Activism Through Art

It has been over two weeks now since the New Faculty Majority Summit in D.C.,  where I was happy to meet and share thoughts with so many academic professionals on the faculty labor issues confronting the professoriate.  After the conference ended, it was extremely gratifying, and somewhat shocking, to see my own presentation mentioned a good bit — so thanks to all who included mention of my talk in the articles, blogs and twitter comments during and since our gathering.  I thought I might post here the talk I had written for the Summit.  Time constraints caused me to shorten the remarks during the panel and inspirations of the moment sometimes took me on asides, so what I post here is a little different than what I said to the group.  In any case, it is my best attempt at reconstruction:

While more and more is being written and spoken about the difficulties facing academia, about the failing institutions of higher education,  speculations about the reasons our higher education system is falling short, about how many ways it is failing our students and our society, there is still a great amount of ignorance regarding the complete picture of academic collapse. Conversation within academia has raged for nearly 20 years on issues of adjunct faculty labor exploitation, but rarely has that conversation crossed into mainstream arenas.  Many of us are trying to find ways to bridge the knowledge gap between the more public conversation and the many important, yet more widely unknown, issues of contingent faculty labor abuse. We are blogging, speaking, writing, signing petitions, posting on Facebook and Youtube — anything we can think of to get the general public to finally begin connecting the dots between what has happened to the role of the educator in academia and the failure of this new corporatized academic system.   There are those of us who are turning to art in order to explain and raise awareness of an issue that continues to hover outside the framework of much of the conversation about higher education.

Maria Maisto of the New Faculty Majority invited me to take part in this summit  because I am an adjunct and an artist.  She asked that I speak about the ways that art and creativity might be used to get this message out.  This Summit has provided us with very powerful information – statistics, hard research, strategies, talking points, models to follow.  We can talk about the ways in which contingency has negatively impacted the student’s learning conditions, or the ways it has limited the amount of scholarship done by a whole generation of scholars in a variety of fields; we can talk about the loss of faculty self-governance and the corporate take-over of American higher education.  We have Power Point, charts, hard numbers.  These are crucial in making the arguments, and proving the points.

But we also have the personal lives impacted by over twenty years of ever-increasing faculty labor abuse, poverty and suffering.  We also need to show the struggles of contingency, the many facets and faces of contingent reality.  We have to show the personal side of this experience in a way that reaches a wider audience, touching not only their minds, but their hearts.

I’m currently working, with my film partner, Chris LaBree of 2255 Films, to complete a documentary, and I’m working on a companion book, both titled ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America..  Other documentaries exist, most notably Teachers on Wheels by L.D. Janakos and Degrees of Shame by Barbara Wolf.  Another documentary is currently in process, called Con Job that focuses on the lives of contingent writing faculty – both professionally and personally.  These documentaries are part of a rising tide of information.

If you think about the impact of a documentary like Super-Size Me, or Food, Inc. you can see how, through the medium of film, with its power to hold your gaze on a situation — in the case of adjunct poverty, for instance, holding the camera on the inside of an empty refrigerator, or on the holes in the soles of our shoes, or a 20-year old car being held together by duct-tape, you understand that you have a very powerful teaching tool.

I encourage us all to use all creative avenues to communicate these personal realities.  I have  written plays which either reference the situation, or have adjunct faculty characters.

One of my plays has a 50-something career adjunct who is facing homelessness, and is a huge embarrassment to her corporate attorney daughter.  This play addresses some of the issues more dramatically.  For instance in one scene, the mother tries to explain her choices to her daughter, trying to justify her calling and her dedication.  But the daughter’s anger is clear — “They were YOUR choices, but you made ME suffer them!  You pulled me into your poverty!  You forced ME into that struggle.  Where was the honor in that? Where was your concern for ME?”

Another play uses humor, and references a sperm bank frequented by lots of male adjuncts desperate to deliver a bit of themselves, for some financial help to cover their bills.  It gets uncomfortable laughs, and it makes its point.

Humor can be an important creative tool.  The Xtra Normal videos on Youtube, like “So you want to get a Ph.D. in the Humanities” provide lots of information about the realities of the adjunct professor, and the ironies of trying to communicate that misery to the starry-eyed potential graduate student who refuses to hear the warning. The fate of the starry-eyed grad student is re-visited nine years later.   Garry Trudeau was ahead of most of us with his Doonesbury cartoons about adjunct faculty abuse.  Humor done well can be effective and long-lasting in its impact.  It comes at you from a less threatening place, and makes a powerful point without raising resistance to the message.

