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.

Responding to ASU’s “response”

December 18, 2014

Thanks to John Warner at Inside Higher Ed for linking to this statement from Arizona State regarding the restructuring of full-time NTT instructor job responsibilities in the English Department. I agree with Warner that the statement is “weak sauce” but would go even further to point out the Orwellian nature of this aspect:

Generally, full-time instructors are not assigned professional development or faculty committee duties. In this case, full-time instructors that had those duties (previously 20 percent of their jobs) are having those duties taken over by others in the department so that the instructors can focus fully on teaching.

I really, really, really, really, really want somebody to explain to me how somebody’s professional development is to be taken over by somebody else. Huh? Does this mean a TT/T faculty member is going to attend that brown-bag lunch in your stead so you don’t have to? That as long as somebody is presenting at that local workshop, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t you? What the [bleep]?

And the point about service being taken over–sure, many of us who do lots of service see it sometimes as drudgery that we wish we didn’t have to. But only the most cynical of us really misunderstand the nature of it, which is to say that the word “service” is really a shorthand term (particularly at the department level) for “self-governance.” The simple substitution of one for the other demonstrates how nonsensical the claim is. “Your self-governance is being taken over by other people so you can teach more.”

If that’s what ASU means, then for goodness sakes, just say it. If not, then don’t do it.

If you needed to hear it from a white person, OK, but that’s part of the problem

December 9, 2014

I think a lot about being an activist and an ally in communities I don’t really identify with except as an activist and an ally. The lion’s share of that thinking has been about contingent labor activism, but especially over the last week or two (yes, I’m late in getting to it, and one purpose of this post is to issue a mea culpa) I’ve found myself extraordinarily frustrated as I try to work against white power and privilege. Short version, as a white person committed to fighting against oppression and violence, the way white people (no, not all, but FFS close enough) are reacting when black people take to the streets is almost always frustrating, sometimes infuriating, sometimes stunning.

The simplest way to get at what I want to say about all this (for now) is to tell a story of the last several days by juxtaposing four texts: one vile; one almost entirely useless response; one that’s important but can’t stand alone as a safety valve for its endorsers; and the other exactly right–right, that is, in terms of how I want white allies/activists/sympathizers to be thinking about our roles/places in what I hope is a renewed movement to end white power/privilege.

1.The vile one.


This is a screenshot of a social network called Yik Yak. I’ve never been on it, but after a protest event last Friday on campus, this (among several others) thread appeared. There were others that were worse. Nasty, profane, hateful (if not legally defined as “hate speech,” still expressing something really sick) stuff. I don’t want to give any of the rest of it any more attention than it’s already gotten.

2. A faculty member sent several of these examples to our university upper administration, and our president responded with this email to all users:

West Chester University has a longstanding commitment to civility and our Values Statement which promotes the respect, dignity, and inclusion of all campus community members.  Unfortunately, in response to recent student demonstrations some individuals have used social media to promote hate.  We reject such conduct.  Each of us should engage in conversations that advance knowledge and bring attention to the challenges we face.   After all, it is a fundamental mission of the academy to promote the exchange of ideas through civil dialogue.  Threatening and intolerant language has no place in this exchange.  Thus, I encourage everyone to express their opinions respectfully.

The response isn’t wrong, in the sense of inaccurate. It’s just empty. “Don’t hate hatefully. Hate nicely.” Well, thanks for that. To be fair, the grapevine has it that our administration is considering further action, and I’m hoping that something substantive happens next. If it does, I’ll gladly update.

3. In response to the president’s message, a group of faculty activists have signed onto a letter that thanks him for his commitment to diversity and equity, but respectfully requests that he do more than simply issue an exhortation to be respectful. I wrote in an email to some of those faculty that we need to remind him, “Hate is not an opinion.” The letter, which I’m not sharing here because it isn’t mine to share, is important. Our upper leadership must know that we need them to lead during this very difficult time. We need to voice our dissatisfaction. But…

4. Based on a conversation I had with a colleague on Monday afternoon and a fantastic blog post another colleague/comrade  pushed out Tuesday morning on Facebook, I’ve gotten a lot clearer on why the letter to the president is of limited value, and could undercut more important work if we don’t make sure to push onwards from it.

