OK, so the “progress” hasn’t been “amazing” [A correction to something I said at MLA 2018]

January 8, 2018

On Saturday, I was part of an MLA panel called “What Tenured Professors Can Do about Adjunctification.” A group of us who have responded to various calls to work for contingent faculty equality/equity gathered to generate ideas and tactics for tenured faculty to motivate others in our cohort to fight against the exploitation of contingent faculty (and contingency more generally). Our purpose wasn’t to strategize a movement, that is, but to get tenured faculty involved in work that’s already happening.

We began by introducing ourselves and explaining our reasons for joining the panel. The first two speakers noted the lack of progress we’ve made nationally on addressing labor inequality. As I listened, I was concerned about the tone this would set. We were there to catalyze new activism, and starting by emphasizing failures felt, well, awkward.

When it was my turn, I responded directly to the claim that nothing has really changed. Because I was trying to accomplish too many things at once, I said something that (I hear secondhand) rang a sour note for a lot of adjunct faculty; I need to clarify what I was after. I don’t remember the exact language, but it was something like, “I disagree that nothing has happened. There’s been amazing progress around the country, and the wins we’ve seen have set the standard we all need to be aiming for.”

My friend Amy Lynch-Biniek was live-tweeting the session. I don’t use Twitter so I never saw any reaction, but I learned last night that some contingent faculty reacted badly to the “amazing progress” claim. After an exchange on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, I realize why. For many contingent faculty, the claim that nothing has changed rings truer than mine that lots of things have.

Point taken.

What I wanted to get at, but didn’t say well, is that I agree we haven’t overthrown neoliberalism or the casualization of higher ed. Tens of thousands of contingent faculty positions are still contingent–and as I’ve argued here before, contingency is more stressful than permanence, even when pay and working conditions are equitable. But the wins, even those at smaller scale, also count for something–not least for the people who benefit from them, and also for the sense of possibility they generate for everyone else.

Not just the sense of possibility, either. Those efforts and successes call on the rest of us to do better. As our panel convener, Carolyn Betensky, said (loosely paraphrased) in her opening remarks: the faculty most vulnerable to retaliation and job loss for their activism, and whose conditions are worst even if they keep their jobs, shouldn’t be alone in fighting back against the casualization of the academic labor force.

We have a responsibility to our colleagues off the tenure track and on it; and to the students who attend our schools (and more). That responsibility starts with treating each other like human beings and demanding that others do the same.

[I’ve written at length about ethical problems for tenured/tenure-track faculty doing adjunct-activist work. If anything I’m saying in this post is setting off those alarms for you, I hope you’ll read this chapter and see that I get it.]

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Why “just leave” doesn’t solve the problem

October 16, 2017

In this morning’s Inside Higher Ed, Claire Potter returns to an argument I thought was kind of over–that if adjunct faculty find their treatment so bad and their conditions so untenable, why not leave?

There was a wave of this line of argument in 2012/2013 when Margaret Mary Vojtko died, and the contingent faculty equity movement started to gain what I think is real (yes, very slow-moving) power. My gut reaction to it then, and now, is to be irritated in the same way I was at people who told New Orleans residents post-Katrina that they should “just leave.”

After a second cup of coffee, I think it’s more productive to cast that response differently. There are a few points that need to be on the table in order to get at what I want to say–in short: Sure, as long as ______.

1. It’s already happening. That’s why quit lit exists. Faculty in increasing numbers find the situation untenable and opt out. For the record, I say good luck and godspeed to any individual who has that choice and takes it. You shouldn’t have to save anyone else (either by staying, or by leaving).

As an aside–people who advocate leaving the profession ought not to castigate people who do, a la accusations that people who write quit lit are “just whining” or “sound so proud of themselves” or other nastiness. You can’t advocate that people leave and then snark at them when they do. I haven’t seen Prof. Potter do this, but I have seen others. Not OK.

