Gayle Sulik interviews Mindy about her new book, Caring for Red: A Daughter’s Memoir (forthcoming, summer, 2016)

Gayle Sulik interviews Mindy about her new book, Caring for Red: A Daughter’s Memoir (forthcoming, summer, 2016)

In this interview, Gayle Sulik, Founder of the Breast Cancer Consortium and Co-Founder of Feminist Reflections, talks with Mindy about her new book, Caring for Red:  A Daughter’s Memoir (Vanderbilt University Press, forthcoming, Summer, 2016).

book cover_6.16GAYLE:  Mindy Fried, your new book Caring for Red tells a story of you and your sister taking care of your 97-old father in the last year of his life in an assisted living facility. Before we talk about your experience caring for your dad, Manny, tell me a little about him. Who was this colorful character? After all, he earned the nickname “Red.” Sounds fiery to me!

MINDY:  My father was a person with many lives. As a young man, he was a labor organizer for the United Electrical Workers union where he organized factory workers. That was when industrial labor was still predominantly based in the US, and not in third world countries where labor is cheaper. At some point, he joined the Communist Party. I’m not sure how active he was or for how long, but certainly at that time, being considered a “Communist” was tantamount to being a terrorist in our current political climate. In1954, when I was around 4 years old, he was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a very traumatic experience for him, and for my whole family. He was “blacklisted”, meaning that when he applied for jobs, he was turned away. Eventually, he was hired by a Canadian company where he sold life insurance for around 15 years. That’s the kind of work he did through much of my childhood. But he was also writing plays based on his experience as a labor organizer, and he returned to the theatre as an actor, something he had done years before. When I was a teenager in the 1960s, he was subpoenaed by HUAC again. That was tough, but times had changed quite a bit and the ramifications weren’t quite as dire as they were the first time around. He ended up going back to school when he was in his 50s. Really impressive, since he had only one year of college under his belt. He went straight from finishing an undergraduate degree to working on a Ph.D. in English. His final career was as an English professor at SUNY Buffalo State College. You might say that nothing kept this guy down. He was a great role model in that sense.

GAYLE:  How did your family survive the impact of the McCarthy period?

MINDY:  I grew up with two people who were angry with each other often, but it was quiet anger. That was hard. I was lucky to have a best friend who moved in down the street from me when I was 5 years old, and her family basically adopted me. She liked my house because it was quiet, and I liked hers because it was lively and warm and loving. She became my “non-bio” sister, as we say; we’re still close today. Her parents became surrogate parents, and I am ever-grateful for that. They were just very attentive; my parents were often distracted. It was great to have another family a few doors down the street. That was one way I coped. But as a family, we also believed that my father made the right choices, in how he challenged HUAC, and continued to stand up for his beliefs. Having a sense of doing the right thing goes a long way.

GAYLE:  Another name associated with Manny Fried, is “Morrie.” Six years before your father died, he played the character MORRIE in a play called Tuesdays with Morrie. As the story goes, a University graduate visits his former mentor, a sociologist who is slowly dying of a progressive disease. You write that your father inhabited that role fully, and that it helped to bring you closer together. Tell me why.

Well first of all, it was a big deal to play Morrie, not only because it was a great opportunity for my father, but also because he got to perform at the Studio Arena Theater, which had blacklisted him for many years. For me, the other exciting thing about him getting this role was that Morrie was a sociologist in my own department at Brandeis University. I knew Morrie, and the moment that my dad got the part, I saw it as an opportunity for the two of us to connect around his preparation and performance. I introduced him to Gordie Fellman, one of Morrie’s closest friends and colleagues from Brandeis. And I introduced him to a couple of Buddhists and sociologists who called themselves “Monday’s with Morrie”, as opposed to Tuesdays with Morrie (upon which the book and play were based). We also watched the Frontline TV series that Ted Koppel produced about Morrie, where Koppel interviewed him over the period of time as he was dying of ALS. When my dad came to visit me, he would have these meetings, and he would run his lines with me, and he would practice a grapevine dance from the play in my narrow hallway. It was just this really sweet thing that we connected around, and then obviously I always went to see him when he acted, so it was great to see him in the play, and he really did a beautiful job. People are always kind of amazed when they see old people function in any way, but seeing him excel at inhabiting this character – I think it was a really powerful experience for the audience and he pulled it off; he did a great job.

GAYLE:  In your book, you describe a father who was loving – someone you felt deeply close with – but also a man who was full of himself. Did you feel resentment about taking care of him in this last year of his life?

MINDY:  Well I think that this a really important question because as adult children, many of us have mixed feelings about our parents. The answer is “no”, I didn’t resent him. But it took me many years to understand him, to find equal footing with him, to find my voice with him, since he was a forceful speaker, sometimes controlling, and sometimes discounting of opinions that differed from his. He once told me that if I wasn’t sure about something, just guess, and that 99% of the time I’d be right. I was in my 30s when he gave me this advice, and by then I had his “number” and realized that this was sort of ridiculous. But he actually believed he was right most of the time! That said, I had deep respect for him and for his values and choices in life. He centered my world, for many years. In “exchange theory”, as it applies to families and relationships, the notion is that parents care for their children in one period of time, and later in life, when elder parents need support, children care for their parents. When it came time to care for my father, I did it with all my heart.

GAYLE:  How did the father-daughter relationship change as Manny aged?

