Why I Am Going to CCCC

March 8, 2018

I’ve been planning to write some version of this post since I made the decision to attend CCCC 2018 in Kansas City, knowing full well that I have friends/colleagues/comrades who can’t because it’s not safe for them or won’t in solidarity with people who can’t. [Note: this is not a space to debate the accuracy of their decision. You want to write your own blog post, have at it.]

Late last week, Thomas Passwater wrote an excellent blog post called I Don’t Need CCCC, in which he articulates not only his reasons for not attending the conference this year, but his larger (and in my estimation quite correct) concerns with the emphasis we senior folks put on participation in this particular conference. I can’t do his arguments justice, so let me say loud and clear: GO READ THE WHOLE POST. AND UNDERSTAND IT. AND FEEL IT.

Yet, I’m still going. And I think he (and everybody else who isn’t going) deserves an explanation. Some of this is about acknowledging some privilege–I can expect to be safe, so I’m going, and on that level it’s the “business as usual” that some people are unable or refusing to participate in. I’m going to see friends and eat food my wife doesn’t like. I’ll probably go running a couple of times and post some pictures.

I decided against withdrawing from the conference this year for two reasons, one pretty navel-gazing.

When Marc Bousquet and I had our spectacular public flap a couple of years ago, some pretty personal things got said, but one thing he said about me on the WPA-l rang loud and clear and true. Up against the work he and others have done on adjunct labor activism, I was and still am a relative newcomer, and the status I’ve been accorded in some corners of our field is probably outsized in relation to my actual accomplishments. Or in more euphemistic terms (mine, not his), I’ve got some Flavor of the Month cred right now.

When the Research Network Forum leadership asked Amy Lynch-Biniek and me to do plenaries about labor research, I understood that I would likely never again have the opportunity to address that peculiar combination of audiences to say some things that are at the heart of everything I’ve worked on or thought about for my entire professional life. I hope it’s not the culminating experience of my career (at age 49 that would leave a slow denouement), but if I believe anything else I’ve done or said in the last twenty years, I need to do this.

Of course, I could have decided to attend for that one day and come home, but I didn’t. I would have joined a boycott had it been called by the NCTE Joint Caucuses, by the way, and I was pretty public about that.

In the absence of that call, the decision came down to a question of what I could do via boycott that I couldn’t do by attending and vice versa. And put simply, I accomplish little by sitting out, even if I sit it out loudly. I don’t make unsafe people safer. I don’t make CCCC more responsive to the needs of marginalized members by withholding my registration and participation. Maybe had we done it en masse, but once it seemed clear that wasn’t going to happen, my individual ability to make such demands disappeared.

I can do something by being there that I can’t do from home, and this is a sworn promise to everyone who can’t: serve as a constant reminder that you aren’t there, and it’s bullshit that you can’t be. It’s not just sad. It’s not something that even well-attended “activism sessions” will fix (I’m all in favor of those, by the way; we need to do that every year). This CCCC will suck worse than any other in the 20 years I’ve been attending them, no matter how it goes, and I hope witnessing, documenting, and emphasizing that on the ground helps earn some trust back from people who entirely understandably may wonder how I can stand to be there when you can’t.

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Necessary but not sufficient conditions

March 26, 2016

A Writing Program Administrators listserv thread that I jumped into yesterday–it’s been on/off-again over several weeks–connects the current situation at Purdue University to our field’s problems advocating for the value of what we know and do, and our decisions at the disciplinary level to abandon (in some people’s eyes) our primary mission of serving the needs of our universities and students’ future employers (a slightly euphemistic way of saying, “teaching them to find information and evaluate sources, put that information into coherent/legible paragraphs, and proofread them”).

This morning, a post from a listserv regular (somebody whose work and persona I respect a lot) reminds those of us headed to the CCCC Convention in a couple of weeks that the theme of the conference, Taking Action, is answering to our membership-wide sense that we all need to learn more and be more habituated to tactics and strategies that advance the work of our profession on behalf of students, instructors, our institutions, and so on. This year’s conference chair, Linda Adler-Kassner, has integrated workshops, means of network-building, and other forms of advocacy/organizing/training into the conference in a way I can’t overstate my gratitude for.

However (c’mon, you had to know it was coming), as I look at the Taking Action Workshops, calls to hashtag Twitter posts regarding issues that emerge during the conference, sessions earmarked for on-the-ground advocacy work, and so on, I keep feeling a slippage in what’s otherwise exactly the kind of conference I want every annual meeting to be.

