When the hell of adjuncting peaked last Fall in New Hampshire, I found myself completelyunable to pretend my labor/work and my immediate thinking/writing /researching life had not just been attacked. I spent most of September and part of October wrestling with the idea of loss; that seven years of curriculum development, thousands of hours in contact time, thousands of students instructed, and an institution strengthened by the reflexive, intimate, and productive relationships could be destroyed by a single job search gone terribly wrong. (I’ll offer in another post new thoughts on the dangers of being adjunct in a hiring committee situation.)
I wanted to fight back, Dear One. I needed to speak truth to power of the moment–the inequities, the lies, the unbearable stress, the sadness felt by colleagues, students, friends, my own children, and especially my wife. But it all seemed impossible. Epic level injustice; mountainous evidence of bureaucratic self-fortification.
It seemed like a suicide mission to even start pushing back openly; so I embraced guerrilla tactics by way of what I call “form-al terrorism” (making Registrar, Chair, and Student Affairs lives more difficult by encouraging my colleagues to miss deadlines and report inaccurate statistics on grade reports), disinformation campaigns (phone, email, letters telling different versions of the injustice), and direct action (having students cc: the Academic Vice-President and Chair every time they wanted to receive my counsel which had been monitored since I told students about my plans and offered my critique of the situation: “I may not return in Spring 2012 for reasons that combine our discussions of higher education and its discontents and the personal stories we have all shared as learners and teachers attempting to achieve our goals with little to no support by administrators.”)
Still, even with all the push back I mustered while barely managing serious sleep deprivation, malnutrition, and what I suppose should be called depression–the helplessness of it all–I did not believe the conditions of my own private adjunct hell could be changed. I did not think I could provoke or experience anything akin to inspiration.
Let’s talk about two separate events that proved extremely dangerous to my paralysis and unbelief.
August 28–the MTV Video Music Awards featuring a high flying Chris Brown.
- I don’t like Chris Brown
- Chris Brown is a hack legend of dance, hip hop, trance, and other genres
- He is a criminal who beat his girlfriend
- He is a genius (huh)
- He is not phone-ing in this performance
- The staging is incredible; the wire talent displayed beyond description
- This is beautiful
- I like this
- I want to watch this again
- It feels like a ritual, angel imagery, interactive performance, wow
- I’m on my fifth viewing
- I’m layering Chris Brown’s images from that performance into my own work
- I still don’t like Chris Brown
- Chris Brown rocked my world
The surprise of the event, the moment when you’re caught off guard. It’s amazing. I live for it even though I cannot predict when it will happen again. My discomfort and dislike for Chris Brown seemed constant, perhaps even eternal. Yet, there I was enjoying the performance, loving it actually. The little touches–the marionette dancing and two step moves. And a simple appreciation: WuTang plus Nirvana = my life in the early 90s. Chris Brown can’t be that bad; well, of course he is. But a moment can reveal something else, something always present which I had been unable to see for a long time. Talent. One man. One stage. One moment. And he owned it.
Many adjucts are tired, scared, and filled with dread. Teaching, researching, writing, advising, mentoring — these aren’t skills just acquired overnight in their pajamas online sipping a cafe latte served in one of those (once) ironic FRIENDS over-sized mugs. The existential malaise of living “the life” can feel like an eternal punishment. But, then, something happens. An event. A moment. A point of clarity that cannot be denied.
For me, Dear One, it was helping to organize adjuncts in NH. Every time the state and local administrations pushed back, they showed their callous disregard for the facts and desperate fatal strategies. With each appeal to the market — we can’t offer market rates to our teachers (but seem to always manage to meet market expectations of construction, secretarial, janitorial, etc.) — they showed their own lack of understanding of how markets work. Not to mention their hypocrisy. They were very weak, even the most outspoken apologists for the owner class or the owner class themselves. With each push back, our email box traffic increased; our meetings drew bigger crowds; and, my favorite, even libertarian supporters of the Right to Work anti-union legislation in NH were signing union cards and joining the fight.
