About those “If I could really indoctrinate my students…” memes

November 10, 2021

If you’re an academic or friends with any, there’s a pretty good chance over the last couple of years you’ve seen a meme circulating that says some version of, “If I could really indoctrinate my students, they’d read the syllabus first,” or “…they’d do the reading before class,” or “…[insert common complaint here].”

ICYMI, the meme is, in spirit, a response to right-wing accusations that “leftist” college faculty are recruiting students into our shadowy socialist/communist/Marxist (these terms get used willy nilly) revolutionary army, which is (not to put too fine a point on it) just silly. As I’ve said a million times before, if my colleagues were a tiny fraction as radical as the right wing say we are, a lot of the labor organizing/activism I do would be a lot easier.

Even though I get the spirit of the thing, I’ve never liked it. And without wanting to pick fights with indviduals who have posted it, I figured I should try to explain why. First, even as snark, it’s thinly veiled student-bashing. It reinforces the “Those damn kids these days won’t even… [do thing I want them to]” that makes it easy for people to think we don’t respect our students. And once we establish (“establish”) that we don’t respect our students, accusations that we’re indoctrinating them become a whole lot easier to justify. Remember, the people who accuse us of indoctrination are projecting their own desire to control their own kids, so when we accept that projection by wishing students would just follow our orders, we’re doing their job for them.

Look, I get it. It’s “just a meme.” And of course it’s frustrating to get the same email 6 times about something people were in class for when I answered the question the first time. And yes, it’s frustrating when I plan an activity that doesn’t work because not enough people were prepared for it. It happens. But to use those moments of human frailty as defense against coordinated bad faith political attacks is kinda gross.

If you haven’t done it, I don’t understand what you’re waiting for

June 11, 2021

If you’re a faculty member, student, alum, staff person, even a manager in the PA State System of Higher Education, I hope you’ve followed what’s happened over the last two days if you weren’t already keeping up with the news about the Chancellor’s Consolidation #BadPlan4PA.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the State System Board of Governors hosted four public comment sessions via Zoom where interested folks could put our positions about consolidation on the record. Well over 100 people (students from at least six different institutions, faculty and staff from almost every institution, local business owners in several towns where consolidations are likely to cost jobs and potentially students, and more) spoke. Only one of those people supported the plan, and to be honest, he didn’t really even support it because of its details, but on the grounds that “doing something” is better than doing nothing. It was an endorsement, but hardly a ringing one.

Those of us who spoke in opposition, on the other hand, raised specific issues that the plan doesn’t address; problems the plan is likely to make worse; problems with the process by which the plan got developed; unanswered questions, the actual answers to which could save or ruin people’s educations and livelihoods.

If you didn’t watch or participate in those sessions, the first thing you should do is look at these two posts on the APSCUF blog:

If you don’t have just under 8 hours (!) to watch all four sessions, at the bottom of each post is a thread of live-tweets from each day. At the very least, you owe it to the people who spoke to read them if not watch them, and to acknowledge the weight they were willing to take on by speaking in such visible, candid, and powerful ways.

And then you need to answer the call, if you haven’t participated in any of the actions we’ve asked you for. At this point, here’s what we encourage.

  1. Send a comment to the Board of Governors, using their online comment form.
  2. Send a message to Governor Tom Wolf, asking him not to support the plan, and to make clear to the Board of Governors that he does not support the plan.
  3. If you’re comfortable making a statement on video, register for an APSCUF-hosted Comment Session on Monday, June 14. Registration is required.
  4. If you’re a current or retired WCU faculty member, contact me to sign onto letter circulating locally calling for the Board of Governors to vote no on the plan.
  5. Follow PASSHE Defenders on Facebook, and attend (at least help advertise) their rallies.
  6. Although there’s no more formal role in the process for members of the PA legislature (unless the plan is defeated and we need new legislation to start the process over again), you can certainly let your legislators know that funding the system properly would obviate the need to overhaul it so radically, and that supporting initiatives like the Nellie Bly scholarship go a long way in the right direction without having to go through this mess again.

