Profile of a Poet: The Zach Macholz Story
September 29, 2013
By James Anderson
Teaching in the South Bronx and working as a Graduate Assistant [GA] at Southern Illinois University Carbondale can both be challenging, and for one aspiring writer, the painful similarities are all too apparent.
As an M.F.A. student in the department, Macholz is also working with Judy Jordan, poet and professor of English at SIUC, to tell the story of his five years spent teaching at New World High School and then Jonathan Levin High School for Media and Communications, both in New York.
After graduating with a B.A. in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University, he underwent a summer of training and then found himself teaching English, language arts, film studies, broadcast journalism, documentary filmmaking, creative writing and credit-recovery after school history classes in one of the poorest districts in the country.
“But I wasn’t writing,” he said. “I wasn’t getting writing done in part because of the demands of my schedule and part because of the emotional fallout of teaching at a place like that and working at a job like that.”
When teaching English at Jonathan Levin, he infused “his class with a mixture of irreverent humor and take-no-crap authority,” Nick DiuLio wrote when he profiled Macholz as one of the “Class Acts,” for the trice-yearly publication, Susquehanna Currents.
Part of the frustration stemmed from the standardized testing procedures teachers were forced to adopt, Macholz said. Parallels with SIUC are greater than expected.
“I think here, similarly,” he says, “there are requirements, there are things that all instructors are forced to comply with that for me – and I think a lot of other people – are things that we have to do but that we don’t necessarily do in good conscience because I’m not sure they’re all in the best interest of students.”
He said the workload for GAs at SIUC is also not really in anyone’s best interest. The demands in his department are especially hard.
“We end up recording attendance in three separate places and gradebooks in two or three separate places,” he said. “And, you know, teaching two sections of 20 students each, and those students are writing five essays – formal essays – over the course of the semester. Plus portfolios. Plus daily work. And homework.”
Macholz came to SIUC after graduating with a Master’s degree in English from Lehman College at the City University of New York where he was a member of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York affiliate union of the American Federation of Teachers. He came to SIUC to pursue his love of writing – a pursuit proving more elusive due to the demands of being a GA in his department.
“For me it was about having a job that allowed me time to write,” he explained, lamenting the factors that impede his passion. “The requirements and responsibilities of teaching for this department continue to become more time consuming and continue to encroach on my own academic work. So while the department says that we are students first and we’ll be treated that way, the reality of requirements and policies regarding GA work, and reporting things like absences and grades – it’s extremely time-consuming, and it’s only become more time consuming in the three years that I’ve been here as all the technology initiatives become implemented.”
Those technology initiatives are pushed during the pre-semester workshop [PSW] for GAs in his department. Some assistants in the department wonder whether the workshop, as currently carried out, is worthwhile.
“I think it’s terribly inadequate,” Macholz said. “It tends to be more focused on how we are implementing the technology initiatives that are being passed down from the administration – how we use that technology, troubleshoot that technology for our students, and compliance with new departmental policies, changes in policies, office procedures. It tends to be more dominated by those things.”
The workshop also involves a series of larger group information sessions, some smaller group meetings regarding the standardized syllabus, discussions about pedagogy, explanation of assignments, and “theoretically learning how to plan and teach a course,” Macholz said.
The shortcomings of the workshop are not the main issue for GAs in his department, however.
“The issue is pay,” Macholz says, “because everyone was mandated to be there. People who missed particular sessions or days received emails saying that they were required to make up that time doing office work for writing studies.”
New GAs were told they had to attend the entire workshop, which started two weeks before the beginning of the semester. The department mandated returning GAs had to attend the workshop a week prior to the start of the semester.
Macholz estimates that first-year assistants worked 70 hours without remuneration, and others worked about 30 hours – all unpaid.
In the past the department has given academic credit for first-timers. Returning GAs are just expected to participate for professional development purposes.
Graduate student workers who failed to attend this last PSW received emails informing them that they had to make up the time with the writing studies office – the office that determines assistantship duties for the department.
There might be room for reaching remedies and mutual agreement between GAs and the department on a number of the above issues, Macholz says, but he is not optimistic when it comes to the pay.
What is the major barrier? “Money,” Macholz said. The issue is not only contentious for his department.
“I think it’s institutional,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just limited to this department, no.”
Macholz said many GAs see it the same way, especially when they do not see a paycheck after two weeks of work.
“I think a lot of GAs are looking at the broader picture,” he said. “I think a lot of people were upset when they found out they weren’t getting paid for PSW.”
Many graduate student workers in colleges across the country have little choice now but to consider these issues in that larger context and think about how local struggles mirror overarching trends.
“I also think this place is a microcosm of the larger battle that’s happening in higher education in terms of privatization and monetization,” Macholz said.
In the book, Change the World Without Taking Power, author John Holloway stresses that monetization is a process. Hence, it is never complete. Thus, it is always “a raging struggle.”
Macholz emphasizes the importance of struggling for what is right. He suggests current systemic processes in education that make the struggle necessary: the move away from shared governance, creation of centralized bureaucratic structures with business model approaches to learning, exploding budgets for administrator pay, reduction in tenured faculty even as college enrollment has increased nation-wide, increasing exploitation of graduate students and precarious labor situations stemming from restructuring practices and deepening socioeconomic divides.
“Everyone is essentially itinerant academic labor,” he said, noting the connection between growing inequality and the decline in overall union membership nationwide – now just 11.3 percent of all wage and salary workers.
“As union membership declines, the concentration of wealth increases,” Macholz said.
He said that correlation is why we need to critically examine “the institutional pillars of our economy,” and understand that for many people unions remain “the best anecdote” to inequality and poor working conditions. Union activity is “the best way to buoy incomes and workplace protections,” he said.
He acknowledged apathy and cynicism can prevail when people – GAs and otherwise – see decisions being made at higher levels with little input from or concern for those at the bottom.
“I’m cynical,” he admitted. But he said there are reasons why he is not apathetic.
“Call me an idealist, but I do still believe that if a majority joined the GA union … if we had enough membership we would have the clout to make certain demands and effect certain decisions or policies – or at the very least just get a sort of seat at the table.”
That negation of apathy is why Matt Ryg, president of GAU, approached Macholz this past summer about becoming a Steward for the union. Cynicism aside, through consistent action Macholz displayed an unwillingness to accept mistreatment of GAs as a foregone conclusion.
“The first quality I look for in a GAU Steward is commitment to the union,” Ryg said. “After that it’s just a matter of showing up. Zach shows up.”
When discussing the power of poetic imagery to render human struggles sensory, Macholz rattles off names like Tomas Gösta Tranströmer, Jaroslav Hašek, in addition to other European and Latin American writers, who have articulated perseverance with great effect and powerful affect. He said “essentially telling a good story,” can change people’s perceptions.
“I think poetry definitely has the ability to radically change the way people think about things and about one another,” he said.
Union activism on top of inadequately compensated GA work taps the precious time and creative energies Macholz said he would love to devote to writing, but sometimes the narrative of life unfolds in such a way that compels action.
It can be hard to convince others to invest in collective action on principle, Macholz said, partly because it’s hard for GAs to understand protections garnered.
Professor Jordan, his mentor, once wrote that “the broken wing inside me opened to the river,
since when I’ve known nothing except a dream gone black, a taste for falling, from which I never wake,” which when transposed into this context can also express the dilemma of a dream deferred in hopes of future students tasting the fruits of past labor.
Update: GAU formally filed a Level One grievance with the Department of English on Friday, Sept. 20, 2013. The grievance has 22 GA signatories.
James Anderson is a Ph.D. student and the GAU Steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.