Petition to Pope Francis: Take a Stand for the Dignity of Adjunct Faculty


The plight of contingent faculty has been getting a lot of attention in the past couple years, and not just in academic journals with a focus on higher education issues. Mainstream media are catching on and publishing stories about the increased proportion of adjunct positions to total faculty numbers, the pitiful wages paid to part-time faculty, their lack of benefits, the instability of their working lives, the impacts of an adjunct-majority faculty on student outcomes and institutional identity, the national push by labor organizations to help those faculty form unions… you name the angle, and you can bet there’s a handful of articles addressing that facet of the adjunctification crisis.


At the same time, there has been an upheaval in the status quo regarding labor rights within institutions with religious affiliation. This is a moral and increasingly a legal conundrum in need of redress. Claiming religious exemption, a Catholic university, for example, has had the law on its side when it blocked its faculty from electing to organize unions. That is common despite the stance made apparent by scholars of the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, that the rights of laborers to form associations among themselves is basic and undeniable. Beginning in 2014, though, the National Labor Relations Board and its regional offices started overturning that exemption, opening the way for laborers at impacted schools to decide for themselves whether or not to form unions.


In the weeks leading up to his visit to the United States, we are asking Pope Francis to address the moral component of this problem. What we ask of him we also ask of you: We ask you to make clear your stance—a stance made clear by faith and by teachings of the Church—regarding the dignity of all laborers of all colleges and universities, Catholic and otherwise, and their right to decide for themselves whether or not to form unions​. Please sign the petition and share widely!​​​​

Publication [translations]

I am very pleased to announce that Asymptote has just published three poems I’ve translated from Petr Bezruč’s Slezské písně (Silesian Songs). I think “Red flower” (“Červený květ”) was one of the first of his poems that I started to work on, five or six years ago. I’d like to extend extra-special thanks to Vendula Linhartova for lending her voice to recordings of the Czech originals; and to Aditi Machado, the Poetry Editor for the journal, for seeing these imperfect renditions through to publication.

Publication [translations]

I am very pleased to announce that Brooklyn Rail’InTranslation has just published six poems I’ve translated from Petr Bezruč’s Slezské písně (Silesian Songs). After you get cozy with the Bard of the Bezkyds, stay a while, read the other wonderful translations there. Many thanks to the translation editors, Jen Zoble and Donald Breckenridge, for putting these out there.


“the Pugilist” sound collage

“The pugilist” is a poem from a manuscript titled Mantasia!, a work-in-progress. This recording Andrew is going to play for you represents the text of the poem [edited slightly at the end, and divergent from the text published so graciously by Painted Bride Quarterly in its 2015 Humor Issue], but it also incorporates several sampled (or appropriated) texts, dutifully listed on the Facebook event page. One of the sources is a recording of the traditional Indian or Hindustani “Raga Nat Bhairav,” as performed by Nikhil Banerjee. Quoting from Wikipedia: “Bhairav has its name from Bhairava, an incarnation of Shiva, and was historically associated with glory and awe, but became identified with peace and devotion.” Quoting from Rajan Parrikar’s article “Bhairav –– The Primordial Sound”: “Concerning its etymology, ‘Bhairav’ is an epithet of Lord Shiva, associated with his fierce, bhayanak swaroopa” or “terrible form.” Quoting from N. Saikrishnan’s blog about classical Indian or Hindustani music: “Bhairav is one of the names of Lord Shiva in his ascetic mode with the holy ashes smeared all over his body with matted hair (Bhayanak Swaroopa in Hindi). Hence it is said to be one of the most masculine ragas in Hindustani tradition. However with its vast scope for permutations and combinations, this raga is used to depict various rasas from valour to [peace] to Bhakthi,” defined by American Heritage Dictionary as “a path to achieving salvation through loving devotion to a particular deity, open to all persons irrespective of sex or caste.”