I’m trying not to wander too far into Malcolm Gladwell territory. I think Gladwell wrongly criticizes the bursts of connectedness that emerge and disappear quickly in social media as lightweight and empty. Likewise, I think he romanticizes a particular era/moment of activism as the only right way to do it. But he raises a problem that’s similar to my concerns with the Take Action trope generally. Citing sociologist Doug McAdam, Gladwell calls attention to “weak ties” among activists; in social-media-land, people don’t know each other personally, have little care for each other as anything other than avatars and numbers on their friends/followers lists, etc. So even when people agree about issues and momentarily coalesce around them, the likelihood is low that those coalitions will last long enough to see through meaningful changes.

In the context of our conference and its aftermath, I’d translate that problem this way. Members of the field understand there are serious issues we need to address much more substantively than we are currently, regarding the importance of our work and the people who do it. And we most certainly need the training and the space to organize/network that CCCC 2016 is offering (I want to reiterate how happy I am that Linda A-K and the Cs leadership are orchestrating these for us).

In between caring a lot and knowing the mechanics of organizing, however, there’s a hole into which the best intentions and most skillful organizing efforts often fall. It’s not exactly the “weak tie” that McAdam articulates, but it’s related. Courtesy of our friends at South Park, it’s kind of like this:

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 11.17.30 AM

We care a lot. We know other people who care a lot. We know how to formulate action plans and write press releases. What’s missing, our Phase 2, is the willingness (?), ability (?), resolve (?) to express to each other our collective commitment to being ethical and proactive. We nitpick at ideas. We talk ourselves out of taking obvious stances. We argue relentlessly about individual words in 1000-word statements. We refuse to commit to principles because we can’t already know what will have happened when we try to enact them.

Or to put this in the kind of Freirean lexicon I prefer–we don’t seem to trust ourselves or each other enough, and I very much hope that one of the main outcomes from CCCC 2016 is a clearer sense of how to build and sustain that trust.


What I learned at COCAL XI

August 13, 2014

[FYI: I had planned to write about COCAL already, but my union, APSCUF, asked me to write a piece for their blog. This is the piece I wrote for them, which will cross-post there. If you follow the APSCUF blog and want to talk about any of the issues here in terms of internal union discussions, let’s have that conversation there. –SK]

First, a loud thank you to APSCUF for sending me to New York City August 4-5 for the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor’s 11th biennial conference. If you’re unfamiliar with COCAL, the organization has emerged since the late 1990s as a–if not the–central venue in which adjunct activists collaborate to develop strategies and tactics to win better working conditions for contingent faculty. COCAL brings together contingent/adjunct activists from Canada and Mexico (both of which have hosted conferences) with their US counterparts, understanding contingency as a globalizing phenomenon.

I learned a lot at this conference, and before getting into the details, maybe the most important lesson is something I already realized (perhaps the most forceful statement of it by and for adjunct faculty comes from Keith Hoeller) but had reinforced more palpably than I could have imagined–

Lesson #1: While tenured and tenure-track faculty should and can be helpful advocates/allies for adjunct faculty equity, the real push for equity comes directly from adjunct faculty. I’m not sure how many other tenured/tenure-track people were there (I recognized a couple but expect there were some I just didn’t know), but the energy, talent, and commitment in the room were almost entirely adjunct-driven. If I could bring anything back to APSCUF from this conference, it’s a dose of that commitment for all adjunct members of the union; we know the talent and energy are here. The struggle for equity is everybody’s, including yours. 

Other people have covered the conference’s proceedings. This post from the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae section offers a coherent overview of events. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the opening plenary session addresses the need to take direct action, including strikes (Stanley Aronowitz argued strongly for wildcat strikes; Cindy Oliver, president of the Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of British Columbia, contended that any public employee besides emergency responders has a moral right to strike) and better to articulate the (academic) labor movement in terms of non-financial issues. Other panelists and audience members considered tactics available to faculty in non-union states. The second plenary, which I’ll say more about below, focused on specific strategies and tactics (mostly in union environments) for gaining and protecting contingent faculty power. The third plenary focused on linking arguments about contingent academic labor to issues of contingency in other labor sectors.

