Last October I wrote a post praising Liberty University students for circulating a petition denouncing their university president’s support of the Trump campaign, and then challenging them to do something other than simply having made their statement. Of course that never happened because reasons.
This morning, I’m having almost the exact same reaction to the news that “Some Liberty University Grads Are Returning Their Diplomas To Protest Trump,” reported by NPR. In a nutshell, my responses are two–
I recognize that diplomas are simultaneously just pieces of paper and symbols for substantial accomplishment, and as such sending them back to the institution is a meaningful statement in its way. On the other hand, it leaves a lot of actual work undone. First, without attaching any kind of demand to it, even if Falwell wanted to “agree,” he’d have nothing to agree to. Second, like the petition last fall, the one-off “I’m going to say my piece and be done with it” is simultaneously brave and a cop-out.
Obviously as a left-ish person, what I’d really like to see is the Liberty alums realize the damage their church and its leaders have done to countless millions of lives; work to remedy that damage; and work to minimize the risk that bad people can keep doing terrible things while hiding behind theology and church dogma to do it. I’m OK with baby steps, but those steps have to go somewhere, and stopping after only one is no reason to congratulate themselves.
It’s taken me a lot of hours, a good night’s sleep, and a decent run this morning to decide that I need to write about my reaction to this post on Retraction Watch yesterday. [For those of you who don’t read Retraction Watch, the authors write mostly about retracted articles in scientific journals (hence the blog name), but now and again foray into larger academic politics issues.]
In a nutshell: Biologist hired into tenure-track assistant professor position. During his first year, he makes a sloppy research protocol mistake involving bringing samples back into the US without appropriate paperwork/approvals. At the end of the first year, he’s summarily dismissed without any declaration of cause or due process (or any process). He files a lawsuit that at-will firing shouldn’t be allowed. That suit is just now in process, so it’s nowhere near a disposition.
The facts of the case and the research ethics issues aren’t my concern right now (although they’re interesting to me as somebody who serves on an IRB and has studied research ethics). Instead, my concern is the reaction of the faculty to member to his dismissal, without any apparent recognition that this happens to contingent faculty every [bleeping] day. At-will hiring/firing always sucks. If I got to be in charge, nobody could ever lose a job without cause and without a process for trying to save it.
Do I feel bad for him? Assuming his version of what happened is true, sure. In his telling, he made a minor mistake, but nothing worth getting fired over. If he were a member of my union and he came to me to file his grievance, I’d fight for him. I understand he’s unhappy about losing the job and feels like he’s been done an injustice. Maybe he has.
But I’m really annoyed that nobody who’s talking about this seems to understand how often that injustice happens to the people he sees in the hallways every day. Now you’re furious. Welcome to it.
On a more optimistic note, I hope he wins (although I can’t imagine he will). Anybody who makes a dent in management’s right to hire and fire at will is doing a great service.
In July 2014, I wrote a piece called The Worst Thing About Contingency is Contingency, which concluded:
[T]he pressure on tenure-track faculty simply isn’t comparable to the stress on contingent faculty whose jobs may shrink or disappear without notice or explanation; whose benefits, if there are any at all, are often tied to their teaching loads in such a way that losing a course could cost them much more than simply the lost salary (which already sucks)…. [T]hat risk is not as prominent for some contingent faculty as for others, but it’s never not there. Pre-tenured faculty at most institutions can, I realize, lose their positions in the first two or three years without cause, the risk of which is horrifically stressful, but even then–during the academic year, they’re guaranteed full-time work, full-time benefits, and full-time pay.
As long as contingent faculty jobs can be changed or taken away for any or no reason at all, their employment situations are worse than mine.
Today, I feel some urge to pull and highlight those points again due to a conversation on Facebook about TT/T faculty’s reaction to adjunct faculty agitation for improved conditions: the TT/T faculty “is trying really hard but can’t do much” and then makes the NTT faculty’s agitation about their feelings instead of the actual conditions that are problematic.
