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?
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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.


Best practices? Best for Whom? The U of Arkansas Edition

October 28, 2017

Or, “Who Does This Help, v. 4”

And, fittingly during (just barely!) Campus Equity Week 2017–

Apparently, the braintrust that runs the University of Arkansas system has decided that the system’s post-tenure evaluation guidelines (and the consequences thereof) are out of line with somebody’s (never says whose) “best practices.”

Without getting too deeply into the policy specifics, which are only interesting if you’re a policy wonk–or a UA tenured/tenure-track faculty member–let’s just say there are two issues here that strike me as problematic.

First, although best practices is a term that gives me hives, I have some extra questions about the basis for applying it in this instance. Best practices are supposed to emerge from systematic, rigorous (often defined simply as quantitative) analysis. Where’s the research here? What’s one shred of evidence indicating that making it easier to dismiss tenured faculty improves anything except the power-mongering fantasies of managers who want power because it’s power and they like feeling powerful? Or the ability of managers who don’t much know or care about educational quality to “maximize flexibility” (or similar claptrap). Also, let’s be honest: the Waltons could float plenty of full-time faculty jobs with job security and academic freedom, so this isn’t about money.**

Claiming this policy is a best practice is infuriatingly dishonest.

Second (you saw it coming): if you’re tenured/tenure-track in the UA system and are angry/frightened about this policy change (if it goes into effect as proposed, which isn’t yet clear), please understand this simple thing: your contingent/NTT colleagues feel like this every freakin’ day. You’re worried that you might lose your job based on shaky evaluations? Or that your academic freedom to decide the relevance of your teaching materials is getting choked/curtailed?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be nervous about those things. My points are:

1.Our (tenured/tenure-track colleagues as a class) willingness to let any faculty work get devalued the way NTT faculty work has been is enabling these attacks. We’re the ones who conceded to (if not convinced) management that some of what we do, and some of the people who do it, just aren’t very valuable, and we’re on the hook for fixing that. Not to say that adjunct faculty can’t succeed in organizing for yourselves (this is not a “Tenured people must save you!” moment), but an argument about undoing something stupid that we did.

2. There are lots of us out here across the country who are willing to help you fight this insanity off. I count myself among them, but only to the extent that you’re willing to commit to fighting for your contingent faculty in return. In other words, if job security and academic freedom are worth fighting for, they’re worth fighting for on behalf of ALL YOUR COLLEAGUES, not just you.


Why “just leave” doesn’t solve the problem

October 16, 2017

In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, Claire Potter returns to an argument I thought was kind of over–that if adjunct faculty find their treatment so bad and their conditions so untenable, why not leave?

There was a wave of this line of argument in 2012/2013 when Margaret Mary Vojtko died, and the contingent faculty equity movement started to gain what I think is real (yes, very slow-moving) power. My gut reaction to it then, and now, is to be irritated in the same way I was at people who told New Orleans residents post-Katrina that they should “just leave.”

After a second cup of coffee, I think it’s more productive to cast that response differently. There are a few points that need to be on the table in order to get at what I want to say–in short: Sure, as long as ______.

1. It’s already happening. That’s why quit lit exists. Faculty in increasing numbers find the situation untenable and opt out. For the record, I say good luck and godspeed to any individual who has that choice and takes it. You shouldn’t have to save anyone else (either by staying, or by leaving).

As an aside–people who advocate leaving the profession ought not to castigate people who do, a la accusations that people who write quit lit are “just whining” or “sound so proud of themselves” or other nastiness. You can’t advocate that people leave and then snark at them when they do. I haven’t seen Prof. Potter do this, but I have seen others. Not OK.

2. Not everyone has that choice, not in a meaningful sense. They’re not literally tethered to whiteboards or desks (if lucky enough to have one). But I know at least a dozen adjunct faculty who are placebound in locations remote enough not to offer real options (anecdotal, yes, but they’re just the ones I know personally). There are also freeway flyers who are teaching too many courses in too many places to be able to conduct a very thorough job search even in locations where such jobs exist; they’re golden-handcuffed to the work they have because it’s just barely enough to survive on, and risking it even to carve out the time it takes to job-search can be a real danger (see Con Job for a clear example of this story). There are other examples. The kind of solidarity en masse quitting would require isn’t simple or obvious (maybe not even possible). Prof Potter envisions lots of alternative employment venues when she says:

First, no one — whether a department chair, a graduate adviser, a graduate student or a contingent faculty member — should be dismissive about the value, availability and satisfactions of work in nonprofits, industry, government or secondary school teaching and academic administration. Yes, you may need some help from a career counselor to mount a successful search; yes, there may be geographical challenges. But the fact that other people you know have had difficulty pursuing careers that make good use of a humanities Ph.D., or that your own doctoral program discouraged you from even thinking that way, doesn’t mean such work isn’t available or that a doctorate in the humanities is not good preparation for it.

