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Adjuncts Speak Out: Stephanie Young, David Buuck, and Christian Nagler in Conversation
At the end of summer, I went back to school and sat down with three Bay Area Adjunct Writing Instructors (*and poets!) who are leading the charge locally toward better working conditions for adjuncts and better learning conditions for students as part of “Adjunct Action: Bay Area.” This is part of a nationwide movement called Adjunct Action: a project of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), where over 22,000 unionized adjuncts have already won improvements in pay, job security, evaluation processes, and access to retirement benefits. This conversation took place between myself, Stephanie Young (who teaches at Mills College), Christian Nagler (SFAI, AAU), and David Buuck (Mills, Bard College). Read our conversation to learn more about what adjunct unionization means for poetry instructors, poetry program administrators, and poetry students nationwide.
SARA: There’s been a lot of conversation recently about adjunct unionization at colleges and universities in the United States. I’m wondering if we can begin by talking about a few of the problems: what are a few of the problems that adjunct instructors are facing in the workforce?
CHRISTIAN: At my school, the San Francisco Art Institute, adjuncts are 80% of the faculty but they have no say in the functioning of the institution. There’s not a full buy-in for the people who participate in these institutions and make their living in them. And it’s a problem because there’s a higher education crisis, it’s systemic and difficult, and we need a lot of different intelligences working on it, especially the people who are working on the ground every day and know its problems first-hand. That’s a big thing for me: institutional governance and a voice within the institution. But that’s one small part.
DAVID: The ideological acceptance of a business model for colleges and universities has lead to major cost cutting and the trend—especially within the humanities, where you have a massive increase in PhD students, or in the creative writing world, with so many MFAs—has led to a buyers’ market from the point of view of the institution. With the massive increase in the percentage of adjuncts in universities, the costs are pretty clear: lower pay, lack of input into faculty governance, lack of training and institutional support for scholarship or career advancement, and lack of job security and benefits; but also, at a macro-level, it is part and parcel of the shift to a corporate model, where the student is increasingly seen as a consumer and the professor is increasingly seen as a service provider.
STEPHANIE: I would add other concrete ways precarity gets expressed in the working lives and labor conditions of adjuncts, namely, lower wages and year to year (or semester to semester) contracts. Often faculty will have a verbal agreement or understanding with a Chair or Dean but no official contract in hand. Sometimes contracts arrive a few months, weeks, or even days before classes begin.
One thing I’ve come to understand during the union organizing process is that I’ve worked in a somewhat unusual department [at Mills College], one that’s had a more ethical commitment to adjunct faculty or maybe just an understanding of what it means to run on 60% adjunct labor and also keep programs running smoothly for students. What this has looked like practically: English department leadership advocating for multi-year contracts so that adjunct faculty have a sense of what the next few years will look like; bundling classes so that people teach enough courses to be eligible for health benefits; compensation for adjuncts who do things like academic advising and serving on thesis committees. That sort of work has traditionally been done by tenured faculty, which becomes untenable when the number of students is the same or higher but only 40% of the faculty can do these major things that students sign up for, especially at a private liberal arts college–working with an academic advisor who is available, will be around when you need a letter of recommendation two years from now. Someone you can work with both in and out of the classroom, mentorship. I knew these conditions were unusual in comparison to other colleges, especially around health care–many don’t offer benefits to adjunct faculty at all, or don’t allow them to teach enough courses to become benefits eligible. But it’s been upsetting to discover the uneven conditions for colleagues in other departments at Mills. And that better working conditions are entirely dependent on who is in power, which can change abruptly. The union gives us the opportunity to understand these uneven and inequitable labor practices across departments and campuses, and to raise everyone’s working conditions.
Christian’s point on governance is also important. One contribution to the erosion of faculty governance over the last 30-50 years has been increased reliance on adjuncts who aren’t participatory members of faculty senates, who don’t have a say. Which weakens the faculty as a whole, both tenured and non-tenured, and gives the administration and board of trustees more power.
SARA: What’s it like to be an adjunct? Can we bring a few more percentages into the picture, for students who may not know?
