from RC Tolman papers. Photo by Meg Rosenburg (@trueanomalies). Used with permission.


                         Half hidden from the eye!


The poets know that rage and sleeplessness are close bedfellows. Modernism didn’t invent this relationship, though its poets may have articulated the connection most clearly. Yeats’s 8-line poem “The Choice” imagines that to choose perfection “of the work” (as opposed to “perfection of the life”) is to inherit “A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark” — “heavenly,” perhaps, because the rewards (if any) of such work are of the spirit, not entailing earthly reward at all. In Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle to his father (a poem featured prominently in one of this year’s blockbuster movies, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar [2014]), rage is posited as the last refuge of the living, the force that spiritually if not temporally and biologically divides life from death. The imperative of Thomas’s famous refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” is a call to resist Sleep in the name of Rage. That both poems are written in antique, heavily patterned forms — Thomas’s villanelle, Yeats’s Ottava rima — may tell us something about how modernism handled rage, or about how rage can be handled in poetry at all. Form may contain rage and give it an “appropriate” outlet. But form also gives rage (raging) a voice.

2014’s Summer of Rage, punctuated by Gaza bombings and several police murders of unarmed black men, found me in a rage along with many others in this country and abroad — in a rage, and mostly sleepless. When Ferguson, Missouri erupted with the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, the protests were nightly. So too were the arrests, firing of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, use of LRADs in civilian neighborhoods — every civil rights abuse and instance of State violence imaginable, all being played out evenings in middle America, available for view online (but almost exclusively there). And I could not sleep. Someone on Twitter called my time spent on that platform, tweeting and mostly retweeting news from Ferguson, a vigil. I was grateful for a term that gave to my actions what felt like an unearned dignity and purpose. There didn’t seem to be any purpose in my activity. It was sleeplessness merely, fueled by rage — tears, and rage.

I met Violet in that period of uncontained, formless rage. In those late summer nights she was virtually the only Institute employee I would encounter on campus. Around 1 am she would appear on the hallway where my office is located; she would work there an hour or two before moving to another floor in the building. She found me bewildered, horrified, distracted, raging, indisposed. She found me; we spoke briefly, and she moved on. She looked like she knew what I was doing even if I didn’t.

From a few conversations in August I gleaned a few facts about Violet. She lives in a suburb 30 miles away from campus. Like most MIT employees, she pays for own parking — despite the fact that most employees have long left campus by the time her shift comes around. Her job was to dispose of waste in the offices, classrooms, and hallways, polish floors, and perform other light maintenance tasks. Over the course of a decade or so, the Facilities staff that sees to Building 14 (“the Humanities building” on campus) has been rolled back. Five janitors used to work the building. Today, two do. On their shoulders fell the daily cleaning and maintenance of a building with over 142K of useable square feet.

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4th floor, Building 14, MIT

I wonder how many readers who work in higher education — and if you’re reading this blog, chances are reasonably good that you do — can name a janitor at their college or university. If you can’t, as I suspect most university employees and affiliates can’t (and as I couldn’t until August), it may be because the janitors and their labor are all but invisible. Perhaps you met or became acquainted with a member of your university’s janitorial staff because you once found yourself sleepless and burning the midnight oil on campus, as I did. Whereas custodial staff at law firms, investment firms, and many other corporate offices work afternoons and evenings or throughout the day, university janitors often work nights as a matter of course. At MIT, this arrangement is codified on the Facilities website as a basic amenity provided by the Institute to its faculty and researchers: “Most cleaning is conducted during evening and night shifts to minimize potential disruptions.” University janitors, paid to make waste and various messes disappear, are made and paid to disappear themselves.

Adjunct professors have been called “spectral figures” on campus, and with reason. They are visible to the students they teach (during class hours, at least), but invisible to virtually every other campus community, and excluded from the possession of rights and privileges that other members of the community enjoy. With janitorial staff one is dealing even more obviously with a largely invisible population, similarly deprived rights and privileges granted to others on campus. The rare moments when these underpaid forms of campus labor are made more visible to the wider community are typically in periods of labor dispute. And how visible the existing conditions of janitorial or adjunct labor become will often depend to a high degree on the engagement of students, others on campus, or the general public.

