New Year’s Resolution: Be human (+ an insomniac) first, then a PhD student

It’s been a month since I wrote, which is a much longer break than I’d anticipated. I’ve decided to write about something which is not terribly inspiring or creative, but rather which is real to me and has been for several months. I’ve been struggling with insomnia since early October, a piece of information which usually divides listeners into two camps: those who kindly sympathize, and those who have been there. Those in the latter camp tend to reflect, with a slow shake of the head and perhaps even a baggy-eyed “me, too,” compassion through their own membership in a group of people who are hidden among us.

We insomniacs – and to be clear, I’m a new member, at three months of difficulty staying asleep and counting – are a motley crew, and there seem to be many reasons why this plague of nocturnal glazed ceiling staring and doze-y thinking strikes and brings a new sufferer into the fold. Stress and anxiety seem to be major contributors to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, as do major life changes. A simple key word search including “PhD” and “student” and “insomnia” will reveal page upon page of sites discussing how grad students flail around managing the cognitive output, pressure to perform, and anxiety about their future prospects all while trying to appear confident. I found, in a simple survey full of sampling bias (my participants were my acquaintances and friends), that many PhD students I know have struggled and continue to struggle with this issue.

A great irony of being an insomniac grad student, for whom anxiety is situationally likely and normalized as “just what we go through,” is that the insomnia effects its own cause. For PhD students, our ability to concentrate, to take in large blocks of knowledge and analyze and synthesize like little cognitive processing bots, is quite central to our success. So once the cycle of insomnia took hold, my ability to focus, let alone read and process this reading meaningfully, withered…and I got more anxious about my insomnia. Funny. Not so funny.

What’s even worse is that as a fledgling scholar, I found plenty of fuel to add to the fire of anxiety and stress in my already-sleepless brain. I tend to look up research to understand the phenomena I cannot explain. Within the first two weeks, I found connections between insomnia and all of the following: heart attack, shortened life span, bad skin, depression, and a whole host of other health problems.

By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716058

Great. Not so great. What bothers me about the way this is talked about is that there are lots of people who have lived their whole lives with occasional, even self-inflicted bouts of insomnia. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently has fought for equality between the sexes and many other progressive stances on U.S. legal decisions during periods of little sleep. I’m certainly not lionizing the notorious RBG, or anyone else – apparently, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Salvador Dali thought fighting sleep was beneficial – for doing this, but I like to think that not sleeping for a while is not the worst thing that could happen to me.


Isaac Newton. By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284

Well, it’s 2018 and I am very much still figuring out the insomnia with the help of several professionals and nonprofessional supports. People love to give advice: drink tea, take baths, drink alcohol, try reading, try smoking a joint, listen to classical music, and on and on ad nauseum. But I can’t blame them. I’ve been drawing late at night, which has helped, or at least helped me to feel a little more human.

Smelly Girl has a lot to talk about late at night. Maybe I’ll start to listen and see if she can help me remember that this PhD thing is, at the end of the day, just one chapter of my story, and not the end of the world.

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Our educational ecology: adjunct professors and our role within our communities

I was invited by Left Voice to publish a version of a speech I gave yesterday at the Graduate Center’s rally for better compensation and conditions for adjunct professors (like myself) who struggle with precarious labor conditions yet comprise the majority of labor in higher education across the country. The link to the story, entitled “Our educational ecology,” is here. My main point: Exhausted adjuncts directly influence the experiences of their own students, some of whom (like mine) work in public schools as New York City Teaching Fellows…which means our work together influences the education of our city’s kids. If this isn’t enough reason to review the unstable and stressful conditions under which we and other adjuncts work across the country work, I don’t know what is.


​Image from March 23, 1995 CUNY walkout from Slam! Herstory Project

Protesting the GOP tax bill: yet another attack on public higher education

Today I and my classmates at the Grad Center are joining forces with students from NYU and Columbia in a Walkout to protest the Republican text bill, which will tax tuition waivers and reduce our already small incomes as graduate assistants and teaching fellows. (For those of you who don’t know, adjunct professors like myself comprise over 50% of the country’s faculty, meaning that many college students today work with us.) My own grad students at City and Hunter Colleges, New York Teaching Fellows who study full-time while supporting NYC public schools, are in a similar situation. They will likewise see their incomes reduced by these cuts, painful for people many of whom are supporting families. All of this is taking place to ensure that money flows into the pockets of corporations, while the national deficit is poised to increase by over a trillion dollars.

Education is one of the central tenets of a democracy in which people contribute ideas and work together to make a better and more equitable society. This is an attack on our communities of scholarship, but also on our communities of working people with aspirations for their children to make a good life. Our institutions of higher learning stand to lose thousands of already struggling graduate students who simply cannot afford to stay and imposes a greater burden on those who do, compelling us to borrow more money to survive while working long hours as adjuncts and contributors to scholarship.