If you’re a TT/T faculty member/administrator whose reaction to NTT faculty agitation/self-advocacy is to understand why they feel bad but not to fight to improve anything, here’s a reminder of what many (most) NTT faculty face that TT/T faculty (usually) don’t.
- Crappy compensation. We lefties who decry neoliberalism and corporatization know that universities/systems justify the exploitation of contingency based on market-logic. Thus, the pay is lower, benefits often non-existent, and when available often more expensive than they are for TT/T.
- Unstable workload. Institutions moving to term contracts guaranteeing workload are helping to alleviate this, but those are still few and far between. For the majority, contingency means that their workload is based on “need,” which can fluctuate semester by semester. On contracts that re-up each semester, somebody could go from full-time to zero with no notice (for the record, I know at least 4 people who have lost their entire full-time loads a week into a semester). You could lose work for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your performance.
- Which cycles back to #1. When you’re paid by the section and lose one because [doesn’t matter why], that income is likely impossible to replace. Depending on the context, that financial hit could compound in increased insurance/retirement expenses (for those even eligible for such things). For example: in my system, most NTT faculty currently make about $6000/section. A full-time load is 4 courses. They become benefits-eligible at a half-load, but the costs are on a sliding scale; they cost more for half-time faculty than for full-time. So, when somebody who has a 4/4 load for a year and on our health insurance loses a section at the last minute, not only do they lose $6000 in pay, but their insurance premium co-pay goes up too.
- Schedule instability: Even NTT faculty whose workload is guaranteed are generally low on the priority list for scheduling, which means last-second changes affect them more often than us TT/T folks (and is often because of us, e.g., we ask for schedule changes without thinking about the ripple effects). This sucks even for faculty with guaranteed full-time loads, especially those with other obligations (like family–think about how pissed you’d be if you structured your childcare around your schedule, and then had it change 2 days before the semester started and had zero notice). Yes, this happens to TT/T faculty sometimes too, but not as frequently, certainly not definitionally (the adjuncts are “contingent,” right?), and almost never reciprocally (NTT faculty don’t do this to us). This problem can be disastrous for freeway flyers, who may depend on complicated schedules among multiple institutions. A change in one place often eliminates their ability to work elsewhere (or keep your job, or both). Which then cycles back to #1 because….
This is, unfortunately, the kind of list that could go on and on and on and on. Instead, I’ll just make the point again–
Even the possibility that NTT faculty could lose work and chunks of compensation, can get bounced around like superballs, become ways to solve other people’s logistical problems–those conditions are terrible, and nobody (in any job really) should be asked to accept them. And there’s simply no excuse for propagating them.
[ADDED FRI AFTERNOON–COMRADE LES KAY LEFT THIS COMMENT ON A FACEBOOK POST AND OK’ED MY PUTTING IT HERE. HE’S EXACTLY RIGHT, AND I WISH I’D THOUGHT OF IT. –SK]
I’m baffled at just how shitty contingent pay is. For all of the academy’s critiques of corporate culture, corporate culture does a much better job of PAYING contractors for flexibility and the lack of benefits. As a contractor in corporate work, I make more than I would as an FTE to account for that. The same is true, I believe, in all other government work as well.
Contingent faculty should receive similar bumps in compensation (with fair accounting for what they do), and the fact that they don’t is a tribute to institutional inertia and just how very egregious the practice is at every level. What’s genuinely tragic is that adjuncts aren’t even asking for anything close to that, and badmin still frames it as somehow too much.
[After I posted this, I went to Rep. Brooks’ website so I could send it to him directly. Unfortunately, his office refuses to accept emails from anybody who isn’t in his district. Seriously? Because emails take up so much room in your office? Anyway, if anyone in Alabama who lives in his district is inclined to share this with him, I’d be grateful. Thx!]
Honorable Representative Brooks:
I read with great interest about your interview on CNN where you claim that people who live right don’t have pre-existing conditions to worry about, and so nothing to worry about if you vote up the new GOP-sponsored healthcare bill.
