Guest blogger, Lee Elaine Skallerup, writing from Kentucky in the USA.
I didn’t teach last semester (Winter 10). It was the first time I had been out of the classroom, away from students, for almost 10 years. And it wasn’t because I didn’t have the opportunity to teach, it’s because I decided that I didn’t like the conditions under which I would be teaching.
Go anywhere online that talks about issues in higher ed (Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, countless blogs) and you can read about the current plight of teachers at colleges and universities. Increasing reliance on adjunct teachers and harsh punishment for any sign of disloyalty from those who are lucky enough to hold full-time/tenure-track appointments. I, to some, showed my disloyalty by refusing to teach a class whose timing would severely impact my quality of life, turning the course down at the last minute while I waited to see if another opportunity came through so we could make the bills.
“Roxie Smith” wrote on her blog about academic loyalty/disloyalty in regards to a (female) provost who was fired by the (male) president of their university for looking for another job. She writes that there has been a “shift in the academy from a decentralized administrative structure to the much more centralized, top-down model that has taken hold as universities have come to be run more like corporations in recent years. We deplore that shift in part because it encourages — even, indeed, forces — faculty to think of themselves as independent contractors rather than as members of a collective with a stake in the future of the institution.”
I don’t know anyone, other than the administrative assistants and the professor who hired me, where I am currently teaching. I don’t have any motivation, either. I was told upfront that I would never get a full-time job there because my specialty and interests were not a priority. Can I help it if I adapt as mercenary an approach to being an adjunct as they take towards adjuncts? Nothing personal, just business. I am dedicated to the students I teach, but not to the institution. I now consider myself an independent educator. No one owns me or my loyalty. Is it any surprise, then, that institutions that too heavily rely on contingent faculty have problems with retention and completion rates?
This is not to say that I am not dedicated to trying to change higher ed for the better; I’ve decided to think big instead. When I read articles that claim that higher ed still cares about students, academic freedom, etc, I wonder if change can really come from within. It’s one thing to care, it’s another thing to actually do something about it. I have written elsewhere that women especially hit a glass ceiling because they make up such a huge percentage of the contingent faculty ranks and are thus cut off from ascending the ranks of administration where they can truly have an impact. So, I’m breaking rank and going at it differently.
A colleague asked me about what message this teachers our younger generation, when we become so disloyal to institutions that were at one time the bedrock of our culture and society? I respond by asking what lesson am I teaching my daughter if she sees me working long, horrid hours for basically nothing, increasingly doing volunteer work in the slim hope that one day the institution will reward me for my hard work and “loyalty”? And every year watching me stress out because I don’t know if I will have enough courses to pay the bills, qualify for heath insurance? And every time there is a position opening, watching me go from hope to despair as the job goes to another (usually external) candidate?
Loyalty is important. But, my loyalty has to be earned. I want to teach my children that you do not reward people or institutions who abuse and exploit you with your loyalty. I refuse to let them confuse loyalty with desperation.
Lee Elaine Skallerup has a PhD from the University of Alberta in Comparative Literature. She has taught in two Canadian provinces and three States, and is now branching out as an Edupreneur. You can visit her blog at collegereadywriting.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter (@readywriting).