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.

 

 

 


That New NTT Hire Needs Your Help Too

August 13, 2018

In the 8/12 Chronicle of Higher Education, Jane Halonen and Dana Dunn offer senior faculty advice to help new hires adjust to new positions, institutions, locations, and cultures. Much of the advice is great; I’m not broadly attacking their piece (certainly I’m not thrilled with all of it–if you’ve heard my rant about pieces that ignore teaching-focused jobs, you can guess the rest), but I saw the link posted and responded to by adjunct faculty, and I share their irritation that it ignores them.

So I decided to produce an analogous piece for tenured/tenure-track faculty to help new NTT hires adjust to their new positions too. You probably have more new contingent colleagues than new tenure-track colleagues anyway. Not all of this is new, but for some of you it will be newer than others.

I’m not going for perfect parallelism, but in some cases I’ll quote them so you can see why I’m saying something.

Respect the background, skills, and qualifications of your new hires.

Their version:

Today’s new … hires are likely to arrive much better prepared, since the tight tenure-track market means they aren’t necessarily new to the profession. They may have had supervised teaching opportunities in graduate school and worked … as contingent instructors. Many… have an ambitious scholarly agenda and multiple publications….

My version:

Many new contingent colleagues have more teaching experience than you, and you should respect them for that. Ideally, you should create opportunities for their strengths to benefit the department, especially them, but at least recognize their professionalism. Furthermore, many are just as ambitious scholars as you, and can be plenty productive if you don’t deny them resources because you assume they don’t want/need them.

Mentor actively.

Their version:

…the watchful eye of a department chair is different from that of a graduate adviser. There is no guarantee that their new supervisor will alert them to common pitfalls (e.g., that doing a course overload for extra income may mean they get little else done that semester) or closely track their research progress so that their tenure prospects remain favorable.

My version:

If you’re a supervisor, supervise. That means more than making renewal decisions based on flawed (at best) student evaluation instruments. Make sure they know how to access resources. Make sure they know what the rules and standards are, and if somebody is struggling, help them.

Also, protect them as much as you can from, for example, losing a few thousand dollars and maybe access to health insurance because that “course overload for extra income” probably was supposed to be the adjunct’s course.

Help them adjust to the complexities of a new setting by treating them like people who belong.

Their version:

Even with the preview of academic life [I’m going to ignore how patronizing that is. Oops, apparently I’m not.] that adjunct appointments provide, new full-time faculty members may be surprised by the complexity of their new department’s culture and traditions, the characteristics of the specific student population, and the challenge of finding a reasonable work/life balance.

My version:

If they’re invited to participate fully in the department, and credited for it, and recognized as human beings, the rest of this is less of a problem. Treat them the same as anyone else.

Recognize that NTT faculty often have research agendas, and you should help them pursue those.

My colleague Katie Feyh and I have done workshops at the last two Rhetoric Society of America conferences on sustaining research agendas in contingent positions. While some of you may believe resources are tight enough that you’re leery of distributing them even further (Right answer: fight for more resources. Wrong answer: treat colleagues like they don’t exist), some supports cost nothing. For example, if your IRB has a policy against adjunct faculty applying as PIs, offer to sponsor applications. Better, try to get that policy changed.

Provide opportunities (and compensation) for service for NTT faculty who want it.

Your NTT faculty might want to participate in curricular conversations, or assessment projects, or deciding departmental awards, or….  Why anyone would ban them from doing this is beyond me; on the flipside, it cannot become a de facto expectation, and you can’t expect or demand it without compensating them.

An increasing number of colleagues are opting out of tenure-track positions, sometimes because of what Halonen and Dunn rightly call vicious politics. Don’t judge.

A growing cadre of faculty are choosing not to enter (or to leave) the tenure-track for lots of reasons. Don’t assume that colleagues aren’t on tenure lines because they couldn’t be; more than you think just don’t want to be. And that’s a choice you should respect.

Halonen and Dunn close with a list of specific advice I won’t try to parallel, but one item is just as applicable to new NTT hires as it is to new TT hires:

Show them the town. Get brochures… to help introduce a new faculty member to life beyond the campus. Share tips on the best festivals, brunch spots, barbers, dry cleaners, day-care centers, and so forth, so that the new person isn’t starting from scratch in every practical decision that attends moving to a new place.

Don’t assume NTT faculty couldn’t get better jobs somewhere else, or retired from “real jobs” and are now teaching because it’s something to do, or the other stereotypes we all too often have about NTT faculty. They’re people, and if humaneness matters, it matters for everybody.

[UPDATED: One other point: don’t invite your NTT colleague to collaborate on something with you, and then take the credit for it “because they don’t need it.” Yes, this happens, and you’re a monster if you do it.]

Their last two sentences are exactly right. Since Halonen and Dunn didn’t explicitly apply them to NTT hires, I will.

[T]he level of care extended to its members reflects the character of a department. Ensuring that newcomers have a humane workplace means you do, too.


The bigger picture about Vermont Law School’s tenure-stripping

July 16, 2018

If you follow academic labor news, you probably know that on July 1, 14 of 19 faculty at the Vermont Law School were stripped of tenure via the school’s claims of financial exigency.

It’s one thing (and not wrong) to react to this story by defending tenure, as I’ve seen many friends in social media do. I have tenure and am not in giant hurry to give it up, so yes, I think it’s worth defending.

That said, take a minute (really just one, or two if you really feel like working hard) to think what you’re mad about, and maybe what you should be mad about.

It’s vile that these faculty have been de-tenured. It’s vile not just because it harms them personally, but because it exposes them to what tens of thousands of non-tenure-track faculty face every day. It makes their employment unstable at best; it challenges their academic freedom; it makes them at-will employees of incompetent and capricious management.

Or put another way: why does the Vermont Law School want this? Because it makes the faculty easier to exploit, abuse, and erase. Just like our adjunct/NTT colleagues have been explaining to us for years.

If you haven’t heard it when they said it, maybe you’ll hear it when (formerly) tenured people say it. And if you’re angry about this now (and I hope you are), I also hope you’ll be angry on behalf of people who have never been tenured and never will, not just people who were lucky enough to have it in the first place.