Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Surviving Survivors' Guilt

May 2001: Each year, my academic department at Santa Monica College performs a cruel little farce, offering a fulltime tenure track position or two. And each year hundreds of qualified applicants---many glitteringly overqualified, many surviving semester after semester as part-timers ---desperately petition for these few, humble, jobs. I bought an academic raffle ticket last Spring. This Spring I did not.

Of the 45,600 faculty members teaching in the California Community College System, 29,900 are part-time and 15,700 are full-time. More than half of all the credits taught in the California Community College System are taught by part-timers, freeway flyers with little status and security, poor benefits, and wages a fraction of those of their fulltime colleagues. Many are superbly qualified and have proved themselves in the trenches semester after semester. Yet they may labor for years, even decades in the Cal. C.C. system without reaching that tantalizing Promised Land, without managing to morph from temporary to permanent employees

This may be of greater import to the reader when he reflects that keeping employees “temporary” is an ever more popular cost-cutting strategy employed by a wide spectrum of American employers.

What follows are my broodings on the hiring process for fulltime, fully compensated and benefited faculty positions at Santa Monica College and at other campuses in the University of California and California Community College systems.

By Douglas Lane

It’s inherently corrupt---but not because the selection process is invalid. Certainly at Santa Monica College, the applicants for fulltime tenure-track employment are fairly and carefully and even sensitively considered and patient merit is recognized whenever possible. No, the process is corrupt because there are so few places for so many worthy candidates. And I don’t mean applicants from outside the system so much as I mean exploited parttimers who are hanging on partly in hopes of one day becoming fulltimers… The joke, or one joke, of course, is that there may be many, even hundreds, of applicants from outside the system whose bona fides are superior to those of the poor donkeys who have put in their time, endless semesters, even decades of semesters, in the company mine. Mere time-in-service, at the hiring campus in question, is not necessarily proof of merit.

If the selection process were ruthlessly merit-based, perhaps even fewer, or no, in-house applicants would be selected. After all, what do they offer but time-in-service and the stigma of having meekly proved themselves to be willing to be secondclass citizens for semesters, even decades? No, if the selection process were made purely on the basis published writing and academic degrees, then the fresh new blood from off-campus would surely elbow aside the indigenous parttimers…..just as cats, rats, dogs, and porkers (all-purpose, adaptable, survival-of-the-fittest beasts toughened by combat with species in the outside world), having landed on the Galapagos, quickly made short work of the quaint fragile species---giant tortoises, seagoing iguanas, exotic varieties of finches---which had formerly proliferated in safety and solitude on the islands.

As for the objection that the indigenous pedagogues have proved themselves in the all-important field of teaching, well, despite what George Bush may say, teaching is essentially an unquantifiable endeavor. A teacher’s prestige can be gauged by his degrees, or by how high he has climbed in his department, or by how many academic works he has published. But his effectiveness as a teacher is known best by his students, who, rightfully, rush beyond the campus as quickly as they are able, with seldom a backward glance at their ennabler. It may take them years to realize how good, or bad, their teacher was. In any case, a teacher’s students never sit on the hiring committee which decides his future.

Is it possible to query these students in regard to the quality and effectiveness of their teachers? Of course. And this is done regularly by multiple-choice questionnaires which are duly distributed and whose answers are neatly toted up by computers. So these numbers can be read and weighed by personnel administrators and the student population can be said to have been heard from, objectively and quantifiably, on the matter of the in-house donkey’s qualifications for a fulltime position.

The cruelty inherent in the hiring process may not be so much in the process of acceptance or rejection of the candidates as it is in the promise, the carrot, that is dangled before dozens and hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of freeway flyers all over California, scrambling to survive on the parttimer’s fractional wages and benefits. This promise is a lottery ticket which only a fortunate few will manage to cash. The rest are left with their delusions and a gnawing intimation that they have been, and are, subsidizing the state.

And the state and the Cal CC system? Well, they have found a way to get something extremely valuable for almost nothing by dangling the promissory note, or better, the mere POSSIBILITY, of decent wages and benefits before thousands of parttimers who, statistically, have only a ghost of a chance of redeeming that note. Just as the hope held out by the possibility of winning the statewide lottery helps mollify restless millions of lower caste citizens who are essentially going nowhere, the hope of being one of the few, the proud, the fulltime, helps keep frustrated temporary employees on the straight and narrow, makes them think twice before they commit desperate acts of rebellion and frustration and reform.

In this sense, the administrators of the Cal CC system are the Wizards of Oz, operating switches and knobs behind a backstage curtain. The show that they stage for the parttimers includes issuing teaching certificates officially certifying that said parttimers really DO have brains, really ARE college instructors, though in the single most critical area, the area of financial compensation, the parttimers are a great deal LESS than college teachers. Yes, they teach college students. But they do so at bargain rates. In fact, when all the required hours of labor, such as class preparation and reading and grading of papers, are factored in, the parttimers work for a wage comparable to that of a frycook at MacDonald’s, and their peripheral, especially medical, benefits are less than those of a Starbuck’s barista. So they are surely not college teachers, but, at best, are College Teachers Secondclass, or MacTeachers, or Marks, Chumps, and Rubes, being done out of their labor and hopes by the carny barkers and cons along the great white way of the California Community College Carnival.

As for the administrators themselves? They are addicts, of course. They are addicted to the highly trained, highly qualified, undercompensated labor of the thousands of parttimers who serve the system---the galley slaves, as it were, of the California Fleet. And these administrators have every reason to deceive themselves about their academic Ponzi scheme, and about the economic and social injustices they routinely perpetrate and perpetuate, and from which they mightily benefit.

