Lydia Snow is an educator and advocate for the rights of non-tenured instructors in the United States.
Campus Equity Week 2017: The Impossible Job
Waking early this morning I came downstairs and realized I haven’t written at all this semester. I like to keep my adjunct organizer friends and supporters informed simply by telling the story of campus resistance on the ground as a teaching adjunct. I haven’t written my exit piece yet. In fact I was too busy teaching four different classes and organizing Campus Equity Week on campus with the help of my union UPI 4100 IFT. What started out as an idea from friends on the internet through the New Faculty Majority and the AFT turned into a nine month project spearheaded by adjunct artists and activists and labor organizers from all over the USA. Andy Davis who teaches at Cal Poly Pomona in the Interdisciplinary General Education program and I were originally involved in collaborating with a group of artist activists designing projects that capitalize on the power of the arts to change minds and hearts for Campus Equity Week 2017 through historical reenactments. He and I were captivated by the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on Wittenberg Cathedral on October 31, 2017. The theme the whole group decided on captured our need to both conceal and reveal our complex identities as members of the precarious academic workforce: mAsk4campusEquity.
Anne Weigard from the New Faculty Majority was the lead organizer of the group and spearheaded the effort to purchase buttons, create a website, create a social media campaign, and enlist the help of others without a single dollar in the budget. Most of what happened we paid for ourselves, although I did apply for a 500.00 grant through the AFT and was awarded one at the last minute which will eventually enable me to pay the speakers who had volunteered to be on a panel on campus. One of the panelists David Mihalyfy and I decided to call it “Building Coalitions for Campus Equity: Challenges and Solutions”. Through my experience working with Faculty Forward Chicago and the Faculty Forward Network I had met David on social media who has been involved in multiple unionization campaigns, included SAIC adjuncts with SEIU, UChicago grad workers with AFT, and UChicago hourly library workers with Teamsters.
Besides David and myself, Olivia Cronk was the other member of the panel. She is on the English Faculty here at NEIU and had agreed right away to participate. As of this writing she has responsibility to teach and prep seven different classes in the Creative Writing and English program. A published poet she is the author of a recent book, “Louise and Louise and Louise” and an earlier book of poetry “Skin Horse”, as well as the co-editor of The Journal Petra.
It all sounds wonderful, right? I have the support of my union. I was able to reserve tables on campus during activity hour and lunch times for three separate days where we will give out flyers and engage the community that stops by about the issue of contingent faculty on campus and how the adjunctification of faculty was demeaning and hurt faculty but students also and most importantly their ability to be supported in the classroom and graduate in a timely manner because of all the course cancellations based on enrollment. I rented a computer and flat screen TV from media services and showed videos from a playlist on my youtube channel: Adjunct Life. I adapted Andy Davis’s idea that we rewrite the 95 Theses to reflect the current crisis in higher education to instead write our own NEIU Theses which we would parade to the administrative offices dressed in masks and academic regalia and post our own scroll on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s campus protest. The idea was to have it be a reenactment of the historical event when Luther posted his theses as a campus protest against the Catholic Church.
So during the tabling I created a scroll and had special archival paper and pens and students, faculty and staff would be able to add their own thoughts about what issues they would like to address to the administration. It started with a resolution I had written and successfully passed at the 2017 IFT Higher Education Conference as a representative instructor delegate, the previous March in Springfield. I invited staff, students and other faculty to add their own personal call for change at our university.
I went to the IFT union meetings and asked for help from other members. They looked at me in confusion and dismissal. The interim new president of our chapter supported Campus Equity Week. He sent out email missives asking for others to help out in the effort. I received few if any responses. One union representative when I contacted him and asked for help with the project accused me of being unprofessional because he was working on the “bigger picture of organizing for social change and who cares about one week for Campus Equity Week?” Another adjunct stopped me in the hall and said, “Well what are we going to do? I thought we were going to meet and decide what to do?” I told her, “Well listen, we are all swamped and it’s pretty straight forward. All you have to do is show up and sit at the table and talk to the campus community about instructors and our issues here on campus trying to survive with this current administration and let them know about the action on Halloween when we will post the scroll on the administrative office door.” She gave me a dirty look and walked away and never showed up to table even though she had originally volunteered to do so.
I continued to persevere mainly because I had invested so much time talking to Andy Davis every Friday morning for months, not to mention the frantic emailing correspondence that went on with my fellow adjunct activists organizing artistic events on campuses to bring attention to Adjunct issues. When I stood up at the meeting I told the other members how other universities were participating but it had absolutely no effect. My husband came home one day and said he had a new nickname for me, “Gadfly.” So who cares if I don’t have support, if it doesn’t feel like a group effort? The main thing is just to do it and get it done.
I ended up spending all of the AFT 500.00 grant before I knew I was awarded it, I mean it’s expensive buying good archival markers and poster board, printing flyers and posters that look eye catching, and all the mAsk4CampusEquity and CAmpus Equity Now buttons and stickers from New Faculty Majority. Not to mention the scroll!
