On the Ghost of Reagan at DNC 2016, or, Be Careful What You Wish For

July 30, 2016

I’ve been trying to sort out my mixed reactions to the jingoistic displays of patriotism at the DNC for a couple of days now. As a peace activist, I’m very unhappy about the gleeful waving around of military might. However, in some ways, the Democratic Party was giving the peacenik left what we’ve been asking for since, oh, about 2003.

I used to be one of the folks who stood at the central intersection in downtown West Chester every Saturday to vigil against the invasion/occupation of Iraq; the group that organized the vigils, the Chester County Peace Movement, also used to have regular meetings and other events at which we would talk in really wonky terms about how to do more than just witnessing and arguing with the proto-Tea-Partiers across the street. The question we almost always got stuck on was, “Why has the GOP been able to claim ‘patriotism’ for their side?” We love and respect the United States as much as they do, we said, and we believed that it was patriotic to fight back against an unjustly installed government committing unjust horrors against another sovereign nation. Hence the chant: What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like.

The last time I remember clearly being actively involved in that conversation was in the early days of this blog, 2007’ish, with a couple of the right-wingers who were furiously insistent that we were “traitors” because we didn’t “love our country” because we didn’t “support the troops” because we “criticized the war effort” because I’m one of those “dangerous radical leftist academics” because…. Point is, aside from a snarky cheapshot at people I hadn’t tried to talk to in yearsūüôā, it’s been a long time since I’ve thought hard about what a Democratic Party committed to showing the larger voting public how patriotic it could be would look like.

And what I saw this week at the DNC wasn’t pretty. That’s not the patriotism we were hoping for. It is, however, an entirely predictable outcome of a process by which a mainstream US political party decides to show the country that it can outdo its main rival–especially when the rival party has given over its identity to a creature (OK, he’s a person, but I’m only willing to concede that grudgingly) whose patriotism extends exactly to the point where he’s willing to praise Putin and Saddam Hussein.

So in short–I’m not unhappy about the strategy of claiming, “We’re just as patriotic as you, GOP, if not more, and it’s possible to love your country while you support progressive economic and social policies.” I’m not very happy that there wasn’t any effort, not that I can see anyway, to make patriotism about anything other than threats–and acts–of mass violence.


Mapping current labor activism: Indy Resolution, CCCC, CWPA, and more

April 16, 2016

There’s a lot of academic labor activism/advocacy happening across the disciplinary organizations that represent Writing Studies as a field; much of it, but not all, aims at non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty equity/equality–which isn’t surprising. In the aftermath of a Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) annual meeting last week at which five resolutions regarding labor/NTT faculty issues¬†(see Resolutions 3-7)¬† passed at the Business Meeting, I was already thinking that it’s worth taking a quick time out to anchor those various projects (and a couple of others) in the groups/bodies/organizations that are responsible for them. Then I got this communiqu√© in my office this morning.

20160415_082206

Bewildered? So’s the Adjunct in the Ceiling!

What makes the whole morass of work so confusing happening is the combination of two factors: (1) several¬†different groups are doing things, and (2) many of the people in¬†those groups are the same. Differentiating the work, as a result, is that much harder because it also involves remembering the names and faces of a bunch of people who don’t even all know each other, much less the organizational leadership to whom we’re appealing for much¬†of it.

So, here’s a sketch of what work belongs to which group:

The Indianapolis Resolution is not a product of or housed within any official organization. Yes, it began in a CCCC pre-convention workshop hosted by the CCCC Labor Caucus, but neither CCCC nor the Labor Caucus is a sponsor of it. Those of us who have worked on, propagated, and organized around it are doing it freelance, asking disciplinary organizations to get involved in answering its calls.

Resolutions 4-7 (see link in the first paragraph) that passed at the CCCC 2016 Business Meeting came directly from the CCCC Task Force on Contingent Faculty Working Conditions, convened in November 2014. Our charge was to develop a Position Statement on Working Conditions, and along the way, we realized that CCCC could¬†improve the organization’s responsiveness to NTT faculty concerns. These resolutions ask for help with those concerns. They have nothing to do with the Indy Resolution, or the Labor Caucus, or the Committee on Part-time, Adjunct, or Contingent Labor (which currently doesn’t actually exist and hasn’t for more than a year). Only the Task Force.

