At the Intersection of Privilege And Precarity

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Michelle Kweder is a critical management scholar and lecturer in Boston. Her contract expires May 31. You can follow her on Twitter at @AcademicWorker.

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Kweder photo

Last fall, not unlike other faculty members across America, I attended community meetings on my campus to listen to and show my support for black students speaking out against systemic and structural racism in higher education. Where I teach, concerns that traced back 50 years are now urgent demands. At our college’s first community meeting, I sat on the floor listening and thinking about what I still need to learn, what I can do differently in my classroom and what I can bring to the college — specifically as a white, queer, first-generation scholar.

But then my listening and thinking were interrupted by dread. I thought, “I cannot help you.” My white-privileged self thought, “This is not my fight — I have other fights.” I thought of my business school debt of $50,000 and my partner’s worsening Parkinson’s.

The privilege to dismiss racism is real. I checked it, challenged it, didn’t dismiss it and contemplated it for days. I thought about it until I knew that my privilege would interfere with my teaching as little as possible, that I would continue to teach on my learning edge. In my classroom, writing and conversations, I continued to challenge the predominant business school approach to diversity and inclusion with authors and theories that are combinations of black, of color, of less-developed nations, critical, queer, intersectional and feminist. I recommitted myself to addressing my own racism and the racism in my classroom. Not a one-and-done process, but an ongoing commitment.

And yet the precarity of being contingent faculty is ever present. Where I teach, the precarity is real for probably 75 percent of us. And even the 25 percent who are tenure track or tenured don’t feel secure in an environment where institutions are closed or, in administrationspeak, where “admissions are suspended” — and where faculty members continue to work without raises and with cuts to benefits. I see how precarity limits the ability of faculty to address the demands for racial justice issued by students.

There are ways that the struggles of black students — or, perhaps more precisely, the success of those struggles — is linked to the ability of adjunct and contract faculty to organize for job security, academic freedom and a voice in the university. Demands related to curricula, faculty training and mentoring a pipeline of scholars of color assume a stable, full-time faculty, but that assumption is false. Precarity and job insecurity impede racial justice on campuses in specific ways.

The curriculum needs to be updated. When I was an undergraduate student in the early ’90s, my professors explained to me what a syllabus audit was. Those professors weren’t always completely successful in their audits, but they were transparent and self-reflexive. My attempt to move from diversifying to decolonizing my syllabi has been a process. It is a process that does not fit neatly into a one-year contract. It is also a process better done in a community of peers and colleagues who have support and stability.

Faculty members need training. But what does that look like when faculty turn over at alarming rates? When faculty members are increasingly spread out across the country teaching online classes? Will the “rigorous training” end up being a multiple-choice test administered by human resources so that we don’t “get in trouble” — rather than difficult face-to-face theoretically guided discussions about privilege, racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, capitalism and the intersections among them?

As a white woman teaching in a predominantly white university, I have found myself facilitating conversation in class about race and racism. I initiate and invite these conversations. However, when racist language is used (i.e., “colored students”) or stereotypes are reinforced (i.e., you shouldn’t go to “that neighborhood”), I do my best to ask the perfectly placed Freire-inspired question, challenge racism and create space for a “learning moment.”

But this is my first year as a full-time teacher. I’m learning, and that learning is limited by the fact that I know that, at this college, with this curriculum, and with this student population, my limited-term employment does not include the time for reflection, experimentation and redos of mistakes and failures.

Last semester, I went off syllabus to facilitate a conversation about the 10 demands students had made on the campus where I teach. Knowing it would be a difficult discussion, I grounded the conversation in the social justice theory that we had been using all semester. Despite my prior planning, the conversation veered toward a racist rant from white students who insisted they had the “same concerns” as black students. The students of color in my class were silent. I tried to question, challenge and disrupt the racism. In the end, I shut that conversation down.

What I did was not perfect, but it was the best that I could do without meaningful training. I pivoted and talked about historically and socially situated knowledge in the context of slavery, Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex and the preschool-to-prison pipeline. By creating a less racist space, I probably alienated my predominately white class. I drove home knowing that those white students were angry. I knew their evaluations of my class would likely reflect that anger.

