The Awakening: Many Voices, Many Stories

Lee Kottner is a lifelong union supporter and educator, now working outside academe for a social justice policy think tank. She taught as an adjunct for nearly 15 years in every possible kind of institution in New York and Michigan, and she still misses her students. She’s proud to be a board member of New Faculty Majority Foundation and their Social Media Director. 

Lee has also been an uncompromising voice in the adjunct movement for many years,  moving us to where we are today.


She writes with humor and honesty about how her own awakening to inequitable conditions in higher ed was precipitated by her awakening to her students’ of color experiences simply attempting to get to school and earn an education. As an educator, Lee took in the “stories” students wrote about Stop and Frisk, unjust incarceration, racially motivated sexual assault, the fire wall state bureaucracy creates and so much more. As a majority white movement Lee’s story below is testimony to the importance of aligning ourselves with our students rather than the administration in order to make structural changes in higher ed.

Additionally, Lee’s piece outlines the challenges adjunct faculty experience in bargaining units  that include non-tenure track and full time/tenure track faculty together (NTT and FTT). Unfortunately, other faculty are not always adjunct faculty’s allies . Instead, being in a position of centrality in the system,  T/TT/FT Faculty have often thrown adjuncts interests under the bus during negotiations. Many new faculty unions who don’t know this history always discuss building an all faculty union. Keep reading to learn some of the pitfalls of organizing this way so we don’t recreate what hasn’t worked in the past but instead consciously ensure the majority of faculty who are most disenfranchised in our schools are not in this position our the unions.


The Awakening: Many Voices, Many Stories
Lee Kottner

Ultimately, I blame Caprice Lawless.

I came late to organizing, to social justice work, for a number of ridiculous reasons I won’t go into, but the urge was always there. Both sides of my family have had teachers, professors, and union workers (telecom and auto). When I was in grade school in the ‘60s, there was a local teachers strike and then a bus drivers’ strike, and my mother kept me home rather than cross picket lines. That lesson stuck with me: people deserved a living wage and if you thought your personal needs superseded theirs, what kind of a person were you? From that moment on, I have never crossed a picket line. That’s the start of it.

1. The Clueless Years, 2008-2012

“And you call yourself an artist! What pretensions, Madame! The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.”*

In 2008, after a hiatus of about 20 years, I started teaching as an adjunct again, thanks to the Recession. My reintroduction to adjuncting was the worst-case scenario for any contingent faculty: less than $500/credit, no office (no coat hook, even) yet a requirement to “be available” to students before and after class, and no phone or mailbox; no access to a copier or supplies or even a computer; no autonomy in regards to syllabus or books; and no respect, yet hints that I might get a full time job out of it if I played along and gave them the syllabus I’d developed for a new class. I was teaching initially in the South Bronx at an extension campus of the College of New Rochelle (CNR), a small private Catholic college just outside the city, and learning more from my students, I’m pretty sure, than they were learning from me. My students there were eager, smart, and awe-inspiring in their drive, their doggedness, their sheer ability to leap the stupid hurdles the bureaucracy of the school, the city social services, and the federal government put in their way of getting an education. The obstacles in their lives were just as big: abusive boyfriends, poverty, medical problems, court dates, police harassment, staying clean and sober, childcare, meetings with parole officers and case managers, work itself.

In the books we were discussing — Sula, The Awakening — the protagonists buck the expectations society has for them. They go off, do their own thing, and like most female rebels, pay a heavy price for it, but regret none of their decisions. We read and discussed those books through a feminist lens in class, picking apart the double standards of what society wants of all of us, white woman and women of color, and even of the few African American men in the class. I’m ashamed to say that in those classrooms, racism became real to me for the first time. My students were stopped and frisked on the streets outside while carrying backpacks full of schoolbooks. I heard stories of police brutality and unjust incarceration first-hand. I read stories of racially motivated sexual assaults in their journals. I heard how awful their schools had been. I watched the struggles with poverty and the humiliating hoops social services required them to leap through just to live. Those four years at that college prepped me to be broken wide open by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work several years later. But they also woke me up to my own exploitation, and my own complicity in both their exploitation by this school, and my own. I was slowly sliding down the economic ladder to join my students in poverty, and felt a new sense of kinship with them.

I started to become more vocal about and more visibly insulted and annoyed by the lack of respect I was given as a professional at that school, being forced to teach someone else’s syllabus, not allowed to choose my own materials, not being trusted with the smart board or the copier or the printer in the main office. Finally, when my supervisor tried to foist a grading rubric on me, on top of the other reams of carbonless paperwork the school 14457417_1150430638382169_2959721558788150226_nrequired, I rebelled. I turned in my grades and quit in the same breath, with a week to go before the next semester started.

