My Last Day as a Professor

Prof. Lilith Mahmud and me with the dynamic and brilliant Gender and Sexuality Studies class of 2014! They gifted me my very own stole since I will be leaving campus along with them.

Today is my last day of teaching as a professor. As an adjunct professor to be more specific. In my classes, we talk a lot about invisibility and its effects. Within the university system today, adjunct faculty are made invisible, thereby further reinforcing their marginalization even as their labor becomes increasingly critical to the daily activity of teaching students. Some of us are invisible in hospitals, choosing to suffer in pain because we cannot afford to see the doctor; some of us are the invisible homeless, living in our cars because we cannot afford any other shelter; some of us are invisible on campus because we don’t have an office in which to meet students; some of us are invisible on the schedule because we don’t find out if and what we are teaching until two weeks before classes begin; some of us are invisible at conferences and in the pages of scholarly journals because we cannot afford to pay out of pocket to fund our own professional development. Contingency is always already the logic by which our labor is deciphered by the university: we are presumed provisional and denied those resources and opportunities which would allow us to be anything but. However, there is one space in which we are not invisible – the classroom.

There are many voices challenging the structural inequities of adjunct instructors (now around 75% of college faculty in the U.S.), and doing a much better job than I ever could. What I want to do is to challenge the university’s devaluation of the work of teaching. When the department in which I’ve taught the past five years hired two new tenure-track faculty, the administration would not accept a case for my continued employment. The university was telling me that despite its emphasis on enrollment numbers and peer and student evaluations, my work ultimately had no value. It was a feeling that I initially internalized, spending nights chastising myself for going to graduate school, for electing to carve out full time work at multiple campuses so I could be a part of my young children’s lives, for continuing to be complicit in my own exploitation for so many years.

In one of my nightly bouts, I remembered an evening, nearly four years ago now, when a concerned and beloved mentor warned me that adjunct teaching would never amount to a career. She suggested that I eschew teaching to focus exclusively on (unpaid) research as a strategy for eventually landing a tenure-track job making myself more attractive on the job market. Thinking back on that moment, I realized that while she was exactly right and despite the perhaps inevitable outcome, I was proud that I had chosen to earn the (little) income that I did working with students on a daily basis. When I look back on these past five years, I see that I have been transformed by the interactions I have had with the incredible people with whom I have shared the space of a classroom. Indeed the transformative potential of the classroom goes far beyond its physical borders, and – in its best iterations – affects the totality of one’s relation to the world.

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I <3 whiteboards.

In its ideal form teaching is more than mundane components like key terms, exam writing, fielding emails, and grading. I have sought to approach each class session as a potential – a time and space in which we construct together an assemblage of ideas, methods, and possibilities that none of us could have predicted beforehand, and that will change each of us in ways that often are only evident long after the material components of the assemblage have come apart again. All the components an instructor brings to class – the course goals, the readings, the concepts, even the prompts – are living entities that can shift and change directions in the encounter with students’ engagement with class materials, with one another, and with the instructor. Indeed, it is through the generosity of my students, more so than any training in graduate school, that I learned how to teach.

My very first upper division Women’s Studies course was on a topic with which I had only tangential familiarity. I approached the course with trepidation but found in my class a group of young people whose commitment to a dialectical relationship between theory and activism helped me understand more fully the stakes of what we were learning. Their attention to the lived realities of the marginalized and abjected, their willingness to share their own scholarly and material transitions, and their generosity with a new professor, shaped the way I understood and practiced both learning and pedagogy.

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Some of our incredible students, after giving their final research presentations before graduating in June 2013.

Of course, not every class has the magic. There were students whom I just couldn’t reach, classes that weren’t as memorable, moments in which I lost my energy. But when engaged students came together with the right materials and the right questions, a tangible connection formed among the members of the class and it was profound. One such class was “The Politics of Style” in Spring 2012. I had been wanting to teach this class since I saw it on the books six years before, and when I finally got the chance I poured myself into its preparation. For all my planning, however, it was the students who brought a visceral excitement and energy to the class, using the topic of style to interrogate and intervene in the social positioning of bodies, globalized circuits of desire, the fraught relationship between consumption and production, and their own lived realities as subjects navigating their way through a minefield of privilege and oppression. The students so touched one another that when one of them, Christien, left us the following year, many of the classmates who had only known him through our class came back to Irvine for his memorial.

