Abuse, Learned Helplessness, and the Viet Cong

I come from an abusive and dysfunctional family. For the first seven years of my life, my parents abandoned me to the care of my grandparents and a great aunt, and pretty much anyone else who would feel obligated or coerced into taking me. I grew up feeling that I didn’t belong anywhere – and that sense that I had nowhere to call home made the world feel like a very dangerous place. And frankly, it was.

I have absolutely nothing negative to say about my grandmother, who had herself been orphaned at a young age, and who was extensively abused by nuns in the orphanage where she was sent. She was a beautiful, loving, creative and spiritual woman – deeply Catholic in her religious practices. She attended mass regularly, not just on Sundays, and even sang in the choir right up to the year she passed away. She is the only person in my family I can think of with great love and appreciation, and know that she loved me. I certainly loved her. She did everything she could to nurture and raise me. I have nothing good to say of anyone else. My grandfather was a vicious and violent alcoholic. So was his son, and ultimately his daughter in law. My great aunt was a pedophile who sexually abused the little girls of the family. And my own parents don’t even deserve my mention. When I was seven, the only reason they brought me home was so that I could serve as their babysitter for my newborn sister.

Just about anyone who endures extensive abuse at a young age knows how much damage it does to your entire being: your mind, your emotional structure, your trust structure, your ability to set and maintain boundaries, your sense of self-worth…..the harm is deep and long-lasting. It has taken me the better part of my adult life to heal, and I realize that it’s a job that will never end. But I have learned some important things.

I’ve learned that some wounds are forever. I think of them as a kind of emotional/psychological shrapnel. Embedded in you forever, it waits until there are certain activities, events, accidents, that can trigger the pain. The best you can do is stay aware of the fact that it is the OLD wound you are feeling, and not put all the focus on what caused the current activation. Another way to think about it: Say your foot was crushed in a terrible accident, and had to be reconstructed with many surgeries and physical therapy and that you still had a slight limp because of it. If someone accidentally stepped on that foot while you were dancing, the pain and incapacitation it would cause has much less to do with your clumsy dance partner and everything to do with the previous extensive wounding. You need to learn how to accurately assess the current wounding while separating out your needs and responses which arise from the old wounds.

I’ve also learned that an abusive childhood has a kind of deep, magnetic familiarity to it. And, sadly, that familiarity is not the same as “normal” — it’s woven through with the abusive experiences that were so constant in our experience.  This, also, is something abused people know well enough. It’s why you are drawn to the alcoholic abuser lover when you had an alcoholic abuser as a parent or grandparent. It is why you are easy pickings for a sexual abuser, since your boundaries never formed. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels familiar. And, unfortunately, feeling good is not familiar. Feeling worthy is not familiar. Feeling loved is not familiar. And because they are not familiar to us, their strangeness signals danger – a very sad thing, really, since we flee from the very experiences that would provide us with an atmosphere more healing and more joyful. Instead we move toward the familiar that brings more of the same misery, fear, danger, harm and struggle, suffer, dream for a better life.

It’s one thing to get conscious about all this. It’s another to actually rewire your psyche so that the right things, the healthy things, the powerfully positive things are what attract you.

While a lot of literature has been written about the ways we replicate our abusive relationships with the lovers and friends we choose, not so much has been written about the ways we reproduce our abusive atmosphere in the work we choose.

This brings us to faculty labor abuse in corporatized academia. While it is only one example of the kinds of abusive work situations many people now find themselves enduring, it is the one I know.

As a child, one of my only places of joy was school. I excelled as a student, got excellent grades, loved learning. I would go to school with a fever if I could. I would limp there with two broken legs if allowed. School was my safe place.

It’s not unusual for children who are physically abused to “go into their heads” – and many children who experience abuse of the body become more, shall we say, “head locked” – all their energy moves up into the head, into the intellect, which they trust much more than they trust their body. They don’t feel safe in their bodies, since that is where pain and memory of pain exists.

So I was an eagerly intellectual person who loved nothing more than the college campus, once I was old enough to go to university. I loved nothing more than researching, writing papers, being the best student, being the promising young scholar. I thought I’d found my calling and that I would live at the bosom of Mother Academia for the remainder of my life. For someone who never internalized a sense of “home” and “safety”, I felt that I was finally wrapped in security and well-being.

But my entry into academia corresponded to the years of corporate takeover of our universities. By the time I was ready to teach, the only jobs available in my region were adjunct jobs. And since by then I was married to a trial attorney whose work was very much based in our city, I had little choice but to focus my own search regionally. These were the days when few had fully grasped what was happening to the profession of the scholar. It was too soon to see that this adjunctification, this “casualization” of our chosen occupation was nothing less than a creeping ruin. These were still the years when we just entering the profession believed that teaching of any kind was preferable to not using our training, and that a full resume of teaching part-time while continuing to search for full-time employment looked better on a resume than working in another field. Of course, it’s clear now that the part-time contracts marked you as an undesirable to those hiring committees. It also – and this is important – marked us psychologically. It trained us to accept the abuse of poverty wages, insecure hiring, disrespectful treatment, dehumanization. I think back now to those experiments in learned helplessness conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and realize that a similar kind of experience was being endured by those of us in that first generation who would become “career adjuncts”.

It took me years to realize that the increasing misery and self-loathing, the anxiety and agony I was feeling was very, very much like that of my childhood. It took years for me to realize that I was, once again, in the paralysis of the abuse victim – and that my chosen profession had brought me to a place that exactly replicated my childhood (and that includes sexual abuse, which will be saved for another conversation except for me to say that the elder men of the professoriate, the old professorial elite, saw the women graduate students as part of their list of perks. We were on the menu, shall we say).

Academia no longer felt good to me – but damn if it didn’t feel familiar.

This was not me responding in some overblown way to an old abusive history.  This was me recognizing, from my own hard-won experience, what abuse looked like and felt like, and what it cost a person to endure it.