The blog post, called Dear White Protestors, sends a strong reminder to people like me that

Dear white protestors, this is NOT about you. 

The blogger, who writes under the name bendstowardjustice, makes the point strongly and repeatedly that white co-optation of black mobilization isn’t helping. As s/he puts it:

“All lives matter?” NO THEY DON’T AND THAT’S THE FUCKING POINT! Black people’s lives don’t matter, that’s why I’m out in the streets, to get people to realize that my life has worth. I have to protest to get people to even think about the possibility that if the police or some vigilante gun me down, it’s not because the genetic defects believed inherent in my blackness finally manifested and I had to be put down before I became more of a threat to white america. White america doesn’t need a reminder that “all lives matter,” it needs to be made to recognize and respect that Black lives matter.

It’s Black bodies that are bleeding and dying in the streets. It’s Black bodies that can’t breathe. It’s Black bodies that are seen and treated as threats to whiteness as we shop in Wal-Mart, play in parks outside our homes, walk home with a pack of Skittles, sleep in our beds. It’s Black bodies that have hung like strange fruit from the trees of this nation for centuries.

Point made.

In our local context, then, as much as I want to call out the racism and hatred of the people who anonymously posted their poison on Yik Yak, as much as I want to strong-arm cowards into suddenly having the courage to claim their hate; as much as I want our university president to stand up for the whole community, not just quickly remind people to hate nicer; as much as I want lots of things to happen, some of which are actually important; none of those should override the single most important thing that needs to happen, which is contesting-disrupting-fighting back against white power/privilege in all its forms, and remembering that our needs as a privileged class do not come first.

A response to Martin Kich’s response to “Dear ‘Whining Adjuncts'”: some notes about trust

November 14, 2014

Over at the AAUP’s Academe blog, Martin Kich, whose work regarding all things academic labor I tend to like and respect a great deal, has made a point on behalf of tenured advocates for contingent labor equity that I both very much appreciate and feel the need to respond to. This post began as a comment on his post, and once it got as long as it has, I decided I should just put it here instead….


Martin, I’m glad you wrote this post as a follow-up to the original “To My Adjunct Colleagues” from last fall.

As a tenured faculty member who advocates for and organizes with adjunct faculty pretty regularly, I’ve felt some of what you’re describing here–the animus aimed at “the tenured” in very general terms, and a strong reaction against being lumped into the same general class as the worst of our tenured colleagues.

But I’ve learned two (well, more than two, but these particularly germane) important things over the years I’ve spent a lot of time working (and socializing/informally networking) with lots of adjunct faculty from all over the country:

1. Those generalizations aren’t all that overgeneralized–a lot of us TTs aren’t very mindful of how our choices affect our contingent colleagues, even those of us who declare ourselves sympathetic (if not “advocates”). It’s hard to win the argument that you’re a strong advocate for adjunct faculty, for example, if you insist on increasing support for research funding while denying access to the same funding for adjunct faculty who would do more research if they had resources (that’s just one example among zillions). It’s also hard to win the argument that you’re a committed individual ally when historically institutions (our campuses, our unions, our professional organizations) almost always overstate, if not belie) the commitment of TT faculty to our adjunct colleagues.

2. Because those generalizations are more accurate than we wish they were, it’s not particularly reasonable for us (actual advocates and allies) simply to expect trust from the adjunct-equity-activist community as the default. There have been too many of us who drop by for a cup of coffee, pledge our commitments to the cause, write some articles, maybe a book about contingency to get promoted, and disappear. Or who take sabbaticals requiring a one-semester contingent replacement to write that book and don’t notice how ironic that is. Or who assume leadership positions in organizations (professional/disciplinary, unions, AAUP, etc) and start making decisions about adjunct faculty without even consulting them first. And so on. In other words, there have been too many instances in which the exploitation of their contingent status has occurred in the ostensible context of advocating for them, and too many instances in which their movement-building activities have been colonized by people who then worked for their own ends rather than the movement’s.

