Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Art, Adjuncting, and Alienation

Cameron Conaway is a much braver man than I. Yesterday, he posted an "Open Letter" on the Huff Post College Blog, going public with his resignation from Penn State Brandywine, where I work as adjunct instructor of anthropology, assistant to the honors program coordinator, and writing tutor. Although I only have one semester of teaching under my belt, I am not exaggerating when I say that this is the most fulfilling (except, of course, in the financial sense) job I have ever had. Despite the many institutional shortcomings outlined in my colleague's blog post, Brandywine is a great work environment full of students and faculty (including administrators) who genuinely want to make a positive difference in the world. This is not to say that Mr. Conaway's grievances are illegitimate; certainly, the system has failed him, but I want to make clear that I see this as a systemic issue rather than the malevolence or greed of specific individuals within our campus community. Still, this is an issue that needs to be discussed openly; those of us who fail to do so are complicit in this gross inequality.

I count myself first among the guilty. Rather than joining in this bold demonstration of contempt for the corporatization of academia, I am prepared to sign a contract to teach another semester of cultural anthropology. I will give it my all, putting in more time and effort than the compensation warrants, because my students are paying too much to receive less from me. I will appreciate every minute of this experience in a job that I was very fortunate to receive immediately after earning my MA, hoping that it improves my chances of full-time employment in the not-too-distant future. I will spend what little spare time I have trying to get published, applying to PhD programs, and making music, keeping my eyes and ears open for more lucrative opportunities. I will do my best to raise awareness of inequalities in universities across the country, paying special attention to ways in which the social sciences might effectively address these problems. However, I will do all of this while gratefully accepting any work I can get from Penn State and other local universities, along with any public assistance I will need to supplement the lowest-paying job that requires a master's degree.

I feel powerless. I feel disillusioned and lost. Most of all, I feel guilty. I am taking work from much more qualified scholars for a fraction of the pay they would receive as full-time, tenure-track professors. I feel like a scab and a hypocrite.

The shame began to set in immediately after I finished reading Mr. Conaway's letter this morning. A few days ago, I scolded a young musician for soliciting unpaid labor from other musicians via Facebook. In a few sentences, I (not disrespectfully, but not kindly, either) explained to this artist that, when performers accept little to no pay from venues, they perpetuate a few dangerous notions that should disturb anyone who values creative expression. These beliefs include:

  • Art is fun or play, as opposed to work.
  • Musical talent is something that some people naturally have, not a skill they have honed for years and years.
  • The value of entertainment in the public sphere is proportionate to the revenue it can bring in to the host establishment. (e.g., "How many fans can your band bring to buy drinks at my bar?" I call this model the alcohol-entertainment-industrial complex.)
  • Unless you're a touring, label-signed artist, music is a hobby for your spare time, not a part-time job with a decent hourly rate. And you've got to be kidding if you want to make a career out of playing several nights a week at local venues.
  • Familiarity is profitable and therefore preferable. Original music is nice for small, niche venues; however, Top 40 will keep people drinking and singing along (funny how the two go hand-in-hand), so DJs and cover bands should be paid accordingly.

If your imagination hasn't been dumbed down from your weekly Top 40/PBR cocktail, you might have noticed the parallels between each of the attitudes listed above and the attitudes regarding the production and dissemination of knowledge in higher education. Rather than prioritizing the cultivation of young, inquisitive minds, universities are increasingly treating students like customers, enticing them with promises of job market competitiveness rather than expansion of mind, retaining them by coddling them rather than challenging them to engage in meaningful research. Rather than valuing faculty for their knowledge, wisdom, life experience, and teaching skill they bring to the classroom every day, universities are increasingly alienating a growing workforce of professional educators who might otherwise inspire their students customers for generations to come.

What can we do to fight this trend in higher education? Not all of us adjuncts have the charm, charisma, and publishing credentials that Mr. Conaway boasts, so I'm not sure if resignation is the right path for all of us. I'm not even sure I can begin to answer the question, so I'm putting this out there to keep the discussion going:

What can we, especially adjuncts (hopefully with the support of full-time faculty), do about this growing inequality?

As a musician, I am quite familiar with disappointment and injustice; the Philadelphia music "scene" is rife with underpaid artists. Still, I have to be optimistic. My band has been fortunate in finding a few venue owners and promoters who pay us fairly for our time and talent on a regular basis, giving me hope that the love of music will triumph over the love of money at the end of the day.

And currently, there is a push toward fair pay for musicians in Seattle. Civic leaders are behind this effort which, if successful, could influence cultural policy throughout the country.

We clearly have a long way to go, with many hurdles to clear, not the least of which are the cultural trends that diminish the inherent value of knowledge and creative expression. But if we continue to make bold statements, whether in the form of a public resignation or a blog with a much smaller audience (yes, you're probably the only one reading this), I believe the perseverance of this conversation can change hearts, minds, and budgets.

Don't give up the fight.