2. Not everyone has that choice, not in a meaningful sense. They’re not literally tethered to whiteboards or desks (if lucky enough to have one). But I know at least a dozen adjunct faculty who are placebound in locations remote enough not to offer real options (anecdotal, yes, but they’re just the ones I know personally). There are also freeway flyers who are teaching too many courses in too many places to be able to conduct a very thorough job search even in locations where such jobs exist; they’re golden-handcuffed to the work they have because it’s just barely enough to survive on, and risking it even to carve out the time it takes to job-search can be a real danger (see Con Job for a clear example of this story). There are other examples. The kind of solidarity en masse quitting would require isn’t simple or obvious (maybe not even possible). Prof Potter envisions lots of alternative employment venues when she says:

First, no one — whether a department chair, a graduate adviser, a graduate student or a contingent faculty member — should be dismissive about the value, availability and satisfactions of work in nonprofits, industry, government or secondary school teaching and academic administration. Yes, you may need some help from a career counselor to mount a successful search; yes, there may be geographical challenges. But the fact that other people you know have had difficulty pursuing careers that make good use of a humanities Ph.D., or that your own doctoral program discouraged you from even thinking that way, doesn’t mean such work isn’t available or that a doctorate in the humanities is not good preparation for it.

Again, those are fine choices for people who have them. Along with the problem of reaching critical mass of solidarity for such a move to work, I’m concerned that at a macro level, encouraging people to leave puts the people who can’t leave in even worse positions (if numbers are powerful, isolating people harms them, right?).

3. They shouldn’t have to. Does anyone have a right to a tenure-track job just because they want one? No. But telling people they should walk away from their commitments (ethical, professional, financial) because of a broken system puts all the onus for improving the system on them. And when we look at the work that adjunct faculty across the country are doing to organize/advocate for themselves and each other, to put even more responsibility on them to fix anything seems unreasonable.

4. Would you do it? If the logic of the argument is, the system is broken and the only way to force its repair is for people to leave, why aren’t we all answerable to that logic? Why is it the responsibility only of the most vulnerable? The evidence that the system is broken isn’t just bad adjunct jobs; it’s that they have those jobs while often doing much the same work as I do at my stable well-paid job. If leaving is the answer, shouldn’t we all?

I’ve been surprised for years that none of the adjunct faculty I rabble-rouse with has ever asked me if I’d give up tenure as a way to fix the two-tiered system. Honestly, I don’t know. It’s cavalier to say, in the hypothetical, that of course I would. The answer is tied to the argument I’ve been making here–as an individual, giving up my tenure would accomplish very little. We do it in solidarity, or we don’t do it. And I won’t hold adjunct faculty to a different standard.

 


Liberty University Students Speak Out! (again) And now what?

August 20, 2017

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–

1. Yay!

2. So?

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.


Why I Support the WCU Sanctuary Campus Letter

November 30, 2016

Ten days ago, out of concern among WCU students and faculty that the post-election wave of violence and threats against marginalized people will likely our campus, a group of faculty decided to join a nationwide movement called #SanctuaryCampus that calls on colleges/universities to become havens for community members who may be in danger under the new political regime. Among other provisions, the campaign asks campuses to declare their unwillingness to participate in sweeps or raids fishing for undocumented people.

I helped to circulate the letter and organize this effort–i.e., I didn’t just sign but have recruited other signers–not because I want to “tell the university to break the law” or “demand non-compliance with federal policy” or other such nonsense, but because I want the university/system leadership to take a proactive stance on behalf of threatened populations before a new administration tries to execute policies that would harm people we’re supposed to support.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think the letter asks the university to break any laws–and it certainly doesn’t demand anything of the sort. The letter does ask the university to resist efforts at harming our students as strongly as we can–or more to the point, it asks the university’s leadership to commit to not enabling miscarriages of justices that we fear are likely given the campaign and post-election ethos. PASSHE spokesperson Kenn Marshall (who lost my trust based on his active propagation of disinformation during our contract negotiations and strike) thinks it might.

That’s what dialogue is for, y’all. If the university/system made the case that they can’t commit to certain terms in the letter but can do ___ instead, I think most of us are listening.

I also support the campaign because it asks for other commitments from the university as well, largely redoubling our commitments to diversity and inclusion in ways that are more than hortatory. There are students and staff and faculty who feel directly endangered, and we need to make sure they feel as safe as we can make them.

Yesterday the West Chester Daily Local ran a story about the sanctuary campus effort. Dr. Nadine Bean, who did most of the drafting of the letter, was the only faculty member who spoke to the reporter and has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of predictably nasty troll attacks against her as a result.

I’ve looked at the comments, one of which I responded to (the commenter “wondered” how Dr. Bean would feel when one of those “rapists” attacked a female student: I replied that his comment demonstrates precisely why we needed to do this), but anybody who’s been publicly visible for doing any kind of social justice work has probably been here or nearby before. Getting flamed sucks. People who are willing to say the things those folks say (usually behind a wall of pseudonymity, which is probably a conversation for another day) are usually pretty good at being intimidating–which is what they’re trying to be.