If your reaction is to be irritated that I’m calling on you to do at least one of these to honor the work that so many of your APSCUF and AFSCME siblings, your friends, and our students have already done, I’ll be sorry about that after this is over. Feel free to remind me I said so, but not without doing your part first.

An Open Letter to Chancellor Greenstein regarding PASSHE Consolidation

May 21, 2021

Chancellor Greenstein:

I write as a citizen of Pennsylvania, a faculty member at West Chester University, and a committed advocate for public higher education in the commonwealth and nationally. I am not writing as a representative of the faculty union. I’ve already written to the Board of Governors to express my distress at their willingness to move so hastily through such a complex process, and to Governor Wolf to express my suspicion that if this experiment of yours goes awry, you’ll leave a giant mess for those of us who are genuinely committed to the system to clean up while you go elsewhere.

There’s a lot I want to say about the plan itself and the process by which we’ve gotten here, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll frame my point as much as possible as a response to a comment you made on the Leaders and Leadership Podcast . During your appearance, you said:

Honestly? Please take a minute or two to understand what it sounds like you’re saying here. First, it’s not supposed to be “fun” to oversee a system that’s been underfunded by our legislature for decades; nobody disagrees that there are problems. Second, and more substantively, you’ve dismissed the knowledge and energy and commitment of more than five thousand faculty and thousands of staff and students and others who also pretty smart and well-educated people as “resistance” instead of considering the possibility that maybe it’s legitimate disagreement because we also know things. We know students and their families, and alums, by the tens of thousands who think this plan is dangerously undercooked. We know legislators who agree–you spoke to several of them during hearings. We know the impacts your vision will have on the local communities where consolidating campuses are located. We know what our collective bargaining agreement (which, as a friendly reminder, you and the Board of Governors also ratified) requires answers to that the current plan does not provide.

We are not “resisting” you. We think this plan has a lot wrong with it, and a lot more that’s not clear enough to be adoptable. And you’re responding to that by simply accusing us trying to prevent you from acting courageously. Well, maybe in this case the courageous act is to recognize that many thousands of people who care deeply about this system and who also understand education, education policy, and economics have some severe reservations about the details of this proposal, and do not believe that just a few weeks of revision is anywhere near enough time to address those.

Sometimes the courageous act is admitting that you got it wrong. All I’m asking is that you show enough courage to take that possibility seriously instead of ignoring our very real and legitimate concerns.

Today in Bad Activisting

February 26, 2021

Not just today, but also today.

This morning, I saw this meme on Facebook, posted by somebody I trust and with accompanying links to news stories that document the situation. I reposted, with a note along the lines of, “If you’re less beer-snobby than I am…..” It didn’t take but a few minutes before the first (of now several) comments about the low quality of the beer on this list, and that’s what I’m interested in thinking about for a minute here.

Facebook call for Molson-Coors boycott in response to Toronto brewery lockout

It happens every time I post anything calling for people to boycott or avoid a product, a la: “I’d boycott Papa John’s, but their pizza sucks!” Or, “Chik Fil A is bigoty, but their chicken sucks!” You get the idea.

I’ve often wondered about those comments’ relevance. If you don’t like the food/beer/clothes/whatever, that’s your call; it just means you’re not in the audience for the boycott call. But today I realized my reaction goes a little further than that. I imagined being the person who sees that post, thinks, “Damn, I should read the comments to see if there’s more information here,” and the finds myself being insulted for my terrible taste, at which point I’m a lot less inclined to participate in a boycott.

If you see a call for a boycott of something and aren’t a customer of something, fine! But if you see somebody trying to organize an action, don’t undercut it by insinuating (or saying explicitly, but most of the time it’s unintentional) that anyone who might have listened to the call has poor taste. Think it if you want, but don’t say it where the actual audience for the thing can hear you.

