On MLK Day, Opening the Hearts of the Privileged

When I first heard the phrase “privilege is invisible to those who have it,” it seemed like the answer to a question I didn’t even know to ask:

How can people who are so nice, who would never hurt a fly, be so oblivious to the ways in which their lifestyles are deeply hurting others?

Oblivious is the operative word here.  Most privileged people really don’t have a clue as to how “the other half lives”–or make that, the other 90% or so. Just as I don’t understand how it is to be a child slave working on a cocoa farm in Africa, or for that matter a honeybee bringing poisoned pollen back to the hive and dying of it myself, people way up on the class ladder in the US can’t understand what deprivation feels like–and if you can’t get to that feeling place, it will be very hard to arrive at any sort of comprehension or even curiosity.

There are so many examples of what I’m talking about, but having just signed a petition to President Obama calling attention to the issue of contingent faculty, my mind is going to a memory I can’t shake, from my days of adjunct teaching.

I had been teaching as an adjunct at my alma mater for a couple of years, having decided to forgo a serious tenure-track search while my first son was an infant.  In the spring, after a busy year of adjunct teaching, I went to talk to the Dean, to see whether it would be possible to improve my status at the college so my salary would not be cut off during the summer.  I don’t remember the exact words of her response, but her attitude was plain: what happens to you over the summer, when we don’t need you, is none of our concern.  Next!

I was naive, I guess, to imagine that she would care that she was not paying me a living wage.  But I had grown up among the privileged, for whom it was really unfathomable, the idea of not making a living wage.  If you weren’t making enough to live on, then something must be wrong with you.  You’re not trying hard enough, you’re not talking to the right people, you just don’t have what it takes.

In this situation, I felt the duality of on the one hand being outraged, as any privileged person would be, at being treated in such an unfair, exploitative fashion, and on the other hand, feeling shamed and inadequate because of course it must be true, it must be my fault that I’m being treated so badly.

For people from a different background than mine, it would be quite easy to internalize those feelings of shame and self-doubt, to the point where one would begin to believe them.  I have studied many autobiographies by people who were marginalized and disadvantaged from birth by their race, ethnicity, gender, etc, and this self-loathing is a common feature of what W.E.B. DuBois called “double-consciousness,” seeing oneself through the eyes of another.

But I grew up with every advantage, and was always a star in the academic realm, a child prodigy in reading and writing who received a BA magna cum laude at 19 (it would have been summa if I hadn’t had to take those damned statistics classes!), a straight A student through grad school who excelled at jumping through every hoop set out for me.

Thus my amazement at finally attaining my goal of teaching at the college level, and being told that while I was doing a great job, there was no chance of being paid fairly for it.

My point in relating this story is that most people who grew up like me would never have such a story to tell.  For us the red carpet rolls out automatically wherever we go; people bow and beckon, smiling; life is easy and delightful. And when you live that kind of existence 24/7, when it’s your whole life from earliest childhood, it’s just inconceivable that it could be otherwise.  Or if it is, then as I said, there must be something wrong with you personally.  It’s not the system that’s at fault if things aren’t going your way, it’s your own personal inadequacies.

That seems to be the explanation that many among the 99% accept when they fall upon hard times.  Home foreclosed? What a fool you were for signing that mortgage!  Lost your job?  Why didn’t you go into a more stable field?  Single mom?  Honey, don’t you know how to keep a man?  And so on and so forth.

Both sides of the class divide need reminding that we are all born into a pre-existing social structure, some with gold spoons, and some with plastic spoons in our mouths.  The playing field is most assuredly not level.  Those who are living well need to realize that they owe their good fortune as much to their favorable placement in the Game of Life as to their own smarts and hard work; and those who are struggling need to realize that it’s not all their fault.

Pointing fingers at individuals is not going to lead to a fruitful discussion.

Was it the Dean’s fault that it was standard practice at the college to pay adjuncts by the semester?  She was just going along with the flow, wasn’t she?  Was it the mortgage lender’s fault that people took on more debt than they could repay?  The mortgage officer was bending over backwards trying to give that family the house of their dreams, wasn’t she?