So the university system is abusive.  Of course it is.  It abuses the people most central to its purported mission – the scholars.  It abuses its students.  The shifts caused by the takeover of the corporate culture have caused a lot of misery.  And is there ever dysfunction. When I look back to my childhood world – the dysfunction took the form of secrecy, denial, sexual and physical abuse, ever-existent fear and anxiety. Pretense of normalcy had to be maintained at all times. University dysfunction is not much different. There is a lot of secrecy; corporate academia does everything possible to keep secret from parents, students, the population at large exactly what kind of sweat shop the college campus has become. There is a lot of pretense, a lot of denial around the fact that administrators have created a sort of edu-factory. Those “admins” who have never taught a day in their lives are designing courses rather than the scholars who have trained for an average of 10 years apiece to credential themselves. Needless to say, there is little quality learning possible in the kind of cookie-cutter courses being created. We could all list hundreds of examples of why the university that exists in 2018 has to be in denial about its failures as an institution of higher learning. Sexual abuse? Always. Ask any female grad student. Physical abuse? Well….while contingent faculty are not being beaten by administrators physically, the poverty wages, lack of health insurance and benefits, lack of job security or professional support is professional abuse, as well as emotional abuse. Living under constant strain, stress, humiliation, anxiety…..I’d call that emotional abuse, wouldn’t you?

Flash back to my beloved grandmother. She stayed in her miserable marriage to the alcoholic and abusive husband. She raised her children – both of whom were entirely warped by the experience despite her best efforts. She did her best to protect and care for her grandchildren, myself included. But she never ever stood up and fought back. Instead she went to mass. She said the rosary every day. She placed faith in a god that never ever protected her – not from the abusive nuns of her orphaned childhood and not from the abusive husband.

My grandmother died at 66 from breast cancer – I think of the root cause as a broken and diseased heart. But here is the thing: my grandmother refused treatment. She refused to do anything to prolong her life. She chose death. She confided in me that it was her one act of refusal.

I am approaching my grandmother’s age, and have been thinking a lot about her life and her choices. And I realized that I was a lot more like my grandmother than I wanted to admit. She stayed in the abusive situation until it wore her down so much that she embraced death. I stayed in abusive academic work, feeling myself to be beaten down more each year, wrestling with suicidal ideation, sometimes feeling that death would be preferable. I even gave an interview with Stacey Patton which went viral, in which I told her, “Suicide is my retirement plan.”

I’m a good person, a gifted person, an extremely well-educated person. I did my human, imperfect best to raise my children with love and support, yet I know now that my children suffered because of my career choice and the financial insecurity it brought into our lives. I know that they suffered from the amount of anxiety and insecurity I constantly felt. In short, my behavior was very much like my grandmother’s. I have poured a lot of my sorrow into my spiritual work. And I have not sufficiently fought back against my abusers.

Oh, and “staying for the children”? It didn’t work for my grandmother, and it doesn’t work for us in academia. Our students are being warped and ruined by what masquerades as a university experience, too. We can’t stay for them in any positive way – that was the last thing that kept me hanging in. But I finally realized that what little good I might be able to do for the students in my short time with them was undone by the great harm they faced. In the end, I was part of their exploitation by giving myself up to this corrupted system.  You can’t stay in an abusive environment in order to protect the children; you have to fight and end the abuse.

So, a year ago, I left academia for good. But I have not left the fight. It’s taken me this year to work on healing and getting my strength and my will back.   But now, I believe with all my heart that my warrior abilities are greatly enhanced by being outside the institution. In reference to the old “inside/outside” strategy, I’d like to say that our “inside” ability to fight has been nearly non-existent for lack of a sufficiently terrifying “outside”.  Everyone knows that our government would never have worked with Martin Luther King as an “inside” activist, if not for the far more terrifying prospect of Malcolm X and those perceived to be the more radical elements of the civil rights movement, fighting on the “outside”.   I have known for a long time that my personality is much more in harmony with the Malcolms of the world, so I feel certain that I’m where I belong.

If my grandmother had fought, if my grandmother had freed herself, she might have wanted to stay alive. But instead she struggled with her need to forgive the most rotten people around her, trusting that some day they would somehow, magically, become better people. Her broken heart ultimately led her to embrace an early death in despair. I don’t have any such illusion.  I forgive nothing.  I don’t expect magic or a religious miracle.

Let’s talk, finally, about the experience of abandonment. My parents abandoned me. I know what that kind of betrayal feels like. And I accuse the full-time faculty, the education unions*, the legislators, of abandoning the growing number of scholars being pushed into penury. Four decades.   Where were the full-time faculty, those of that last generation of full-time professors who were on the inside and saw, probably better than anyone, what was happening? Where was their anger? Where was their refusal? Where was their determination, if not to protect the ever-increasing number of faculty poor, to protect their profession?….to protect academia? When they were still large in number, why didn’t they rise up? Where were our legislators? Where were the education unions? For way too many years, the education unions were interested only in representing full-time faculty. When did they wake up? It was only once they saw their union dues dipping toward zero that they realized that the majority faculty was not full-time anymore, and that there were thousands and thousands of potential part-time faculty union members on every campus across the U.S. – bodies whose money they needed to fill up their coffers. Even then, those unions didn’t really beef up their game until they realized that outside unions like the SEIU and the USW were organizing on campuses.  The result:  Abandonment and betrayal by those we should have been able to trust.

Here is the last thing I want to say. When you are living in an abusive situation, you do NOT ask the abuser to try and abuse you a little less. You don’t say, “I know you beat me every night, but can you, maybe, only beat me four times a week?”

That’s what the unions and administrators like to call “incremental change”. We hear that phrase everywhere these days. Be patient, we are told. It will take time to get that $2/hour raise, or to have job security, or a sense of safety in your life.  Or food in your refrigerator. How many decades of patience should we wait?  As we all know, justice so long withheld is no justice at all.

So please pardon my language when I say fuck the living shit out of THAT. Fuck it hard.

My alcoholic abusive grandfather lived into his late 90s. He lived a full thirty years longer than the woman he crushed.

Abusers. Exploiters. Bastards. Predators. They live too long. They feed on the rest of us.

It is our right, as trained professionals, as those who dedicated decades of life in academic training and research, in preparation for an honorable career, to demand the FULL restoration of our professional role and stature. It is our right to demand restitution for the years of labor exploitation, wage and benefit theft, as well as the harm suffered by lack of professional development. No more incremental bullshit.  And let’s take a page from those teachers in West Virginia.  When the unions told them to be patient, they told the unions to fuck off, and they marched, state-wide, out of their classrooms to get what they demanded. If the unions are too weak or too unwilling to take a more radical stance, we will have no choice but to do it without them.

