Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable (VWER) Meeting Lead Me to Reflect On My Career, Life as an Adjunct

by Andrew Oleksiuk, Tiffany Mosienko

I got really depressed today. I was attending a meeting of Virtual Worlds Education Roundtable (VWER), which I had been looking forward to, since I hadn’t been to a meeting in several weeks. These are fun friendly folks who chat about educational topics in the Second Life virtual world. Unbeknownst to me, the topic was "evaluating and rewarding educators". As the chat started, I started really feeling quite cynical, then depressed. They were talking about what makes good teachers good, how they are assessed and what makes them tick. I had no idea this topic would affect me like it did. For the first half hour I said nothing. For the second half hour I finally got motivated enough to speak. I fought off saying, “I don’t mean to be completely cynical but…”, managed some polite comments, and finally logged off. Why did this topic depress me so? What was going through my mind? I knew my story would be too long to tell in the time allotted, so upon reflection I am pouring my heart out here. I have absolutely nothing against VWER - they are fine and friendly people. It seemed that this topic was a trigger for a large chunk of my career that is under review right now.

I have been teaching since 1997. I remember like it was yesterday, answering an ad in the Chicago Tribune for part-time instructor position at Columbia College Chicago, the institution from which I had received my BA in 1990. I had been collecting “paychecks” piecemeal previously, doing consulting work, self-employed Apple Mac technical support, during the business boom times that was the ‘90s. I started teaching with the philosophy “give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime” in transitioning from consulting and computer support work to teaching. I felt my customers’ frustration at having to pay someone to help them manage a small fleet of computers. Postmodernism and the weight of the Internet would soon crush and/or revolutionize many businesses. While I was somewhat successful at business, I got into teaching almost from an ethical standpoint. I also felt I wanted the collegiality of College life that I wasn’t finding in the small business world.

Teaching came fairly naturally to me, since I was simply sharing my expertise. I was teaching undergrads for a larger chunk of paycheck than I could nickel and dime a few customers. I was comfortable in this milieux, but it did feel odd for the first time being “on the other side” of the desk from the students. I was teaching practical skills - and like many new adjuncts had to scramble a little to teach the curriculum as the powers that be handed them down. Operating systems, word processing, graphics, spreadsheets, some basic data handling, and that new fangled this that everyone was talking about in 1997 - Internet. A semester or two later, I was teaching a couple Internet-specific classes at other area colleges. As other pieces - some PC computer history, some media theory (especially when it came to the internet) - came together for context, I began to investigate other aspects of computing as part of my professional career: internet and computer systems as social mediums, cyberculture, computer art, the computer industry, etc. Branching out in this way comes with the territory of adjunct faculty work - one can never get too comfortable. The computer industry is seldom static, there are all sorts of new developments beyond Moore’s law that keep the industry interesting.

In addition to teaching I kept up my tech support practice. Remarkably, I accepted a full time staff tech support position in the department in which I was teaching. I was helping other teachers teach, and I had more of a hardware and troubleshooting sensibility than folks who only taught software. The department was sort of a computer-cultural laboratory which I could not have assembled myself, with hardware software and peripherals and research colleagues. I taught classes, I took classes. I kept learning. I branched out into teaching some divergent branches of computing: hardware, media theory. Good times. Interesting times. I saw an entire new branch of knowledge created out of thin air: web development. I saw full and adjunct faculty come and go. I saw and participated in the curriculum being developed and revised over and over again: productivity applications, game studies, interactive art, 2D animation, motion capture, 3D modeling, media publishing, illustration and design. Our department merged with a similar one within the college. When I was a student in 1990 the college had one non-department or all its computer teaching needs. By the early 2000s the non-department had become a degree-granting academic department with not one but several new degrees. Other departments were demanding and getting computer labs of their own and every department had computing at its core. What had been doing for a decade had become ubiquitous not only to the College, but to business and the world at large. Computers became essential to job training in nearly all disciplines as the sea change of the Internet era fueled the computer moving into areas it had not already been in the 90s. I began to specialize. I became smitten with virtual worlds for personal, artistic and professional reasons. In the meantime, along with this professional success I had gotten married (in my early 30s), and bought a house.