MINDY:  My father and I were very close. Like most people, he was a flawed human being. He made serious choices in his life that impacted our family. But I had a deep respect for him, and we had a lot in common politically. For me, being part of the Women’s Movement in the 70s helped me better understand that despite being a good guy who was committed to social justice, he was pretty “old school”. I got frustrated with what a poor listener he was, and how I often had to fight for “air time” in conversations with him. But I did learn how to argue and debate because of him. I believe he felt I could be anyone or anything I wanted to be. And while he wasn’t comfortable “having or expressing feelings”, he was emotionally raw much of his life. That was one effect of McCarthyism on his life, and I understood that about him. Over the years, I understood enough of who he was to accept his shortcomings and his vulnerabilities and to just kind of let it go and say, “ok, here’s this person in the last bit of his life,” and to really be as fully present for him without losing myself.

GAYLE:  You chronicle in your book many attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to find a place for your father to live that would meet his growing care needs AND offer the kind of life that fulfilled him. This was not easy, and sometimes your father was less than helpful. Tell me what worked, and what didn’t?

MINDY:  I think one thing that worked was that I put myself in his shoes. For example, when we went and visited this super groovy retirement community that was connected to a college and he said to me, “there is absolutely no way I am going to move in there”. I imagined myself living with people that we met with, and I thought “I couldn’t do that either, this would be kind of horrible”. Not that they were bad people; it just felt foreign. These weren’t people he would choose to be friends with. I think that probably the most important thing as somebody gets older is to respect where they’re coming from. And I think it’s important to start thinking about these issues early on because you know, if you are trying to make a decision when it’s dire, the whole process of decision making is much more rife with emotion. I believe that talking about these things before you are in a crisis really makes a huge difference. And that helped us a lot.

GAYLE:  Your father lived in Assisted Living for the final year of his life. Am I correct?

MINDY:  Even though the book uses a one-year time frame, it was actually a year and a half that my sister and I cared for our father. It worked really well, until it didn’t. We learned what assisted living was able to provide for him as well as its limitations. Ultimately, in the last few months, he needed round the clock care. But he was able to live and die in his small apartment in assisted living. As an ethnography, Caring for Red provides a real sense of life in assisted living, the norms and values that drive human interaction, the hierarchy of staff, and the structures that define the experience within this institutional form of care that aims to provide a home-like environment.

GAYLE:  Can you describe what Assisted Living is?

MINDY:  Well, people think of it as kind of a hybrid health and home service, but in fact it’s really just more home than health oriented. It’s a place to live; there are regular meals; there often are activities; and staff provide services to residents – up to a point. Some assisted living facilities have medical staff; others don’t. We chose a place that had some nursing care, including medical people who delivered medications, and there was actually a doctor, a geriatrician, who came by once a week. But we had to pay for medical care because it was beyond the basic services offered. We ended up supplementing even more services in order to avoid having to send him to a nursing home. But that’s a longer story…

GAYLE:  You were also a long-distance caregiver. How did you manage your father’s care from afar?

MINDY:  I was lucky that I had a sister to do this with, so between the two of us we shared the caregiving work. We visited every weekend; we talked on the phone all the time; and we were on the phone constantly with caregivers, as well as his friends to help arrange his social life.

GAYLE:  What do you hope for your book? How do you hope people will be affected by reading it?

MINDY:  I guess if nothing else, I’d like it to contribute to a more open conversation about the trials and tribulations of caregiving work. While Caring for Red includes references to scholarly work on caregiving, I will be lucky if people feel more of a heart connection to the issues, particularly those people who are caring for an elder parent. We all have a range of feelings towards the people who cared for us when we were young. It’s important to recognize that there are a lot of people who love their parents; there are some people who hate their parents; and there are some people who have mixed feelings about their parents. Taking care of them in those final throes of life is jarring; AND it’s an opportunity to reconcile unresolved feelings; it’s an opportunity to treat elder parents with dignity and to make that last piece of life worth living. It’s also something that we’re all going to face at some point so I think that how we care for our parents is also a role model for how the younger people around us can – and hopefully will – care for us.

There’s no ultimate how-to book on caring for our parents. We all learn by what we see around us. So I’d like a dialogue to be stimulated about these issues. Because it’s very hard work – unpaid caregiving labor – and people don’t talk about this shit because it’s like, ‘oh it’s too depressing’, but hey, it’s life! We’re all going to die, you know, and somebody’s hopefully going to take care of us, so let’s think about how we want that to look within families and within society.

I also hope that academics will use this book in classes on aging, on death and dying, and on anything related to the life course. Moreover, Caring for Red is an ethnography, “set” in assisted living, so I hope it will be used in methods classes. And finally, for those who take interest in the history of facism and particularly, in the McCarthy era, the book presents quite a story, which I believe we must not lose.

