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.”

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.

We Hurt Our Bargaining Position by Devaluing Lower-Division Teaching

July 8, 2015

On Facebook this morning, this piece from SEIU’s Faculty Forward site. It says a lot that needs saying aloud about labor problems particularly at for-profit institutions, and I encourage you to read it if you have any interest at all in academic labor equity.

One line, though, convinced me that I need to take yet another shot at an argument I’ve been making here and there for years now, but apparently not well enough. Author Wanda Evans-Brewer says:

Course offerings barely reflect my level of expertise, yet I accept them because I need the work, and my students need a teacher.

I see this a lot–faculty who are disgruntled with lower-division teaching assignments when their training and expertise clearly qualify them to teach upper-level and graduate students too. But we know that all too often, non-tenure-track faculty teach mostly if not exclusively general education courses, and feel like their expertise is wasted as a result.

Every time I encounter this line of argument I want to say two things: (1) teaching gen-ed courses requires just as much subject knowledge as any other teaching, and I strongly believe that if you’re not finding it so, that’s a problem; and (2) every single time somebody devalues lower-division teaching, we make it easier for management to do the exact same thing.

For now I’m going to let the first one go, mostly because it’s really contentious and I don’t want have the energy to fight about it at the moment. Also, I understand that departments/programs often prescribe gen-ed content and courses in ways that obviate the expertise of the faculty, so even people who would take gen-ed teaching more seriously may be discouraged from doing so.

The second point is one that I wish I could jam into the brains of every single person who ever teaches at the college level. Even if you really believe that you’re better than a lower-division teaching assignment, please by whatever is holy to you, stop saying it where managers can hear you!

Why would anybody expect managers who are already willing to exploit faculty labor in any and every which way to ignore an opportunity to do it by invitation?

If you’re disgruntled because your PhD is only getting you access to PSY 100/ENG 101/[fill in the blank gen-ed course] instead of the graduate Social Psychology seminar you’ve been dreaming up for years or the Creative Writing workshop you wish you’d had or [fill in the blank with what you’d rather be doing than gen-ed], I don’t blame you. All I’m asking is that you understand the implications of declaring that you’d rather be doing something more meaningful, or something that clearly acknowledges your credentials. Why? Because you’re telling decision-makers that what you’re doing is less meaningful and less valuable, and less demanding, and less less less less less.

Don’t make it easy for penny-pinching managers to hold our own jobs against us.

A lesson in ‘tenure-splainin’

June 5, 2015

For those of you who don’t move in adjunct activist networks, you may not have encountered the term “tenure-splainin'” very often if at all. Some activists use it to refer to lectures from TT/T faculty about the stresses and difficulties of the tenure-line, almost always as a reaction to adjunct faculty assertions that TT/T faculty have it better pretty much by definition (I’m generalizing here, obviously, because it would take thousands of words to nuance this as much as it deserves). The short version of it is, we’re tenure-splainin’ when we say anything that smacks of “If you’ve never been in a tenure line, you can’t understand it, so let me tell you all about how hard it is.”

To be honest, I’ve done it. I’ve made arguments publicly (including on the blog), for example, that contest the claim from some activists that adjuncts do “the same job” and should therefore be paid the same. And I’ve argued in other venues (including a management search I served on several years ago) that nobody who hasn’t been in a tenured/promoted position should be evaluating applicants for tenure or promotion. There is an experiential difference (one that we TT/T folks would do well to remember cuts both ways every single time we invoke it).

So, having both tenure-splained a little and having agreed with some accusations of same from some of my adjunct activist comrades, imagine my surprise when yesterday I realized that it was in fact happening to me as I (a tenured full professor with a 4/4 load of mostly gen-ed) was getting lectured that faculty in teaching positions have no claim to be tenure-eligible. I don’t feel like rehashing the whole conversation here, mostly because it was frustrating enough to have it the first time–and to be fair, probably just as frustrating to the blogger as it was to me–but in short, her argument is that only research faculty need tenure and academic freedom protections because the value of what they produce (new knowledge) is so high that it trumps the labor problem created by protecting due process for otherwise-at-will employees. I tried to argue that AAUP’s definitions of tenure and academic freedom say otherwise, to no avail. I tried to argue (in response to her claim that she’s pro-union) that the essence of union logic is to contest at-will employment. Didn’t work. I’ve thrown in the towel trying to discuss it in that venue with her, and I’m sure she won’t miss me.

