Addenda to Herb Childress’ “What Tenured Faculty Could Do…”

October 31, 2019
A lot of what I’d say about Herb Childress’ “What Tenured Faculty Could Do, if They Cared about Adjuncts” (paywalled, ironically, at the Chronicle of Higher Ed) I’ve published before, so I won’t do a point-by-point (most of which would be enthusiastic agreement anyway).
I do want to think about the one-union/separate-union problem. I had a long conversation a couple of years ago with somebody in the early stages of studying this exact problem (I’m not sure where that research has gone, but I hope to see her results someday). On that call, I told her my sense is that it depends very much on the context. Simple version–
Blended unions work better for adjuncts when the proportion of adjuncts is smaller. So, for example, in our system where TT faculty are the majority (pushing 75%), a separate adjunct union would be too small to have much power. If our entire adjunct cohort walked out, it would hurt and create some chaos, but it wouldn’t cause management anywhere near the problems it did when we all walked out together. They have an easier (no, not easy, but easier) task convincing* the union to bargain their issues from within than going it alone. Not to say we don’t need to do better, or that the adjuncts within our union shouldn’t organize among themselves to make their demands, but structurally, it would disadvantage them to bargain separately.
On the other hand, in most places where the NTT faculty are the majority, their bargaining power is much larger, and having to negotiate their issues with the smaller cohort of TT faculty before bargaining any of that into a contract makes it likely they’ll get squeezed–especially in places where the TT faculty keep the adjuncts out of the leadership, off bargaining teams, etc. This happens distressingly often (yes, anecdata, but metric tons of it).
So as a practical matter, I’d add these calls onto Childress’ list. If you’re a TT member of a blended union, work hard to make sure your union represents all of your members.
  • Create opportunities–that aren’t just tokens–for adjunct faculty to be in union leadership positions, and to be able to take them (by paying stipends, for example, or making sure that it can at least count as service credit for faculty who get evaluated on service–but better, really, is to pay them for the time).
  • Don’t wait until decisions are all-but-made to ask out loud how they’ll affect your most vulnerable members. And when you ask that question, ask it to the people who are getting affected and listen to what they say.
  • When your TT colleagues demean adjuncts (intentionally or not), call it out. If solidarity means anything at all, it must apply to everyone. If somebody has to be reminded that an entire cadre of faculty are union siblings, that person needs a talking-to.

Once you commit to solidarity, the rest of this gets a lot simpler.

*Someday, I won’t need the word “convincing” in that sentence–that’s one of my career goals.

Contingent Faculty Have Feelings Too

July 29, 2019

In the spirit of starting the joke with the punchline in order to avoid testing your patience, I’m going to make the big point first.

If you’ve ever tone-policed* a contingent** faculty member for sounding strident, or whiny, or whingy, or uncivil, or any such thing, I hope you read this article from today’s (Mon, July 29, 2019) Inside Higher Ed called “Professors Have Feelings Too” and substitute “contingent faculty member” for “tenure-track professor” or “probationary” or “untenured” professor. When you do, I hope you hear what I’ve been hearing every single time I hear someone tone-police a contingent faculty member for sounding angry or stressed out or frustrated.

What the hell do you expect? A job at which your workload can change even once a term has started is stressful; a job from which you can be disappeared without explanation is stressful. I’ve said all this before.

As with other times when I’ve made this kind of move, I feel obligated to say that this isn’t to dismiss or undercut the feelings that tenure-track faculty face. We should be able to think about faculty stress and faculty feelings within and across ranks and statuses because we’re (supposed to be) smart people.

OK, this is unusual. When I first started writing this, I had a much longer argument in mind, but I may have just said everything I want to say about this until somebody makes me keep going.

*[Updated Monday evening: If you need a primer on the concept of tone-policing, this piece from Everyday Feminism is excellent.]

**I’m using the word “contingent” to refer to faculty whose positions are insecure, whether that means workload, or longevity, or at-will status. Not all NTT faculty are “contingent” in this sense, and it’s important that those of us who are active in the discourse find a way to be clear about who we’re talking with and about.


