The worst thing about contingency is contingency

July 26, 2014

Prompted by a very interesting conversation this morning on my Facebook over this blog post, which contends among other things that:

Though peo­ple are loath to admit it, the tenure-track posi­tion is the most scru­ti­nized and pressure-packed of fac­ulty posi­tions when talk­ing strictly about pro­fes­sional expec­ta­tions. This, of course, is because exist­ing depart­ment and insti­tu­tional bylaws require more reviews, paper­work, hoop nav­i­ga­tion, and file pro­duc­tion from this employee class than any other. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the tenure process twice now in two dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, I could go on for months here. As a mat­ter of fact, one of the things I did before leav­ing my pre­vi­ous insti­tu­tion was to help change our depart­ment bylaws in order to make life less ridicu­lous, bur­den­some, and puni­tive for those on the tenure track. (For exam­ple, there is no need for your 2nd year reten­tion file to be 300 pages by require­ment, is there?)

I didn’t react well to the claim, even though it is “strictly about professional expectations.” As what some people might describe as a rabid activist for adjunct labor equity, I immediately and strongly contested the author’s allocation of institutional power, which says that pre-tenure tenure-track faculty aren’t very powerful either, and that the commonplace adjunct rhetoric claiming that tenure-track faculty could just fix it all if we wanted to is wrong-headed.

The conversation on Facebook got a little testy, as many of these conversations do, but it got me thinking about some things I wanted to say in more detail than the Comment boxes invite.

One of the points I was trying to make is that I fully agree about how stressful it is to be a junior tenure-track faculty member. Every single thing you do or say feels monitored–and sometimes is. As tenure-track positions become rarer, the stakes go up. It’s common to get bad advice–sometimes from people who mean well, sometimes not–and difficult to know what’s what as a new person navigating an unfamiliar institution. And so on. I think the author of this blog post gets all that right.

I think he’s right too when he says that the generalized animus towards tenure-track and tenured faculty is misplaced. Not many of us are as active in pursuit of labor equity as I’d like for us to be, but very few of us are as actively willing to see contingent faculty suffer as many contingent faculty seem to think we are. Or put another way, there are lots of us trying to do at least some of the right things. It’s not enough, and I’m not saying that calling out complicity in an unjust system shouldn’t happen. I am saying generalizations like “All tenured faculty are happy to have adjuncts doing their work for them” are incorrect and unhelpful. I’ve come close to throwing it in a couple of times when faced with an onslaught of that animus; there’s only so many times you can hear yourself accused before you walk away.

In fact, I would go even further in contesting some of the common wisdom about the differences between adjunct and tenure-track positions. He doesn’t address the “We do the same job ” trope, for example, which makes me crazy. Yes, there are adjunct faculty who do research and service to the extent their positions afford it, but those are rarely requirements (I would be fine if they were–this isn’t an argument about qualifications). Even as a tenured full professor, I can get fired if I stop doing them–and rightly so. It would take a long time and I’d get lots of chances to fix it, but the fact that my position requires it and my adjunct colleagues’ don’t makes my job different. Before you respond that they teach more than I do, no they don’t–not in my system, where the full-time teaching load for both contingent and non-contingent faculty is 4/4. I had this argument early this summer on a national listserv of adjunct activists, and it didn’t go over very well.

So I’m willing to concede that I overreacted to the author’s position, given that I’m agreeing with his major points and adding to them. With that said, I’m not fully satisfied with the tension he leaves unresolved and think this next part needs saying loud and clear.

Are tenure-track faculty under a great deal of pressure? You bet. I’m in my professional teens as of this year (starting my 13th year out of grad school), so it hasn’t been that long since I was untenured. And I was untenured in a place where the politics surrounding tenure and promotion aren’t nearly as vicious and capricious as they are in many (Union Yes!).

But, and this is the point I was trying to make originally on the Facebook post, the pressure on tenure-track faculty simply isn’t comparable to the stress on contingent faculty whose jobs may shrink or disappear without notice or explanation; whose benefits, if there are any at all, are often tied to their teaching loads in such a way that losing a course could cost them much more than simply the lost salary (which already sucks); if you’ve read this much of this post already, you know this litany already. In practical terms that risk is not as prominent for some contingent faculty as for others, but it’s never not there. Pre-tenured faculty at most institutions can, I realize, lose their positions in the first two or three years without cause, the risk of which is horrifically stressful, but even then–during the academic year, they’re guaranteed full-time work, full-time benefits, and full-time pay.