GAYLE:  Thank you, Mindy Fried. The deeply moving and insightful memoir – “Caring for Red”- is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

bookmark-front_Caring for Red_Fried

 

Going Home to Mindy’s Muses: A heartfelt thanks to Feminist Reflections

Going Home to Mindy’s Muses: A heartfelt thanks to Feminist Reflections

Beginning today, I will be “going home” to Mindy’s Muses, a blog that I created over five years ago. Over past two years, I have had the honor of writing for Feminist Reflections (FR). I began as a Guest Author, having been invited to share a few posts from Mindy’s Muses. Then one of the FR Founders, Gayle Sulik, and I decided to collaborate on a series of posts about Black Lives Matter, because we felt it was important to write about how white allies could support this movement. After a relatively short run as a “Guest” on FR, I was invited to join as a Contributing Author, one of five writers who churn out provocative essays weekly. Mindy’s Muses went on an unofficial “semi-hiatus”.

feminismBeing a member of FR has strengthened my understanding of the challenges of “doing public sociology” for academic Sociologists. Because I’m an Applied Sociologist and don’t work in academia, I don’t have pressure to publish in peer reviewed journals, nor do I have constraints on what I write about, other than those I self-impose (!). I have been inspired by my academic colleagues who navigate these demands, and maintain a commitment to reaching an audience beyond academia.

Over the past year, FR experienced some turnover, as a few of its Founders moved on. Tristan Bridges and I became Co-Chairs of the Editorial Board, and in that role, I learned more about the logistics necessary to maintain the hum of weekly posts by a variety of authors. We also added two new writers:  Kristen Barber and Tressie McMillan Cottom. I can truly say that being a part of FR has been exhilarating. I love reading drafts of essays by my “FRiends” (or “FRolleagues”!), and providing feedback and editing advice. I continue to be in awe of their talent and it’s exciting to discover whatever new essay they publish. And I deeply value their feedback on my work.

Being part of a “writing group” is a different animal than writing solo, as I had been doing with Mindy’s Muses. When I consider what I want to write for FR, my thoughts are thread through a feminist lens that weaves the personal and the political. I know that my fellow FR writers are available for feedback on potential topics as well as on drafts. Writing for Mindy’s Muses is a little scarier and also maybe a little freer. While my writing style generally brings a feminist sociology lens to issues that I face personally, I also allow myself, at times, to write pieces that are just “stories”. Unlike FR, it’s on me if a post doesn’t fly. And while I can reach out to friends to read a draft, it’s more of a favor than an implicit “obligation” or commitment that comes with being part of a group.

caring for red coverSo with all this said, it is with a feeling of gratitude that I have decided to take a “sabbatical” from FR. I am thrilled to say that I have a new book coming out this summer: Caring for Red:  A Daughter’s Memoir (Vanderbilt University Press).  I will return to writing for Mindy’s Muses, which has just moved to a new website on WordPress called www.mindyfried.com. For now, the focus of the blog will have a broad lens – which is care work scholarship – as I feature the important research and writing of some of my colleagues, both in the US and Canada. The blog – still called Mindy’s Muses – will also provide a platform to write about my own experiences vis a vis Caring for Red, and will include excerpts of the book, lists of author readings (including Seattle on August 21st at 3PM at the Eliot Bay Book Company!), and more.

My plan, ultimately, is to provide platform on the blog portion of the website – once my book is out this summer – for other people to share their experiences, thoughts, fears and resources about caregiving for elder parents. My story – as I tell it in Caring for Red – is a universal one, and I hope that my book provides a portal for others to share their stories as well.

THANK YOU to my esteemed FR colleagues:  Kristen Barber, Amy Blackstone, Tristan Bridges, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Meika Loe, Trina Smith and Gayle Sulik! It has been a pleasure working with you, and I look forward to continued opportunities in the future. I am still here to run by an idea or read a draft! And finally, a big thanks to Jon Smajda and Letta Wren Page from The Society Pages, who have been fantastic to work with on the technical side of FR business.

 

Sexuality Education:  The battle rages on…

Sexuality Education: The battle rages on…

let's talk sexMy friend’s daughter, Zoe, came home from school one day and told her dad about something that happened in school. She was in 8th grade at the time, and a trainer had just come to her class to conduct a session on sex ed. She and a boy were asked by the trainer to stand in the front of the room and hold two sides of a plastic heart together. One side was blue; the other pink. You can guess which side Zoe was asked to hold. The trainer then told them to pull the heart apart. When the two pieces of plastic were separated, the trainer told the class, “This is what happens when you have sex before marriage. Your heart is broken”.

healthy futures 2When Zoe got home that day, she told her dad about it and said that it was “kind of ridiculous…stupid”. But she also felt weird about it. And so did her dad. He reached out to other parents he knew at the school, and what ensued – once the word got out – was a year-long campaign to identify who ran the program, how they got into the school in the first place, and ultimately, how to get rid of them. We discovered that the program was run by a non-profit organization called Healthy Futures, which claims it is “dedicated to empowering adolescents to avoid the health, social, and psychological consequences of risky decisions by equipping students with the tools and educated support system they need to make healthy choices”.  Their services included – and continue to include – classroom-based education, peer education through after-school and summer programs, parent education workshops, school and community connections, and web-based resources.  But when we dug deeper, we discovered that Healthy Futures was an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) program that was part of a larger entity in Massachusetts called A Woman’s Concern. Healthy Futures is considered “the intervention side” of this larger entity. Neither the website for Healthy Futures or A Woman’s Concern indicate a connection between these two groups. That can be found on a Christian website, listing them as a volunteer opportunity. The mission statement for A Woman’s Concern’s mission is as follows:

woman concern 2A Woman’s Concern is a Christian mission to women and couples in pregnancy distress, especially those considering abortion due to lack of information and support, and dedicated to providing life-saving help in a life-changing way. To this end we provide competent and caring services that include free pregnancy tests, sonograms, peer counseling and intervention, on-going support and referrals, parenting preparation classes, post-abortion healing and opportunities to learn about healthy sexual values, mature relationships and how to establish a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.   

