Remember that racist vandalism at EMU? It’s Complicated

About this time last year, I posted here and here about what came to be called the “racist vandalism incidents,” which involved some spray-painting on the side of a building on campus (and some other writings in different places) the “N-word” and such. Well, now the police think they have their vandal, and it turns out to be an African-American man. He’s Eddie Curlin, he’s 29, he was a student at EMU from 2014 to 2016, and he’s currently in jail for something else. Here’s a link to the mLive article, though the Washington Post had probably a better article here.

Needless to say, this revelation complicates things.

As I wrote on Facebook, I guess it’s a good thing that the perpetrator isn’t a bent on violence and devoted white supremacist/hate group type of guy. Though when I think about it for a moment and consider some of the other racist incidents and such that have cropped up on college campuses around the country, crude graffiti hasn’t really been their M.O. It seems more common to see some variety of racist flyers or cards on campuses (we’ve had some of that at EMU and at U of M)– though I wouldn’t want to ignore the Richard Spenser-led/inspired gatherings/riots at UVa and the University of Florida recently. Scribbling “Go Home N-word!” on a wall or whatever seems more the actions of a a drunk frat boy or, in this case, some vandal seeking attention.

But as I also wrote on Facebook, I think it’s more complicated than what EMU police chief Robert Heighes said at the press conference for this. To quote:

“As far as motivation for this, it was totally self-serving,” Heighes said during a press conference Monday. “It was not driven by politics, it was not driven by race. It was an individual item done by one individual for all three of the major graffiti incidents on our campus.”

When asked what factors may have led to the acts of vandalism, Heighes said that information would come out eventually. He believes Curlin was the only perpetrator of the vandalism incidents.

“That will come out at the trial,” he said.

I don’t know Curlin’s motivations, obviously. Maybe he did this because of some deep-seated self-hatred; maybe he has the same sort of compulsions/mental illness that motivates arsonists; or maybe it’s some combination of all of the above (or, least we not presume guilt, maybe he didn’t do it).

But even if we don’t know Curlin’s motivations– even if Curlin didn’t know his motivations– Heighes is wrong that this was not about politics and race. And I don’t mean that in an academic way, as in “all language is about politics and race.” Curlin (or whoever) scrawled “Go Home N-word!” in a public space to provoke a reaction that is obviously rooted in politics and race. Curlin didn’t spray-paint “EMU sucks!” or “U of M sucks!” or “Eddie is great!” or anything else like that because he knew that no one would have cared. He picked his words carefully (well, carefully enough) to know his words and actions would get a reaction. He might not have anticipated the extent to which the EMU community reacted or the level of news coverage these incidents ended up receiving, but he knew it’d get noticed.

Worse yet is that the idea this graffiti was a “hoax” has blossomed all over the place– in the comments of the news stories I link to here, but also in predictably conservative to alt-right sorts of web sites (which I won’t be linking to here). The gist of these articles is “Here’s another example of racism that turns out to be fake news– what are these people complaining about?” As if we can all stop worrying about racism because all of these kinds of incidents have been hoaxes.

And let’s also not forget that the actual racist graffiti incidents were just the beginning of the disruptions on campus. Most notably, the EMU administration went way too far to punish students (notably black students) for protesting these racists incidents on campus. Here’s a post/video about this from early January 2017. So again, the impact and motivation of this graffiti wasn’t just self-serving, wasn’t devoid of politics and racism. It’s a lot more complicated, which might make getting past this incident all that much more difficult.

Potter is not wrong, it’s just…

Clair “Tenured Radical” Potter seems to have struck quite the nerve with her Inside Higher Ed column “Angry About Adjuncting? The radical move might be to quit.”  The gist of the column is basically in the title: adjuncts who are angry and bitter about their working conditions ought to quit and seek employment outside academia. Lots of comments on the column and social media I saw more or less echoed the sentiment of “The Dude” in this exchange with Walter: Potter is not wrong, she’s just an asshole.

Actually, no— I don’t think Potter was being an asshole. I think she was trying very hard in her column to be kind with her mostly sound advice. It’s just not exactly the kind of advice adjuncts want to hear, especially if one is an adjunct and feeling trapped, depressed, desperate, on the edge of financial ruin, living in their car, contemplating sex work, etc. 

Seth “Here Comes Trouble” Kahn had a good blog post about this, where he points out the problems of Potter’s “just leave” advice (though I don’t think that’s exactly what she’s saying). He’s right– it’s not just that easy to give up sometimes because of personal and emotional investments, not to mention because a lot of adjuncts are “stuck” geographically or for family reasons or what not, plus a lot of adjuncts are “golden handcuffed” to the work in that it’s just barely enough money to get by and they don’t want to risk losing that. Though I think Seth kind of agrees with Potter too.

I’ve blogged about adjunct work and the job market frequently over the years because it has been a concern/topic in the academic media since I started caring about academic career things almost 30 years ago. I used to read the excellent Invisible Adjunct blog regularly. She (it was an anonymous blog) left academia and closed down her blog in 2004, and I do wonder once in a while how things turned out for her. I hope well. My point is none of this is new and there was never a golden age for being an adjunct, either real or imagined.

So while I realize that Potter’s advice might make her sound like she’s being an asshole, she’s still mostly right. I guess though I would add three other thoughts, all of which I’ve written about many times before:

  • Being an adjunct should be a temporary thing. Unless you can afford to work part-time because of life circumstances, being an adjunct should be a “transition” to a career and not a career in itself. Of course, this is advice to heed at the start of one’s adjuncting career, not after being in it for 10 or 20 years.
  • Don’t quit your day-job; make a gradual transition. I was an adjunct between my MFA and PhD studies, but I taught at night and had an office job during the day. This was really important for me professionally because I got a chance to see at least a taste of what a “real job” was like and also could (sort of) pay the bills and had insurance and such. But I think this advice works the other way too for the full-time/part-timer: that is, while I think there is a certain purity in Potter’s advice of just quitting, it seems to me the more sensible thing for the adjunct trying to leave academia is to try to ease into non-academic work a bit more gradually.

I should add that I am not speaking from experience on this one because I’ve been a professor/had the same job for about 20 years. But I will say that entering my fifties and the state of affairs at EMU has made me at least contemplate briefly a different career. I guess if I was serious about leaving my job, I would start by researching career counseling services, or maybe even temporary employment services. That’s how I got a “real job” oh so many years ago.

  • Higher Ed generally (and composition and rhetoric specifically) needs to find ways of cutting our dependence/addiction to cheap teaching labor. I blogged about this here with my “Modest Proposal” about MOOCs; in brief, I think my field needs to stop requiring every single college student to take first year writing. For me, this is not an argument about the value of the course because I think it is valuable. But the universal requirement perpetuates the exploitation of part-time instructors. In other words, part of the solution is of course on the “supply side” of things, which is what Potter’s advice and the call for decreasing the number of PhD students in the humanities (especially in fields like literature) are trying to address. But Higher Ed and the profession also needs to address the demand side of the equation as well.