Some thoughts on responding to accusations that faculty “aren’t teaching” during remote instruction

October 9, 2020

My university, West Chester University of PA, announced on Wednesday that we’ll be primarily remote again for Spring 2021. Responses to this news in social media have been… not all positive. Respondents, some apparently current students and their families/guardians, are accusing the faculty of “not teaching”; accusing the university of “stealing” from them; and so on. None of this is especially unique to us. I got on one of those threads this morning (Friday) and was responding to a “Faculty aren’t doing their jobs” comment when I realized the rhetorical complexity of the situation.

As I commented on a friend’s wall yesterday, I think one of the reasons students aim their angst at us is that we’re their primary point of contact for the university; I’ve asked most of 1,000 students over the years how many could name their academic dean and can count on my fingers and toes the number who said they could–and I didn’t check them on it. Also, for entirely understandable reasons, most people don’t really care much (or know) how decisions get made at our institutions, and “the faculty” become a proxy for “all the white collar employees.”

Responding to this situation is hard, especially where management/faculty relations are healthy, because the obvious responses sound self-aggrandizing/whingy (“Hey, cut us a break! We’re trying harder than you think!”) or like we’re deflecting blame onto managers who don’t deserve it either (“This wasn’t our decision, it was [insert title here]!”). Further, as I argued loudly on Facebook threads in last spring, every time we screech publicly about how much on-line education sucks and how much we hate doing it, we’re authorizing students to think less of it.

Honestly, I think the approach to these conversations, to the extent they’re worth having (and that’s open question, to be honest), looks something like this. There’s a way to make the point more gracefully than I’m about to, but in substance….

Many of you may in fact be less medically vulnerable to COVID-19 than faculty and staff are. But that doesn’t make us less vulnerable. Are you really asking us to risk our lives, or at least risk serious illness* for us and our own families, for our jobs? You could say that (hooray for free speech), but be honest about it. If that’s not what you mean, then please don’t say it. If you need support you aren’t getting, we can work on that. If you’re just disappointed that things aren’t normal, so are we. If you’re nervous about your future, we can talk about that too. But none of those conversations will go well if they begin with accusations that we** made this decision in spite of you or without regard for you, and that our best efforts to make this work are earning zero credit from you even for the attempt.

If you’re just angry and blowing steam, that’s entirely understandable. I hope that’s the case for most of you, at least.

*If you’re a COVID-denier, I’m not addressing that. Why bother?

**To be clear: President Fiorentino’s announcement emphasizes the scientific and public health policy reasons for the decision, for which I’m grateful. But he and the rest of the university’s management team know that most of the faculty have grave concerns about the safety of the campus if too many people are on it. I don’t want to undersell the extent to which most of us are relieved–not happy, but relieved–by this news.

Open Letter to Provost Zayaitz, Kutztown University re: COVID-19 notifications

August 17, 2020

Dear Provost Zayaitz:

I’m a WCU faculty member who’s been following the situation at Kutztown with regard to the university’s plans to emphasize face-to-face instruction this fall. A colleague posted on social media this morning a copy of a note you sent in which you indicate that faculty will not be notified if a COVID-19 positive student is one of their classes:

The university will not be informing faculty if a student/students in their classes tests positive due to HIPAA. However, it is possible that a student might self-disclose to you. I hope this is helpful.

That’s an alarming position for a number of reasons, not least of which is that CDC, HHS, and other federal guidelines are all clear that disclosures to prevent serious and imminent threats are well within the law. Put most directly by the Office of Civil Rights:

Health care providers may share patient information with anyone as necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public – consistent with applicable law (such as state statutes, regulations, or case law) and the provider’s standards of ethical conduct. See 45 CFR 164.512(j). Thus, providers may disclose a patient’s health information to anyone who is in a position to prevent or lesson the serious and imminent threat, including family, friends, caregivers, and law enforcement without a patient’s permission. HIPAA expressly defers to the professional judgment of health professionals in making determinations about the nature and severity of the threat to health and safety. See 45 CFR 164.512(j).

It’s not against the law to notify people who are at significant risk of that risk. And if the university’s position is that the risk level isn’t clear enough to justify that legal position, that’s an even stronger reason to be cautious rather than cavalier. “We don’t know how dangerous it is, so let’s assume it isn’t” is a position I can’t believe anyone would take.

