Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Professor, help thyself.

In Chapter 1 of SHAM, I point out that "self-help," as a concept, was not always the formless, touchy-feely babble-fest it is today. It has a rich, centuries-old tradition of usage, in the realms of law and mental health in particular, to describe actions that people or institutions could take on their own without turning to professionals for guidance or formal approval. Note the emphasis on actions: We're talking here about undertaking a specific remedy, not just thinking or talking about the problem in general terms. The example I use in the book is the bank's right to simply show up in your driveway and repossess your car without going to court. A lot of consumers don't realize that this so-called "self-help clause" is buried in the contract language of most of today's auto loans; consumers mistakenly think that if they don't pay on time, the bank must nonetheless go before a judge to prove they haven't paid, then get a court order that officially permits it to hire a marshal or some other badge-wearing functionary to retrieve the car. Uh-uh. If he wants, Mr. BankAmerica (or, perhaps, those marauding Capital One huns) can come to your house personally and ask for your keys...or just take the car right off the street in front of your house, if that's where the bank finds it. Once you sign the contract with that self-help clause in it, the burden of proof shifts to you to go to court, later, and document that you did indeed pay on time.

In any case, today's post concerns a magazine that, on its surface, strikes me as much more true to such origins than most self-help fare. Adjunct Advocate, rather quietly published since 1992 by P.D. Lesko, chronicles and seeks to combat the travails and indignities of adjunct-faculty life. Having been an adjunct professor (of English/writing, as was Lesko, who is a Ms.), I can tell you that she frames things well. To adjunct is to undertake a low-paying life of virtual campus anonymity where the contributions you've made out in the "real world"* are considered largely irrelevant**, if not vaguely suspect (because, after all, college is a place where you're supposed to ponder life's timeless mysteries, not actually put your developing cognitive skills to practical use.... Come to think of it, college can be a lot like today's self-help). I found this pseudo-intellectual reverse snobbery to be especially severe in writing disciplines, where the professors who prided themselves on their pondering, and hoped to inculcate that same outlook in students, were eternally scornful of those of us who not only--perish the thought!--made money from writing, but even regarded writing as a trade, rather than a divine calling. Further, God help you if the money you made was from articles that appeared in popular consumer magazines like Sports Illustrated or, horror of all possible horrors, Playboy. I've written for both, of course, as well as many others with (dread) "mainstream appeal."

But enough of Steve's Ongoing Pique. I mention all this because it's my sense that a lot of SHAMblog regulars have roots leading back to college or writing or both. And I know for a fact that we have some part-time faculty members among the faithful. You might consider checking out Lesko's website, which is a fairly ambitious endeavor. From what I can see, along with a certain amount of "emotional support," she provides specific tactics for getting what you need from the institution that once thought you were worth hiring....

* this is a link to a pdf of an article in The Writer , "10 things college writing classes don't teach you about the real world." I recommend it. Which stands to reason, since I wrote it.
** even though, ironically, they're the very credentials that motivated the college to bring you onboard in the first place.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm new to your blog and work, and I like what I've read. Please check the link you posted to "10 things college writing classes don't teach you about the real world", it takes one to the Adobe site to download Adobe reader, and not to your document. Thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm new to your blog and work, and I like what I've read. Please check the link you posted to "10 things college writing classes don't teach you about the real world", it takes one to the Adobe site to download Adobe reader, and not to your document. Thanks!!

Steve Salerno said...

The link to "pdf" in the footnote is indeed intended to link you to Adobe's site, in the event you don't yet have Reader (which would be necessary in order for you to read the piece itself, which is actually linked up in the text of the post itself--the words "real world"). But you're right, Anonymous; I should've been more clear. Glad to have you aboard!

Micki McGee said...

Hey Steve,

You and I have so many experiences and concerns in common! While we often come to these concerns from different directions, we sometimes arrive at almost the same place.

Check out the article I wrote in 2002 about how adjunct faculty are treated and the language of self-help culture. You can find "Hooked on Higher Education and Other Tales from Adjunct Faculty Organizing" at

http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/social_text/toc/soc20.1.html

I'd be curious to know what you think about the rise of unions to try to protect adjunct faculty. Seems that unions are, like the legal system, a way of having a social organization or structure that keeps you from having to fall back on self-help solutions (like the ones that you described that would leave you carless with a repoman in your driveway.)

Would be thrilled to hear your thinking on this.

m.