So, while I agree that I’d love to be able to presume the trust of adjunct faculty who I believe I’m committed to working with, I’ve come to understand that it’s not reasonable to expect that–and not because of them, but because too many of us have proven not to be very trustworthy even when we’re not malicious.

Does that mean I think you deserved to be called an asshole? Of course not. But I would make a case (not a plea, but stronger than a suggestion) that you (and I, and other people who do work like we do) be willing to absorb a little vitriol from time to time. There’s a tendency among some of us (I don’t think this is what you’re doing–I’m generalizing some here myself) to want to respond to anger and frustration among adjunct faculty by tone-policing, calling for “civility,” accusing them of sounding like children having temper tantrums (a wide spectrum of descriptions that all serve as excuses not to listen to what they’re actually saying). Telling angry people they shouldn’t sound so angry is like telling depressed people they should just cheer up. It’s almost certain to make things worse.

“Yeah, but…”

September 4, 2014

It happens a couple of times a week. I write or post something about contingent faculty equity on a professional listserv or on Facebook. Then, as I described in one of those listserv posts last week:

I can probably count on the fingers on one hand the number of exceptions I’ve seen to this pattern when adjunct equity pops up on listservs or Facebook threads or even at conferences: adjuncts try to do something positive for themselves, sometimes ungracefully, sometimes quite skillfully; some people express support or agreement or something at least sympathetic; and then the Yeah-Buts start. “Well, but if they don’t want to teach composition they shouldn’t be doing it.” “Yeah, but they should just get other jobs if they don’t like these.” “Yeah, but if they were good enough to get hired into tenure lines, they would have.” “Yeah, but they don’t do scholarship.” Yeah but, yeah but, yeah but.

Y’all might be able to imagine how frustrated I get when that happens, and I’m not paying any personal price whatsoever for the intransigence and skepticism that gets expressed in those Yeah Buts. Imagine how furious it makes the people who pay a heavy price for it, and then think again about whether the voice they’re speaking is “whiny.” Is it shrill sometimes? You bet it is. Is it surprising at all? No, it’s not. Does it make the substance of the arguments any less real and nasty? No it doesn’t, but pointing it out all too often provides an excuse not to listen. If I could change anything about the way all too many people react to these conversations it would be that one.

My friend and and longtime collaborator on academic labor research and writing projects Amy Lynch-Biniek wrote a blog entry the other day that has encouraged me to answer the Yeah Buts more publicly. She makes two key points. First, more often that most of us tenured/tenure-track faculty want to believe, merit is not what distinguishes us from our contingent colleagues, many of whom have the exact same credentials and skill that we do; I would add that even among the many who don’t have the exact same credentials, there’s a lot more willingness to pursue those or at least move towards them than most of us seem to think. She also makes a point that I wish I could transplant directly into the brains of TT faculty everywhere:

The only way I am able to reconcile working in a field that systematically abuses the majority of its workers is to dedicate my service and scholarship to addressing the problem of labor in higher ed. Too many lucky tenured, though, believe as Stuckel does, that they are special snowflakes. Or, they turn their eyes away, saying “I can’t change it,” or “I need to focus on my students.” I call bullshit. We can change it, and improving the working conditions of all teachers is focusing on your students. The time for silence is over. In fact, there never was a time for silence. Become allies to your adjunct colleagues. Do something. Say something.

Her rhetorical style and mine are somewhat different. My version of that argument:

 If you’re willing to say “Yeah, but,” then try stopping at “Yeah” and see how it feels.

That is, rather than starting to tick off the reasons you shouldn’t be taking on problems of adjunctification, try thinking about why you should. Even as a thought experiment. Even as the kind of exercise you ask students to do all the time–“Imagine the other side of the argument and see if you can understand/articulate their positions! Maybe it’ll help you think a little differently! If one reason you buck against being active on contingency issues is the politics of your academic discipline, try thinking about beyond that context; there are adjuncts in lots of fields, and the working conditions they face are only occasionally less crassly exploitative than most.