STEPHANIE: There are many different kinds of adjuncts, many different kinds of workers. Many people teach at two or three institutions in order to make ends meet. Christian, when you worked at Academy of Art, you were teaching something like eight classes a semester. Which is a slightly different situation from Mills in that it’s a for-profit school.
CHRISTIAN: It is a different situation. And yet all the schools, including the public universities, are now following the business models of the for-profit schools. Though the for-profits are definitely leaders in the corporatization of education. They pay the lowest wages with the highest level of contingency. When I worked at one I had to teach at least five classes per semester in order to make anything.
STEPHANIE: How much did you make per class?
CHRISTIAN: It was $110 per class, per three-hour class, and it would end up being about $2,000 a class per semester. In total, I’d make about $10,000 a semester.
DAVID: We all know poets in New York: I know one who was teaching five classes each at five different area colleges. She was doing all of her preparatory work in transit, on the train ride across the boroughs.
STEPHANIE: The SEIU just released this report, The High Cost of Adjunct Living in the Bay Area, and it shows pretty miserable conditions. Adjuncts in my department at Mills make more than the local average, but still earn 50 to 70% less per class than our tenured colleagues, whose annual salaries are between $60,000 to $120,000. Tenured faculty also have a clear scale and path for advancement, whereas some adjuncts I know have been paid the same per-course rate since they started working 5, 10, or 15 years ago, even though the cost of living has only gone up. Part of the tenure process is that your pay increases as you advance through assistant, associate, and full professorship. Tenured faculty also receive 401k contributions, paid sabbaticals, funding for research and travel, and so on.
DAVID: It should be clear though, we don’t want to make this about the divide between adjuncts and tenure-track. And we all have to pay Bay Area real estate prices! The pressure on tenure-track and tenured faculty is—
STEPHANIE: —Extreme! But the point is that you can have a situation where two people are doing the same work for radically different pay.
DAVID: It puts no pressure on the university to open up more tenure lines. The other thing that I want to add to this is that most adjuncts are unemployed every summer. I don’t receive a check, and most adjuncts I know don’t receive a check in between semesters, which means over the winter holiday you go four weeks with no check, which is why you’re not getting a Christmas present from me this year. Summer unemployment is a serious thing and a lot of us have to scramble for different jobs every year.
STEPHANIE: Not every school supports unemployment claims during the summer, in fact, some actively work against them. My understanding is that CFA [California Faculty Association] offers workshops for adjuncts at San Francisco State about how to apply for unemployment. CFA is a public sector union affiliated with SEIU, the union that many private schools in the Bay Area and across California are unionizing with right now.
DAVID: That’s a result of a well-organized union: providing services for each other, mutual aid, and support. As anyone who has applied for unemployment knows, it’s difficult. There are a number of bureaucratic hurdles and by the time you’ve figured them out, it’s August. Those who don’t work in the university system often say “Oh, you all get your summers off.” As though it’s a privilege of working in the academy. But actually, a better way of putting it is that is, well, you’re unemployed every summer.
CHRISTIAN: Almost everywhere I’ve taught, there’s no office to meet with students. I remember, at Academy of Art, there was also a legal thing where we couldn’t meet in a cafe with a student. So there was literally nowhere to meet with students and it was basically illegal to meet with students outside of class. I couldn’t do my job without substantial one-on-one meetings with students. That’s another thing, not getting paid for any amount of office hours. Another difference between tenured faculty and adjuncts is that tenured faculty get resources for professional development, for conferences, for sabbaticals to do their research. So if adjuncts are to be evaluated based on the performance of their teaching and also for their contributions to the field, how should they be evaluated considering that there aren’t resources for development? It’s an idea that faculty enter the institution fully formed (or not) instead of evolving and learning from and with their colleagues.
SARA: What have each of your experiences been like, as adjuncts?
STEPHANIE: I’ve been in a slightly unusual situation at Mills, working at a single campus in a full-time position. For the last few years I was in a half faculty, half administrative director position. Prior to that I was the full-time coordinator of English department graduate programs, and taught 2 courses a year on top of my full-time job. Because of this dual role, I was fully present and had a voice in the department, which isn’t the case for many adjuncts.
