Wednesday, July 3, 2013

No Poverty of Intellect: A Review of the Play, Junct

By Sandra  Keifer

Our previous blog post pulled back the curtain and revealed the terrible truth that universities and colleges are teaching their students how to live in poverty. Adjuncts and graduate assistants living below the poverty level teach their courses from positions of despair and helplessness, and in the process of trying to survive, they reveal the lack of respect that colleges and universities have for education. From their ivory towers, armies (often more than twice the number of instructors) of secure, well-paid administrators act as plutocratic directors overseeing the performance of poorly paid and desperately overworked instructors, making higher education a corporate plan to support growing numbers of administrators who have stolen the spotlight (and the money) from their students and instructors.

The play Junct, which held an open dress rehearsal April 25 on the CSU campus, brought this real-life drama to the stage.

Organized in short monologues, the play opened with a young graduate student telling the story of her parents’ divorce and her mother’s struggle to support her children. When the young woman entered college, her mother encouraged her to become self-sufficient: “College professors make good salaries and their jobs are secure.” This obvious mistake drew empathetic murmurs from the audience, a large group of faculty who are painfully aware of the dearth of full-time faculty jobs and the devastating plight of adjuncts. Nodding quietly, the young woman explained to the audience that she is a graduate assistant for CSU, working well over 40 hours per week for little more than tuition for her coursework, and no future in sight beyond adjunct work, a more permanent type of poverty.

Continuing with her story, the graduate assistant explained that recently, she brought her concerns to the faculty advisor, whose careless, antiquated response left her speechless. “Find a husband who can support you, and then, perhaps after your children are grown, you can come back and teach as an adjunct.” The young student reacted with dismay and anger: did the conversation occur in a time warp? Is it 1950 or 2013? After years of study and investment, must teaching be removed from her short list of career options because she needs to be able to—of all things—earn a living wage? Is higher education instruction becoming volunteer work for instructors who are fortunate enough to have a pension or spousal support? If so, why are the administrators secure and well paid?

In the next monologue, we hear confessions about depression, burnout, and ketchup sandwiches—these teachers have no money to buy food.

Most of the speakers are young and utterly oppressed by the university’s system; they are regularly taking the bitter pill of poverty. The sad atmosphere lightens with occasional music from a three-person band and fast-paced, humorous skits involving several actors. One adjunct explains to a student that he doesn’t have an office, but he can meet her in the parking lot. A group of graduate students who teach composition—a course that requires instructors to spend many hours grading essays—wonders why they are not paid hourly instead of per course. The current compensation system may make work simpler for administrators, but it perpetuates serious workload inequities between instructors in different departments.

One student wonders, after all of this pain, if she is still a writer and a human being, as if teaching were a disease that may require surgery.

Yes, these young people who live on condiments, endure numerous roommates, and work well over 40 hours per week have learned about poverty from the higher education system. (When we think of “the working poor,” how often do we think of people with advanced degrees?) Instead of leaving, however, these instructors have chosen to honor their academic investments and speak out in creative ways.

College administrators—particularly those who receive state tax dollars—listen up. You have created a culture of poverty and are perpetuating it across your campuses. Listen and learn about the poverty that you are offering and teaching to our nation’s young people. They deserve better.

Junct will be performed on college and university campuses in Colorado during Campus Equity Week, Oct. 20-26, 2013.

Our FRCC AAUP chapter website will provide more details as the Fall semester approaches.