He’s Mostly Right, but the Wrong Part is Really Wrong

May 31, 2019

Today (May 30, 2019) on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, our fearless founder Carolyn Betensky posted a link to this blog post called “Is Your Prof Part-Time? 4 Reasons You Should Find Out” by Dan Edmonds. Edmonds makes a point that writ large deserves a round of applause from everyone concerned with contingent academic labor equity: students/families need to aware of the labor conditions under which faculty work at colleges they’re considering. He recommends searching for colleges on the Adjunct Project site at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (which doesn’t seem to have been updated in a couple of years, but that’s a post for another day), and then:

Ideally, you should couple this research with a more direct line of questioning to the schools you’re most interested in learning more about. The American Federation of Teachers has an excellent list of questions to ask a representative from colleges you’re interested in. If a school is standoffish about answering these questions, I’d advise pushing back and making it clear that the treatment of NTTF is an important factor you’ll be weighing in comparing schools. The better that a school’s contingent faculty are treated, the better they will perform.

So far so good, right? I would say so.

Here’s the problem. He rightly understands that most students and people who make decisions with them about college probably don’t know much, if anything, about contingent faculty issues, so after laying out the scope of contingency (with numbers that are reasonably current and accurate), he lists and explains the “4 reasons” his title promises.

They are:

1. Hiring high-quality candidates is difficult. Because of poor or no benefits, below-market wages, and little scheduling control, schools have a difficult time attracting and retaining high-quality adjunct instructors.

2. Teaching conditions are less than desirable. Many adjuncts work multiple jobs to subsist, and they often lack offices and other resources to be able to provide key support to students.

3. Course content may be predetermined. Adjuncts are often limited in their freedom to create their own syllabi and may be forced to use course materials that they are unfamiliar or unhappy with.

4. Classes are often staffed at the last minute. With little time to prepare, even the most dedicated adjuncts may struggle to develop thoughtful, engaging curricula.

I have no substantive objections to 2-4; they’re a little underdeveloped, sure, but it’s a blog post and the points are basically sound.

But the first one is profoundly mistaken. He’s right about the conditions, but he’s flatly wrong about the quality of faculty. It’s a common assumption among people who don’t do actual research about academic labor that adjunct faculty aren’t tenure-track because they’re not as good. It’s hooey. Especially as the job market in most academic disciplines has crashed over the last decade or more, we see more and more top-notch talents who, for lots of reasons, wound up in non-tenure-track positions. We also see a growing number of top-notch talents who choose to be off the tenure-track because it affords them options they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Beyond that–and as somebody who’s been accused more than once of saying things publicly on behalf of adjunct faculty that were more harmful than helpful, I know how easy this is–making that argument in the context of a piece that’s otherwise strongly supportive of better conditions for non-tenure-track faculty shoots his own argument in the foot. It’s hard to convince students and families to demand better treatment of adjunct faculty at the same time you’re announcing to them that those faculty are substandard.

On the off chance that Mr. Edmonds sees this post, I strongly encourage him to spend an hour watching the documentary Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, and then maybe revisiting his post. What he’s trying to do is laudable, and much of the post follows through–but the part that doesn’t really doesn’t, and I hope there’s a way to fix that.




An Open Letter to Teach for America Regarding Teacher Strikes

February 20, 2019

[UPDATE, Thurs 3/21/19: I have submitted this letter, finally, with 51 signatures on it. If you still happen upon it and want to endorse it, I’ll keep adding people until we get a satisfactory response. –SK]

Dear Ms. Villanueva Beard, CEO, Teach for America:

The current wave of teacher strikes across the United States leads us to request that Teach for America leadership rethink your organization’s stance towards your members’ participation in those strikes.

An Associated Press article (“Teach for America Slammed over Oakland Strike”, Feb 12) indicates that your advice to TFA members in the event of a strike is to do what they think is right, but to understand that joining the strike may come at substantial financial cost to them. To be fair, your spokesperson hints that TFA “is exploring if it could help supplement an AmeriCorps education award if a teacher loses it.”

