Prof. Powers rejects univ. exploitation

April 1, 2016

“I’m in an abusive relationship with my employer.” When Professor Jillian Powers (AMST) says something like this, it’s hard to believe that she enjoys teaching at Brandeis. Yet it’s true, and it’s why she is so disappointed to have to leave.

Powers came to Brandeis in 2013 as a postdoctoral fellow. After spending two years as a postdoc at University of Washington in St. Louis, the move to Brandeis seemed like the best decision at the time, says Powers. She even turned down a tenure track position at a different school, coming to Brandeis so that she could finish her manuscript as well as continue her interdisciplinary work in cultural studies and sociology, rather than have to choose one.

After her two years as a postdoc ended, Powers took a position for the 2015-2016 academic year as a lecturer and taught classes in the American Studies and Sociology departments.

Powers has truly loved the time she spent here, “because I felt things mattered,” she said in an email to her current students. “My work was in service to social justice projects, and I believed that my disciplinary focus . ..offered [students] the tools to innovate and envision new and more equitable futures.” Her one-year contract was not renewed.

Instead, the American Studies program will hire three adjunct professors, who will each teach one course per semester for roughly $6,700 each, according to Powers. “Instead of giving one scholar a decent living wage, benefits, career support, etc. Brandeis has decided to offer piecemeal employment and career instability to three people,” said Powers in her email.

Powers uses that word—piecemeal—frequently when talking about adjunct and lecturer positions. “Living in Boston … I could pull together some sort of salary running from BC to Brandeis to Emerson, etc. and I still would not be making enough money to pay my rent, and I still would not be able to have access to the things that I would need to advance my career.”

For Powers, this is just another in a long line of systemic exploitative mistreatment by the university. In the transition from working as a postdoc to a lecturer, Powers says there were clear differences in the way she and her scholarship were valued. Her research was no longer funded and she was excluded from from sociology department events such as panels and speaking opportunities.

“It’s a very isolating experience,” says Powers. “They are not there to support you.” While as a postdoc the university invested in her research, with a lectureship Powers is paid solely for the classes she teaches.

Additionally, this semester she was asked to act as the Undergraduate Advising Head (UAH) for the sociology department, despite the lack of inclusion in other aspects of the department. Powers was offered $1,000, which she knew was not on par with what tenure track professors receive. She also believes it is simply not enough for the amount of work the position requires, or the fact that as UAH she is trusted with sensitive information about students.

Appalled that her time was being so undervalued, Powers decided that she would track how much time she spent working as UAH. She started carrying a stopwatch around her neck everywhere she went. Every time she sent an email, met with a student or did any of the myriad responsibilities of the UAH, she started the stopwatch. Due to forgetting to stop the watch once, she has lost the exact time, but Powers estimates that she’s worked around 10-15 hours so far.

“It’s just another example of being asked to do too much for too little,” she says. “That’s the sign of an abusive relationship.”

Powers completed her undergraduate education at Dartmouth College and earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology at Duke University. Her current research focuses on ancestry and identity. Her upcoming book, “Traveling to Belong: Boundary Making and the Experience of Homeland Tourism,” is under contract with New York University Press, set to be released sometime next year. In her research for the book, she tracks Jewish Americans, African Americans and adopted Chinese children with their American families as they travel to Israel, Ghana and China respectively.

“I look at fundamental ideas of belonging,” Powers says. She enjoys the work immensely, but notes that “[her] scholarship requires a mastery now in three different areas.” It’s a lot of work, and Powers says that she’s struggled to write this semester due to how emotionally draining her employment situation has been.

Despite her dissatisfaction with the university, Powers is not giving up on her students any time soon, nor is she letting them give up on themselves. Powers is teaching just one class this semester, and in her email to the students explaining her situation, she said flat out that they should expect “no easy As.”

Powers thought it imperative that her students knew how the administration was treating her and other educators. And while the administration hasn’t been a resource for her, she is determined to remain a resource for her students.

“Moving forward, I’ll always be there for you, I’ll always be your advocate and I’ll always push you to be the very best you can be,” she wrote.

For the near future, Powers plans to take a step away from academia. She has taken a summer job at a consulting firm, and after that she plans to start doing more work “getting her hands dirty,” as well as writing more popular articles.

“I have this idea that if I get away from this gilded golden cage, then maybe my voice will come up.”

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