Thursday, February 28, 2013

On Being Interviewed as a Road Scholar

Joseph Fruscione, image
…reflections from +Joseph Fruscione (GWU Writing Program). More media ~ higher ed, mainstream, national, local, print, radio, television ~ are interviewing not just the usual "leadership" or spokespersons but Payless running shoes on the ground adjunct and contingent faculty. The genre ("Interview with an adjunct"), its terrain and conventions, are new. Some but not all experiences have been positive. Let's learn or write them ourselves: own the genre and speak with our own voices. Be ready: you could be next. Joe Fruscione writes about his experience, offers good suggestions:

Sometimes, ditching MLA sessions and walking the book exhibit can lead to good things. In 2009, talking with an editor led to a book contract. In 2013, a conversation with Maria Maisto—whom I’d never met landed me in the middle of a news story about contingent university faculty, “road scholars” as the producer called us before my on-camera interview for PBS NewsHour.

Checking email after teaching my second class on the first day of spring semester classes, I saw “Interview for PBS?” on a subject line and, intrigued, jumped at the chance. After a few threads between Maria, the producer, and me, a phone interview was scheduled for the next day. Although never hesitant to accept the invitation,
I checked with my directors first as a professional courtesy. I’m very fortunate to teach in GW’s University Writing Program, particularly because my two directors (First-Year Writing and the entire Writing Program) have always treated contingents respectfully. They know I’m not the accusatory firebrand type, so they had no worries about my saying anything that would reflect poorly onto the Writing Program or me. I was further reassured by an email string from the Writing Program Director sent to a university office referring to me as calm, mature, and articulate. Finally, that I’m part of a union at GW was a welcome safety net, just in case.

The process began with a 30-minute phone interview. I’d planned out a few talking points
  •  Stress that the frustrations are macro-level;
  • Talk about the multi-campus teaching experience, even getting from place to place
  • Emphasize that other contingents are in worse situations

 …as well as a few don’ts
  •  Don’t sound accusatory or imply that all tenured faculty don’t work as hard
  • Don’t sound self-pitying
Maria reminded me to stress that the current job market crisis was much more than older faculty not retiring and preventing younger faculty from moving up the ranks, which was one of the first things I said in the interview. 

The on-camera experience started two days later. The crew filmed me teaching a 5-session continuing education classon Moby-Dick, that I do at a local bookstore because the producer wanted to capture the multi-platform teaching I have to do. It was a bit strange—in a good way—to be miked and zoomed-in on while running the class. 

About two weeks later, the producer and cameraman met me at GW, interviewed me in my office, and then took some b-reel footage of me walking to my car and driving. Now, I’m waiting for the email from the producer about when the story will air. Eagerly.

Since the beginning, the producer (Diane Lincoln) has been nothing but professional, courteous, and engaging, which makes me optimistic about the quality of the story. Her professionalism has also helped me be forthcoming about answering follow-up questions:

·       how much I make annually,
·       how many income streams I draw from,
·       what my schools’ tuitions are vs. average class size vs. pay per course.

I don’t always think about these, because dwelling on them might lead to more negativity and frustration—neither of which will benefit my students.

In both interviews, I stressed that a lot of my frustrations were—and still are—at the macro level of the changing university business model for faculty hiring. On a micro, day-to-day level, colleagues and department heads at both schools treat me very professionally. My struggles have been in a larger sense. My PhD is not now, nor has it ever been, stale, yet, at times, that feels like the perception of others—such as when I see job ads and/or search committees privileging new PhDs, or fellowships open only to full-time, tenure-line faculty.
Still an active scholar—with a book, book article, annual bibliographical essay among my recent publications—I haven’t done as much research as would have been possible with, say, a 2-2 load at a single school with the opportunity for paid leave. Teaching a de facto 4-4-1 load (2 courses per school/semester, plus a summer course), like many other contingents, I lose a lot of ‘me’ research time commuting and grading.

In a way, this experience has helped me reflect a lot more thoroughly on my own labor and its place in a community of contingents–road scholars. On a daily basis, I think more about how many student drafts are left to grade, or what assignment prompt needs tweaking, or how to keep up my personal-professional-pedagogical balancing act. Lately too, I’ve been thinking a lot more about others in the same position, as well as about how hard work has defined my academic life from the beginning. I excelled in college and graduate school with almost no scholarships or fellowships. Most funding I’ve gotten as a teacher-scholar has been out of my chairs’ generosity, instead of any university policy for contingents’ professional development. I’m honestly not sure how I’d adjust to a lighter teaching load, the chance for paid leave, and even a research or teaching assistant.  Of course, I’d figure it out if and when it happens.

I’m a little curious and a little excited about potentially getting a brighter light shone on to my work and experiences. I was even slightly disappointed not to be interviewed on-set for the story and would have welcomed the chance. (Maybe after the story airs?) The prospect of being part of a national news story has already helped me ‘meet’ (virtually) a lot of other contingent faculty in the same position, and our online forums have been fantastic for community building.

Variations on “When are you going to be on the news?” and “Is that story done yet?” keep coming my way. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping that the story goes well, that it starts a larger conversation about how universities (ab)use contingent faculty, and that it encourages other contingents–road scholars–to share their experiences—and go public with them if the opportunity presents itself. Right now, I’m ready for my close-up. 

Submitted by Joseph Fruscione,

George Washington University, University Writing Program
University of Maryland, Baltimore County, English

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