After we unionized, I was laid off from the administrative half of my position during a series of cuts attributed to projected budget deficits. But it’s also felt pretty clear since then that the administration didn’t want an adjunct in the position I was in. Prior to this summer, I was contributing to the department similar to the ways a tenured faculty member would.
CHRISTIAN: My experience at SFAI has been similar to yours, Stephanie. I coordinated administrative aspects of the writing program for a few semesters after my boss quit in the middle of the semester. I was the one who knew how the writing portfolio and the curriculum system worked. I was paid as if I was teaching another class to do this. But then, my experience with the administration became really strange, and this is what energized my union organizing. At the end of a few semesters of doing this, there was the message that “you’re getting too comfortable here” and “you’re an adjunct and yet you’re shaping practices within the department and so how do we square this?” They were also getting ready, at our school, to do some purges of faculty. It was a strange feeling of having put so much into a department and then, because I put so much into it, my job security was threatened. It’s this Kafka-esque twist: the more you care and commit, the more you’re pushed down or out.
SARA: Stephanie, you made a similar comment about your experience working with graduate students this semester.
STEPHANIE: I got to work with a particularly great group of students this spring, both in workshop, and individually, on two exceptional thesis manuscripts. For the first time in 10 years I participated as a faculty member at the end of year celebration for grad students. In terms of intellectual and creative contributions I felt more like a full member of the department than I had before.
At the same time, it wasn’t until we unionized that I began to realize the extent to which I’ve felt the need to diminish myself in certain ways, to support the hierarchies around tenure. There was an SEIU metro organizing meeting last week and I showed up late, I was getting over a cold, but I was also operating the way I usually do–thinking oh, I can sit in the back and observe and that’s fine. And then I was called on to report back about the union process at Mills and suddenly understood that I was expected to show up and participate fully. And any member of the union who showed up would be expected to do the same. Emotionally it was this huge shift to realize I didn’t need to obscure my ideas or authority or go through circuitous routes to make something happen. I’ve enjoyed a lot of collaboration and respect in my working relationships with the outgoing Dean of the English department, and certainly with Juliana [Spahr], but in full department or other larger faculty meetings I’ve felt a great deal of internal pressure to defer, to remain or appear unthreatening. It’s not about tenured versus adjunct faculty, it’s that we’re stuck together in this system wherein tenured faculty, structurally, have certain kinds of power that adjuncts are not supposed to have, and when adjuncts do it makes everybody very uncomfortable—including adjuncts. I think Christian’s right about this Kafka-esque thing where the more stability you have, the more power and thus the more threatening you are, and the more precarious you become. Tenured faculty may be supportive of your stability, but who’s in power can change at any minute, at both the department and upper administrative levels. This provost supports you, the next one doesn’t.
CHRISTIAN: Yeah, and it’s more and more the case for tenured faculty as well. Tenure is more and more precarious. It’s what we might call Reaganization of the school, where power is concentrated in the upper tiers of the administration.
STEPHANIE: Tenured faculty have a similar relationship with the administration. I don’t entirely get this, given that their jobs are more protected. But nobody wants to disagree publicly, nobody wants to come out and make any kind of statement against administrative decisions they disagree with. Probably there is a fear that if you do, your program’s budget could get cut, or maybe you don’t get travel money or research grants when you apply next time. Or maybe your whole program gets axed.
CHRISTIAN: In fact, that’s similar to the administration’s relationship to the the Board of Trustees. The admin is afraid to challenge the Board. So you see that all of the power in the educational institution is actually economic power as opposed to knowledge power. And the latter, to bring it macro, is really what the university has strove to be over the last two hundred years: it’s an ideal of knowledge-power being separated from economic power in Max Weber’s sense. I don’t know if I totally believe in that but it’s worth something.