This advice is troubling for three reasons. First, it’s textbook coercion to lay a decision and the penalty for making it alongside each other while acting like you don’t mean to connect the dots. The fact that AmeriCorps has a policy preventing participants in its programs from striking doesn’t make the threat less of a threat. That is, it’s no less coercive by virtue of being accurate.

Second, there’s a conflict between the fact that your members are fully faculty at the schools where they teach, including their right to become members of the union, and your policy that they face penalties for participating in perfectly legal activities attached to their membership. They’re allowed to pay dues; they’re allowed to file grievances; they’re allowed to vote in union elections; but they are penalized for striking. It’s difficult to see any logic in which those propositions are consistent.

Finally, TFA’s claim not to have a position on strikes rings awfully hollow in the context of your support for and collaboration with publicly anti-union forces; this piece from Gary Rubinstein names just a handful, and anyone who has followed TFA over the years is likely familiar with more.

We understand you’re trying to thread a needle: recognizing the right of your members to participate in legal activity while recognizing a policy of your partner organization. To be candid, we would be more sympathetic to the difficulty of that position if TFA hadn’t been so unfriendly to teacher unions–and the entire reason that we need them, which is to stabilize the teaching workforce instead of exponentially increasing turnover.

With all that in mind, we are therefore asking Teach for America for two actions.

  1. Shorter term: follow through on the suggestion in the AP article linked above to “supplement” any financial harm to TFA members if they engage in legally protected activity. Not to put too fine a point on it, TFA has access to resources (private benefactors in addition to federal dollars) to replace the subsidies without really missing any of it. We’re confident you could make up the difference without much struggle.


  1. Longer term: encourage AmeriCorps to change its policy regarding eligibility for loan-repayment or tuition assistance based on participation in legally protected activity.

As long as striking is legal, and as long as TFA members can join unions, it is unethical for TFA to discourage participation in strikes, and more so while pretending not to be doing it. Furthermore, although many supporters of teacher unions and public education are troubled by TFA in principle, your organization could earn kudos by doing the right thing here.

Sincerely, Concerned Teachers/Faculty/Union Members (you don’t have to be a union member to endorse–I meant that to include union folks who aren’t also teachers)

To add your endorsement, please CLICK HERE; this link takes you to a Google Form. I’ll update this post periodically with new signatures.

Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English, West Chester University of PA
Member of APSCUF (Association of PA State College and University Faculties)

Steven Singer
English Language Arts Teacher in Western Pennsylvania
Edublogger –
Blogger & Research Director at the Badass Teachers Association
Member of NEA

Rosemary Pearce
Bayport-Blue Point UFSD
Bayport-Blue Point Teachers’ Association

Anne Nguyen
Hartford Public Schools

Laurie Ann Lawrence
Gifted Support Teacher
Henry County BOE

Gregory Sampson
Duval County Public Schools
Grumpy Old Teacher
Duval Teachers United

Lisa Konigsberg
West Chester University of PA

Susan Schorn
Writing Coordinator
University of Texas-Austin
Texas State Employees Union

Liliana Naydan
Assistant Professor of English
Penn State University-Abington
Former LEO Michigan union leader

Michael Flanagan, Ed.D.
Teacher, UFT Union Rep
NYC Department of Education
Badass Teachers Association Executive Board

Craig Crowder
Graduate Instructor
University of Kentucky

Caprice Lawless
Adjunct Faculty
Front Range Community College

Carolyn Betensky
Professor of English
University of Rhode Island

Anne Frances Wysocki
Associate Professor Emeritus of English
Department of English
University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee

Galen Leonhardy
Professor of English
Blackhawk College
IFT Local 1836

Heather Schell
Assistant Professor
George Washington University

Joe Berry
Retired teacher and professor
Retired City College of San Francisco and U of IL, presently Ton Duc Thang U, Viet Nam
AFT 2121 at CCSF (and NEA, AAUP, NWU/UAW, and IWW)