As a contract employee on the academic job market, my evaluations need to be good, if not excellent. The market is crowded and competitive for tenure-track positions (and even low-paid contract and adjunct jobs). What I suspected about my evaluations turned out to be true: my scores are bimodal in the area of “freedom to ask questions and express opinions.” Anonymous student evaluations in a predominately white university do not encourage professors to tackle the complex issues of racism at this moment in the history of the United States, the world and the neoliberal university.

So, how can I help? I don’t know. I will have about three months to figure that out. During that time, I will be teaching three classes, submitting my dissertation research to journals, consulting so that I can pay down my student loans and searching for a job. Seven out of 10 of the professors at our college will likely have similarly demanding schedules — some with more demanding family responsibilities than I can imagine.

So, what can help all of us? We need to work together. Let’s not be pawns in the game. The faculty is not a disposable resource in the newest business model; students are not customers in a diploma factory. Students, let faculty own our shortcomings and outright failures. Be kind as you critique us, knowing that if we look tired in class it is because we are working second jobs, sometimes at multiple universities, and are always, always wondering where we will be teaching next year. If I have a blank look on my face, I might be calculating the costs of saying what I know versus what I know the university wants me to say.

Until we stop the cycle of precarity for faculty, I’m not sure we can make long-term structural changes. And until we make those changes, we cannot honestly do one of the most important things in academe: encourage students of color to follow in our footsteps as teachers, researchers and public intellectuals.

“Why I’m Not Waiting For Tenure To Change The World…”

Kweder photoMichelle Kweder, a PhD student in Business Administration, is a critical management scholar who occasionally blogs at bricolage.  Below, Michelle has shared her blog declaration to work for change today rather than waiting for the promised “freedom” of tenure.

Check out her full bio here and follow her on Twitter.

Why I’m Not Waiting For Tenure To Change The World

In less than a week, I’ll be back on campus.  Or, more accurately, on one of the three different campuses where I’ve talked my way into classes.  Mostly, when I think about it, I feel stressed out.

Of course, the summer just wasn’t long enough.  I didn’t have enough fun, didn’t do enough scholarly work, didn’t do enough paid consulting work, and failed to put in enough volunteer hours for issues I care about.  House projects remain undone.  And, I’m still not up to running a 5K.  (And, I never did just take a day to smoke pot and watch YouTube kitten videos. I did think about it.)

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to be happy this year — and, through my doctoral program in general.  Finding Grollman’s My 7-Year Experiment (inspired by Nagpal’s Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc) opened my eyes and made me realize that I had my own guidelines to write and something to say about the doctoral student experience for those of us who live on and theorize from the margins.

So, here are my own guidelines based on the work of Grollman and Nagpal:

  1. The goal is to change the world.  Getting a phd is a task with many doable subtasks.
  2. I will be more selective about the advice I take.
  3. I will (finally) create a “feel good” folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person that I can be.
  6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.
  7.  I will have fun now.

1.  The goal is to change the world.  Getting a PhD is a task with many doable subtasks.  

So, this first guideline is my only strong departure from Grollman and Nagpal.  Both have a different goal — surviving the pre-tenure years.  But Grollman wrote something that really made me sit up:  “My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.” I’m 43 and don’t have time to wait for the PhD to liberate me and give me a voice.

Before entering my doctoral program, I was a self-employed consultant working with public sector and nonprofit organizations.  I had gotten to the point where I could work 11 months a year, not worry about marketing, be a bit picky about my clients, and consistently include one pro-bono client in portfolio.  When approached by a potential client with a project, I would ask the following questions:

  • Am I the right person to do this?
  • Is it good for me?  (Which really meant, do I have the capacity to do this and still be sane?)
  • Will it change the world?

So, no surprise, my first year was filled with inner conflict.  My choices had been largely taken away from me and the faculty were strangely transparent about “socializing” us into the world of academia.  No longer could I reject tasks that I thought weren’t going to bring about social justice.  (With that said, I love learning and it was and continues to remain a privilege to be paid to learn; I really hadn’t “worked” so few hours since I was 15.)

Being in a college of management (even a progressive college with a smattering of critical sociologists), means that I was surrounded by driven academics including a few dominant (male) voices who have a Tayloristic approach to publishing; and, as is the case for many in academic, they are evangelical about making the incoming doctoral students believe that their way is the right and only way.

To be fair, there are a few more balanced folks in the department. The most simpatico are great classroom teachers, care deeply about their students, and have the goal of producing meaningful articles about social change both inside of and outside of the academic space.  However, few seem to share my deep passion for bringing about radical action directly through their writing and teaching.

