Betsy DeVos: Educational Corporatization by Any Means Necessary

With regard to Trump and his educational agenda, there is no clearer symbol of where he wants to go with education than his Secretary of Education pick, Betsy DeVos. Some of you out there have probably received emails from various groups asking you to contact your senators and to tell them to oppose DeVos’s appointment.

But many of you don’t know just how bad a pick she is, or its impact on adjunct/contingent faculty, particularly those who work at public institutions.

First, unlike the students we see in the public system, DeVos was born into tremendous wealth, her father Edgar Prince having been an industrialist who founded the Prince Corporation, an auto parts supplier.  She later married Richard Marvin “Dick” DeVos Jr., heir to the Amway fortune. She herself is the product of private Christian Schools, and has never been a student at a public institution.  Further, she has no direct experience in public education, either as a teacher, administrator, or even a school board trustee. Ironically, in spite of her elite, privileged, and ideologically narrow upbringing , she asserts of her educational activism that she has been “a fighter for the grassroots.”

Her real claim to fame within the Republican Party is that she has been a tireless party advocate, and more importantly, a heavy fundraiser.

As a self-styled educational reformer, DeVos is a champion of school choice, and favors the use of public funds in the form of school vouchers to allow children to attend public school.  Her real motivation for this position is likely driven by her Christian faith.

As for her “success” in achieving educational reform, her record is less that exemplary.  Detroit’s charter school system, for which she was in large part responsible, was, in the words of Douglas Harris, a Brookings Institution Fellow and Founding Director of the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, even acknowledged by educational reformers as “the biggest school reform disaster in the country.” As for her specific actions regarding the Detroit Charter School system, Harris further wrote:

She devised Detroit’s system to run like the Wild West. It’s hardly a surprise that the system, which has almost no oversight, has failed. Schools there can do poorly and still continue to enroll students. Also, after more than a decade of Ms. DeVos’s getting her way on a host of statewide education policies, Michigan has the dubious distinction of being one of five states with declining reading scores.

Perhaps more troubling, especially for those of us in Higher Ed, and particularly adjunct/contingent faculty, is her notion of the US Public Education System as a “dead end,” and, in a thinly-veiled argument for both school choice and the view of  public schooling as “an industry,” stated:

As long as education remains a closed system, we will never see the education equivalents of … Facebook, Amazon . . . Wikipedia, or Uber.

Perhaps then, DeVos feels the US education system should aspire to allowing fake information like Facebook, working its employees to death like Amazon, creating reference material from open and questionable sources like Wikipedia, or reducing the entire educational workforce to independent contractors (that’s right, just like adjunct/contingent faculty) like Uber.

Finally. For those of you who care about academic freedom, consider this, Besty DeVos, in describing her motivation for school reform stated:

Our desire is to be in that Shephelah, and to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways that will continue to help advance God’s Kingdom, but not to stay in our own faith territory.

I suppose some could find comfort in the words “outside our own faith territory” except when thinking of what she has said further in this regard:

It goes back to what I mentioned, the concept of really being active in the Shephelah of our culture — to impact our culture in ways that are not the traditional funding the-  Christian-organization route, but that really may have greater Kingdom gain in the long run by changing the way we approach things — in this case, the system of education in the country

Shephelah, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a plot of land the Israelites fought over with the Philistines, and the desire to have the land was that he/she who controlled it, would in turn control the people.  Another way to think of such thinking is to know it as “Dominionism” which can loosely be defined as the belief that one needs to create a nation governed by Christians based on their interpretation of Biblical Law.

For those Philistines among us, DeVos’s quest for Shephelah should be a cause of grave concern.

As confirmation hearings are soon upon us, it is urgent that you act to oppose the DeVos nomination, that is, if you value Public Education, Worker Rights, and Academic Freedom;  DeVos is clearly a threat to all of the above.

Geoff Johnson

A Good Adjunct

The Narrative of the Martyr in the Age of Adjunctification and the Decline of the Humanities


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!

Restrooms for "English Village"

Restrooms for “The English Village”

Martyr me! Martyr me!

Put me on a cross!

Put me on a cross!

For student learning outcomes,

Martyr me!



The “English Village”

*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.


Sexy New Exercise Science building

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.

Abandoned chem lab/compclassroom

Abandoned Chem Lab/Comp Classroom

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).

Swank New Student Center

Swank New Student Center

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.

Equal Pay for Adjuncts: What is May Day For?

Equal Pay for Equal Work: What is May Day For?