If you read this blog back in 2007, 2008, you’ve seen what this kind of flaming looks like. I learned then, especially as it relates to threats about my job, that the best response for me was to invite flamers to watch my teaching and read my scholarship. If any of you trolls wants to scare me by threatening to “turn me in” to WCU and PASSHE bigwigs, they already know who I am. They know what my politics are. They know I’m a union thug. Now they know I’ve not only signed the Sanctuary Campus letter but helped to circulate it. If you want to have a conversation about how well I fulfill my professional obligations, let’s do, but you have to play by my rules:

  1. It happens here so it’s visible and archived for anyone who wants to see it.
  2. You know my real name, so I get to know your real name too. If you say the nasty things, you have to own them.
  3. I get to decide if you cross a line such that I won’t approve a comment. It’s my blog. If you want to say something I won’t publish, start your own blog. It’s free and easy.

 


Why I’m OK with this version of the Safety Pin

November 15, 2016

The debate over wearing safety pins as a sign to potential victims of racial/anti-woman/anti-LGBTQ+/religious violence that the wearer is willing to intervene on their behalf has largely undone what I saw as a powerful opportunity. Not the first time something I thought was a good idea got washed away, not the last. So it goes.

I have to admit I had some trepidation about wearing the pin in public, which was inchoate until I read this piece (“So You Want to Wear a Safety Pin”), in which the author makes a strong case that even (especially) if the symbol communicates what was its primary message (not a generalized anti-bigotry message, but a much more targeted message to potential victims that they can count on your help if they need it), wearers need to be sure they can deliver what they’re promising. That might include putting yourself in physical danger, might even entail participating in violence if that’s what it takes. I was already having a hard time reconciling my own pacifism with that possibility, realizing both that it’s a deep personal/philosophical/political commitment and an expression of privilege that I get to decide whether to fight back, but the person who sees me wearing the pin on the bus doesn’t know that’s a complicated question.

I saw enough argumentation about how fraught the symbol has become–and arguments coming from the populations who I would be supporting by wearing it–that I decided not to wear one on my person. As one Facebook friend put it, no matter what I mean to be saying, I (and others, obviously) have lost control over that meaning, particularly in public settings where there’s not going to be time to talk about it.

However, I have decided that in conjunction with the hashtag #NotOnMyCampus, I’ll use the image designed by friend and comrade Kevin Mahoney as a signal to students, staff, faculty, and other members of our campus community that I’m doing more than announcing how anti-bigotry I am.

14980826_10101641746154607_9155585935161283640_n.jpg

By posting this image as a sign at my office and having it visible in as many places as possible, I want community members to know that I’ll help them with anything they need in the event of a threat or act of violence or harassment–filing reports, finding a place to hide out, organizing public responses, talking to Public Safety or police, confronting bigots face to face, helping to raise money for anti-violence groups, helping to organize bystander training, and so on. I’ll do as much of that as I can without waiting for people to ask, but this sign tells them that they can ask without having to wonder how I’ll respond.

If there are members of the community who find it an empty gesture, so be it. I hope they’ll tell me that so we can talk about what would serve as a more meaningful contribution. In that case, it will still have accomplished something useful.

 

 


Liberty University Students Speak Out! And then what?

October 15, 2016

On HuffPo this morning:  “Liberty University Students Denounce Trump”

My first reaction to the piece was to be really impressed with students who circulated a petition that rejects Trump, and even criticizes university President Jerry Falwell Jr for continuing to support a candidate whose values run counter to the articulated values of the school and church Falwell leads.

“So often we run into people that say, ‘Oh you go to Liberty, that’s that Trump school, right?’ When when you walk around campus, the students, we don’t embody anything that Trump advocates for,” [student Caleb] Fitzpatrick told The Huffington Post. “We’re not taught to value the things that Trump values. And so when the tapes came out last week, we felt like that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

So far so good. Speaking out against the president of a university isn’t easy, especially a university which works so hard to enforce dogmatic loyalty to the leader of both the school and the church that powers it. The students deserve kudos for that.

Two points, though, refract that sense just a bit. First (if you’ve taken a writing class from me you’ll recognize this), is with the idea of “just informing people” and making our voices heard.

The group doesn’t plan to take further steps against Falwell or the Trump campaign.

“We’re kind of moving on, because we believe we’ve done our job. That the world has seen and heard us raise our voices,” [Fitzpatrick] said. “That was our endgame, was just informing people. There’s no candidate that we want to endorse.”

