Academia’s Freedom is Also Its Dysfunction: Farren Stanley on Why She’s Leaving

farren stanley

You made a decision to leave adjuncting behind after this past semester. What motivated this decision?

In order to be able to live, I was teaching three classes (with three preps) and working a 25-35 hour-a-week job as a supplement. The result was something like 70-hour work weeks, and no weekends. I had 5 (FIVE) professional email accounts. It was grinding me down. Eventually, the money at my part-time job got very attractive, and then I began to notice things. For example: I have agency at the firm I work at now. If I see a problem, I can take it to my boss and it will be corrected. If I need something for the office, it’s provided. I get regular raises, bonuses, promotions. Every day the skills I need to employ are new and necessary.
In my experience, adjuncting occurs in a vacuum. There is little infrastructure for the students (where do I send my student who is ill/mentally disturbed/in need of tutoring?) or for the instructors (I have never once seen my evals, or been given professional development opportunities). There are no awards, no promotions, no raises. Nothing to strive for. There is no upward or even lateral movement available.The offer on the table for adjuncts is: keep teaching the same 3 combinations of classes for the same amount of money, for the rest of your life. Fast food workers have a better potential quality of life than do adjuncts/instructors. There are better offers out there.

I have a fine, agile mind and an excellent work ethic — I am a valuable contribution to the workforce, and I went to graduate school *just to be sure*. There is a tremendous amount of value in teaching. I felt very personally fulfilled by the interactive process of discovery, but mentoring and nurturing young people, encouraging them to think critically and read broadly. But not fulfilled enough to overlook the very obvious ways in which I was being exploited by the higher learning environment I purported to love.
In order demonstrate how much I am valued, my transition to full-time work at my current firm offers me great money, flexible hours, terrific benefits. I have my own office and can bring my dog in to work. I hike with my boss on my lunch break. Every hour I work is an hour for which I am paid. I now have evenings and weekends to myself, which means I am finally getting to the reading and writing I have desperately missed in pursuit of a living wage since I graduated.
You got an MFA at the University of Alabama. Tell me a little about your experience there and how you found work after the program.
I cannot say enough good things about the program at Alabama, truly. Not only did I receive a first-rate, longer than average (3 years plus an optional 4th) MFA experience in a loving supportive team-oriented environment — the attitude at Alabama toward publications, prizes and jobs is “when one of us wins, we all win!” — I also had opportunities to do absolutely anything I chose. In my years there, I taught comp, lit, and creative writing, I edited the Black Warrior Review, I published anthologies of Tuscaloosa lore in partnership with my favorite bar, I participated in group art shows, I taught high school students through the Alabama Scholastic Press Association, I hosted a reading series, I judged a statewide slam poetry contest. I also had the option to design my own curricula, assist the Department Chair (essentially an entry-level PR job), teach in the prisons — the opportunities were endless. There were more good course opportunities and more professional development options than I could possibly have taken advantage of, even in 4 entire years there.
After, I found work teaching immediately, but steady well-paid work took about 4 months of deep scouring to find. My resume actually made it to the top of my current boss’ stack because she is also a University of Alabama Alumna. The skills I acquired in my years running the Black Warrior Review have made me very successful in my work now.
 
In what ways do you think teaching during your MFA prepared you for working as contingent faculty? What have you discovered about that life that the program didn’t prepare you for?
I think that teaching during my MFA taught me how to teach. Which was valuable. I am not particularly good in front of groups of people — not a naturally effective presenter.  Teaching allowed me to cultivate that skill. I still use that skill in my non-teaching professional work. Adjuncting outside of the MFA was probably ultimately easier, as there were fewer hoops to jump through, but really it was just more of the same. There is comfort in familiarity.I don’t think that the MFA promised to prepare me for professional life–it promised me four years of writing, which I loved and treasure as one of the finest choices I have ever made for myself.
Perhaps the best thing I internalized about myself during that time — and excavated later — is that I am an excellent written and verbal communicator, with a fine agile mind, and those skills equip me for virtually any kind of work. I believe this absolutely.So maybe it’s fair to say the MFA promised to give me the space to prepare in whatever way I chose for whatever I wanted to prepare for. I’m not sure.
Do you still want to teach? What are some ways you can imagine constructing a career around writing and teaching that doesn’t involve the adjunct path? 
I do love teaching! Nothing feels better than coming off of a really kinetic, exciting class in which the conversation is rolling and ideas are flying around so fast I barely even need to prompt or guide with questions.Right now, the teaching life looks like two things: 1) adjuncting maybe a class a semester, a few nights a week — topics I want to teach (I am dying to teach a Feminism and Post-Apocalyptic Lit class, as well as a Identity in the American West class) on a schedule I can live with.Even if I were offered the dream, tenure-track salaried employment, I think I’d be reluctant to re-enter academia after years of sitting on its committees and working (trying to work) within its constraints. Academia’s freedom is also its total dysfunction: its lack of professionalism and accountability. I have very little patience for that kind of conduct in the workplace.
Could recent national efforts among contingent faculty to agitate for unionization, benefits, etc change your mind about working in academia down the road? Or is your decision to leave a permanent one? 
Perhaps — having more agency, more accountability to and from the University, a better and graduated rate of pay, benefits and job security would certainly remove many of the blocks I feel lurk between my basic human needs and the ability to be an effective educator. I wouldn’t say unionization would send me skipping back into the classroom, but it would put teaching back on the table as a viable option.

What would you like to happen next?

Mostly, I would like to see educators everywhere wake up to their worth, and the worth of the education they provide to students, and demand better treatment and pay. Demoralized educators are sloppy, heartless educators. I saw it every day, and it sucked. And that kind of education benefits no one — not the educators, the university, or (most importantly) the students. It’s not noble, starving so you can teach comp. It’s just selling yourself short. Educators, your knowledge is specialized and valuable — demand that your skill set be appropriately valued. Below-poverty wages for advanced-degree work is absolutely criminal, and perpetuating that system is staying in an abusive relationship.

I would also like to see writers (and all artists) open themselves to the idea that it is possible to nurture an artistic life outside of academia. Where — truth be told — ideas are currency, but currency is rather stale. Try to hone a new set of skills, learn a new trade in a new industry. There are plenty of employers  who will love, value and respect you as an artist, give you room to be that, AND pay you what you’re worth — which in turn gives you the time and resources to make more and better art.
*
Farren Stanley is a poet and nonfiction writer living, writing, reading, hiking, usually laughing and sometimes sleeping in the high desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico. When she is making a living, she works at an international brand strategy firm, where she helps household name companies to tell their greatest stories, and when she’s just living she spends a lot of time outdoors, under the big clean sky, and indoors with an assortment of finicky and beautiful orchids and a single finicky and beautiful french bulldog, Franny. 
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