Appropriations, in order of appearance:

  1. Survivor performing the song “Eye of the Tiger”
  2. Vin Diesel quoted as XXX in XXX movie
  3. Randy Mario Poffo sampled as WWF character Macho Man Randy Savage [assorted clips]
  4. Sylvester Stallone sampled as Rocky Balboa from Rocky and Rocky II and Rocky III movies
  5. Nikhil Banerjee performing the song “Raga Nat Bhairav: Alap”
  6. Mac OSX VoiceOver sampled as Alex reading Jacob A. Bennett poem “the Pugilist”
  7. Mac OSX VoiceOver sampled as Zarvox reading Jacob A. Bennett poem “the Pugilist”
  8. Boxing bell sampled from Rocky movie
  9. Jack Mercer and Billy Costello sampled as Popeye the Sailor [assorted clips]
  10. “Popeye the Sailor” early main theme, which is a mix of traditional songs “The Sailor’s Hornpipe” and “Strike Up the Band (Here Comes a Sailor)”
  11. Nappy Roots beat sampled (and manipulated) from the song “Awnaw”
  12. Burgess Meredith sampled as Mickey Goldmill from Rocky and Rocky II and Rocky III movies
  13. Crowd heckling Rocky sampled from Rocky movie
  14. Míriam Colón sampled as Georgina Montana (Tony’s mom) from Scarface movie
  15. LL Cool J beat sampled from the song “Mama Said Knock You Out”
  16. John Travolta sampled as Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction movie
  17. Mac OSX VoiceOver sampled as Fred quoting Stephen Hawking from Pink Floyd performing the song “Keep Talking”

Letter to a Young Student

[Updated from initial publication.] I don’t think I’ve ever used this site as a vehicle for discussing personal issues, or, like, feelings, so there is no category under which to place what I’m posting today. SO, straight into it, the inaugural “teaching” post:

As a professor, I’m constantly struggling with the tension between maintaining emotional distance from students––partly due to the felt necessity to “be objective,” and partly out of a sense that I have limited resources of empathy––and trying to treat each and every one with humane, patient, attentive care. There’s a lot to be said for the self-renewing properties of fellow-feeling, of smiling at strangers, of embracing the Everlasting Yea and shunning the Everlasting No; but I know from experience that, as an instructor whose purview every semester includes guiding 100+ students through difficult texts and their written responses to them, when I bend the guidelines I myself have set up, I am setting myself up for exhaustion. Deadlines and rubrics help me avoid making tough decisions about the grey areas. If it’s late, it’s late, and there’s a prescribed penalty. If your essay doesn’t satisfy the requirements of the prompt, it doesn’t matter how hard you worked. Jacob cares; Professor Bennett can’t. At least, that’s how it feels sometimes. But I’ve been breaking down the wall between those identities in the last year or so, letting Jacob into the class for a change.

I had a student last semester, really smart, but absent all the time, missing work all the time, and in class discussion, wicked laconic. Like pulling teeth to get a simple “yes” or “no.” By mid-semester, it was clear this kid couldn’t hope to pass, so I pulled the plug on trying to help. Kid dropped the class, per suggestion of advisor, parents, me. This semester, kid is back in another course I teach, and for the first few weeks, things look to have turned around. Not absent once for the first eight weeks; work turned in on time; actually participating in discussion sometimes. Then Spring Break, off for a week. Back in class that next Monday, kid is gone. Next class: gone. Next week and a half: gone. First essay MIA. So I write to the kid to say, “Let’s not do that dance again. You’re in, or you’re out.” Kid turns in the essay, late, incomplete, with accompanying promise to stay the course, finish the course real strong. No more absences, no more mollycoddling required, just going through some tough times. I read the essay, and feel a need to reach out. And that, the email I just sent the kid, is the whole point of this post. 

