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  • Rachel Stempel


Photograph by Annie Lee-Daly, "AIRING OUT YOUR DIRTY LAUNDRY" (IG: @a.leedaly)

What, exactly, am I calling out? It’s not just my university, it’s not just higher education or any other institution. It’s the cultural norm bred and maintained by capitalism.

In short, you draft a lot of strongly-worded emails.

When my university shifted to distance learning after spring break, I was in the middle of my first semester as an adjunct professor for an introductory creative writing course of twenty students.

Updates from my university since March have been long-winded and vague, but any for-profit system (e.g. higher education) is inherently unequipped to respond effectively.

Just last week, I reached out to my tentative fall roster with a modality update—an online combination of asynchronous and synchronous learning. I reached out before the university made its formal announcements for several reasons: (1) back in March, the administration told professors to be the ones to inform students of precautionary measures/the possibility of distance learning; (2) for the fall, professors were prompted by their departments to decide on modality independently, (3) tuition isn’t the same—there’s been an increase to accommodate for losses due to COVID-19 and the school’s already hazy financial future.

I reached out and immediately received responses from students expressing gratitude for the information and my decision. At first, my savior complex felt satisfied, but herein lies the problem. I’m an adjunct and graduate student teaching one introductory course at a huge university. One student asked what I thought of the school’s decision to reopen for in-person instruction (prior to the ICE announcement, which generated more concern over the potential loss of tuition than of student safety). I said I didn’t know enough about risk management to comment, which is only half true because I understand the logistics of for-profit make not reopening an impossibility. I drafted the response several times over.

First, I thought to steer attention towards how fun this course would be online since we’ll be curating our own literary/culture magazines. Then, I thought to respond more coolly: “Ask me when I graduate.” None of these responses felt satisfactory, and the one I ended up sending still feels like a cop-out. There’s that “for-profit” mentality again—as an adjunct with one year left in my program, I can’t afford a thorough explanation. I can’t explain to an institution why a follow-up email about changing modality to in-person so international students aren’t deported is ludicrous. I can’t explain to an institution that they’re the ones with proactive power because I put myself in jeopardy to call out how adjuncts will be the scapegoats when a school is challenged on their response to ICE or when there’s an inevitable spike in COVID-19 cases. I can’t explain this because it’s so obvious, so normalized. What, exactly, am I calling out? It’s not just my university, it’s not just higher education or any other institution. It’s the cultural norm bred and maintained by capitalism—the base-superstructure—which is abstract, hard to visualize, and subsequently branded as impractical idealism.

The student thanked me for my input, but I know it was just a formality. I didn’t give the answer they were looking for. I gave an answer that makes me no different than the higher-ups I’m condemning.

When I teach my class online this coming fall, we’re going to read A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid with excerpts of Aimé Césaire’s “Discourse on Colonialism.” We’re going to read Hilton Als and Qiu Miaojin and Tommy Orange and we’re going to watch Babar and talk about propaganda and story-telling for children. We’re going to share “mood boards” of what’s inspiring us, literary or otherwise. We’re going to develop a vocabulary to talk about the things we like and don’t like, the things we know need to change, and I’m going to be transparent about my shortcomings in these areas. I, too, am a student.



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