I’ll go farther and say that, not only is it our right to make these demands – it is our responsibility. It is our responsibility to fight for full restoration of our profession, not only for ourselves but for those who come after us. For future scholars and for our students. For our society, which is in desperate need of its scholars and intellectuals. It is our responsibility to fight to save the institution of higher education, and to rip it from the talons of those truly vile soul-suckers who have possessed it for too long.

Corporate colonization of academia has destroyed an entire generation of the country’s scholars, and is on the way to destroying generation #2.  It is destroying the institution of higher learning itself. It has ruined the lives of students, pulling them into an educational pretense and burdening them with lifelong debt.  The death knell is ringing louder and louder each year. The corporate colonizers don’t care, because except for the illusion they pay PR firms to maintain, they aren’t in it to serve the mission of academia.   For many years now, I’ve used the term corporate colonization very intentionally, because I see this as a complete, sweeping domination of one culture over another.  I think of it the way I think of the colonialism of the last century.  A powerful culture, in this case, the corporate culture, has conquered the academic culture and uses that domination to create a slavish underclass — those members of academic culture are now the dehumanized creatures serving at the end of an economic whip on the college plantations.  And those who could and should have fought against it have become the apologists and functionaries of the new power, the way the upper class Vietnamese learned French, converted to Catholicism, sent their children to study in Paris and looked the other way as their own people were being beaten and starved on the rubber plantations.  I look to the work of scholars like Trinh T. Minh-Ha in understanding what happens to a culture once it is crushed by the dominance of a foreign power.

We have been abandoned and betrayed. There is no denying it.  And just as those aristocratic Vietnamese functionaries continued to serve foreign powers until the fall of Saigon, the aristocratic functionaries of academia will continue to reap the benefits of the role they play; they will continue to keep their boot on the neck of the majority faculty and the students as long as they are rewarded for it.

In short:  The cavalry ain’t coming.  Not in the form of full-time faculty allies, not in the form of unions, not in the form of legislation.  WE are the cavalry.  It is our responsibility to see this fight more clearly, and to enter it with guns blazing, and to win.

That’s what I’ve learned. That abusers feed on crushing others. They depend on our growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness. A lifetime of knowing the wickedness of this sort of person has taught me, finally, that you don’t go begging to your abusers. You don’t cower.  And what is true of the microcosm is true of the macrocosm. You don’t go begging to those in positions of brutal domination.  You have to neutralize them, to eradicate them. You crush them to end them crushing you. You do what you have to do to defeat them and liberate yourself. You go Viet Cong on their ass. I can envision and embrace this once I imagine that I am fighting for my children, that we are fighting for all our children.  We are fighting for the coming generations.  We are fighting to rescue our culture and our society.  It’s much bigger than our individual struggles.  Abusers will never give you anything other than abuse. And if they are forced by some external power – whether it is a restraining order, or union bargaining or new legislation, to give back some of what they stole from you, it will be done with barely concealed rage and with every intention to steal it back from you again. This is true of individual abusers and it is true of abusive systems and institutions.

Here is what we have to do:  Refuse the abuse. Completely. Take back every single one of your rights. Don’t ask for them. TAKE THEM. Don’t sit like penitents at a bargaining table weighted against you. Don’t say thank you for the slightly-increased pile of crumbs you receive. One result of our abuse is that we accept the abusers’ definition of who we are, of what we are worth, of what we should expect. Screw them. Take the board room. Take the whole pie. Take the whole campus. Take control of your life and your profession. Defeat them. You don’t bargain with the devil.  You exorcise him.

The worst thing you can do is be “reasonable”, or “patient”.   Our civility has been our biggest weakness.  It is time to get fierce.

It is time for an academic Dien Bien Phu.  It is time for an academic Fall of Saigon.

What the hell does that mean?  It means we come together with a determination to get as radical as necessary.  We don’t look to the unions, because they are too weak — they’ve shown that they are unwilling and unable to get radical enough.  We come together with all scholars across the U.S. and into the other countries facing this sort of takeover.  It means we come together with our students, both past and present to add their fight with ours: demanding mass student debt forgiveness and free university tuition.  It means some of us take control of the campuses.   Others of us walk off, all across the country, as students refusing to matriculate to colleges that fail and ruin them, as a majority faculty refusing to set foot in a classroom unless total administrative control is ceded to the scholars. Until there is no career administrator on any campus in the country. Until all sovereignty is in the hands of the scholars and their students. Until the corporate model of universities has been smashed to pieces and academia once again restored to its true mission. Until our universities are run cooperatively by scholars and students for the purpose of scholarship and learning and the social good.

Should we do this?  Hell, yes.  Can we do this? It will take a massive shift in the way we think about ourselves and the way we experience our strength.  But, yes, we can do this.   How do we do this? By any means necessary. Yes, obviously, it is yet another borrowed phrase….but it is the only rallying cry we should allow. The only true way forward.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

*I want to say that it is my observation that the SEIU and the USW — unions that were not traditionally the “education” sector unions — saw the need and responded by stepping in to unionize contingent faculty.  They were more determined and more ferocious in their efforts, and remain so.  But they entered late — at a time when the corporate control of our universities was more fully cemented into place.  That has caused the fight to be arduous and slow.  The progress has been excruciatingly slow, which means that the suffering of the majority faculty has not been helped much.  You can’t stop the hemorrhaging once so much blood has been lost.  I still, however, hold out more hope that those unions, and other unions which represent a wider field of occupations, could help us in greater radicalization, and could call on a wider population of workers to join us in walk-outs, work stoppage, general strikes.  I would welcome their increased ferociousness.  But I can’t any longer support a process of inch-by-inch incremental change as the only hope in ending the widespread suffering of this corporate takeover.