What’s hilarious, of course, is that the chumped out parttimers purport to teach OTHERS, their students, how to THINK. Yet they are unable to think clearly, or at least to act effectively on their conclusions, in order to protect themselves from deception and exploitation. In fact, they collude, like the submissive little co-dependents they are, in their own exploitation, signing up semester after semester for more undercompensation, until, perhaps, they fall apart on the job. Or, if they’re fortunate, until they run screaming into the private sector.

Now let’s examine that word parttimer. When a parttimer contracts to teach a course, does he contract to teach it parttime? Of course not! He is committed to bringing just as much time, energy, thought, and skill to the teaching of three semester credits as is any FULLtimer. And yet, and yet, the PARTtimer is paid a wage which is but a fraction, which is only PART of that of the fulltimer. THIS is the sense in which PARTtimers are truly but a part of the whole. They are only compensated, this is to say, IN PART.

And what completes this partial paycheck? Why, hope, of course! The “parttimer’s” hope that he will some day, before he grows too old and feeble to teach, be compensated fully for his labor. The odds are against him, of course, because there are too few openings for too many PARTtimers. What is more, the older these parttimers get, the less employable they grow. Their bodies and minds fail them; they may grow generationally distant from their students. And the longer they row at their galley oars with fractional wage, medical, dental, and pension benefits, the better the Cal CC system does. Because even if one of these poor rowing wretches finally IS hired fulltime, he certainly isn’t compensated retroactively for all the preceding years when he rowed “parttime.”

And if he IS offered a fulltime job---and how can he turn it down? He has mouths to feed, he probably has credit card or loan debt to pay off after years of being underpaid, and this fulltime status is what he has been working towards and dreaming of for years. It may be humble, but it looks like a pretty big banana after years of working for far less money, status, and perks---he CAN’T and WON’T and DARE NOT turn it down, any more than a man would refuse to be pulled out of the freezing Atlantic and into a lifeboat, into LIFE itself.

But now that he is a permanent faculty member, why, he may be called upon to sit in judgment of his former comrades-in-privation, the parttimers who are clamoring for THEIR slice of permanent, adequately-compensated, employment. And now he’s in an awkward predicament. Because he’s working as an intermediary for the Cal CC system, and the more thoughtful and sensitive he is to the candidates to be judged, the FAIRER and more INTELLIGENT and HUMANE he is in his judgments, the harder he makes it for those parttimers (who will inevitably be in the overwhelming majority) who are dismissed and discarded and disappointed and disheartened and disoriented and just plain dissed by the hiring process. Because these disappointed parttimers see their friends on the jury which finds others, but just a very few others, who do merit being saved, do deserve, apparently on the basis of greater merit, being pulled into the lifeboat, who do deserve to get all their sad sorry parttime strivings, all those underpaid under-recognized hours and lectures and papers, redeemed by finally being welcomed into the embrace of permanent, tenure track, employment.

And what has been the work of the fulltimer who has so humanely, so thoughtfully, sat in judgment of the parttimer? Well, a dark perspective on the fulltimer is as follows: The fulltimer acted for an agency which is exploiting his brother and coworker, the parttimer. The fulltimer has soothed and mollified the parttimer when rage and indignation, which is to say OUTRAGE, are the only true and valid emotions the parttimer has left.

It’s as if the fulltimer were a trusty helping to keep his fellow inmates in line for the warden, or a Frenchman administering Vichy France for the German occupiers. So, possibly without realizing it, the fulltimer has been made a collaborateur, almost against his will. And the better he collaborates, the more smoothly he acts as a puppet for the ruling administrators, the more effectively he betrays his brothers, for, as I say, he has effectively, intelligently, humanely, in a MERIT-BASED fashion, robbed his parttime brothers of the single remaining foundation of the parttimer’s sense of self, which is to say, all that was left to him, which is to say, his rage, his sense of injustice, his howling indignation, his OUTRAGE.

For the parttimer sees that the employment process has been a just one. So how can he, the temporary employee, rage against the system? The system has been administered intelligently, humanely, politely, in a MERIT-BASED fashion, by his FRIENDS. And what, therefore, can the disappointed temporary employee do with his anger, his outrage? He can alienate himself from it, view it as a sign of sickness rather than health. He can distance himself from the very place where his sense of self, his self-respect, his sense of what is RIGHT, lives.

And he can soldier on, continuing to teach, wondering if he can last till next year’s hiring process, wondering if the wheels will fall off before then, wondering if he’ll just be too old, too battered, too dispirited, BY THEN, to get hired. Perhaps, BY THEN, his swallowed down rage will have begun to tenderize him, to digest him from the inside. Perhaps, by the next time the hiring process rears its head, the parttimer will be boneless, spineless, mollusc-like. Perhaps, by the next time the hiring process rolls around, the parttimer will be so much the jellyfish, the amoeba, that he will be able to flow right under the crack of a seemingly shut door. Perhaps, by the next time the hiring process rolls around, the parttimer will be so malleable, so pre-digested, so DUCTILE, that he will be impossible to turn down, rolling and flowing on the floor as he does, presenting no hard edges or objectionable surfaces, only wanting to merge with the plasms, the plasms on the INSIDE of the door, the plasms who left one brotherhood, one sisterhood, behind and joined another.

Postscript, 12/24/03
In the light of state budget deficits and the enormous cutbacks in funding to the California Community College system, my aforementioned outrage now seems almost quaint. No longer are even token fulltime positions being dangled before the desperate eyes of parttimers. Now parttimers are being laid off in droves. Where will they go? How will they survive? Well, union-busting Walmart has seized a beachhead in Southern California. Maybe the ex-parttimers, having been driven from the public sector, will be lucky enough to land minimum wage, under-benefited, non-union jobs in the brave new world of free market monopoly capitalism.