If you doubt the efficacy of student activism mobilizing for a cause on campus, I wish you would read about the Justice for Janitors movement participated in by Harvard students and members of the Occupy movement on behalf of Harvard janitors in 2011-12. Justice for Janitors is a decades-long movement of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), with major successes in L.A., Houston, and elsewhere. In November 2011 Harvard janitors employed by UNICCO (one of the largest employers of custodial staff in the area) voted to strike. With the help of students and other community members the janitorial staff won a new contract with support for child care, tuition assistance, and four weeks paid vacation time, among other benefits. Wayne M. Langley, President of SEIU Local 615, which represented the striking employees, represented the decision as a remarkable victory for the 99%: “With the help of the students at Harvard, janitors were able to close the gap between the rich and the poor, a success that should be nationally replicated.” At an Adjunct Action event I attended in Boston in April 2013 (Adjunct Action operates under the SEIU), the renegotiated contract on behalf of Harvard janitors was pointed to as a success story that the adjunct faculty of the area should wish to emulate.

This was not a new battleground for Harvard students in 2011, the year of Occupy. Harvard was the scene of similar protests for janitors almost a decade earlier: at a protest event in 2002, four Harvard students were arrested in Boston while defending janitors’ rights (story). At MIT the Justice for Janitors movement had some supporters too; see for instance this 2002 editorial in MIT’s student paper, The Tech. But without the concerted support of students, faculty, and other campus community members, there may be no pressure to stop employers and administrators from treating people like the waste they are paid to remove.

Postscript: I’ve meant to write this piece since those late August days — took some notes that I can’t find now; found myself coping with crisis; lost time; lost more. I return to the task as one who is bent to no apparent purpose but to fulfill a promise made to oneself and to no other. I haven’t seen Violet since late August; my last communication with her was a note left on my office door in early September.


A better professional organization

@felixfardo cloudcrew airships

#cloudcrew photo credit: John Harkey (@felixfardo)

I’m going to engage in some blue-sky thinking here. I am not a policy wonk, and this is not a policy document of any kind.

A response to the Modern Language Association (MLA) task force report on graduate education, co-authored by a group of 10 humanities scholars and published this week in Inside Higher Ed, draws attention to the limitations of the existing proposal. Proposals to shorten the time to degree and to welcome new engagements with digital technology are hardly controversial, of course. But the recommendations of the task force, like many of the activities of the MLA, do not a thing to meet on their own ground the gross inequalities of academic labor conditions in the profession.

I am far from the first to observe that the disconnect between the activities of the MLA and the lived realities of the profession has become increasingly stark (this recent blog post by The Good Enough Professor makes the case succinctly and well). The standard institutional response to such complaints is that adjunct hiring and other such issues, while undoubtedly important, do not fall under the control of the MLA and/or do not form a central part of its mandate. On the one hand, the rationale for this view is entirely plain. That the MLA carries out certain functions and not others is certainly unobjectionable. The MLA has no authority over hiring decisions; it cannot re-open tenure lines that have been closed or “restructured” by university administration. It cannot reverse trends in academic hiring that plague the academy as a whole. On the other hand, if a scholarly organization does not take concrete steps to improve the working conditions of those who pay dues and attend annually and at considerable cost its national convention, what exactly does it do? If the support of instructors teaching languages and literature at all professional ranks does not fall within the purview of a scholarly organization purporting to represent these educators, of what use is the organization today?

While the MLA enters into lengthy, disputatious, and ultimately fruitless discussions over whether to issue a resolution censuring Israel’s denial of entry to scholars seeking to work at Palestinian universities, various other organizations, autonomous and mostly leaderless movements unburdened by bureaucratic protocols and the necessity of executive compensation, have sprung up to serve functions that the MLA does not or cannot do. It may simply be the case that the existing organization is insufficient to protect the interests or even to represent accurately the contemporary academic workforce in higher ed literature and language instruction.

Imagine, then, a professional organization that served and supported its constituents directly. Groups like the Adjunct Project and the New Faculty Majority were created to represent and advocate for the overwhelming majority of literature and language instructors today. As more and more adjunct unions enter into collective bargaining agreements with universities, these cross-institutional alliances serve an invaluable purpose in representing the interests of adjunct faculty and facilitating communication with the general public.