I was in shock. What was a fundamentalist Christian program doing in a public school? And for the next year, I was obsessed with understanding more about this organization and its values, as well as learning about the different approaches to sexuality education. I wanted to understand where Healthy Futures – sponsored in stealth-like fashion by A Woman’s Concern and brought into my daughter’s school – fit along the spectrum of sexuality education curriculum.

The Case against abstinence-only-until-marriage programs

According to the 35-year-old national program, Advocates for Youth, there are a number of reasons abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs don’t work. Of the eleven states that have evaluated the impact of AOUM programs, none have demonstrated a reduction in teen sexual activity. One strategy of these programs is have teens make a “virginity pledge”, promising to remain virgins until marriage. Researchers found that despite their promise, some “pledgers” engage in risky oral or anal sex, and if they do end up having vaginal intercourse, they don’t use condoms. According to researchers, Hannah Brückner and Peter Bearman, even if virginity pledges help some young people delay sexual activity for up to 18 months, once they break their pledge, they are less likely to use contraception or condoms, which puts them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV or other STDs.

ab onlyAOUM programs often contain lies and inaccurate information. A 2004 report about AOUM programs says that over 80% of federally-funded AOUM programs contain false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, claiming that condoms aren’t effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. AOUM programs also contain false information about the risks of abortion, with one curriculum claiming that 5% to 10% of women who have legal abortions will become sterile, will be more at risk for giving birth later on to a child with mental retardation, and that tubal and cervical pregnancies are increased following abortions. AOUM curricula blurs religion and science, presenting “as scientific fact the religious view that life begins at conception”. One curriculum calls a 43-day-old fetus a “thinking person”. And AOUM curricula “treat stereotypes about girls and boys as scientific fact”. The report concludes that these programs are a colossal waste of federal taxpayers’ dollars.

The major clearinghouse on sexuality education in the US – The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), says AOUM programs are “based on fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, sexual orientation and family structure.”

The case for comprehensive sexuality education

According to SIECUS, comprehensive sex education provides students with “medically accurate information about the health benefits and side effects of all contraceptives, including condoms, as a means to prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of contracting STIs, including HIV/AIDS”. It teaches young people “the skills to make responsible decisions about sexuality, including how to avoid unwanted verbal, physical, and sexual advances”, as well as how “alcohol and drug use can effect responsible decision making”. Students are provided with the tools to make informed decisions. While these programs stress the value of abstinence, they also prepare students for when they become sexually active.

sex edA series of studies show that the lessons learned in comprehensive sex education programs are critical for healthy decision making during the teen years and beyond. When teens are educated about condoms and have access to them, they’re more likely to use them. When teens practice contraception in their first sexual relationship, they’re more likely to keep doing so, compared to those who used either no method or used a method inconsistently. In fact, a 86% decline in teen pregnancy from 1995 to 2002 is attributed by Columbia University researchers to dramatic improvements in contraceptive use. Only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy rates was attributed to a decrease in sexual activity.

Researchers Starkman and Rajani found that one-half of HIV infections in the US and two-thirds of all sexually transmitted diseases (STD) occur among young people under the age of 25. By the end of high school, nearly two thirds of American youth are sexually active, and one in five has had four or more sexual partners. Nonetheless, they say, “Despite these alarming statistics, less than half of all public schools in the United States offer information on how to obtain contraceptives and most schools increasingly teach abstinence-only-until-marriage (or ‘abstinence-only’) education”.

A Short history of Abstinence-only–until marriage programs

dollarOver the past few decades, the federal government has poured millions of tax-payer dollars into AOUM programming. The two main federal funding streams for AOUM programs were the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and the AOUM portion of the Adolescent Family Life Act. Funding for these unproven programs expanded from 1996 until 2006, particularly during the Bush Administration. Between 1996 and federal Fiscal Year 2010, Congress allocated over $1.5 billion tax-payer dollars into AOUM programs and a significant amount of funding CONTINUES today!

Interestingly, President Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” bill, signed into law in 1996, included a provision for AOUM programs. This funding, created via Title V, Section 510(b) of the Social Security Act, represented a shift from promoting pregnancy prevention programs to promoting abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage, at any age. Sex was to be “confined to married couples”, and abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage became the “expected standard for all school-age children”; with the “exclusive purpose (of) teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity”. In other words, these programs could not – still cannot – discuss, much less advocate for the use of contraceptives, except to focus on their failure rates. AOUM programs are meant teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects”, and that it’s important for people to “attain self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.”

After decades of federal support for a number of these programs, the Obama Administration and Congress eliminated the two main funding streams for AOUM programs. Congress allowed the third funding source, the Title V AOUM program, to expire on June 30, 2009. But this program was unfortunately revived as part of the health care reform package, which continues to provide $50 million a year in mandatory funding to this very day!

