Vocabulary Day: “Informational” and “Bright”

So I’ve had a backlog of posts building up for about a week now, but I haven’t had much time or energy to devote to writing. One of the colleges I teach at decided to cut 50% of its sections, and I was laid off.

Oh… wait, I’m sorry. Since I and my colleagues are all classified as temporary part-time, there’s no such thing as a layoff in higher education. Rather, my spring sections have been cut.

Except, darn it, that’s not quite right, either. They only cut one of my sections, which cut my salary in half and made the forty-minute commute infeasible, so I was forced to withdraw from the other section. So, as you can see, it’s my fault completely that I will be underemployed come January. My employers had nothing to do with it.

See, here’s the reasoning for the “temporary part-time” classification: non-tenure-track college faculty, like so many other types of workers, are expected to exist in an “informational” mode. This means that, like data on a computer screen, we’re meant to start existing at the moment that we’re needed, and then stop existing as soon as administrators are done with us. You don’t bargain with information. You don’t work out a deal with it so that both your needs (affordable, reliable labor) and its needs (stability and reasonable compensation) are addressed. It’s not human. It doesn’t have needs. As soon as you run into problems and need to protect your own salary by cutting sections – blip! It’s gone. The informational mode saves you not only severance package bucks, but also the trouble of planning ahead so that you don’t have to abruptly cut sections in the first place. (For more information on the concept of informational labor, see How the University Works.)

I’ve been criticized, in the past, for trying to masquerade as a common worker. This type of thinking is dangerous for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s incredibly naive to assume that systems of exploitation stop at the poverty line. If Agriprocessors perfected the art of exploiting their workers, why in the world would you assume that college administrators can’t figure it out, too? Why would you assume that your own employer won’t come up with the same idea? Secondly, thinking that white-collar workers and professionals, including us pointy-headed brainiacs teaching freshman composition, are “above” exploitation not only prevents solidarity among our movements, but is a classist and racist way of looking at blue-collar workers and the working poor.

In any case, smell ya later, academia. I’m going to quit my other temporary part-time position, too; I’m now looking for something full-time in another field. (In an economic crisis. With a humanities degree. Sigh.)

I’m writing this not to vent – well, okay, to vent a little – but to emphasize the fact that US higher education is in serious trouble. There is a major brain drain going on among current and future college faculty. I should know; I’m part of it.

I’m also writing this to get some opinions on something. When I emailed my department chair to ask if his decision had anything to do with my teaching ability (he said it didn’t), he assured me that I’m a “very bright person.” It took me a while to figure out why the remark felt so backhanded. Then it hit me: isn’t “bright” the adjective you usually use with children?

I could be wrong on this, but I can’t remember the last time I heard someone call an adult man “bright.” If a man is intelligent and hardworking, you say he’s intelligent and hardworking. If a woman or child is intelligent and hardworking, you say they’re bright. If employers see me as childlike (Maybe it has something to do with being overly polite? Does that make women seem less mature? Funny, since being too collegial makes us seem presumptuous or even ball-busting), then I and my female colleagues are kind of screwed. In other news, water is wet and the sky is blue.

Like I said, though, I’m not sure about this one.

(Cross-posted at Alas, a Blog.)

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3 Responses

  1. I am really, really glad I’m in school right now.

    Good luck with the job hunt.

  2. Oh, that sucks. Good luck…

    and yes on the water-is-wet, sky-is-blue, women-are-screwed-whatever-we-do. Your chair was being condescending and I am morally certain that he wouldn’t have been nearly that condescending to a man who is your age with your level of experience.

    In my field, men are “expert diagnosticians” and women have “good clinical instincts”. grrrrr.

  3. […] few weeks ago, I wrote about how I was giving up on academia and searching for a nonprofit job. I’ll be honest – I didn’t work that hard at the job search. I sent out maybe five […]

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