Posted in Activism, Exiting the Edu-Factory, Leaving academia, The Breakdown of the American University System | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Is No Such Thing As An Adjunct Professor

A full year has passed on these pages since I announced my departure from academic “adjunct” employment, listing my plans for reconstructing my life once I was no longer living the life of a precariously-employed scholar. I’ve been silent here as I went about that reconstruction, even withdrawing from most of the conversations about higher education. I’d like to say that this was done through a healthy intentionality – but it was not. The year’s anniversary for my departure has just passed. During this year, it’s become clear to me that more time is necessary for both life reconstruction and for healing the trauma of such long-term professional, economic and emotional abuse. As any therapist will attest, any extended experience of abuse requires extended efforts at healing. When a person is consistently demeaned, dehumanized, stressed, and frightened, there is a kind of PTSD that forms that doesn’t simply go away with a few months of extra sleep, or a week at the beach. Healing takes prolonged, intentional effort to address these effects. And no, you don’t have to have a history of combat in Baghdad to have PTSD.  Prolonged emotional abuse, economic stress, humiliation and anxiety can produce the disorder.

The ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America) defines the disorder:

“PTSD is diagnosed after a person experiences symptoms for at least one month following a traumatic event. However symptoms may not appear until several months or even years later. The disorder is characterized by three main types of symptoms:

• Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.

• Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.

• Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.”

What I began to realize over this past year is that I had all three symptoms. I did have frequent distress thinking about the years I spent living in poverty while trying to perform the duties of the profession for which I had trained a decade. These thoughts were persistent and somewhat obsessive. I did withdraw from conversations with former colleagues, and from the work I was doing on the documentary about the corporatized university. (Even as I’ve struggled to work on the script, I’ve found myself unable to think straight, unable to put my thoughts together in a coherent way.)  I wouldn’t set foot on a campus anywhere, and especially would not go to the campus where I had taught. I had sleep trouble. And, finally, I realized that I was in a state of near-constant irritation and anger. Not being one to rush to practitioners of western medicine, I chose instead to continue with the kind of gentle work I had been doing: yoga, meditation, journaling. I am not the kind to take a pill for my distress, but I’m sure that others around me (at least at times) might wish I had. I realized that for many years I was struggling with depression and anxiety – for so long, in fact, that I had normalized feeling terrible.  Friends and family probably felt the effects of this more than I did.  In that way, our own struggles become the struggles of everyone we care about.  For that reason, if not for any other, this is an issue that requires attention.

The reason I’m sharing this is not because I want sympathy – far from it. I’m sharing this because I know that there are at least 1.3 million professors across the United States working on contingent contracts, many who may well be experiencing a lot of the same difficulties. I share this because I want to say that you are not alone. That, in fact, you are in some rather exalted company – the professoriate of any country being some of the best educated and brightest citizens.  Our country’s best minds are being driven to mental distress by prolonged labor abuse and exploitation.  Think about that for a moment, please.

To screen yourself for PTSD, think about whether or not you can identify the presence of two or more of the following (I have italicized those I struggle with):

• inability to remember an important aspect of the traumatic events (not due to head injury, alcohol, or drugs)

persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others, or the world (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted,” “The world is completely dangerous”).

persistent, distorted blame of self or others about the cause or consequences of the traumatic events

• persistent fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame

markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities

feelings of detachment or estrangement from others

• persistent inability to experience positive emotions

I realized that I had persistent thoughts about myself that were negative. I called myself a failure. I thought of myself as a loser. I had thoughts like, “You just weren’t good enough,” whenever I thought about the lifetime I spent struggling on part-time teaching contracts. In other words, I internalized all my anger, turned it into self-blame and self-loathing. I sincerely believe that, even among those who are working tirelessly as activists on behalf of faculty re-professionalization, there may be a lot of the same kind of internalized anger, a lot of the same self-blame. It is insidious.

All this being said, I want to say that I am doing better and better, happy about my decision to exit life in the Precariat, and excited with the new stage of life I am building. For me, having spent decades in the tar pits of academia, I am looking toward retirement age, but with it, a whole new phase of life. Jane Fonda likes to call it her “third act” – and I think that is a wonderful way of thinking about these life adventures as we who are the first generation of precariously employed scholars enter our years of seniority.

One thing I’ve realized, as I have contemplated my experiences in the corporatized university: We should never EVER refer to ourselves as “adjuncts” or “adjunct professors.” Rather, we should say that we are professors teaching on adjunct, contingent or part-time contracts. The difference? We are not, and never were “adjunct.” The contracts we signed were for part-time employment because the universities decided decades ago to slash the number of full-time faculty positions. The label “adjunct” was applied to us by those who sought to deprofessionalize the role of the scholar, both on the campus and in the country. We never should have accepted it. We certainly shouldn’t have adopted the term and applied it to ourselves. The word means “supplemental, not essential.” Faculty, no matter what their contract, will always be essential to a university. There is nothing “adjunct” about the role we play, and nothing supplemental to our responsibilities and role in fulfilling any mission dedicated to the pursuit of higher learning. Words are important, and the way we choose our words, the way we frame our narrative, is of great importance. There is no such thing as an “adjunct” professor. We are essential. We ARE the university. Any university that allows its administrators to outnumber its faculty is not a university. Any university that values its lazy rivers and climbing walls while diminishing the role of its faculty is not a university. It is, instead, a site which offers an experience of a “notional” college “experience”.

So….this is my first message, upon my return to these pages. Pay attention to the ways you might be struggling with PTSD without realizing it. Pay attention to the ways you might be internalizing your anger at an abusive system and blaming yourself. And pay attention to the way you refer to yourself. Take control of your own story, and the words you use to tell it. No, it won’t change what has happened to our profession on the corporatized campuses. But it will change the way we represent our own reality – both to ourselves and to the outside world. It will begin to reverse the effects of diminishing ourselves  – who we are and what we do.  That is an essential first step to changing the internal and external reality.  Let’s commit to this essential change today, right now, and begin to own our own story.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


For those who wish to read more on the topic of work-related PTSD:

The ADAA’s full discussion of the symptoms of PTSD can be found here.

The EEOC’s page on your legal rights, “Depression, PTSD, and Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace:  Your Legal Rights”  (NOTE:  This is about the employer’s legal responsibilities toward an employee struggling with mental health issues.  It is NOT an admission that the work place causes mental health issues.)

One argument that the workplace IS the cause of mental health distress can be found here.




Posted in Activism, Exiting the Edu-Factory, Leaving academia, The Breakdown of the American University System, Workplace Mental Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Stupid Slut (Finally) Walks Away


A few days ago, an article in The Guardian by Alastair Gee, hit the internet. In it, the stories of adjunct faculty in desperate poverty are told, once again. Year after year after year, the situation in American academia – and now in academia around the world – continues to worsen. So, I thought it was time to check in, since I was quoted in this article, to update my own situation.