So I have decided to go back to what worked for me as a consultant.  The first priority becomes changing the world.  There will be times when I have academic “tasks” that don’t fit the goal.  I’m a good, fast worker capable of doing the “tasks.” (Yes, I’m in GTD recovery.)  From now on the “tasks”  go on a list and get done well, quickly, and without worry.  Learning and deep understanding are a top priority; satisfying the requirements of the rewards system will happen.   I need to go back to focusing on the urgent concerns concerns of the world — racial, gender, economic, and social justice.

2.  I will be more selective about the advice I take.

I’m not quite in the same place as Grollman when he writes:  “I stopped taking advice, especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations.”  But I’m almost there.

Some of the advice I got before and during my first year caused me to (unnecessarily and repeatedly) bang my head against my desk.  Most of the bad advice came from folks with more privilege and less life experience than I have.  Some of it was just unrealistic — (e.g. never say “no” because you are a doctoral student and need to take advantage of every opportunity, build all of the relationships that you can, etc.)  Some of it was coming from a place of fear about their own desires for socially-defined success (i.e. tenure).  Some of it was just anti-intellectual; multiple faculty advised us to deal with the workload by skimming the reading assignments.  (Really?  I count on faculty to curate our experience and assume that if it is on their syllabus that it is relevant and important.)  So this year, I better know where to tune in and where to tune out.  And, as important, I’ll be better at asking from help from folks I trust to understand me and the change-the-world goal.

3.  I will (finally) create a “feel good” folder.

I was told to do this in business school.  This “task” is going on the list and getting done NOW!  Thank you notes from clients, my program acceptance letter, the A+ paper I wrote first semester, my first conference paper acceptance => in the “feel good” folder.

4.  I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.

This is probably the hardest for me.  I kept a general schedule of Monday through Saturday, 9-6ish last year.  But, I often worked more.  I’ve always worked 6 days a week including two nonprofit leadership positions where I was on a beeper 24/7.  (But again, perspective.  Responding to an emergency at a domestic violence shelter is much different than meeting a R&R deadline.)  Overworking is a hard habit to break but I’m going to do my best to contain my work to M-F, 9-6ish this year.

5.  I try to be the best “whole” person that I can be.

I find what Grollman says about appearance so liberating:  “This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation. ”  (I know some of my friends must be thinking: “if last year involved some effort, what are we in for now!”)  If one thing business school teaches you, it is to “manage your self-presentation.”  As I often say, we’re trained to look “straight but not available.”  Somewhere in this, I’ve lost myself.  Yep, I’m 43 and want to be “appropriate” (maybe) but I also want primary-colored hair.  I’ll spend some time thinking (but not worrying) about this.

And, when it is easy to do and gets the job done, I’ll do it with my eyes wide open. A quick Prezi presentation can sometimes get a more conservative faculty member to pay attention to my more radical agenda.  I’ll reluctantly “use the master’s tools” if I feel it can meet the change-the-world goal.

The other “whole” person part for me has to do with spending meaningful time in the  non-academic world — with activists, at protests, with white folks who care about doing anti-racist work, in low-income communities, with queers, and in communities of color.  I’m lucky to be at a public university that truly reflects the diversity of Boston — but it still isn’t enough for me.  I had a great conversation this summer with a practitioner friend about an essay I’m formulating.  A long time social justice activist has agreed to “keep me honest” while I embark on this career transition.

The third component of the “whole me” involves travel.  Travel shakes up my thinking in a way that is unsettling and productive.  I truly feel alive when I am out of my comfort zone struggling to navigate a community that is not my own.  I want to better understand how travel shapes my thinking.  In order to do that, I need to, well, travel.

6.  I have real friends.  I will take time with my friends.

For what I lack in a bio family, I make up for in a vibrant circle of incredibly supportive friends.  I have them and I’m going to spend time with them.  (My partner is among the best of those friends.)   And, I’m going to spend face-to-face, uninterrupted, cell-phone-turned-off time with them.

I’ve also started to make some great new friends.  Although I won’t start writing my dissertation for a year, I already have an interdisciplinary dissertation writing group of lively feminists.  Perhaps assembling this group is the smartest thing I’ve done over the past few months.  I am looking forward to our 8am morning meetings (yikes!) and getting to know each of them better.

7.  I will have fun now.  

I live in a great city and have great friends.  Enough said.