The Task Force submitted a revised Position Statement for consideration at the CCCC Executive Committee meeting in Houston. We are waiting for information from the CCCC Officers regarding approval, publication schedule, and so on. They have lots to sort out, so we’ll hear when they’ve finished their post-conference business.

The CCCC Labor Caucus met¬†at CCCC and gave a Sponsored Panel, but wasn’t formally involved with any of the resolutions at the Business Meeting. Again, there are individual people who are Labor Caucus members, Task Force members, and people involved in the Indy Resolution–but those overlaps aren’t structural or formal.

Finally, the Council of Writing Program Administrators constituted a Labor Committee a couple of years ago, which is working on a couple of projects, one of which we’ve talked about on listservs and in meetings/conference sessions a little–establishing a Labor Resource Center that offers WPAs and faculty access to documents/resources that are ethically sound in labor terms–hiring/renewal policies, evaluation protocols, job descriptions, etc. The Committee has also officially asked to Council of Writing Program Administrators Executive Committee to take up the Indianapolis Resolution, which they have (taken up) but without making an endorsement or concrete decisions about what they’ll do with it.

Making all this even messier are sub-groups among and across these groups who are writing articles, working on books, doing conference presentations/proposals together, and so on. But in the same way that CCCC, NCTE, CWPA and other organizational leadership are rightly concerned to make sure everybody understand who’s responsible for what, I think it’s likewise important to understand where the initiatives are coming from.

If anybody who’s been involved in any of these wants to add, clarify, or correct anything here, please do.

[Update: This is also in addition to non-discipline-based efforts like New Faculty Majority, COCAL, etc and who knows how many informal groups of comrades/allies/accomplices who pop up in loose groups to respond to specific situations.]

 


Necessary but not sufficient conditions

March 26, 2016

A¬†Writing Program Administrators listserv thread that I jumped into yesterday–it’s been on/off-again over several weeks–connects the current situation at Purdue University¬†to our field’s problems advocating for the value of what we know and do, and our decisions at the disciplinary level to abandon (in some people’s eyes) our primary mission of serving the needs of our universities and students’ future employers (a slightly euphemistic way of saying, “teaching them to find information and evaluate sources, put that information into coherent/legible paragraphs, and proofread them”).

This morning, a post from a listserv regular (somebody whose work and persona I respect a lot) reminds those of us headed to the CCCC Convention in a couple of weeks that the theme of the conference, Taking Action, is answering to our membership-wide sense that we all need to learn more and be more habituated to tactics and strategies that advance the work of our profession on behalf of students, instructors, our institutions, and so on. This year’s conference chair, Linda Adler-Kassner, has integrated¬†workshops, means of network-building, and other forms of advocacy/organizing/training into the conference in a way I can’t overstate my gratitude for.

However (c’mon, you had to know it was coming), as I look at the Taking Action Workshops, calls to¬†hashtag Twitter posts regarding issues that emerge during the conference, sessions earmarked for on-the-ground advocacy work, and so on,¬†I keep feeling a slippage in what’s otherwise exactly the kind of conference I want¬†every annual meeting to be.

I’m trying not to wander too far¬†into Malcolm Gladwell territory. I think Gladwell wrongly criticizes the bursts of connectedness that emerge and disappear quickly in social media as lightweight and empty. Likewise, I think he romanticizes a particular era/moment of activism as the only right way to do it. But he raises a problem that’s similar to my¬†concerns with the Take Action trope generally. Citing sociologist Doug McAdam, Gladwell calls attention to “weak ties” among activists; in social-media-land, people don’t know each other personally, have little care for each other as anything other than avatars and numbers on their friends/followers lists, etc. So even when people agree about issues and momentarily coalesce around them, the likelihood is low that those coalitions¬†will last long enough to see through meaningful changes.

