Open Letter to the President and Board Chair of the University of California System

February 29, 2020

I just sent this letter to President Napolitano and Board Chair Perez.

***

President Napolitano and Chairman Perez:

I’m a faculty member in Pennsylvania who has been following the situation at UCSC (and now Davis and Santa Barbara). Yesterday, news broke of the termination of 54 graduate workers because of their participation in the strike.

The union I belong to, APSCUF, sent you a statement on Thursday in which we pointed out, among other things, that firing striking graduate students accomplishes nothing useful. It doesn’t get the work they’ve been withholding done any faster. It doesn’t make housing more affordable for the people you hire in their places. It serves no purpose whatsoever except to be punitive. Worse, you’re punishing people whose concerns you’ve agreed with but refused to redress, and firing them seems like an effort to erase the problem rather than fix it.

I can assure you, having participated in a strike, that nobody takes the decision lightly. It’s a terrible thing to have to do. Furthermore, while I recognize that they are violating policy, the fact that they have to violate policy to do it should be reinforcing the desperation they’re feeling rather than, well, whatever you’re attributing to them that makes you treat them as disposable.

Therefore, I’m writing–as an individual faculty member, not claiming to represent my university, my system, or my union–with these calls.

First, rescind the firing letters. That was a terrible mistake. You are damaging the lives of people who have worked hard to redress a serious issue, and dismissing them accomplishes nothing.

Second, work in good faith with the students to solve a serious problem that you, as leaders, have the power to address and so far just haven’t. The simple fact of the matter is that the labor situation for graduate students at these universities is untenable, and nothing will change that except supporting them better.

I sincerely hope you can understand why your decision to fire 54 students who are desperately trying to improve their working situation so that they can serve your institution better is Orwellian and needs to be reversed. And I hope you’re noticing that national and international press are covering the situation. We’re all looking to you to do the right thing.

Sincerely,

Seth Kahn, PhD

Professor of English

West Chester University of PA


Tenure isn’t the problem; exceptionalism is the problem

January 25, 2020

Making the rounds on Facebook currently is the article “Tenure is Not Worth Fighting For” in the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

The title is clickbait. Historian Greg Afinogenov isn’t arguing that nobody should have due process protections or academic freedom, or that we should just give in to the anti-intellectual forces of hegemonic neoliberal capitalism (the new normal!), that tenure is anti-innovation, or any of the conventional anti-tenure nonsense we’re all too familiar with.

Instead, he makes two points, one that shouldn’t be controversial, one I can see why it raises some hackles.

The uncontroversial claim: every worker deserves workplace protections against at-will firing and capricious discipline. I won’t invite you to “fight me” on this because I don’t even want to know if you don’t agree.

The more controversial claim: faculty don’t do anything all that special to confer/demand protections other people don’t get.

When we advocate for increasing tenure-track hiring, we do so in the hope of breaking down at least some of this hierarchy. But why should graduate students [and non-tenure-track faculty!] — who have been leading unionization drives and campaigning against abusive and harassing faculty members around the country — be left out of the charmed circle of academic freedom? What about other campus workers, such as janitors, administrative personnel, and food-service staff, who keep universities running and know more than most faculty members about what goes on behind the scenes? The idea that there is a neatly bounded group of people whose occupation entitles them and only them to speak to civic concerns is hard to sustain.

He doesn’t use this term, but he’s calling out tenured faculty for a kind of exceptionalism. I’m not going to spend a whole bunch of time unpacking the term exceptionalism; in short, it’s the idea that a class or group of people (often a nation) is special and thus excepted from rules/norms that govern everyone else.

Afinogenov isn’t calling on tenured faculty to forego the protections that tenure offers. He’s calling on us to stop claiming those protections for our own and not fighting for others to have them also.

