BY CAPRICE LAWLESS
This weekend the Modern Language Association (MLA) is holding its annual conference in Philadelphia. If ever there were a time and place more apropos for teachers of rhetoric to gather, and for rhetoric’s “teachable moment,” it is post-election 2016, in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. What is remarkable for me about the conference is not so much who will be there, but who will not be.
Too few of us who teach rhetoric (and we number in the tens of thousands) will be in Philadelphia this weekend. Most of us who teach are obliged to work as adjunct faculty, and among those of us who teach rhetoric, few of us have the money to attend a professional conference, are assigned funding to attend an MLA conference, or encouraged to attend.
Professionals need precisely the kind of inspiration only a gathering of peers from across the country can engender. We need to recharge our batteries the way only professional-development opportunities such as the MLA conference can provide. We need to experience the size and vitality of our profession, and to be reminded that we are part of a calling that is critical to society. We need to make connections with other rhetoric teachers in other colleges to learn from them, share ideas, and strengthen our ties to one another.
However, as is the case with the majority in the professoriate, especially those of us in the community colleges, inspiration has been replaced with desperation, by the design of our governing boards and the administrative prerogatives they support. An inspired faculty who feel connected to a vital profession is their worst nightmare, as facts so prove.
Case in point: I have been teaching Freshman Composition, Advanced Composition, and the MLA Stylebook for more than a decade at Front Range Community College. Many of my colleagues, similarly devoted to our diverse and financially struggling student body, have taught seven years or more. Our requests that even the MLA journal or items from the 4Cs conference might be routed around the English department go unanswered. There are only a dozen or so full-time faculty in our English department, alongside 50 or so part-time faculty. Adjunct faculty do not earn enough money to attend an MLA conference. When we ask, we are told the college lacks the funds to send even the best among us to attend one.
However, my college system does pay $6,000/year for my college president’s annual membership to the American Association of Community Colleges, to name just a few of the professional development opportunities and associated costs that the college covers for administrators. Administrative professions are being developed, with that development paid for by taxpayers. The teaching profession is not.
Instead, the faculty majority of English teachers are invited, each semester, to learn a thing or two from biology teachers in our building about quick ways to grade box-checking tests, or from an accounting teacher down the hall some fine points about Excel. If my schedule has me working in the daytime one semester, I might take part in discussions led by well-meaning colleagues to chat informally about teaching, or participate in lunch-hour sessions colleagues in my department might run about rubrics or fast ways to line-edit an essay.
There is no way to measure what might have been, what has been lost, and how much the tens of thousands of students my peers and I have taught might have benefited from our participation in professional development conferences such as the MLA in Philadelphia this weekend. Our profession, and especially its development, seems inconsequential in Colorado. One of my adjunct peers has published seven volumes of poetry. Another has published scholarly articles in two languages. None of that work, which casts a brilliant light on our department and on our college, earned either of them a shot at a full-time position or paid attendance at an MLA conference. Accordingly, our college is losing some of its best teachers. None of this is a concern in the Colorado Community College System. In a memo Orwell could have penned, just last month our system president (who is paid more than $1,000/day) announced that most adjunct faculty (who are paid on average, $50/day) are happy with their jobs and that wages are not even our foremost concern. Her numbers (and never was the use of the personal pronoun more apt) come out of secret, adjunct task forces she populates with favored administrators under her supervision and with four or five hand-picked adjunct faculty none of us know, but whom, we are later told, “represent us.”
If we were paid wages above the poverty level or our work and valued by our college, we might not need to get our food from food banks, find subsidized housing, and register for indigent citizen health-care cards. If our work was valued more highly, we would be paid a living wage. We might be recognized as professionals whose skills would grow by attending gatherings such as the MLA annual conference. We might thus get a much-needed dose of inspiration. Instead, we head back to our classrooms this semester uninspired, disconnected, discouraged, and downtrodden, working inside new, multi-million-dollar building projects. Because we teach approximately 80% of all the courses Colorado’s Community College System offers, this appears to be the way our System prefers to present itself to our 140,000+ students; with lots of desperation and with no inspiration whatsoever.