Against “adjunctification” AND against casualization

April 17, 2018

A recent message from AAUP reminded me that I meant to make this point back in January and it got lost along the way somewhere.

The AAUP message is about current legislative efforts in several states to attack higher ed by making specious arguments about free speech. Along the way, they point out that such specious debates deflect attention from the real problems facing higher ed: defunding (yes!), student debt (yes!), and “the adjunctification of the faculty.”

For a couple of years I’ve had a nagging, vaguely negative reaction the word “adjunctification” even though I’ve almost certainly used it as a shorthand reference to the increasing precarity of the academic workforce. So this isn’t about contending there’s no problem. It wasn’t until the MLA panel I was on this past January that I figured out why it bothers me.

By naming the pathology adjunctification, we’re reinforcing adjunct faculty as the problem. But adjuncts aren’t the problem. The problem is the casualization of the profession, which has enabled if not caused the proliferation of exploitable, abusable positions. I’m skipping past any conversation about the causes/sources of such casualization because I don’t want to lose the thread here.

In short: we need to name the structural problem directly rather than inscribing our colleagues into it (as if they weren’t implicated in it enough already). So I think we need to move away from the word “adjunctification” as a description of our profession’s labor crisis.

 

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“Why are all the jobs NTT?”

April 11, 2018

The title is lifted from the subject line of a post to the WPA-l yesterday, which has prompted a thread that’s simultaneously fascinating and repetitive….. This is the most direct answer I can muster to the original question.

The shift to NTT positions, even the best ones, is about maintaining staffing flexibility. It also has some other advantages in some cases–saving money, making faculty precarious such that participation in shared governance is less active than it should be, but in every case: flexibility.

Management wouldn’t prefer those positions if the positions didn’t benefit management in some way.

Last semester, I learned the phrase “tenure saturation” to describe a problem in another department on my campus. That department had converted several long-term NTT faculty into tenure-eligible faculty via a provision of our union contract. Then enrollment dropped, and the department doesn’t have enough sections to fill out the workload of all the faculty who they contractually owe full-time work to.

[Except that they do; they’ve had to run some very small courses and several they’d otherwise like to have canceled for under-enrollment, but that didn’t stop gravity from working…. ]

Multi-year term positions, if the workload is guaranteed through the length of the contract, put units on the hook for having to provide work in short and medium terms, but it still offers management more flexibility over the long term. Based on union contracts I’ve seen (and I suspect this is true for non-union NTT faculty too, maybe even more so), “automatic” rollovers at the ends of employment periods are automatic only as long as there’s need for the position to continue. That is, it’s still easier to disappear a longterm NTT faculty member than a tenured faculty member, even if management can’t do it during a contract term without cause.

In best cases** where those rollovers are guaranteed, and the positions provide the faculty with fair compensation, job security, due process protections, etc, then whether we call that tenure or not is beside the point. Echoing Michael McCamley’s call to check assumptions about NTT faculty (which I take to heart), I’d ask us to do the same about what we think tenure is and does. In the world of the PA State System, what tenure does is very simple–

1. It slows our evaluation cycle from every year to every five years on the grounds that we’ve demonstrated our ability to perform the job.

2. It slows down (but does NOT stop) the process by which somebody could lose a tenured position if they don’t fully meet professional expectations; in that slow-down, it also requires management to apportion discipline progressively instead of leaping to the worst possible punishment and it enables improvement programs that have enough time to work before anyone decides whether they were successful.

The difference, then, between me as a tenured full-professor and a theoretical 5-year-term NTT colleague is in what happens at the ends of those terms if there are performance or enrollment problems. Tenure does two things for me. It means that I get a lot more latitude to fix performance problems, and it means that if management has to eliminate my position (what we call retrenchment), I get protections that NTT faculty don’t, including a protocol that invokes several ways to find continued employment on our campus or in our system before I actually lose the job.

Tenure does not provide me due process or academic freedom protections that NTT faculty don’t have; our NTT faculty have those too, at least in theory. But it does provide padding against really-bad-if-not-quite-worst-case scenarios that could cost NTT faculty their positions without much notice.

I’ve said this before, but…  I’m going to push against contingency as long as its deployment is putting people’s livelihoods at risk to solve accounting problems.