Reversing the cancer of academic neoliberalism and upending the increasingly rigid hierarchy of faculty positions would require the kind of financial and political investment that can only be produced by a broad-based social movement with a much more sweeping agenda. There are signs that a movement like this is building today, but it is hard for academics to take part in it as long as we demand privileges that other workers won’t share.

You might buck against the term “privileges,” believing that academic freedom and due process are necessary for academic work. Academe needs them (I applaud the thousands of NTT faculty and graduate instructors who work without them and do well–but you shouldn’t have to). Again, the problem is when we make ourselves the exceptional class of workers who need and deserve such strong protection.

Maybe you, if you’re a tenured faculty member (or a tenured K-12 teacher), haven’t had this conversation, but I’ve had it dozens of times.

Person at busstop/gym/coffeeshop when they learn I’m a professor: Tenure is silly. Nobody deserves to have a job for life.
Me: That’s not really what tenure is. Tenure ensures we can’t get fired without due process, and that we have the autonomy to make professional decisions about our work. Why shouldn’t everyone have that?
PABGC: ….

A meme circulates on union social media feeds from time to time that says, basically, “Don’t complain about my union wages. Organize and fight for your own!” I feel that, but Afinogenov is helping me clarify some discomfort I’ve also felt with it.

The part I fully feel: don’t blame unions for the fact that your boss can screw you. The part I’m queasy about: go fix it yourself.

I’m not queasy about the claim that the protections of tenure are important. And to be clear, I don’t think many of us go out of our way to deny similar protections to other workers (although I’ve seen a lot of faculty claim that others “don’t need it”). But when we claim them unto ourselves and don’t fight for them more broadly, the practical effect is the same: we sound like we’re declaring ourselves exceptional, and thus shouldn’t be surprised when others think we’re being self-aggrandizing and arrogant.


Open Letter to Managers Who Expect Contingent Faculty to Prepare for Courses But Won’t Compensate Them When Those Courses Are Yanked

January 8, 2020

Dear Administrator/Manager:

Around the beginning of every academic term, contingent faculty report the same story. They were scheduled to teach a course, and spent the time any faculty member would preparing for it, but something requires you to cancel or reassign it: a tenured faculty member needs to fill out their workload; or a change in time or day of the course meeting means the section conflicts with the contingent faculty member’s obligations elsewhere, especially if they’re freeway-flying; or…. I understand that sometimes circumstances call for changes in schedules and workload assignments, and that you don’t intend to harm your contingent faculty even though they’re the ones who are, in fact, harmed.

Taking work from faculty who have prepared in good faith to do it is bad enough, even when explicable. Worse, and nearly as common, is how often the faculty who spent time preparing for those courses are refused compensation for the preparation itself. As a labor issue, this practice is unethical on its face. Your employees* are doing work that benefits your organization, and is in fact de facto required (more on this below). You should pay them for doing it. You might cry poverty, but that doesn’t change the logic.

And if that logic doesn’t convince you, I hope this will. Think about the message you send when you won’t pay them for preparation. You’re telling them (and everyone else) that preparation is worthless–literally. Is that really what you want to say? Or worse than worthless, depending on your calculus: preparation is a leisure activity, or valuable only as an exercise in self-fulfillment, or as a donation to the institution. Except we know that none of those is true. If your faculty are unprepared for their teaching assignments, that damages both their future prospects and your institution. The practice of denying compensation for preparations while punishing faculty who don’t donate their preparation time is exploitative at best. And the impact of that multiplies when it happens to the faculty whose positions pay the least and are most tenuous.

There are institutions that have addressed this problem; for your convenience, here’s a very partial list.

