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.

A lesson in ‘tenure-splainin’

June 5, 2015

For those of you who don’t move in adjunct activist networks, you may not have encountered the term “tenure-splainin'” very often if at all. Some activists use it to refer to lectures from TT/T faculty about the stresses and difficulties of the tenure-line, almost always as a reaction to adjunct faculty assertions that TT/T faculty have it better pretty much by definition (I’m generalizing here, obviously, because it would take thousands of words to nuance this as much as it deserves). The short version of it is, we’re tenure-splainin’ when we say anything that smacks of “If you’ve never been in a tenure line, you can’t understand it, so let me tell you all about how hard it is.”

To be honest, I’ve done it. I’ve made arguments publicly (including on the blog), for example, that contest the claim from some activists that adjuncts do “the same job” and should therefore be paid the same. And I’ve argued in other venues (including a management search I served on several years ago) that nobody who hasn’t been in a tenured/promoted position should be evaluating applicants for tenure or promotion. There is an experiential difference (one that we TT/T folks would do well to remember cuts both ways every single time we invoke it).

So, having both tenure-splained a little and having agreed with some accusations of same from some of my adjunct activist comrades, imagine my surprise when yesterday I realized that it was in fact happening to me as I (a tenured full professor with a 4/4 load of mostly gen-ed) was getting lectured that faculty in teaching positions have no claim to be tenure-eligible. I don’t feel like rehashing the whole conversation here, mostly because it was frustrating enough to have it the first time–and to be fair, probably just as frustrating to the blogger as it was to me–but in short, her argument is that only research faculty need tenure and academic freedom protections because the value of what they produce (new knowledge) is so high that it trumps the labor problem created by protecting due process for otherwise-at-will employees. I tried to argue that AAUP’s definitions of tenure and academic freedom say otherwise, to no avail. I tried to argue (in response to her claim that she’s pro-union) that the essence of union logic is to contest at-will employment. Didn’t work. I’ve thrown in the towel trying to discuss it in that venue with her, and I’m sure she won’t miss me.

The reason I’m writing about it now, and on my blog instead of hers, is that it occurs to me there’s still an important lesson to be gotten from the exchange (several, really, but for today just this one!).

I also spent much of yesterday and this morning venting/commiserating about this on Facebook, during which time I noticed that a great many of my TT/T colleagues were every bit as irritated by the blogger’s claims and persona as I am. And although I don’t think any of my TT/T FB friends are guilty of tenure-splainin’, at least not that I can recall, I can easily imagine people like us who would contend simultaneously that: (1) people who don’t think college-level teachers need tenure/academic freedom protections are dopey; and (2) adjuncts (and allies) who sometimes angrily rail against tenure or tenure-privilege are wrong because they can’t possibly understand the tenure-track.

Those aren’t flatly contradictory claims, at least not within the confines of propositional logic, but it’s hard to argue well that people doing primarily teaching work deserve tenure, and that the very same people doing most of that work don’t know what they’re talking about. And if you empathize with my frustration at being told that I don’t understand tenure (as a tenured full professor who studies academic labor rhetoric), then you have a glimmer of the annoyance adjunct faculty feel when we tenured folks play the “You don’t understand the tenure track” card as a silencing move.

What Ezra Klein gets wrong about pedagogical innovation

May 27, 2015

On Vox this morning (May 27), Ezra Klein mounts an interesting defense of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, arguing (in short) that Sanders is catalyzing lots of policy debates that need having, even if he has little to no chance of actually winning the Democratic nomination. I agree.

Too bad he includes a bizarre claim in response to Sanders’ higher education proposal, which includes two key provisions–a tax on financial transactions to pay public college/university tuition; and second, a mandate that 75% of courses taught at US public colleges/universities are taught by tenured/tenure-track faculty. To the first, Klein responds that some students who don’t need the money might benefit from it, which I think is silly; as long as it helps the people who need it most, why is it bad to also help other people?

But it’s his response to the faculty ratio provision that makes my head hurt:

And even if I’m not a fan of the move toward adjunct labor in universities, the requirement to use so much tenure-track faculty might kill off innovations in teaching that we haven’t even considered yet.

Admittedly I read this while I was halfway through my first cup of coffee, but I’ve tried three times since then and still have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Well, OK, I sort of do. Or I think I can kind of cobble together a sort of logic that maybe makes whatever he thinks he’s trying to say sound like it isn’t complete nonsense. My armchair mind-reading effort:

1. Many adjunct faculty are innovative and excellent teachers.

2. Many TT/T faculty, especially in research-oriented jobs, don’t care as much about teaching.

3. Therefore, reducing the number of innovative teachers in favor of less-interested teachers is bad.

And if that’s actually his argument, it’s not horrendously wrong. I do think he’s overdrawing the extent to which TT/T faculty don’t care about teaching, but not completely.

The problem is this. As it’s formulated now, essentially what he’s claiming is that precarity drives innovation. Huh?