It has been over five years since I wrote of a devastating experience – one of many devastating experiences – I have had as an adjunct in American Academia. The blog was called “Being a Stupid Slut”, and it discussed, through a story about my own humiliation, the ways in which we who serve as adjunct faculty in American academia are treated with no respect, how we feel devastated and demeaned, and how important it is that we refuse to accept this abuse and find other ways to live out our callings. I meant this when I wrote it five years ago. But it has taken me five long years to finally reach a point where I can “walk the talk”. I have left adjunct academia, convinced that there is no hope and no sense to working on the “inside” for improvement.   I plan to continue my work, including finishing the documentary film and the book, from the outside, where I can be as ferocious as need be.

This Fall semester will be the first in over 15 years where I will not be returning to adjunct labor. No, I never returned to the university which had treated me so disrespectfully, and I counted that as a small act of self-care. But I did continue to accept adjunct contracts at another local university where, although my program was run in a way that offered respect and dignity to its faculty as best it could, we were still beholden to the university administration’s disdain.

In recent years, this particular university spent millions of dollars in legal fees fighting one of our many attempts to unionize the adjunct faculty, even going so far as to argue that we should be barred from the “faculty union” we wished to join because “adjuncts weren’t faculty”. They went to great pains to talk about the many ways that we could not be, and were not, considered faculty. This November, it will be two years since that battle was won, and we were included in the faculty union. But over the course of these two years, the administration has steadfastly refused to come to the bargaining table in good faith, blatantly refusing to make any changes to our compensation, our professional support, our job security. The first “negotiated settlement”, reached only weeks ago, offers barely $1500 gross increase yearly salary for a 2/2 course load (the most they are allowed to hire adjuncts to teach without having to pay them respectable wages and benefits). That amount, after a two year delay, saves the university well over $2 million in salary increase, and barely covers the cost of living increases over these same two years. The money saved, I’m sure, has gone to administrative salaries. Oh, and the school is building a new multi-million dollar football stadium. The university’s adjuncts will still, therefore, earn the poverty wages we earned before “winning” the right to unionize. We still have no healthcare. We still have 15 week contracts that can be canceled at the university’s whim. We are still, clearly, not worthy of any respect or professional treatment in the eyes of the university itself. Worse still, the union, which is so often seen as the best hope to undo this labor abuse nationwide, has been exposed as being toothless in its ability to wage any significant fight on our behalf. Too often lately, unions have been reduced to acting as apologists for administration with what I call the “It’s the best we can do for now” argument, meant to placate and anesthetize the exploited. I’ll be writing more about this in blogs to come, since our plight is only worsened by powerless unions, and other choices must be made on a grand scale – a national and international scale – to restore an essential profession, save our students, and resuscitate the academic mission of higher learning beyond the gates of the ruined universities-turned-edu-factories.

So, here we are, five years later. I want to share some details about what I, personally, have been working to build over these years so that I could, finally, not only walk away, but walk toward something much, much better. I intend to thrive now.

That’s a key, I think, to leaving a toxic situation of any kind: the determination to thrive. Knowing that you have to leave doesn’t necessarily mean that you are equipped emotionally or financially to leave. What I’ve found is that it not only takes the determination to liberate yourself; it takes hope. It takes faith in yourself. It takes new opportunities, often ones that you have to create for yourself. But it also takes healing. There is a huge emotional cost to being exploited and abused, as anyone should know. When your spirit has been broken, your self-esteem crushed, your sense of the possible all but obliterated, your finances ruined — where do you find hope, or faith, or opportunities? Another key: it takes baby steps. It takes looking around for guidance from others who have escaped. And those stories are out there – people who have left for “day jobs” which felt less like the calling academia had been for them: office jobs, non-profit jobs, social service jobs. But even with the jobs that felt somehow “lesser” in the beginning, they were offered more job security – you don’t have to beg for the same job every fifteen weeks, for instance – and a more steady paycheck, and that, in turn, offers you something of a more secure identity. There is great healing in a restored sense of dignity.

As I’d mentioned in Slut blog #1, I founded an arts organization over 20 years ago, Hidden River Arts. It began as a valiant little organization, but has grown slowly and steadily; it probably would have grown faster had I been able to focus entirely on my stewardship of the organization and not been limited by the 9 to 10 months each year given over to adjunct penury. But, we have grown, expandeding our arts competitions, our workshops and classes. We’ll be expanding into online classes this year so that we can reach more people. We launched an independent small press in 2010, and are growing steadily, with titles we are very proud to have published. We’ll also be adding new book-length competitions and publishing more works beginning in 2018. We have a thriving internship program. We’re launching an online arts journal beginning in late 2017. We’ll be blogging more, as well as launching podcasting. In short, this is an organization whose mission is service – service to artists, and to the arts community. It’s a wonderful feeling to be directing an organization that offers hope and support to others, whose vision is positive, loving and respectful of the creative life force.

I’m going to work, finally, with my co-producer to finish our film about corporatized academia. I’m going to write the companion book. For more information about the film and the other projects, see our ‘Junct Rebellion website, and our site at 2255 Films.

A very significant sign of restored health, for me, is that my own creative outflow is increasing significantly. Over this past summer, I finished one novel, have rough drafts of a few more, and have been working on two new collections of short stories. I’ve returned to singing professionally, and have formed a singing partnership called Cabaret Divas; we’ve written two shows, performed one, are rehearsing the second, to be performed in early 2018.

So, my message to fellow adjunct scholars: There’s life out here that has been waiting for me, and it is waiting for all of us. I’ve got a lot of emotional healing to do, as will you. I know I’m really lucky because I do have other dreams to go to, and will know the joy of new adventures and successes. But I also know that those possibilities are out there for all of us, each of us with our own individual callings and passions.  As a class of people, we are some of the best educated people in the United States.  Never forget that the intellectuals of a society are essential. The scholarly class must thrive for a society to thrive. We can no longer thrive within the corporatized university world, and must leave in large numbers in order to heal and begin doing the work we are meant to do. This exodus is not just for our own individual well-being.  It’s for the benefit of our society. The state of our country makes it clear that our role must be restored in order for the country and society to be restored. I’m not talking about the so-called “ivory tower” academics. I’m talking about the role of the public intellectual, the role that is played by the most well-educated people in the society acting in a public capacity to bring their learning to the community, the society, the country. I’m talking about what I call a Diaspora of the Learned, thrust out of the dying campuses, and back into the world at large, where we are so needed. I’ll be writing and speaking more about this, since it’s very much a part of what I see as my own future, and as the future of the learned of our population.  I’m also placing a call for submissions for an anthology of storiesExit the Edu-Factory, where others can share their stories of liberation.   