In the context of our conference and its aftermath, I’d translate that problem this way. Members of the field understand there are serious issues we need to address much more substantively than we are currently, regarding the importance of our work and the people who do it. And we most certainly need the training and the space to organize/network that CCCC 2016 is offering (I want to reiterate how happy I am that Linda A-K and the Cs leadership are orchestrating these for us).

In between caring a lot and knowing the mechanics of organizing, however, there’s a hole into which the best intentions and most skillful organizing efforts often fall. It’s not exactly the “weak tie” that McAdam articulates, but it’s related. Courtesy of our friends at¬†South Park, it’s kind of like this:

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We care a lot. We know other people who care a lot. We know how to formulate action plans and write press releases. What’s missing, our Phase 2, is the willingness (?), ability (?), resolve (?) to express¬†to each other¬†our collective commitment to being ethical and proactive. We nitpick at ideas. We talk ourselves out of taking obvious stances. We argue relentlessly about individual words in 1000-word statements. We refuse to commit to principles because we can’t already know what will have happened when we try to enact them.

Or to put this in the kind of Freirean lexicon I prefer–we don’t seem to¬†trust ourselves or each other¬†enough, and I very much hope that one of the main outcomes from CCCC 2016 is a clearer sense of how to build and sustain that trust.


Abusing contingency for the sake of logistics

January 12, 2016

For years now, I’ve been arguing that a¬†first principle in the campaign for contingent faculty equity/equality is:

Don’t abuse the contingent status (i.e., the ability to hire/fire at will) of your contingent faculty as a tool for solving other ¬†people’s problems.

A post to the Writing Program Administrators listserv (WPA-l) this morning provides a textbook example of what I mean.

The Denver Post reports¬†that the thirteen community colleges in Colorado will “phase out” the use of out-of-state instructors to teach on-line courses. According to the article, the community colleges have been hiring people who live anywhere to teach on-line for several years, but have just now decided that this practice creates too many logistical problems to be tenable:

Some of the requirements are small ‚ÄĒ such as sending employees in New York an information sheet on wage theft protection every year ‚ÄĒ while others are more complex ‚ÄĒ like adjusting workers’ compensation or time off to comply with laws of the employee’s home state.

I won’t contend that the legalities aren’t complex. It’s hard to imagine they’re something a smartphone-powered database couldn’t handle, but still.

The problem, which I hope is obvious–but I guess if it were I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this–is that an estimated 250 faculty who have done¬†nothing to warrant losing their jobs¬†are going to lose their jobs because of other people’s bad hiring decisions. And the hiring decisions, if they were made in good faith to begin with, probably weren’t even bad. That is to say, if the hiring institutions really hired those faculty because they were the best applicants,¬†then “phasing them out” (read: firing them) in order to alleviate a burden on Human Resources is patently unjust. An institution that cares about quality instruction needs to keep quality faculty.¬†If the hiring institutions decided to hire people-from-anywhere because the poor academic job market would generate an applicant pool willing to work for low pay (instead of not working for no pay), then this decision is even more pathological: “We hired you for a bad reason, and despite the fact that you were good enough at the job for us to keep you, you’re going to pay the price for our bad decision.”

Either way, whether the initial hiring decisions were made in good faith (based on quality) or bad faith (in order to maximize flexibility/exploitability), the outcome is the same–people who did¬†nothing wrong are going to lose jobs, and the people¬†whose bad decisions led to those job losses are going to suffer no consequences whatsoever.

Neat, huh?


TT/T faculty need to fight for adjunct equity, but adjuncts don’t need for us to save them

September 5, 2015

A flashback: in¬†a¬†panel on contingent faculty issues at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 2011, during the Q&A, an audience member announced very directly that “We don’t need you [TT/T faculty] on our side. We can do this ourselves.” She was referring to the fight for labor equity that at the time was right on the edge of becoming the much more recognizable movement it has become. Another audience member, my friend and comrade Amy Lynch-Biniek, responded that (at least some) TT/T faculty who work for adjunct equity are doing it because it’s an obvious issue of social justice, and that she (only speaking for herself, but a position I fully endorse) doesn’t believe that our work is crucial¬†to adjunct faculty success.