Surprise is another effective method.  Flash mob activities, for instance, can create powerful opportunities for messages.  I’m thinking of the students in Chile, protesting the crippling tuitions and debt, creating a flash mob dance of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video.  They took over a campus, dressed as zombies, and danced their message.  The videos shot of the event went viral.

Using art to communicate grows your audience in many directions.

I believe you are going to see more characters in fiction and drama who illustrate faculty poverty as a reality.  More poetry, more radical theatre, more flash mobs — the Occupy movement has begun working groups around the country for Occupy Colleges activities.  They are well organized.  They even have a Facebook page.  But we have to go beyond the mere walk-out and megaphone of misery model to staging events, playing music, performing the kind of radical theatre we saw in other eras of protest.

Martha Graham said that,  “No artist is ahead of his time.  He is his time. It is just that the others are behind the time.”  So, when you begin to see these issues expressed through creative avenues, you know its time has come.  Remember how the discussion about Vietnam shifted dramatically through the influence of all the films that were made, or through fiction, like the wonderful Tim O’Brien collection The Things They Carried?  The novels of Charles Dickens show how he was the voice of his time, pulling the veil away and revealing the evils of his age.

Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”  I believe he’s right.  Art doesn’t only appeal to the intellect.  It connects to emotions and invites a more empathic response; it calls on your senses, and you experience another’s reality within yourself.

I’d like to tell you a story to illustrate:  I attended a dinner recently at one of the few universities where part-time faculty are invited to take part in the decisions of the department.  We usually had pizza party meetings in the faculty lounge, but for this meeting, we were going to a restaurant in mid-town Philadelphia.  I was one of two adjuncts at the meeting.  When it came time to order wine, the other adjunct at the table told the server that he would just have some water.  Another faculty member — who was full-time faculty — chided him.  “This place is known for its wine bar,” she said.  “You have to try something!”

I knew, as she clearly did not, that the reason this adjunct wanted only water was because he had looked at the menu, seen the prices, and calculated how little he could afford.  But this was not something he could say.  So, instead, he ordered a glass of the house wine.  The same full-timer chided once again, “How can you drink THAT? What are your preferences?  Try something a little nicer!”

Now, it’s important to add here that this woman doing the chiding had absolutely no idea that she was causing this man, the adjunct faculty member, extreme humiliation and pain.  She had no idea what financial reality drove his decisions.  The chairman of the department was not picking up the underlying issues, either, as he joined his voice to this urging.  I sat there, sharing this other adjunct’s humiliation.  I had anticipated the prices there, because I knew the restaurant, and had factored that into the money I had budgeted for the evening. (And by “budgeting” I mean that I knew that for the rest of the week I would be eating tofu.) I too had ordered only the house wine.  We were both teased about having no palette, about being willing to drink swill.

The pain radiating off my fellow adjunct was intense, and yet I was the only one who felt it.  I sat there, angry and embarrassed for both of us, and thinking, “God, I wish I was filming this!” — Because it is exactly the kind of documentary moment that would communicate so much about the way in which the world of the adjunct is not the world of the full-time faculty.

Remember, this is the one school where I believe the desire is to treat us with respect and inclusion.  But how can you be included in such an event, when you aren’t included in the greater financial security that comes of the full-time faculty experience?  How can you feel like an equal, even in these rare moments when the effort is to treat you like one, when you are the poorest person at the table?  I believe that, were I to show that film to everyone who sat at that table, they would suddenly “see” what they didn’t see at the time.  The film would make the pain of my colleague visible.

Art makes personal that which can otherwise remain safely objectified.  I can tell you many stories of the struggles of the contingent population, as I have on the pages of my blog time and again.  Faculty on food stamps.  Faculty without healthcare, struggling with illness – sometimes dying for lack of care.  Faculty homelessness.  The contingent friend who lived in his van for two years, or another who lived in a homeless shelter for recovering drug addicts, the one who, on the edge of homelessness,  nearly lost all of his life’s creative work because he couldn’t afford to pay the storage facility, and they were about to confiscate the contents of his storage locker.  I can talk about the crippling despair  that is not at all unusual, among our numbers, even to the point of suicide.