The panel went really well however. I wish in a way I wasn’t on it because then I could have taken notes on the other speakers and what they said, but some students of mine and Olivia Cronk showed up and surprisingly a number of tenured faculty came, even some chairs of their departments. I guess what’s happening now is that the adjunctification of higher education has affected just about everyone, including the chairs of the departments who were sent letters saying they were all being let go at the end of the spring semester. They are talking about super chairs who will run several departments at once. It was heartening to see them there, but I had to decline their invitations to moderate the panel because I wanted it to be an Adjunct panel. I didn’t want tenured professors asking us questions about our experiences. And then the adjunct who had agreed to moderate had to drop out at the last minute so we just moderated it ourselves, which worked perfectly well. After all what is a moderator anyway?
(I love this photo because being adjuncts we all brought our own beverage, my water bottle far left, Olivia’s coffee and David’s thermos)
I find myself being overly critical of academia and its protocols because they have done nothing to support me in my career as a professional music educator. To me these protocols and seem to reinforce a two-tiered system. But we had a lively discussion. Even though there were only maybe 20 people there I felt as if what we were talking about what really mattered in the deepest sense, like if anyone had been recording us it would have been listened to by adjuncts all over the USA because these issues are not just ours on our campus at Northeastern Illinois University but they are happening in every university, college and community college.
The tabling went well with several new adjuncts stopping by and asking questions as well as staff who were recently the victim of 380 positions cut due to the statewide budget impasse, but also due to mismanagement of funds on massive building projects and the hiring of more and more highly paid administrators and public relations positions.
Well then came the day for the great action. I had finally gotten people to add their grievances to the scroll and it looked fairly impressive:
The idea was to mask our identities and march our Halloween parade down together to deliver our NEIU 23 Theses to the administration. I had purchased Halloween masks and I had my Luther hat that Andy Davis had sent me from California. I brought all the markers and poster boards and dragged them up to this impressive room the union had rented and collapsed it on the big tables set aside for discussion between student groups and university advisory boards. Granted it was Halloween. Granted there was a Halloween Party going on downstairs in the cafeteria judging costumes. Granted there were recitals going on that conflicted with people in my own department participating. Granted I had bullheadedly continued to organize this event despite the overwhelming apathetic and outright dismissive response from fellow union members, but I waited. And then I finally realized that nobody was coming. Here is what I laid out on the tables in that room. I was hoping for more than 23 Theses.
I thought to myself, okay, I give up universe. You are trying to tell me something. The university is telling you that this adjunct is worthless. There is no point in doing anything but agreeing with them. You have no friends, there are no such things as colleagues here, there is absolutely no reason that you wasted nine months of your life trying to bring attention to these issues and you need to throw all of this stuff away, including the scroll in the trash and go home and wait for the trick or treaters. But then I thought about my friend Miranda Merklein who had recently died in Massachusetts alone. She was a brave adjunct organizer, English professor, writer, mother and grandmother who and had lost her job organizing and didn’t have health insurance. She died sick and alone and nobody even knew that she needed help. She was 39 years old. We had been in communication for four years and she was absolutely supportive of every action, every piece of my writing, we communicated on social media almost daily and she had kept me going in our common struggle for adjunct justice. How could I give up now?
Instead I texted my husband: “So I’m all set for Halloween March and nobody showed up. Hopefully one other person will show up” He texted back, “Grab the bullhorn.and get ready to party.” So I dragged all of the pens and the posters and threw them under one arm and then all the flyers in the bag and started making my way down the stairs. When I got to the bottom of the stairs there was one of the adjuncts that I met during Campus Equity Week. He asked me if I needed help. He had shown up for his conferences but not one of his students had shown up. I said, “Yes, I need help carrying this stuff. I want to go to put the scroll up but I need some way to attach it.” So he smiled and said, “I would love to help you with that.” He has been adjuncting at NEIU for 20 years teaching two classes a semester but also at other universities in downtown Chicago. He had also come to the forum on Wednesday and had sat very quietly but told me, “Oh I do want to help let’s do this. Let’s do this together!”
So we went to the bookstore and got some packaging tape and then we went over to the Office of Academic Affairs and it was perfect, there was absolutely nobody there. It’s Halloween! Of course they all go home early or maybe they were attending a party, but even the secretary wasn’t there. So we put the scroll up with the packaging tape right by the elevator and he took several photos of me. I didn’t bother wearing a mask or a hat.
Then we left all the posters in the window so as the administrators went home they would see them and then he helped me carry the bags back to my office before promising to be in touch in the future.
And the amazing thing is I think that was one of the happiest days of my life. It’s hard to explain the significance of not being alone. Being a gadfly is one thing but having a fellow adjunct who’s just as pissed off at the administration to march down the hallways and put up the scroll with you is another thing all together. I hope somewhere there is one more adjunct who reads this and will get up the courage to stand up for our rights to dignity and respect in the workplace and beyond.
It’s lonely working for adjunct justice. And we need your help.