Liberty University Students Speak Out! And then what?

October 15, 2016

On HuffPo this morning:  “Liberty University Students Denounce Trump”

My first reaction to the piece was to be really impressed with students who circulated a petition that rejects Trump, and even criticizes university President Jerry Falwell Jr for continuing to support a candidate whose values run counter to the articulated values of the school and church Falwell leads.

“So often we run into people that say, ‘Oh you go to Liberty, that’s that Trump school, right?’ When when you walk around campus, the students, we don’t embody anything that Trump advocates for,” [student Caleb] Fitzpatrick told The Huffington Post. “We’re not taught to value the things that Trump values. And so when the tapes came out last week, we felt like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

So far so good. Speaking out against the president of a university isn’t easy, especially a university which works so hard to enforce dogmatic loyalty to the leader of both the school and the church that powers it. The students deserve kudos for that.

Two points, though, refract that sense just a bit. First (if you’ve taken a writing class from me you’ll recognize this), is with the idea of “just informing people” and making our voices heard.

The group doesn’t plan to take further steps against Falwell or the Trump campaign.

“We’re kind of moving on, because we believe we’ve done our job. That the world has seen and heard us raise our voices,” [Fitzpatrick] said. “That was our endgame, was just informing people. There’s no candidate that we want to endorse.”

The notion that anyone is “just informing people” makes me queasy as both an activist and rhetorician because it ducks claiming any real purpose. Nobody “just informs people” as an act of generosity. Giving people information isn’t the same as giving them money for food, or donating clothes to families that can’t afford  them. You inform people to change their thinking and their behavior (h/t Karl Marx, “The point is to change it.”), and not to claim what your real goal is makes you disingenuous. Or, you’re just not thinking through the implications of winning your own argument, and that’s not very responsible.

Yes, these students are students, not professional activists, and are likely invoking the “make your voice heard” trope because they know it. My point is the one I wish Malcolm Gladwell had made in his infamous “Small Change” piece (New Yorker, 2010). Rather than demeaning social media’s use in activism, I wish he’d emphasized the safety-valve effect instead, i.e., doing something simple but low-impact makes people less likely to do something more difficult and high-impact because they think they’ve done their part. These students made a strong statement against Trump, and Falwell for violating their  trust. And then… what happens next? Nothing really changes. Jerry Falwell, Jr still campaigns for Trump, and still–the students correctly note–uses the Liberty brand as a source of ethos, while he also says he doesn’t represent the institution when he uses its name. Huh?

[A side note: imagine a Liberty faculty member campaigning for Clinton or Stein and using their title as a Liberty faculty member while they’re doing it. “Professor Smith, YOU’RE FIRED!”]

The second point that made me think hard is a passing mention of thefaculty response to the petition.

About 2,500 people, including some faculty members, have signed the petition since it went up Wednesday afternoon …. Some faculty members have privately encouraged the group, Fitzpatrick said, but were hesitant to sign the statement. He believes they might be afraid of retribution.

Faculty members won’t sign a petition that students wrote and circulated because they’re afraid of retribution. They encourage students to take a principled stand that they themselves are afraid to take. My reactions to this are several and all over the place.

  • Thank goodness for my union that makes retribution nearly impossible [knock wood].
  • Those jerks are hanging students out to dry and hiding behind them while they do it.
  • Some faculty probably did help the students’ process and efforts and warrant some praise for that even if they were afraid to be public about it.
  • When APSCUF President Ken Mash, spoke to students here at WCU a couple of weeks ago and told them that they have some kinds of power the faculty don’t, he was right.

The question is what students do with that power. We hear you. Now you have to make that count for something.

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 years🙂, 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 communiqué in my office this morning.


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:

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 11.17.30 AM

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 — such as sending employees in New York an information sheet on wage theft protection every year — while others are more complex — 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.