The Three Gifts of Tenure

Scarlet Letter

I will say it up front. Tenure is cool, and the opposite, “contingent” employment, really sucks. I was an adjunct for about two years in the 1990s, and I know from first hand experience that it sucked. Why?

Well there were a couple of reasons. First, was that I was constantly on the job market, since I did not know where my income was coming from the following semester. This is a condition that college teachers share with many workers in the modern economy, on the funny assumption that the more scared you are of catastrophe, the harder you will work.

But scared teachers do not develop their repertoire, either in teaching or research. Delivering a 15 week class takes 3-4 semesters to “get right,” meaning to get the rhythm of what you need to say, how it fits together, what assignments fit in best. And of course the jokes need to be right—and that takes practice, too. Three to four times, and it starts becoming easy—and 10-12 times it becomes boring, as your “lecture” notes yellow and turn stale.

A second gift of tenure is the capacity to develop a research program—you can only do this if you have a reasonable confidence of continued income. Research programs, whether they are your own, or your graduate students, take several years to manage and develop. Books? About five years. Articles, a little less.  Such projects do not fit in well to semester-to-semester contracts.

And the third gift of tenure is that it puts you on an equal footing with your “boss.” This is important because, well, not all bosses, are that great at supervising teachers, whether they are tenured or not—just ask the adjuncts who are indeed supervised by Department Chairs elected by the tenured faculty.

This part of the gift of tenure has two different causes. First is the fact that teaching is inherently difficult to supervise—a supervisor cannot really “supervise” more than a fraction of their work, nor can they use a clock, or other mechanism to monitor anything of significance in the classroom. This is something that those who supervise teaching should know, but often do not acknowledge.  Or rather they invent proxies like “Student Evaluation of Teaching,” which ask students about their experience, or ask you what you have printed on your syllabus, as if that is really what happens in class.

The second part of the “chair” problem is that the chairs and deans who hire adjunct faculty are not necessarily very good managers of adjuncts—they are hired by tenured faculty to serve (not manage) tenured faculty. Supervising adjuncts is for them just a side gig—the real action is with those who elected them, i.e. the tenure track faculty. As a result many are not necessarily very good at managing “contingent employees.” What does it mean to be lousy at supervising adjuncts?

–Not let the adjunct know what they will be teaching or take away an assigned class and give it to a tenured person at last minute

–Say or do anything which lets contingent employees believe that they might not have a job next semester/year.

–Change up preps unexpectedly–or change class sizes erratically

–Use anecdotal student gossip to write reviews, whether it comes in hushed tones in the office, through written reviews, informal discussion with tenured faculty, or ratemyprofessor.com.

–Publish a job ad with the classes taught by contingent employees in them.

–Otherwise keep the adjunct off-balance regarding their professional status.

And then of course there is the problem of pay, which like it or not is central what we do. The stories of adjuncts on welfare are of course legion. Not every campus does it, but paying $2,000-$3000 per class for a full-time adjunct (with ten courses being a full-load) is a recipe for penury, short-term employment, and high employee turnover. And what can I say? Quick turnover of teachers is harmful to teaching quality—and in the university world, “quick” means every 5-6 years. After all, how can you prepare a “full quiver” of classes in a shorter time? Student success suffers from teachers who are not treated as highly skilled professionals, and have a tougher time developing as a professional as a result.

And this says nothing of a research program which oddly enough, some adjuncts still put together on the side.

My Appreciation for Tenure

I’ve been on tenure track since 1998, and had tenure since 2003.  This has indeed been a blessing, particularly when I compare my working conditions to my adjunct colleagues who are under constant threat of lay-off. What has it permitted me to do?

Accept new course preps, and explore new fields without fear of short-term failure, which in the adjunct world means a few students complaining to a dean or chair about you. Sometimes this happened, mostly it didn’t—but even when it does, I can be confident that the comments will not be taken out of context.

