We also hurt our bargaining position when we devalue instructors of any kind

March 10, 2017

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:

  1. I’m not saying that if you hire people into bad positions, you’re a pariah or a moral failure.
  2. I’m not saying that should expect to lead the revolution that ends academic labor inequality.
  3. 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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.


Tenure and complicity: one quick point

March 7, 2017

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.”


Again with this indoctrination crap

February 24, 2017

By now, if you’re an academic or socially-networked with any, you know our Secretary of Education Deform, Betsy DeVos, unloaded the sad old song about college faculty “tell[ing] students what to think” in her speech at CPAC.

Friend and comrade (see what I did there?) Steve Krause posted a fine response to this nonsense on his blog, which says among other smart things:

This is not to say that everything is fair game, that I’m all about students (or anyone else) saying and thinking whatever they want. Climate change is a real thing. Black lives really do matter, and there are good reasons to support that movement. We should base the arguments and claims we make in academic essays (and really, in the world in general) on research and reason and not “gut feelings.” CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets that report things you don’t agree with are not “Fake News.” None of these statements should be controversial, though I suppose each is now in dispute with a group like CPAC and in the era of President Donald Trump, who has only been president for a little over a month but it already feels perfectly reasonable to describe these times and his presidency as “an era.”

That’s the idea I want to pick up on (again) to make two further points.

First, my version of Steve’s passage:

There is such a thing as reality. The right wing’s willingness to deny it for their own political and economic gain doesn’t make it less real. And those of us who don’t want to watch them steal and pillage by lying to everyone all the time must take every single opportunity we have to fight back.

I can do that more or less combatively, and I can do it for lots of different purposes as a teacher, a scholar, an activist, a voter, or what have you. How I talk about it here and in social media is different from the hallway of my building, and different again from a gen-ed writing course, and  again from my Propaganda course, and so on. Because I understand purpose and audience and ethics. Duh.

Second, as I commented on Steve’s Facebook page where he linked to his blog post:

Here’s a distinction the wing nuts will never acknowledge. Telling students what I think is not the same as telling them what to think. I trust students enough to be confident that they can hear a point of view and not automatically adopt it.

Maybe Betsy DeVos thinks so little of college students that she can’t imagine them not automatically believing anything they hear. Maybe she’s so used to people automatically kowtowing to whatever she says that it doesn’t occur to her other people don’t expect (or even want) the same. Maybe she’s just singing this song (on endless repeat) because that’s what people like her have been saying for decades, and she absorbed it exactly the way she fears students will absorb anything they hear.

Anyone who has ever taught at any level knows how bizarre it is to think that students will simply absorb whatever we tell them–even if we wanted them to, which almost nobody ever does. Of course, since Secretary DeVos has no experience teaching, she wouldn’t know.

Should she ever decide that she actually wants to see what professors do, I’m happy for her to visit any time. Come to any of my classes and see what happens there. If she were actually willing and able to learn, it might be a useful experience.

 


Necessary but not sufficient conditions

March 26, 2016

A Writing Program Administrators listserv thread that I jumped into yesterday–it’s been on/off-again over several weeks–connects the current situation at Purdue University to our field’s problems advocating for the value of what we know and do, and our decisions at the disciplinary level to abandon (in some people’s eyes) our primary mission of serving the needs of our universities and students’ future employers (a slightly euphemistic way of saying, “teaching them to find information and evaluate sources, put that information into coherent/legible paragraphs, and proofread them”).

This morning, a post from a listserv regular (somebody whose work and persona I respect a lot) reminds those of us headed to the CCCC Convention in a couple of weeks that the theme of the conference, Taking Action, is answering to our membership-wide sense that we all need to learn more and be more habituated to tactics and strategies that advance the work of our profession on behalf of students, instructors, our institutions, and so on. This year’s conference chair, Linda Adler-Kassner, has integrated workshops, means of network-building, and other forms of advocacy/organizing/training into the conference in a way I can’t overstate my gratitude for.

However (c’mon, you had to know it was coming), as I look at the Taking Action Workshops, calls to hashtag Twitter posts regarding issues that emerge during the conference, sessions earmarked for on-the-ground advocacy work, and so on, I keep feeling a slippage in what’s otherwise exactly the kind of conference I want every annual meeting to be.

I’m trying not to wander too far into Malcolm Gladwell territory. I think Gladwell wrongly criticizes the bursts of connectedness that emerge and disappear quickly in social media as lightweight and empty. Likewise, I think he romanticizes a particular era/moment of activism as the only right way to do it. But he raises a problem that’s similar to my concerns with the Take Action trope generally. Citing sociologist Doug McAdam, Gladwell calls attention to “weak ties” among activists; in social-media-land, people don’t know each other personally, have little care for each other as anything other than avatars and numbers on their friends/followers lists, etc. So even when people agree about issues and momentarily coalesce around them, the likelihood is low that those coalitions will last long enough to see through meaningful changes.

