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.
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.
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.”
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.