In fact, it was Christien who shared with me the essay that would come to express how I attempt to teach and live, in a chance encounter at the lunch tables one sunny afternoon. Christien, as was his way, was thrilled with what he was reading in one of his classes, and so excitedly shared it with me. The essay was Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic.” In it, Lorde argues that since modernity, power as domination has come to replace other, older forms of relational power, which become feminized and devalued as the pornographic. We have been taught to misrecognize the ineffable, nonrational power to touch and be touched and to be affected by others (human and nonhuman), as not only a weakness, but as nothing more than “the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation” of pornographic sexuality. Lorde reconceptualizes the erotic as a radical opening out of oneself to the world, a making vulnerable of the self in order to feel more strongly and to touch more deeply. The erotic is radical in its power to transform through a relationality that cannot be captured by dominant logics of sex and labor. She writes:

The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society is to encourage excellence…

This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.

For me, this endeavor is teaching. Practicing openness and making oneself radically vulnerable is not only scary, it is the opposite of what we are taught to do within the logic of the contemporary university (and society more generally). Our marginalization, meager pay and lack of job security, along with the attacks on professors by students and the administration’s refusal to back up even tenured professors, all contribute to a culture of paranoia and enmity (among administration and faculty, among tenure-track faculty and adjuncts, among professors and students). Even when we manage to maintain our commitment to our students (and we do), the university seeks to capture this affective relationship and use it to further exploit us when we ask for fair wages or better conditions with the reprimand that “we are doing this for the students and not the money.”  Just as the practitioners of modernity gutted the erotic and sold us the pornographic, administrators attempt to gut the material and affective conditions of teaching and sell us “passion.”

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The students teaching us.

And yet, despite all of the university’s attempts to devalue the actual teaching and learning that happens in classrooms, students and teachers find that their work together over the course of a mere ten weeks has the potential to be utterly transformative. I am grateful that my very last class was a course on “queer history making” in which we learned to refuse the imperative of progress that demands from us our labor and then judges it against an abstract criteria of “success” and “value” that benefits capital but does not nurture us in return. I realize that after seven years of graduate school and five years of teaching I may have failed according to the paradigm of academic success. But I will look back on the past five years and focus on the hundreds of students and the brilliant graduate student teaching associates who have shaped my intellectual interests, my pedagogical methods, and the way I understand the world and whose own thinking and choices have been shaped by our work together.  I have no idea what is next. But I do know that the work I did with them these past five years matters and in that I am going to rest, even if just for this moment.

I am honored to have worked with such dedicated teaching associates and students

I am honored to have worked with such dedicated teaching associates and students.

I'm honored to have worked with some of the most dedicated teaching associates and students. Saying goodbye this afternoon.

Saying goodbye this afternoon.

About priyajshah31

I'm Priya J. Shah, Ph.D. I teach courses on gender and sexuality, imperialism, globalization, and the politics of style. My aim is to use a feminist lens to think about teaching, parenting, politics, style, and culture.
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26 Responses to My Last Day as a Professor

  1. I loved this essay so much. I’ve been working as an adjunct for five years; you nail the institutional disaster adjuncting has become, and also the ways the joys of the classroom continuously manage to transcend that. Thank you.

  2. Karen says:

    As a tenured prof who occasionally teaches in women’s studies, all I can say is your situation sucks. You seem like a vibrant, energetic, demanding but well-loved faculty member. Your school was stupid to let you go. Here’s to hoping that either another school realizes that you’re a dynamite teacher and picks you up, or that you find an alt-ac career that gives you all the credit and support that you deserve.

  3. Thank you for writing this. As a longtime adjunct, this hits very close to home. Both the frustration of feeling exploited and the satisfaction of teaching and learning from my students.

  4. Peta Nguyen says:

    Amazingly poignant. About to become an adjunct in the upcoming Fall and your essay really unveils the dichotomy of professorship within the ‘system”.

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Peta, all the very best to you as you start your journey. Just remember that we are all behind you, and that you can fight for yourself and your students even if the system seems to disallow your agency.