Today we marched in Union Square to protest this inhuman attack on our institutions of higher ed. We work very hard to serve our universities and our communities. It is time to stand together and fight for the rights of all students to a good education and become educated citizens in a country who must not forget us.

Education is a right

Just got home from teaching at City College, where I work with public school teachers developing their pedagogical practice and scholarship as grad students in the City University of New York, arguably the oldest public university system in the country (rivaled only by the University of California). I am a teaching fellow in the same system, and teach at City in exchange for my ability to do a PhD at no cost.

A rare thing to consider, nowadays: that education be considered something everyone should have a right to. Education is becoming increasingly commodified, rarified, costly, and competitive. This gets me down when I think about the pressure in the 21st century to value education solely as job preparation, not as a space for creativity, exploration, political inquiry, and inspiration. A banner on the wall at City reminded me that this was not always the case, at least not in New York City.

Here’s hoping the city that never sleeps continues to inspire and excite the imagination of the rest of the country.

The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.

More love, less labor: adjuncts and the hierarchy of labor in higher education

Teaching is, for those of us who are lucky to have figured this out, a joyful and deeply rewarding profession. I’ve been teaching for over 12 years, and have worked with adults from 18 to over 70. I have taught classes on English as a Second Language (ESL), professional communication skills, computer literacy, citizenship, bilingual education, second language acquisition, and other topics. Every class is like waking up to a new way of thinking and problem-solving, as my students and I find new ways to make connections between the material we are engaging with and our worlds. I tell friends and family members that it is seldom that I leave class feeling worse than I did when I got there. I regard it, perhaps a bit selfishly, as the best therapy I’ve ever had.

The problem with therapy, unfortunately, is that unless you have the right circumstances, it’s extremely costly. While I don’t pay, per se, to teach graduate students at two colleges in the City University of New York, as an adjunct, I am compensated little for the amount of work I do. True, some of it is in exchange for a generous teaching fellowship that I receive to do my PhD at the Grad Center. However, I also teach a class at another school in the CUNY system, where, when you break it down, I make what I first made as a new ESL teacher for the labor I put into class for class prep, meeting and communicating with students, and correcting and maintaining student grading and support. “Unthinkable!” my family would say if they knew. “But you have a masters degree and over 12 years of experience…and you’re getting your PhD!”

All true. This is the way of higher education nowadays, the slow and steady fight to save budgets through the ‘adjunctification‘ of colleges and universities across the country. As in other educational contexts, the rise of neoliberal thinking in higher ed – essentially the claim that market values like efficiency, accountability, and bottom-line thinking produce healthy businesses schools and satisfied customers students – justifies the trimming back of faculty and the use of contingent labor to pick up the slack. Read: adjuncts.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to put all of this great experience on my CV. It’s nice to know that when I am interviewing for jobs as a professor in the next couple of years, I will be able to say I’ve worked with undergraduate and graduate students teaching a range of courses that would make me a smart hire for their department. This is seen as a sort of rite of passage, a paying of one’s dues when professionalizing as a professor-in-the-making.

Nevertheless, this situation can be improved once we move past the mystification that is attributed to Being a Professor in higher ed. Yes, it can be argued that all teaching is a labor of love, a point that I will be the first to make. I love this work, because it means I am doing something important, something that has, I hope, a significant impact on the world. Yet I also want to think of myself as more than a low-level laborer in the service of an erstwhile dream of what higher education should be.

We can poke all the fun we want at people pursuing what seems like a wild dream of being a thinker, writer, and educator for a living. However, all individuals have a right to be compensated for their work. And saying that the budget won’t permit such a change, while an expression of the numbers on a page, also justifies the status quo arrangements that divide the haves from the have-nots on faculties across the country. All of us who work in higher ed need to work together to make changes toward a more just arrangement for adjuncts in higher education. It’s time for more love, and less labor, for conditions that are just and compensation that reflects the reality of the work being done. Hierarchies can change and move into new arrangements, so long as there is agreement that justice is a goal that all must share.