**More common are situations where faculty can simply be non-renewed at the ends of their terms without any cause or even explanation. So the job is better for them while it exists, but there’s no protection against at-will ejection.


Why I Am Going to CCCC

March 8, 2018

I’ve been planning to write some version of this post since I made the decision to attend CCCC 2018 in Kansas City, knowing full well that I have friends/colleagues/comrades who can’t because it’s not safe for them or won’t in solidarity with people who can’t. [Note: this is not a space to debate the accuracy of their decision. You want to write your own blog post, have at it.]

Late last week, Thomas Passwater wrote an excellent blog post called I Don’t Need CCCC, in which he articulates not only his reasons for not attending the conference this year, but his larger (and in my estimation quite correct) concerns with the emphasis we senior folks put on participation in this particular conference. I can’t do his arguments justice, so let me say loud and clear: GO READ THE WHOLE POST. AND UNDERSTAND IT. AND FEEL IT.

Yet, I’m still going. And I think he (and everybody else who isn’t going) deserves an explanation. Some of this is about acknowledging some privilege–I can expect to be safe, so I’m going, and on that level it’s the “business as usual” that some people are unable or refusing to participate in. I’m going to see friends and eat food my wife doesn’t like. I’ll probably go running a couple of times and post some pictures.

I decided against withdrawing from the conference this year for two reasons, one pretty navel-gazing.

When Marc Bousquet and I had our spectacular public flap a couple of years ago, some pretty personal things got said, but one thing he said about me on the WPA-l rang loud and clear and true. Up against the work he and others have done on adjunct labor activism, I was and still am a relative newcomer, and the status I’ve been accorded in some corners of our field is probably outsized in relation to my actual accomplishments. Or in more euphemistic terms (mine, not his), I’ve got some Flavor of the Month cred right now.

When the Research Network Forum leadership asked Amy Lynch-Biniek and me to do plenaries about labor research, I understood that I would likely never again have the opportunity to address that peculiar combination of audiences to say some things that are at the heart of everything I’ve worked on or thought about for my entire professional life. I hope it’s not the culminating experience of my career (at age 49 that would leave a slow denouement), but if I believe anything else I’ve done or said in the last twenty years, I need to do this.

Of course, I could have decided to attend for that one day and come home, but I didn’t. I would have joined a boycott had it been called by the NCTE Joint Caucuses, by the way, and I was pretty public about that.

In the absence of that call, the decision came down to a question of what I could do via boycott that I couldn’t do by attending and vice versa. And put simply, I accomplish little by sitting out, even if I sit it out loudly. I don’t make unsafe people safer. I don’t make CCCC more responsive to the needs of marginalized members by withholding my registration and participation. Maybe had we done it en masse, but once it seemed clear that wasn’t going to happen, my individual ability to make such demands disappeared.

I can do something by being there that I can’t do from home, and this is a sworn promise to everyone who can’t: serve as a constant reminder that you aren’t there, and it’s bullshit that you can’t be. It’s not just sad. It’s not something that even well-attended “activism sessions” will fix (I’m all in favor of those, by the way; we need to do that every year). This CCCC will suck worse than any other in the 20 years I’ve been attending them, no matter how it goes, and I hope witnessing, documenting, and emphasizing that on the ground helps earn some trust back from people who entirely understandably may wonder how I can stand to be there when you can’t.


On Pragmatism and Purity

February 7, 2018

Or:

Lets-Be-careful-Out-There

Following up on a recent Facebook thread where I tried to trouble the “pragmatist” v “purist” binary.

Russell Berman, in “House Democrats Turn on One of Their Own” (Atlantic, 2/7), covers the Congressional race in IL’s 3rd district, focusing on the Democratic primary (since the GOP is going to nominate an actual Nazi).

The positions of “moderate” incumbent Dan Lipinski and “progressive” Marie Newman do seem quite different; Berman focuses on Lipinski’s anti-abortion position (about which he’s rather open and has still won in the district for years) as well as his vote against the ACA and slow acceptance of LGBT equality. Newman is, by all accounts, somewhat more progressive on those issues. Since I can’t vote there, the specifics of those positions aren’t my concern.