Don Unger
Assistant Professor
University of Mississippi

Darin Jensen
English Instructor
Des Moines Area Community College

Drew M. Loewe
Associate Professor, Writing and Rhetoric
St. Edward’s University 

Leslie Bary
Department of Modern Languages
University of Louisiana-Lafayette

Dr. Sheila Addison
Researcher, consultant, trainer
Margin to Center Consulting

Mercedes K. Schneider, Oh.D.
Classroom teacher
St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana
St. Tammany Federation of Teachers

Eliza Noh
California State University-Fullerton
California Faculty Association

Karen Kirkpatrick
Madison Elementary

Liberty Stanavage
Associate Professor
SUNY Potsdam

Nora Bacon
Professor Emerita
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Frances L. Pierce, M Ed
PSEA-NEA UniServ Director, Retired
PSEA-NEA Retired

Donald Eismann
Retired School Administrator
Sumner Bonney Lake School District

Jennifer Beech
Professor of English
Univ. TN@ Chattanooga

Sherri Craig
Assistant Professor
West Chester University of PA

Dawn M. Armfield, PhD
Assistant Professor
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Amy Lynch-Biniek
Kutztown University

Ashley Patriarca
Associate Professor, English
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Lydia Snow
Music Education Instructor
Northeastern Illinois University
Illinois Federation of Teachers

Megan Berkobien
Graduate Worker
University of Michigan

Marjorie Stewart
Associate Professor of English
Glenville State College

Jennifer Johnson
University of California, Santa Barbara

Nancy Mack
Professor of English Emeritus
Wright State University
Engaging Writers with Multigenre Research

Paulette Stevenson
Arizona State University

Karen Mitchell
Elementary Teacher, Retired; English Instructor, Retired Juneau, AK School District; University of AK SR
Former member NEA, AFT

Jerry Carbo
Shippensburg University

Amy Wan
Associate Professor of English
Queens College, CUNY

Ann Green
Saint Joseph’s University

T J Geiger
Assistant Professor of English
Baylor University

Darci Thoune
Associate Professor of English/First-Year Writing Program Coordinator
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
AFT-UAPUWL Local 6502

Miriam Reumann
Teaching Professor, Dept. of History
University of Rhode Island

Thomas Ultican
Retired Teacher
Mar Vista High School

Lynne Formigli
6th grade science teacher
Cabrillo middle school SCUSD
NBPTS EA Science

Delia Poey
Professor of Spanish
Florida State University

Peter Greene
Retired teacher






About “Viewpoint Diversity” and False Equivalency

February 3, 2019

I’ve been reading the current thread on the WPA-l, about a new discussion group called Heterodox Rhetoric and Composition (HxR/C), and I’ve been thinking about why some of the language the Heterodox Academy uses seems more dangerous to me than it appears to people joining the group.

The term “viewpoint diversity” is the heart of it. This 2017 piece in Vox traces the history of the concept as part of an explicitly conservative project. HxR/C’s language rings a bell similar to that of David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom–because it’s a clear outgrowth of it. In the early 2000s, the preferred term was “intellectual diversity,” and the Vox piece documents the morphing between the two. The Students for Academic Freedom website hasn’t been maintained actively for a while,  but both the language and the chains of reasoning they used were similar to the Heterodox Academy’s (which hosts HxR/C).

When the SAF version of this movement defused, its descendants seems to have moved in two directions. One of them has turned into Turning Point USA, which looks/feels more like Horowitz as an individual (i.e., confrontational and partisan) in its style, and the other is the Heterodox Academy, which looks and feels more like a direct descendant of FIRE. [A note about FIRE: I first learned of them during the Horowitz SAF campaign. They’ve always struck me as an almost perfect mirror image of the ACLU–an organization the politics of which lean in one direction, but are occasionally complicated by the organization’s willingness to take stands on behalf of people they disagree with.]

The folks involved in HxR/C may not buy that history or may want to debate details of it; at the same time, I hope this makes clear why that history–in which some of us oldsters were pretty deeply implicated–is making us (at least me) respond to this initiative with concern. The Hx R/C members may not (and I believe them when they say so) mean the same things, but the overlaps in the language and logic are hard to ignore.

