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Boots, Boot Straps, and Other Myths (or, Pay Us for Our Work and this War Ends)



In response to Anonymous [1] and Migrant Intellectual, AdjunctSlave summarizes the top down view of part-time instructors to highlight the subservient expectations of the “power elite” at most colleges and universities: //Employees shouldn’t really care about the job or the institution and never about the quality of education. Employees should never work within the system to improve the institution or their own conditions. //

I am forever fascinated (and bothered) by the idea that educators, up and down the “higher” and “lower” institutions, best serve their own professional interests or their students by “taking it,” by keeping their mouths shut, by thanking the most abusive administrators and their higher ups for not even meeting universally accepted essential objectives in a course called “Higher Education Success.” Rather then get into a post-by-post soundbite battle, I’d like to use this moment to better discuss efficiency, compensation, and what exactly professors do for a living.

If a part-time professor doesn’t meet the essential objectives of his or her course’s or division’s instructional design (e.g., the seven or more agreed upon goals associated with quality instruction), the part-time professor will most likely not receive renewed contracts. I 100% agree with this. We have to teach the course as designed, work together to discuss the best way to evolve an older course through curriculum committees, and respect success strategies that may not align with our own personal or professional experience or expectations. But, we’re talking about paying teachers for the hours they work: nothing more, nothing less. At least that’s where I would like to stay focused for a while.

Here’s the way I put it to every adjunct I met with 2009-2011 during the New Hampshire adjunct union drive.

Work is denied the carpenter who doesn’t assemble all of the new desks in the library. S/he will most likely not receive future facilities contract. Same for any facilities contractor. Same for instructional services and library and kitchen and administrative support staff. Yet, rewards and “contract review” processes are set firmly in place to protect the repeat crime of gross negligence (and flat out illegal labor abuses) that summarize the bad choices and endless deliberations and show-and-tell “strategic plans” of too many full-time faculty, program directors, chairs, division heads, vice-presidents, deans, presidents, chancellors, and so forth.

My work at Migrant Intellectual parallels exactly the one-on-one, committee, and regional conversations I found most helpful when better discussing the working conditions I deplored my entire academic career (MA, PhD, Fellowship, Visiting, Adjunct). This is indeed, as Anonymous points out, about work. Paying people for their work. Defining that work in terms of professional standards, institutional “best practices,” and increasing revenue by working together to meet the professional/academic expectations of any given field of study as well as address directly the market and business needs of our immediate communities. (Is it just me, or does the “market” seem to say over and over again that we need teachers in our classrooms using their skills, knowledge, and innovation to reshape the post-industrial economy?)

As the son of one of the hardest working mothers on Long Island, the son-in-law of the single most inspiring worker in the Federal government, the husband to a woman whose administrative assistance to her supervisors inspires awe in all who work with her — I simply would not be able to vocalize any of my criticisms. This is indeed about work.

For example, in telecommunications or retail, when my mother would notice a problem, she would speak to the problem and not only increase the quality of the service provided, she would find herself with additional supervisory duties. In all services provided her employer, she was compensated. Even during labor disputes, some of the most contentious in the history of American telecommunications, her own supervisors and their regional directors viewed her ability to vocalize the problem as a chance to improve working conditions or the services provided.

Same for her work as a retail manager. At the time, 1989-2004, video stores on Long Island were responding to the Blockbuster threat which pretty much decimated the locally owned, video/dvd shop and their wonderful stock of in-house selections I still crave even as Netflix instant adds countless awesome titles. She increased sales during the time when store after store went down for the count. How? She responded to customer needs (the market), streamlined services, found new ways to increase revenue (reward structures for 24-hr returns of hot new titles, punch cards, tiered membership programs–all a decade before Blockbuster and Hollywood video even bothered to address the digital needs of their customers, and failed). I am merely applying the model I learned in small business to my own profession: college/university teaching, research, institutional development, and adjunct equity.

So, when Anonymous pats him or herself on the back for being a subservient worker and touts the “take it or leave it” views of too many bosses, s/he reveals the central weakness of a management model that believes employees are better seen, not heard. This is a recipe for failure; a guarantee that dinosaur thinking won’t survive the brutal needs of innovation and industrial r/evolution. For Anonymous, part-time teachers should’ve known better. Unequal pay for unequal labor is somehow their fault. Now having determined the fatal strategies of colleges/universities as detrimental to their basic economic needs, the basic missions of their institutions, and the basic local/regional/national expectations of learners (professional, technical, and academic), it is time to fold up the tent and change professions.

Worse yet, anyone sounding the alarm must just want the attention. Anyone speaking clearly to problems and offering solutions must not really want to teach, they must want to cause problems for students and other faculty and administrators. Not at all. Like my mother, a model for the BEST America USED to be (e.g., hard-working, innovative, resilient or fiesty if you prefer, intelligent, efficient, even-tempered, and good-natured), the discussion of how we define work in higher education is precisely about applying to our classrooms and working conditions the missions and expectations of our departments, divisions, schools, and universities.

Let’s end this needless rhetoric of “bootstraps” and “boots.” Our task right now is to work together to improve higher education; paying teachers (the 70% of adjuncts who run these institutions). Our students demand it, industry expects it, and our professions have a rich and successful history of evolving (sometimes with the speed of an iceberg). Saying that professionals should simply “take it” rather than improving the quality of instruction fails to address how, in fact, we can best compensate teachers and speak directly to this moment of looming (like it’s not already here) austerity.

I wonder how the cab company Anonymous discusses fared in the Great Recession. I wonder how any business that does not listen to or respect its employees ever moves beyond the “bottom line” and into economic justice for all, prosperity for those who help grow a business, and better services to the customer.

The time is now; the struggle continues. (August Wilson, 1945-2005)



[1] On December 10, 2012 at 2:11 PM anonymous adjunct said

I once worked in the 1970s driving a car for a car service, where I had a profane, cigar-chomping boss who nevertheless gave me one piece of good advice:

“If you don’t want to be a fucking doormat, don’t lie down in front of the fucking door.”

I also believe similar troll-level criticism can be found across the Chronicle of Higher Education comment/discussion forum. I’m looking into it now, but I believe anonymous adjunct was a regular contributor to that unfortunately divisive battle over social services, fair pay, and the changes professors need to evaluate, especially in the Liberal Arts.



About Dean RCB

Dean of Academics Lebanon College Philosophy and Integrated Liberal Arts Writer & Producer (theatre, television, film) Composer & Producer RCB lives in the Upper Valley with his wife and four boys.

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