A Recession Story

MLA (the Modern Language Association – where English professors go to party) just released a report on academic employment. Overall, the number of full-time jobs in academia has more or less stayed the same, while the number of part-time jobs has jumped due to increased student enrollment. The number of full-time jobs in English decreased by 10% in ten years. Across the board, part-time jobs are held mainly by women. Funny how the more white women and people of color attend and teach college, the less we pay the people working in the classroom.* What a coincidence. Isn’t that interesting.

A 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 resumes, had one interview. If I really set my mind to it, I could probably have found something in a few months. But due to the nature of part-time work, which forces you to constantly cycle through job after job (most of us TAs and adjuncts pick up side jobs like private tutoring whenever we find out that a section has been cut or an offer has fallen through), I’d already spent the past year and a half sending out resumes on a semi-regular basis, and I was tired. Plus, a funny thing happened when I emailed the department chair at my other campus to tell him I couldn’t keep the class I was teaching: he offered me another one.

I sat on the offer for a few days. Another class meant $1,300 a month instead of $650. It meant I could make rent and buy groceries. I emailed him to accept it, and then slumped in my chair and cried for an hour.

Not because of the job itself. Composition is tough – especially since most instructors have little or no training in teaching composition – and isn’t what I entered academia to do. But it can also be really rewarding to work with students on producing something memorable, to expose them to essays you love and ideas that excite you, to figure out which assignments are going to yield heartfelt, honest writing. Getting a sentence to click is a wonderful thing, whether you’re at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or the local JC. And the problems that teaching present are problems I enjoy working through.

I cried because I was resigning myself to at least four more months of unequal pay for equal work, instability (remember that we’re classified as temporary part-time, which means we can be dropped with zero notice if the school wants to save a buck), and almost no health insurance. I cried because I know I can be more than an interchangeable grade-dispenser. Because I have so many ideas on how to make college what it should be, how to create more effective and worthwhile courses, how to take a nationwide system that only values credits and degrees and change it into a system that values analysis and action. Here’s an idea: for those of you with recent experience in academia, notice how, at community colleges, almost every single English class is a composition class? Putting aside, for now, the sheer fucked-upness of a system in which students take 2, 3, or even 4 semesters of composition before they’re allowed to actually study something, notice how many composition classes strive to be “content-free” – meaning that we’re supposed to teach writing without a subject, writing without thinking? The average composition textbook contains a mishmash of essays about any ol’ thing; students are supposed to study rhetorical modes like comparing/contrasting and proposal claims without engaging in actual ideas. My husband and the other TAs in his department have actually been told not to teach readings they’re interested in, for fear that subject matter will somehow contaminate the students’ work on citations and paraphrasing. Fuck that. Why not let instructors teach topics courses (that is, writing courses that center around a subject)? While I’m teaching my compare/contrast lesson and correcting their semicolon use, could I please also expose them to women’s social justice movements or 20th century American Jewish thought? May I please give students the option of choosing a composition course based on which themes look interesting, rather than making them scroll through thirty identical sections of a boring required class? Why are we so adamant about keeping lower-income students away from ideas?

Some schools are already teaching topics courses (although they’re still not paying their part-timers anything resembling reasonable salaries). UC Irvine, for example, has a program called Humanities Core, in which students learn rhetoric and composition through the lens of philosophy, literature, art history, and even urban planning and music. Even UCI’s regular composition program (for students who aren’t humanities majors) offers a few general themes like Empire, Frontiers, and Heroism, and lets TAs choose their own readings (like actual novels and stuff!) instead of working from standardized textbooks.

Hell, let’s take it even further – why not try to integrate composition into other courses? Why not learn about citations in your freshman literature class, or process analysis in biology? Crazy, I know. And yes, remedial writing would still be an issue; there are some problems that do need a semester’s worth of intensive work. But perhaps we could address deficiencies in K-12 education instead of trying to solve serious literacy problems in a semester or two.

I know there’s a wider debate about topics courses versus content-free courses, and I’m not saying there are no good arguments for content-free writing instruction. But when part-timers are treated as second-class educators and are excluded from curriculum design and decision making, we’re barred from taking part in that debate – even though we’re the ones at the center of it! And when community college students sit through semester after semester of courses like Critical Thinking and College English Skills and Fundamentals of Composition, with textbook after textbook like From Inquiry to Academic Writing and Perspectives on Contemporary Issues while their richer (white) counterparts at the Ivies are reading Toni Morrison (no, the irony isn’t lost on me), the whole idea of “higher” education loses its meaning.

Why not employ us full-time? Then maybe we’d have the time and resources to make these courses better.

