I was going to begin my fourth year as an adjunct. The pay was lousy, but I loved teaching, and I loved the kids. When I thought about leaving, I could not bear it, because it really meant something to me: I was good at it. Not that I’m bragging. The kids told me so. They hated me at first, they always did. I was too difficult, I demanded too much of them. But in the end, they loved me, because I made them question; I made them wonder; I made them think.
So I began the semester without a hitch.
I always kept my activism off the radar, but that wasn’t hard to do. As an adjunct, teaching dual credit English at a high school, I was not part of the college campus. I was definitely not part of the high school either (I taught in a portable!), and I never saw anyone but my students: I was truly flying under the radar: I was invisible.
Beyond that, everything seemed to be fine. After all, they had finally cut down the student load, which I had campaigned for heavily last year, so our classes were down to 20-25 students. Life was good. I began teaching, handing out syllabi to little seniors who thought they were big college students. They were excited to begin their writing comp classes; I was thrilled to have an entire new set of minds to mold. One student, though, was a bit nervous. She came up to me at the end of the first class to ask about missing instruction; she had band activities (which are big in Texas!), and she was afraid the syllabus looked too difficult. I told her she needed to work hard, and be in class, as this was her first priority. If she had a problem with that, she should drop the class.
Turns out the student had also failed a placement exam, yet she was still enrolled in the course. I questioned this. But I could never quite grasp what I had started! Emails began flying between administration and faculty, accusing me of not wanting the student. The upshot:
Date: Aug 28, 2012, at 7:37:22 AM, CDT: (actual email to chairman)
ME: I have no problem with her at all. I just met her. I was going by what we were told about the AccuPlacer Exam, which was not this complete information you are now telling me. As long as she can keep up with her work, she seems like a perfectly fine young student, and hard working. Moreover, I commend her for her concern in going to the counselor in the first place, on her first day, to figure out what to do. That shows dedication. It shows me she's off to a good start.
I thought after a second tense day of classes and emails, the worst was over, and all would go back to normal. But, coming home that afternoon, I got a phone call, with no explanation …
Date: August 28, 2012 5:25:59 PM CDT (actual email to dean, chair, dual credit director, and “fixer of salaries”)
ME: And now, at 4:39 pm, I get a call from TCC firing me, effective immediately.
I was floored. Flabbergasted. Angry. Depressed. Hysterical. It seems they just wanted an excuse to get rid of me. They took this student’s complaint and blew it out of proportion, saying I had “negative interactions with students.” In plural! It took me a few days, but I finally began writing. Calling lawyers. Seeing what I could do. I reached out to my first lawyer, on the Internet.
Date: September 7, 2012 6:46:23 AM CDT
I have been trying to fight this battle alone. But last night, providence must have guided me to your page...
So, with this, I am up at 4:30 in the morning writing you, because you have given me hope. I begin by telling you I have no money, so this would probably have to be one of those pro bono cases. But I am also not in it for the money. What I want is to expose the fraudulent system that education has fallen privy to, and I want to call attention to the dire need of my fellow colleagues in need of living wages, who like me, are being exploited, much like migrant laborers, but of Academia. Out of the one and a half million instructors in Higher Ed today, one million are contingency labor; that's over 70% of today's professors. And many of those do not earn living wages. I myself was earning $1800 per course, no benefits, no healthcare. I do it because I love teaching. Many of us do. But we also need a living wage. And now, two days into the semester, I was fired, although they said they "were rearranging my classes." I had been working there since 2009. I am not particularly unique. A friend right now has been without a job for 3 months now. Another was selling plasma for the summer to make ends meet. A third is now homeless, though she began teaching on Monday... There are thousands of us…
I won’t bore you with the rest of the letter, written in the wee hours of the morning and finally sent at dawn, detailing the history and horrors of the marriage between college and high school, to everyone’s benefit: parents, students, administrators at both high school and college… but what about us? We were expendable. Are expendable.