Power of the parents…

After discovering the AOUM program at our school, a core of parents initially gathered together and we drew up a petition, calling for the school to remove Healthy Futures and demanding comprehensive sexuality education. The support for the petition was phenomenal. Hundreds of parents signed it! Our main concern was our children’s health. We felt that it was inappropriate for a fundamentalist Christian organization, such as A Woman’s Concern, to be brought into our school. And we didn’t like the sneaky way the school had chosen to bring this program into the school. We also wanted to know how Healthy Futures had come to our school in the first place. To our surprise, we discovered that the school’s Vice Principal had brought them. He claimed that a parent referred him and that he had no knowledge of the group’s affiliation.

orgs comp edWe presented a statement to the school administration, accompanied by a list of over 140 organizations that support comprehensive sexuality education in public schools, stating the following:

We are concerned that the Healthy Futures curriculum is driven by a very narrow viewpoint and provides inaccurate information regarding the viability of condoms as protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. The (school system) has a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum that has served the system well for many years…We believe that it is in the interests of the community served by the (school system) to be given full access to the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum established by the (XX) Public Schools.

We went to dozens of meetings  – with parents and administrators – where we presented data on AOUM and comprehensive sexuality education, and we demanded that the Assistant Principal be held accountable. Under duress, he promised to review other options for the following year. We also demanded that parents and students be included in any assessment of alternative options. A number of the parent teacher meetings were very tense, because parents – particularly those who were fundamentalist Christian and anti-abortion – felt personally offended that we were organizing to get rid of this program. We let them know that we respected their points of view, but that a religiously-affiliated program didn’t belong in a public school.

we wonIn the end we won!  After all our wrangling with the school administration, we realized that we needed to take it one level up, to the School Committee, who shared our shock that a religiously affiliated program had snuck into the school. We also presented our case to the Superintendent of the school district, and as it turned out, his wife was on the Board of Planned Parenthood. Within weeks, the program was eliminated from the district!

With this victory, parents continued to be active in a number of other school-based activities. So, not only were we successful in removing AOUM programming; we also invigorated parent engagement in the school, which spilled over to other efforts to improve the school. I was asked to be on a Sexuality Education Curriculum Committee for the school system, and spent the next year reviewing curriculum which would be brought into the schools. We ended up selecting Planned Parenthood’s excellent comprehensive sexuality education curriculum.

To date, 23 states have rejected Title V abstinence-only federal funding, including:  Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. This is progress, but the fight isn’t over for other states and school districts. There’s still work to do…

states sex ed

Life as a “Sometimes Adjunct”

adjunct 1 
Adjunct:  “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part”.

I’ve been teaching Sociology as an “adjunct” for nearly 20 years.  I never liked this descriptor, but I learned early on that most students don’t know or seem to care about my title or my status, and for me, that’s the bottom line. I have found that students are oblivious to stratification within academia – the cascade of titles and honors that starts with part-timers at the bottom, and then officially begins with Assistant Professor, the tenuous first step which initiates the gradual and arduous climb up and up, until – if lucky – one reaches Associate, Full and eventually, at the far end of the career spectrum, Emeritus, the end of the line, after decades of classes taught, research conducted, peer-reviewed articles and books published, talks given and dissertations advised.

Chichén Itzá Pyramid
Chichén Itzá Pyramid

When prospective parents and students tromp around campus, asking all the right questions, they are rarely prompted to ask one of the most relevant questions:  “Will my professors be part-time (low-paid) labor?” No, if they ask anything related to the status of teachers, they want to know if the professors have doctorates, and often the answer is “yes”, avoiding the issue of labor stratification altogether.

That said, most students just assume that their teacher is the professor, unless that teacher is still a graduate student. In fact, in every undergraduate class I have taught, students insist on calling me “Professor”, even when I tell them to call me by my first name. I generally stop short of telling them about my status in the academic chain; I also don’t tell them that they may never see me again because I’m not sure if I’ll be re-hired. I have had some teaching jobs where students are shocked when, at the end of the semester, they hear I might not be back the following year.  Sometimes, that opens up the conversation about stratification within the academic labor market. After all, this is Sociology, where issues of class, gender and race are paramount. Why not insert one’s own “social location” into the mix?

The increase in employment of part-time, adjunct faculty in academia has become an “issue” for some university systems, especially when union contracts or state laws limit the number of part-time faculty. Despite bloated administrative budgets and the building of new athletic centers and sports arenas designed (in some places) to make an institution more “competitive”, the teaching staff is where pennies are pinched.

Adjunct teaching an add-on rather than central
Teaching as an adjunct is not my “full-time work”; it truly is an adjunct to my career, in which I co-run a small social science consulting group called Arbor Consulting Partners (www.arborcp.com). In other words, thankfully, I don’t depend on this income as my “bread and butter”. Teaching is my passion but it’s really hard to make a living teaching as an adjunct.

I have been lucky to not be at the bottom end of the adjunct pay scale – which can be as low as $2,000 per course, but the wages generally hover around $5,000-6,000 at many research universities, unless you’re teaching at one of the “prestige” institutions. Many adjuncts piece together a string of teaching gigs, sometimes as many as 6 classes per semester and sometimes in different institutions, just to pay the bills. They/we receive no benefits, and while they are teaching a full load, they often don’t have an office – or if they do, they share it with all the other part-timers, so it’s hard to use for meetings with students or to get any work done. Adjuncts can work their butts off and still be poor and disenfranchised.

Adjunct 7 teach for food
Generally, an adjunct functions outside of the system. We’re not paid to go to meetings or advise students. This is fair, given that we’re only paid to teach. But for those who would like to be more involved – and even be considered for a tenure track position – this status can be a liability. New hires in academia are judged for their ability to teach and advise students, and in research universities, they are judged by their academic scholarship.  Adjuncts rarely have time to pursue their own research, and if they do, it’s on their own dime, unless they have sought and received a grant, which is harder to do without an institutional base. Some universities even disallow part-timers from receiving university grants.

