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Higher education attacks in silence

As the Fall 2021 semester began, despite administrations across the country enforcing in person teaching modes (against many faculty, staff and student’s wills, and even with a number of promising vaccines), this pandemic remained nowhere near over.

In fact, when the semester began, our circumstances were drastically worse than they were when establishments across the country responsibly shifted their curricula online halfway through March 2020, in accordance with lockdown guidelines (and to mention, there are an undisclosed number of long-COVID cases still unreported to us).

Those educational decisions are the focus of this piece. I have chosen to tell my story because I believe my experiences shed light on the overall structure of higher education and the logics born out of a prioritization of profit over people that led to these decisions.

To begin, my name is Bernadette “bird” Bowen, and I am a published poet and adversarial researcher about to begin the final year of my Ph.D. in Media & Communication. I am 31 years old, and my mom passed away last year. Yes, during the global pandemic. But, no, not from COVID. Although still alarmingly abrupt, for me, unlike the roughly 1 million other U.S. families whose loved ones have tragically passed away from COVID thus far, my family was given a warning, months in advance about my mom’s short time left with us.

My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. At the time I was working on my master’s in communication and had no idea I would shortly thereafter be applying to PhD programs.

The following year, I learned I was completing my master’s a semester sooner than I had originally anticipated. And so, anxiously, I took the GRE exam two weeks later, requested recommendation letters from my committee, and applied to Ph.D. programs at a handful of big-name universities (who would never give me the time of day), as well as one program that reached out to my department.

Eventually, and much to my surprise, a few months later, I was accepted into the BGSU School of Media & Communication Ph.D. program. The program was guaranteed funding (scholarship and $13,500 stipend) for three years, with a lottery for a fourth year. At the time, it sounded perfect because it was more than I’d made teaching in my master’s program.

Little did I know at the time, according to the President’s Teaching Scholar and Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado, Stanley A. Deetz, “the modern university, as we have come to know it, is slowly eroding under the weight of the administrative/managerial glut, declining faculty involvement in governance, and a broader corporate colonization of higher education”.

Illuminating this problematic structure further, BGSU’s own Media & Communication Associate Professor John Dowd has explained that behind processes, such as those in higher educational institutions, are the discourses which allow them to function. Thus, in the case of contemporary higher education, students continue to be framed and treated as “consumers.”

Contextually, it has been reported for several years now that due to skyrocketing college tuition costs, and resulting student loan debt, higher education overall is increasingly inaccessible to especially the most marginalized students.

As Dowd’s book “Educational Ecologies” discusses extensively, what people often don’t know is more than 70% of college instructors are graduate workers or adjuncts who, across the country, are paid barely enough to survive.

This is why, despite having a master’s degree, and for the love of teaching, I have been paid $13,500 to teach two college courses a semester since starting this program. Our department just last week received external reviews, which explicated that we should be paid more to “attract higher quality students.”

Additionally, for those who don’t know, graduate workers in this position juggle priorities of being a student, researcher and instructor at the same time.

And realistically, as a domestic student, I’m one of the lucky ones. Receiving this meager of an income qualified me for food stamps and Medicaid. Whereas, if I was an international student, which BGSU touts a high enrollment of, I wouldn’t have qualified for these social safety nets. Nor would I have had the ability to apply for student loans, accruing more debt, to survive on in the meantime.

Making matters even worse, my department’s $13,500 stipend was not evenly disbursed throughout the year. Stipends are paid out only during full semesters.

Even still, we have coursework (and need to exist) — all year long — throughout the first two years of our program, including during the summers. Additionally, there are non-negotiable student fees of a few hundred dollars each semester that our scholarships and graduate assistantship (if awarded to us) don’t cover.

With that said, since we’re only paid during the full-term fall and spring semesters, all things considered, after moving my entire life to Ohio, I wouldn’t have been able to survive during summers had I not been able to take out more loans, and subside on additional debt, accruing more and more credit cards.

I’m not sure those outside academia know just how inhumane the structures of academia have become to its most precarious workers. And these interlocking systemic issues have all been a long time coming prior to the COVID pandemic.

