Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Downsized Darla from Dandy County.

For several weeks, we've been corresponding with Darla, a 5 year adjunct at a large community college. Because her situation has been quite contentious, and because she had been optimistic it might be worked out at some point, she had opted not to share it on RYS. But a recent development and her recent hiring of an employment rights attorney has encouraged her to share the following cautionary tale:

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My name is Darla, and since I was 8 years old I've wanted to be a professor. I excelled in high school, struggled a bit as an undergrad, but got my shit together for a decent State Uni masters and then a Ph.D. from one of the top 10 programs in my field in the country.

And then I waited. I took 2 VAPs and a postdoc in the first 3 years on the market. And then I waited.

When a community college in my parents' home town offered me a couple of classes 5 years ago, I took them. There are no benefits, and the money sucks, but I've had a great time. I now teach 4 classes a term, and although it's not guaranteed work, it does earn me enough ($28,800) to feel as though I'm not just draining my family's nest egg.

I still apply to jobs in my field, but it's been 2 years since I've even got an interview - yes, the humanities.

Anyway, at my college it is typical for us to get a preference sheet several months in advance of a coming semester. We look at the complete list of TBA sections and request ones we'd like. The various Deans work through this and assign us our sections. In the 5 years I've been here I've never gotten exactly what I wanted, but it's been steady work and I've been happy to have it.

When several weeks had passed after sending in the Spring 2010 preference sheet, I still hadn't gotten the normal, "Here are you sections" note. I called Dean Doris who I work with the most and asked if they'd been delayed.

"Uh, Darla? Oh, hi. Yes, well, let me see. I think, that's been turned over to Dean Daniel. You might want to call him." Then she paused. "And, I want to say that no matter how things turn out, I'm thankful for all you've done for us." And then she hung up.

For some reason I still can't fathom, her last line didn't hit me. In retrospect it should have set off warning "alarums," but I just dialed another number and asked for Dean Daniel instead. My only real contact with Daniel had come in a faculty forum where I'd been asked to be a part of a group presentation to students about graduate school. I had talked about my middling undergrad career and the culmination of graduating summa cum laude from one of the top colleges in the nation. I remember clearly after the panel Dean Daniel saying to me, "All that firepower, and you're right here with us. Isn't it strange how things work out?" It struck me as odd at the time, but I hadn't thought much about it since.

"Yes, DOCTOR Darla, I'm sorry to tell you that you've been downsized. That's certainly a common thing nowadays, even here at little Companionable Community College. We just don't have the demand to offer you any sections in the coming year or so. But we'll keep your name in our records. Thank you."

And that was it. I kept running things through my head. I felt as if in a fog. I woke up a bit when my mom reminded me about a recent front page newspaper article that reported record high enrollment at the college, especially among incoming freshmen who need exactly the sort of freshman intro courses I made a meal on.

How could I be downsized in a market that was growing?

I called the chair of my department, someone I know a bit, but truly not someone who I had much contact with. (In our college's culture, adjuncts deal directly with the deans.)

Chairman Chuck said, "Darla. Well, I did have a conversation with Dean Daniel. It seems that we simply didn't have the need this term."

"But what about record enrollment, surely those students need the classes I teach."

"Yes, that's right, I suppose, in theory. But let's say that the Dean decided to use some different options this semester."

So now it was a different answer than I began the day with. Chuck continued.

"Well, I think it might have something to do with your most recent student evaluations. There were some scores there that scared us, frankly. You understand we're just doing what we think is right for the college. Dean Daniel made the call, but I admit I went along with it. I'm sorry."

This was not what Dean Daniel had told me earlier, and against my better judgment I called him next.

"Oh, DOCTOR Darla, how can I help?"

"I just spoke with Chuck, and he tells me there's something in my recent evaluations that led to me being fired."

"Well, you haven't been fired. You've NOT been RE-hired, that's all. It's quite common. The English chair and I did have a conversation, but I'm really not at liberty to discuss what goes on in those reviews. I have to admit I'm surprised you're so interested in teaching here, what with your stellar credentials. Surely you must feel like you've been slumming here all these years. I'm sure you'll catch on somewhere else. And I haven't seen your evaluations. That's Dean Doris's job. Goodbye."

My recent evaluations? Had they come in? Had I even seen them? Did I get them and file them with the rest? I have a stack of them from the past 5 years and I dug them out. I often got dinged on grading fairness, a result - I always thought - of my tougher standards. But the most recent ones weren't there. I got on the phone to the departmental assistant. She said, "I just put them in your mailbox right now, after Dean Daniel brought them to me."

WTF? Daniel said he hadn't seen my evaluations, yet somehow today he had them just minutes ago?

I was at school in less than a half hour and I pulled the evals out of the envelope right by the boxes. I scanned the numericals and they looked okay; even my fairness number was at the department average.

Then I flipped them over.

Two different students wrote these comments: "If she thinks she's slumming here, she should try my neighborhood instead! :)" "If she wants to see a slum, she should try my room!"

I remembered the word "slum" then. I knew I had used it in class. My best friend from college had come to visit me 2 weeks before the end of the semester. She had studied in a much different - hotter - field and had gotten an amazing tenure-track job at an Ivy right out of grad school. She was a dynamo and had risen to the top of here field in the 5 years since we were sharing a dingy apartment in New York together.

I had said in class, "My buddy Amanda is coming to stay with me for a few days. She's going to be slumming it at my parents's house with me for a few days."

That was it. That was the text, subtext, and context.

Time passed. I talked to other adjuncts, even finding a website where other Dandy County non-re-hires had gathered to commiserate.

And then I got a lawyer.