The reason I’m writing about it now, and on my blog instead of hers, is that it occurs to me there’s still an important lesson to be gotten from the exchange (several, really, but for today just this one!).

I also spent much of yesterday and this morning venting/commiserating about this on Facebook, during which time I noticed that a great many of my TT/T colleagues were every bit as irritated by the blogger’s claims and persona as I am. And although I don’t think any of my TT/T FB friends are guilty of tenure-splainin’, at least not that I can recall, I can easily imagine people like us who would contend simultaneously that: (1) people who don’t think college-level teachers need tenure/academic freedom protections are dopey; and (2) adjuncts (and allies) who sometimes angrily rail against tenure or tenure-privilege are wrong because they can’t possibly understand the tenure-track.

Those aren’t flatly contradictory claims, at least not within the confines of propositional logic, but it’s hard to argue well that people doing primarily teaching work deserve tenure, and that the very same people doing most of that work don’t know what they’re talking about. And if you empathize with my frustration at being told that I don’t understand tenure (as a tenured full professor who studies academic labor rhetoric), then you have a glimmer of the annoyance adjunct faculty feel when we tenured folks play the “You don’t understand the tenure track” card as a silencing move.

What Ezra Klein gets wrong about pedagogical innovation

May 27, 2015

On Vox this morning (May 27), Ezra Klein mounts an interesting defense of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, arguing (in short) that Sanders is catalyzing lots of policy debates that need having, even if he has little to no chance of actually winning the Democratic nomination. I agree.

Too bad he includes a bizarre claim in response to Sanders’ higher education proposal, which includes two key provisions–a tax on financial transactions to pay public college/university tuition; and second, a mandate that 75% of courses taught at US public colleges/universities are taught by tenured/tenure-track faculty. To the first, Klein responds that some students who don’t need the money might benefit from it, which I think is silly; as long as it helps the people who need it most, why is it bad to also help other people?

But it’s his response to the faculty ratio provision that makes my head hurt:

And even if I’m not a fan of the move toward adjunct labor in universities, the requirement to use so much tenure-track faculty might kill off innovations in teaching that we haven’t even considered yet.

Admittedly I read this while I was halfway through my first cup of coffee, but I’ve tried three times since then and still have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Well, OK, I sort of do. Or I think I can kind of cobble together a sort of logic that maybe makes whatever he thinks he’s trying to say sound like it isn’t complete nonsense. My armchair mind-reading effort:

1. Many adjunct faculty are innovative and excellent teachers.

2. Many TT/T faculty, especially in research-oriented jobs, don’t care as much about teaching.

3. Therefore, reducing the number of innovative teachers in favor of less-interested teachers is bad.

And if that’s actually his argument, it’s not horrendously wrong. I do think he’s overdrawing the extent to which TT/T faculty don’t care about teaching, but not completely.

The problem is this. As it’s formulated now, essentially what he’s claiming is that precarity drives innovation. Huh?

If he wants to make sure that there’s more emphasis on teaching innovation and quality at US colleges and universities, I’m with him. But to claim as blithely as he does that maintaining our reliance on precarious adjunct labor is the way to do it is, um, not the “policy debate” we were looking for. It puts all the pressure to innovate on people who get no support for innovating, and it attaches the motivation to innovate to a structural condition that nobody should be subject to. If hiring/firing faculty at will, and under-compensating faculty for our work, and refusing to include faculty in shared governance, and all the other harms that come from contingency are the primary source of “innovation,” I’d rather not have it. Or on a more positive note, there are lots of ways to support innovation without exploiting our way to it.