Re-establish the Asian Studies major, for which I was a “voluntary advisor” for three years. This is something I am enormously proud of—and would not have done without the freedom of tenure protections.  I was also able to participate in “General Education Reform” in a fashion which I hoped reflected abstract academic goals for student achievement, rather than the narrow “butts in seats” metrics of standard university administration by “full-time equivalent students (FTES).”

Publish six books, an write a number of articles, one of which received a comeuppance letter from the politically connected United States Ambassador to Tanzania. Because I was tenure track, I got an “attaboy” from my Chair at the time. Imagine if I had been contingent—I would have been afraid that such a high government official could get me fired, or at least put in the pathway of “I’m sorry it looks like there are no classes for you next semester.”

In short, my employment guarantee gives me the freedom to experiment without fear to my livelihood. Do some of my colleagues take advantage of this? Probably—but the fact of the matter is that the freedom my tenure gives me exists only in such a context. If I didn’t have an employment guarantee I would be back to sending out my c.v. every semester and keeping my head low in hopes that I could put together a living, rather than developing a scholarly career.

I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes For You!

The opposite of tenure, lack of employment security, though actually drags the institution of higher education down further. To understand this, I need only listen to the whispered fears of my adjunct colleagues. They fear trying new things, requesting professional courtesies I take for granted, requesting justified raises, attending conferences, taking on new preps, or pushing back when more students are pushed at them.  Indeed the ability of administrators to push more students at the adjuncts is why they typically teach teach larger sections than their tenured colleagues. Adjuncts are also hesitant about expressing themselves frankly in meetings. Many fear becoming involved in the union not because of what the union does, but because they fear administrators will deliver the dreaded and vague message, “next semester we do not have any classes for you.”

This post is an adaptation of “I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes for You!” which was posted in January 2015 here at Ethnography.com.

Social Class and Food from Around the Web

I grew up eating what the educated like to call “junk” food and “trash” food, mostly it was “poor food,” that came from boxes and cans. It wasn’t always like this in my family, we had short periods of feast and long periods of famine, and when times were good (my mom “marrying up’) we ate fresh, home cooked food. When times were bad however (going broke after losing the family business), it was hamburger in a five-pound tube and no label, mac and cheese in a box.

There’s much debate about poverty and food, mostly around how welfare recipients do or don’t spend their money on food. At the same time, when the debate about health/nutrition and poverty comes up, the poor and working class are the subject of scorn and critique for their food choices and “the growing obesity problem.” It’s a no-win situation.

Easy CheeseToday, we offer you some selections from around the web about social class and food:

  1. Read the excellent “Trash Food” by Chris Offutt by clicking here.
  2. Look at a playful Instagramer’s take on class and food plating by clicking this link to Twisted Swifter (a favorite website). If you don’t know what “food plating” is (bless you, I didn’t either), click this link to learn the “Basics of food plating.”
  3. Those with an anthropological bent, can read Robin Fox’s take on class, food, and table manners when you click here.

Monetizing Mindfulness

Maybe the word “mindfulness” is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness — taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails — makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer.

I came across a good critique of how the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has been co-opted by the PMC (professional middle class) and other groovy types looking to sell stuff to the MBA’s. My critique of the article is that the concept was co-opted by the kind of people who read The New York Times, and it’s unlikely they have the reflective skills to realize that this article is about them!

Click the link here, and give Virginia Heffernan’s article a read yourself and let us know what you think. Has the meaning of mindfulness been muddied? Is it less a spiritual practice and more a class marker?

Allegations of Racial Discrimination at a Rural Sheriff’s Department

BCSO

Something worth sharing has cropped up in our neck of the woods, which is in a rural county in northern California. A deputy for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) sued his employer citing “racial harassment, discrimination and retaliation when he reported the incidents.” The local paper reported that Michael Sears is a deputy sheriff who has one Black parent and one white parent, or in other words, is “mixed race.” It seems he experienced a series of racially-focused incidents and actions by his co-workers and bosses that sounds a whole lot like what is called in American Labor Law, a “hostile work environment” and “workplace bullying.” The local Chico Enterprise-Record reported the details of Mr. Sears allegations. My sense of it is that after eight years with the BCSO, he couldn’t stay silent about his experiences. Usually a complaint only gets this far when there is clear, undeniable evidence. But as my journalist friends might remind me, these are only allegations. Right? Right.