My hope now is that, with the work we do on the film and the book, and in our public work, we can set a lot of other people – both faculty, potential future faculty and potential future indebted students – free. I want to dedicate some of my own freedom – as long-coming as it has been – to creating a kind of escape map for others. To that end, I welcome stories of liberation from others who had struggled in the edu-factory, and would love to hear from you in our comments, or by email, or of course, through submission to our manuscript call. These are stories of hope, of vision and of renewed intellectual dedication that need to be shared now, as we turn our eyes toward the future, and to the building of new forms of scholarship, academia, learning – as well as to building, or rebuilding, the lives broken by the corporate colonization of what used to be American academic culture.




Posted in Activism, Alt-Ac, Exiting the Edu-Factory, Leaving academia, Social and Economic Inequality, The Breakdown of the American University System | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Exit the Edu-Factory – a Call for Manuscripts

This is a call for writers who might like to join the conversations around the issue of exodus of the corporatized university.

Exit the Edu-Factory: Essays on Refusal, Rebellion & Rebirth  is an anthology of essays discussing the ways in which scholars and students are finding their power and their voice through academic exodus, and through refusal to submit to the exploitation and ruin caused by the corporatized university.  These essays can be from American writers, where the de-professionalization of the scholarly class has been on-going since the 1980s, or from writers in English anywhere in the world where such precarious hiring and corporatized practices are also taking hole.

The anthology will be edited by Debra Leigh Scott, Founding Editor-in-Chief of Hidden River Publishing, whose documentary, ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America, is heading into post-production.

The hope is that this book will not only expand the reach of our conversations on the topic of corporate colonization of the American university, but that it will be the center around which a movement will grow – a mass exodus and collective re-imagining of what the university can be in this new millennium and beyond.

For more information, please contact us at hiddenriverarts@gmail.com. If you are interested in submitting a manuscript, please see our Submittable page at:


For more information about ‘Junct Rebellion, see our website at


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Why Professional Development Matters, a guest blog by Lydia Snow

From Founder of ‘Junct Rebellion and “The Homeless Adjunct” blog, Debra Leigh Scott:

As many of you know, “The Homeless Adjunct” is the blog of ‘Junct Rebellion, which is an organization founded to raise awareness of the many ways in which the corporate colonization of academia in the U.S.  (and now in the other parts of the world where the “American system” has been adopted). It is part of a larger effort that includes the filming of a documentary called ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America, and a companion book of the same name.   The difficulty of trying to do a lot at one time means that our blog here sits for long stretches of time with no new posts. So, we’ve decided that the community would be better served if we open the blog up to other voices who will join us as guest bloggers.


Lydia Snow

Lydia Snow

Our first guest blogger is Lydia Snow, Co-Director of Women Composer’s Concert for the past three years, and made her professional career as a musician in Chicago as a choral singer.  She was a professional member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus for ten years and has appeared as a soloist and choral singer with Ars Musica Chicago, the Northshore Choral Society, the James Chorale, Basically Bach and other area church and synagogue choirs She’s taught Vocal Music and general education courses at Northeastern for 10 years, and recently has become involved in the Adjunct Labor Movement and helped organize a Teach In at NEIU last February on National Adjunct Walkout Day. She has been active in Faculty Forward Chicago unionizing efforts at the University of Chicago and more recently Loyola University.

If you would like to follow her on Facebook, she can be found here.”

A typical day's white board for Lydia's class

A typical day’s white board for Lydia’s class



One morning, I received a mass email from an unknown university music educator which I scanned quickly. As I felt my stomach tighten I promptly deleted it. Later that same day, I retrieved the email and read it more closely, trying to understand my reaction:

“Good Morning Illinois Music Teacher Educators!

With a little over a week to go until the Illinois Music Education Conference (IMEC), I wanted to reach out to everyone and share some of the exciting MTE related events planned for the conference. I have attached a handy MTE and Collegiate schedule to help assist you in planning your time at IMEC.”

It has been ten years since I have been able to attend this conference, or any music educator conference workshop, or any professional development meeting with fellow university music educators. I am an adjunct; I can’t afford what it costs to attend these events. I am an adjunct; my university offers no financial assistance so that I can take advantage of professional development opportunities.


I went through my week of teaching plagued by dead weight within me. My tenured colleagues bustled through their week. I heard them in the hallways, talking about meeting up at the conference hotel with colleagues. They planned how to distribute the brochures needed for recruiting the high school students who were coming from all over the state. Even the music students gathered in clusters talking about carpools, who was rooming with whom, what time they should gather after class, what time they hoped to get to Peoria for the opening sessions. My mind kept returning to that email, and I continued to push my feelings down.

I thought again and again of the sentence that cut through me the deepest, the one that caused me to delete it.

“This year our special MTE guest is Susan Conkling, chair of the Society for Music Teacher Educators, and professor of music education at Boston University. Susan will be chairing two panel discussions for all MTE members. The first one will be looking at issues of equity and inclusion within music education.”

Equity? Inclusion? It is the use of those words that cuts me deeply. But the injurious information continued:

Finding Balance: Jacki Kelly-McHale will chair a discussion on the other side of life in the academy. How do we find the time to be teachers, researchers, parents, and active members of university and local communities? Jacki will present some strategies to help find a better balance, but the larger issue of how to build support through a higher education community across the state will also be discussed.”

In a two-tiered academic workplace, contingent faculty do not find balance. We keep our heads down, we show up to class, we do our jobs, we dare not talk about the issues we suffer. Inclusion, finding balance, how to build support through a higher education community? What does it say about our profession that our conferences offer workshops on the very issues plaguing 75% of its faculty – the same part of the faculty not invited to the conference? Contingent faculty cannot present at the conferences, because contingent faculty can’t afford to attend the conferences.

