Posts Tagged ‘faculty’

By now, I’m guessing you’ve all seen it: the white American poet who yellowfaced in his attempts to get published. That’s right, a white man used an Asian pen name to increase his odds of having his poetry published. He’s quite open about his reasons for doing so:

The poem in question, ‘The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,’ was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”

My first reaction to hearing about this was blunt and none too poetic: Are you fucking kidding me?

First, let’s just consider the reality of how difficult it is for people of color to be published. Today provides a great example: Cindy Pon is posting over on John Scalzi’s Big Idea about the obstacles that exist when you’re writing stories about non-white characters. Then let’s take a quick stroll over here, where we find white men dominating writing conference panels, even the ones about women and people of color. It happens so often, it’s hard to pick a single example, so I’ll just grab the latest one: Maggie Stiefvater being asked on a panel about Writing the Other.

So when a white dude goes on record lamenting that it’s so hard to get published as a white dude, and then concocts a rationale that’s based on a small sample at best, and on a completely false sense of persecution at worst, it chaps my hide. If it’s so hard being a white dude in publishing, why do so many “best of” lists contain mostly (and sometimes only) white men? If it’s so hard, why is academia jammed to the gills with classes that teach mostly (and sometimes only) white writers? If it’s so hard, why do so many women writers use just their initials to disguise the fact that they are Tanyas and Rebeccas and Joannes?

Of course, at the heart of this guy’s pen name gimmick is an oozing white core of entitlement. He feels his poetry is so good that the only thing keeping it from getting published is some ingrained bias against white men. Otherwise, how to explain that he was rejected forty times as a white man, but published after only nine attempts as an Asian man? Surely there’s no other way to understand this befuddling experience of rejection.

Let’s look at what he says again: If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.

Bullshit. On all counts. Complete and utter bullshit.

Firstly, 49 rejections is nothing. He thinks that’s a lot of rejection? He has no clue. I know people who’ve suffered a hundred rejections in trying to get a poem published. That’s persistence.

Secondly, and above all, I am so tired of this fallacy that great literature never gets rejected. Of course it gets rejected. I’m not even going to bother listing all the great works of literature that had to confront rejection before being published. You all know the list. It’s enormous. Because even a brilliant piece of writing isn’t going to speak to everyone.

A poem being named as a “best of 2015” means only that someone in charge of making the list liked the poem. It doesn’t make it a great poem. It doesn’t put it in the canon of great literature. Nor does it prove that publishing is biased against white men.

To my great joy, Sherman Alexie, the guest editor of The Best American Poetry 2015, has chimed in to discuss his inclusion of this poem in the anthology. He is completely honest about his reasoning, and about his reaction to learning that he had been “fooled.” I don’t think he was, because his job was to choose the 75 poems he liked best from the year. No matter how complex the process by which he got there, he succeeded.

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I don’t think I’m bragging when I say that I was once an excellent Freshman Composition instructor. I did my best in Comp 2, where I taught my students how to conduct research that did not involve citing Wikipedia. I taught them skills that would serve them throughout their college careers, even into graduate school and beyond. I got great student evaluations, and my supervisors always lauded me for the quality of research essays that my students produced at the end of my rigorous but fun* research portion in Comp 2. On more than one occasion, other faculty members asked to sit in on my classes to see what I was doing, and graduate students asked for my help in improving their research and writing skills.

Unfortunately, I don’t teach anymore. I made the decision to become a full-time secretary primarily because of an environment like the one described in this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, which details the downward spiral of Margaret Mary Vojtko, a long-time adjunct professor. Her poverty eventually led to her death, so I feel lucky that mine merely led to a secretarial job.

Universities increasingly rely on underpaid adjunct faculty to carry the burden of what are dismissed as “entry level” courses. It seems to escape university administrators and many tenured faculty members that those entry level courses matter the most. Those are the classes where freshmen get a firm footing for the courses they will take in the next three years. Underpaying the people who teach first-year college students seems equivalent to systematically paying first grade teachers less than sixth grade teachers. After all, teaching kids to read, that’s just entry level work. Easy.

Yet those same tenured faculty lament how many students arrive in their upper level courses without the most basic research skills. Why? Because the people tasked with teaching them basic skills – the underpaid adjunct faculty – do not have the time, energy, or institutional support to become truly great teachers. Some of them are teaching four courses per regular semester and two courses per summer semester (compared to the average tenured faculty load of two/two/zero for an academic year.) At the typical pay of $3,000-$3,500 per course, an adjunct is lucky to make $30,000 a year, teaching as many as ten courses per year.

A person can survive on $30k, but teaching ten Freshman Comp courses, or ten French 1 courses in a year is grueling, if you can even get that many courses. With the typical enrollment for these types of classes running around 20-25 students, you’re staring down grading 100 essays or exams on a regular basis. And if you can’t survive on that $30k? If you have children? Or you live in an area with a higher cost of living? You’ll do what many adjuncts do: get a second job, or a third. Some adjuncts swing double teaching loads. Four courses at the university, another two picked up at a community college, raising their class time and grading time into the stratosphere. Others settle for different types of jobs. I have known adjuncts who taught three courses at the university, one at a community college, and put in 20 hours a week at the local Sonic. I imagine it’s hard to maintain your professorial dignity when you find yourself serving limeades to your students. All the elbow-patched tweed jackets in the world can’t salvage that.

Even at good universities, like the one where I’m currently a secretary, where adjunct faculty are eligible for health benefits, they are still treated like disposable people. They exist for the convenience of the university and they’re cast aside whenever budgets are tightened or enrollments dip. They are paid what often equals less than minimum wage and no amount of excellence in the classroom will produce a reward. There are no merit salary increases, no real recognition for being a stellar teacher, beyond the kind words of people who recognize how difficult the job is.

The easy answer is to say, “Well, if academia is so terrible, those put-upon adjuncts should go find other jobs, where they’ll at least earn minimum wage.” I wish they all would. I wish they all could. All of them. En masse. It would be a sobering moment for a lot of universities who treat adjuncts with all the dignity of a tampon applicator. Of course, a job is a job, and it’s hard to walk away from one you know, which is why so many adjuncts stay on. I hated to give up teaching. I was good at it and I enjoyed it. But more, I hated being paid so little for doing valuable work and doing it without any kind of safety net.

The thing is, it’s not just wrong and demoralizing to pay adjuncts so little and to provide them with no security or benefits. It’s harmful to the long-term quality of the education a university offers. A tired, demoralized adjunct instructor isn’t going to put in extra hours to develop a new classroom activity that will help students learn how to assess the quality of their research sources. She isn’t going to do elaborate classroom media demonstrations of JSTOR or lead students on guided tours of library holdings. Eventually, she’s going to give up. She’ll lower her standards. When the inevitable Wikipedia citations crop up in research essays, she’ll cringe and move on, instead of protesting. Or she’ll quit teaching altogether and become a secretary. Most universities pay their secretaries better and respect them more.

*I have the evaluations to prove that a wide variety of students thought my classes were fun.


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