Monday, July 7, 2014

The Horrors of Social Hour

The worst part of meeting for worship is the part when it ends.   Someone on the other side of the room smiles and extends her hand to the person sitting next to her.  Everyone looks up and around stretching backs and legs and shoulders that may have cramped a bit in the long, quiet hour.  There is, in that moment, a sense of refreshed newness, like awakening from a deep, spiritual nap.  I like that bit.  What happens next is the miserable part.  Inevitably, like a slow motion nightmare, the person sitting nearest me who is not either my husband or one of my children turns to me with an outstretched hand and I have to shake it.  And then I have to arrange my face in a smile and say something appropriate.  Then, most unmercifully, someone else will want me to repeat this painful process.  This is the social part of meeting for worship and it is, for someone as painfully introverted as I am, an ordeal.

I have strategies to deal with this unpleasantness.  I make myself very busy with my children.  I find that by fussing over my children by brushing the hair out of their eyes or speaking to them with great concern or focused maternal interest, I'm able to avoid some of those handshakes.  I also become very busy with my pocketbook or other belongings.  Fussing over coats, hats, books, bags, and other things helps a great deal.  I think of this as my Kanga strategy.  By fussing over Roo and behaving in a slightly frazzled, benevolent, and maternal manner, people excuse my lack of social interest.

Of course, this method is less effective now that my children are much older and clearly no longer in need of my maternal attention.  I still fuss over my 6 foot 2 seventeen year old but eventually that just looks weird.  Clearly he doesn't need me to fix his hair, brush crumbs off his face, or hover over him.  He has known how to put his own coat and hat on himself for some time.  My kids' relentless maturity has necessitated the more frequent use of some of my other strategies.  One of my favorites is to become invisible.  When my more gregarious husband is making nice with the other people in the meeting, I dart through the crowd toward the door.  Avoiding eye contact, I attempt to look like I have something I need to do "over there".  I then find a way to move into a more empty room.  When that room begins to fill, I move to wherever people aren't and repeat this pattern until it is time to go.  I utilize the "Oh, I forgot something!" face and then go upstairs (and then downstairs and then upstairs again).  The point is to be on the stairs or in the hallway or just outside the door where people are not.

Sometimes people corner me and I have to talk to them.  On a good day, I manage to smile in all the right places and make the right social noises.  I remember to show great interest in them and to ask them about themselves in a non-threatening way.  Other times I mumble monosyllabic responses to their questions and look frantically toward my husband to help me.  When they turn toward him, I smile weakly and then pretend to fuss over one of my children or scurry off to a less populated part of the room where I marvel at how interesting the (fill in the blank) is.  Isn't this an interesting (window, book, pamphlet)?  I should look at it very closely and with focused concentration (at least until that clump of people threatening to notice me and maybe even speak to me moves to the other side of the room.)

Church suppers are especially awkward.  People get their food (how do they do that so easily?  I'm so afraid I'll make a humiliating mistake!) and then sit down together to eat and talk.  Eat and talk!  As if each of these activities was not perilous enough on its own!  I try to find a seat off to the side (and sometimes not with my more gregarious husband who is insensitively having cheerful conversations with people rather than helping to smuggle me out of the building.)  I occasionally get up as if I've forgotten something and go hover "Somewhere Else" and then come back into the main room to find my children and fuss over them briefly before again finding an excuse to leave the room again.  Fuss, hover, become fascinated by inanimate object, etc.  Don't make eye contact.  Stay close to the door.  Jet as soon as possible.  This is my meetinghouse survival plan.

It isn't that I dislike people or even that I'm afraid of them.  I'm not misanthropic (much) or shy (entirely).  It is just that I prefer to watch people than to interact with them.  If I could send out a beam of gentle concern to the whole meeting in a sort of non-verbal way that did not involve having to actually say anything or touch anybody, that would be great.  I'd love to be a Deeply Meaningful Spiritual Presence, but instead I'm just awkward and uncomfortable.  As hard as I try to become invisible or to shrink so small that no one notices me, inevitably, at the end of meeting for worship, someone will turn to me with an outstretched hand.

Perhaps you have met someone like me in your meeting.  Perhaps you have thought that person was unfriendly, socially impaired, cold, or distant.  Maybe you even thought they were an asshole.  Perhaps you've wondered about people like me.  Perhaps you've felt sorry for us or wondered why we bother coming to meeting at all.   Perhaps you are right.  I too have considered these very things.  Why am I so unfriendly?  Why do I bother coming at all?