The reason it interests me is because this is the same sheriff’s department that since September has been investigating the murder of my friend Marc Thompson who was African American. I’ve written about Marc on this blog and at the Synthesis, a local newspaper here in Butte County, which you can read about by clicking this link and this link. It’s concerning because the BCSO is a rural department and if you’re someone like me, you worry about racism among the ranks; it is what it is. There are many questions around the investigation into Marc’s murder by the BCSO—no arrests even after seven months. Some of us assume institutional racism and bias in how the investigation into Marc’s murder was and continues to be conducted. For instance, the county has yet to release an official cause of death and I still don’t know the how and the why behind some bullets that were sent to the Department of Justice labs in the state capital in Sacramento, California.

So, I also wonder about the investigative interest among members of a sheriff’s department in the case of deputy Sears. Who would use the “N-Word” in the presence of their African-American mixed race co-worker (and expect him to keep quiet about it)? I wonder about his superiors and their alleged retaliation, and how in rural places like Butte County, this kind of racism is accepted and as the article indicates, laughed off, from the bottom of the sheriff’s office hierarchy to the top of it.

Going  by the comments on social media, it seems like Mr. Sears is a well-respected officer and several community members commented on various sources that they are “rooting for him.” I’m rooting for him too. In one comment on a local source’s webpage, a reader says, “I am a ex-Butte Co. employee and I was amazed at the “good old boy” ethics I experienced. Some departments are run by people who seem to be protected from employee rights and labor law prosecutions.” Another reader said, “The workplace deserves a high degree of professional conduct. If the good old boys are willing to behave like this in the office, what the hell is going on in the streets.”

This is the worry I have and is the reason many officers don’t blow the whistle. The Blue Wall of Silence is hard to penetrate and retaliation for speaking up is swift and career-ending. I’ll keep you posted on what happens with Mr. Sears case but for now, let’s get his story in the running conversation.

Classism in Academia

Next week, I’ll be posting part three of my blog on corporatocracy and the McDonaldization of work in higher education. In part 3 I’ll be talking about what happens among academic workers when their work becomes corporatized and dehumanized. My focus will be on workplace bullying and hostile academic work environments.

Before I do that however, it seems only fair that in this second installment, I share my experience with academic bullying and classism/sexism. I wrote this piece a couple of months after quitting academia, when I was working through feelings and coming to grips with what I thought academia was and what it actually is. This was originally published by my friends at Class Action in September 2012.

Classism in Academia

A little over two years ago, a student called me a ‘cunt’ in front of 38 other students. My academic employer did little to protect me and allowed a local, “progressive” paper to attack me in a newspaper/Internet article. I believe this had everything to do with my being a popular but adjunct, community college teacher (earning about $18,000 per year). I didn’t know it at the time, but the clock was ticking on my professional career.

The article from the newspaper has haunted my professional life. Last year, a potential client backed out of hiring me for a professional development training, citing a comment at the end of the article that he’d read after Googling me, a threatening comment (written by a tenured colleague) about my credibility as a professional. He said he could not take the risk with me. And, because of how academia works, with its rigid hierarchies and polite wars, I quit after six years and am likely not to teach again. In academia, classism works like this–once tainted, always fouled.

I made a choice; I quit adjuncting because I was experiencing class-based bullying. My life on campus post-newspaper article was awful, every semester a copy of the article found its way to the desk of my shared office and on two occasions, my campus mailbox, and once last spring, placed under the windshield wiper of my Subaru. Every semester after, students wondered why in the hell I hadn’t responded and told “my side of the story,” not understanding the gag the college put over my mouth. I also couldn’t get outside work anymore, which was how I paid for the extra costs of teaching and advising a student club. The comments in the article made me look “unprofessional,” which is a middle class euphemism for “you have no class.” A whopping dose of personal trauma enabled me to see academia for what it is–a bad fit for a working class woman like me.

