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.

 

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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.


Against “adjunctification” AND against casualization

April 17, 2018

A recent message from AAUP reminded me that I meant to make this point back in January and it got lost along the way somewhere.

The AAUP message is about current legislative efforts in several states to attack higher ed by making specious arguments about free speech. Along the way, they point out that such specious debates deflect attention from the real problems facing higher ed: defunding (yes!), student debt (yes!), and “the adjunctification of the faculty.”

For a couple of years I’ve had a nagging, vaguely negative reaction the word “adjunctification” even though I’ve almost certainly used it as a shorthand reference to the increasing precarity of the academic workforce. So this isn’t about contending there’s no problem. It wasn’t until the MLA panel I was on this past January that I figured out why it bothers me.

By naming the pathology adjunctification, we’re reinforcing adjunct faculty as the problem. But adjuncts aren’t the problem. The problem is the casualization of the profession, which has enabled if not caused the proliferation of exploitable, abusable positions. I’m skipping past any conversation about the causes/sources of such casualization because I don’t want to lose the thread here.

In short: we need to name the structural problem directly rather than inscribing our colleagues into it (as if they weren’t implicated in it enough already). So I think we need to move away from the word “adjunctification” as a description of our profession’s labor crisis.

 


“Why are all the jobs NTT?”

April 11, 2018

The title is lifted from the subject line of a post to the WPA-l yesterday, which has prompted a thread that’s simultaneously fascinating and repetitive….. This is the most direct answer I can muster to the original question.

The shift to NTT positions, even the best ones, is about maintaining staffing flexibility. It also has some other advantages in some cases–saving money, making faculty precarious such that participation in shared governance is less active than it should be, but in every case: flexibility.

Management wouldn’t prefer those positions if the positions didn’t benefit management in some way.

Last semester, I learned the phrase “tenure saturation” to describe a problem in another department on my campus. That department had converted several long-term NTT faculty into tenure-eligible faculty via a provision of our union contract. Then enrollment dropped, and the department doesn’t have enough sections to fill out the workload of all the faculty who they contractually owe full-time work to.

[Except that they do; they’ve had to run some very small courses and several they’d otherwise like to have canceled for under-enrollment, but that didn’t stop gravity from working…. ]

Multi-year term positions, if the workload is guaranteed through the length of the contract, put units on the hook for having to provide work in short and medium terms, but it still offers management more flexibility over the long term. Based on union contracts I’ve seen (and I suspect this is true for non-union NTT faculty too, maybe even more so), “automatic” rollovers at the ends of employment periods are automatic only as long as there’s need for the position to continue. That is, it’s still easier to disappear a longterm NTT faculty member than a tenured faculty member, even if management can’t do it during a contract term without cause.

In best cases** where those rollovers are guaranteed, and the positions provide the faculty with fair compensation, job security, due process protections, etc, then whether we call that tenure or not is beside the point. Echoing Michael McCamley’s call to check assumptions about NTT faculty (which I take to heart), I’d ask us to do the same about what we think tenure is and does. In the world of the PA State System, what tenure does is very simple–

1. It slows our evaluation cycle from every year to every five years on the grounds that we’ve demonstrated our ability to perform the job.

2. It slows down (but does NOT stop) the process by which somebody could lose a tenured position if they don’t fully meet professional expectations; in that slow-down, it also requires management to apportion discipline progressively instead of leaping to the worst possible punishment and it enables improvement programs that have enough time to work before anyone decides whether they were successful.

The difference, then, between me as a tenured full-professor and a theoretical 5-year-term NTT colleague is in what happens at the ends of those terms if there are performance or enrollment problems. Tenure does two things for me. It means that I get a lot more latitude to fix performance problems, and it means that if management has to eliminate my position (what we call retrenchment), I get protections that NTT faculty don’t, including a protocol that invokes several ways to find continued employment on our campus or in our system before I actually lose the job.

Tenure does not provide me due process or academic freedom protections that NTT faculty don’t have; our NTT faculty have those too, at least in theory. But it does provide padding against really-bad-if-not-quite-worst-case scenarios that could cost NTT faculty their positions without much notice.

I’ve said this before, but…  I’m going to push against contingency as long as its deployment is putting people’s livelihoods at risk to solve accounting problems.

**More common are situations where faculty can simply be non-renewed at the ends of their terms without any cause or even explanation. So the job is better for them while it exists, but there’s no protection against at-will ejection.


Re-Redux: The worst thing about contingency is watching the person who’s firing you act like you’re not a person*

January 18, 2018

*OK, that’s not worse than actually losing the work. But this is still a terrible thing about contingency.

[Added post-publication: I’m skipping over the question of how legitimate budgets are as reasons for non-renewals, but that doesn’t mean I’m just conceding the argument.]

I was going to write about a column in Inside Higher Ed that ran the other day, called “Portrait of a Budget Cut,” and lost track of time. So hat-tip to friend and activist comrade Lydia Field Snow for posting it on Facebook and tagging me, reminding me that I’d meant to say something(s).

In the column, adjunct professor Sara Tatyana Bernstein describes the experience of getting an email from her chair with the subject line “2017-2018 Budget Cuts.” She opened the email to discover that what it actually contained was her notice of non-renewal for the following year. The story she tells is the one I couldn’t (because it hasn’t happened to me) in the earlier posts in this series: The Worst Thing about Contingency is Contingency, and Redux: Contingency is Still Worse.

Read Bernstein’s piece for her reactions and thinking about it–she doesn’t need me to tell it to you–but I want to say two things to her chair (and any other chair who would approach this situation the same way hers did. They’re really basically the same point, but it’s probably worth saying two different ways.

First: The email subject line is grotesquely misleading. As much as many adjunct faculty are concerned about institutional/structural issues at their workplaces and want to be informed about what’s going on, obscuring a non-renewal notice by posing it as a budget update just doubles the cruelty of what it actually is. You aren’t making your faculty feel better by masking the reality of what you’re telling them; you’re making yourself feel better.

Second: Email? If you’re going to tell somebody they no longer have a job, at least have the courage it to tell it to them in person. And if you hesitate to do that because you don’t want to have to deal with their human reactions face to face, maybe NOW would be a good time to register the human part, before you’re put in a position where you feel like you have to dehumanize them.

Adjunct activists and TT/T allies/advocates have made the point that we (TT/T faculty and administrators) need to treat our adjunct colleagues with basic respect as part of the culture shift necessary for any kind of genuine equity. That basic respect has to extend even to worst-case conversations like this one. That it doesn’t is one of the reasons why it’s still so easy for management to exploit the precarity of the faculty in contingent positions. If we can’t face our own colleagues with courage as part of our jobs, how are we going to face deans and provosts with courage when we need to?