At the very least, it’s crucial that you revisit this decision about notifying faculty about infected students. Faculty must know if somebody with an infection is in our classes. Furthermore, given the certainty that this will happen, you need to issue clear guidance to the faculty about their rights and responsibilities to students who become infected. I know you’ve already done some of that, which makes it even more confusing that you expect faculty to comply with those directions but refuse to tell them who the directions apply to. Furthermore, it’s hard to understand how this position comports with any meaningful contact tracing. If students are in face to face classes, the faculty for those courses are obvious contacts.

We could nibble around the edges of the law all day long, but the simple fact of the matter is that your current position will harm the campus community by making it more dangerous for people to comply with your direction to teach face-to-face as much as possible. Please rethink this response to a simple question and recognize that your faculty are, in fact, taking on substantial personal risk to themselves. Don’t amplify that risk unnecessarily.

I appreciate the difficulty of running a complex institution in such circumstances, but this issue should be one of the simple ones. If you’re putting faculty at risk by making them teach face to face, you owe it to let them know if they’ve been exposed.

Thanks for listening, and I hope we can all get through this safely.

Seth Kahn, PhD

Professor of English

West Chester University

Union resolve revisited

July 18, 2020

[Note: This is my personal blog, and while I talk about some union work in this post, and I’m talking to union members–and non-members, and other people–I want to be clear that the claims are mine, not on behalf of the organization.]

Facebook Memories tells me that four years ago today, I wrote a post for the State APSCUF blog (which I can’t link to for some reason) in advance of our strike where I tried to articulate what I see as the key emotional stance of solidarity: resoluteness. We can be angry; we can be scared; we can be lots of other things. But the moment at which we resolve to stay together, arms linked (metaphorically while we’re socially distancing), we have tremendous power.

That reminder couldn’t be timed better as we approach Fall 2020 semester; across the PA State System of Higher Education, management’s willingness to hear and react humanely to our professional and personal concerns about safe working conditions is all over the place. Last week, West Chester University announced what I think is a model policy: most activities, including classes, will be online. Courses like clinicals, some labs, and some performance courses, will be face-to-face following strict safety protocols. Some campus common spaces and resources will be open and will follow strict safety protocols. We make everybody, including people who need access to campus, safer by sharply reducing the number of people who go there. A few days ago, East Stroudsburg University announced a similar policy.

At the other end of the spectrum, stories like this one from my friend and collaborator Amy Lynch-Biniek at Kutztown are appallingly common. I’ve heard from faculty at at least four universities that HR departments are rejecting requests for flexible work arrangements that aren’t specifically ADA-mandated. Faculty report being instructed to disclose confidential medical information and then being denied accommodations; being told if they don’t qualify for ADA accommodations that they can take unpaid FMLA leave (because we can all afford to go a semester or two without pay, amirite?); being told that childcare responsibilities aren’t the universities’ problem; you get the idea.

Our union’s response to such positions has been clear; these rejections of simple arrangements because the law doesn’t strictly require them are unacceptable morally (it’s inhumane to risk people’s lives where alternatives obviously exist) and professionally. Our chancellor was lavish in his praise of our emergency move online in Spring 2020, and his own System Redesign plan requires the exact pedagogical commitment to remote teaching that our institutions are denying so many of us. Apparently, we did something heroic and must keep doing it to save the system, but we can’t do it when the lives of tens of thousands of students, staff, and faculty are at risk from a global pandemic.

APSCUF President Jamie Martin responded to this…awkward logic in her remarks to the Board of Governors on July 17:

We are asking that our faculty be permitted to feel safe, that their concerns about their health and the health of their loved ones be taken seriously. My colleagues want to teach — they just do not want to become sick.