I need to be honest though, I miss teaching. That’s the complication working class people like me often face, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The semester started up again August 20and I fell into two weeks of deep depression that I’m barely recovered from, except to say that thinking my life is over professionally has waned into an understanding of the pain. The pain I went through in academia, (first as a working class student and later, adjunct working class faculty) and the pain I denied to myself to the point of exhaustion. This summer was a reprieve but school starting took me all the way back to the beginning six years before I started teaching, when I was a 33 year old college junior, first-generation failures lined up like notches on a belt but earnest as fuck and ready to prove myself.

The blows came early in my student career, a feminist, working class prof praising me for returning to school because it was a good place for working class women escaping an abusive marriage. Of course, I fit her class stereotype, a fat re-entry student, a grown woman afflicted with the use of slang and cuss words, and so wanting to please and be respectful, using “Dr.” even when they said to call them by their first names. Later, my MA thesis chair would fill me in on how my marriage was doomed to fail with each passing year of educational attainment because working class men like my husband, “can’t handle it when their wives get an education.” It happened to her.

After I got the job, I got shit from men teachers too, but it was shit that was familiar, me being a working class woman. It was also less indirect shit, more outright challenges to my knowledge (to the fellas I was “opinionated”) and in regards to my teaching, (I was “easy” because students liked me, I was trying to be their “friend”). In professional settings however, sexism and classism often become intertwined and I became a target for a tenured, male teacher in my area, once popular but now in competition with me a woman, and adjunct faculty. My work life became a special kind of hell when he became my department chair in 2010. To my misfortune, he met with the student who called me a “cunt,” revealing to me in a campus email the next day that the student “seemed reasonable to him,” case closed. It was humiliating.

A year ago, I thought that I had proof of the bullying at last; a friend alerted me that there was a new and threatening personal comment following the newspaper article on the Internet. I was thinking of quitting at that time but worried about my future in academia (and future employment) and brought the comment to the attention of human resources (H.R.). Yes, H.R. said, it was definitely written by a colleague “from within” (validation at last!); but no, there isn’t anything we can do about it and that I “shouldn’t take it personally.” If you are working class, you might understand the deep sense of betrayal I felt, work is never just a job to me, and it is personal.

Teaching was good for a long time and I was a good teacher, I had the stuff and got recognition for it.  Nonetheless, power is central in academic culture, and in a community college where the stakes are small, power is the result of position and status with others, especially amongst faculty. I became a target for being outspoken about social inequality but mostly because I was an adjunct faculty who didn’t know her place and had the gall to allow students to call her “professor.” In spite of doing my best to make a good case with H.R., class-based discrimination isn’t recognized and in my situation, questioned and then demonized; I was sensitive and paranoid, not bullied.

The upside is the lessons I learned and that I’m feeling better with time and perspective. I believed academia to be a little too perfect; an intellectual utopia of egalitarianism and that was my bad. Academia with its hierarchies and rampant personality politics are a bizarro, grown-up version of high school where all the smart, wealthy kids are in charge. I loved teaching, but I’d been bullied and wrung out like a dirty wash cloth; call me chickenshit ‘cause I’ll tell you, the job nearly killed me and quitting was tough but it saved my life.

BSU-Shades of Success Conference
Julie and the students she advised and worked with in the Black Student Union at Butte Community College

 

How Class Differences Shape Love and Marriage

I just ordered and am very excited to soon be reading, The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages by Jessi Streib. Books about marriage are plentiful but an ethnographic account of cross-class marriages is something new. If you click this link, it will direct you to a Washington Post article written by Streib that gives you a taste of what the book is about.

Couples argue about money, sex, and housework most frequently but class differences are sure to affect those variables. Indeed, Streib describes that in the case of her couples, class was about money but so much more about class culture, how to spend leisure time, manage home maintenance, and “even how to talk about their feelings.”