  5. Gustavo Garcia says:

    This is beautiful !!
    I have been impacted by adjunct professors the most and they have challenged me and have developed my critical consciousness. Im sure you will be remembered by all of your students because I know the professors I remember the most and Its professors like yourself.

    Stay strong, stay safe and I know your path will be guided by the light!
    in solidarity,
    Goose

  6. Quijote libre says:

    Thank you so much for writing this essay. You wrote exactly how I feel. We are invisible as part timers.

  7. Mike Gallegos says:

    Thank you for a refreshing perspective on personal transformation!

    Be well, Mike

  8. This is what I posted along with sharing this great piece:

    The situation for adjuncts is very hard. But this where the chair of the department has to be more assertive. Adjuncts like Dr. Shah are the ones you want to keep around and give more classes to. And since most adjunct contracts do NOT require student engagement–when you find those who are willing to work with students because they want to….those are the adjuncts you want filling your ranks.

    The CSUF Chicana/o Studies model of adjunct hiring is if we can’t hire you to teach 3-4 classes we aren’t doing you any favors having you teach one class. We have fewer adjuncts but the ones we have are for the most part committed to students. I have only one true freeway flyer and he is the least engaged with the students. Hence my preference to give opportunity to those who are willing to commit to CSUF and our GREAT students.

    I also don’t hire practitioners or non-academics. I need folks who assign readings and writing based assignments—and not scantrons. This means I don’t hire people who think teaching is about “stand up comedy”….

    Dr. Shah—smart chairs and deans should snap you up or figure out how to keep you on permanently.

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Dear Alexandro, thank you so much for your words of support. I am thrilled that you have instituted such an equitable labor policy in the Department of Chican@ Studies and hope that it spreads throughout CSUF (where I also taught) and beyond. Thank you for being not just an ally, but someone who is taking concrete action to make change!

  9. This is brilliant, and also opens up a real question. Speaking as an adjunct for half of my teaching life, I ask it: Can we fight this and win? I think we can. If the administrators destroy tenure altogether, or simply If hiring so few tenured professors to teach so many impoverished students finally collapses, they’ve picked a war with every adjunct in the business, and they will lose eventually. We need to preserve and generate our work, our voices, the beautiful voices of our students, and begin a new movement of parents, unions, teachers, writers, and students together. Chicago points some of the way. Adjuncts in post-secondary ed are becoming a fully recognizable voice. And despite the awful hardship, the heartbreak of this, we can win. We have to keep finding the shit jobs, keep joining the ranks, even when it seems suicidal to do so, because the numbers, finally, will win. Along lines of race, class, gender equality, anti militarism, every other negative force imaginable, we can win. I know how hard this is: I’ve been there. But everyone in this position now is a hero. It should be understood. We simply need to persevere.

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Yes! You are absolutely correct, and I am buoyed by your conviction that the status quo cannot be maintained. I have so much gratitude to all of those who have put their voices out there to expose not just want is happening in higher education right now, but how it is related to the casualization of labor across the spectrum.

  10. anamfores says:

    I am sorry you are leaving. The university loses a great professor; students lose a wonderful mentor and teacher. But do not think that because you do not step through those Ivory Walls, you will stop teaching. As someone born to teach, your job will never cease. And you will do it naturally, instinctively, with grace, as you do your writing.

    I remember quite some time ago “meeting” you in these celluloid walls, conversing through the blogosphere about teaching, contingency, and life. I am saddened by your decision, but I understand it, and I know you will keep on fighting from the outside, as I am. Lovers of knowledge never cease to fight for what they believe in.

    Best of luck to you, always!

    In sol(idarity),

    Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice
    Petition: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts
    Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/AdjunctJustice

    • priyajshah31 says:

      Dear Ana, thank you so much for your wise words. I have always respected and admired your conviction. I will never stop fighting the good fight alongside you!

  11. Pingback: CASA weekly news 14/14 | CASA

  12. Gwen says:

    Amen, sister! I’ve also lived life as an adjunct. You are right on. Gwen Neary (Janet’s mom)

  13. Paula Maggio says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. It conveys your feelings as well as your ideas so well, making it the perfect blend of theory and praxis. And the analysis of Lorde’s argument is icing on the cake.

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