My friend in the van tried to hang himself last year.  He was unsuccessful, but I remain worried about him, because things haven’t gotten any better.  The number of adjunct suicides is growing.  Dr. Antonio Calvo of Princeton killed himself when his courses weren’t renewed.  71 year old Dr. Rudolph Alexandrov of Chestnut Hill College hurled himself over the second floor rail onto the marble lobby of the floor below in front of his students and his wife, a fellow adjunct.  The couple in CA, aging adjuncts,  Michael Cour, age 60, and his wife Janice Gervais, age 70, died on New Year’s Day, 2011.  Both lost their jobs in this economic crash.   She had cancer.  They found themselves facing foreclosure on their home and filed for bankruptcy. Faced with an enormous sense of hopelessness, Cour shot his wife, set fire to the home they were about to lose, then killed himself.  It was premeditated.  His sister received a letter after the tragedy, where Cour explained the reasons he felt they had no choice.

There is also the story of a murder – Dr. Henry Acejo, an adjunct teaching at three universities in San Diego but unable to afford living there, rented an apartment in Tijuana, where he was murdered, robbery the suspected motive.

I can catalogue those stories, telling them to you the way a journalist would.  Or I can write a short story, focusing on the last day of that aged couple in California, describing in detail the old man’s preparation of loading the gun, or the way he might have gently arranged his wife’s body on the bed after he killed her, the thoughts that went through his head as he set fire to his home, and stood in the flames for as long as he could stand to, his flesh beginning to singe, the revolver in his hand becoming almost too hot to hold as he raised it to his head, and shot.

Which is more powerful?  Which will stay with you?

Nietzsche  said, “We have art so that we shall not die of the truth.”  Maybe that’s true.  But I think we also need art as a way to speak these truths.  Fearful or unpleasant facts can be elevated by art, our resistance to them made defenseless by creative presentation.

So let’s get creative with our communication. We are a remarkably intelligent, able, creative group of people.  Write a skit, perform a song, create an animated cartoon — it doesn’t have to be worthy of an Oscar or a Pultizer.  It merely has to communicate through creative means.

Just last night, a friend of mine sent me an article written by a journalist, Gautam Malkani in The Financial Times, of all places – raving about the magic of Leonard Cohen – poet, singer-songwriter, now well into his 70s, and on tour because, while he was living in a Buddhist monastery, his business manager stole his life’s savings.  This writer spoke of Cohen as being incandescent, a sage/poet returned from the mountaintop to sing for us, now that the Titans of Finance have driven us all to ruin.  This journalist suggested that what we all desperately needed right now was a return to what this profit-driven culture has all but destroyed:  The wise artist to call us back to our better selves.  A creative mystic to bring us all to a new shared awareness.  Art is not only a way to tell our most painful truths.  Its also a way to imagine new beginnings, and call new ways of being into reality.  I believe creativity and art can not only help us face difficult truths, but can help us achieve a better reality.  But we have to start by creating stories, plays, music, poetry, theatre, about where we are now, so that we can hope to create that better future on the basis of today’s painful truth.

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6 Responses to Activism Through Art

  1. Ana M. Fores says:

    I had actually read your blog before, and I loved it, but then I had forgotten about it, until I saw your comment on Con Job. So, I came to take a look, and I was so happy to find you again. This is wonderful stuff, and though you say you are a visual artist, you are a wordsmith as well: my hat off to you! Your entire piece was very moving, and very visual, so I could definitely tell you were an artist, but you are extremely well read, and very varied too: I really loved it.

    But, so much of admiration. I am writing you here and putting my petition here as well, in the hopes that, if any other adjuncts or contingent labor–yes us poor measly folk–see this, you will sign my petition, another one of these fighting for our just cause. If we keep fighting, if we keep making our voices heard, if we keep screaming loud enough, often enough,maybe someone will hear us. And so here it is: sign it, as many of you who see this. We are already almost 600 strong, and with NFM’s petition circling about as well, hey, maybe we’ve got something there. And yes, make the visuals to go with this blog, but by God, keep writing this, and keep spreading it to everyone you can! http://signon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts.fb1?source=c.fb&r_by=426534

  2. Pingback: Activism Through Art | The Homeless Adjunct | cotynolof

  3. VanessaVaile says:

    A screen shot of the Chilean students flash mob would have been a nice touch. I’ve been following on my feed reader ~ not that I can visual mobs of adjuncts doing the same. More’s the pity,

    Reading this, I thought of Brecht and Mother Courage

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    Debra,
    Did you see the post by the Houston art adjunct on the adjunct stories section of Josh’s Adjunct Project? I include a link to Art through Activism in my reply and wrote that I would send you his post.

  5. Pingback: Wine « Flat 7

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