Though I could never prove it, I am sure they knew about my petition for adjunct justice, which made it another reason they would want to get rid of me: http://signon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts.fb1?source=c.fb&r_by=426534. Right after they “dismissed” me, too, I kept getting weird email notifications from people looking me up on Academia.edu and other such academic sites, and as far as I could trace, they always led back to my college. Then I tried to get my materials back, or to get someone to call me back from either the college or the high school. The high school was completely silent. Though I wrote them, they did not answer. I contacted them again, nothing. A third note: I received a terse answer back from the director of the dual credit program stating she was sorry, she wished me well. Pontius Pilate washing his hands off the entire ordeal. On the other side, the college hid behind its draconian contract; you would laugh if it weren’t so sad. Saying its terms are harsh is putting it mildly. In any case, I went on fighting.
I found great friends through the New Faculty Majority; if it hadn’t been for them, I would have gone insane. While one colleague helped me write my first grievance letter against the college, the other stood beside me, still stands beside me (virtually of course!), so that I might get through the next few months.
In this at-will and right-to-work state, no lawyer will take my case. I’ve tried to set up appointments with over 30 of them. With my first, I was so naive; I actually believed he would help me. He made an appointment with me for weeks ahead, told me to pay up front, then we could talk about further payment —pro bono or contingency was definitely on the table— but when I actually met him, after 45 minutes or so, he began to frown at his watch, and I knew he was not seriously even thinking about taking my case. Though he feigned eyeing my petition, when I got up to show him details on his computer, he coughed and said, “Oh no, don’t bother, it’s ok. I can do that later. Really, I feel for you. It’s a sad case. But this is an at-will state. It’s a right-to-work state. We will fight for you, of course, but you need to pay us. We cannot take your case on contingency. We would lose money.” I looked around his plush office, his leather couches, one facing the other, very discreet and sophisticated. I glanced at him reaching for his iPhone once again; we really need to cut this short now, he mumbled. “I’m afraid I will not be able to take your case, after all; I have other appointments.” I stood up graciously, actually smiled at him, and thanked him for his time. Thanked him by God.
After that I told all lawyers upfront I could only pay contingency at most. No one called me back. Some wrote rejection letters, but it was all a failure. The first lawyer I contacted —my “4 am guy” I would say— did hang on the longest. I think he actually felt sorry for me. He actually cared because I flattered his ego in that first long exhaustive missive. But eventually he too decided it was too much for him, and in Texas? No, in Texas you couldn’t get anything done. After all, this was the state where a superintendent could make kids “disappear” from a school system, and no one would call him on it. It took years to get the law to finally take him in (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/education/el-paso-rattled-by-scandal-of-disappeared-students.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0).
So I am on my own now. I’ve gotten really good at writing these grievance letters. I’m on my 5th. When I write them, I go berserk for a few days, crazy whacked unapproachable cranky. You name it. I cry a lot. I scream. My husband stays clear of me on those days. Sometimes he tries to be supportive, but most times he leaves me be, as he knows I’ll calm down once the writing process is over. Or at least for a bit. But then I begin again, because I need to edit my first draft. And he is my editor, after all. It may be a bad idea to have someone so close share something like this with you, but what else can I do? I trust no one. He’s my worst critic but he’s the best too. He’ll tell me like it is and he’ll fight with me, but he’ll make it better. And so yes, we fight. We scream. I cry. But then, finally, after three, no, four, five, six drafts, it’s over. It is finally over. Complete. Time to mail it out.
Almost $70 later this time around, with a bulking file of return receipts requested, and letters from post offices because the college and the high school never signed the slips —so did they really get them? What else is in that file? Oh, the college never bothered to pick up the mail at all, so the envelope is stamped all over and returned to sender… Will I be slipping more of these unopened letters to my file, or will this time around be any different? Will this letter I just sent be so terse, so strong, so flagrant with indignation that they will finally have to answer me directly? After all, I did call them on the fact that they answered everyone else I placed on the correspondence, yet they neglected to answer the one person the letter was all about, the person who actually wrote to them… Maybe the fact that the Attorney General has a complaint file against them now might make a difference. I do give them the complaint number in the letter… So, what do you think? Well, if they do not answer, at least I will make them squirm.
And tomorrow, tomorrow I will go off like Don Quixote, to tilt my next windmills.