporary. Unlike authentic English villages, like in England, this one does not have a pub.
On this campus, as on many other campuses, new buildings have been going up non-stop for over a decade. As state of the art LEED certified buildings, swank, sexy structures, with water-friendly landscaping, go up for all non-humanities disciplines, the English department gets trailers with faulty cooling systems that cool to a certain temperature, then heat to a certain temperature in a perpetual cycle that never ends. This, even with the best efforts of a hard working, sympathetic dean. In contrast, there’s a new math and science building that’s huge and domineering; there’s a social sciences building that’s real sexy; coming soon are a new student center and bookstore as well as (no kidding) an “Exercise Science” building (a state of the art gym). I’ve been informed, by one who knows, that these last two buildings do not have any classrooms.
It is true that the first new structure was the School of Humanities building; yet, it is also the one with the fewest classrooms that is supposed to house the English department (right, the biggest department on campus, with the greatest need for classrooms) as well as all the other languages and humanities’ disciplines. English classes largely are taught in the English Village trailers (to be fair, these have been made “smart”) as well as abandoned, slated-to-be-demolished chemistry buildings. And other random places. This, to me, signals the adjunctification of the humanities; perhaps especially English as a discipline that is about art rather than the language skills necessary for what novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has called a “life of economic servitude.” English is the most adjunctified of all disciplines. Not only are most introductory and transfer level English courses taught by adjuncts, but they are taught in places that are relics of the 20th century. Or in borrowed spaces of the 21st century.
The abandoned chemistry labs in which we teach English are replete with gas hookups and emergency eye-wash stations; after all, one never knows what one might read in a freshman comp class. Eye wash stations could be useful.
The humanities have been adjunctified. The other day I overheard a tenured business professor (!) who was running quizzes through a scantron commenting to an adjunct working in a general workroom space (where else is she going to work?) that soon there would be a program to grade papers and so “they” would not even have to grade papers anymore. And, I suppose, students will no longer have to write them, as they hang out at the swanky student center, doing whatever it is they’ve been instructed to do (not writing).
The faculty mostly has been adjunctified and the humanities have been and are continuing to be diminished in importance. So why are we complicit in the adjunctification of higher education, the institution, the ideal for which we became deeply indebted to serve? It’s been happening for a generation or two; where will it end?
It seems like it will end one day, as has been prophesied by many now for years, as a thing different from what it has been. Rather than an institution that supports the development of knowledge and moral acumen, for most, it will be job training. In this scenario, there is no “higher” education, except, perhaps, for the wealthy elite. And, as much as we might wish it is not happening, we are indeed passively playing our role in the unfolding of the story of the adjunctification of faculty and the diminishment of the humanities.
The cult of martyrdom, the idea of self-sacrifice that seems to pervade the ranks of teachers from all levels of education, facilitates the adjuctification and corporatization, the transmogrification of colleges into corporate diploma mills. Our attitudes of martyrdom doom us to complicity with our undoing. One of the key ways that faculty have been adjunctified so that now roughly 75% are off the tenure-track is the exploitation of our willingness to sacrifice ourselves, to work for free. We feel noble (a psychological wage) that we are engaged in good work (and it is good work, perhaps even “right work” in the Buddhist sense). But this leads to the rationalization that we must sacrifice, that sacrifice is needed because the philistine legislators do not fund us, that sacrifice is needed because students need so much, that sacrifice makes us good people. Ironically, it gives us a sense of fulfillment. When called on to take action to save ourselves, our common rationalization is we don’t have time: “my focus is on my students.” We embrace our cult of martyrdom.
And college administrators exploit our martyr-hood. Adjuncts work without job security or decent pay. Tenure-track work to keep what they have. We all work because we want to do our best for our students and we see no end to the need for our work. We work u until we drop, whether we’re paid for it or not. Who does not grade all the essays in a timely fashion? The fact that we’re so busy staying up all night working to the point of martyrdom kept us and keeps us from resisting, for instance, the inexorable creep of adjunctification.
I’m not suggesting that we do less good work, that we fail to serve students justly. But unless we can come to the realization that our sense of martyrdom, especially the martyrdom of adjuncts, is leaving us open to exploitation by (b)adminsitration that wants to finish the story and corporatize higher education completely, we will become the future corporation of higher education, public or not. Adjuncts will be sacrificed, replaced by massive online courses taught by the few faculty (of some description) left. And students will not be served. Nor will democracy in an age of perpetual media white noise.
The martyr syndrome is not the only cultural narrative that accommodates the exploitation of faculty. The no money lie contributes. So does the tenure is a cushy job for life narrative. And freeway flyers are just plain busy, scrambling for the next meal, trying to survive the crisis. But the cult of the martyr is within us.
How do we exorcise this demon, the cult of the martyr, that is within us?
Update fall 2016:
This fall semester, I was assigned a room in an abandoned physics building (a decent room, relatively speaking), but, in a summertime room boondoggle involving a secretary and a lifeguard, the room was reassigned to the lifeguard instructor, who needed the room for the days when it rains in drought-ridden San Diego and his class can’t meet at the pool. Meanwhile, my class was moved to an adjacent, smaller, and pedagogically unsound room (for composition), without any consultation with the English department assistant chair, who is responsible for room assignment. He is not pleased. What will happen? I don’t know.