As another thought experiment, try articulating the “buts” without the tepid gestures at sympathy and see how different they sound. “They’re not trained well enough to be in tenure-lines.” “They’re not talented enough or diligent enough to have gotten TT jobs.” “They don’t do scholarship, despite the fact that their positions make it nearly impossible.” “They should just leave.” If those sound harsher to you than they did without the “Yeah” in front, they should. Except that they aren’t. To my ear, it’s even worse to start with a handwringing expression of sympathy and then immediately to deny that it’s your problem or anybody’s but theirs.

That is, if you don’t feel like the problems of contingent faculty are yours to address or think about, don’t even pretend like you do. If you feel like those problems are yours at all, then I’m asking you to make a concerted good faith effort to act on them rather than to respond to them with all the reasons you feel like you can’t. Of course you can.

At the risk of pissing off the NCTE publication gods, because there’s no web-based version of a publication called Forum: Issues about Part-time and Contingent Faculty for which I did an article (“‘Never Take More Than You Need,'” Spring 2013 issue) a couple of years ago, I’m going to list a set of recommendations I made in that piece here. None of them costs TT faculty a cent. One of them asks you consider being more judicious about asking for reassigned time, and another to be more mindful about how and when you ask for it. Otherwise, these could happen tomorrow at little to know risk for just about anybody.

First, and it’s a shame I feel I have to say this out loud: Meet your contingent faculty members. Learn their names. Talk to them as colleagues, because they are.

Second, and most lofty (read: impractical, but do it anyway): To the extent feasible, push for contingent lines to be converted, for pay equity, long-term contracts, full governance rights, and other rights enjoyed by full-time faculty. Our faculty union, which represents both contingent and non-contingent faculty, is working with our faculty senate and our campus curriculum committee to find seats for contingent faculty—and unsurprisingly finding some resistance. But we’re pushing and, I believe, making some progress.

Third, don’t take more reassign time than you need. On some campuses, getting reassign credits is a kind of game, or badge of honor. The losers of that game aren’t just the people who get fewer reassigned credits, but also the people whose job prospects are thrown into disarray as a result of the instability.

Fourth, find out the percentage of contingent faculty on your campus and what their compensation is. Compare it to other campuses, and post to The Adjunct Project spreadsheet. Share information from the spreadsheet and the blog with your colleagues, especially if your campus conditions would rate you poorly compared to others.

Fifth, work with members of your department to schedule sabbaticals/reassignments in order to maximize full-time spots for people who want them. For example, my system offers half-year or full-year sabbaticals. When I’m ready to take a half-year, which is all I’d want, I’ll do my very best to coordinate with other faculty in my department to see whether somebody is planning or willing to take the other semester of an academic year. I, personally, won’t take my semester until I can work that out. Once I have, and once the sabbatical is approved, I’ll work with my department chairperson and scheduler to ensure, to the extent possible, that one contingent faculty member gets a full-time load for an entire year as a result of an open full-time schedule for a year. Another example: My department chair asked me, a couple of years ago, whether I’d be willing to give up a general education writing course for an upper division course she needed to add at the last minute. I told her I’d do it under one condition—that she gave my rescheduled writing section to somebody who needed another section to become eligible for better benefits—that is, if she had to hire a new person for one section without any benefits, I wouldn’t do it. Neither of those ideas is terribly complicated or labor-intensive; neither costs anybody a penny. All it takes is a little foresight and mindfulness.

Sixth…, make your contingent faculty hiring and evaluation practices ethical and meaningful. Too many departments … are willing to hire and retain marginal teachers because they don’t cost much and are often willing to accept scraps of assignments. If we make it a priority to hire quality faculty and evaluate (and of course support) them well; and if we make it a priority not to retain faculty who aren’t doing the job well simply because they’re convenient, then we can go a long way toward addressing the darker, deeper underbelly of the situation, which I haven’t even tried to answer to in this piece.

As a final recommendation: go join and support the efforts of the New Faculty Majority. For every time you’ve said or thought, “Those adjuncts really ought to be organizing and advocating for themselves,” give NFM a dollar. For every time you’ve thought, “Those adjuncts should quit whining and do something,” give NFM another dollar. Then let’s talk about what else you can do after these baby steps don’t make you fall down and go boom.


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