In the context of our conference and its aftermath, I’d translate that problem this way. Members of the field understand there are serious issues we need to address much more substantively than we are currently, regarding the importance of our work and the people who do it. And we most certainly need the training and the space to organize/network that CCCC 2016 is offering (I want to reiterate how happy I am that Linda A-K and the Cs leadership are orchestrating these for us).

In between caring a lot and knowing the mechanics of organizing, however, there’s a hole into which the best intentions and most skillful organizing efforts often fall. It’s not exactly the “weak tie” that McAdam articulates, but it’s related. Courtesy of our friends at South Park, it’s kind of like this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 11.17.30 AM

We care a lot. We know other people who care a lot. We know how to formulate action plans and write press releases. What’s missing, our Phase 2, is the willingness (?), ability (?), resolve (?) to express to each other our collective commitment to being ethical and proactive. We nitpick at ideas. We talk ourselves out of taking obvious stances. We argue relentlessly about individual words in 1000-word statements. We refuse to commit to principles because we can’t already know what will have happened when we try to enact them.

Or to put this in the kind of Freirean lexicon I prefer–we don’t seem to trust ourselves or each other enough, and I very much hope that one of the main outcomes from CCCC 2016 is a clearer sense of how to build and sustain that trust.


Abusing contingency for the sake of logistics

January 12, 2016

For years now, I’ve been arguing that a first principle in the campaign for contingent faculty equity/equality is:

Don’t abuse the contingent status (i.e., the ability to hire/fire at will) of your contingent faculty as a tool for solving other  people’s problems.

A post to the Writing Program Administrators listserv (WPA-l) this morning provides a textbook example of what I mean.

The Denver Post reports that the thirteen community colleges in Colorado will “phase out” the use of out-of-state instructors to teach on-line courses. According to the article, the community colleges have been hiring people who live anywhere to teach on-line for several years, but have just now decided that this practice creates too many logistical problems to be tenable:

Some of the requirements are small — such as sending employees in New York an information sheet on wage theft protection every year — while others are more complex — like adjusting workers’ compensation or time off to comply with laws of the employee’s home state.

I won’t contend that the legalities aren’t complex. It’s hard to imagine they’re something a smartphone-powered database couldn’t handle, but still.

The problem, which I hope is obvious–but I guess if it were I wouldn’t feel compelled to write this–is that an estimated 250 faculty who have done nothing to warrant losing their jobs are going to lose their jobs because of other people’s bad hiring decisions. And the hiring decisions, if they were made in good faith to begin with, probably weren’t even bad. That is to say, if the hiring institutions really hired those faculty because they were the best applicants, then “phasing them out” (read: firing them) in order to alleviate a burden on Human Resources is patently unjust. An institution that cares about quality instruction needs to keep quality faculty. If the hiring institutions decided to hire people-from-anywhere because the poor academic job market would generate an applicant pool willing to work for low pay (instead of not working for no pay), then this decision is even more pathological: “We hired you for a bad reason, and despite the fact that you were good enough at the job for us to keep you, you’re going to pay the price for our bad decision.”

Either way, whether the initial hiring decisions were made in good faith (based on quality) or bad faith (in order to maximize flexibility/exploitability), the outcome is the same–people who did nothing wrong are going to lose jobs, and the people whose bad decisions led to those job losses are going to suffer no consequences whatsoever.

Neat, huh?


TT/T faculty need to fight for adjunct equity, but adjuncts don’t need for us to save them

September 5, 2015

A flashback: in a panel on contingent faculty issues at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 2011, during the Q&A, an audience member announced very directly that “We don’t need you [TT/T faculty] on our side. We can do this ourselves.” She was referring to the fight for labor equity that at the time was right on the edge of becoming the much more recognizable movement it has become. Another audience member, my friend and comrade Amy Lynch-Biniek, responded that (at least some) TT/T faculty who work for adjunct equity are doing it because it’s an obvious issue of social justice, and that she (only speaking for herself, but a position I fully endorse) doesn’t believe that our work is crucial to adjunct faculty success.

Back to the present: last week (9/1/2015), a professor of theology named Randall Smith published an essay at The Public Discourse called “The Social Injustice Done to Adjunct Faculty: A Call to Arms.” His argument in a nutshell is that TT/T faculty have spent too long riding on the backs of adjunct faculty, and that we have a clear, largely-unfulfilled responsibility to commit to (read: work our butts off for) labor equity for our adjunct colleagues.

Obviously, if you know me, you know how strongly I agree. Our current academic economy is built on the backs of contingent workers, and those of us who have benefited the most from it owe the most in return.

My only quibble with Smith’s piece is the two-sentence lift-out at the top of the piece:

The time has come. If senior faculty members don’t force the issue of justice for adjuncts, no one else will.