DAVID: To touch on that affective aspect of this, especially for the three of us who consider ourselves writers and do work in the field even if the field isn’t the field I teach in: I reached a point quite some time ago where I realized that I had to make a choice as to what form of cynicism I was going to have to live with, because it felt impossible to give the kind of energy to my job that I felt my students needed, which really would require more or less one-on-one meetings with each student every other week if I wanted to meet both the expectations of my employers and what I imagine students would actually find useful. But of course, I’m not paid enough for that, and that would cut into the amount of time that I could put into my own writing. So that’s one form of cynicism: “Oh, this job demands something of me, and if I want to do it really well, that is going to make the things that I really want to do—my unpaid writing work—suffer.” And the other choice of cynicism is “Oh fuck it, it’s just a job, I’m only going to do the amount of work that I get paid for, the institution may suffer, my relationship to the institution may suffer, my individual pedagogy may reach a limit, the students aren’t going to get the best I feel I could offer, but it’s just my day job: I don’t identify as a professor, I’m a writer.” And that’s a really difficult balance because there’s not enough time in day to do both well, for those of us who have an art practice in addition to teaching. It’s an affective shift that is perhaps specific to certain kinds of service work, in which I want to include pedagogy, where we are taught that the students are the most important priority, the liberal arts model of tending to and cultivating young minds, etc., and it’s not easy to take what in that discourse seems to be a selfish attitude: “Well, fuck the students, because I’m not getting paid enough and I wanna write.” This is where questions of affective labor can play out on the uneven battleground of class relations in the academy.
STEPHANIE: I do teach poetry, and for many years part of my administrative work was speaking with incoming MFA students about the program. In those conversations I often talked about the ways that Mills students have gone on to participate in local non-institutional writing communities. Which can feel complicated when one is also a member of those communities, so part of what you bring to the institution is the work you do for desire or love, the unwaged work. These identities and relations often felt uncomfortably co-mingled in my job. At some moments, generatively co-mingled. Not so much in others.
SARA: How does this situation relate to your identities as poets or your writing practices?
CHRISTIAN: It’s interesting hearing what you’re saying about having to choose a form of cynicism, or doing a job and having to leave your identity behind. At SFAI, it’s a little different because we’re not allowed to teach the same class twice. At Academy of Art, I mass-produced myself as an affective being. I would literally say the same words for three-hour chunks, all week long. “Here I am—again!—in this Groundhog Day-like scenario!” At SFAI that is not the case. Recently, they’ve been asking for quite developed class syllabi every semester and so every semester I am making three syllabi that are developed pieces of writing, aesthetic works, and it’s a weird feeling of not being able to embrace that sort of cynicism, because I care about the classes. Of course, in order to keep on working there, I’ve had to leave some of my own work unfinished.
DAVID: That reminds me of when I was at SFAI. For me, it was the curation of a class, the syllabi, the relative encouragement—or at least institutional indifference—to go ahead and develop one’s own pedagogy. One forgets that this is extra, unpaid labor, because compared to the assembly-line comp domain, it felt like a benefit of the job. Be creative, there’s an element of critical and aesthetic practice in the work, etc. Just in the fact that I used the word “curate,” as if to suggest that such work has sort of aesthetic value of the special domain of the arts as opposed to the corporate domain of the university. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. I would just like to have a contract in which autonomy around my own pedagogical and curricular practice is expected and encouraged but at the same time, it’s also a lot more work. It’s not like, two years down the road I’m getting a raise because I’ve shown that I can efficiently teach five different kinds of comp. And the range of subjects and methodologies I can teach simply ends up demonstrating my facility as a flexible employee for the precarity model of neolib capitalism.
At the same time, there’s also been an increase in attempts to develop metrics by which we can chart student development, which is a back-door way to evaluate pedagogy (and thus employment) in terms of input-output budgets. It’s the teach-to-the-tests model for colleges. That part of the corporatization model is also about bringing in this kind of managerial discourse of efficiency and evaluation into a field of affective labor, creativity, and subjective experience (at least in the humanities). It’s like the teaching-to-the-test model imported into the university, but they don’t tell you what the test is.
SARA: How did you decide to get a union involved? What was the point when you decided to get a union involved and how did you decide on this particular union?
CHRISTIAN: I called them. I had talked to people from the American Federation of Teachers, when I was teaching at Academy of Art in 2007. They were pretty good, but they didn’t feel that thorough at the time, but it was also when the national discourse about adjunct labor was still in the closet. With the financial crisis and after, the awareness has grown. Of contingent labor generally.