Right. Rather than seeking to cast blame, we need to be looking for ways to make the system fairer for all the new children being born into it every minute.  One of the most basic steps we can take is making privilege visible to those who have it.  The privileged, who have more social power than the disadvantaged, need to know and understand how their complacency with a warped social system impacts the less well-placed.

Knowledge is the first step towards compassion, and from compassion comes the desire to make what’s wrong right.

It’s not about casting stones.  It’s about sharing experiences, and hoping that those in power will listen with open minds and hearts.

On the eve of MLK Day, that is my fervent wish and prayer.



President Obama, looking for solutions on student debt, should not overlook the issue of contingent faculty labor

The student protests around the country have been focused largely on three key concerns: the high cost of a college education, the resulting weight of student debt after graduation, and the scarcity of jobs.

Put together, it’s a recipe for frustration, if not outright desperation.  Students who lack substantial family support these days have to make incredibly tough sacrifices to get their B.A. degrees, and with no jobs at the end of the tunnel, many are rightly asking–is it worth it?

A lot of thoughtful people have been considering this very question for some time now.  On Monday at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, there will be a panel discussion on “The Fate of Civic Education in a Connected World,” featuring, among others, Ellen Condliffe Lagemann of Bard College, who just co-edited a book called What is College For? The Public Purpose of Higher Education.

In the book, Lagemann and co-author Harry Lewis argue that colleges and universities need to renew their commitment to fostering ethical, responsible student engagement with the public sphere.  Higher education should not just be a credential to string around one’s neck, the passport to a decent job, they say, but should challenge students to think deeply about their role as citizens and stakeholders in society.

This message certainly seems timely.  If getting a college degree can no longer be valued in purely instrumental terms, as a ticket to a job, then it had better be providing some deeper value, both for the students and for society.

On the same day as the Harvard panel, President Obama will be meeting at the White House with a group of ten influential college and university presidents, along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other key players in higher education, to discuss “increasing access and success as well as how to make higher education  more affordable,” according to an article in today’s online Inside Higher Ed magazine.

The article says that “amid an increasing focus on student debt and college prices, the event seems to signal that the Obama administration will make the issue a focus going into the 2012 campaign. In a speech Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on colleges to address rising tuition prices “with much greater urgency.” The House of Representatives held a subcommittee hearing Tuesday on rising costs, discussing a broad range of possible solutions.”

As someone who has been teaching in higher education for more than 20 years, I am of course concerned about the rising costs for students.

But I’m also concerned with the way budgets are increasingly being balanced by reducing fulltime tenured faculty teaching lines.

The phenomenon of using adjunct faculty, graduate student teaching assistants, temporary “visiting” faculty and any other form of contingent labor available is under-discussed, both within the institutions perpetrating these practices, and in the broader society.

Within the institutions, it’s under-discussed partly because it’s so humiliating for Ph.Ds, respected scholars when they present their research at conferences or publish articles, to admit how little money they’re making as adjunct or visiting faculty.  College adjunct teachers are typically paid $2,000 to $4,000 a course.  Most faculty teach 3-4 courses a semester.  You do the math.

Also, there’s the fear factor: if you speak out, your contract may not be renewed next semester, or next year.  There is no job security for what we call in the business “term contracts.”

At the White House meeting, the college presidents aren’t going to want to tell the President that they’re reigning in the cost of tuition by hiring contingent faculty at bargain basement salaries.  But that’s the truth of the matter.

And it’s been very difficult for adjuncts to unionize, in part because the Labor Board in recent years has ruled that college and university faculty are “managers” because we make a salary rather than an hourly wage, and get to set our own hours. Managers aren’t entitled to a union.

There are a host of reasons why it’s bad for American higher education to use cheap faculty labor.  If we want to get serious about student success, as the Obama Administration claims, focusing on contingent faculties would be a good starting point.

A harried professor who’s working at two or three institutions to barely make ends meet is not going to do as a good a job for her students as someone making a living wage with a longterm contract at a single institution.

American institutions of higher education need to model the kind of society we want our students to create when they move out into the world as newly minted young citizens.  They won’t want to be temporary workers any more than their teachers do.

President Obama, if you really want to make a difference, you need to push those college presidents for deeper, systemic changes.

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