I Should Have Known Better: A Tale of Hindsight

November 1, 2013

In the fall of 1995, as a student journalist at Loyola University New Orleans, I had my first encounter with the issue of part-time faculty, though not my last.* I had nearly forgotten about the story until this week, when I was reminded of it on Facebook, via a countdown of the most important stories in Maroon history. My story, notably, was not the one people were talking about.

The same week that my story on part-time faculty appeared, a scandal erupted at my university when Freeport-McMoRan, an oil and mineral company with an abysmal environmental (and human rights) record took back the $600,000 it had given to Loyola for an endowed chair. Apparently, Freeport didn’t particularly like it when The Maroon, the university newspaper, printed an editorial questioning the ethics of accepting money from a company with a spotty environmental record and suspicious human rights issues. And they really, really didn’t like it when members from LUCAP (Loyola University Community Action Program) showed up at a protest headed by Earth First and the Delta Greens. The protest started at Loyola, and ended three blocks later in front of Freeport CEO Jim Bob Moffett’s house. (Most memorable chant ever: “Jim Bob Moffett kills for profit.”)

It was a glorious mess, and a great time to be a student journalist. Two out of four stories on the front page dealt with fallout from the protest: The top story addressed Freeport’s decision to ask for the money back, despite the university president, Rev. Bernard Knoth (who later went down in flames in his own scandal), dismissing the protest and a LUCAP-sponsored forum as a space for “ideologues.” (Sure, he was right about that, but if you look at Freeport’s record since that era…). Another covered the protest itself, with its ridiculous chant. And yet another, interior article covered the LUCAP forum.

Among all these sexier stories, down at the bottom of the front page, was my byline of the week. I couldn’t cover the scandal, unfortunately. No, I’d put myself out of contention for covering that by 1) being a member of LUCAP and 2) attending the protest with my cousin (not a university member). So, I got assigned a last-minute story about part-time faculty at Loyola, a topic about which I knew nothing and hadn’t intended to write.

The faculty senate had just tabled a motion to allow adjuncts to serve as department representatives. The article featured 1) all male full-time faculty as sources, and a female part-time instructor who was quoted at the end (and was the only part-time person who’d go on record for the newspaper);** 2) comments about prejudices against part-time faculty; and 3) concerns that the university was using part-time faculty “like larger colleges use grad students” (it was, not that it’s right to use grad students that way, either).

It’s not a particularly strong bit of writing, since I was busy that week being a radical activist. But there are some telling quotes, especially from Julian Wasserman, an English professor,*** who was behind the push to allow part-time faculty to serve in the faculty senate. Wasserman had handed out a letter to the faculty senate in support of the measure, which he also gave to me. In it, he noted, part-time faculty were prejudged as “1)… transient, gypsy-like workers who are here today and gone tomorrow, 2) as outsiders who don’t possess the true Ignatian values of the institution, and 3) as less capable as instructors than their full-time colleagues.” 

In the article, neither of the anti-adjunct professors came out and agreed these prejudices existed, but their comments often implied them anyway. For example, J. Stuart Wood, associate professor of business administration, argued against part-time participation, due to the “nature” of part-time employment. He said, “The purpose of the university is to expose students to a kind of learning that part-time teachers can’t do. We’re using part-time teachers as more than seasoning, which makes students less appetized.”

(Seriously, he turns part-time employees into seasoning. I don’t remember what I thought when I wrote that story, but these days, I think, “What an insufferable jerk.”)

Throughout the article is a repeated tension: there’s both an underlying view that adjuncts are less qualified, and an acknowledgment that there are not enough full-time positions to serve students well.**** And, even though there’s a certain smugness to the way it’s expressed by the business professors in the article, they are right. Students are better served by full-time faculty. But that doesn’t preclude better, more equitable treatment of part-time faculty so that they can do their best work.

This should have been a moment when the scales fell from my eyes about academia. However, I was 19, and I had no intention of going into academia; that decision wouldn’t come until I swore off journalism forever two years later after a devastating summer internship at Rolling Stone, in which I realized it was not the ’70s anymore and there was no real, creative journalism going on there, and after my own tenure as editor in chief of The Maroon, in which I learned that trying to be fair is often a way to get people to hate you (in retrospect, that actually prepared me for teaching college kids). I hadn’t yet changed my major to music, though I was considering it. I was barely through the first semester of music theory, and the number of journalism classes I was taking outnumbered the number of music classes (unless you count band & orchestra, which I don’t).