Illustrating this point further in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire argued that perhaps worse than disempowered students, are the faculty and staff, who are, “as oppressed as their victims, because such individuals do not realize that acts of domination are dehumanizing; therefore, they dehumanize themselves in the process.”

This is to say that well-intentioned faculty, administrators and board members make discussions which reinforce these inhumane logics often. Reinforcement of these practices has less to do with intention and more to do with the impact.

If what Freire said is true, we need to accept that these issues existed before the pandemic. Said otherwise, when discussing issues revealed to us more overtly by COVID (racism, disability rights, evictions, wage exploitation, sexism, etc.), we direly need to acknowledge the preexisting ecological nature of these crises.

Fast-forwarding my story two and a half years later to Spring 2020, I began the final year of my Ph.D. coursework, and then COVID-19 hit. To make matters more interesting, during everyone’s now dreaded time marker — March 2020 — I was teaching a basic script writing course that was completely out of my wheelhouse. And so, I, like everyone else, was suddenly faced with the need to transition the entire course shell online, halfway through our semester.

Although on the forefront, everything with course material went over just fine, and I received positive feedback from students regarding the transition, when all things were said and done (and as an undiagnosed neurodivergent person), internally, I did not handle the abrupt changes as well as a person of a different neurotype.

Then, for those of us who survived COVID-19 during the Spring 2020 semester, summer 2020 began. A few days later, the advisor who I had been working with for two years, planning my dissertation project, stepped down. Another mentor of mine stepped in as my chair temporarily, which I was immensely grateful for.

But then, my second committee member stepped down because of their own personal circumstances. And all this occurred during the summer I was working with my third committee member on an independent study in preparation for the method section of my dissertation project. Next, my big convention of the year happened in mid-June 2020. Luckily, going better than I could have ever imagined.

Two days later, my mom called.

Little did I know, the last week she had been having trouble sleeping while laying down. She went to the doctor to get looked at, and was now being put on hospice. As far as we’d known, she was in remission, but now, she was on stage-IV, and there was nothing more doctors could do for her besides end-of-life preparation.

Not knowing what would happen with my mother’s health, and not being able to do anything about it either way, I escaped the panic by diving into my work.

First thing was first, I strategized what I should do about my preliminary exam committee. According to my Ph.D. handbook and general requirements set in place by the BGSU graduate college, I needed to complete my preliminary exams right after completing my coursework. But now, not knowing how much longer I would have left with my mom being on hospice (her life expectancy was six months), finishing all the coursework that summer seemed less and less realistic.

To be honest, the rest of that summer was a complete blur. My mom died of lung cancer on Aug. 10, 2020. Losing her during COVID-19 floored me unlike anything ever has. And adding strangeness to this tragedy, a week before she passed, my mom revealed to my sister and I that she had signed a non-disclosure agreement about suing companies responsible for her lung cancer.

At the time, I wasn’t sure when I would receive my allotment of this corporate blood money, which my mom worked so hard to ensure her daughters received in place of her life. But, in the meantime, I responded to learning about this corporate settlement for poisoning my mom to death like the critical scholar whose conducted research on corporate corruption that I am: by connecting the dots I’ve learned about corporatized education and general U.S. injustices.

A few days later, we learned that a hospice aid who stayed with my mom the whole night before she passed away had tested positive for COVID. And then my dad tested positive.

At the same time, required graduate college deadlines were wearing on me, detrimentally. And, to make matters more complicated, a few weeks into Fall 2020 after all the work I put forth to not teach so I could grieve my mom’s death, I was asked by my department head (to no fault of her own) to pick up an upper-level dream course from my chair, who was approved to take a CARES leave.

Meanwhile, my family didn’t know if my dad would die of COVID-19 within a week of my mother passing away. And, so, for sake of the overall health and well-being of those who planned to attend my mom’s wake, we were suddenly faced with little choice but to postpone the events to mourn her loss until over a month after her death. Thankfully, by then, my dad had recovered well.

