Capitalist Economic Violence Against Road Scholars: Now You’re Hired, Now You’re Not

Economic violence against adjuncts

Just recently I went through a destabilizing, confusing, painful, shocking and infuriating experience of being stripped of my rehire rights as an adjunct college instructor. For those who do not know the term “road scholar” or “freeway flyer” is another way of saying that I cobble together a livelihood traveling from college to college. Adjuncts are like intellectual day laborers: the last hired and the first fired, with few, if any, protections or recognition.

I have taught at this school for 13 years. I have worked hard to get my guarantee of 3 classes each semester, have some autonomy in my choice of classes and the days and times of the classes so I can have a sane schedule. Practically what this demotion means is that when the scheduling begins, I will be given the courses:

  • that everyone else already has picked through, meaning they are more work, less interesting or require more management of student anxiety;
  • at times that will probably be inconvenient, such as having a morning class and a night class on the same day;
  • I might have to teach a course I have never taught before and all the added preparation to be faced;
  • I suddenly have no reassurance whether I will have three, two, one or no classes for the spring of next year;
  • that will suddenly put about $10,000 worth of my income in question;
  • I have to begin to look for work at other colleges because of the sudden uncertainty of work at this school. This means I start at the end of the line there, exactly where I started twenty odd years ago

If this is not economic violence, I don’t know what is.

Did my full time evaluator take these things into consideration? I will never know. But on the surface they gave me a rating, added up the numbers, followed the code and – bingo – I lost my rehire rights.

Bureaucratic irrationality

In these kinds of situations, there are at least three common explanations. One is to psychologize the individuals involved and attack them as people. The second explanation is political. Perhaps these administrators and faculty were out to get me because I am a radical. The third explanation is Weber’s bureaucratic theory, and I think we can learn the most from that.

Bureaucracies as organizations are insensitive to complex situations in which normal procedures are not efficient, nor do they take into account that a resource, like a human being, cannot be reduced to a “factor in production”, as their economists like to say. Sometimes a situation requires of an administrator the use of creativity, which involves taking into account novel variables.

Bureaucrats, in this case both administration and full time faculty simply doing their job as specialists, increasingly lose their appreciation for a need to connect specializations into a whole, which is more than the sum of its parts. The results are responses to problems outside their specialization like “that is not my department”. The long-term result of working in a bureaucracy is what psychologists call “cognitive compartmentalization”. By this I mean an inability to make cross-connections between events outside their specialization or to recognize the contradictions and irrationality of applying a specialized mindset to a situation which is too complex to fit.

These administrators and faculty in turn produce an educational curriculum for students that is an expression of their bureaucratic administration. The result is courses which are specialized but few or no courses which synthesize across the disciplines of study. This is what a liberal arts education was once supposed to do, and we know what has happened to that! Just as bureaucrats cannot problem-solve outside the box of their specialty, they create in students the same cognitive compartmentalization. In this case students will receive a degree in psychology and know nothing about the politics of psychology, its use and abuse by economics and its relationship to geography or anthropology.

Right wing liberal administration supports religious fundamentalism

At the beginning of this year I received a complaint about their grade from a student who claimed that I was biased against religion. I wrote to the dean and the faculty member who handles student complaints (whom I’ll call “Tom”) and explained how I got the calculation of their grade. The student failed the class badly (with a final grade of about 46%) and I thought it was an open and shut case. It was not. In a later phone conversation, Tom accused me of being insensitive to the religious beliefs of this student by suggesting he consider that religion might be propaganda. I explained to Tom that I offer students many other forms of information control to categorize religion other than propaganda, such as “dialectic” (education) and “rhetoric”. I am not forcing them to call it propaganda. However, this was not the end of it.

Tom met with this student a number of times and I was never invited to rebut this student face-to-face. Then the dean called me in. I explained the same process and my criteria. The main thing the dean told me is that we have to keep this complaint away from getting on to the agenda of some higher committee. Additionally, the school was very afraid of lawsuits. The idea was to discourage the student by waiting and hoping they would go away. Well, the student went away, but Tom did not.

Blurring boundaries

It was in the course of our discussion about this student’s religious beliefs that Tom took it upon himself to be “curious” about how I was teaching this applied psychology course. Later, Tom implied that this “curiosity” was innocent and had no political power content. But it did. We went from dealing with a student’s complaint and then he switched into another role of evaluating how I was teaching the course. Because Tom was a self-confident bureaucrat he couldn’t imagine that he was behaving in a very unbureaucratic way—he crossed a line. He was mixing specializations. I did not say anything then and hoped the whole issue would fade away. It did not.