At that second plenary, called “Inside the Academy: The Cutting Edge,” I learned about a variety of efforts that I think translate pretty directly into possible APSCUF positions/actions:

Lesson #2: We need to support in every way we can SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign, along with similar AFT and USW metro organizing efforts, even in areas that don’t directly affect our members. USW has been working in Pittsburgh, and AFT is organizing across the Philly metro area as well as one campus in Pittsburgh. While APSCUF adjunct faculty are members of our bargaining unit already and won’t be targets of those efforts, there’s no reason that we can’t and shouldn’t offer support–to the extent that it’s welcome. Not only are better conditions for contingent faculty an obvious good, but often APSCUF adjunct faculty work at multiple institutions, and we’re benefiting them by working to improve those institutions. 

[Updated AUG 20: It’s also important that we support non-union contingent faculty organizing/activist efforts like the New Faculty Majority. NFM has been one of the driving forces behind Campus Equity Week; has been working at state and national levels on legislation (most recently Senator Durbin’s proposal to extend student-loan forgiveness eligibility to adjunct faculty who haven’t been able to maintain full-time schedules); and so on. 

Lesson #3: Genuine adjunct equity goes beyond compensation. Donna Nebenzahl, representing the Concordia University Part-time Faculty Association (CUPFA), described their successes on two important fronts. In their last contract, they negotiated a $240,000 (Canadian dollars, but still) professional development fund specifically for part-time faculty. The dollar amount aside, the key concept is the commitment the union and university have made.  I strongly call on APSCUF to make a similarly strong commitment to our adjunct faculty, as members of our bargaining unit. Likewise, Condordia part-time faculty have (to borrow Nebenzahl’s words) “permeate[d] the governance of the university” by winning representation on hiring committees, curriculum committees, and other governing bodies. APSCUF permanent faculty members need to support our adjunct colleagues in this regard–there’s simply no good reason not to. 

Alternating with the plenaries, the other major events at the conference were three breakout meetings of “interest groups” focused on specific strategic problems: working with media; negotiating equity; legal issues (Affordable Care Act; discrimination issues; etc); building a national agenda (working with unions and other organizations across institutions and regions); and organizing (with) students. The charge for the interest groups was loose, but the gist was to develop a short strategy statement, and if there was time to develop whatever tactical recommendations we could in order to operationalize the strategy. I joined the student group, learning at the beginning of the first session that organizers expected us to stay in a group for all three (I had planned on attending the media and national agenda groups as well, but deferred to the preference of the people who had done the work of putting the conference together).

I wasn’t able to attend the closing session at which all five groups presented their final results, but (with the permission of our group members and facilitators) I can share what the student group developed, and one member of the national agenda group has already blogged theirs, a project they call the Democracy Index. That group is undertaking an effort that resonates with and builds from what many contingent labor activists have been trying to do for years–develop a method for praising institutions that do well by their adjunct faculty, and just as importantly, calling out institutions that do wrong. There have been attempts in my field (Composition/Rhetoric/English) to push our professional organizations (MLA, CCCC, NCTE) to censure departments/programs with bad labor practices, and the response has always been that bylaws (and, they argue, laws about non-profit status) prevent them from censuring/punishing anybody. The Democracy Index doesn’t call for censure, specifically, but instead proposes to publicize rankings and reports on institutions’ treatment of adjunct faculty: compensation, but also access to professional resources, academic freedom, and shared governance (see Lesson #2, above).

Lesson #4: Throughout the conference (and certainly in other adjunct activist venues), one of the common tensions is over how to prioritize compensation vs governance and professionalization issues. Is it more important to make sure everybody can pay their rent and buy food first, even if that comes at the expense of governance rights, or do we establish governance rights first in order to demand compensation equity more effectively? The answer to that is largely local, of course. APSCUF does reasonably well in terms of compensation, particularly for full-time adjunct faculty, but adjunct access to governance rights and professional development is inconsistently supported. We must do better. 

The interest group on organizing with students produced a statement of Core Principles and Practices (click this link to download the file, which we saved as Student Strategy Document). Our conversations focused on the need to balance the ethics of democratic organizing (not coercing students into supporting adjuncts), the common issues that students and adjunct faculty face, and the needs of adjunct faculty.

Lesson #5: The work we did in the student group reinforces the need for our Student-Faculty Liaisons, at both local and state levels, to be involved in efforts for faculty equity of all statuses, including adjuncts. Many of our students already work contingent jobs. Many will graduate and, without a tectonic shift in the economy, find other contingent jobs. We can fight contingency in unison, without exploiting students to do it, if we’re careful and attentive to the ethics of what we ask for. 

