The Huffington Post / May 26, 2015
by Cameron Conaway
To my students at Penn State Brandywine:
We meditated together, cried together, struggled together, learned together. Thank you for cultivating your curiosity as, class after class, we dove into The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable, to enter into the deep waters of your being for the sake of illuminating yourself and, in turn, our team. Thank you for wading through challenging but important conversations on race relations, restorative justice, modern-day slavery, and institutionalized inequality. Thank you for asking genuine questions about everything from commas and publications to climate change and the life of shipbreakers in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
And thank you for using your collective voice to go up against a machine that often views adjuncts as disposable parts. The signatures you took upon yourselves to collect and deliver to the Chancellor (during finals week, no less) made me feel valued and needed at a time when I wasn’t feeling either.
After many hours of meditation I’ve come to realize in the end that it doesn’t help you or the institution of higher education if I accept my position as simply another one of the 76.4 percent of adjunct instructors who at once serve to prop up the system while getting unequivocally crushed by it.
This decision came under tough circumstances. Penn State Altoona is the institution from which I graduated. Professors there helped me move from being a directionless boy caught in a web of psychological trauma (from the physical and mental abuse caused by my father) to a confident, award-winning poet and journalist. A few weeks ago I even delivered their 2015 Commencement Address:
My heart believes in the profound and transformative power of education, but my mind tells me that everybody, especially you, will continue to lose with each decision that supports the status quo.
I want you to know why, despite my deep want to continue working with you, I’m forced to walk away.
You see, the system too often makes clear that publications do not matter (my latest book made NPR’s Best Books of 2014). The same can be said for teaching excellency, transparency, trust and ethics. What matters, far and above anything else, is profit for the few. How much can the institution make off the backs of each adjunct? How much can talent and teaching credentials be undervalued? How much can tuition increase each year for you and pay remain stagnant for me? These are a few of the silent questions that often serve as the ideological underpinning for leaders in higher education.
For over four months I was led astray, all but promised a full-time position only to find out I was being fed hope as truth. Directly after our brilliant fundraiser—the one during our final week of class where we raised nearly $600 for refugees at the Thai-Burma border—I received a phone call.
“Come to my office as soon as the fundraiser is over,” our English department head told me. When I arrived: “I hate to tell you this,” she mumbled. Then, after closing the door, “the position fell through. We can offer you an adjunct position and we hope you’ll accept as soon as possible, otherwise we’ll have to hire someone who barely knows what they’re doing. Our students deserve better.”
See how the game is played? The faculty saw the impact we had on each other, saw how I put my heart into every interaction with you. And this, after dropping the horrible news of “maybe” being able to offer me $2,800 per class, was the pressure point they went after to get me to give in. My adjunct colleagues all have similar stories.
I immediately went to the Chancellor and, truth is, the full-time position was never really on the table. The English department wanted it and believed in it so badly that they portrayed it to me as though it was a lock. The Chancellor didn’t even know about the position until a month before semester’s end. When she looked at the budget, then at the position, it was an easy choice for her to make. “There was no way I could approve it,” she told me.
Penn State, with their 2014-2015 operating budget of 4.6 billion, will keep rolling. They’re too big to fail, to feel the loss. But had I accepted I would have been trapped in the cycle of barely breaking even, a terrifying place to be when a health or relatively minor financial issue arises. Many of you told me I deserve better, that I should not be yet another story of an adjunct forced to rely on public assistance to survive. It’s with your wisdom that I make this decision, that I move into the muddled middle of whatever is next.
The future is unclear and I already miss those of you I’ve met and those of you I won’t get the chance to meet. But I’m fired up, ready to carry the lessons you instilled in me, and promise that whatever I pursue will have your best interests in mind.