A couple of weeks later, I received an email announcing that is was time for me to be evaluated. There is nothing suspicious about this as we are evaluated every three years or so. What was suspicious was that the evaluator was Tom – the same person who was handling the grade complaint. A coincidence? Maybe, but:

  • of the entire full-time faculty who could evaluate me it just so happened it was the faculty member who just processed a grade complaint;
  • of the three classes I was teaching he could have chosen to evaluate me on, it just so happened that the applied psychology course was the one he chose;
  • evaluating this course required him to make other arrangements for his own course that he was teaching at the same time as mine. It seemed that he was going out of his way.

This seemed very calculated to me, given the nature of our first conversation about the student complaint. To be safe I spoke with two faculty members to see what they thought. They both agreed that Tom crossed a line.

As part of the preparation of my evaluation I asked another faculty member, Andy, to be present to witness my speaking with Tom about my concern with him blurring boundaries. I told Tom to his face that I did not want him as my evaluator because I did not trust him. At our three way meeting I requested another evaluator to which I was told I was not allowed to make that request, quoting some academic rule book. I was only allowed a second evaluator. This was a very unsafe situation for me to be stepping into. There was no question in my mind that regardless whether Tom intended to or not, the conditions of the evaluation process were hostile and there wasn’t anything I could do about it short of quitting. Apparently the administration of the school cannot imagine or anticipate conditions under which a full-time faculty could be untrustworthy in relation to an adjunct and have to step down out of the process because they were not being objective. Andy reassured me that Tom was trustworthy, but he volunteered to be my second evaluator. In a later email, Andy implied I was making too much of this and that evaluations of full-timers were much more stressful   Mostly because of the extra work involved, and because I wanted to think the best of these people, I waved a second evaluation. In retrospect, that was a mistake, as we shall see.

Being a teacher but not an academic

I am a self-educated college instructor and I have never felt at home in academic life though I have been in its periphery for over two decades. I love to teach, I honestly like my students and I relish the possibility of seeding revolutionaries and being paid for it. It was only after having dropped out of community college that I became interested in reading. I read books every day for close to two hours from the time I was 22 years old to the present. I was interested in many subjects: world history, philosophical ontology, mythology, political economy, sociology, geography, archeology, the history of science and art history. After nine years of driving fork lifts and unloading trucks, and with the economy sagging in the early 80’s, I listened to my partner and went back to school to get a degree in psychology. I chose this because a number of people who mattered to me said I would be a natural teacher and therapist. My problem was that as a teacher I did not want to leave my thirteen years of reading behind when I taught my psychology students. My economics professor, a Marxist, was furious at me for wanting to go into psychology. In retrospect I can see why he was upset and why he was right. Nevertheless I had the nerve to think I could teach across disciplines and do my job.

For the most part I succeeded, but was always up against administrative specialists and full time faculty who insisted on staying within the field of psychological specialization. Who are you to dare to connect the dots across the disciplines? I wanted students to leave school with a picture of the whole elephant, not snapshots of the limbs. With a rare exception of the dwindling private liberal arts colleges that are left, no university or community college offered courses that would integrate the disciplines. Without this, students graduate with no guidance on how to connect psychology to economics, politics or history.

“What, you’ve written books and you weren’t forced to?”

The first fifteen years of my college teaching life I taught at private universities and out of the classes I designed I produced two books that paralleled my self-educational reading. Then, again because of the economy getting worse, I began to also teach at community colleges. Upon being interviewed at one school, one of the panelists told me afterward that what separated me from the other applicants was that I had written two books. He told me he couldn’t believe that I had published these books on my own time with my own money without being forced to by the “publish or perish” syndrome.

However, once I began teaching I found that having written books were widow dressing for the administration and the full time faculty. There was no relationship between writing a book and teaching a course on your book. Objective and qualitative book reviews, and a scholarly bibliography meant nothing. I applied a number of times to teach a course based on my books but was always shot down because I didn’t have a degree in the field. Because my book was interdisciplinary they couldn’t find the right slot for it. So what I began to do was to exercise what I thought was my academic freedom to interpret psychology courses to include history, politics and economics.

Having the nerve to teach across the disciplines

For example, if any of you are familiar with Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self you know that there is a much darker side to psychology than individual self-exploration and therapy. For a hundred years this field has been explicit in manipulating people through advertising (Bernays), politics (Bernays), interventions into selling World War I to the public and in helping to overthrow the Guatemalan government in the early fifties. Psychology in the United States has been involved in brainwashing (Cameron), while the CIA has used university psychology departments to do its research for them. Humanistic psychology and transpersonal psychology did their part in de-politicizing people in the early seventies by turning them into therapy junkies and New Age spiritualists.