But not before I planted the seeds of discontent among my fellow exploited adjuncts, one of whom was teaching nine classes at four schools to survive. I told myself I’d never teach at another school without a union.

2. The Awakening, 2013

She understood now clearly what she had meant long ago when she said to Adele Ratignolle that she would give up the unessential, but she would never sacrifice herself for her children.

By the end of 2012, I was teaching at three universities — New Jersey City University, Empire State College (SUNY) and York College (CUNY) in two states with three different unions. I was a member of all of them.

I threw myself into the union at NJCU because they actually came to my orientation session and recruited, and met two other adjuncts who’d been involved in it for much longer than I had: Niloofar Mina and Debra Jenks. Niloofar is an ethnomusicologist, Debra a fine artist and poet; both are utterly fearless and made me squirm with their direct accusations of FTT lack of support. Niloofar, in particular, filled me in about the key players in New Jersey’s AFT state council, and my fellow executive committee members. But I was new to union work, and new to this union in particular, and wanted to make up my own mind. I also wanted to see if I could help foster a more cooperative and supportive relationship between FTT and adjuncts in what was a very contentious atmosphere.

Niloofar urged me to run for Recording Secretary at the end of 2012, and I won that unopposed (nobody wants to take minutes), but also became a delegate to the national AFT convention in Detroit that summer. One of the union officers booked our plane tickets and hotel rooms together, saving me the cost and trouble, but since I wasn’t teaching that summer, I had to scrape all my saved change together to get me to and from the airports on both ends, and feed myself in between, to be reimbursed later. Note to blended unions: that arrangement doesn’t work for adjuncts. If you want us to participate in national union conferences, or anything else, we need the cost of travel arrangements and a stipend up front; many of us don’t have credit cards, or at least ones that aren’t maxed out, and we don’t have savings we can dip into. I squeaked by in Detroit (and two years later in Miami at the AFT Higher Ed conference), but was dead broke for the rest of the summer.

faculty-caucasIn Detroit, I started to get a real feel for how neglected adjuncts were. AFT was focused on the Common Core crisis in K-12 and on nurses, who are just about as exploited as adjuncts, but far more savvy about fighting it. The Higher Ed division was mostly worried about university budgets and attacks on tenure and tenure lines, with nary a mention of adjuncts. I voted dutifully but without much enthusiasm. Back at NJCU, it was pretty much the same. The pressing issues were FTT overloads, FTT grievances, and curriculum decisions from the top down, bypassing the all-FTT Senate. Worse, as the newby, I was “cultivated” by our new union president in an attempt to play me off against the “troublemaking” Niloofar and Debra, which I’m embarrassed to say worked for a while.

2013 was a watershed year for me: my first full year as an executive officer at NJCU’s AFT Local 1839, my discovery of New Faculty Majority, my increasing posting about adjunct issues on Facebook and Twitter, and the new connections I was making there. On April 30th I got a call and then a Facebook message from Teresa Mack-Piccone, better known in organizing circles as TMack or TL. A working-class English Ph.D. from Texas, TL played a huge part in my radicalization. We spent hours on the phone and IMing for at least the next six months, discussing labor, organizing, unions, higher ed, and contingency, egging each other on via phone and Facebook and making new connections there too. By the time she wound up working for SEIU in upstate New York (and nearly pulled me into it too), we were co-conspirators in what we were coming to think of as the Adjunct Army.

We also became part of a small “Black Ops squad” on Facebook (whose other members, still active, shall remain nameless) whose job was to increase publicity, counter the neoliberal propaganda of Badmin, shame the truly egregious actions of Badmin and oblivious FTT, and help organize adjuncts by using the media to give them a clear vision of their situation. I started a Google archive of mainstream and alternative press articles about contingent faculty that year, too, now grown to more than 700 articles.

tenure-and-food-stamsDespite the increase in publicity, too many outside academe still don’t know about or understand what’s wrong with the current adjunct system. We still have a lot more work to do.

Because of my postings on Facebook, a non-teacher friend of a friend introduced me to Seth Kahn, of West Chester University in Pennsylvania (who was recently walking a picket line to preserve adjunct salaries, among other things). Seth is one of the few FTT I know who truly understands and abhors the deep inequity in the treatment of adjunct faculty, and works to do something about it. Seth has been an invaluable ally, fearlessly calling bullshit on administrators, other FTT, and anyone else who needs it. FTT who want to know what to do for contingents could do far worse than emulate him.