The thing is, lots of somebodies else already are, as the CCCC audience member in 2011 declared, and as has become clearer since then. The growing adjunct-equity movement involves some TT/T faculty but not many, and there have been successful adjunct-only campaigns all over the country that have led to significant improvements in working conditions, compensation, and professional standing on campuses.

My point, again, is that TT/T faculty have an ethical obligation to work for labor equity, but adjunct faculty don’t need us in the way Smith seems to think they do. Can we make contributions to the effort? Of course. Do we have a place in the movement, as long as we earn and maintain the trust of adjunct faculty? Sure. But we need to be very, very careful not to overclaim our own importance–because when we do, we’re reinforcing the exact same hierarchy we purport to be fighting against.

Proclamations of solidarity work both ways. If we’re all in it together, then we need to respect the work our adjunct comrades are doing on their own behalf, and we need to do our part.


Questions about the University of Missouri’s Graduate Student Health Insurance Problem

August 14, 2015

Late Friday afternoon, I learned from friends on Facebook that the University of Missouri just today (August 14) announced that because of a recent IRS ruling on a provision of the ACA, the university can no longer provide subsidies to some (most?) categories of graduate student employees that pay for their individual insurance policies. If you want to see the whole explanation, you can read it here.

Based on the thumbnail in this message from the Graduate School, and what I know about other IRS rulings about ACA provisions that have caused serious problems for employees of various statuses/kinds, I’m perfectly willing to believe that the university is compliant with the law. Even though I support the law generally, I recognize that the labyrinth it constructs is likely to have dark corners like this one.

However, I have some questions that, if I were a faculty member or graduate student leader at Missouri, I’d be asking of upper administration and pronto.

  1. According to the letter, the university learned of the ruling on July 21. They didn’t announce it to the people who actually needed to know for three and a half weeks. Why not? Certainly, they needed to do some research, investigate their options, figure out how to comply, and so on. But dropping this bomb on thousands of their students less than two weeks before a new semester starts is, well, unkind (to put it mildly).
  2. The letter does not explain how they learned of the ruling. That seems important to know. Did the IRS call them? Did they call the IRS? Is there documentation anywhere? Especially if they were concerned about this even before July 21, they could have offered some kind of warning. And if they knew nothing at all about it, they might have responded somewhat differently (more on that later).
  3. According to the letter, the university contacted other graduate schools facing the same problem and consulted with them. Which ones? And did everybody decide on the same course of action? I have to say, and I don’t mean this to be self-aggrandizing, that I’ve got my ears/eyes in enough social networks that I’d be surprised not to have known about this elsewhere if it broke somewhere else first.
  4. The university has graciously (yes, that’s sarcasm) agreed to give every graduate student a “fellowship,” that is, a one-time cash payment that they can use towards a private insurance policy, or whatever. On legal grounds, I understand, the university cannot ask what the students are using it for, or recommend that they use it for insurance, or what have you. But it’s entirely fair to ask whether the dollar value of that fellowship matches what the university was subsidizing of the total cost of the insurance policies. I bet it’s not!

Those all strike me as fairly obvious questions that might help the graduate students and anybody who’s working with them to understand the situation more fully. But those aren’t all the questions. The last three are potentially more contentious, but I sincerely hope somebody can ask them and actually get honest answers.

First, according to the letter, as the university describes its heroic efforts to do right by the grad students, administration “reviewed the budget in order to find sufficient funds to offer alternatives to our students.” Um, if you were already paying for subsidies, then why would you have to look for money you’re no longer spending? Why not just give the subsidy money to the students and call it whatever you want to in order to make it distinct from the insurance payment? Actually, the answer to that is probably something along the lines of, “Since we can’t have anything to do with paying for insurance, we can’t know who would have used the money for our insurance and who wouldn’t. So there may be a lot more students getting ‘fellowships’ than there were getting subsidies.” If that’s the case, say so.

Second, anybody who’s been following ACA implementation over the last five years knows that there have been exemptions, delays, waivers, etc granted left and right. Did anybody in university administration say to the IRS, “Wait a minute. We have thousands of graduate students who will find this decision devastating. Can we have one year to figure out what our options are that won’t put thousands of people’s finances at risk?”

Third, along similar lines, has it occurred to anybody at the university to talk to the insurance carrier about negotiating a new kind of policy that doesn’t run afoul of this ACA provision? Or negotiate with another carrier? The administration may well be right that other universities have run up against this problem, but clearly lots of them haven’t. What kinds of insurance policies do the safe ones have, and why doesn’t Mizzou try to get one like that?

Unfortunately, I don’t work at the university or for any organization that might encourage their administrators to answer me. If anybody at Mizzou happens to see this and thinks there’s anything useful here, feel free to steal, tweak, what have you.