“What does contingency look like?” “This is what contingency looks like!”

June 16, 2017

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.

 


Redux: Contingency is Still Worse

May 12, 2017

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.

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

None.

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[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.


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?