I am, however, concerned with the way Berman closes.

The Lipinski-Newman primary next month won’t determine the balance of power in Congress, but it can provide an early clue to what kind of Democrat voters want in the age of Trump—the pragmatist or the purist.

Based on what he details, there’s simply no support for this distinction. Nothing suggests that Lipinski is skilled at reaching productive compromises on legislation that improves people’s lives, or that Newman is less skilled; nor is there evidence that Newman is less so. There isn’t evidence that Newman is more dogmatic about her positions than Lipinski, and honestly it’s hard to imagine someone more dogmatic about a position than any anti-choice person I’ve ever heard of–I don’t know any anti-choicers whose opposition isn’t based on what they take to be inviolable religious dogma. If that’s not an example of purity, I have literally no clue what that word means.

The fact that Lipinski has some conventionally Democratic stances and some conventionally not-Democratic stances doesn’t necessarily make him a “pragmatist.” It does mean he’s got different positions on things that don’t line up with what other people in his party think, but that’s not what “pragmatist” means, nor “moderate” (if you subscribe to some lefty and some righty positions, those don’t average out to moderate).

In last week’s Facebook thread, I personalized the question about the litmus test for “purity” by pointing that I get critiqued for being both too “pragmatic” and too “purist” for the same positions. Berman helps to clarify what I was trying to get at…

…which is that conflating the substance of somebody’s positions with their willingness to compromise on those positions in order to function in a deliberative system isn’t helpful. Likewise, plenty of self-identified “moderates” and “centrists” have claimed their position as the moral high ground (i.e., “pure”) by writing off everybody further to left or right as “extremists.”

This isn’t to say that dogmatists and sellouts don’t exist. But putting the names “purist” and “pragmatist” to those characters is problematic, and expanding the scope of those labels to include people who aren’t either of those is worse.

 


Re-Redux: The worst thing about contingency is watching the person who’s firing you act like you’re not a person*

January 18, 2018

*OK, that’s not worse than actually losing the work. But this is still a terrible thing about contingency.

[Added post-publication: I’m skipping over the question of how legitimate budgets are as reasons for non-renewals, but that doesn’t mean I’m just conceding the argument.]

I was going to write about a column in Inside Higher Ed that ran the other day, called “Portrait of a Budget Cut,” and lost track of time. So hat-tip to friend and activist comrade Lydia Field Snow for posting it on Facebook and tagging me, reminding me that I’d meant to say something(s).

In the column, adjunct professor Sara Tatyana Bernstein describes the experience of getting an email from her chair with the subject line “2017-2018 Budget Cuts.” She opened the email to discover that what it actually contained was her notice of non-renewal for the following year. The story she tells is the one I couldn’t (because it hasn’t happened to me) in the earlier posts in this series: The Worst Thing about Contingency is Contingency, and Redux: Contingency is Still Worse.

Read Bernstein’s piece for her reactions and thinking about it–she doesn’t need me to tell it to you–but I want to say two things to her chair (and any other chair who would approach this situation the same way hers did. They’re really basically the same point, but it’s probably worth saying two different ways.

First: The email subject line is grotesquely misleading. As much as many adjunct faculty are concerned about institutional/structural issues at their workplaces and want to be informed about what’s going on, obscuring a non-renewal notice by posing it as a budget update just doubles the cruelty of what it actually is. You aren’t making your faculty feel better by masking the reality of what you’re telling them; you’re making yourself feel better.

Second: Email? If you’re going to tell somebody they no longer have a job, at least have the courage it to tell it to them in person. And if you hesitate to do that because you don’t want to have to deal with their human reactions face to face, maybe NOW would be a good time to register the human part, before you’re put in a position where you feel like you have to dehumanize them.

Adjunct activists and TT/T allies/advocates have made the point that we (TT/T faculty and administrators) need to treat our adjunct colleagues with basic respect as part of the culture shift necessary for any kind of genuine equity. That basic respect has to extend even to worst-case conversations like this one. That it doesn’t is one of the reasons why it’s still so easy for management to exploit the precarity of the faculty in contingent positions. If we can’t face our own colleagues with courage as part of our jobs, how are we going to face deans and provosts with courage when we need to?