If he wants to make sure that there’s more emphasis on teaching innovation and quality at US colleges and universities, I’m with him. But to claim as blithely as he does that maintaining our reliance on precarious adjunct labor is the way to do it is, um, not the “policy debate” we were looking for. It puts all the pressure to innovate on people who get no support for innovating, and it attaches the motivation to innovate to a structural condition that nobody should be subject to. If hiring/firing faculty at will, and under-compensating faculty for our work, and refusing to include faculty in shared governance, and all the other harms that come from contingency are the primary source of “innovation,” I’d rather not have it. Or on a more positive note, there are lots of ways to support innovation without exploiting our way to it.

Adjunct labor, Libertarianism, and DIY Collectivism

May 3, 2015

In case you missed it, a tenure-track professor of philosophy/public policy at Georgetown, named Jason Brennan, wrote a couple of pretty inflammatory (and certainly tasteless and obviously ones I vehemently disagree with) posts in which he argues, roughly paraphrased, that any adjunct faculty member who chooses to remain in the job is at fault for his/her own exploitation (Brennan acknowledges that higher ed as an institution is pretty corrupt–but seems not to care that his own “success,” such as it is, is therefore tainted–but anywho….), and that any organized collective effort to redress their own working conditions just reinforces the toxicity of the system.

His position is exactly what you’d expect from somebody blogging at a site called Bleeding Heart Libertarian. You can look for yourself if you want to read more of what he’s said. I’m not going to link to it. I’ve been starting and stopping and erasing and revising this post for days. Fortunately, some people who are clearer-headed (and more motivated) than I am have done much of the heavy lifting (see here and here for particularly awesome responses).

The only point I actually want to make is this: if you have any actual human emotions or empathy, enough to realize how inhumane his argument is, then you also have enough humaneness in you to understand that for all the times we privileged tenured folk have wrung our hands and announced there’s nothing we can do, here’s a very simple one.

Give as much money as you can to PrecariCorps. I’ve written about PrecariCorps before–it’s a 501(3)c project three adjunct activist comrades started to provide emergency financial support to adjunct faculty who are struggling.

It’s especially important to help now if you can, as we head off into the summer. There are two reasons the timing is so important. While we’re working together to change exploitative conditions, we also need to remember that many of our adjunct colleagues are choosing whether to pay rent or buy food, especially during summers when many campuses do not offer them work, and many states deny unemployment benefits (the New Faculty Majority and others are working on this second problem too, but it’s slow going). We all know that nobody should have to make that choice, and our adjunct colleagues are no different.

And if you’re not working actively to change exploitative conditions, that means one of two things to me. Either: (1) you just haven’t started yet, and here’s your chance to do something simple and quick and easy as a way of starting; or (2) you don’t disagree with Jason Brennan all that much, in which case I’m delighted to have wasted 3 minutes of your busy day that you could have used being wrong about lots of other things too.


ASU’s new response still isn’t good enough

January 23, 2015

In today’s (Jan 23) Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty reports that Arizona State has decided to give full-time instructors with PhDs a raise in minimum salary from $32K to $36K/year.

That’s not bad news, on its face. The pay was awful for a full-time job requiring advanced graduate training, and now it’s marginally less awful. However, it’s not especially good news either, for several reasons.

For one, yes it’s a raise, but that’s still not nearly enough money to live decently on pretty much anywhere.

For another, it’s only the PhD holders who get the raises. If that’s not a blatant violation of New Faculty Majority’s “Equal Pay for Equal Work” principle, I can’t imagine what is. If your response is to say that people with PhDs bring more training to the job and deserve better pay, there’s a logic to that. But: (1) if the job description doesn’t allow them to use that advanced training to do anything that everybody else isn’t doing, then it doesn’t warrant more money; and (2) the MA/ABD faculty are clearly trained enough to do the job–or you wouldn’t hire them–and as such they deserve equal pay.

And finally: as Writing Program director Prof. Shirley Rose points out in the article, the change in job description makes it more difficult for instructors to participate in governance and professional development.

She [Rose] also expressed concern that the default workload does not include times for service, such as faculty governance or organizing the program’s annual composition conference. She also said faculty members need time for professional development, to learn about “recent research and theory that would inform their teaching or to become familiar with new teaching and learning technologies.”

That’s a harm all by itself, and the damage is amplified when we understand that ASU’s upper management thinks that throwing a few thousand dollars at a fraction of the staff is a viable response to it.

That’s not surprising, of course, given that their explicit, public rationale for making the change in the first place is financial. As I’ve been arguing for a couple of years now, exploiting the contingency of contingent faculty simply to solve financial problems is inhumane. And throwing money at an essentially arbitrarily defined sub-group of the cadre they’re exploiting only shows how poorly they understand that.

It’s not my decision to make whether this offer is acceptable, since I don’t work at ASU. But if I had a voice (more directly than this one), my response would go something like this.

We appreciate that you’ve finally recognized how insufficient the salary is for full-time instructors at the university. This raise doesn’t fix that problem, but it’s a step in the right direction and we acknowledge it as such. However, we see that only as a cure for a problem that predates the current situation–in other words, you already weren’t paying us enough–not a solution to the new problem you created by changing the job expectations into something that harms everybody except the accountants. The pay raise doesn’t solve the problem that adding a new required section to everybody’s teaching schedule excludes faculty from critical aspects of faculty work at a university.

I stand with the instructors at ASU against the change. For more information, keep checking ASU Against 5/5 and sign their petition to university administration.


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