Thursday, October 18, 2007

Where stops the buck?

Image and details from the Truman Library website (

Harry S. Truman, 33rd president of the United States, serving from the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death while in office, April 12, 1945, is known for having had a sign on his desk that read "The Buck Stops Here!" I wonder at that. It seems the buck ought stop more often, in more places. How often have we heard (or otherwise experienced) "I'm sorry, but that's not my job".

Last night, while making copies of handouts for my Wednesday evening class, the executive administrative staffer for my program at Lemon stepped in to say he'd just gotten an email from Sara, saying that I wouldn't be joining them in the Spring. Yes, I said, mostly it's a personal choice. "I wish the commute were not so damn long. But... I also wish that Lemon would treat it's adjuncts with more... dignity. The classes are too large. There's easily enough students to open up more sections, and hire faculty full-time with benefits."

He raised an eyebrow at my use of the term "dignity". Ah... he explained well, you know, it comes from the ... from the Chancellor. They keep bothering us over our numbers. We've got courses with 18 or 19 students, which they want to have 21. And, well, those courses you teach. They want us to open up more sections. But they want 40 in each one. And, well, you know, we can't hire adjuncts full-time. It- it- it comes down from the Chancellor, you know?

Always passing the buck. At a certain point, someone simply needs to stand up and say enough! To some extent, the fault doesn't lie with the likes of my friend Sara nor with [administrative staffer]. To a large extent, the fault lies with people like me. Because, as odd as it may sound (feeling most powerless at times) it is adjuncts who enable the administration of colleges and universities to continue their abhorrent practices.

The power really lies with us, at least with us collectively. So long as someone else will step into my shoes to be abused by the system, to fill the role of working part-time, underpaid, without benefits, teaching far more students than can possibly be (reasonably) accommodated in the time allotted, the buck can always be passed.

I wonder at my choices and my actions. They haven't come to me easily. But I need my dignity (and my time) more than I need the contract. I wonder if perhaps I haven't let down some of my new friends here, who may have seen me to be a potential leader of an adjuncts' revolt, organizing, unionizing, campaigning, protesting. (Perhaps I'm too grandiose). What I know of myself (and of my experience--both my 4 years full-time as a political activist/campaigner years ago, and my active leadership role with graduate students at my doctoral institution--not to mention my student politics activity more than 20 years ago at CCNY) is that I could do those things.

But I've stepped off the battle field. I've chosen to walk away from it. But I have not forgotten. It's more a silent protest, but in ways I believe far more powerful. I've simply said "No!" No more. I won't suffer the treatment that is beneath me. Institutions of higher learning (ah... what a misnomer at times) have become addicted to their drug of choice: cheap, quality labor. I care too much about my friend (this somewhat fallen Academia) to enable that addiction, to support it, to permit it. Like with an alcoholic, the healing must come from within. I, as a friend, can merely hold up a mirror. I can take the drink away, but I can't remove the desire. The addict may simply need to bottom out first. If that drug, that cheap labor, is no longer readily available perhaps it will give the addict the space to reassess.

That, is my hope.

1 comment:

Lilian said...

Yeah, you're so right. That's why Invisible Adjunct quit as well. I don't want to do it either. It's all or nothing, right?