When we think of an Ivy League institution, the characteristics that usually come to mind are prosperity, knowledge and power. It is natural, therefore, to assume that those who are part of these institutions, such as the professors and students, should reap the same benefits. Yet, in a society that is riddled with prejudice, being different has always been difficult, no matter the setting. For this reason, it is sadly common for people to be marginalized by their status, orientation, gender, et cetera. This in turn causes them to feel left out, forgotten or frightened for their safety and their future. One would expect that in fields such as healthcare and education, this difference should not matter. Every human being should have the same opportunity for access to basic healthcare and adequate treatment, as well as proper education. Yet, this is definitely not the case for many. These were some of the expectations Erica Mena had set, once they commenced their career as a professor, but were soon very disappointed.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with the incredible Erica Mena-Landry (Pronouns: They/Them). Erica is an outstanding Puerto Rican poet, book artist, and translator. As a 2014 Poetry MFA graduate from Brown University (with two other previous masters degrees), Erica is currently working as a visiting lecturer of Book Arts at Brown’s Literary Arts Department. They have published several books, one of which is a highly recommended poetry book called “Featherbone”, which won a 2016 Hoffer First Horizons Award.
Throughout my conversation with Erica, it became evident to me that they were a force of nature. As they spoke, you could sense the energy, frustration, and excitement they felt as they talked. After meeting them for the first time at a meeting of the Puerto Rican Association at Brown, I knew I had to engage with them further. During the interview, I asked what had made them decide to come to Brown, and what steps they had taken to get here.
“I moved to San Francisco after graduation, along with my partner, and worked with the American Literary Translation Association for a while, before being invited to teach a class at Brown University called Experimental Poets of Color, this was last semester.” In order to do this, they moved back to Boston, MA, where they were born, while they found a place to settle in Providence, RI in order to begin their journey at this institution, this time as a teacher, not a student. These events all took place the semester before we had our conversation. Through this, I learned that their passion was teaching, and that was their main motivating factor to undergo these changes to their personal life.
However, they expressed that in order to understand the true problem they are currently facing, I would need some context. As we all know, the economic collapse of 2008 has affected millions of people, all around the world. Erica stressed that this also severely impacted the Humanities and Creative Writing industry. “After the economic crisis of 2008, the jobs in the Humanities, especially in Creative Writing, hit a historic floor. This collapse essentially created what they now refer to as a Creative Writing Ceiling.” There is little to no job security in their field, due to the devaluement of their profession after the collapse. “It is really unclear if the field of arts will ever have enough jobs again.” This has forced many in this field to resort to accepting adjunct work, in order to be employed in their field.
In order to understand the conflict of this, we must first understand the nature of many job positions within any large, educational institution. In the case of many institutions, including Ivy League Universities, there are Tenure, Adjunct and contract professors. Tenure professors have signed contracts for ranges of 10, 20, or even 30 years of service. They have guaranteed job security, and cannot be fired from their positions, unless extreme circumstances occur, such as partaking in illegal behavior. This is done in order to protect academic pursuits and intellectual freedom.
However, adjuncts and contract professors are often not as lucky.
These positions often entail fewer benefits such as healthcare, and are usually carried out for shorter periods of time. In the case of contract professors, this can mean 1-3 years, or maybe even 10, with the possibility of renewal; many adjunct lecturers have semester-by-semester contracts. This instability lends to a severe degree of precarity in that individual’s life. “Adjuncts are usually paid very poorly; I used to work in Boston as an adjunct, where I was lucky to make $4,000 a semester. Thankfully, this is not the case at Brown, at least within the department I was adjunct with.” Erica shared this, after I questioned how much adjuncts differed from contract positions. This means that these types of faculty have no real job security, and they must all hope to one day achieve tenure status, which is not an easy task. Achieving a tenure track has been recently shown to be linked to the institution the person obtained their PhD from, as well as the ranking of their institution’s programs. A recent study showed that “ o f English Ph.D.s graduating from the top 6 programs in their field, 12.4 percent land jobs at universities whose graduate programs are ranked among the top 28. For those in the bottom half of all doctoral programs (who collectively make up nearly half of new English Ph.D.s), only 0.21 percent land jobs at those same 28 universities.” This disparity between graduates has furthered the decline of tenure opportunities for upcoming graduates.
The case that Erica brings up in the interview is that these sorts of tenure positions (specifically in their field of Creative Writing) have been in drastic decline after the 2008 crisis. This has caused a snowball effect of thousands of creative writing majors struggling to find sustainable employments in their field of study. As a visiting lecturer, Erica continues to take freelance work as an editor, book designer and translator in addition to their teaching in order to provide for themselves. This has necessarily impacted their work, since they must divide their time and energy between teaching and the other needs they must meet in their daily life. This, in turn, affects the level of enrichment their students receive from the class, since they lack a full professor’s availability.