That summer, I also attended the United Association for Labor Education Union Women’s Summer School, hosted by Cornell’s ILR School in Ithaca, NY. If you get an opportunity to go to one of these, held in the Northeast and Midwest each summer, don’t miss it. It’s a fantastic learning experience and networking opportunity. There, I met a number of fellow adjuncts, including then-NFM Foundation Board Chair, Anne Wiegard, CUNY student and organizer Lynne Turner (who was one of our instructors), SUNY prof and fellow-UUP member Jen Drake, and union sisters from the Steelworkers, New York City transportation union, UAW, retail workers, professional makeup artists, and international telecom and health care workers. Nothing brought home how similar and how intertwined our situations are like that four days in Ithaca. We all want the same things: decent-paying, secure jobs; dignity; respect for our professionalism. I’m still in touch with many of my union sisters from the school, and we support each other’s work. But Anne Wiegard was probably the most crucial person I met there.

That became evident a few months later, when TL talked me into presenting a paper with her and Seth at SEIU’s Fifth Annual Coalition of Academic Labor Conference in Washington, DC. There, I  met some of my Facebook co-conspirators in the flesh, saw Anne again, and was introduced to Maria Maisto. Maria’s first words to me were, “Lee! We need to get you on NFM’s board!” That took a couple more years, but it did happen, finally, and that’s been a great opportunity to have a bigger forum in which to advocate for adjuncts in the context of larger social justice issues. Working with the folks at NFM has been a delight, a privilege, and an education.

3. Caprice

Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.

The capstone on all of this new activity and these new relationships was Caprice Lawless’ article “Teaching Poverty at the Community College,” published on the FRCC AAUP Founder’s blog in June of 2013. It went off like a bomb in my head. Everything that I had been thinking at CNR about my students and the growing similarity of our economic situations, and situations of the working class and immigrant students I was teaching at CUNY, SUNY, and NJCU seemed to coalesce in that article. When I read this —

“Each time we enter a classroom, we show them how to make do with used clothing, sack       lunches and reconditioned electronics. When we go to work sick (and we all do, as we have no health insurance or sick leave), we show them how to get through a work day by keeping the decongestant and a box tissues handy. …They see that this is what is in store for them, as well, once they get their college degrees. They are watching professionals who are deeply in debt for their own degrees work even while ill, and for peanuts…. We model for them not to expect too much, once you graduate, from anyone in leadership, for leadership is in a class of its own making and is self-serving.”

it-pays-to-stay-in-school— it’s not too dramatic to say that the words changed me, radically, in an instant. For years, I had been teaching my students the Bruce Cockburn line, “The trouble with normal is it only gets worse,” to make them think about how their “normal” might be different from my “normal” simply because of history or political circumstance. Reading Caprice’s article, I realized that my own “normal” had become something much worse than what I both expected and knew I deserved. By not talking about the conditions I was teaching in, and what my own experience as a college student had been like, I was perpetuating the New Normal that was anything but. My cluelessness blown away in that instant, I got really angry instead.

That was the moment when I stopped being silent in class, when I began introducing myself as an adjunct from the very first day, on my syllabus, and talking about what that meant to the students in my class. I lost patience with my FTT colleagues in the union who clearly were not interested in making working conditions better for us. I allied myself with Niloofar and Debra more firmly, speaking up in meetings even when the truth was uncomfortable for all of us. I may never match their level of in-person fearlessness, but I’m trying.

And I have other ways. The Black Ops Squad is a tremendous generator of ideas. One of the ideas they generated in my head was a petition to the then-new head of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, Dr. David Weil of Boston University, who has written extensively on changes in the workplace. With the group’s help, we got more than 11,000 signatures before it was delivered to the DOL by Maria under NFM’s auspices.
The other idea was an anthology of our voices, telling our own stories, like Studs Terkel’s Working. Thus was born Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat. (I’m still taking submissions, in case you’re interested.)

As a writer and a teacher of writing, I’ve always believed that words are the most powerful weapons and tools we have, whether used in fiction, propaganda, persuasive argument, or factual reporting. Well-chosen and well-employed, they can break us open, transform us, and more important, transform society. My new favorite words are “Adjunct working conditions are student learning conditions,” “union,” and “strike,” followed closely by “Burn It Down.” But I wouldn’t have learned them without the many allies and comrades I found along the way. Thanks to all of you. Solidarity!

*All italicized quotes from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

(Editors note: Please be sure to submit to Teaching Poor: Voices of the Academic Precariat!)

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