I grew up working class and so did my husband. This June we’ll be married 21 years, we met each other in our mutually impoverished early 20’s. We have some class differences—his family is conservative, religious and more settled, mine more hard-living democrats, I have three other siblings and we each have different fathers. So, we’ve had a few conflicts around risk taking but for the most part, I think it’s been easier for us because we both grew up working class and were better able to climb the ladder together (and that includes two sets of student loans). We are economically middle class but in sync about how we like to spend leisure time (outdoors), manage home maintenance (do-it-yourself), and talk about our feelings (express freely, brutal honesty). Before hearing about Streib’s book, I hadn’t thought past the money part of cross-class relationships.

I’m curious what Streib’s overall point will be. In the opinion piece she wrote she mentions that “the opportunity to marry — or even meet — someone of a different class is disappearing” and that inter-class marriages will become less likely. It’s the way economic conditions can shrink our world’s and give us less opportunity to encounter difference, and maybe find love.

June 24 1994
Author and her husband Larry waiting for the Justice of the Peace on their wedding day in Redding, CA in 1994.

The Best Carnitas Ever

The Best Carnitas Ever was originally published at www.norcalblogs.com. 

We are in search of authentic? Mexican cuisine without the upset digestive track that we have been warned of multiple times before arriving in Cabo. The last few evenings, we grilled steak and giant red and yellow bell peppers on the oversized grill by the pool; the Costco down the road makes it relatively inexpensive to cook for ourselves. But we have heard of a local eatery that specializes in carnitas and have been assured by Miguel that the food is safe to eat, despite being outside of the tourist zone. A tiny advertisement stuck in between the pages of a photo album in our condo proclaims Los Michoacanos 2-for-1 Tacos Wednesday!? and the handwritten note that accompanies it says, Best Carnitas EVER!!!?

We drive north out of Cabo San Lucas on the road to Todos Santos, just past the new CCC supermarket and Soriana the Cabo San Lucas equivalent to Kmart – and hang a sharp u-turn in front of the American-sized shopping center. Matt guns our little rental car and amid angry horns honking, crosses two rows of oncoming traffic, and veers into a dusty parking lot filled with old Toyota pickup trucks, American made minivans, and micro-cars not so different than our rental cookie-sheet on wheels. There are no lines on the postage-stamp sized dirt parking lot, but Matt notices a car leaving what appears to be a parking space, and guns the engine again to grab the lone spot before another car claims it.

It is Wednesday at Los Michoacanos, and even though the lunch hour is over, all but a few of the tables in the open-air restaurant are full and a line of people 6 or 8 deep waits in the To Go? line for tacos. We stand at the entrance and watch as half a dozen wait staff, dressed in jeans and bright red t-shirts emblazoned with cartoon pigs gathered around a large cooking pot, run from table to table, to the open kitchen, to a work station where a woman stands and cooks tortillas, back to the customer. They run the maze of tables over and over again, bringing soda in a can, bottles of Mexican beer, steaming plates of carnitas filled tacos, to the families and locals who sit at the plastic covered tables in white plastic chairs.

We find an empty table near the front of the restaurant and almost immediately, a waiter somewhere in his mid-20s, brings a carousel of traditional salsa, avocado salsa (not guacamole, but a thinner, pale green, almost milky sauce), and chunky pickled peppers and carrots. He takes our drink order and returns a few minutes later with a cold can of soda for me and a slushy bottle of beer for Matt.

We give our order of carnitas tacos to the waiter, and from our vantage point in the center of the restaurant, watch as he takes our order to the man behind the long counter who yields a cleaver as effortlessly as an executive does a pen.

The man behind the counter stands while he works, fetching large chunks of fried pork from a glass display-warming case that holds freshly cooked meat. He drops the ham-sized pieces on a well-worn hard plastic cutting board and with blurring speed, chops the pork into bite-sized carnitas. He picks up a handful of the shredded meat and drops it into a metal scale, sometimes adding a few more pieces to the scale, other times, taking back a few shreds before scooping the meat onto a plastic-lined piece of parchment and wrapping the package expertly. Every few minutes, the cashier handling the To-Go? orders walks to the man, retrieves a package of carnitas, and exchanges it for a few hundred pesos with a waiting customer.