[Edit: I’m inserting this bracketed addendum after initial publication, because I was just washing dishes and had an epiphany about why it happens that today of all days I feel this strong urge to reach out to the kid, and why I feel the urge to share that act of sharing with the Web. There was a stabbing on campus yesterday. Middle-of-the-day kind of attack, not the usual dead-of-the-weekend-night when the parties are in fullest swing. I’d just walked into class, was writing some small-group peer-critique instructions on the board, when I hear a student say something about a post on Yik Yak, “stabbing in dining hall,” and I assume it’s a joke about Aramark and death-wishes. Then, no, again, someone says there’s been a campus alert and that we’re to shelter-in-place. I leave my phone in my office out of habit, to avoid the other habit of constantly checking messages, to model focused and attentive presence. I check my email on the classroom computer, check the university site, the news. Very little news, no time for capitalization, punctuation, full phrases: “report of stabbing in Blue and Gold dining. W/M 20’s is doer wearing blue La Salle sweatshirt and red hat.” Someone jokes that the kid who wore a red hat to class the first few weeks isn’t wearing his red hat that day. Nervous laughter. First words out of my mouth, whether because I’m frustrated that we’re losing valuable class time or because of the striking surprise of violence in this context: “What the fuck.” Not a question, not an exclamation, muttered more like. Excitement, not chaotic, tittering. A colleague roaming the hall to make sure the doors are closed and locked. Someone in the back says, “My friend isn’t here. She left to go print her homework.” “Where?” “Writing Center, down the hall.” I peek through the window of the locked door. No one, nothing. I turn to the class, “Nobody leave. Don’t open the door, I have the keycard.” I open the door, with my real keys in my fist, spiking through my fingers, just in case. I walk very quickly, worried I look suspicious, toward the Writing Center, door closed and locked. I knock, hear, “Who is it?,” hesitant. Afraid, probably. Of course. “It’s Professor Bennett, and I think a student of mine came here, I just want to make sure she’s ok.” I’m not sheltering, I’m defying the protocols, is this a problem? Door opens, I look at the faces. No, not here. Where the fuck? I’m responsible for minds, not lives, I’m worried now. I shut the door, turn around, the student has just come up the stairwell, had to go to building across the quad––is that the quad?––I say, “There’s been an attack, we need to get back into the classroom and stay there.” “I had to go to Wister, I’m sorry, I meant to print it before.” “It’s ok, you’re ok, it’s ok.” I’m feeling that twinge preceding tears, it will happen a few more times in the next half-hour. I can’t cry, I’m responsible for lives now. What the fuck. Back in class, door locked, I set the class to work. You work, I worry. “You worry about the work, I’ll worry about the danger.” I said that. They laugh. I might cry. “I have to leave again, I have to get my phone, my wife, she’s probably heard, I need to let her know. Nobody leave. Do your work, I’ll be right back.” Keys between fingers, I run down the hall, the other direction this time, uncertain terrain. Every door closed. I see one open, another colleague, I ask if everyone is ok. He walks a step toward me, away from his class, whispers, gestures, “This door doesn’t lock.” Shrugs. I say I’m getting my phone. In my office, I remember I have my dog with me today. I pick him up, carry him over my shoulder, bounding upstairs again and back to class. Everybody loves Carl. Pictures of me on their social media pages, it doesn’t matter now, we’ve been through something. Carl on my lap, in class, licking my hands and I’m answering questions about quotation selection, meaning of logos, what’s a good thesis, and there’s a stabbing victim two minutes away. I keep hitting “refresh” on the classroom browser, very little news. And then the shelter-in-place is lifted. Still no suspect, but the guy is in stable condition.]

Anyhow…this is the Letter to a Young Student:

Kid [not the student’s name, so lay off me, FERPA-enforcers],
Having just read your essay, I’m remembering that you are a good writer, and clearly very bright. But we went through this kind of conversation last term. As a way of reassuring you, and as a way of reminding myself to strive for empathy (and also because I need a break from the repetitive process of grading and giving feedback), here’s a little anecdote:

When I was in college, I had my fair share of personal issues to work through, and even dropped out after my second year. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been prone to depression, sometimes very deep. The easy access to drugs and alcohol, in the midst of a permissive milieu at Wesleyan, only made those dips more devastating and long-lasting. So, despite the fact that I’d always been a top student––3.9 GPA in high school, 1450 SATs (the scoring is different now, but it used to go up to 1600), feedback from college professors along the lines of “near-genius work”––I was kind of losing it, and I dropped out and found a job washing dishes in a café on Main Street in the same town as the university: Eleanor Rigby’s (after the Beatles song). I still remember the little kitchen area: facing the sink in the back corner, I’d put my Discman on repeat (probably Tortoise or Elliott Smith or DJ Shadow), put on my apron and my rubber gloves and my headphones, and I’d spend a few hours every day meditating on the suds, the scrubbing, the tiles on the wall. It was centering, calming, fulfilling. For a little while. But I could only survive on the free cookies and soup for so long. Now, not everyone needs a college degree, but I’d always wanted to teach, so getting the degree wasn’t an option. It was only the beginning. So, I re-applied, got back in, and finished the degree. It wasn’t always easy, but it was what I needed to do.

I’m not suggesting or assuming your situation is at all similar, but thought it might be useful to hear from someone who, though being book-smart and a good writer and a shy kid, had to learn the hard way to get out of his own way, to stop making excuses, and just do the work his dreams required.


Publication [and public reading]

I’ve got a few poems in the imminent 3rd issue of bedfellows magazine, a sexy compendium of the bed-headed and naughty-thoughted. Part of work-in-progress manuscript Mantasia!, meet “the masochist,” “the confabulator,” and “the vibrator.” As part of the issue launch, I’ll be reading at L’Etage this Tuesday 10 March. The event begins at 7:30pm, and you can find more details (lineup, address) here.

bedfellows title