Education and civil society: a mini-festo and a short reading list (for starters)

I’m starting, with several fellow graduate students at CUNY, a Working Group on Philanthropy and Civil Society. We come from the fields of sociology, political science, social welfare, and other disciplines which, we argue, do not speak to each other nearly enough and share learning and language around the core questions we must face as members of a shared society. We decided as a group to provide the other members a short reading list, as well as a general background, for understanding how our field approaches the question of what civil society is and should be. Here is my post to the group, which may help educators looking for more of a critical approach to education get started…

The field of education doesn’t typically explore questions about civil society, tending instead to follow the general assumption that thoughtful, comprehensive education contributes to a healthy society. I hypothesize that this comes from a couple of issues in our field:

(a) We are interdisciplinary by nature (the subfield of pedagogy draws upon psychology, linguistics, social theory, philosophy, literary theory, sociology, and other fields; the study of schooling is situated in political theory and history; certain critical approaches to our work relate to feminist theory, critical race theory, postcolonial theory; and so on)

(b) The last 20 years have seen a trend toward developing educators in teacher preparation programs via the ethos of “teachers as technicians,” no doubt related in part to the marketization of education (consider the role of standardized testing and its justification on the grounds of data-driven decision-making in supplying or denying funding to public school and the selection of Betsy DeVos as our Secretary of Education for starting examples)

(c) We’re still in the mindset of prioritizing “inclusion,” which foregoes possibilities of “transformation” or sustained social change (this is a controverted claim I’m making but I stand by it)

It’s my opinion that teachers are not developed as thinkers. We focus on mastery of technique and instrumental understandings of history, policy, and the role of schooling in our country, rather than engage our teachers with the kind of critical collaboration we need to resolve much of the struggle of public schools and institutions of higher ed today. There is also a great divide between scholarship and schools, often depicted as abstracted and out-of-touch (in the case of the former group) and overworked and struggling to keep up with the daily demands on being in the classroom (in the case of the latter). Relatedly, educational research and educational practice do not always speak to each other, which further perpetuates this perceived divide. However, there are many teachers (some of whom I work with) who are deeply concerned and committed to conversations about social justice and ethical politically conscious approaches to education that are long overdue…

I have done my own work to learn about civil society and political philosophical approaches to these questions (which is why I loved [name redacted]’s list and can’t wait to jump in). I have some contributions which attempt to provide some starting points for those of us in education who approach this work on philosophical (ontological, epistemological), political, historical, sociocultural terms rather than as a mastery of a core skill set. It’s important to remember, though, that my selections are driven by the core principle that education can begin contribute to a vibrant democracy only if it is thoroughly understood for its cultural history as well as the political realities of this work. However, the status quo must be understood as contingent and subject to contributions by all participants in society, in a constant state of struggle and change. (This is controversial in my field!) See my choices below.

Five favorite readings:

Bakhtin , M. ( 1993 ). Toward a philosophy of the act (V. Liapunov , trans.; V. Liapunov and M. Holquist, eds.) (pp. 1-75). Austin: University of Texas Press. https://monoskop.org/images/2/26/Bakhtin_Mikhail_Toward_a_Philosophy_of_the_Act.pdf

Biesta, G. (2010). A new logic of emancipation: The methodology of Jacques Rancière. Educational Theory, 60 (1), 39-59.

Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau (2002). Hope, passion, politics. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 122-150). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers

Du Bois, W. E. B., & Edwards, B. H. (2008). The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press.

Stetsenko, A. (2016). The transformative mind: expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge University Press.

Honorable mentions (so many more I left out!):

Amsler, Sarah S. (2008), Pedagogy against “dis-utopia”: From conscientization to the education of desire, in Harry F. Dahms (ed.) No Social Science without Critical Theory (Current Perspectives in Social Theory, Volume 25). Emerald Group Publishing, pp.291 – 325. http://eprints.lincoln.ac.uk/5679/1/Pedagogy_against_disutopia_Amsler_Nov_2007.pdf

Barone, T. (2006). Making educational history: Qualitative inquiry, artistry, and the public interest. In G. Ladson- Billings and W. F. Tate (eds.), Education research in the public interest: Social justice, action, and policy (pp. 213–230). New York: Teachers College Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 14-25. http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/ct/pages/JWM/Syllabi/Bourdieu/SocSpaceSPowr.pdf

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and education. Courier Corporation.

Emirbayer, M., & Schneiderhan, E. (2013). Dewey and Bourdieu on democracy. In P. Gorski (ed.), Bourdieu and historical analysis (pp. 131–157). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (1983). Ideology and agency in the process of schooling. Journal of Education, 165:12-34.

Holland, D. & Lave, J. (2009). Social Practice Theory and the Historical Production of Persons. Actio: An International Journal of Human Activity Theory, (2), 1–15.

Marx, K. Thesis on Feuerbach. https://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/gned/marxtonf45.pdf

Smith, M., Ryoo, J. and McLaren, P. (2009). A revolutionary critical pedagogy manifesto for the twenty-first century. Education and Society, 27, 59-76.

Stengers, I. (2002). A ‘cosmo-politics’ – risk, hope, change. In Mary Zournasi (ed.), Hope: New Philosophies for change (pp. 240-272). London: Lawrence and Wishart. available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1087&context=artspapers