Having the capacity to teach many different courses is central to any adjunct’s survival. I have taught a variety of Sociology courses in a range of academic institutions, including courses on aging, sex and gender, feminist theory, work and family policy, gender and leadership, and most recently, a course on Evaluation Research, which is the work I do as a consultant. For some of those jobs, I had a one-year contract, but mostly, I have been teaching by the course and by the semester, with the possibilities of returning, which I have now happily done in three of the institutions where I have taught. Generally, I have either replaced a professor who is on-leave, taught a course that full-time faculty didn’t have time to teach, or more recently, I have taught courses that no one else has the expertise to teach.

One thing that I love about teaching at the university level is the freedom to design a syllabus, regardless of whether a course has been taught by another professor. Not all adjuncts get to do this. Over the years, I have experimented with incorporating the arts into my teaching, and invariably, other professors (those on the ladder) tell me they think it’s really cool. I have been lucky that, for me, teaching as an adjunct is a choice. I have also had some incredible colleagues, supportive and inclusive. But many adjuncts do not feel they are treated as equals relative to full-time faculty.

Unionizing the adjunct labor force

Adjunct Teacher, Otis College of Art and Design, LA
Adjunct Teacher, Otis College of Art and Design, LA

There is a growing movement to unionize this low-paid contingent labor force, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation (AFT) of Teachers are two of the major unions now leading the charge nationally. A dozen new union locals have been established, including one at Tufts University, where I got a one-year contract right after I completed my doctorate, and another at Lesley University, where one of my friends, a fully tenured faculty member, played a key role. Both were organized by SEIU.

So where do I stand? I strongly believe that it is in the interests of all parties within academia for Part-time Faculty to be paid well and have good working conditions, including consistency in the courses they teach and multi-year contracts, as this contributes to the overall quality of education at the institution. At the same time, Universities should not rely so heavily on part-time labor. The slow creep of an unstable labor force comprised of part-time contracted workers is a disservice to students, their parents and the institution overall.

Tufts University Adjuncts
Tufts University Adjuncts

At Tufts, part-time faculty members successfully negotiated a contract that included 22% pay raises over a 3-year period, longer-term contracts, and the right to be interviewed for full-time positions in one’s department. In addition, their contract stipulates that adjuncts who teach three or more courses over the academic year will have access to health, retirement, tuition reimbursement, and other employee benefits. This is a major victory for part-timers and the University, overall.

Historically, it has always been challenging to organize “professional” workers, given the notion that labor unions are associated with blue-collar workers, not teachers or nurses or social workers, who are falsely considered “above that”. But frankly, this notion is just a way to hold back the collective strength of workers from having more power. The move to organize adjunct labor – just like the move to organize all workers who are underpaid and undervalued – is critical not just to the individuals who directly gain from union representation; it is also critical for the broader society and economy.

Harvard University Widener Library
Harvard University Widener Library

A recent article in the Harvard Crimson describes the working conditions for its “non-ladder” faculty, or put in more plebeian terms, adjunct faculty. Harvard can call these workers what they want, but they are still contingent labor. Adjuncts at Harvard and other Ivy’s get paid sometimes twice or three times what adjuncts at less prestigious institutions get paid.  But unlike tenure track faculty, they are subject to short contracts, far lower wages than their colleagues, and lower status than their colleagues. An exception to this is when the Ivy’s hire former politicians or entrepreneurs who command high wages to teach a course because of the prestige they bring to the institution. For the “average” non-ladder employee at Harvard, the institution affords a status akin to a post-doc, a coveted year following the completion of one’s doctorate which may be devoted to research. This is because teaching at Harvard, even as a “non-ladder” employee, carries the imprimatur of a fancy-labeled institution. Surely, one would think, if that institution is hiring this person to teach their students, they must be smart by association.

Core Faculty, Lesley University
Angelica Pinna Perez, Dalia Llera and Jason Pramas, Core Faculty supporting the union vote, Lesley University

Bigger questions must be raised about whether universities are going to depend more fully on lower-waged contracted workers. The system of tenure, where faculty members are essentially hired for life, has been subject to debate for many years, posting the question: Is the tenure system critical to protecting intellectual inquiry, and/or is it a system that rewards decreasing productivity? But this thinking avoids the real issues. The tenure system is not to blame for the rise in part-time contracted labor in academia. We must, instead, look at bloated administrative budgets and the trend to create amenities to attract students, particularly those paying full-freight.

David Kociemba, President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) at Emerson College, where he teaches in the Department of Visual and Media Arts, is quoted as saying the adjunct movement is “four decades in the making”, but he was able to finish the union drive at Emerson College in only two months. This just demonstrates how ready some part-time faculty members are to get organized, given the opportunity.

So far, I have not been at an institution during a union drive for adjunct labor. That is perhaps another casualty of life as a “sometimes adjunct”, or any adjunct for that matter, given that these part-time workers aren’t tethered to the institutions where they teach. But I imagine that if I do continue to teach courses here and there, I will eventually sit in the eye of the storm, and instead of supporting the movement from the sidelines, writing blog posts and signing petitions, I will add my voice to the collective. While I don’t count on my adjunct jobs to pay the bills, I wouldn’t mind…

Women, menopause, the pharmaceutical industry and horses…

Around 10 years ago, when I was going through menopause, I switched to a new OB/GYN who nearly convinced me to go on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). I had told her that my mother struggled with hot flashes and depression during her “change of life”, as they say, and I was worried about what it would be like for me. As a preventive measure, she prescribed HRT. Jump two frames forward and there I was, standing in line at the local pharmacy waiting to pick up my meds, but feeling very ambivalent. I’ve always been drug-adverse, and I thought, ‘why am I considering taking these meds unless it’s absolutely necessary?’ I was trying to stave off a problem that didn’t actually exist!