OK, so the “progress” hasn’t been “amazing” [A correction to something I said at MLA 2018]

January 8, 2018

On Saturday, I was part of an MLA panel called “What Tenured Professors Can Do about Adjunctification.” A group of us who have responded to various calls to work for contingent faculty equality/equity gathered to generate ideas and tactics for tenured faculty to motivate others in our cohort to fight against the exploitation of contingent faculty (and contingency more generally). Our purpose wasn’t to strategize a movement, that is, but to get tenured faculty involved in work that’s already happening.

We began by introducing ourselves and explaining our reasons for joining the panel. The first two speakers noted the lack of progress we’ve made nationally on addressing labor inequality. As I listened, I was concerned about the tone this would set. We were there to catalyze new activism, and starting by emphasizing failures felt, well, awkward.

When it was my turn, I responded directly to the claim that nothing has really changed. Because I was trying to accomplish too many things at once, I said something that (I hear secondhand) rang a sour note for a lot of adjunct faculty; I need to clarify what I was after. I don’t remember the exact language, but it was something like, “I disagree that nothing has happened. There’s been amazing progress around the country, and the wins we’ve seen have set the standard we all need to be aiming for.”

My friend Amy Lynch-Biniek was live-tweeting the session. I don’t use Twitter so I never saw any reaction, but I learned last night that some contingent faculty reacted badly to the “amazing progress” claim. After an exchange on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, I realize why. For many contingent faculty, the claim that nothing has changed rings truer than mine that lots of things have.

Point taken.

What I wanted to get at, but didn’t say well, is that I agree we haven’t overthrown neoliberalism or the casualization of higher ed. Tens of thousands of contingent faculty positions are still contingent–and as I’ve argued here before, contingency is more stressful than permanence, even when pay and working conditions are equitable. But the wins, even those at smaller scale, also count for something–not least for the people who benefit from them, and also for the sense of possibility they generate for everyone else.

Not just the sense of possibility, either. Those efforts and successes call on the rest of us to do better. As our panel convener, Carolyn Betensky, said (loosely paraphrased) in her opening remarks: the faculty most vulnerable to retaliation and job loss for their activism, and whose conditions are worst even if they keep their jobs, shouldn’t be alone in fighting back against the casualization of the academic labor force.

We have a responsibility to our colleagues off the tenure track and on it; and to the students who attend our schools (and more). That responsibility starts with treating each other like human beings and demanding that others do the same.

[I’ve written at length about ethical problems for tenured/tenure-track faculty doing adjunct-activist work. If anything I’m saying in this post is setting off those alarms for you, I hope you’ll read this chapter and see that I get it.]


Open letter to Senators Corker, Flake, Johnson, and other GOPers who might vote against #TaxScam

December 1, 2017

Senators:

I’m sending this letter to you because my own state’s GOP Senator, Pat Toomey, stopped even pretending to listen to his constituents the day after his re-election. Since then, his offices have been known to turn off their phones, refuse to clean out voice-mail boxes, insult and ignore visitors by labeling them “paid protestors” (which in some cases was half true–the protestor part–but in most was untrue on both counts), and generally pretend like they weren’t hearing tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians calling on him not to vote the way he’s voted on healthcare and tax policy.

So, sadly, we Pennsylvanians who aren’t in the bag for Wall Street financiers and corporate raiders are left to turn to you in hopes that you’ll listen to us better than your colleague who gets paid to hear us.

And the message is simple: vote down this lunatic tax bill. It helps nobody but ultra-wealthy large-business/corporate ownership, and it does so at the expense of everyone else. Obviously, you’re more conservative than I am and won’t lose sleep over the slashing of benefits that many working people depend on, but you all know perfectly well this bill will do nothing except explode the deficit so that people who don’t need more can have it at the expense of everybody else.

I’m deeply saddened that I have to reach out this way to Senators who have your own constituencies to deal with, but since Senator Toomey no longer listens to anyone but his corporate masters, I’m left with little choice. Somebody needs to hear it, and if it’s not Senator Toomey, I hope it’s you. Otherwise millions of citizens are left voiceless, and as US Senators, I hope you realize how dangerous that is.

Thanks for your consideration.