Once my mom’s wake was over, and I drove four hours back to northwest Ohio, the next deadline on my to-do list was preparing for and scheduling my preliminary exams with my newly minted committee. This was just one task, alongside a host of other responsibilities I needed to accomplish to become a job candidate.

As you can imagine, this tragic and stressful series of events continues to influence my perspective on the corporatized education structure. And my observations prior to them were already rather grim. I did what I had to do to jump through bureaucratic hoops and attempt to solidify my future. But I wasn’t interested in pretending as if what I have experienced was anywhere near okay.

Holistically, and as wise feminists have reported occurs for centuries, the loss of my mother affected me both personally and politically as my life proceeded on.

My experiences continue to inform the ways I view the U.S. response to this pandemic. For example, the ways in which I’ve seen higher education prioritize profit over people thus far.

As time went on, I learned that remote accommodations I was granted were deemed illegitimate by BGSU administration past May. And, that if I wanted accommodations I needed to reapply. Between a history of severe allergies, which I thought made me ineligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines, I consulted my doctor and reapplied for official accommodations, but was repeatedly denied.

As stated, before any of these events unfolded, I had been reading, studying and writing about the consequences of neoliberal (profit over people) late-stage capitalism. But until COVID-19, I had not anticipated the ways in which costs of this system would hit home. As many universities, and other essential workplaces, have shown, human lives are deemed less important than an increase in their profits. The loss of one million U.S. lives has since been rationally dismissed as if all those people were just expendable casualties to present-COVID capitalism.

Although my sister and I received monetary compensation from the corporations that poisoned my mother to death (because of her hard work and efforts to grasp a single sense of ownership regarding her lung cancer as she processed and accepted her own impending death), I now additionally offer a uniquely perverse insider perspective on U.S. legal systems, enabling for-profit murder.

Again, we must not lose scope on the fact neoliberal capitalist decision-makers have left all of us vulnerable, for sake of monetary greed for the few, and under the guise of educational modernity, long before COVID went viral. These corporate logics, prioritizing profit over people, have — for decades now — bled into higher educational spheres, and affected administration decision-makers.

Eventually, in mid-February 2021 I applied to be put into my department’s lottery to be granted fourth-year funding. The following month, I was thankfully awarded my fourth year of funding, and was slotted to teach two sections of the exact same course I had taught remotely and synchronously the previous spring. Next, my concern shifted to the delta variant of COVID-19 and scheduled in person teaching.

As shown above, on July 25, I contacted my basic course director and department chair explaining my situation and inquiring about an online and/or remote teaching assignment because of my inability to be fully vaccinated in time for the semester to begin. A few days later, I was reassigned to teach two online sections of public speaking, a course I have years of experience teaching in person. In the meantime, I empathized with my fellow in-person colleagues.

A few weeks later, I received my basic online course shells, customized them with my information, published them for student’s access, and began corresponding with students in preparation for our new semester together.

I want to reiterate, I absolutely love teaching. It makes me feel invigorated, in person or remotely, more than just about anything else I have done thus far. I adore being in the classroom as both a graduate student and/or instructor. This summer I even created my own critical media ecological pedagogy framework. The link above is a video of me facilitating a workshop about this human-centered approach at a Scholarship of Teaching & Learning conference this last summer.

Despite all of the above, on Aug. 18, 2021, eight days before the Spring 2021 semester, I was contacted by my basic course director notifying me that my online teaching reassignment was officially revoked by the BGSU administration. I was given an ultimatum to either teach my original courses in person, without being fully vaccinated, or to give up my teaching assistantship.

Over the course of the last several months, countless other faculty members across the country (many in far more despicable state circumstances), have stepped down from their positions, or have been fired, for upholding responsible masking expectations. What has happened to me, and all other faculty, staff and students thus far, shouldn’t happen to anyone. My hope is that by telling my story, I might reveal to others just how dehumanizing and demoralizing the current higher educational structure has become. I am one of the lucky ones who could afford not to have my bodily autonomy disrespected for profit, unlike the many more financially disenfranchised actors in the current structure. We all deserve better.

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