Again, those are fine choices for people who have them. Along with the problem of reaching critical mass of solidarity for such a move to work, I’m concerned that at a macro level, encouraging people to leave puts the people who can’t leave in even worse positions (if numbers are powerful, isolating people harms them, right?).

3. They shouldn’t have to. Does anyone have a right to a tenure-track job just because they want one? No. But telling people they should walk away from their commitments (ethical, professional, financial) because of a broken system puts all the onus for improving the system on them. And when we look at the work that adjunct faculty across the country are doing to organize/advocate for themselves and each other, to put even more responsibility on them to fix anything seems unreasonable.

4. Would you do it? If the logic of the argument is, the system is broken and the only way to force its repair is for people to leave, why aren’t we all answerable to that logic? Why is it the responsibility only of the most vulnerable? The evidence that the system is broken isn’t just bad adjunct jobs; it’s that they have those jobs while often doing much the same work as I do at my stable well-paid job. If leaving is the answer, shouldn’t we all?

I’ve been surprised for years that none of the adjunct faculty I rabble-rouse with has ever asked me if I’d give up tenure as a way to fix the two-tiered system. Honestly, I don’t know. It’s cavalier to say, in the hypothetical, that of course I would. The answer is tied to the argument I’ve been making here–as an individual, giving up my tenure would accomplish very little. We do it in solidarity, or we don’t do it. And I won’t hold adjunct faculty to a different standard.

 


Welcome to Trumpworld: Greetings, new arrivals!

August 26, 2017
If you’re just now figuring out that Donald Trump is a bigot through and through because he pardoned Joe Arpaio, then a few people are here to say hi!
Black people (You all live such miserably impoverished inner city lives that you should vote for me because…whatever the fuck he said)
Women (Grab ’em by the pussy!)
Jews (Some neo-Nazis are very fine people!)
The list goes on and on.
What he did yesterday by pardoning Joe Arpaio wasn’t to “reveal” (as Sally Yates put it) his unapologetic bigotry. [UPDATE: AS MY WIFE POINTS OUT, SALLY YATES’ POSITION IN THE WHOLE TRUMP/JUSTICE DEPT DEBACLE BUYS HER LOTS OF LATITUDE TO MAKE HER POINT, SO THIS ISN’T AN ATTACK ON HER.]
Screen Shot 2017-08-26 at 7.47.38 AM.png
It was to shit all over the rule of law, and all over the faces of everyone who understands how dangerous lawless bigotry is when it hides behind badges and guns. But he didn’t reveal a damn thing.

Liberty University Students Speak Out! (again) And now what?

August 20, 2017

Last October I wrote a post praising Liberty University students for circulating a petition denouncing their university president’s support of the Trump campaign, and then challenging them to do something other than simply having made their statement. Of course that never happened because reasons.

This morning, I’m having almost the exact same reaction to the news that “Some Liberty University Grads Are Returning Their Diplomas To Protest Trump,” reported by NPR. In a nutshell, my responses are two–

1. Yay!

2. So?

I recognize that diplomas are simultaneously just pieces of paper and symbols for substantial accomplishment, and as such sending them back to the institution is a meaningful statement in its way. On the other hand, it leaves a lot of actual work undone. First, without attaching any kind of demand to it, even if Falwell wanted to “agree,” he’d have nothing to agree to. Second, like the petition last fall, the one-off “I’m going to say my piece and be done with it” is simultaneously brave and a cop-out.

Obviously as a left-ish person, what I’d really like to see is the Liberty alums realize the damage their church and its leaders have done to countless millions of lives; work to remedy that damage; and work to minimize the risk that bad people can keep doing terrible things while hiding behind theology and church dogma to do it. I’m OK with baby steps, but those steps have to go somewhere, and stopping after only one is no reason to congratulate themselves.