STEPHANIE: Even the MLA has taken it up. The discourse around it feels pervasive.
CHRISTIAN: Which is really the fall-out of some of the financial crisis and the popularized pedagogy of economics about the way institutions work.
STEPHANIE: Also the moment when student debt surpasses credit card debt.
CHRISTIAN: Totally. Debt being a mark of servitude to the one percent. I was interested in the SEIU because of the amount of resources they have and also the idea of the professor as a care-worker is interesting, not just as a consumer model but also, why not value care-work? That’s a real question for me. Professors in solidarity with fast food workers and paramedics! Gramsci’s ideal or something, the workers and the intellectuals together as careworkers. It seems like a real possibility.
STEPHANIE: I went to the SEIU Local 1021 board meeting a few weeks ago. There’s a place in the schedule when new members get introduced. The other new members that day were lunchroom attendants at an elementary school. They made very low wages for a long time, something like $8.50/hour for ten years without a raise. And they could only have 2-hour shifts. One of them told a story about starting the job when she was the primary caregiver at home, and being a lunchroom attendant was a way to make “mad money.” But then post 2008 she became the main wage earner in the family. After unionizing, the attendants were able to get a really significant raise, maybe to $12/hour, and more stability, more shifts. In that moment I understood our struggle as part of a much larger struggle around precarious labor in education, from K-12 to higher ed. During the spring organizing campaign, I wondered if some of the push back against the SEIU we experienced may have been about this discomfort with service work, identifying with service workers.
DAVID: About two or three years ago there was a brief moment where Mills was floating an idea to change job titles for adjuncts and there were these five choices, all of which were totally absurd. There was this moment when you could meet with the Dean of the Humanities and give some input and it was this cynical realism moment of “We all know that this is absurd but we are supposed to have these meetings” and everyone rolling their eyes.
But I remember there was a meeting where 10-15 adjunct faculty in the humanities met to talk about this and then there was this moment when obviously the conversation goes quickly to wages: “Well, this is stupid, this is clearly a sideshow and what this is really about is wages.” “Well, we need someone from a union to talk to us about this.” No one really steps up. Or we’re overworked because we’re driving between three campuses every week. Or we don’t have the shared experience. When SEIU showed up, I felt that it was urgent. Especially considering the way that Mills was using the discourse of economic crisis to instigate these changes that I think had been in the works for a while.
CHRISTIAN: SEIU is good at emphasizing urgency, for better or for worse.
SARA: How so?
CHRISTIAN: They know how to expose the way administration stonewalls unionization, and they know that once admin is aware that faculty are trying to organize, it’s rare to get second chances. Behind this “Why SEIU?” question, is the administrators’ fear of the amount of SEIU’s institutional power and political power, as one of the largest and fastest growing labor unions, and one that’s had a substantial effect on labor law over the last ten or fifteen years.
“We are this small, quaint, community organization and the SEIU is this juggernaut of the democratic (or communist!) party and they will just run our school into the ground, and they don’t understand art, they don’t understand the values of wealthy philanthropists, which is what art is!” This was the kind of discourse that our president used.
It’s wise to have some skepticism towards the wide-ranging, bureaucratic nature of SEIU, but it’s also interesting that there is an institutional and political force, backing us up logistically. I was thinking the other day about what a bind it is to identify as an adjunct, it’s almost an admission of failure in a certain way. “I am extra.” Or “my work is extraneous.” How much political solidarity can come from that identification? I wonder about that. To have a larger political force as an ally and as a logistical resource is useful when the very language used for our labor works against us.
STEPHANIE: I keep thinking about the program review that happened in the English department this spring. One of the quotes in the report from administration said that the proper role of adjuncts is to be “nimble.”
SARA: Like a mouse?
CHRISTIAN: Like a ninja!
STEPHANIE: Probably they don’t mean like a ninja, but yes! I think it’s more like, are you ready to jump when you’re told to. How high? Can you be flexible?