As long as contingent faculty jobs can be changed or taken away for any or no reason at all, their employment situations are worse than mine. No matter how complicated an institution or a political dynamic, I just can’t see that any other way right now.

Why you should sign a petition calling for the Department of Labor to investigate contingent faculty working conditions

July 14, 2014

If you’re a Facebook friend or in my G+ network, you’ve seen me post a link to this petition calling for the Department of Labor to investigate the working conditions of contingent faculty in the US.

If you haven’t already, here’s why you should do this–

If you’re a contingent faculty member, it may (should?) benefit you directly. I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t sign it, especially because your local administration should never know that you did. It’s safe, and it’s potentially very helpful.

If you’re a faculty member who isn’t contingent, there are several reasons to do this. First, it’s an obvious act of solidarity with our contingent colleagues whose positions are untenable; even contingent faculty with the best salaries and benefits and access to governance and all the rest of it are still contingent. Second, if you believe that “we” need to be taking action on behalf of contingent faculty but don’t have faith in our professional organizations, unions, etc, this petition opens up another avenue for action. Third, there is simply no good reason not to call for this. I can’t imagine the world in which the conditions of contingency that our adjunct faculty work in are reasonable.

If you’re an academic administrator/manager, a successful petition to the Department of Labor may help alleviate the pressure on you to make changes, especially without any guidance from the law. At the very least, a successful petition will clarify what the rules are, and I don’t know any administrators who aren’t happier knowing that.

If you’re a student, or the parent/guardian of a student, you may not know how many of the faculty teaching in American colleges and universities are contingent, meaning they have mostly short-term (one semester, mostly, sometimes a year, very rarely longer than that) contracts, usually are compensated very poorly (the petition has plenty of the numbers if you need to see them), often don’t have access to reasonable offices or equipment or libraries or the resources all college faculty need to do our work. Individual adjunct faculty work against daunting odds and conditions to serve you well, and can only do better if they’re supported reasonably well. You can help make that happen–again, at no cost or risk to yourself.

If you’re anybody else, especially if you’re also a contingent (temporary, term, contract, freelance, etc) worker in any other field, you should sign this petition as an act of solidarity with contingent colleagues, and as a way of helping to build the network of contingent workers that can respond en masse to the exploitation happening everywhere.

As simply as I can put it, there is no good reason not to sign.

For those of you who are interested in the larger adjunct labor movement, I would also argue supporting this campaign is important because it opens up yet another new approach to fighting for equity. We’ve seen creative approaches growing and intertwining at a lively rate in the last few years: Josh Boldt’s Adjunct Project; SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign; the New Faculty Majority; more recently the #mlademocracy campaign, which has successfully put forward a slate of contingent and contingent-supportive candidates to run for the organization’s offices; the AFU’s petition to the Department of Justice to investigate Higher Ed writ large for denial of civil rights and collusion, and Ana Maria Fores Tamayo’s petition calling explicitly for better pay for adjunct faculty.

Those efforts, of various sizes and scopes, have met with varying degrees of success–just like any efforts do. I’ve supported or been involved (more or less tangentially) in all of them , including this one, and believe that supporting this petition campaign is important not only because it’s a good idea, but also because it represents another possible path to equity–and against the alternative, which is to do nothing, it’s a path well taken.

What I Didn’t Spend at Wal Mart

November 19, 2012

For years, I’ve been contending that people who boycott aren’t maximizing their impact if they don’t make clear what the boycott is costing the target of the boycott. And in this era of crowd-sourcing on teh Internetz, it’s not terribly difficult to do. So as a first step in attempting to aggregate sales Wal Mart is losing to companies that, um, don’t act like Wal Mart, I invite people to post evidence of purchases you chose not to make at Wal Mart: photos of items (with prices), receipts (make sure your credit card # isn’t visible!), order forms (again, make sure your private info isn’t visible), etc.

Here’s my first entry!

Your Zazzle Order


This email is a confirmation of your order 131-22945560-1437350. You can track the status of this order at the Order Status Page.

Right now, our team is hand-picking your custom products and preparing them for production. We will be sure to let you know as soon as your order is ready for shipment.

Thanks again for your order. We’ll be in touch soon!

Order ID: 131-22945560-1437350
Order Date: 11/16/2012

Billing Summary:

Seth Kahn
276 Canterbury Dr.