But we have decided to eat at the restaurant and after bringing bowls of bean soup to our table, the young waiter returns to a table a few feet from our table and waits while a woman kneads a large round of dough across a concave stone. She pulls golf-ball sized pieces of the white cornmeal into her greased hands, smooths and rounds it until it is nearly a perfect sphere, then drops it onto the base of a metal press and brings the top of the press down quickly, flattening the ball into a 6-inch round disk no more than an eighth of an inch high. She tosses cooked tortillas into small cloth-lined baskets and returns to rolling the dough over and over.

The waiter picks up a basket full of tortillas, places three or four on each plate, and takes the plates to the man behind the counter, who drops a few ounces of shredded carnita meat on each tortilla. The waiter sprinkles the tacos with chopped onions and cilantro and within 3 or 4 minutes of placing our order, our steaming plates of carnitas tacos arrive.

Los Michoacanos serves nothing but carnitas tacos and bean soup; no rice, beef, chicken, fish or shrimp. No enchiladas, taco salads, burritos, or dessert. No chips. Nothing I am used to in California except for the carnitas. Even the beans are different.

They put a lot of faith in these carnitas,? I tell my husband. He shrugs his shoulders as he scoops four different types of salsa on his tacos. I dont understand how he can taste the food under all that salsa.

I inspect my taco before taking the first bite, looking carefully for anything that shouldn’t be in the meat, but find nothing suspicious. I drizzle a spoonful of avocado salsa over the meat and lean in to take a bite.

I realize, almost instantly, that there is no need to serve anything at Los Michoacanos but carnitas.

We return to Los Michoacanos the following Sunday and are treated to live music three men dressed in matching jeans, long sleeved shirts and cowboy hats who sing and dance in choreographed unison. We arrive just before 3 pm to mostly empty tables but less than 30 minutes later, every table in the restaurant is filled with families in Sunday-clothes, just in time for the rich-Spanish music to fill the open-air restaurant. We eat several tacos each and then order one or two more and extra tortillas. The woman making the tortillas smiles when we watch her fill our order.

We make one last trek north out of town, just past the Soriana, loop a quick turn against traffic, on the Wednesday before we go home. It is late in the afternoon, early in the evening just after the sun goes down, and as we pull into the little parking lot, we realize we have made an error arriving so late on 2-for-1 Wednesday at Los Michoacanos.

Although the restaurant has no doors or windows, its lights are dimmed and the kitchen is empty and we realize it is closed, sold out of food for the day. We have been told there is no need to lock doors here even though it is in the barrio, but we have not witnessed the trust that exists, the unwritten respect here for local people and businesses, until now. It is something that cannot be legislated. We stay in the car and watch as a potential customer walks through the darkened dining room and checks behind the counter for an employee, then heads back to her car.

We could stop at Hard Rock Cafe on the way back to the condo, or pick up food to go at McDonald’s or Dominos Pizza, but we decide to make no stops at all. There are still a few tortillas left over from our excursion on Sunday and since its our last night, we decide to clean out the refrigerator. Maybe we’ll use the tortillas and cook some quesadillas on the grill.

Maybe we’ll just heat the tortillas and dip them good salsa.

I stand at the outdoor kitchen by the pool and heat the tortillas until they soften and darken against the heated bars of the grill. I slide a tortilla off the grill and feel the heat of the fire on my palms, feel the womans hands, the ridges of the press embedded on the dough. I place sliced pieces of soft Mexican cheese on half of each tortilla and remember the woman who kneaded the dough against the dark stone, rolled the ball of dough in her palms, flattened each into a disk and cooked it just before it came to my plate.

I imagine the people she must have fed, standing behind a table in the middle of a restaurant in the middle of the barrio in Cabo San Lucas.