The last of the proposals by the IHE authors is “direct action” — “strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach.” The possibilities are many here, of course; I want in closing simply to suggest one kind of organizing and outreach activity that might at minimal cost materially improve the lives of those who teach language and literature. Some time ago, a few colleagues and I — @prof_anne, @readywriting, @occupyMLA, @shanteparadigm, and some others — set to imagining a StrikeDebt-style direct action of some sort for and by adjunct professors and their advocates. One of the most potentially fruitful ideas to come from this discussion was that of a time bank that could be participated in by faculty and staff within a university community, or regionally across institutions, as a work in mutual aid. With sufficient buy-in from a coalition of university employees at all professional levels, a range of professional tasks could be exchanged without money —

  •      substitute teaching to cover for sickness or conference travel
  •      guest lectures or class visits
  •      reading and commenting on work
  •      editing and proofreading
  •      printing and copying, and so forth

— to say nothing of the many nonprofessional tasks for which time exchanges have been used for decades. Time could be “donated,” of course, and one can perhaps imagine a system in which the value of one’s hours were inversely proportional to wages for labor in real life, so that graduate students and adjunct instructors would for a change receive an advantage on this market.

From adjunct unions to other forms of direct action on the part of students, teaching staff, and university employees, we see that organizing and outreach works. If the MLA is not the professional organization we want or need, perhaps we need to invent another (or many others). MLA will continue to produce editorial content, and host, at significant expense to most conference-goers, an annual conference for those with sufficient institutional support to attend. I expect that the functions of representation and advocacy will come increasingly from other organizations: unions, advocacy groups, etc. The MLA may of course assist in the formation of these new collectives, and would I hope be invested in promoting and supporting them too. Otherwise, teachers of language and literature (at all professional levels) should start preparing for a future without the MLA.

A little thing

UCR Fund Recipient

So much has been written already about the recent online beef between Rebecca Schuman (@pankisseskafka), the adjunct faculty member, higher ed blogger and journalist, and the historian Claire Potter, aka “Tenured Radical” (@tenuredradical); I am not eager to add one thing more. The occasion of the Schuman-Potter dispute was the revelation on Rebecca’s blog that the English department of the University of California at Riverside would not contact those it intended to interview for its tenure-track position (in American literature before 1900) until January 3, less than a week before the MLA convention in Chicago. Schuman wrote the blog post about this news that went viral; in response, Potter wrote the blog post attempting, somewhat peremptorily, to shut down the controversy as an isolated and irrational instance of academic “rage.”

I objected then, as I do now, to the personal and somewhat condescending terms of Potter’s assessment. I understand anger at a broken system to be more than “merely” personal. In response to this flare-up, Chuck Rybak, Timothy Burke and others have issued sensible calls for solidarity between adjuncts and those on the tenure-track. As these bloggers observe, both populations of university employees are subject to the same forces at the hands of university presidents; both populations too make a small part of a much larger trend toward the casualization of employment in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The dispute between Schuman and Potter has quieted down in the meantime, though a general climate of dis-ease remains in the run-up to the MLA convention. How could it not? The deep inequities of a broken system show more dramatically these days. What faith can we bestow in a “profession” that (as quite a few perceive it) has disappeared in all but name? Why do we ask job-seekers and adjunct faculty to defend institutions that have shown them no favors? What loyalty to the preservation and maintenance of tenure can we expect from those who have been systemically excluded from participation in it?

When I created an Indiegogo campaign to help send to MLA those chosen by UCR for an interview, I wanted a way to contribute to a heated conversation then passing without participating directly in it. I created the campaign to show my support for Rebecca, a writer I greatly respect and admire even where I disagree with some of her opinions. Admittedly, I created the campaign from a sense of anger too, much less at UCR than at Potter’s attempt to rationalize and shut down criticism of its practice. (It took virtually no time to establish an account with Indiegogo and create the campaign — certainly less time than it took Tenured Radical to write a seemingly disinterested follow-up post on the importance of preserving social media etiquette.) Above all, I created the campaign in a gesture of solidarity with graduate students and adjuncts on the academic job market.