Serendipitously, I started to chat with the woman in line next to me, a friend of a friend, who suggested that if I had questions about HRT, I should take a look at Dr. Christine Northrup’s book, “The Wisdom of Menopause”. Even though I walked out of that store with a filled prescription, I never cracked the bottle. Northrup says, “I’ll take my chances with the hormones that mother nature has taken at least 3 million years to come up with”, arguing that women with healthy ovaries and adrenals may not need (HRT). Even for the one-third of women who have had their ovaries removed and may benefit “from a little estrogen or a little progesterone or possibly a little testosterone”, Northrup says that “in no case should these be the conventional hormones that are synthetic. This is important for people to know: you cannot patent a naturally occurring hormone”. (Northrup’s advice about nutritional supplements below.*) 

It turns out that there are some serious reasons to avoid HRT. Medical sociologist, Gayle Sulik, writes:  “Clearly, there is a relationship between the use of synthetic hormone therapies and breast cancer even if the mechanisms are not fully understood. In 2002, when the findings from the Women’s Health Initiative estrogen-plus-progestin study came out, about 38 percent of postmenopausal women in the U.S. were using some type of hormone therapy drug. When the WHI findings hit the news, sales plummeted and breast cancer incidence rates also dropped”.

An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine also linked a sharp decline (6.7 percent) in breast cancer incidence in 2003 with the release of the first Women’s Health Initiative report “and the ensuing drop in the use of hormone-replacement therapy among postmenopausal women in the United States.’”
I later read somewhere that around 40% of women who get their HRT prescriptions filled never take the stuff, and that info validated my choice. The link between HRT and breast and other cancers was too real to me. My mother had had breast cancer, and it seemed like taking these drugs was like playing with fire. Instead I devoured literature on alternative ways to deal with menopause symptoms, drank my soy milk and copped a “bring it on” attitude.

As if there weren’t enough reasons to question the use of Hormone Replacement Therapy, I just discovered another. Call me naïve or sheltered, but it never occurred to me that Premarin – an HRT taken by a number of my friends – was named for what it actually is: Pregnant Mare’s Urine. In other words, the drug of choice for so many menopausal women comes from horses that are “farmed” for this exact purpose. Northrup says, “People will tell you that Premarin is natural–yeah, it’s natural if you are a horse!”

According to an April 5th Boston Globe article by Nestor Ramos,, these horses are kept “inside long barns in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan”, lined up in rows of small stalls, “tubes snaking up from under them into vessels nearby”. Geez! Ramos, comments, “It sounds like science fiction — some equine version of “The Matrix,” in which a superior species saps humans for their nutrients — but it’s true: The urine is precious”.

The article is a human interest piece focusing on two women – one, age 70; the other, in her late 20s – who share a love of horses. It turns out that while selling Premarin is a profitable industry, “keeping hundreds of horses pregnant every year” in order to gather their urine has a downside. The mares have babies, and selling the foals for meat is also apparently a profitable business. The elder woman has spent years going back and forth to Manitoba to rescue some of these foals from the “slaughterhouse floor”, but her energy to make this trip has waned, so having a protégé who shares her passion has made it possible for her to carry out this mission, and in a way, build in the potential for someone to carry on when she no longer can make the journey.

I love the story of these two women: one in which the passion and leadership of the “elder” inspires the younger, and the vibrancy of the younger who makes this difficult journey possible. But what if there wasn’t such a lucrative industry around harvesting pregnant mare urine in the first place to supposedly rescue aging women from a natural change in their reproductive cycles? Northrup comments, “The hormones that naturally occur in the human female body have been altered so that the drug companies can justify the R&D programs to patent a hormone and therefore make their money. It’s frightening!”

Check out this Huffington Post piece by investigative reporter Martha Rosenberg, called “When the publication plan is ready, the research will appear”, in which she describes how the marketing arm of a drug company published articles denying the link between HRT and cancer. “Though the marketing firm’s “science” is egregiously flawed — HT has strong links to breast cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s — the papers have not been retracted.”

The cultural narrative for menopause, very much aided and abetted by the pharmaceutical industry – is that it’s a medical crisis to be tackled. Women’s natural reproductive functions have long been viewed as indicative of “otherness”, weakness and incapacity, from menstruation to menopause. While many women surely benefit from a medical approach to easing symptoms of menopause, we must question who and what the medicalization of menopause serves, and recognize that menopause isn’t a wasting away, a time in which we go bonkers and lose our minds and bodies. It is just another passage in a series of chapters in women’s lives.

* Northrup does recommend the use of nutritional supports such as omega 3 fats and B vitamins, “to help clear estrogen dominance from your system”.  Because when you stop ovulating and you don’t have progesterone to balance the estrogen, “that can create a state of anxiety, jitters, and headaches”. Her advice? Eating soy or ground up flax seed “helps a great deal to give you plant hormone support while your body is making the transition”.