Erica is committed to staying in Providence, since they love the community they have been able to find there. However, as our conversation continued and more of Erica’s life unfolded, one of their current daily struggles came to light: Healthcare and Identity. As a genderqueer/nonbinary and latinx individual, Erica often found it difficult to find spaces they could be safe in, while still being able to express themselves openly. Growing up, they did not have the accessibility to the conversations regarding gender identity that we see in our society today. “I did not have access to things like Tumblr, where there are so many young people engaging in discourse about gender identity. It was not until a few years ago that I began to identify as queer.” This late-blooming realization and understanding of oneself is a common occurrence among the LGBTQ+ community, and while it is a beautiful and liberating experience, Erica assured me it always comes with drawbacks.
“Being queer already limits the access to safe and affordable healthcare you can receive, if you add gender complexity to that, your options get really limited, really fast.” Erica expressed how, in 2016, they experienced a severe case of copper poisoning due to their IUD, which led to them being bedridden for eight months due to the pain. “It was the worst experience of my life. I went to my doctor, we ran all sorts of blood tests and still failed to come up with a diagnosis. He then suggested, though probably well-intentioned, that I was simply depressed. I have been living with depression for ten years, and I knew that was definitely not the reason, but I could not convince him.” This sort of dismissal of patients happens more often than one might think, especially for queer individuals. Erica later explained that the only reason they were able to acquire adequate treatment was because their partner did research of his own and matched their symptoms to copper poisoning. “If I did not have my partner, I may have never learned what was wrong and much less received treatment for it.”
Due to limited options, Erica still visits this same doctor. They tried visiting a doctor in the Transcare team at the Thundermist Clinic in Rhode Island, in order to seek safer, more tailored care. “I was so excited for this, yet as soon as I went in, I was misgendered, and one doctor refused to renew my prescription (which I have been on for 8 years due to struggles with depression). He treated me as if I was just a drug-seeking criminal. I was left in the room sobbing from how awful the experience was, especially in a place I was supposed to feel welcome and safe.” They later go on to explain how this was an experience that had happened often and within different healthcare settings, which was why they put so much importance on finding a space where they could obtain the treatment they needed, without being discriminated against. “This is why finding a doctor that treated me like a human being is so important to me.”
Where does this all tie in? Due to Erica’s limited budget when it comes to healthcare, they must often subject themselves to less than ideal situations in order to receive treatment. Their lack of employment benefits, and now soon to be removed healthcare benefits, has rendered them unable to afford going to the one doctor they had finally found that treated them with respect. This change has come as a result from changes to the Affordable Care Act, which has placed them outside of the eligible income bracket due to their partner’s income. This has eliminated their health care plan as of the start of the Spring 2018 semester. Consequently, Thundermist has become their only option, due to their sliding-scale system. They are hoping that their appointment with their new doctor will go better than their previous one. “As long as I don’t get sick, I just need to maintain and hope for the best,” a terrifying burden for someone that already struggles with other pressures such as job security.
Later, Erica mentions, “I have always felt my difference in a very strong way, and it is that difference which has made me empathetic to others in a way I feel I would not have been, had I been cis. I am a professor and my passion has always been teaching, and I am happy to be able to create these safe spaces in my classes for students that may have previously lacked them.”
“Academia welcomes and fosters learning and difference, but it causes me pain to think that we might never fully embrace this if we continue the practices and marginalization created by the existence of these contingent positions. I want to do my best work, and right now I am scared I will never be able to.”
However, there are ways the administration of academic institutions may be able to relieve most of the burden of being contingent. Erica mentions that ensuring some form of job security through longer contract terms (no semester by semester basis) and subsidized health care benefits for adjuncts, would relieve a significant portion of the precariousness associated with the position.
While some contingents do have benefits such as these, the majority do not. This is a factor which, if solved, could grant a lot of relief to these professionals. Erica suggests that, while this would mean more steps to take from the part of the administration to ensure university-wide treatment, they could still accomplish this equality while saving money just as they are now. Simple changes such as agreeing to minimum health care coverage or subsidies, or replacing adjunct positions with longer-term contract positions, would go a long way to ensuring job security and safety for professionals currently living in this predicament. They also suggest that in order to advocate for these changes to be made, the common ‘budget-restraint’ excuse would need to be overcome.
“The truth is living ethically in the world costs. It costs money, time, energy. You can either choose to be ethical, or make the most money possible. This is true for a university, it is true for a corporation and it is certainly true for an individual.”
As we neared the end of our meeting, I asked if they had any parting remarks they wished to convey. Erica wholeheartedly assured me that they were grateful and would not be where they were now if it weren’t for the tenured faculty that have helped contingents like them to move forward in their career. Though there are many contingents advocating for change, it is also up to tenured professors (as well as their active students) to help others reach their ideal career settings ,and lend a hand up the academic rungs. Tenured professors have the job security to insist that universities review their policy, and help give a voice to those that are not always invited to the table, while students are the reason these institutions are even set in place. She explains, “Just like people of color cannot end racism alone and white people need to aid in that work, the marginalized faculty cannot ensure a better future for themselves without the support of tenure faculty, staff and other academic officials.”
Erica wanted to thank their partner, whose support has been pivotal in their recent journey to find comfort and security within their own body and expression. While their professional and personal journey is far from over, I am sure Erica, and others like them, will be able to come up on top of their struggles and succeed in the projects they set for themselves in the future.