The notion that anyone is “just informing people” makes me queasy as both an activist and rhetorician because it ducks claiming any real purpose. Nobody “just informs people” as an act of generosity. Giving people information isn’t the same as giving them money for food, or donating clothes to families that can’t afford  them. You inform people to change their thinking and their behavior (h/t Karl Marx, “The point is to change it.”), and not to claim what your real goal is makes you disingenuous. Or, you’re just not thinking through the implications of winning your own argument, and that’s not very responsible.

Yes, these students are students, not professional activists, and are likely invoking the “make your voice heard” trope because they know it. My point is the one I wish Malcolm Gladwell had made in his infamous “Small Change” piece (New Yorker, 2010). Rather than demeaning social media’s use in activism, I wish he’d emphasized the safety-valve effect instead, i.e., doing something simple but low-impact makes people less likely to do something more difficult and high-impact because they think they’ve done their part. These students made a strong statement against Trump, and Falwell for violating their  trust. And then… what happens next? Nothing really changes. Jerry Falwell, Jr still campaigns for Trump, and still–the students correctly note–uses the Liberty brand as a source of ethos, while he also says he doesn’t represent the institution when he uses its name. Huh?

[A side note: imagine a Liberty faculty member campaigning for Clinton or Stein and using their title as a Liberty faculty member while they’re doing it. “Professor Smith, YOU’RE FIRED!”]

The second point that made me think hard is a passing mention of thefaculty response to the petition.

About 2,500 people, including some faculty members, have signed the petition since it went up Wednesday afternoon …. Some faculty members have privately encouraged the group, Fitzpatrick said, but were hesitant to sign the statement. He believes they might be afraid of retribution.

Faculty members won’t sign a petition that students wrote and circulated because they’re afraid of retribution. They encourage students to take a principled stand that they themselves are afraid to take. My reactions to this are several and all over the place.

  • Thank goodness for my union that makes retribution nearly impossible [knock wood].
  • Those jerks are hanging students out to dry and hiding behind them while they do it.
  • Some faculty probably did help the students’ process and efforts and warrant some praise for that even if they were afraid to be public about it.
  • When APSCUF President Ken Mash, spoke to students here at WCU a couple of weeks ago and told them that they have some kinds of power the faculty don’t, he was right.

The question is what students do with that power. We hear you. Now you have to make that count for something.


On the Ghost of Reagan at DNC 2016, or, Be Careful What You Wish For

July 30, 2016

I’ve been trying to sort out my mixed reactions to the jingoistic displays of patriotism at the DNC for a couple of days now. As a peace activist, I’m very unhappy about the gleeful waving around of military might. However, in some ways, the Democratic Party was giving the peacenik left what we’ve been asking for since, oh, about 2003.

I used to be one of the folks who stood at the central intersection in downtown West Chester every Saturday to vigil against the invasion/occupation of Iraq; the group that organized the vigils, the Chester County Peace Movement, also used to have regular meetings and other events at which we would talk in really wonky terms about how to do more than just witnessing and arguing with the proto-Tea-Partiers across the street. The question we almost always got stuck on was, “Why has the GOP been able to claim ‘patriotism’ for their side?” We love and respect the United States as much as they do, we said, and we believed that it was patriotic to fight back against an unjustly installed government committing unjust horrors against another sovereign nation. Hence the chant: What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like.

The last time I remember clearly being actively involved in that conversation was in the early days of this blog, 2007’ish, with a couple of the right-wingers who were furiously insistent that we were “traitors” because we didn’t “love our country” because we didn’t “support the troops” because we “criticized the war effort” because I’m one of those “dangerous radical leftist academics” because…. Point is, aside from a snarky cheapshot at people I hadn’t tried to talk to in years :), it’s been a long time since I’ve thought hard about what a Democratic Party committed to showing the larger voting public how patriotic it could be would look like.

And what I saw this week at the DNC wasn’t pretty. That’s not the patriotism we were hoping for. It is, however, an entirely predictable outcome of a process by which a mainstream US political party decides to show the country that it can outdo its main rival–especially when the rival party has given over its identity to a creature (OK, he’s a person, but I’m only willing to concede that grudgingly) whose patriotism extends exactly to the point where he’s willing to praise Putin and Saddam Hussein.

So in short–I’m not unhappy about the strategy of claiming, “We’re just as patriotic as you, GOP, if not more, and it’s possible to love your country while you support progressive economic and social policies.” I’m not very happy that there wasn’t any effort, not that I can see anyway, to make patriotism about anything other than threats–and acts–of mass violence.