Along with all that, this morning I read a post from a physicist named Adam Becker at Undark (which, I’ll confess, I haven’t vetted carefully as a source). The post, called “Junk Science or the Real Thing: ‘Inference’ Publishes Both,” is about a periodical called Inference that practices viewpoint diversity. They don’t use the phrase, exactly, but their About page says [bold added, italics in the original], in part:

Founded in 2014, Inference: International Review of Science is an independent quarterly review of the sciences. Inference is dedicated to publishing reasoned, informed, and insightful critical essays that reflect the true diversity of thought across the fields that comprise the journal’s remit, from Anthropology to Zoology….

We have no ideological, political, or religious agendas whatsoever.

The language should look familiar. Also, to be clear–Becker directly asserts a political agenda and motives in his argument that I am NOT asserting here.

To be fair, Inference replied to Becker’s essay on their site, responding point-by-point to some of the details, but not squarely addressing his major argument: that putting bad arguments alongside better arguments doesn’t lead to “dialogue” but instead to legitimizing the bad arguments by making them look like they belong. The editors of Inference do say that anyone who wants to respond to what they think is bad science can write letters to the editor. As somebody who’s been an avid letter-to-editor writer for many years, I can assure you that a letter in the opinion section has a lot less power than the multi-thousand-word ostensibly-professionally-vetted piece it’s responding to. C’mon.

The position of the Inference editors, which seems similar if not identical to the position the Heterodox Academy takes, strikes me as false-equivalence. Not all statements have equal force, and to assert that those difference in force are purely logical/critical/rational is to enable (at least) even the most irresponsible utterances as viable.

Accusations of false equivalence vary in terms of their willingness to declare (or presume) motives. I often accuse Fox News of superficially including an occasional “liberal side” of a story only to create straw arguments serving their right-wing agenda. On the other hand, while I don’t think the New York Times or CNN are particularly right-wing (or left), both organizations willingly give space to viewpoints that are demonstrably dishonest (see: entire history of the US occupation of Iraq) in the name of “fairness.”

I’m not addressing the motives of the HxR/C members, partly because I have lengthy personal relationships with some of them and I don’t want those to confuse the issue; partly because Trish Roberts-Miller’s point about motivism is right (it’s more of a tool for reinforcing group in/out-ness than it is an analytical tool); and partly because I want to acknowledge their own explanations for what they’re doing.

In return, I hope members of the group will take the discomfort some of us are expressing not as an effort to shut them down, but as a legitimate expression of concern about their group’s resonances with projects that have, in fact, been aimed explicitly at silencing “radical leftist indoctrinators.”

About the shifting culture of WPA-l

November 9, 2018

A grad student who I don’t know posted a query on the Writing Program Administrators listserv last night about members’ experiences of the list. The post and subsequent responses got me thinking about how the culture of the group has changed over the years. [I’m putting this here instead of there because it’s pretty self-indulgent.]

Short version: three contexts (choose your own spatial metaphor for how you’d arrange these) have changed–the field of comp/rhet/writing studies around which WPA-l circulates; the profession’s labor situation; and the sociopolitical moment in which we marginalized/oppressed people increasingly boldly (and organized-ly) refuse to put up with it anymore.

When I joined WPA-l in Sept 1998 as first-semester PhD student, the list was mostly about two things: (1) WPA business, which I was interested in following because I didn’t know anything about it; and (2) doing what Joyce Locke Carter described as being “in the hotel bar and hallway at CCCC,” i.e., listening to people talk about what we do. Also, as a brand new PhD student, the “hallway” was full of famous people in our field being informal, sometimes just chatty, because for many (when a LOT of “lonely WPAs” worked with colleagues uninterested in what we do), the list served a social function along with its professional functions. I remember grinning ear-to-ear when Steve North responded to a comment about snow in Syracuse with a joke about snow in Albany.

Because the membership was smaller, and people on it really were needed each other, it was also more welcoming to new people–although in retrospect it’s clear to me that one reason I found it that way is my identity, and I hereby apologize to anyone who tried to tell me that without my hearing it.