Because next semester, I’m going to walk into those classrooms with the same textbook, and we’ll have the same scattered, non-contiguous discussions about whatever subject is in the essay that happened to be on the syllabus. (I know I just talked shit about it, but From Inquiry to Academic Writing does have a bell hooks essay, which is pretty cool. But we’ll talk about it for 40 minutes – 20 of which will be devoted to thesis statements and transitions – and that’ll be it.) I’ll take home the same just-enough paycheck each month; I’ll keep fearing illness because a hospital visit is out of the question.

This isn’t what college is supposed to be. This isn’t what academia is supposed to stand for. But for the students and educators without the connections or the funds to be at a $40K-a-year school – that is, for white women and people of color – this is what it’s become. It’s impossible to change the system when we’re more concerned with whether we’ll still have work in four months.

At the community college that laid me off, almost every single section of the remedial writing course is taught by a woman. Filled with testosterone? It’s literature for you – get out that copy of Heart of Darkness! Got boobs? Here’s a grammar workbook!

And this type of discrimination is routine.

Next May, I’ll consider taking up the job search again. But for now, with the economy free-falling and half a million jobs gone in one month, I couldn’t bring myself to cut off my only source of income. The thought of approaching February with no paycheck on the way was too frightening. I just couldn’t do it. I know I’m not the only one who’s frustrated, scared, and rapidly losing hope – in academia or otherwise. I’m not the only one who’s always battling the feeling that my income determines my worth – that if my boss is making $100,000 and I’m making $10,000, then he must be ten times as useful a person as I am. I’m not the only one who knows that the structure around me is eating itself up, but feels powerless to stop it.

And the time we spend scrambling to get ahead in this system – a process that always necessitates stepping on someone else – is time that we’re not organizing and fighting it. And that’s not an accident.

Enjoy your recession, everyone.

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)
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*Sources: Education Portal and American Council on Education. Pages 26 and 27 of the MLA report have breakdowns by gender. While most fields are increasingly dominated by part-timers, fields like engineering and physical sciences – which are still mostly male – have much higher percentages of full-time positions.

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3 Responses

  1. I’ve been trying to figure out a good response to this post because it really resonated in a weird sort of way. I just graduated from college (a liberal arts school,) and was planning on going back to get my PHD, dreams of teaching English at a college level dancing in my head. Pretty much as soon as I left, I realized that’s not where I want my energy to go (for many different reasons). Unfortunately, this means I’m a recent college graduate (in a city full of recent college graduates) with little job experience during a recession, and the job market is terrible.

    I hate the idea of teaching writing as something impersonal and formulaic.Yes, there are ground rules that we need to learn, but you’re right, those really should be taught in high school. Unfortunately, high schools are so focused on standardized testing right now that writing tends to get the short end of the stick. Not to mention, if you’re reading sample essays, how are you supposed to discuss their form and technique without discussing content?

    Also, it makes me sick that the college you work at doesn’t have women in the upper-level classes (it also makes me worry that they’re teaching mainly according to Canon without challenging the idea of the Canon. That’s probably unfair to them though. In any case, lack of diversity in professors is not only discriminatory, but it really is terrible for the students too.).

    I’m sorry for the rambly comment; cold medicine is making my brain a little out of it. Still, I wanted to leave a note on this post before it got too stale. 🙂

  2. Also, it makes me sick that the college you work at doesn’t have women in the upper-level classes….

    You know, it’s weird – it’s not that they don’t have women in the upper level classes, it’s that they have many more women in the lower level classes. The percentage of women is representative of the overall population in every section except the remedial class, where it shoots up to around 95%.

    As for cold medicine, I hear you. I’m on day #4 of some death virus.

  3. Thank you for your bitter and accurate screed. You are right in so many ways, especially the deadening of learning and the bizarre anxieties on the part of WPAs where freshmen writers and ideas are concerned. Hell, I got excited about learning and into the English major, grad school, job hunt game, BECAUSE of ideas I was exposed to at a JC.

    As someone who is working the full-time beat now at a CC my only caveat to you is to compare a textbook like From Inquiry with some of the more rhetorical modes focused shite out there. From Inquiry actually has readings that students and faculty can get excited about. You mention the hooks, but the Lorber and Kilbourne have their place in a feminist revision of reading and learning too. In this, From Inquiry isn’t too different from a freshman comp uber-textbook like Ways of Reading.

    Why aren’t adjuncts and TAs allowed to teach out of those textbooks more or, God forbid, develop their own topics that they are passionate about? One answer is what you offer: that there is an over-weening desire to be politically neutral and intellectually deracinated: When you are training technicians and lower-middle managers, you don’t want thinkers, you want good little drones who can’t imagine not doing what they are told.

    Finally, move somewhere where there are more colleges needing your services and where adjuncts are paid more per section ($650 a section where you are at?!).

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