Early on in my awakening as an adjunct activist, I discovered twitter and found #AdjunctChat a weekly group that quickly became an important part of my professional development. There is a moderator who poses specific teaching challenges; adjuncts exchange their experiences, and brainstorm solutions in a supportive environment. I learned a lot from these exchanges, I started to understand that I was not alone experiencing the isolation and desperate need to connect with other educators.

Another twitter conversation took place with a group called #realacademicbios. This one included tenure stream faculty and adjuncts. I was intrigued, but also skeptical. So I test the waters by tweeting about my teaching situation, the ten years of not attending the IMEA or IMEC, of not being incuded or invited or funded. Out of nowhere a tenured professor, obviously young and trying to be supportive tweeted back: “Why are you waiting to be invited? Isn’t this a conference/mem org? Join and go. #Lean in

I was infuriated! How could anyone be so naïve as to think that I could just pick up and leave my classes for two days to attend a conference for which I have neither financial assistance nor legitimate, professional welcome? Why must this inequality and ruinous professional abuse constantly be explained to a clueless full-time faculty?

I long for a way to attend these conferences. More than that, I know how crucial it is to travel, refuel, collaborate, imagine; our continued growth in our profession depends on these opportunities.

For those who are tenured and do get to attend these conferences, who do have a chance to do research and publish and talk about your work in groups, who feel validated as professionals, who feel a sense of belonging, who get to schmooze and go to the parties afterward the work is done, you are provided with chances to remember why the hell you care about your discipline, to have that passion reawakened.

This isn’t true for those of us for whom the way is barred. I used to look forward to teaching. I am passionate about it. Actually I’ve been passionate about it my entire working life, and to me it is a whole lot more than a job. I teach because it matters to me in the most essential way that could be described in words.


The students in my World Music class were very attentive this week. I felt as if I was on the edge of some understanding. After teaching this class for many years I find myself stepping back from the anxiety and stepping into the heart of the teaching art. I create lesson plans that allow group work and heated discussions in class. We sit in a circle and I tell them I no longer want to be called Professor Snow, but Lydia. At first they seem perplexed, but many stay after class to exchange ideas and ask questions about the music we both decide to explore in the next meeting. We discuss Indian music in a way that deepens my own understanding of every aspect of its performance and history. I am falling off a cliff here because I am allowing myself to let my students lead us. I have decided it’s more important to be honest in my exchanges with them. Why did I allow this vague sense of complete ignorance on a daily basis invade my confidence when it came to explaining Hindustani and Carnatic classical traditions and history and their influence on other culture’s music as well? I no longer need to offer excuses to myself. I have done the best I could under extraordinarily bad circumstances. I decide to accept what I have to offer them in the classroom.

In my general education classes there was a stillness and quietness I don’t remember experiencing the first weeks of teaching music concepts. They seem almost spellbound in class and I find my heart beating faster with the weight of all they want from me, the professor of music education. I try my best to introduce time signatures, dotted notes, even divisions of the beat. After class I gather up my drums, mallets, beat cards, lap top, textbooks, staff paper, handouts for the ones who can’t afford the textbooks, recorders for those who haven’t purchased them or left them in their car. I come prepared to teach. I refuse to let them stare into space when I introduce these basic concepts of music theory. It hurts too much to see their blank faces with nothing to hold onto. I make them write the notes on blank staff paper, I go around to check to see their work. Many are looking at phones, scrolling through Instagram. I just tap on the blank paper. “You need to try to make the shapes of the notes, it will help when you do your homework.” They smile, push the phones aside, “Do you have a pencil?” one student asks. “Of course!” and out it pops in my other hand. I come prepared because I want my students to learn how to read music.

If anyone wanted to know what inclusion means I could take photographs of my students composing music the last weeks of the semester. I could show videos of the process as they put together the building blocks of reading rhythms, playing recorder, building chords, and work together to compose counter rhythms under each of their sections. As a class we put all their melodies together and then I let the students decide how to weave them together through different musical forms. We record them and then go back and rework it as a group of 35-40 people. Playing the class composition is the highlight of my semester because the students enjoy it so much, and everyone is included. I try to grab music education students to help me with the process and sometimes they come and help, but mostly I do this on my own. So, yes, I do understand the importance of inclusion, in respecting the potential of each student and not being willing to waste it. But after ensuring inclusion to my students, I sit in my classroom after class exhausted, and stare out the window; I wonder how I will gather the steam to pack up and trudge down to gather my things and go home.

If, even in this most depleted state, I can assure my students equal treatment and support, how is it that the university can’t guarantee the same equal support and inclusion to its faculty? If I treated my class the way the university treats its faculty, 75% of them would be denied desks, materials, computer equipment, instruments. 75% of them would struggle, and fall short, not because of their own lack of desire, intent or ability, but because it is the inevitable outcome of inequality.

Without having a chance to take part in professional development opportunities, to attend conferences, to offer presentations in these discussion groups, to ask important questions, I have lost my drive and my inner voice. I can no longer find the will to teach without summoning up such great reserves of energy that I literally want to go to sleep after teaching. Teaching no longer energizes me, it depletes me. None of the traditional ways that a scholar replenishes energy, restores inspiration, grows and develops their area of specialty are open to contingents. We are expected to perform our teaching duties without any of these necessary supports, without the ability to develop professionally, to restore ourselves. If 75% of our students were denied the necessities of development, everyone would understand what a travesty that is, and what a horrible outcome that would cause. Isn’t it equally obvious that denying our faculty the necessary supports and development opportunities is a travesty?

I wanted to share this with you, so you can understand the depth of depletion of the contingent faculty in higher education. It is affecting the teaching conditions of this majority faculty, thereby leeching the core energy required to power the classes for students in all disciplines. I am not alone. There are at least 1.5 million other university faculty out there who one day wake up and say, “I don’t have it in me to do this anymore.” We are the majority faculty of American higher education. We desperately need to be supported in our chosen disciplines because this is how we stay alive in the classroom, and without it, we fall down. All of us fall down, our students fall down, our society falls down. Our universities fall down. We need to rise, and we need to do it with a determination to never let our profession be knocked to the ground again.