For more reading, see:
Peter Conrad: Medicalization and Social Control: http://66.199.228.237/boundary/addiction/medicalization_and_social_control.pdf

Meyer, Medicalization of Menopause: Critique and Consequences: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11809008

Marlene Cimons: Medicalization of Menopause: Framing Media Messages in the 20th Century: http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/8352/1/umi-umd-5616.pdf

One Night Stand…

I was listening to a new EP by a talented musician named Nathalie Raedler and discovered a song called One Night Stand https://soundcloud.com/nraedler/one-night-stand, that poignantly describes an experience that inspired her song. It got me thinking about how much progress women have and have not made over the past few decades around sexuality and relationships, particularly young women, including and maybe especially college-age women. 

As a “veteran” of the 1970’s women’s movement – or what is now being called the Second Wave – I was part of a women’s group that met weekly to read and discuss historical and contemporary feminist articles, and to support one another in applying feminist principles in our personal and professional relationships. We “took charge” of certain activities that were typically done by men at the time, like changing tires and oil, and doing basic home repair. 



I remember how thrilled I was to change a doorknob and shingle a house on Cape Cod! We analyzed popular culture to understand how it was reflecting and promoting gender imbalance, and over endless cups of coffee, we bonded as friends and as change-makers, taking charge of our relationships, our bodies and our lives. A small group of us published a newspaper called “New Salt City Press”, which reviewed films and major national and international news, including a how to column on topics like car repair and how to winterize your home. Our underlying message was an echo of women’s cries during World War II – We Can Do It! 

While we were not a part of the “free love movement” – that was another “faction” of cultural change at the time – we also believed that women had the agency to determine how we wanted to engage in sexual and other types of relationships. 

A few decades later, I joined the Women’s Caucus at Occupy Boston, a group of women who came together because a couple of women who lived in the encampment had been sexually assaulted, and moreover, they felt men were dominating the conversation at the encampment. I was disturbed to hear about these problems, but curious about and ultimately impressed with these women, many of whom had literally been schooled in universities around the country to understand and confront sexism. I discovered that the spirit of women-oriented culture lived on among these young women, who were both lesbian and heterosexual, in a “third wave” of the feminist movement. Men were still dominating the mainstream culture at Occupy, a microcosm of the broader society. 

But without much backlash – a sign of changing times – these women at the encampment made great strides in inserting their voices into the conversation, organizing a successful “women’s” march, a speak-out on violence at the encampment, and sponsoring women speakers on reproductive rights, rigged ballots and gender and unemployment. Certainly what was different from 30 years before was that this “third wave” was bringing its collective voice to this particular table successfully. Despite enormous strides women have made in both the work and domestic spheres, it still seemed that young women – college age and in their early 20s – were experiencing gender imbalances in relationships with men. 

Musician Nathalie Raedler captures the experience of this imbalance in One Night Stand, which she wrote after spending a night out with a group of “guy friends”. In this song, she describes how her “guy friends” had spent most of the night assessing women as possible pickup material, based on various body parts.

Their banter didn’t result in anyone taking anybody home that night, as far as she knew, but it did reinforce the bond between and among them, as they entertained one another with the assumption that the women were there for the taking. Did they think that their banter would also impress her? Or did she become invisible as they focused their energy on objectifying the women around them? 

This male bonding over sexual exploits is explored in depth by sociologist Danielle Currier, in a recent Gender and Society article, based on her qualitative study on hookups among college-aged women and men. Based on interviews with 78 full-time, heterosexual students at a coed, public university in the South, Currier found that hooking up is common among college students, but there remains a sexual double standard. All of her study participants report that hookups are “ever present and normative in college and a central component of social life”, women participants disregarded their own sexual desires, performing oral sex on men without reciprocation and “ignoring their right to sexual pleasure in hookups”. As one of her participants said, “sex is defined as over when the guy climaxes”. Pleasure is equated with orgasm for men, rather than the full array of physical and emotional experiences associated with sexuality. Currier concludes that a central aspect of this configuration is “gender asymmetry”, with the assumption that men will achieve sexual satisfaction in hookups, and women’s role is to help them achieve this goal. Another critical aspect of her analysis is that women want to avoid being labeled a “slut”, worried about whether they will be viewed as having “too many” hookups. Women were “strategically ambiguous” about the nature of their hookups, not talking about them, and being vague about the details, to avoid this label which was applied only to women, not men, reflecting the “underlying double standard” used in labeling the nature of and amount of their sexual activity. 



The aforementioned finding in Currier’s research, which Nathalie Raedler gives voice to in One Night Stand, is the “importance of bonding with or impressing other men, much more than bonding with or oppressing women”. Currier concludes that the gender imbalance in hookups is evidence of how “emphasized femininity is often a reaction to or an offshoot of hegemonic masculinity”. Moreover, “doing femininity still often means reacting to men and cultural definitions of masculinity”. In her song, Raedler describes the men as “hunting down random chicks”, asserting that the men have “nothing in your head. That’s why you have to think with your dick”. To the women, she asks “are you looking for someone? You’re selling yourself cheap.” Her song challenges men and women to undo this gendered configuration. Check out her song and new album: http://www.nathalieraedler.com/. Raedler has a beautiful and strong voice and a lot to say, and in a marriage of art and scholarship, Currier’s research captures the essence of Nathalie’s song with a strong scholarly piece of research.