So, I was very far from the path that I would determine to be the only one for me—that is, academia—only a few years later. But I do wish I’d thought of this story along the way, and how it might affect my life, career, and wellbeing if I were to end up in one of those part-time positions.

Because, looking at my article from the perspective of 2013, it also strikes me that these are the same issues that adjuncts face today: prejudice, bemoaning the lack of new full-time positions, and lots and lots of tabling of issues. The question is, if this was happening 18 years ago, how are we going to move forward? Are we yet at a critical point in which things will be done? One could argue that we’re no closer to changing the situation for the better, and in a worse place than even 1995 now that even tenured positions are being eliminated. It will take years to bring about any difference, and I’m not sure I have the energy to protest things like I did when I was 19. How do we manage to keep fighting, when we realize the fight never stops?

===============

*If you’re interested in the piece I wrote, it’s below, since someone linked to that issue of the newspaper on Facebook and I didn’t even have to look for it. I’m slightly embarrassed by the quality of the journalism, but I also acknowledge that it was 18 years ago.

**I wrote another article for one of my journalism classes that semester that was a longer feature about a music department adjunct. The other day, I misremembered on Twitter which story was in the paper. If you saw my tweets, please recognize that it was 18 years ago. Also, I wrote at least an article a week for my first four semesters of college, so there’s a lot I don’t remember.

***My favorite interaction with Prof. Wasserman happened a few weeks later, at a dinner honoring student leaders, where I sat next to him. On his other side was a member of the SGA (student government), who had ridden with Prof. Wasserman to some event. Prof. Wasserman launched into a story about other people who had ridden in his very ancient car, including Allen Ginsberg. “You mean the Supreme Court Justice?” SGA kid exclaimed. “Yes, the Supreme Court justice,” Wasserman replied “And I drove Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the beat poet, to the airport.” SGA kid’s eyes get wide, and then something clicks in his brain. “Wait, you’re making fun of me,” SGA kid said. “Yes,” Wasserman replied.

**** This mindset has always bothered me: if the university is not creating enough full-time positions, surely you can get it in your head that maybe, just maybe, highly qualified people aren’t getting jobs? Because, you know, that’s the logical conclusion. But no one wants to think that there are vast numbers of unemployed, well qualified people floating around; it’s too scary to imagine. I guess people are fine with cognitive dissonance as long as they can convince themselves that their own jobs are secure, due to their exceptional qualifications.

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2 Responses to “I Should Have Known Better: A Tale of Hindsight”

  1. I’m really loving this series, I hope you will keep it up!

    My only thing about the faculty senate representation issue is that although I know it is structurally important, as a part-time faculty member (which at my school is one step up from adjunct, but obviously several steps down from everyone else) one of the few things I desperately hang on to is that I don’t have to do as much service as my colleagues. The thought of contributing in a meaningful way to a faculty senate, essentially without being paid to do so, makes me cringe a bit. And in a world where faculty senates are being marginalized by administrations anyways….it’s not at the forefront of my priorities.

    • badcoverversion said

      Thanks! I hope you’ll keep reading.

      It’s not at the forefront of my priorities, either, to increase unpaid service responsibilities. However, I think it depends on the university, too: here at Fordham, the faculty senate has lobbied for raises and to preserve various health insurance options for faculty, and won on those fronts (or so the emails tell me). Those are two areas where adjunct concerns should be represented, too, but aren’t. Also, I only suggested it as one possible option in my “how to be a tenured ally” piece; I don’t mean that it would work everywhere and/or for everyone. The question becomes, though, how do we manage to address the issues of structural change from a period of zero power, and without increasing our responsibilities?

      I think it’s interesting in the 1995 article that no one brought up the issue of the unpaid nature of the faculty senate. I was fairly naive about it at the time, so, chances are, if a faculty member hadn’t brought it up, I wouldn’t have known it was an issue.

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