Back to the present: last week (9/1/2015), a professor of theology named Randall Smith published an essay at¬†The Public Discourse called “The Social Injustice Done to Adjunct Faculty: A Call to Arms.” His argument in a nutshell is that TT/T faculty have spent too long riding on the backs of adjunct faculty, and that we have a clear, largely-unfulfilled responsibility to commit to (read: work our butts¬†off for) labor equity for our adjunct colleagues.

Obviously, if you know me, you know how strongly I agree. Our current academic economy is built on the backs of contingent workers, and those of us who have benefited the most from it owe the most in return.

My only quibble with Smith’s piece is the two-sentence lift-out at the top of the piece:

The time has come. If senior faculty members don’t force the issue of justice for adjuncts, no one else will.

The thing is, lots of somebodies else already are, as the CCCC audience member in 2011 declared, and as has become clearer since then. The growing adjunct-equity movement involves some TT/T faculty but not many, and there have been successful adjunct-only campaigns all over the country that have led to significant improvements in working conditions, compensation, and professional standing on campuses.

My point, again, is that¬†TT/T faculty have an ethical obligation to work for labor equity, but adjunct faculty don’t¬†need us in the way Smith seems to think they do.¬†Can we make contributions to the effort? Of course. Do we have a place in the movement, as long as we earn and maintain the trust of adjunct faculty? Sure. But we need to be very, very careful not to overclaim our own importance–because when we do, we’re reinforcing¬†the exact same hierarchy we purport to be fighting against.

Proclamations of solidarity work both ways. If we’re all in it together, then we need to respect the work our adjunct comrades are doing on their own behalf,¬†and we need to do our part.


Questions about the University of Missouri’s Graduate Student Health Insurance Problem

August 14, 2015

Late Friday afternoon, I learned from friends on Facebook that the University of Missouri just today (August 14) announced that because of a recent IRS ruling on a provision of the ACA, the university can no longer provide subsidies to some (most?) categories of graduate student employees that pay for their individual insurance policies. If you want to see the whole explanation, you can read it here.

Based on the thumbnail in this message from the Graduate School, and what I know about other IRS rulings about ACA provisions that have caused serious problems for employees of various statuses/kinds, I’m perfectly willing to believe that the university is compliant with the law. Even though I support the law generally, I recognize that the labyrinth it constructs is likely to have dark corners like this one.

However, I have some questions that, if I were a faculty member or graduate student leader at Missouri, I’d be asking of upper administration and pronto.

  1. According to the letter, the university learned of the ruling on July 21. They didn’t announce it to the people who actually needed to know for three and a half weeks. Why not? Certainly, they needed to do some research, investigate their options, figure out how to comply, and so on. But dropping this bomb on thousands of their students less than two weeks before a new semester starts is, well, unkind (to put it mildly).
  2. The letter does not explain how they learned of the ruling. That seems important to know. Did the IRS call them? Did they call the IRS? Is there documentation anywhere? Especially if they were concerned about this even before July 21, they could have offered some kind of warning. And if they knew nothing at all about it, they might have responded somewhat differently (more on that later).
  3. According to the letter, the university contacted other graduate schools facing the same problem and consulted with them. Which ones? And did everybody decide on the same course of action? I have to say, and I don’t mean this to be self-aggrandizing, that I’ve got my ears/eyes in enough social networks that I’d be surprised not to have known about this elsewhere if it broke somewhere else first.
  4. The university has¬†graciously (yes, that’s sarcasm) agreed to give every graduate student a “fellowship,” that is, a one-time cash payment that they can use towards a private insurance policy, or whatever. On legal grounds, I understand, the university cannot ask what the students are using it for, or recommend that they use it for insurance, or what have you. But it’s entirely fair to ask whether the dollar value of that fellowship matches what the university was subsidizing of the total cost of the insurance policies. I bet it’s not!

Those all strike me as fairly obvious questions that might help the graduate students and anybody who’s working with them to understand the situation more fully. But those aren’t all the questions. The last three¬†are potentially¬†more contentious, but I sincerely hope somebody can ask them and actually get honest answers.

