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My video “Education and Value,” addressed to fellow adjunct instructors:
I’m a “career” non-tenure-track university instructor and have spent a decade teaching classes in my field (Norse mythology etc.), they are often some of the biggest classes on campus. I teach for short-term contracts at various schools (UCLA 2011-14, Berkeley 2015-17, Colorado 2017-20). People like me do the vast majority of college teaching, and there’s no sign this will change. So why don’t we think outside the box more?
University faculty at all levels suffer from a victim mentality; go to any faculty meeting and take a shot when an Associate Professor isn’t whining about the perks the science faculty get or the burden of having to teach some small class; you’ll leave sober and tired. But for as much as left-wing faculty often glory in disrupting paradigms and getting people to question “the system,” they question their own system surprisingly little. Traditional universities are highly, even fanatically, stratified societies, more akin to the medieval Church than anything else. At least in humanities fields, very few sit on top, teaching very little, and reap the tuition-dollar rewards of the massive amounts of teaching done by their adjuncts and grad students. But if experts want to reach people with our knowledge, and make a difference in our communities and the wider community of humankind, why do we have to work within this system?
Three and a half years ago, teaching at Berkeley and spending three-quarters(!) of my meager salary on rent, I asked myself this question, and another more specific one: “Vikings and Norse mythology are the most popular thing in the world right now. Why am I rationing my ramen noodles?” So was born my effort to cut out the middleman and reach the interested public directly. While my subject truly is one of the most popular things in the world right now, no one in my field is talking to the public about it because of both the strong ossified resistance to being a “popularizer” in most academic fields (Carl Sagan was considered a pariah by much of the scientific community in his lifetime) and the (true enough) sense that such work gets in the way of producing the studiedly illegible articles that actually get you promoted in academia (but not if you’re already in the adjunct caste, which few people can ever escape once they’re in it). Because the experts are staying away from the very place where the public is looking for answers, the Internet, the public is getting answers from gurus with agendas instead. In the field of Norse mythology, which is still very popular with white supremacists, those gurus are often sinister Hitler-admirers who only further deepen the suspicion many experts have of talking about Norse mythology to the public (“Ugh, only Nazis do that.”–Yes, if we don’t.).
Three and a half years later, my online video channel about my subject is my main source of income, through donations, no less, paying more of my bills than the university does. And at the end of this spring semester, I will be leaving my teaching position at the university to focus exclusively on this kind of direct education that bypasses the need for people to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to a byzantine administrative structure for access to my lectures.
I don’t pretend that Norse mythology is all that “important” per se, but if I can come pretty close to making a living from talking about this online, I think other experts in fields of all kinds can do the same. If adjuncts writ large can realize that university jobs are the path to bondage rather than freedom and that the public is intelligent and wants to learn what we have to teach (but doesn’t want to get as indebted as we got in order to learn it), I think that we can slowly remake the way people think about education, certainly about non-vocational education. And I think we can return, slowly, to a society where educators and their students respect each other.
Learning is about a lot more than paying tuition and getting a transcript. I may not succeed in my particular mission, but I’m happy to take care of the learning and leave the billing and transcripts to the universities, and I’m trying to convince other well-qualified and under-employed experts to do the same.Published in