Thoughts on academic labor on Labor Day
Note. This piece references a highly publicized incident, as well as its aftermath, at my place of work. I have tried to include links to contextualize it, rather than recounting the play-by-play. The whole story is here.
Last semester was a full bucket of stress dumped into another, already full bucket of stress. The stress was spilling all over the floor and teachers (at least this teacher) couldn’t mop it up quickly enough to avoid slipping. In an attempt to return to pre-lockdown, pre-mask, pre-not-seeing-the-faces-of-students life, I failed to adequately account for the impact years of existential dread, tyrants, and a dying planet had on students’ social and academic skills. It was slippery. We were all slipping on the overflowing gunk.
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One of my institutions, Hamline University, arrived on the scene with a truckload more. Backing up to my classroom, which was already swimming in stress garbage, the administration dumped in some additional gunk, also existential and without the kindness of a towel. The core of the notions of education, research, and scholarship was eviscerated through a betrayal of academic freedom. I’m not interested in rehashing the particulars or arguing about the basic functions of universities, especially because we worked this out a century ago (apparently not every scholar was taught about free inquiry), but it produced a backdrop against which I have developed a wildly different worldview, one from which I better understand my value.
Before Hamline liquified her and threw her in the gunk truck, Dr. Erica López Prater was my colleague, though I didn’t know her. Adjunct culture makes human connection difficult. She had my job at Hamline, just in a different subject. She is an art historian. I am a musicologist (a music historian) teaching in the English department—at that institution, at least; I’m in music departments in other institutions, and in no particular department at others.
That’s confusing. I apologize. Sometimes I show up in the wrong building or on the wrong campus. Sometimes I spend more time calculating which tiny paycheck is coming on which day of the month or how many minutes it will take me to travel from one university to another than I do planning lessons. That’s the life that comes with my value to these places.
I easily could have been Dr. López Prater. I, too, engage with concepts involving culture, religion, and difference in the classroom. I, too, have to figure out content warnings and consider the lived experiences of my students as I construct lessons to help them become thoughtful, critical citizens. If I err, I now know the administration of the university (perhaps any university) will likely not have my back. If they see this piece of writing, I will likely get a talking to. Adjuncts are adjuncts, after all, though I’m not sure how the university (again, perhaps any university) will continue to function while not supporting the overwhelming number of their faculty who fall under that category or cannot access tenure lines (adjunct means “in addition to,” but people with that title are the core of the teaching force now; confused, yet?).
For some reason, people with power keep telling me I’m “valued.” That’s been happening a lot over the last few months, months in which I have been more vocal and public in asserting that a $22,000/year, no benefits, no job security lifestyle is perhaps a tad immoral given my role in the community and in the intellectual development of young adults. And the personal debt that was required along the way. The president of Hamline gets half a million dollars a year for dumping all that gunk on us (for now; someone else will be driving the stress truck soon). Capitalism. Weird.
But none of that is the point. My fascination with how everyone is falling all over themselves to call me “valued” comes from a linguistic angle. The word is always used passively. The people saying the word never place themselves in an active position. I am valued. It is never “I value you” or “we value you.” Somewhere, in some abstract universe of descriptors, value is attached to me. I can’t tell if they are using the word in a verb-y or adjective-y way. I need definitions.
Merriam-Webster gives me some options:
If “valued” is an adjective, it means “having a value or values, especially of a specified kind or number—often used in combination.” I like to think of myself as having value and values, but everyone has value and values, so this doesn’t help me figure out what the powerful people mean. Take off the “-ed” and the adjectival form of “value” means “of, relating to, or being a brand of inexpensive products marketed as an alternative to other, more expensive brands.” I surely hope that’s not what they mean, but it does hit close to home. They don’t pay me very much money, so I suppose I am the “value brand professor.” Is that what they mean? Ouch.
“Valued” feels verb-y to me in this context, though. Passive voice may protect the administration, but action is required to make the usage of the word make sense. Here are the potential actions, according to Merriam-Webster:
to consider or rate highly: Prize, Esteem
to estimate or assign the monetary worth of: Appraise
to rate or scale in usefulness, importance, or general worth: Evaluate
I assume the powerful people frantically telling me I’m “valued” intend to convey the first. Given that they pay me money to do things, though, the second also seems to be in play. If that second definition is allowed to be operative, we have a problem because there are numbers, and those numbers are pretty devaluing.
I wonder why the powerful people get to shift between the two so freely. So effortlessly. So contingently. Capitalism. Weird, again.
I have felt a massive increase in my self-efficacy so far this semester. Self-efficacy, not value. If they can play with that word, so can I. I am a better teacher this semester precisely because I no longer care all that much about the institution for which I work. My care is not reciprocated, so my commitment is, indeed, adjunct. I can use the third definition of the verb form of “to value.” I value my students much more highly than I value my bosses or my position.
I met with the dean roughly around the time the academic freedom debacle was happening, unbeknownst to me. The purpose of that meeting was unrelated to any of this, but I was disturbed when the dean told me I was “very brave” to come speak to her. That sounded off at the moment. It feels like a threat now. I should look up the definition of “brave” to find out.
However, I no longer worry about retribution or loss because they can’t take away something they have not given. I now tell my students how much money I make, and I show them my pay statement when they look at me incredulously. I now tell my students about the percentage of college instructors who have to rely on social services to live their lives. What was I scared of before? My students are paying these people to lead and make decisions about what my life and the lives of my colleagues look like. My students ought to know where the money goes and does not go.
Once I get that nonsense out of the way I can do what I’m poorly paid for: teach. I do that with joy and passion and countless unpaid hours of labor. I also do it with respect for the core principles of academic freedom, regardless of the unspoken demand that I not do so.
By the way, Hamline University, with its constant plea to “do all the good you can in all the ways you can” is my alma mater. Ain’t that a kick in the values? Capitalism. Weird.