I hope you can help me understand, then, how I wound up as somebody who could be severely harmed by the current proposal, which weakens the guaranteed protections for those of us with pre-existing conditions. You seem very confident in your judgment of our lives, so maybe you can help me see where I went wrong.
Here’s my story: I’m 48 years old. I’d always been in good health internally up to age 40; the only health problems I ever had were broken bones and some joint injuries I suffered because I was too klutzy to be the athlete I insisted on trying to be. Yes, I’m married a second time, but the first one ended amicably, and both people I’ve been married to have been at least as dedicated to fitness if not more as I am.
Just before I turned 40, I was diagnosed as a type-2 diabetic–not a pre-diabetic who could fix everything if I ate better and got a little more exercise, not so serious that I had to start insulin shots, but serious enough that I’ve been on a steady medication regimen and have overhauled my diet and exercise habits completely. I had never been a very careful eater, but I never had any problems that were related to diet. I smoked cigarettes for years, but there’s no evidence that smoking increases the risk of diabetes (it does amplify the harms, so I quit within a couple of months of my original diagnosis). I drank a lot in college but very occasionally and lightly since then. I don’t use any illegal drugs.
So why do I deserve to risk losing my health insurance if I have to change jobs (G*d forbid)? Is because I’m Jewish? No? Maybe because I’ve always voted Democratic? Nope! Or even worse, because I’m a liberal wacko college professor? Or because I’m a University of Georgia football fan? What is it, Rep. Brooks? I’m really at a loss here.
Since you’re so willing to put my life at increased risk based on your personal judgment of how good a person I am, the least you can do is help me be a better person by telling me what I’m doing so wrong. That seems fair, doesn’t it?
Seth Kahn, West Chester, PA
In July 2015, I wrote a post called “We hurt our bargaining position when we devalue lower-division teaching,” arguing to an audience primarily of faculty that when we denigrate lower-division teaching assignments (e.g., I wish I didn’t have to teach these boring intro courses so I could teach these more interesting upper division and grad courses!), we make it easier for decision-makers to conclude that the work isn’t worth very much because we’re the ones telling them it isn’t worth very much. That post has been about as well-received as any I’ve written.
Yesterday on the WPA-l (listserv for writing instructors and program administrators), I made a sorta ham-fisted effort to extend that line of argument. It didn’t work especially well, so I want to try again. Because that conversation got so unraveled into so many different threads and subthreads, I’m not even going to try to summarize it here. Instead, I just want to make a point or however many.
Let’s start with what I’m NOT SAYING:
- I’m not saying that if you hire people into bad positions, you’re a pariah or a moral failure.
- I’m not saying that should expect to lead the revolution that ends academic labor inequality.
- I’m not arguing that unqualified, untrained people should be teaching, or that advanced credentials aren’t worth having (obviously I think that–I did a PhD).
What I am saying:
- I recognize that in some settings, it’s reasonable to have people without terminal degrees teaching college classes. We can debate the ripple effects of that–on students, on programs, on the profession writ large–but if we’re going to have that debate, we also need to account for the tens of thousands of such faculty who already work in our departments/programs (Maria Maisto and I argued this point at some length in our review of Michael Berube and Jennifer Ruth’s recent book). I’m not holding out for all tenure-track positions, and I’m not opposed to having MA-holders teaching college students, as long as other conditions hold (rigorous hiring and evaluation processes are the obvious examples).
- Once we have cadres of MA-holding instructors teaching college students, we have already told the decision-makers at our institutions that the MA is a legitimate qualification for the work. More on that in a minute.
- Once we legitimize the MA, we do the workers with MAs a grave disservice when we don’t contest paying them less than PhD-holders when they do the same work. I know perfectly well there are different kinds of jobs, and not everybody in a program or department has the same requirements/expectations and skills/training. But when faculty are teaching the same courses and the same number of them, expected to do the same amount of service, supported to the same level but not evaluated on their scholarship, the rationale for paying them differently is not clear to me.
