Early this morning, I had a very edifying and enlightening conversation over Twitter with a supportive administrator from an undisclosed university. By supportive, I mean that she demonstrated she is supportive of adjunct causes and does her best to make a difference in her school for the many adjuncts who are underemployed and overexploited. Through our conversation, I could tell that she was hurt by some of the angry rhetoric that was being directed at all administrators, categorically, regardless of what their personal histories were on the subject. What began as a public Twitter thread then continued as a private conversation and served to remind me of the importance of treating all people as individuals, with respect and compassion, regardless of their perceived affiliation. It is all too easy to vilify every administrator and to ignore the many that are trying to right the wrongs of higher education and are simply hamstrung by a broken system, even causing them to question the efficacy of their presence in such a profession. And so I wanted to share a few more notes, building on my blog post from the other day about angry versus collegial rhetoric http://drarikgreenberg.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-usage-of-angry-rhetoric-in.html.
Angry, aggressive rhetoric on Twitter, or any other form of social media, such as Facebook or the blogosphere, goes a long way in organizing, in making the disempowered and disenfranchised feel as if they have an outlet for their anger, a forum in which to air their grievances, and a platform full of other like-minded people. But the down side to this is that it can potentially alienate sympathetic administrators who may happen to view the post. I know that I have made this mistake in my short time organizing at my university. They are people too, and they have feelings. But we have to consider the personal histories of each administrator, their life choices, their challenges, before we can lump them into the same category as the “oppressor”. I, myself, even had to take an administrative position this past year as a second job, also part-time, in order to make ends meet. It is at a small, startup university with very few faculty, so I often don’t even recognize myself yet as an administrator. But the experience has given me some crucial and valuable insight on being on the other side of the administrative curtain, as well as seeing the good that one can do for higher education if you are committed to making improvements.
But compassion can go a long way in dealing with someone of the “opposing camp”. And my conversation this morning reminded me of the need for a certain amount of understanding, prior to laying blame based on perceived affiliations. This kind of “othering” with broad strokes is exactly what I experienced (along with many others) in the 1990s, during the early proliferation of the so-called PC Agenda (I know that others might not like this term, but it banks on widespread recognition). Many otherwise sympathetic allies of the multicultural, sensitivity, and political correctness movement who happened to be straight, white males, felt alienated and othered by much of the angry rhetoric used in academic milieux (either in college coursework or in private conversations) that addressed the systematic oppression of the wide variety of racial, ethnic and gender minorities. Feeling blamed for what their fellows of the same demographic had foisted on society caused many of those in the majority to distance themselves from the causes they otherwise would have vehemently supported, and had done so since their first liberal awakenings in high school. But the response of many of the individuals of the oppressed parties, understandably, was that these persons of categorical privilege—allies or not—need to understand “our pain” and that it is “not about them”. Then, ironically, certain specific demographics began to polarize, as women of color—for instance—chose to distance themselves from white feminists, accusing even them of benefitting from positions of privilege. Hence, the etiology of the Womanism versus Feminism debate, in which some assert the intrinsic racism of the latter. Even further, just as ironically, some have even accused all of these parties operating within academia, regardless of their color or gender, of being examples of intellectual, middle class privilege; that regardless of their race or gender, they are all privileged to be within the ivory tower, and are largely out of touch with their “working class” compatriots of the same race or gender. [As a side note, it is interesting how the adjunctification of higher education seems to have united people of every color and gender for a common cause, since we appear to be equally represented within this exploited demographic. That is to say, while some may justifiably point to a persistent level of uneven exploitation, for the most part, adjunctification is color blind and gender blind; 75% of all higher ed faculty in the nation are suffering from this trend. As such, the adjunct crisis may speak more directly to class struggle and inequality than purely to gender or racial inequality.]
Still, these points about a hierarchy of graduated levels of oppression are well taken. Many people have suffered, and continue to suffer, under the extant power paradigms and hegemonies. But the underlying problem is that too much division, othering, serves to divide a movement—which is exactly what the real opponents want, whether they are racists, sexists, homophobes, or otherwise. This divisive dynamic gave fodder to the likes of the Rush Limbaughs of the world, who saw us progressives as a group of disunified malcontents who could not even agree on what each of our constituent special interests wanted to be called from day to day.
All of us, to some degree or other, have undergone some type of adversity in our lives. Through this lens, this instrument, this medium, we can try to understand the unique situations of oppression that our neighbors and compatriots have gone through, often far more egregious than our own. But if the aggrieved parties do not pay attention to their allies’ gestures of camaraderie, spurning them because of their perceived organic connections to the privileged party, then they likely will lose them as allies. If we label all administrators as being party to the problem, being implicated in the root of it, we do them and ourselves a disservice by potentially alienating them when they could be our most ardent and powerful allies.
With that in mind, I want to highlight the difference between good administrators and bad ones. A job position does not dictate someone’s character, nor does their salary. While some maintain that power corrupts and that money brings out the worst in people, a dear friend of mine—who is quite wealthy and has sponsored several projects that I have been involved in—has demonstrated that money has the power to make good people better. He is one of the kindest, humblest, and most generous people I have ever met. Without knowing, you would never recognize him as a person of wealth. And similarly, some admins help the adjunct movement, while others ignore and make excuses for their lack of engagement of the problem. It is too facile to place blame on one entire party. There is enough blame to go around in this issue. And the problem is not a simple one.
Adjuncts, remember that the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror eliminated far too many allies of the poor on account of their connections with the aristocracy. Scullery maids and infants were sent to their deaths due to former employment or co-optation. And in just as extreme an example, the Khmer Rouge also sought to demonize all intellectuals in its attempts to foster a form of Communism so extreme that it could not allow its own intellectual creators to abide, and its attempts at genocide wiped out millions of erstwhile allies of the cause. If we alienate and vilify all administrators, categorically, are we any better than these negative exemplars, cutting off our noses to spite our faces?
Conversely, administrators, when you see the angry rhetoric coming from adjuncts, do not allow your egos to be too badly bruised. Try not to feel slighted. Remember that as you benefit financially from a position of privilege, we are struggling to get by on a fraction of your salaries, struggling to feed our children who are no less worthy than yours. We are just as educated as you; we work just as long and as hard as you; but by the luck of the draw, we found ourselves in perpetually contingent positions. Just remember that the angry rhetoric is coming from a place of pain and disempowerment, of human beings who have given their lifeblood to their vocation and their universities, and have truly been treated like rats by a system that you benefit from—even if unintentionally. Please help us with the same fervor that we adjuncts devote to our craft. Don’t let a moment go by in which you do not actively contribute to the solution. I assure you that even the slightest gesture, good or bad, will be remembered. So for those who are kind, continue to be kind; your kindness won’t be forgotten. For those who are unkind, your unkindness will be remembered, too.