All of which leads to calls that are burbling up from faculty. Even those of us whose local management made smart decisions are angry and scared for our friends/colleagues/union siblings across the system. Faculty on campuses where local management is being inhumane have every reason to feel those and more. The call that’s emerging from the ground level takes on several different voices. A petition drafted by the APSCUF Statewide Mobilization Committee (disclosure: I chair the committee) calls on the Chancellor to recognize that faculty’s commitment to safety isn’t selfish but is motivated by the same concerns for our most vulnerable community members as he is. We need him to respect faculty’s decision-making about how we can best protect safety and do our best work, and he needs to tell his campus managers to do the same. A group of faculty at Shippensburg University are circulating a petition calling for online teaching across the system until safety protections for everyone are much stronger, and also calls for an array of justice-based overhauls around fighting white supremacy and other forms of bigotry. A Facebook post from Kevin Mahoney, APSCUF member and one of the best labor activists I know, calls on us to follow the lead of K-12 teachers around the country, and refuse to work until it’s safe for everyone–students, staff, and faculty alike.

As chair of the APSCUF Mobilization Committee, my primary responsibility is to work with the campus chairs to mobilize members at the direction of our leadership. For right now, that direction is to get signatures on the petition. I have also signed and promoted the Ship petition because I share its broad vision of how interconnected the issues of labor justice and racial justice are. I would commit in a second to a collective action aimed at refusing to threaten tens of thousands of lives for no discernible reason.

If you’re not resolved to the last one, then at least do the first two. And think hard about your reasons for hesitating to go further (there are explicable reasons). But we have about six weeks, in some cases not even, before students, staff, and faculty are made to return to conditions that aren’t safe for anyone and are profoundly threatening for many. Our system leadership needs to know that we will not sit idly while lives are risk. Let’s hope that saying collectively-but-quietly (via petition) is enough, but I’m asking you start thinking hard about what you’ll do if it isn’t.

“If they’re trying to save money, they should hire MORE adjuncts instead of firing them” is not helping

May 16, 2020

Too many times in the last several days, I’ve seen well-meaning faculty on Facebook responding to mass layoffs of NTT faculty by pointing out that “adjuncts cost less,” and if universities really want to save money, they should hire more adjuncts instead of fewer.

I will take as given that people saying this believe they’re making an argument for protecting adjunct faculty. But please think for a minute or two about the logic of this before you say it.

The reason they cost less is because of a terribly inequitable system.

If you mean to make an argument against exploiting the contingency of contingent faculty, just say that. Tossing faculty to the curb in the middle of a pandemic is a profoundly inhumane thing to do. It’s inhumane at any time.

Re-re-re-redux: Contingency Is Worse, Pandemic Edition

May 13, 2020

Earlier this week, I talked with a reporter researching a story on the impacts of COVID-19 on higher ed. Among a flood of things I said to her, the one I’m left still thinking most about is: right now, universities are understandably nervous about what’s going to happen with enrollments in the upcoming year. But too many of them are reacting to that nervousness by hammering even harder than usual on the precarity of their contingent faculty members. The list of universities that has announced cuts to their adjunct/contingent/NTT staff is growing every day: Rutgers, Miami of Ohio, Ohio U, UMass-Boston, several Cal State University system campuses, St. Edwards University, and those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head.

For years, managers have been saying they need more “flexible” (read: contingent) faculty. Crassly paraphrased, their rationale is because they never know when they’ll need to let a bunch of people go because of enrollment dips, or [reasons]. Ironically, at this moment, they still don’t know whether there will be enrollment dips, so they’re making decisions about people’s livelihoods based on guesses. And they can do it because contingent positions are designed for this exact move.

Even in less fraught times, as I’ve been arguing for years, contingent teaching positions are more stressful than secure positions. Coupled with low pay and crappy working conditions, the possibilities of suddenly losing work, or having your schedule shifted capriciously at the last second, are always hovering and palpable if not actually happening (and they do happen quite a lot).