West Chester, PA, 19380
United States

Subtotal: $22.52
Shipping: $5.99
Tax: $0.00
Total: $28.51
Paid With  
Visa (…xxxxx): $28.51

Shipping Info:

The following item(s) will be shipped to:

Seth Kahn
276 Canterbury Dr.

West Chester, PA, 19380
United States

via Standard – with tracking Shipping (4-7 Business Days After Manufacturing)

Defend Public Education in PAzazzle_shirt
by RagingChicken

Basic T-Shirt, White, Adult XL

Qty. Price Discount Subtotal
1 $20.10 -$10.05 $10.05
Share This! |  Facebook  Twitter  Wordpress  Blogger

Class Warrior t-shirt WITHOUT back graphic zazzle_shirt
by RagingChicken

Basic 3/4 Sleeve Raglan, White/Black, Adult 2X

Qty. Price Discount Subtotal
1 $24.95 -$12.48 $12.47
Share This! |  Facebook  Twitter  Wordpress  Blogger

If you can’t post in the Comments section, send me the info and I’ll post it for you.


“I don’t know”

September 12, 2012

Although most of my blogging these days happens on the blog I contribute to for our faculty union local, every once in a while I have to say something higher-ed related that I can’t publish under the auspices of the union. This is one of those…

In the last month-ish, on two occasions high-level managers on my campus have answered questions that seemed extremely important to know details about with rather off-handed “I don’t know.”

The first time, our state-level boss, the Chancellor, encouraged (in some way we don’t exactly know the details of) the Provosts of all 14 schools in the system to sign contracts with a for-profit company called Learning Counts. If you don’t have the time/energy/stomach to click through, Learning Counts invites students to submit portfolios describing “prior learning experiences” (professional, military, etc) that Learning Counts converts into recommendations for college credit. That is, they believe what people do out in the world should earn them course credit at colleges. I’ll set aside my dispute with that claim (for now–it’ll get another post soon), and instead focus on a different problem. In our system, the evaluation of students’ petitions for course credit (via transfer, or a process some departments have called Credit by Exam, or by AP/CLEP) is done by faculty. Not only is it work that we’re better suited to do (because we’re the ones who write and understand our own curricula, not to mention all sorts of things about teaching and learning because we’re [bleeping] professionals), but in our system it’s also work faculty get compensated for. So, the system has asked Provosts to sign an agreement that hands off faculty work to people who may well do worse at it.

At a periodic face-to-face meeting the union local has with management (called Meet and Discuss–I’m not sure how common that term is in other unions), we asked the Provost some questions about this agreement after learning that she’d already signed the contract. Most evocative of the problem here, we asked, “What do you know about Learning Counts’ process for evaluating courses, or their criteria? How does this work?”

“I don’t know.”


Understand that I’m not attacking the Provost personally here. I have no idea what was happening in her head, nor do I know what kinds of demands were made of her and her fellow Provosts, or any of that. But I’m very distressed that she, anybody, would sign onto an agreement that has severe implications on faculty work, curriculum, and the quality of our institution’s degrees and brands, without knowing how that agreement gets executed.

Second (and I did post something about this on our union chapter blog last night–click here for background). I had an email exchange with the WCU VP responsible for answering Right to Know requests about National Educational Services’ use of the term “internal research” as the rationale for their information request. This morning, the VP told me that he doesn’t really know what they mean by the term, but once they have the information they can pretty much do what they want with it.

So. Anybody can make a Right to Know request and offer only the vaguest excuse for wanting the information. Then, once they have it, they can do anything they want with it even though that use has nothing to do with the request for asking.

So why bother vetting those requests at all?

Gee. I don’t know.

Resistance to change

July 21, 2012

Two seemingly unrelated bits of context/scene-setting here–

1. Way back in 2004, my officemate Juanita Rogers Comfort and I were on a panel with a grad school mentor of mine, Rebecca Moore Howard, at the Rhetoric Society of America conference. Becky’s paper for that panel, which I read for her because she couldn’t make the trip, was called “Balancing Institutional Expectations and Disciplinary Expertise.” In short, Becky contends that as members of institutions, our own disciplinary knowledge about how students learn to write, what “good writing” entails, etc only buy us so much leeway in resisting the demands our colleagues in other disciplines (sometimes even our own) and administrators put on us, even when those demands reflect a clear misunderstanding of students, rhetoric, and writing instruction. She doesn’t recommend caving, either, and the paper ends before she could articulate that balance very fully–and even if she could have, it would have been different for every school and time anyway, so…

2. Over the last couple of years, as the public debate about online education (primarily higher ed, but increasingly K-12 too) has heated up, the refrain “You people who resist online education are just resistant to change” appears quite frequently. The argument, apparently, is that because we’re not willing to leap on a bandwagon (or accept the “new normal” or [insert neo-liberal phrase here]), we’re just too attached to our own bad selves to get with the program (pun intended).