DAVID: That’s part of a larger neoliberal discourse in this country over the last twenty years, to shift the discourse from one of precarity to one of flexibility. “Freedom! Now our economy is dynamic and you’re not tied down to your job in the stodgy old union and assembly line.” The flip side of that of course is that you need to be extremely educated—and often well-connected—in order to flip gigs. Not just as adjunct but anywhere from being an assembly line worker to a data entry person. And you are getting new generations of people who don’t know life before neoliberalism, for whom student debt is just accepted as a given of what economic realism is. That’s a shift, and it’s been packaged to workers as a gift: don’t be tied to your job, be an individual!
STEPHANIE: It’s hard to be nimble when you’re carrying this ball and chain of massive debt.
DAVID: Just thinking structurally, for so-called creative writers, it’s not coincidental to see the growth of PhDs in creative writing in this country, or PhDs in practice as precisely that: an MFA is no longer enough to get a teaching job, so I’ll get a PhD in creative writing, which can often mean more debt, and thus more servitude to the creative writing factory. It’s a predatory lending scheme.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, if you look at the Wiki of tenure-track creative writing jobs over the last five years you can see who got the tenure-track jobs and many of them have both an MFA and PhD.
DAVID: Certainly don’t expect that if you’ve published four books it’s going to do anything for your employment.
SARA: How does your identity as a creative artist help you in this conflict? Specifically poetry, but maybe there’s other aspects of your identity that you want to bring into that response.
CHRISTIAN: There’s something that I want to think about here regarding ideals of creativity and nimbleness, flexibility, the qualities of the creative, cognitive worker. It’s important to question the institutionalization or legitimization of those ideals. What we call the neoliberal system in California goes back to the early to mid-sixties when Reagan was governor and he gave his speech about “The Creative Society” where he said that we can’t keep talent from the market, we can’t tie up all of our talent in public institutions. One of Reagan’s advisors, Alvin Toffler , coined the term “cognitariat.” He said that the underclass of the twenty-first century would be the person who doesn’t know how to learn. It’s an ideal of mental/cultural/social flexibility and I wonder what you all think about it. Is there something in poetry specifically that resists this, more than what I’ve seen in visual art or social-conceptual art, particularly in social practice, where it seems like “Oh they seem to be living out the ideal of flexibility, of extra-governmental fulfillment of basic social services, etc.” Is there a holdout in poetry? Is there idea of remediating the idea of creative work as stubbornly resistant work as opposed to the romance of the creative society, of the flexibility ideal?
STEPHANIE: When you say “they,” do you mean the economy or the grant system around visual art or social practice?
CHRISTIAN: I was talking about the idea that, more and more, informally evaluated, informally established aesthetic projects would be taking up the burden of the welfare state.
DAVID: The outsourcing of the management of poverty! Which has shifted in many ways from non-profit industrial sector to certain forms of artistic practice.
STEPHANIE: You’re saying those things because they’re providing material services and not only performing?
DAVID: The community garden as art practice. Maybe this is the cynic in me but I keep thinking that poets don’t really have anything to contribute structurally to the neoliberal economy. Unless we were to go into advertising: “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” This seems largely true in the ameliorative wing of outsourcing, other than maybe the model of teaching in the community, volunteering at the local school to teach a poetry class for kids because art programs have been decimated in public schools, etc. And that’s seen as a good thing for a poet to do, which it is, but the lack of support for that kind of work also presents opportunities for poets to co-create structures of mutual support that matter a lot, for both poets and the art.
SARA: What about for you, though?
DAVID: These trends or social situations that we’re discussing have certainly influenced my practice. Especially in my performance work, as distinct from the stuff that goes on the page. Though those things are blurred. I’m not writing adjunct poems, or “adjunctpo”—at least not overtly. I do however want to mention Christian’s work around Market Fitness, didn’t you just do Yoga for Adjuncts?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, Chris is making adjunctpo! Possibly I’m also making adjunctpo. I’m willing to take up this term! But Christian you should talk more about the Yoga for Adjuncts.