- Even if the rationale is clear to you, and I can certainly believe it is since it’s clear to seemingly everyone but me, it doesn’t undo the damage we do to MA-holding faculty when we simultaneously claim that their credentials are legitimate but worth less. It’s our willingness to concede this point that puts our MA-holding faculty in the difficult position of having to argue that they need and deserve better, while we’re telling the decision-makers that they don’t.
Part of what happened in the WPA-l thread (and a couple of subsequent Facebook threads) is that I was able to think through two other points that don’t exactly follow from the rest of this, but hey, it’s my blog.
First–I didn’t really make this point clearly yesterday, but increasingly what I’m realizing is that it’s the positions that are toxic, not the hiring practices or the people who fill them. Defining a position based on the credential it takes to do it seems like bad practice on its face, especially in a profession that’s about learning! If all you ever get to do is what your current credential allows you to, where’s the space or motivation to learn to do anything else? Especially if that extra learning happens in a PhD program you have to finance yourself, with only so much hope that doing so will ever result in much besides being well-trained and bankrupt?
One B–Along similar lines, defining a position so that faculty only get to teach at one level of the curriculum also seems like a bad idea. The CCCC Statement on Working Conditions for NTT Writing Faculty recommends giving NTT faculty access to all levels of the curriculum for which they’re qualified. When we drafted that language, that was for the sake of the faculty themselves in order to keep from burning out doing the same thing forever. But now, I would argue that defining positions this way, especially when we simultaneously define those positions as low-paying and insecure, hurts not only the people in those positions, but the disciplines in which those courses exist, the faculty in those areas whose work gets less respect as a result, and so on.
Second–my expectations for what any individual faculty member can/should do aren’t especially high. I wrote on a Facebook comment this morning:
Every time you have the ear of your dean or provost or whoever actually signs off on hiring decisions, make the point as clearly as possible that positions defined by credential, and (I didn’t argue this yesterday but it’s also true) positions defined by locking faculty into one level of curriculum are bad positions. Yes, there are people who will take them, and I’m not questioning anyone’s individual motives for their decisions–but the positions, at their core, are toxic. You may not be able to change their minds about them, but if you say it enough times to enough people, you’ll have a lot better shot at winning the argument than by not saying it.
Sorry if that last part sounds pedantic; I’m trying to be quick. I just want us, collectively as a profession, to stop letting decision-makers off the hook for decisions they make that hurt people.
Keep telling them it’s wrong; that’s the only thing that even has a chance of getting it made right.
Yesterday, former MLA President (among other titles) Michael Bérubé posted a piece on the Academe blog that contributes to the ongoing (as he points out) discussion of the place of tenure-track/tenured (TT/T) faculty in the system that enables the exploitation of contingent faculty. Titled “Tenure-Track Responsibility and Adjunct Exploitation,” the piece picks up on Kevin Birmingham’s contention in his Truman Capote Award acceptance speech that TT/T faculty benefit from adjunct inequality even if we don’t intentionally create or cause it.
The responses to Birmingham’s and Bérubé’s pieces in substance is pretty much identical: NO I DON’T!!!!! (And before you react to this by assuming I’m talking about you individually, only if you’re one of hundreds I actually saw say this–that is, it’s a pretty common reaction.)
I’m not going to speak for Michael B, an ally with whom I sometimes disagree about details, but I think it’s worth talking about what the word complicity entails. In short (for me at least), the claim is that once your privilege has been pointed out to you, you’re propagating an injustice by refusing to acknowledge and address it.
More specifically: when we deny that the system is tilted in our favor, and that we have access to aspects of the profession that most contingent colleagues don’t (like sabbaticals, reassigned time–I won’t use the term “release time,” travel funding, schedule flexibility, etc), we sound an awful lot like white people sound when somebody points out white privilege, or men sound when somebody points out male privilege. If you’ve ever noticed how defensive people get when somebody observes for them that they have structural advantages that come at other people’s expense, you know what I’m talking about.
Or as Eddie Vedder once put it (in the only Pearl Jam song I still really love), “If you hate something/Don’t you do it too.”