The title and description of the course that caused the controversy was so vaguely defined in the course curriculum that I had to ask two or three teachers how the course was different from others, like the introductory class, a class on abnormal psychology or personality theory. What I was told was that the class had to present an application to modern life.

Who designs the Curriculum?

In academic La-La Land we find a college that fosters “diversity of opinion” among faculty…except that some teachers are more equal than others. In the design of course curriculum, adjuncts do not seem to be included in the design of the learning objectives and the scope of the course. Apparently adjuncts are not considered fit to be part of this process. So, while having written books is impressive enough to get me hired, it has no relevance as to whether I would be used as a resource to design curriculum.

In the course that Tom was to evaluate, I had the nerve, as a lowly adjunct, to examine the courses the department was offering and make a judgment about what might be missing in the curriculum. My intention in teaching a course my way was to broaden and deepen what the department was doing. At least at this one school, the department is stuck in primarily teaching the 1970s “feel good” psychology, oblivious to its darker sides. I attempted to change this.

Loss of Preferential hiring rights

About three weeks after Tom sat in on the course, I received an email from him requesting a meeting. To my shock I received a “below average” evaluation in four areas, mostly because I had developed a whole new course “without the department approval”. For this I was deprived of my preferential rehire rights. Up to now, I had received consistently “outstanding” evaluations.

“Caring” about students through actual student input (matters very little)

I had 20 students present the day I was evaluated and they were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking questions about me as a teacher across 16 categories, including a commentary section. With the possible exception of “treating students with respect” there were no categories in which students were asked:

  • Did they enjoy what they were learning?
  • Could they apply the course to their lives?

I thought application to their lives was a foundation part of the course. Across these 16 categories the students gave me an overall rating of about 94 percent. These students included those who had C’s, D’s or were even failing the course. Did that count on my evaluation? No. Did my ratings by the students matter? No.

During nine years of teaching this course, I continued to deepen it by extensive reading. In my course lecture notes I included a bibliography of about 100 books covering disciplines such as advertising, politics, nationalism, economics, crowds, cults, movies, sports, brainwashing, spying, propaganda and rhetoric. Was the fact that I read all the books in my bibliography on my own time ever considered as part of my evaluation? No. There is no category for “innovation.”

What did matter, as the dean pointed out in his evaluation, is that I had consistently low enrollment. What does this mean?

Low enrollment (student input matters)

As my adjunct advocate pointed out, course enrollment has nothing to do with my evaluation as a teacher but a lot to do with lining the pocket of the district administration. In my experience, students in the United States are interested in convenience, high grades and entertainment, with as little work as possible. I do not offer these things. For the bureaucratic administration, low enrollment means that I have “low productivity”, meaning their profit rates are lowered.

So on the one hand, when it comes to student enrollment, students’ opinions are of great concern to the administration, just as when they might be when a student plays the religiously offended card. But when it comes to students who actually took my class and then evaluating me, it seems of minor importance.

Suppressed history

At my meeting with Tom, Andy seemed amazed this was the first time in 13 years of teaching that I ever had a grade complaint that required administrative intervention. Was that considered in my evaluation? No.

In thirteen years I doubt I’ve been sick or missed a class more than 5 or 6 times. Did that count in my evaluation? No. I have never been accused of grade inflation in a school in which those who give the full spectrum of grades from A to F are outnumbered. Was that considered in my evaluation? No.

So what?

When I spoke to my adjunct advocate, he told me that he knew Tom and that on the surface he seems competent, but that he thought Tom had psychological problems. I follow most sociologists on this, especially Durkheim, and am completely dismissive of explaining social problems like this through psychology. Was Tom conspiring to “get me” because I am a radical? Could be, and conspiracies are real. However I think we learn more by assuming that the people in these bureaucracies are psychologically sane, do some things that are not politically motivated, but because they work in a bureaucracy they are compelled by structure of the system to work this way. They are narrow, myopic bean counters who cannot see the big picture or the long view and innovate when the need arises. The result is they will likely lose a valuable resource and the bureaucracy is not intelligent enough as an organization to know that anything is missing.

Image from LA Times

Marsilio Buonarroti is a practicing psychologist, teacher, researcher and contributing member of Planning Beyond Capitalism. He can be reached at: info@planningbeyondcapitalism.org.

Read other articles by Marsilio.