CHRISTIAN: I was trying to find a way of participating in or co-creating a popular pedagogy around economic critique, one that was more kinesthetically activated so that different affective registers could be brought to light. Also, it was a critique of the somatic, kinesthetic movement forms that we ascribe value to in everyday life, particularly around nimbleness and flexibility. I thought of Yoga for Adjuncts as an embodied critique of flexibility as we understand it in yoga and also in labor. A critique of the spritual ideal of being so flexible. Of that as the defining quality of The Soul. A quality of, like, my Prana, this nebulous, transcendent realm of infinite flexibility.
That the expectations of the contingent worker are in a negative dialectic with that ideal. I was also thinking about yoga teachers, because they are supposed to put their “whole soul” into it, they don’t care how much money they make, don’t care if there’s a stable economic basis to support them: that’s not the point, as it arguably is within the institution. It’s the spirituality of entrepreneurship. To go back to poetry though, I think that this is interesting, in terms of what poets do or do not have to offer the neoliberal system. I’ve encountered more substantial economic critique within poetry than within any other realm. Realm-aesthetic! Your book was huge in this way, Stephanie.
DAVID: But you required prose to achieve that. To narrate.
STEPHANIE: I think about that all the time. I’ve been teaching poetry. And at the same time feeling blocked about writing recognizable lyric verse. Which is what most hiring committees for poets will look for. Possibly the poet who writes economic critique in prose, critique of the university, might not be the most appealing to a hiring committee. And thinking again about yoga. Yin yoga is maybe the yoga of adjuncts. Staying in uncomfortable positions for a long time.
DAVID: And breathing! Every time that I go to work I have to take some deep breaths before I enter the classroom, lest I whatever, reveal my personal issues or whatever. It’s another degree of affective and somatic flexibility, which requires a great deal of awkward control of anxiety and awkwardness, to negotiate to what degree and when that seeps out when you’re performing pedagogy for your students. I sometimes feel like the love child of Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball, living out Sianne Ngai’s theory of the zany.
When I said that poets don’t have anything to offer in the neoliberal economy I just mean economically, which is why it’s odd when some poets talk about their creative work as a second job. They say “oh I have to go home and do my other job.” I say this all the time. But if I stop writing, no one will care. Capitalism will not care. The economy won’t suffer. And I can choose whether to celebrate that and give it a value by saying “Haha! Sticking it to the man by working extra hard on something they don’t want!” But the flip side of that, in the Bay Area at least, is that we rely on each other for this quasi-economic, cultural capital, gift economy milieu which is a lot of affective free labor that is performed in sometimes uneven and problematic ways but also in ways to keep the art alive and vibrant.
And also, most of my adjunct gigs in comp I got through these informal networks of poets in the community. The flip side of that is a sort of insular, messy nepotism, but it’s also a mode of mutual aid in the world of precarity where poetry doesn’t register as a cultural or economic gig: Hey fellow poet, I’ll keep you in the know if something opens up.
CHRISTIAN: That’s a really good point. I got my job at SFAI through Robin Tremblay-McGaw and Rob Halpern. It’s this way in which poets take seriously local, not local in this sort of way, but in the sense of less cosmopolitan systems of knowledge and value. Rob and I connected in certain ways because he was interested in the work that I was doing in El Salvador, which the university doesn’t give a shit about. But Rob was interested in it and thought that I could teach interesting classes, based on a different system of valuation.
And like you were saying, Stephanie, about Juliana and your department, that some departments are able to hold out these islands of power as distinct administrations. The big difference between an adjunct and a tenure-track faculty is that a tenure-track faculty is hired through a national/international search. And there are different criteria for that.
It is a system of evaluation based on a certain idea of cosmopolitanism that is not usually at play in the way that adjuncts are hired. And, more and more, the neoliberal university is only interested in instantly legible, cosmopolitan values. But there are more complex ways of valuing experience and knowledge in eduction. Like you said, the critique of the university in a poetry book that is like prose may or may not be legible within the system as it is. There are so many other local epistemologies that pass between the lines and that poets I think, take seriously for some reason.