Around the same time, it was becoming more of an expectation that members of the field talked about ourselves in “more scholarly” ways, so the discourse of the list started to change. It didn’t entirely move away from the business of WPA work, but it expanded to include a lot more theoretical debates/arguments. Especially as a grad student, and still (way back when) as a junior faculty member who was finding a place in the field, it was thrilling to be able to hear and to have those “hallway chats” with experts, and to do it all the time!

So we have, circa 2001, 2002, a list that’s adding a function (more intellectual debate) to its historic functions. Then (I’m truncating radically here) two other things happened/are happening: (1) as the field grew in numbers, so did the list membership, so the kind of we-all-know-each-other ethos didn’t hold anymore (and one of the problems is that some of us long-timers still act like it does); and (2) the academic labor context changed, such that people like I was in 1998-2002 (and other grad students who felt comfortable participating in vigorous conversations with “important people”) can’t assume a safe future (or, can’t afford to be as cavalier about their chances as I probably was). These two points are connected in ways I’m glossing over.

And now: the work many of us thought we’d been doing for years, working against bigotry, working to share power with people who historically denied it, working for equity and equality and justice, is coming home to roost courtesy of a new generation of list members who are bold enough to bring it.

Let me say very clearly that’s not a criticism of list members who have observed and been victimized by problematic and oppressive behaviors for years and didn’t feel safe saying so more publicly. That’s the whole damn point.

I applaud the individual courage of those who are pushing us long-timers to be better people, better mentors, and better co-workers.


Kairos matters. It’s time.


What Democracy Looks Like

October 5, 2018

A convergence of two recent lines of thought–I need to spend a few minutes putting them together. There’s not a lot new in here, but as I often preach in class, nothing is too obvious that it’s not worth saying at least one time.

This semester I’m teaching a course in environmental advocacy writing and was talking yesterday about working for Greenpeace in the summer of 1989. Greenpeace has always framed its activism as democratic organizing against corporate power (rather than about individual responsibility), and that’s the frame I “grew up” in.

This morning (Fri Oct 5), David Sirota published a furiously brilliant opinion piece in the Guardian (“America’s New Aristocracy Lives in an Accountability-Free Zone“), in which he describes what wealthy and powerful people have done in this country to insulate themselves from any legal or political consequences for their abuses.

Sirota’s explanation of what it will take to pierce the accountability-free zone is exactly right and worth quoting at length.

To wedge open the gates of the accountability-free zone, everyday citizens will have to be organized enough to overcome already-well-organized money.

In the political arena, that means electing pro-accountability candidates of both parties, and then forcing them to follow through on prosecuting wrongdoers and voting down aristocracy-approved nominees who represent the accountability-free zone.

In the consumer economy, it will require boycotts, pressure campaigns, union drives, #MeToo movements, shareholder resolutions and other direct actions to hold companies and executives accountable (and as the recent minimum wage campaign against Amazon proves, those efforts can succeed). It will require support for companies that offer different models of corporate behavior, and it will require swarms of cable-news-addled dittoheads to shut off the TV and instead support other forms of media that are serious about questioning, scrutinizing and challenging power.

In the job market, it will require employers to actually fire executives when they lie, cheat, steal, harass and otherwise mistreat their workers.

And at a cultural level, it will require any and all efforts to rescind and deny social status to those who have committed egregious war, financial and sexual crimes — and it will require doing that even if those miscreants wear nice suits and have gilded credentials.

I had a micro version of this realization during the summer I spent canvassing for Greenpeace. Outside the office one day before work (yes, playing hacky sack!), one of my comrades was ranting about how EVIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 3M (the target of one our major campaigns) was.

I said, “Y’know what’s ‘evil?’ Satan. If 3M is really evil, we’re probably not going to out-organize Satan, so we should just go drink beer instead. If that sounds as silly to you as it does to me, let’s get to work. There are millions more of us than there are of them.”

The wealthy and powerful don’t get away with being terrible because nobody can stop them, but because not enough of us band together to do it. The work of making that happen is hard, but the concept isn’t.