And it happened fast. Seven month campaign. September 2010 – April 2011. One year ago. I didn’t see any of our efforts resulting in unionization that fast. I simply didn’t know how to overcome my own existential situation. Luckily, like the Chris Brown moment, the event disrupted my own self-assured understanding of myself and my own situation to reveal a variety of options. During the union drive, the surprise was the constant flow of people who attended our meetings out of curiosity who then left the meetings with fire in their bellies to make permanent, sustainable changes to how we are compensated, how we participate in the college governance, and how we treat each other.
With the Chris Brown event in August 2011, I knew something big was happening in my life. The job search committee was already showing signs of malfeasance and deadly ignorance (they tend to go hand in hand). The time to replenish contracts and lost revenue was fast drawing to a close. I was running out of time. But, this little disruption said: even you can be surprised. Even after seventeen years of higher education experience (from MA Graduate Assistantships to eight year adjunct committment to doctoral conferral) I found myself wanting to experience something crazy out of the ordinary even as I was suffering the great disappointment and shock of realizing slowly that my “services were no longer needed” (as the concluding email re: new contracts was phrased).
September 20 — Coldplay on the Letterman Show (concert series)
I know Coldplay. How can you not know Coldplay. They’ve been in constant rotation for over a decade. I found myself watching the concert with my musician son across its hour or so presentation with a sense of comfort, calm, and joy I hadn’t experienced in many years. (Mute Math’s “Typical” has this effect; same for “Keep the Car Runnng” by The Arcade Fire and anything by Joy Division or New Order.)
While assessing the music–too emo? too U2? too Peter Gabriel? too ????–I found myself needing to hold back tears. Oddly timed tears. A state of emotion that was clearly the byproduct of four weeks of a career held in hostage. I’m sure the committee and supposed colleagues didn’t see it that way. They were “Trying to make the best decision given the high caliber of applicant.” My God: I was “of applicant”; not even “an applicant” but “of applicant” of some kind of distant galaxy of being called “applicant” all bundled together into one dying or dead star bursting forth energy that produces and destroys all light.
Whatever I was “of” that fourth week in September, I was definitely living an event horizon, that point of contact with a black hole where time and space stop, where entities and beings and lives and futurities are destroyed into billions of tiny particles inside of seeming infinite bodies of particles. I was nothing. I reached Nothing. And with the music of Coldplay — it probably couldn’ve been anyone at that moment and thank God it wasn’t that “Friday” song–I recognized that I was filled with stars and than no one could destroy me because somehow in the interstellar state, I was untouchable. Filled with potential. A being in potentis.
I guess all I’m trying to say to you, Dear One, is that we’re living in unprecedented times. We’re picking up where our dear brothers and sisters from the labor movement of the 70s and 80s to today left off or needed to take a respite. Anything can happen. Even a new wave punk hip hop freak could learn to enjoy Chris Brown and Coldplay in the middle of the ultimate deconstruction of his life. I was convinced I had nowhere to go, nothing to hope for in September. I was absolutely sure my battle with the owner class had concluded with their ultimate win: changing the rules of the chess game to suit their selfish and unconscionable ends.
But you know what’s funny? They cheated. And like Kirk cheating the Kobayashi Maru (impossible scenario) test in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek (2009) they avoided looking deeply into themselves, to that place where the end of everything (life) reveals the nothingness of “a life” (the one we lived up to that point). The point of the impossible scenario was to teach a leader what it means to risk life and be responsible for the loss of life. In Star Trek (2009), the opening with Kirk’s father shows the type of leader Star Fleet cultivated during a routine expedition that turned into an epic battle within seconds. And yes — I know I’m geeking out a bit here.
You get my point — we don’t cheat. We face this moment as this moment and only this moment. We fight together because we must, not because we want to disrupt lives, especially our own. No. We’re not going to deny that even we can be surprised her in the first days of Adjunct Spring. We’re not going to deny that our experiences are ours to own, no matter how many awards we received or pay checks we’re still waiting on. We own this moment; not the people who still believe they have the upper hand because they control the contracts and the paychecks.
What if we start to show legislators and Boards of Trustees that they’re not needed? What if we show just how self-reliant we are as professionals and remove the middle managing middling meddling Vice Presidents and Deans? What if we surprise ourselves again and again as we go where no one has —- awww, what that heck — where no one has gone before?