 The answer is that despite my awkwardness and seeming aloof disinterest in other Friends, I keep showing up because in the silent waiting worship, I am capable of reaching out with the kind of concern and attention that I cannot show during the social hour.   Though I am uncomfortable navigating social spaces, in silent worship, I am a part of a community which allows me to feel that I can touch deeply and be deeply touched.  When you spoke in meeting, my heart was pounding in sympathy and appreciation.  I may have a tough time making eye contact with you, but when the silence deepened, I  was there with you in the stillness between breaths.  Hand shakes and hugs make me want to squirm right out of my skin, but in the midst of our silent worship, I am moved to tears by my sense of being gathered together in love.

Please accept the fussers-over-children, the corner dwellers, and the early-leavetakers.  Accept the monosyllabic responders and the frantic out-of-here darters as among the faithful Friends.  We may be awkward as hell, but we are no less committed.  Indeed, consider how in love we must be with the worship to be willing to so torture ourselves during coffee hour.   How I wish I could be a friendlier Friend!  Every Sunday when I scurry off to my corner to kick myself for not knowing just how the magic of casual conversation works, I wonder if I should forget the whole thing and just stay at home.  Perhaps, I worry, other Friends also wish I would quit.  Or perhaps they don't notice me at all.  (God knows I try not to be noticed!)  All I can say is this--and I do hope that in the end, it is enough:

I may duck away from you or look slightly panicked when you reach for my hand at the rise of meeting, but a moment ago, when no one was looking, my heart was full of love for you, and I was holding you in the Light.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Adjunct's Epistle

Dear Dr. XXXX,

Unfortunately, I was not able to pay the fee on the day I arrived at The XXXX Conference last week. As a low-income adjunct in the SUNY academic system, my experience of conferences is perhaps different than that of other academics. I include this explanation with my $55.00 registration fee not because I think it will make a difference, but because it seems to me that someone should say it and it might as well be me. There are a growing number of us who, despite our educations, our dedication, and our contributions are treated as second class citizens of the academic world. We work without tenure, without unions, and often without health insurance. We are paid less money to teach the same courses our full time peers teach. We often lack access to basics like computers, campus telephones, or office space to do our work and meet with our students. We have no job security and virtually no future in the academic field we passionately pursued as students. However much we love our work, our students, and our discipline, we are regarded as lesser than our tenured colleagues. In fact, we are the disposable workers of an exploitative system that relies on our poorly compensated labor.

 Because I am an adjunct a conference represents at best a worry and at worst a hardship rather than an opportunity. I teach four courses a semester and am therefore considered a part-time worker. I do not have health insurance through my work so I must rely on a subsidized health plan. It is not, I will tell you, a good health plan and therefore my health care costs are high. I literally had to consider cancelling healthcare appointments to afford to be a presenter in your conference.

 In order to come to your conference, I had to make sure I had child care and then I had to arrange for a ride to XXXX from XXXX. I had to cancel classes which I was loathe to do given the fact that without a union to protect me, I worry about any irregularities in my work schedule and usually work through illness lest I give anyone with power over me cause to complain. My family relies on my income and we could not afford to pay my student loans if I lost my job.

 The round trip to XXXX was almost seven hours long. I arrived immediately before my panel presentation and left at its conclusion. I could not afford to pay for a hotel room and therefore could not stay for the dinner. I could not, in fact, stay for any of the conference apart from my own presentation because of a lack of time and funds.

 So that’s my experience. It felt a good deal to me like I had to pay you for the privilege of researching and writing a panel presentation, cancelling my classes, and traveling for several hours to arrive on your sprawling campus where I spent the next half hour trying to figure out where I was supposed to be. (Signs would have been helpful.) I then had to turn right around and make the trip in reverse. I left the conference feeling very much like an adjunct. I felt ignored, discounted, unappreciated, and exploited.

 I write this not merely to vent feelings of frustration, but because I want my colleagues, whom I value and respect, to see me and to see adjuncts in general. We experience the academic world differently than our full-time colleagues do. We have much to offer, but our lack of resources and our growing numbers are a challenge to a functioning and cooperative scholarly community. Whether we are acknowledged or not, our challenges affect the entire academic community of educators and learners. I do not suspect that our working conditions are ignored by my full-time and tenured colleagues out of malice, but because it is easier to ignore such seemingly intractable problems than to address them. I do not expect a group planning a conference (and I know from experience what an exhausting and frustrating task that can be) to solve the adjunct issue. I just wanted to be a reminder that I am here, that we are here, in an academic system that is not the same as it was, not as good as it can be, and not as fair as it should be. I believe that whenever we can, those of us without privilege must appeal to those with it. I trust other historians and educators as allies and ask you to consider my words as you accept my money.

 Best wishes, etc.