Again, I’m very grateful to APSCUF for sending me to New York, and I’m grateful to all the organizers and participants at the conference for their welcome, their energy, and a commitment I hope I can share across the union and with adjunct activists and sympathizers everywhere.

I’ll end with this request, a campaign I’m involved in that garnered some attention and support at the conference too. A few weeks ago, the good folks at State APSCUF posted a piece I wrote about this petition to David Weil at the Department of Labor , calling for signatures from faculty at all ranks/statuses, managers, staff, students, parents/guardians, families, anybody with an interest in quality higher ed. As of August 10, we’re approaching 6800 signatures. Please sign and share.

 


CFP, Deadline Revised: Open Words, special issue on Contingent Labor and Educational Access

June 23, 2011

Amy Lynch-Biniek (Kutztown U), Sharon Henry (U of Akron) and I have decided to extend the deadline for submissions to our special issue of Open Words on Contingent Labor and Educational Access. We got lots of great ideas and concepts, and any number of “I wish I could, but the timing really stinks” notes, and we decided that the material is important enough to warrant the wait. So if you’re somebody who decided not to submit because the June 1 deadline wasn’t convenient, we urge you to reconsider.

The CFP, with dates revised, is below. We look forward to hearing from you.

*********

Call for Papers

Open Words Special Issue on Contingent Labor and Educational Access

Deadline for Submissions: First drafts, August 1, 2011; Second drafts, December 15, 2011

Guest editors Seth Kahn (West Chester University of PA); Amy Lynch-Biniek (Kutztown University of PA); and Sharon Henry (University of Akron)

This special issue of Open Words invites contributors to consider relationships among three issues–contingent labor, educational access, and non-mainstream student populations (by which we mean both non-traditional students, in demographic terms, and populations more likely to be served by colleges recently than they have been historically)–all of which the fields of composition and literacy studies have struggled with for decades. Scholarship and policy statements on contingent labor are replete with calls for equity, variously articulated but vigorous nonetheless—and with occasional exceptions, largely unsuccessful. The intensity with which we’ve written about open-admissions and open-access higher education institutions has waxed and waned over the years, but big questions about the roles of literacy instruction, the micro- and macro-politics of higher education, critical pedagogy, and many more bear on the working, teaching, and learning conditions of open-access campuses as heavily as, if not more than, anywhere else. Finally, we’ve thought and written a great deal about working with non-mainstream students (i.e., students often served by open-admissions institutions, but increasingly at other kinds of schools as well), and again, still face large-scale structural problems with ensuring equitable opportunity and quality learning experiences for them. Individually, the problems facing contingent faculty, those facing open-access institutions, and those facing non-mainstream students are difficult. Taken together, we believe they are exponentially more complicated.

Thus the motivation for this issue: we work and live at a time when the American cultural and economic politics are pushing against labor equity and quality education; when colleges and universities operate according to corporate logics that consistently work to dehumanize faculty and students. While these forces come to bear on contingent faculty, open-admissions campuses, and non-mainstream students in unique ways, we also believe that careful analysis of such conditions presents significant possibilities for positive changes across levels and types of institutions. At the risk of sounding cliché, even managerial, difficult situations really do sometimes present unique opportunities.

With that frame in mind, we invite contributions for our Spring 2012 issue addressing relations of contingent labor, open access, and non-mainstream students; manuscripts (generally 15-25 pp., although we will review longer submissions) might consider these questions, or use them as provocations to ask and answer others:

  • How does the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty on open-admissions campuses (and/or campuses serving largely non-mainstream student populations) impact students’ learning conditions? Faculty’s working conditions? Academic freedom? Curricular control? And how are these situations complicated at institutions employing graduate teaching assistants?
  • Why is the casualization of academic labor happening more quickly, or to greater degree, on open-admissions campuses and campuses serving non-mainstream students? What strategies do faculty, both contingent and permanent, and students have at our disposal to respond to the inequitable conditions facing us?
  • How do the interests of open-admission, community, vocational/technical, and branch university campus faculty coincide/overlap with the interests of students and administrators? How do these interests differ?
  • How is the trend toward hiring non-tenure track faculty affecting the teaching of writing? As PhDs in literature, for example, are pushed out of tenure lines into these non-tenure lines, how do their (probable) lack of familiarity with composition scholarship and theory, and differing professional commitments to teaching writing, impact students, programs, and other faculty on our campuses? And, how is this trend affecting literature programs and the degrees to which they can address the interests and concerns of their ‘non-mainstream’ students?
  • To what extent are contingent faculty involved in curricular and/or professional development, and to what extent can/should they be? How might departments/units balance the desire to involve contingent faculty in curriculum development, or placement (for example), with the minimal (if any) compensation most units offer for the work? How does this problem become more complex on campuses serving large populations of non-mainstream students with large numbers of contingent faculty?