Imagine working at one job for fifteen years and then spending three days filling out an extraordinarily rigorous (read: ponderous and obtuse) application (last time I completed one, I clocked myself at about 60 hours) so that you could have the outside chance of being hired to work the job that you already work. If you win the hiring lottery, you are paid fully; if you lose, you are paid about half or less of what the winners are paid.

Does that sound reasonable? Does it sound like justice?

This is a common scenario for most college faculty, adjuncts who are committed to one (or more) institution(s) and who, whenever there is enough funding for one or two tenure-track positions, get to “compete” with hundreds of applicants from all over the world, as search committees spin the lottery wheel.

And, no, it isn’t reasonable to expect someone who already does a job, and has been relied on to do this job for many years, and has been deemed excellent by all measurements, to go through this process, the effect of which, perhaps inadvertently, but nevertheless, is to maintain two-tiers of employees, one tenured, the other adjunct, who essentially do the same work, but whose pay by comparison is excessively unequal.

This situation can end if we do one thing: pay all college faculty on one pay schedule: equal pay for equal work. Pay parity.

The objection that tenured faculty do more work is specious. Seriously, one reason some do so much committee work is that there aren’t enough tenure-track faculty. More to the point, what is the most valuable part of faculty work-time? Is it teaching? Do you spend any more time teaching than I? Many adjuncts, hustling about to make enough to survive, easily spend more time on teaching tasks than many tenure-track faculty (And I ‘m pointing this out only as a fact. I make no judgment). Forty hours a week is the expected workload for tenured and tenure-track faculty. Adjuncts often work more than forty hours a week because they teach at two or more institutions, even more than a full-time load, to make only a portion of a full-time wage.

Tenured faculty, please do not be offended; rise above an egocentric response. Adjuncts (most, anyway) do not think this situation is the fault of tenured faculty. But it is a fact that tenured faculty enjoy privileges which adjuncts do not, and which adjuncts deserve. No one expects tenured faculty to give up their privileges (maybe only a few perks). Of course tenured faculty have earned this privilege; but then so have adjunct faculty.

In the San Diego Community College district, adjuncts have things that most adjuncts across the nation do not. Most do not have rehire rights, health benefits, office space with computers, or unemployment compensation rights. At my primary site, adjuncts who teach in my department are so fortunate that the tenured faculty in the department invite them to meetings of all sorts, let them vote on most issues, and encourage them to pitch in as much as they wish. I often tell people that, if you are so unfortunate as to be an adjunct professor in the early 21st century, my department is one of the best places to be in the universe.

But still, my pay for teaching six classes is about 40% what it would be if I were paid on the same schedule as full-time faculty. My expertise, my skill, my commitment is equal. My pay should be equal.

Nationally, contingent academic workers (also known as adjuncts) are organizing and mobilizing for justice. The national media is beginning to cover the exploitation of adjuncts on a regular basis. The New Faculty Majority has organized and is advocating for justice.  The AFT, FACCC, AAUP and other faculty organizations are talking about the exploitation of adjuncts. It is time for unions to walk the walk. Since adjuncts are the majority everywhere, unions should prioritize adjuncts’  interests. No more pay raises until there is pay parity. No more advocating for tenure-track funding until there is pay parity. The adjunct crisis is the crisis of higher education, tenured faculty, adjunct faculty, students and staff. This is the moment for us to stand together and to demand the justice of equal pay for adjuncts, to demand one pay schedule for all college faculty.

This May Day, our annual celebration of social justice for workers, should be about the justice of equal pay for adjuncts.

Adjunctification, Militarization, Absurdity: An Adjunct Moment

ImageAdjunctification, Militarization, Absurdity: An Adjunct Moment

This is about an “adjunct moment,” not only for an individual adjunct, but also for the most adjunctified discipline in higher education, English Composition. At Mesa Community College in San Diego, where student demand increases annually, there is a shortage of classrooms. There is a new Math/Science building, a new medical technology building, a new continuing education building, as well as a new Social Sciences building, which is still under construction. The classrooms in these new buildings are “secured” classrooms, with alarm systems that have to be “disarmed” each time the door is unlocked. The Humanities building (now old and not LEED), mostly office space (but not enough), formerly included social sciences, as well as many kinds of humanities disciplines, including English. When Social Sciences moves out, there should be plenty of office space, since about 70% of the English department is adjunct, who, of course, have a shared office space already, but it has very few classrooms for hundreds of classes. The English department must take whatever classrooms it can find.