The good folks at Virtual World Education Roundtable (VWER) challenged me to reflect on my career as an adjunct
By 2007 I had found myself having had been teaching college for a decade. I pitched a virtual world class (first fully self-realized class) and started teaching. But I did feel something gnawing at me literally and figuratively. Professionally, I was making more money (and benefits) with my full time staff position. I was still teaching as an adjunct. Adjuncts had a union and I benefitted from this. I did not have a masters degree. I knew I could not climb the academic ladder without one. I applied to several area masters programs and was accepted. Concurrently I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a crazy scary time. Luckily, remarkably, against all the odds, somehow my doctors told me I had the “good kind of cancer”, with my entire family in shock, they said I could be treated. And I was. Successfully. In a year, I was cancer-stricken, and then cancer-free. I hardly had time to blink. But I also took matters into my own hands. I quit the day-job. As I enrolled into the MFA program at UIC, I had student insurance. I would still teach part-time and complete my masters degree in fine art - new media art, to be specific.

I don’t think I ever recall wanting to teach earlier in my career, but my life events (and world events) led me to it. From my early introduction to computing, having lived in a relatively wealthy suburb of Chicago (my parents had been very young immigrants from Ukraine), to my interest in media and art, fueled by gaming, music and zine cultures to watching desktop video, Internet, and 3D graphics take hold of the popular imagination. I suppose teaching found me.

After grad school, i continued to teach part-time, because of my connections. As a matter of fact, I started teaching at the SAIC, a school with some cachet. I was bedazzled by some new possibilities in supercomputers, board-level electronics, writing critical theory and new media art history (oxymoron, no?. And I was teaching virtual worlds to college art students as a studio class.

But something else happened along the way. I got tired of teaching. I got tired by the endless haggling of academia. The technology industry, despite its excitement (and its own cachet within some circles) was dragging on me with its endless cycle of learning and relearning and updates. As a professional technologist, I had honed my skills to understand what knowledge I needed to maintain. As a professional educator (though never having had a full-time faculty position) I became wary after graduate school of the trap of the endless cycle of academia, publishing, etc. Newly trained as an artist (though one that was trained mainly in the technologies I had been pursuing for years not for example painting or drawing) I felt my art career was just beginning. Going to grad school as a 40-something, I was in a very different place career-wise with my 20-something classmates, who would be seeking their first jobs out of college. Due to personal reasons, too (I paid for grad school with cash - no school debt) I wasn’t particularly motivated to seek full time faculty work right away - I was not sure quite what to do, I floundered a bit, pursuing artistic interests, but not feeling the need to find great success right away. I felt I needed to move out of academia, and kept saying as semesters passed that this would be my last class teaching. Until finally I cut the cord - or so I thought.

I worked a series of relatively low paying jobs, thinking I would pull myself together, but the money was terrible. By 2010 the computer industry has consolidated and there was very little money to be made from tech support. In the 90s I had been charging clients $25/hour to solve solve their computer issues. Then, I had been making upwards of $50-$75 per contact hour teaching. Suddenly I found myself out of academia looking in, starting to think about scarce and competitive full-time academic positions, that were often not guaranteed beyond a year.

So this is why I got cynical and then very depressed at the VWER meeting, when they were talking about evaluating and assessing teachers. Here I was at the crossroads of my career (art, education, technology) having had a nearly 20 year career as an adjunct. Did I have much to show for it? I still have the spouse and house. I have my own art and tech legacy and a decent resume. But I am still hustling for work and absolutely no security. I’ve seen entire industries gobbled up by digital media. I’ve seen faculty become so jaded to the point of suicide. I’ve seen academic budget battles, layoffs, union busting. I have experienced both curriculum fatigue and technology fatigue.

I am an artist whose work is shaped by technology. I use technology as a tool, but I refuse to let my life be ruled by it, even while celebrating it. I am a natural born teacher, but I refuse to succumb to the vicissitude of academia. I've lived my life performatively as a cultural worker, teacher, technologist and artist. As I continue to struggle with career (adjunct or not), I look back and realize that I’ve been lucky. I am blessed. I have taught and I have been taught. That cycle will continue, apparently - forever.