The connection between these two points is, I hope, kind of obvious.

But just in case–

There are, as far as I can tell, 3 versions of the pro on-line education argument.

1. Online courses/programs give college access to students who couldn’t get it otherwise–because of geography, schedules, life issues…  That is, if you can’t get to college any other way, you can do this. I know very few professional educators who have a complaint with this notion.

2. Online courses/programs are just as good as conventional brick and mortar programs because they offer all kinds of advantages that mitigate the disadvantages. Or, the more disingenuous version I’ve seen occasionally (but not made by any professionals), because you can’t prove that online courses aren’t as good as face-to-face courses, they must be, so there.

3. Online courses/programs are better. The most recent iteration of this argument is about MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses)–that MOOCs feature the very best faculty, using the very best technology, emphasizing the very best content, and offering it for the very best price (free).

Here’s the thing.

I’m actually not at all opposed to putting college content online, or the notion that online material can provide positive learning experiences for college students. I’ve spent the last three years on a team, funded by a National Science Foundation grant, that’s developing interactive science ethics education modules for upper-level undergraduate and graduate science students. The rationale for our project is that we’re able to provide experiential learning opportunities to students anywhere on the planet (as long as they read English, for now), without the expense of having to build, stock, or travel to labs (or the danger of conducting experiments with real machines and chemicals!). Clearly, my work on this project should demonstrate that I’m not opposed, in principle, to making college educational opportunities available on the Internetz.


As Mark Edmundsun argues in Friday’s New York Times, college education is, at its heart, dialogic. That means “interactive” if “dialogic” sounds too pretentious. His version of dialogue, that teachers can’t teach well unless we get direct, immediate, palpable feedback from students doesn’t go far enough even for my taste–I’d argue that true dialogue entails students teaching me as much as I teach them, but that’s a debate he and I should have between the two of us:)–but the point is important. Even the best professor, once he/she has recorded a lecture and posted a series of exercises that he/she never looks at students’ responses to, isn’t engaging with the students. That is, access to information does not equal education in the rich sense of the word that professional educators mean it.

As I’ve been interviewing faculty members (so far, two in the US and one in New Zealand) who have beta-tested the SciEthics Interactive modules we’re developing for NSF, one of the very clear themes emerging from those conversations is that the modules are great, but they don’t do much without the support of a faculty member contextualizing and debriefing the students, and they do even less without the students having an opportunity to debrief and reflect on their experiences together.

That is: even a module that’s designed, from beginning to end, to be interactive and experiential doesn’t work as well as it could if the students just complete it individually and never engage other students or teachers about it.

As online technologies get better at allowing real-time, face-to-face interactions over long distances (Skype, Google+ hangouts, videoconferencing technologies of other kinds), the possibilities for authentically interactive/dialogic education will improve. And I’m fine with that. If I could do what I do anywhere I wanted to be as long as I have internet access, I’d probably like that–at least sometimes. But we’re not there yet.

And for ed-tech advocates to accuse me of refusing to get with the program because my long experience as a teacher and researcher gives me quite solid grounds for resisting is mistaken if not dishonest. Most of the people advocating hightech willy-nilly have either not taught, or have financial attachments to hightech concerns. And pardon me for putting it so bluntly, but I think I know better than the first, and my motives aren’t as corrupt as the second.

Serendipity, or When You Need Evidence for a Really Bad Idea, Sometimes the Internet Provides

December 18, 2011

I really, really don’t have time to be thinking about this right now in the face of our final grade deadline, but this is just too good to pass up.

The juxtaposition between two texts sometimes couldn’t be more serendipitous. This is one of those moments.

1. On December 14, 2011, the Chancellor of the PASSHE system, Dr. John Cavanaugh published an opinion piece in the Views section of Inside Higher Ed in which he contends, as part of a larger argument about the need for universities to rethink the way we measure and credit student learning, that faculty are sticks in the mud who add little, if anything, to the college experience. His contention is that easy access to information means that those damn elitist old fashioned faculty members might have to give up some of the turf we’ve claimed as our own in terms of deciding what students ought to learn and how.