Ithaca College, Article 22F

University of Michigan Lecturers Employees Organization, Article 12.D.1

Loyola University-Chicago, Article 30

Wayne State University, Article 16

Western Michigan University, Article 18.3

Connecticut State University System, Article 4.6.1

University of Massachusetts-Boston, Article 21.2

American University, Appendix 2

Community College of Vermont, Article 20.H

Northeastern University, Article 9, Section 16

Lane Community College, Article 34.8

University of San Francisco, Article 11.5

I found those with a Facebook query and about 30 minutes of Googling. Most of the contracts SEIU has negotiated for contingent and/or other non-tenure-track faculty have this kind of provision in them; there are plenty of others as well. You’ll also notice that the level of compensation ranges widely, as do the means of calculating it. I have opinions and preferences among those, but for now, the important points are:

1. Reasonable people do this it’s worth it to the institution not to reinforce the message that time spent preparing is time wasted when contingency rears its head.

2. The work contingent faculty do is valuable just like the work tenure-track and tenured faculty do, and to treat their labor as disposable just because the law says you can is rotten.

As a manager/administrator, you have both financial and academic/professional responsibilities to your institution. Sacrificing the ability of your contingent faculty to succeed by telling them they shouldn’t prepare for courses they may not wind up teaching meets neither of those responsibilities, and neither does extorting their preparations for free by threatening not to employ them if they don’t donate their work to you.

Sincerely,

Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English, West Chester University of PA

*I can hear some of you saying, “They’re not our employees when they’re in between contracts.” Technically true, perhaps, but how many of you would deploy that same logic if one of those faculty suddenly drew national attention to themselves for an inflammatory social media post and was identified publicly as faculty at your institution? Would you honestly respond, “Well, they posted that over Winter Break, so it’s not our problem?” I didn’t think so.

 

 


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 – Gadflyonthewallblog.com
Blogger & Research Director at the Badass Teachers Association
Member of NEA

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

Anne Nguyen
Teacher
Hartford Public Schools
AFT &HFT

Laurie Ann Lawrence
Gifted Support Teacher
Henry County BOE
NEA/GAE/HCEA

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

Lisa Konigsberg
Instructor
West Chester University of PA
APSCUF

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
UFT, NYSUT, AFT

Craig Crowder
Graduate Instructor
University of Kentucky

Caprice Lawless
Adjunct Faculty
Front Range Community College

Carolyn Betensky
Professor of English
University of Rhode Island
URI-AAUP

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
UCW-CWA

Darin Jensen
English Instructor
Des Moines Area Community College
NEA

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

Leslie Bary
Department of Modern Languages
University of Louisiana-Lafayette
AAUP

Dr. Sheila Addison
Researcher, consultant, trainer
Margin to Center Consulting
http://www.drsheilaaddison.com

Mercedes K. Schneider, Oh.D.
Classroom teacher
St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana
deutsch29.wordpress.com
St. Tammany Federation of Teachers

Eliza Noh
Professor
California State University-Fullerton
California Faculty Association

Karen Kirkpatrick
Teacher
Madison Elementary
CTA/NEA

Liberty Stanavage
Associate Professor
SUNY Potsdam
UUP

Nora Bacon
Professor Emerita
University of Nebraska at Omaha
AAUP

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

Donald Eismann
Retired School Administrator
Sumner Bonney Lake School District

Jennifer Beech
Professor of English
Univ. TN@ Chattanooga
UCWA

Sherri Craig
Assistant Professor
West Chester University of PA
APSCUF

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

Amy Lynch-Biniek
Professor
Kutztown University
APSCUF

Ashley Patriarca
Associate Professor, English
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
APSCUF

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

Megan Berkobien
Graduate Worker
University of Michigan
GEO3550

Marjorie Stewart
Associate Professor of English
Glenville State College

Jennifer Johnson
Lecturer
University of California, Santa Barbara
UC – AFT

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

Paulette Stevenson
Instructor
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
Professor
Shippensburg University
APSCUF

Amy Wan
Associate Professor of English
Queens College, CUNY
PSC-CUNY

Ann Green
Professor
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
AAUP

Thomas Ultican
Retired Teacher
Mar Vista High School
tultican.com
SEA

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

Delia Poey
Professor of Spanish
Florida State University

Peter Greene
Retired teacher