In a different world, think like an immigrant

Without crossing the ocean, we’re in a different world. So think like an immigrant.

On both sides our grandkids have grandparents or great-grandparents who were immigrants.  Not one of them came to this country and got a job like what they were educated for in the old country. A medical student and journalist became a maker of dental appliances; a scholar became a guy behind the grocery deli counter.  They crossed the ocean, found themselves in a different world, and figured it out. They worked their tails off.

The border crossed us

Without crossing the ocean, our grandkid who is a junior in high school has found himself in a different world. Our colleague in Chicago, Francisco Montalvo  from Brownsville, Texas, used say that he never crossed the border; the border crossed him. The border has crossed our grandkid. 

The border of the “different world” from our grandkid’s point of view, is, compared to my experience or his mother’s, the impossible cost of tuition, the risk of intolerable debt, and the whopping amount of competition (applications up 30% over last year at the public colleges and universities in CA). From the faculty point of view, there’s the layoffs of contingents, the dismantling of tenure, and the desperate struggles to keep some colleges even open. These were trends already in motion, but now they’ve gathered into a perfect storm. Not to mention that right now in spring 2021 of the pandemic year, we’re all starting from zero. This is the year kids sat in their bedrooms clicking from one class to another and teachers struggled to get past the little black windows on their screens.

Our daughter called me to say that the price for a 5-day group seminar for our grandkid to help him apply to college would cost $6,000, and that all the sessions currently set up were full. Which leads one to ask, what’s it for?

What is it for?

Let’s pause to remember the various uses of public higher education. These apply to both students and faculty. The purpose of higher ed is:

1. To learn and teach something, to carry out research, to prepare the next generation, to curate, share and protect the culture and knowledge that no one individual can encompass but which is necessary to our collective survival.

2. To create a cohort of people you will stay in touch with as you make your way in the world. 

3. To signal your position, high or low, in a capitalist society.

4. To certify you to do a certain kind of work. 

My humble opinion of the way that $6,000 5-day seminar mentioned above satisfies the appetites of families willing to pay for it is as follows: Number 3 comes first, followed by # 2.  Then #1 and #4. So these are families that want their kid to go to a name college (#3), where they will meet a cohort (#2) that will network them into the upper levels of society. Only third comes what we would call “really learning” (#1).  And fourth is (#4) which is not too important to them because they think that with friends in powerful places and a name college behind them, they will always be able to get a job. This kind of thinking is behind the scandals about admissions bribes we read about last year. 

To which I say, “Not in this different world.”  For $6,000 you are buying advice about how to get ahead in the old world, the previous world, the world that is not going to come back.

In this different world I’d rank the uses of higher education as #4, then #1, followed by #2 and #3. Number 4 can be the point of the needed that gets someone into #1, as they follow their interest. Number 2 will be something you create yourself based on what you’re interested in, not on what the admissions people think will be good for you (or them). And #3 comes last.  

In this different world, we make the road by walking, as Miles Horton and Paolo Friere say. Like an immigrant, figuring out the new world as you go along.

In the meantime, we’re fighting back

In the background as I write this is the state-level California Federation of Teachers (CFT) convention. It’s on zoom and Joe, a delegate, is watching it at the kitchen table. There is a debate going on. Apparently there was a resolution in support of lowering tuition costs at public higher education in CA (that is, all the places my grandkid wants to go). The resolution said community colleges should be free but the state colleges and universities should be “affordable.” The body is not buying it. Speaker after speaker stands up and points out that all higher education up through grad school in the University system used to be free, consistent with the 1960 California Master Plan. So everyone wants the language changed to “free” or “no-cost” instead of “affordable.” They vote, it passes, the resolution goes back to the Executive Board to fix the language. I love this.

There’s a part of me that wishes I were not retired and could go back and teach at our local community college and get involved in the union. Imagine being in the same room with 600 people you agree with, for the most part!  

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

One thought on “In a different world, think like an immigrant

  1. I spent 22 years as an adjunct, most of that time doing advocacy, educating colleagues, administration and elected board members about adjunct statistics, surveys, national organizations, etc. I used data and anecdotal evidence.

    My last effort forced the spotlight on the Fair Labor Standards Act as it pertained to compensation for mandatory training. I persuaded our CAO to pay for mandatory departmental training per semester; I lost the argument at the institutional level when the pandemic pushed everyone online and the institution required online training to be done off contract between spring 2020 and future semesters.

    Although it became a new condition for teaching/employment, the law has a loophole for exempting higher ed faculty from overtime pay. Meaning, the institution did not need to compensate adjunct faculty for this required training although they were trapped in online teaching. The logic was that “they had a choice not to teach”.

    Adding insult to injury, I was told by the head of HR that if I chose not to teach online, that would not be held against me for future teaching assignments in person.

    In reality, my department found adjunct willing to teach online, replaced me, and I was terminated without so much as a personal note from anyone in my department after 22 years.

    The dean did the dirty work after an attempt to label me a poor employee for my dissent and lack of compliance. I countered every argument, copied HR personnel, and reviewed my account of relevant details at my exit interview.

    The reason nothing will ever come of this is because these fights are private and self advocacy does not have power like public advocacy. And there is no one willing to stick out their neck for others in these situations.

    Why would adjuncts teach online and accept unpaid training? Until people say “no more”, and walk away to find other employment, this abuse will continue.

    There is nothing professional about unpaid training. It would never be expected of hourly staff but adjuncts put up with it.

    And the institutions will get away with it because they can.

    And adjuncts in paralegal programs or law schools are not the ones leading the fight for improved “employee laws”, much less “inclusion with equity” in the workplace.

    I applaud those who keep up the fight but until you convince adjuncts who teach employee laws to lead the legal or legislative fights to change, all we can do it keep writing books and articles and blogs about it.

    As for unions, I brought this up at a meet and greet online for an AFT adjunct union and the union staffers knew nothing about it, did not engage in discussion of strategies, etc. They were only interested in recruiting more dues-paying members and kept their members in the dark about New Faculty Majority, resources, etc.

    Lastly, do not count on accreditation venues. I have experienced their lack of interest in promoting meaningful change. The Higher Learning Commission did take some interest under the guise of “shared governance” when our Faculty Senate filed a report on unfair practices. The only thing that accomplished was tasking my institution to study the issue, ultimately dismantling our Faculty Senate and stringing along adjunct representation for over two years as they try to create any meaningful voice in a new “Academic Branch Council” in which no adjuncts can vote.

    Good luck to those still in academia. But since I was terminated, I’m done teaching. It is time to move on to other endeavors.


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