Please submit manuscripts electronically, in MS Word (.doc or .docx) or Rich Text Format (.rtf), to Seth Kahn (skahn@wcupa.edu) by August 1, 2011.


Eating Our Young

May 10, 2011

[This is the title of a proposal I just submitted as part of the Rhetoricians for Peace/Labor Caucus special event proposal for 2012 CCCC.  I’m starting this series of posts in order to get ideas someplace I can find them, and if any discussion ensues, yay for that too.]

I just got an email from the lead advisor for my department that she needs to over-enroll one of my gen-ed composition courses (which are already capped at 25, which is too high, but they’ve been that way for decades…).  A student late in his career needs the second course and wanted the course I’m teaching in the fall (we have 6 different Comp 2 courses that all fulfill the requirement).  We’ll set aside the conceptual problem of a student who waited so long to take a required course, and of a student who under those circumstances feels entitled to ask for my course instead of any of the other 5 that fulfill the same requirement.

When I first read the email, I kind of balked, and almost wrote back to whine about being the person whose section is over-enrolled. Fortunately I waited, because I’m pretty sure I know what would have happened had I complained.  There’s a pretty high likelihood that the student would have wound up in a section taught by one of our adjunct faculty members.  As I say that, I need to be clear that I’m not accusing the department of intentionally exploiting our adjunct faculty.  But it sure is easier to make those kinds of requests of faculty who aren’t likely to argue back, isn’t it?

This has happened to me before, by the way; seven or eight years ago, I taught a Business Writing course (yes, really) capped at 25 students.  It always fills as many sections as we can offer, and somebody in the Dean’s Office wanted to put 7 extra students in an adjunct’s section.  I flipped out and insisted that all of them be added to my section, which turned out OK in spite of its recklessness. Anyway, I remembered that as I was wondering whether to write back complaining about my course cap being overridden by dictate instead of by request.

And I will say, for the record, that had the department simply asked me whether I’m willing to take an extra student, I would have without even a second’s hesitation, as long as there wasn’t an opening in any other qualifying course the student could fit into his schedule.

Certainly there’s an issue with class size and protecting course caps here, and at some point I’ll have to think about the connections between that issue and the point I’m about to get to here.  They’re more intricate than they might seem at first glance. Anyway, the issue here is the extent to which full-time faculty, especially those of us with nothing to lose (in terms of teaching evaluations or what-have-you), are willing to take on extra students in our courses so junior faculty, adjunct faculty, and grad students don’t have to. How many of us would be willing to make that commitment?  How many of us would be willing to pledge, or vote on a department policy saying, that adjunct faculty/grad students are the LAST option for course over-enrollments?

I wish I felt more confident in the answer to that question, but I just don’t.


What we did on our 4Cs vacation :)

April 11, 2011

[OK, Governor Corbett, if you’re reading this, it wasn’t a vacation, really.]

Lots of news from last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta, but I want to make sure this one gets posted sooner rather than later–

At the Annual Business Meeting on Saturday, CCCC voted resoundingly to approve the following resolution (authored by Holly Middleton and yours truly, with very helpful input from Steve Parks and the members of the CCCC Resolutions Committee, to whom we also owe thanks for endorsing the resolution before it hit the assembly floor):

WHEREAS NCTE/CCCC has shown a commitment to establishing fair labor practices for its own members and adjunct instructors of Composition; and

WHEREAS unions and fair labor practices for all workers are increasingly under assault; and

WHEREAS socially responsible event planners can negotiate competitive rates and labor-friendly contracts that protect CCCC in the event of a labor dispute;

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED THAT CCCC consult with the hotel workers union and other labor organizations to schedule meetings and conferences in hotels and conventions with fair labor practices or contract with vendors which practice fair labor practices; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT the CCCC commit to offering housing at conference rates in at least one hotel with fair labor practices at every meeting.

This is the first resolution the Labor Caucus has brought directly to the floor of our convention, and we wanted something both passable and substantive.  I think we got it.