“Yeah, but…”

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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6 Responses to “Yeah, but…”

  1. Excellent, Seth. It requires shifting that “Yeah, but…” to “Yes, and…” (an idea I’m shamelessly lifting from improv). “Yes, I hear and acknowledge your difficulties, your experiences, your knowledge, AND here’s what we can do to help with those difficulties. “Yes, and…” is simply a willingness to listen, collaborate, and, whenever necessary, advocate. Your solutions are all of the “Yes, and..” variety, and they’re extremely helpful for people who want to help and aren’t always sure how. Thanks!

    • sethkahn says:

      Funny you’d put it that way, Ashley. I’ve mentioned several times since it happened that Maria Maisto used the phrase “culture shift” in a talk she did at the COCAL convention in August, and this is an exact example of it.

  2. Reblogged this on PrecariLeaks and commented:
    Excellent piece by adjunct advocate Seth Kahn!

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