The COVID-19 pandemic is exponentially increasing the problems of contingency. Social media (including several closed FB groups I follow, which is why I’m not linking to them here) is full of examples:

  • Lecturers with multi-year contracts that are supposed to roll over automatically learning that those renewals are not forthcoming.
  • Layoffs like the institutions I listed above.
  • Fears among some non-renewed faculty that after soaking in some desperation, their universities will offer to rehire them at lower wages into less secure positions. [UPDATED 5/14: The more I think about it, the more I’m concerned that this is a baked-in part of the strategy. Corporations have fired workers, let them stew for a little while, and then “generously” offered to give them their jobs back for less money, dozens of times, and that kind of corporatism has certainly found a foothold in US higher ed.]
  • Threats of pay reductions [which is awfully nasty to people who are already severely underpaid, y’know?] and paycheck delays.
  • Classes cancelled weeks, if not months, earlier than they’d usually be, or taken from adjunct faculty and given to tenured faculty as overloads.
  • Adjunct faculty being told they can teach enough courses that they’d ordinarily qualify for health insurance they’re denied, but not being given access they’re almost certainly legally entitled to.
  • Mixed messaging, at best, about unemployment insurance claims and whether their institutions will fight them.
  • Out-of-pocket costs for equipment/access to accommodate the move most of us have made to remote/online teaching. As an example, I know at least ten people who teach in multiple institutions, who all wound up paying for their own private Zoom accounts because their various school accounts were conflicting.

Two more things I’ll say about this list: (1) it could be a lot longer, but you get the idea; and (2) you get the idea because almost nothing on here is actually new–it’s just a whole lot worse because (pardon the French) we’re in a [bleeping] pandemic.

As part of the series of posts this re-re-re-redux is re-re-revisiting, I once wrote:

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.

That’s exactly what’s happening right now. The people who earn the least, have the least job security, and face the most stressful versions of the job we do are being treated the worst because their positions make it easy, by design.

If you’ve gotten this far and aren’t sure what you might do to help, there are lots of efforts happening all over the place. One place where a lot of them circulate is the Facebook page for Tenure for the Common Good. Feel free to leave others in the comments. It’s not hard to find people doing good work with contingent faculty for academic labor equality. If for some reason you haven’t taken the time to join us, the middle of a [bleeping] crisis seems like a good time to fix that.



Open Letter to the President and Board Chair of the University of California System

February 29, 2020

I just sent this letter to President Napolitano and Board Chair Perez.


President Napolitano and Chairman Perez:

I’m a faculty member in Pennsylvania who has been following the situation at UCSC (and now Davis and Santa Barbara). Yesterday, news broke of the termination of 54 graduate workers because of their participation in the strike.

The union I belong to, APSCUF, sent you a statement on Thursday in which we pointed out, among other things, that firing striking graduate students accomplishes nothing useful. It doesn’t get the work they’ve been withholding done any faster. It doesn’t make housing more affordable for the people you hire in their places. It serves no purpose whatsoever except to be punitive. Worse, you’re punishing people whose concerns you’ve agreed with but refused to redress, and firing them seems like an effort to erase the problem rather than fix it.

I can assure you, having participated in a strike, that nobody takes the decision lightly. It’s a terrible thing to have to do. Furthermore, while I recognize that they are violating policy, the fact that they have to violate policy to do it should be reinforcing the desperation they’re feeling rather than, well, whatever you’re attributing to them that makes you treat them as disposable.

Therefore, I’m writing–as an individual faculty member, not claiming to represent my university, my system, or my union–with these calls.

First, rescind the firing letters. That was a terrible mistake. You are damaging the lives of people who have worked hard to redress a serious issue, and dismissing them accomplishes nothing.

Second, work in good faith with the students to solve a serious problem that you, as leaders, have the power to address and so far just haven’t. The simple fact of the matter is that the labor situation for graduate students at these universities is untenable, and nothing will change that except supporting them better.

I sincerely hope you can understand why your decision to fire 54 students who are desperately trying to improve their working situation so that they can serve your institution better is Orwellian and needs to be reversed. And I hope you’re noticing that national and international press are covering the situation. We’re all looking to you to do the right thing.


Seth Kahn, PhD

Professor of English

West Chester University of PA