This semester, I am teaching in one of three “temporary” buildings located in a parking lot, at the bottom of a steep hill, below the ridge on which the main campus sits, one of those trailer-boxes that public education relies on when it can’t afford actual rooms.  I, and many other English professors, both adjunct and tenured, have taught in these rooms many times. As a matter of fact, these dilapidated, disposable rooms are, I think, among various discarded-by-other-departments official English department rooms. They have been “temporary” for about a dozen years. Sounds like an adjunct professor: dilapidated, disposable, and “temporary” for many years.

I teach two sections of English 101 in this ‘temporary” room (designated T-2), between 11:00 and 2:00, two days a week. An English colleague of mine teaches before my time and, as the first to arrive, unlocks the door, and “disarms” the room. This “arming” of rooms is, it seems, a part of the recent movement to increase security on American college campuses. In recent years, the Mesa campus police force, like campus police forces all over America, has been undergoing a process of militarization. They, too, have a new building, replete with a super-secure “inner fortress” to which only police officers are permitted entrance. They also have a new sense of “security,” a new mission which, as far as I can tell, considers faculty and students as “enemies” who need to be controlled. In line with campus militarization, at some point in its long story, grungy T-2 was armed, I suppose, to prevent theft. In addition to the typical industrial-type desks and carpet, T-2 contains two rolling whiteboards, an overhead projector, a twentieth-century TV cart, a warning sign and a clock.

One day, a couple of weeks ago, my colleague was ill and did not come to school. For the first time in the numerous times over many years that I have taught in this room, the door was locked. I have a few keys for different rooms on campus, so I was hopeful that one would fit the lock for T-2. One did. But, as I opened the door, like a banshee, the alarm sounded. I had been issued a security code, some years ago, but have never had an occasion to use it; I have kept it in the bottom of my bag. As it turned out, I had 30 seconds to disarm the alarm before it alerted the police that a breach in security had ensued. In short, I was unable to input the security code in due time. After the thirty-second window expired, the alarm began to shriek panic mode.

The police cruiser arrived; the officer approached and the re-securing process began. As my students watched, I was questioned and carded. When the officer, his voice in serious cop-tone, asked if I had identification, my inward response was “Seriously? We’re gonna do this?” I understand the officer was doing his job; but when faced with the absurdity of being carded to get into a broken down classroom substitute just to teach, I had to, as I carelessly flashed my bi-fold wallet, in the most nuanced mocking tone I could muster, opine “this is quite absurd, is it not?” Of course his reply, in serious, cop-tone, was the explanation that the alarm was a burglary alarm, to which I replied, inwardly of course, “so, your assessment of the situation was this small, bald, gray-bearded man in casual ‘business’ attire, in the middle of the day, with two dozen students watching, might be trying to burgle a whiteboard from a rusty, fast-decaying trailer-box classroom with a warning sign?” I didn’t say this because, for all I knew, he would have shot me, tasered me and arrested me for breach of security.

At first, I had the impression that he was going to carry out a truly absurd series of actions; perhaps he would even search my bag and my person?  To his credit as a human being, discrete from his conditioned role as campus police officer, his tone, and the expression on his face, altered subtly in response to my observation that we were experiencing an absurd moment, an “adjunct” moment. He said a bunch of stuff about the importance of the security of the room, and told me to be sure to lock the door and re-alarm the room after my class. I didn’t pay close attention. I’m not sure if a tenured professor, commonly indistinguishable by sight from an adjunct professor, would have been carded, or would have responded with “I’m the chair of the department,” or some other assertion of power available to a tenured professor not available to an adjunct. Probably, most English professors would have smiled and complied, as mild-mannered as we are, in general. Perhaps it is easy to take advantage of our generally agreeable disposition.

Afterwards, my class had a lively discussion about the adjunctification, militarization and corporatization of campus: a teachable moment. Students have a right to know where they are and what is happening to them.

English and the Humanities in general has long been a primary site of adjunctification. English gets the adjunct professors and the adjunct rooms. Both are maintained by acquiescence to corporatization, and enforced by the militarization of campus.

What are we to do? I don’t know; this is just a story of adjunctification, of an adjunct moment.

Note: the warning sign was determined to be a prank, and was removed.

Adjunct Professors Academic Apartheid

Adjunct Professors Academic Apartheid.

Academic apartheid: hard words to describe a hard truth. These words accurately describe the situation which is widely ignored,, by most faculty, adjunct and tenured, even as the adjunct crisis of higher education begins to get national media attention. Fuller’s right, too, about what needs to happen to counter our dismal circumstances. We need to work at local levels to “end the exploitation” of adjuncts “relegated to the back of the bus.” But we don’t just need equity for adjuncts: we need reversal of adjunctification.