STEPHANIE: Not that hiring committees aren’t rife with the messier side of that. Nepotism, weird decisions. Do you really think that’s particular to poets? Are we partially just talking about a kind of loose-knit sociality in which a lot of people have advanced degrees? The way that we’re narrating these stories feels similar to the way I could talk about my housing situation. So-and-so was a member of this collective and then they moved and we got the house with rent control which has enabled us to have certain kinds of jobs in arts and education. A story about artists and writers living together.
DAVID: I would add, to get back to the union: the SEIU campaign has been named “Adjunct Action Bay Area.” Hopefully this will expand. So far we’ve unionized at Mills, SFAI, and California College of the Arts. They have 300 adjuncts in their union compared to, what do you have at SFAI?
DAVID: And we have 140 or so. And St. Mary’s is on its way too, we hope. But really, looking at liberal arts and arts colleges that are highly dependent on adjunct labor and how the Bay Area is a labor pool since so many adjuncts teach at multiple institutions. It’s specific to the way that adjuncts get harvested locally. The Bay Area has a surplus of degreed poets desperate for work that values their skills.
STEPHANIE: Maybe this comes back to Christian’s point around different systems of value or knowledge. Or the professionalism of poetry after the rise of the MFA. Prior to that, writers could teach in higher ed without one, so there’s Charles Bernstein with a BA, or Susan Howe with a BFA.
SARA: What’s this process felt like for all of you? Acknowledging that there’s something wrong with this system that you’ve been working as part of for so long and working to correct it or advocate for people who are in the same position as you?
DAVID: It’s very frustrating. Getting into the nitty-gritty of joining the class-war, engaging class war at a very material level. It reaffirms that simply bitching about one’s job is not a politics. The more you get involved, the more frustrating it can become because it’s really difficult, complex, complicated work that is generally unpaid. If not exclusively unpaid. It’s somewhat affectively rewarding, certainly in building solidarity among certain teachers and also among other service workers and labor activists. That’s increasingly my line: do you know the name of the person who cleans your bathroom where you work? What does that mean to pass by janitorial staff and never even consider them as a co-worker, given the class stratification in the workforce. Organizing requires leaps across deeply inscribed lines.
It’s a relatively new thing on the west coast for adjuncts to be unionized in private schools. And there’s lots of people watching. That adds some pressure. There’s a sense of tempered excitement around the fact that this is an opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities and experiment and to draw out the enemy. What is the response going to be when pushed back? That’s always useful, even if just as a moment of opposition research.
STEPHANIE: It feels exciting, and frustrating, just because there’s such intense stratification and differences between faculty, vast differences in contracts. How do you organize with folks who are never all at the same workplace at the same time? Out of the 130 adjuncts in the bargaining unit at Mills, I’ve met no more than 5 or 10, outside the people I know in my department. That I don’t even know the majority of my colleagues feels like an enormous challenge. I’m going to be on the interim bargaining team, which we formed quickly because there’s been a barrage of cuts at Mills that have been incredibly destabilizing, and we have stronger legal protections once we’re in formal bargaining. But how do we begin this process, in the middle of the summer when everyone’s scattered, how do we work towards consensus and transparency?
Going into this, I felt so safe; I thought my job wasn’t going anywhere. So it’s been rough. My person, Clive, keeps making a joke that getting fired is my new full-time job. Losing the administrative half of my job (and corresponding wages) is also what’s made it possible for me to put more time into working with the union, which is unpaid, but also remarkable. I’m learning so much.
END NOTE: In the months since this interview, adjuncts at Mills College and SFAI have been hard at work drafting proposals for their first collective contracts, and regularly meeting with college administrators and lawyers at the bargaining table.
Visiting and Adjunct Faculty at Mills College and SFAI organized print-ins and rallies to inform students about the new adjunct union and to ask for their support while entering into contract negotiations.
On October 6, CCA adjuncts won their vote to unionize with the SEIU, and St. Mary’s and Dominican University just filed with the NLRB for their votes.
Interested in joining the action? Sign a petition asking administration at St. Mary’s to remain neutral and not use tuition funds or other resources to fight their faculty’s union organizing efforts, here.
More Open Door Profiles: The Best Job on Earth: On the Poetry of C. D. Wright | Not One of Us, All of Us: Writers Resist, Chicago
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