First, according to the letter, as the university describes its heroic efforts to do right by the grad students, administration “reviewed the budget in order to find sufficient funds to offer alternatives to our students.” Um, if you were already paying for subsidies, then why would you have to look for money you’re no longer spending? Why not just give the subsidy money to the students and call it whatever you want to in order to make it distinct from the insurance payment? Actually, the answer to that is probably something along the lines of, “Since we can’t have anything to do with paying for insurance, we can’t know who would have used the money for our insurance and who wouldn’t. So there may be¬†a lot more students getting ‘fellowships’ than there were getting subsidies.” If that’s the case, say so.

Second, anybody who’s been following ACA implementation over the last five years knows that there have been exemptions, delays, waivers, etc granted left and right. Did anybody in university administration say to the IRS, “Wait a minute. We have thousands of graduate students who will find this decision devastating. Can we have one year to figure out what our options are that won’t put thousands of people’s finances at risk?”

Third, along similar lines, has it occurred to anybody at the university to talk to the insurance carrier about negotiating a new kind of policy that doesn’t run afoul of this ACA provision? Or negotiate with another carrier? The administration may well be right that other universities have run up against this problem, but clearly lots of them haven’t. What kinds of insurance policies do the safe ones have, and why doesn’t Mizzou try to get one like that?

Unfortunately, I don’t work at the university or for any organization that might encourage their administrators to answer me.¬†If anybody at Mizzou happens to see this and thinks there’s anything useful here, feel free to steal, tweak, what have you.


We Hurt Our Bargaining Position by Devaluing Lower-Division Teaching

July 8, 2015

On Facebook this morning,¬†this piece from SEIU’s Faculty Forward site. It says a lot that needs saying aloud about labor problems particularly at for-profit institutions, and I encourage you to read it if you have any interest at all in academic labor equity.

One line, though, convinced me that I need to take yet another shot at an argument I’ve been making here and there for years now, but apparently not well enough. Author Wanda Evans-Brewer says:

Course offerings barely reflect my level of expertise, yet I accept them because I need the work, and my students need a teacher.

I see this a lot–faculty who are disgruntled with lower-division teaching assignments when their training and expertise clearly qualify them to teach upper-level and graduate students too. But we know that all too often, non-tenure-track faculty teach mostly if not exclusively general education courses, and feel like their expertise is wasted as a result.

Every time I encounter this line of argument I want to say two things: (1) teaching gen-ed courses requires just as much subject knowledge as any other teaching, and I strongly believe that if you’re not finding it so, that’s a problem; and (2) every single time somebody devalues lower-division teaching, we make it easier for management to do¬†the exact same thing.

For now I’m going to let the first one go, mostly because it’s really contentious and I don’t want have the energy to fight about it at the moment. Also, I understand that departments/programs often prescribe gen-ed content and courses in ways that obviate the expertise of the faculty, so even people who would take¬†gen-ed teaching more seriously may be discouraged from doing so.

The second point is one that I wish I could jam into the brains of every single person who ever teaches at the college level.¬†Even if you really believe that you’re better than a lower-division teaching assignment, please by whatever is holy to you, stop saying it where managers can hear you!

Why would anybody expect managers who are already willing to exploit faculty labor in any and every which way to ignore an opportunity to do it by invitation?

If you’re disgruntled because your PhD is only getting you access to PSY 100/ENG 101/[fill in the blank gen-ed course] instead of the graduate Social Psychology seminar you’ve been dreaming up for years or the Creative Writing workshop you wish you’d had or [fill in the blank with what you’d rather be doing than gen-ed], I don’t blame you. All I’m asking is that you understand the implications of declaring¬†that¬†you’d rather be doing something more meaningful, or something that clearly acknowledges your credentials.¬†Why? Because you’re telling decision-makers that what you’re doing is less meaningful and less valuable, and less demanding, and less less less less less.

Don’t make it easy¬†for penny-pinching managers to hold¬†our own jobs¬†against us.