To date, 27 people have contributed more than $800 to this hastily-produced campaign. (I chose the fundraising goal more or less arbitrarily; that the campaign is not likely to reach the established goal is I think no indication of its having been a failure.) Contributions came from friends, colleagues, and strangers; from the tenured, junior faculty on the tenure track, adjunct faculty, and graduate students (some of them on the market themselves). Contributions came from academics from fields outside English, and from non-academics as well.

Some may think the gesture misplaced, or mean-spiritedly directed at UCR on account of a technical error. To the latter objection: I am not personally acquainted with anyone in the UCR English department. At the end of the day, moreover, I am glad and grateful that UCR has a tenure line open at all, and that they choose to interview for a specialist in “old” material (being a person who works on such material myself). I wish them the best of luck in their search.

That a fundraising campaign targeted to assist those interviewing at one school does not solve larger problems with the academic job market seems obvious, and somewhat beside the point. I am delighted that the contributions received will help one candidate who has stepped forward at least. But the campaign does not pretend to solve anything so much as its gesture intends, in a small way, to make visible the extent of the problem.

Many thanks are due to the contributors to this campaign — you know who you are — and to those many of you who helped me get the word out about it. I want particularly to acknowledge the assistance of Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), and the inimitable Rebecca Schuman.

A brief dispatch from Boston’s Adjunct Action Symposium


Yesterday I attended the Adjunct Action Symposium (the symposium theme, “Higher Education in the New Economy”), held at the Boston Public Library.  This was the second such event in 2013; the first was in April, under the high ceilings of Boston’s JFK Library.  The crowd was somewhat smaller than in Spring, but still big enough at its peak to fill a large conference room in the basement of the Library.

The atmosphere at this event felt somewhat different to me from the last time. If in April the room was suffused with the exciting sense of possibility, with new connections made and plans being hatched, yesterday’s meeting was quieter and more focused. Begun in the wake of the April meeting, union organization is now well underway at several Boston-area campuses. At Tufts, adjuncts won a recent resolution to organize by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Bentley, a four-year business college in Waltham, also recently voted on a resolution, though the outcome there was less promising:  the resolution to unionize on campus lost by 2 votes (98 for vs. 100 against).  With some 1400 adjuncts, Northeastern University was described by someone as “the jewel in the crown” of adjunct organizing in the Boston area – which probably also explains why Northeastern administration has hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to prevent a union from being formed on its campus.

One hears a litany of all-too-familiar concerns at these events: about the economic burdens of adjunct life: the exorbitant cost of living in the Boston area; the skyrocketing cost of health insurance; the challenge to keep groceries in the fridge and bills paid. The pressure of student debt is a persistent topic of concern (as it obviously is too for the vast majority of the students that adjuncts encounter in the classroom). Adjuncts want, most immediately, more pay – a livable wage. They want space on campus in which to work. They want benefits, of health insurance especially, and a budget for essential work-related expenses (such as computers and support for their maintenance and repair). They want job security: renewable contracts guaranteeing long-term or consistently longer-term employment; advance notice for teaching appointments. They wish, most broadly, for equality: a role in faculty governance; a stake in the curricular or operational decisions of the department; the respect and support of their tenured peers. 

As pressing as are the bread-and-butter issues of economic survival as an adjunct, one hears more at these events about the considerable emotional burdens of life as a contingent faculty member: the exhaustion of the “road scholar” who has to divide his or her time between two, three, or more different schools; fear and anxiety associated with the precariousness of the economic situation, of employment at will; feelings of shame, the persistent sense of not having succeeded at what is essentially a lottery, not primarily a system that rewards merit; uncertainty about how to deal with the material conditions of one’s own employment – whether (for instance) to speak frankly to the students about the contingent status of one’s employment; feelings of invisibility – to administration, to tenured faculty and to each other. “Adjuncts are spectral figures,” Doug Kierdorf, a historian at Tufts said, often disconnected from the life of the university. These are symptoms hardly unique to contingent employees of the university, of course, but they are felt as acutely by this group as by other members of a growing contingent, casualized, just-in-time labor force in America and elsewhere in the world.