I have a lot to say about his argument (this specific part of it and some others), but I’m going to set those aside for now in favor of juxtaposing it with an entry I just read a few minutes ago on the Politics USA blog.

2. In a rather partisan attack against wacky conservatives who invoke conspiracies for political expediency, Hrafnkell Haraldsson points to a recent example of a rather common phenomenon in blogger circles (I’m guilty of it too to some extent): the failure to check the accuracy of somebody else’s information before you propagate it. In this particular case, a wingnut blogger refers readers to a site that purports to show an Executive Order, signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, that confers to the Federal Government the authority to do pretty much anything it wants to anybody it wants to, anytime it feels like it. This canard has a long history of circulating among conspiratoids and has been discredited quite thoroughly (by simply reading the actual Executive Order, which Haraldsson correctly reports you can find in about 20 seconds).

Although Haraldsson’s article is framed as an accusation against conservatives that they trump up insane fears for political reasons with utter disregard for, y’know, evidence or reality or anything, the substance of his point couldn’t demonstrate more clearly why Chancellor Cavanaugh’s point about faculty’s lack of added value is so silly.

Is there a wealth of fantastic information on the internet, available to anyone with a connection and a machine? You bet there is. But there’s also a wealth of unchecked, unvetted, detached-from-reality madness out there, and if nobody is having an organized, systematic conversation about how to tell the difference, not to mention what to do with that information even once you’ve decided it’s useful, then we’ve all but given up hope of any smarter, better–hell, let’s just say it: more ethical–exchanges of information and ideas, deliberations, calls to action, or anything else that more and better access to information is supposed to produce.

PASSHE Students, Faculty, Staff, Alums, Managers! Please read this!

November 20, 2011

[Updated Fri 11/25 @ 8:07 am: Two things. First, I've made two very slight changes to the text of the letter, one of which is extending the deadline of the Chancellor to respond; that's at the recommendation of WCU's President Greg Weisenstein. I also added an explicit reference to free expression rights in the second paragraph, to respond to some concern that I was advocating protection for violent protests. While I certainly don't advocate repressive police violence against anybody, neither do I advocate violent protest. Seemed like a fair way to split the difference. Second, as of now, we're at 142 signatures and counting. That's with my amateur canvassing effort and the goodwill of a bunch of folks who are helping spread it. However, I still need help reaching Cheyney and Mansfied (no signatures from either), ESU, Clarion, and Slippery Rock (only one from each), and from staff and managers at all campuses. Thanks!]

Folks: The letter below is adapted from a letter drafted and shared by colleague at Eastern Connecticut State U, calling on her university president to make a statement in support protest rights on their campuses. I’ve made some adaptations to it, with an eye towards making it system-wide and more inclusive for all members of the PASSHE community.

I hope people will sign onto it. If you’re willing to contribute your name, please send me a message with your name, your institution, and a department/unit you work in (or major/majored in). I intend to send the letter sometime Tuesday afternoon, so please respond quickly and share widely.


Dear Chancellor Cavanaugh:We write as faculty, staff, students, alums, and managers–as members of the PASSHE community–to express both our dismay at the repressive use of force against students at the University of California-Davis, and our strong request that you make a public statement expressing your support for campus community members’ right to protest in public spaces.We are saddened and outraged that students in US colleges and universities are being met with pepper spray when they choose, peacefully, to exercise their First Amendment rights, and just as importantly what we have  learned and taught in our classes and elsewhere on our campuses.  Those of us who grew up during or have studied the Sixties protests, or the anti-globalization protests in Seattle and Miami—as well as those who may have participated in them and others since—are reminded very uncomfortably of another time.  And we worry that our students, staff, faculty, and management may be watching the UC-Davis video (which has, by now, gone viral) and be worried about what may happen on our campuses if we choose to speak our minds.We ask, then, that by Monday, December 12, you write an open letter to our system-wide community (and maybe post it on the portal?) assuring us that we will be safe if we choose to protest on our campuses and that, rather than meeting any protests with violence, you will use them as an opportunity to engage in dialogue about our concerns. We trust your fundamental humanity and fairness; please share that with our community, so we know we can be thankful that we attend and work for universities that are places of peace and safety.

Extending you best wishes for a happy holiday season,



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