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The Hypocrisy of the American University

This post offers Part 2 of our conversation with Pennsylvania State Senator, Daylin Leach.

It has been many years now since faculty voices within academia have been speaking out against adjunct hiring, which is the low-wage semester-by-semester hiring of university professors that has replaced full-time status for approximately 75% our country’s college educators. Gradually, awareness of the situation has grown, with concern about the many ways these hiring practices negatively impact not only the role of our scholars in higher education, but the quality of education our students are receiving. It wasn’t until the death of adjunct professor Margaret Mary Vojtko, and the outcry created by a series of articles, the first written by Daniel Kovalik for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that the cold-hearted cruelty, the social injustice of such practices really became part of the public conversation.

Talking about the late Professor, our Pennsylvania State Senator, Daylin Leach, discusses the plight of the adjunct professors across the country.

As the Senator says, Vojtko’s earnings, which barely reached $25,000 a year,
“… is poverty, and that is just a salary. There are no benefits, no healthcare, no support system. It is really an impoverished life.”

Senator Leach points out that the perception people have too often is that adjuncts are teaching as a side activity, and are people with full-time jobs elsewhere. This is largely a false perception, intentionally perpetuated by the universities themselves. The truth is that the majority of university educators are living in poverty because university teaching IS their profession – and a profession for which they trained on average, with ten years of graduate work, research and study. Often, those years of study also mean years of student loan debt, now crippling these professors who are earning so little that they often qualify for food stamps and other forms of public welfare.

The argument has been made against companies like Walmart or McDonald’s, which pay such low wages that our social welfare system, paid for by our citizen’s taxes, is supplementing their workers’ needs. The same argument must be made against universities who also “game” the public welfare system by so severely underpaying their faculty that the same supports are necessary. Why should taxes be used to supplement these organizations which refuse to take responsibility for paying a living wage? Why, especially, when these same organizations, universities included, have seen an explosion of administrative jobs and salaries? As our legislators beat the drum against food stamps, talking about the need for “austerity”, there is no honest evaluation of the largest beneficiaries of that welfare – the corporations and universities, as a recent article in Truthout has discussed.

Far too often, the rhetoric about people on food stamps or other welfare supports is that they are lazy, that they “don’t want to work”, that they prefer to sit at home and let the state pay for their lack of responsibility. Nothing could be further from the truth. Too many of those receiving these benefits are working many hours at jobs in companies and universities which manage to shirk their responsibilities, succeeding in paying wages that are despicably low, not living wages at all.

“These are not lazy people…..(but) people who are very smart…leaders in their field sometimes. It speaks an indifference which I find both ironic and troubling on the part of universities. Because, frankly, there is this image of universities as bastions of liberalism….but in terms of how they treat their employees, suddenly all that goes out the window. You’ll have universities which teach great courses on the American Labor Movement, and….you’ll have universities with courses on poverty studies….but they don’t see the irony in the person teaching that not being able to heat their home because they won’t pay them. At the same time, we’ve seen here in Pennsylvania, administrative salaries go well into the 7 figures. So….this is a reflection of what is happening in society as a whole….”

Senator Leach is right. Universities should be a “bastion against that,” he says. But they are not. “They are deliberately doing this,” he says. Deliberately taking and exploiting the labor of hard-working, well-educated, dedicated faculty and driving them into poverty.

Margaret Mary Vojtko has become the symbol for this suffering. She was 83 years old when she died, over a year and a half ago, collapsing on the lawn of a home she couldn’t afford to heat or repair, a home she could no longer live in because of its condition, and the freezing temperatures inside. She died sick, without healthcare or savings. As Kovalik writes, “As amazing as it sounds, Margaret Mary, a 25-year professor, was not making ends meet. Even during the best of times, when she was teaching three classes a semester and two during the summer, she was not even clearing $25,000 a year, and she received absolutely no health care benefits. Compare this with the salary of Duquesne’s president, who makes more than $700,000 with full benefits.”

Dr. Vojtko’s poverty was so desperate by the end of her life that she was buried in a cardboard box.  A national outcry against her suffering rose, and the disrespect of those at Duquesne University who were not only aware of her plight, but who caused it, was exposed.  Her fate could well be the fate of many of the over 1.5 million university professors now working on adjunct contracts.  The first generation of “career adjuncts” is well into retirement age, with no retirement savings or benefits, no healthcare, nowhere to turn.

Isn’t time to ask: what sort of world is this, where such desperation is intentionally created? What sort of economic system creates and perpetuates this kind of suffering? What has happened to our American university system that the values and morality have become so warped that those upon whom the entire educational endeavor depends are left to suffer poverty, illness and degradation while the ever-growing number of administrators are living lives of comfort and well-being, and in many cases, wealth? What kind of country has America become?


To see the clip of part 2 of our interview with Senator Leach, click here.



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Call to Adjunct Walk-Out Activists — Help Us Shoot the National Event for Our Documentary

Hi everyone!  This is a call to all the adjunct activists who are planning to be involved in the nationwide walk-out on Wednesday, February 25, and in other demonstrations for the rights of educators and students that are taking place that day.

Chris M. LaBree, co-producer of ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America had a great idea last night.  I’m hoping that it isn’t too late to coordinate this and make it happen. Chris’s suggestion is that we get activists who are taking part all over the country in these demonstrations to shoot some footage on their phones – group shots, maybe some individual comments from various people involved, sweeping vista shots of the amount of people involved – anything, really, that feels good and exciting to each of you. In order for us to be able to use it, Chris says that it would have to be shot in landscape, not portrait. As we wrap the final interviews and put an “act three” to the film – the focus is going to be on what we are DOING to change this situation for the better – for the scholars/educators and for the students, for American academia.  It would be terrific if this part of the film could be crowd-sourced in this way, as yet another indication of the growing group effort pushing back against corporatized academia.    Chris and I, obviously, can’t be everywhere at once, so this would be a great way to really include a concerted group effort into the documentary. It would only require that we get a general release from you in order to use the footage, and if we DO use what you send, you’ll get a thank you in the credits. Email me at junctrebellion@gmail.com so that I can put you on the list, and get your information for the release form. Let’s make this happen! It would be great if we could document this in the film, and really capture the energy that is about to explode all over the nation.


Posted in Activism, Social and Economic Inequality, The Breakdown of the American University System | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments