Filling the Holes
by Micah Ling
I just got a job. It took a total of 20 minutes. Except it isn’t really a job: that word implies an office, people who know you, people who check up on you, supplies that you need, and proper compensation. So this is something other than a job. This is filling a hole.
On my way to work, after a rough winter, I hit a pothole so enormous that the front tire of my bike halted. I flew over my handlebars and into the street. I was fine. Still, I biked the rest of the way very slowly.
I went back a few days later to take pictures of the hole: to see what I had survived.
Higher education institutions are diseased. I’m part of the problem. I’m an adjunct instructor.
The meaning of a college education is changing—for the worst. What makes this crisis most remarkable is that we’re talking about a time that should be focused on learning to live and study with people—often people who are very different from one another—and figure how to take care of oneself, and one’s society in a safe and respectful way. A real education has so much more to do with experiences and awareness than knowledge. Slowly, we’ve allowed the state of the institution to stray drastically from consciousness.
Universities have no awareness of the people they entrust to uphold their mission. Oddly, they trust adjunct instructors without acknowledging them, or knowing anything about their story. Adjunct instructors are expected to create a community, when they themselves are constantly displaced.
When I moved to New York City, I sold my car and bought a bike. Not a cheap bike. Riding in the city is challenging. The traffic makes for a life-risking endeavor no matter how long the trek. But there are places where cars can be avoided. Cycling can be an escape.
With each ride, I learn something—about myself, or my bike or my city. I’ve found that cyclists, generally, are more aware, and tend to look out for each other. If you fall, and you do, they will stop and help you up.
In my experience, the process of securing an adjunct position goes something like this: someone forwards an often-desperate call for an instructor. I email my CV and cover letter. Within hours, sometimes minutes, someone emails back, saying they’d either like to set up a time to meet, or a time to talk on the phone. Occasionally, there’s not even time for this, and they just want me to send my transcripts to the secretary. Usually, classes begin within a week of being hired. Typically, I receive my ID and credentials days or weeks after I’ve started teaching. From there, I rarely interact with anyone except students. I have experienced several semesters when I don’t meet anyone else who works at the school besides the secretary who hires me. Many times, in copy rooms or teachers lounges, I’m questioned as to what I want or need. I introduce myself, but it doesn’t matter, I’m not part of their team.
A former colleague of mine worked both as a custodian and as an adjunct instructor for the same private college in Indiana; he received health insurance for the custodian role, not the instructor role. He maintained the custodian job in order to take care of himself, and his family.
In the educational institution hierarchy, adjunct instructors are just below custodians.
I ride recreationally—80 or 90 miles a week—I also commute to work on my bike: an admiral-blue Fuji Roubaix 1.1 with white handle wraps.
One afternoon—around 3pm—I was commuting to my third job of the day: tutoring construction workers in an apprentice program that requires them to earn a college degree. I stopped at a light, and then turned right to avoid the congestion on the road and get to the bike path. I didn’t see the traffic cop in the far lane. They flipped on their lights and sirens, and came after me like I was armed and dangerous. Two tickets: running a red light and failing to yield to pedestrians–$250.
We’ve lost focus of what really matters because we’ve strayed from empathy. We’ve gotten attached to budgets and rules and saying “no,” and forgotten what education is about: people.
Many times, adjunct instructors are treated as less significant than contracted professors, if not less than human. Institutions hire adjuncts to never hear from them again. If they’ve been in the game for more than a few semesters, adjuncts know that they are expected to get in, do the work, and get out. They’re given little to no attention from the department, the administration, and the university as a whole. That’s not to say that the powers that be—running higher educational institutions—are entirely evil, or without empathy, it’s just that the problem is too big. The institution has lost sight of the importance of awareness.
On a Thursday at lunchtime, after a 2-hour class, while a film crew was shooting footage of the church across the street from the university’s bike racks, I caught someone attempting to steal my bike: trying to break into my $100 Kryptonite chain lock. The man had a jacket stuffed with tools. I approached him, snapped a photo with my phone, and asked him what he was doing. He ran away.
When I reported it to campus security, and asked them if I might be able to carry my bike into my classroom twice a week—I don’t have an office where I teach—they told me that wouldn’t be possible. They also told me they likely wouldn’t be able to catch the guy, even with my photo, and to be careful out there.
Accountability is falling away more and more. Crime is now blamed on the person it happened to—“Be more careful.” “You shouldn’t lock your bike there.” “Don’t sleep on the subway”—and not on the criminal.
People steal bikes: that’s a truth. But does it have to be? I still imagine what the man’s situation was who attempted to take my bike—maybe not so different from mine.
I graduated from a well-known MFA program in 2006. I stuck around for an extra year to take full advantage of my funding, and to pick up a Master’s in American Literature. I thought it might be helpful for jobs in the future. Teaching was part of my fellowship in graduate school: this made me nervous. But the program also required a series of pedagogy courses—a time and a place to talk to peers and professors about teaching strategies and progress. By the time I finished my graduate degrees, I had a lot of experience teaching different courses, and also interacting with people about learning styles. Four years of graduate school transformed me into someone who loved teaching. Creating a community in the classroom was what I was most drawn to about teaching—that seemed like a thing worth continuing. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, I never heard the term “adjunct,” and was never taught by anyone who didn’t have tenure.
Flash-forward eleven years. I’ve taught in 4 states, at 13 different colleges, and haven’t gone a semester since I finished graduate school without teaching college-level or graduate-level creative writing, literature, composition, drama, or public speaking courses. Which means that since I started preschool, I’ve been on an academic calendar: I’ve never known life without spring break.
I also I haven’t had health insurance since graduate school. Twice I’ve had an office. I’ve been observed 3 times in the past 20 semesters. I’ve never been asked about my goals.
There’s a bike path on the west side of upper Manhattan that goes past a little red lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge—the lighthouse made famous by the children’s book. The views of Jersey are incredible, especially when the leaves are changing colors in the fall.
On a crisp day after a thunderstorm, I rode up the steep hill to continue north on the path. Somehow, several bolts in my crank had come loose, and my bike gave out. There was blood. I sat in the grass and looked at my broken bike. And then I carried it to the nearest train. Without going home to clean my wounds, I went straight to my bike shop. I wanted to show the mechanic what had happened and tell my story. I wanted to be with people who understood—my community.
My boyfriend works for a brand consultancy. Each year he has a review session with the partners who own the company. They talk about the past year, and then set several different kinds of goals for the future: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. At the end, he gets a small raise. He feels good after these meetings: motivated and clear on where things are headed. This is standard for the nine-to-five workplace.
In the heat of July, I biked 30 miles upstate to Nyack, NY and back, with about 50 other women from New York City. We joined thousands of women around the world who also rode 100 kilometers that day. It wasn’t a race—the point was not to win—but to be part of something larger. To have a goal, and do something collectively. There’s safety in numbers. We stopped at a café to rehydrate: the shop owners put a keg of ice water out for us to refill our bottles. We had support: acknowledgement.
Universities could take a lesson from the nine-to-fivers, and the café owners. There’s a return that comes from being supported: people work better when they’re given what they need and what they earn.
A few months ago, an anonymous group of people started putting traffic cones (topped with sunflowers) along the line that divides the bike lane from the car lanes all over New York City. It worked. They started calling themselves the Transformation Department, and they got press. Suddenly, there were fewer crashes caused by cars entering the bike lane. Soon, people driving cars started seeing the bike lane—maybe for the first time. Now, they’re getting more and more support. They raised $3,500 in 3 months to buy more cones (and flowers), and continue to protect cyclists.
In all my teaching, I’ve never taught the same syllabus twice. I like to have students go places and see things. Writing is about the senses whether they’re working on their first college essay or their MFA portfolio. I like for students to slow down, especially in the city. I’m currently teaching a literature course called “Texts and Contexts.” We read the poems and stories that Edgar Allan Poe wrote while he was living in NYC. Then, over the weekend, on their own time, the students visited Poe’s cottage in the Bronx. On Monday morning, they all had stories to tell. They had experiences that changed their awareness.
It’s easy to criticize a system when you’re on the losing end; I’ve thought about how much I would care about changing the arrangement if I had a contract, a living wage, and healthcare. I’ve wondered how much time I would spend thinking about adjuncts if I suddenly didn’t have to stress about my job every 15 weeks, or work at grocery stores and shoe stores to supplement my academic pay. But having been on this end of the system might be the only way to change it. The goal isn’t to get to the other side of this—it’s to overhaul the way things are done.
Adjunct unionizing is happening. Basic rights and living conditions are being evaluated. There is slow progress. There is movement toward saving the experience.
But higher education needs a transformation department: it needs safety cones and sunflowers.
A few years back, a friend of mine was following all the rules. She had been out riding, and was returning to her apartment at dusk. She had the right of way; she was wearing a helmet and reflective gear. That’s all she remembers.
A cargo van cut across traffic, made an illegal left turn, and entered the wrong lane. She woke in the hospital to a police officer asking if he could call someone. My friend lost a lot that day. Maybe a few traffic cones wouldn’t have stopped the driver from making an illegal turn. But we’ll never know.
Living in New York City is difficult. Biking in any city takes awareness and courage. Being an adult, having responsibilities, paying bills, remaining calm and sane and happy is all a constant challenge. But not treating people like people is irresponsible.
Flashes of Life is Micah Ling‘s most recent collection of poetry. She lives in the mountains of Colorado and teaches at a community college. micahling.com
Original image via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons