Best practices? Best for Whom? The U of Arkansas Edition

October 28, 2017

Or, “Who Does This Help, v. 4”

And, fittingly during (just barely!) Campus Equity Week 2017–

Apparently, the braintrust that runs the University of Arkansas system has decided that the system’s post-tenure evaluation guidelines (and the consequences thereof) are out of line with somebody’s (never says whose) “best practices.”

Without getting too deeply into the policy specifics, which are only interesting if you’re a policy wonk–or a UA tenured/tenure-track faculty member–let’s just say there are two issues here that strike me as problematic.

First, although best practices is a term that gives me hives, I have some extra questions about the basis for applying it in this instance. Best practices are supposed to emerge from systematic, rigorous (often defined simply as quantitative) analysis. Where’s the research here? What’s one shred of evidence indicating that making it easier to dismiss tenured faculty improves anything except the power-mongering fantasies of managers who want power because it’s power and they like feeling powerful? Or the ability of managers who don’t much know or care about educational quality to “maximize flexibility” (or similar claptrap). Also, let’s be honest: the Waltons could float plenty of full-time faculty jobs with job security and academic freedom, so this isn’t about money.**

Claiming this policy is a best practice is infuriatingly dishonest.

Second (you saw it coming): if you’re tenured/tenure-track in the UA system and are angry/frightened about this policy change (if it goes into effect as proposed, which isn’t yet clear), please understand this simple thing: your contingent/NTT colleagues feel like this every freakin’ day. You’re worried that you might lose your job based on shaky evaluations? Or that your academic freedom to decide the relevance of your teaching materials is getting choked/curtailed?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be nervous about those things. My points are:

1.Our (tenured/tenure-track colleagues as a class) willingness to let any faculty work get devalued the way NTT faculty work has been is enabling these attacks. We’re the ones who conceded to (if not convinced) management that some of what we do, and some of the people who do it, just aren’t very valuable, and we’re on the hook for fixing that. Not to say that adjunct faculty can’t succeed in organizing for yourselves (this is not a “Tenured people must save you!” moment), but an argument about undoing something stupid that we did.

2. There are lots of us out here across the country who are willing to help you fight this insanity off. I count myself among them, but only to the extent that you’re willing to commit to fighting for your contingent faculty in return. In other words, if job security and academic freedom are worth fighting for, they’re worth fighting for on behalf of ALL YOUR COLLEAGUES, not just you.

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“What does contingency look like?” “This is what contingency looks like!”

June 16, 2017

It’s taken me a lot of hours, a good night’s sleep, and a decent run this morning to decide that I need to write about my reaction to this post on Retraction Watch yesterday. [For those of you who don’t read Retraction Watch, the authors write mostly about retracted articles in scientific journals (hence the blog name), but now and again foray into larger academic politics issues.]

In a nutshell: Biologist hired into tenure-track assistant professor position. During his first year, he makes a sloppy research protocol mistake involving bringing samples back into the US without appropriate paperwork/approvals. At the end of the first year, he’s summarily dismissed without any declaration of cause or due process (or any process). He files a lawsuit that at-will firing shouldn’t be allowed. That suit is just now in process, so it’s nowhere near a disposition.

The facts of the case and the research ethics issues aren’t my concern right now (although they’re interesting to me as somebody who serves on an IRB and has studied research ethics). Instead, my concern is the reaction of the faculty to member to his dismissal, without any apparent recognition that this happens to contingent faculty every [bleeping] day. At-will hiring/firing always sucks. If I got to be in charge, nobody could ever lose a job without cause and without a process for trying to save it.

Do I feel bad for him? Assuming his version of what happened is true, sure. In his telling, he made a minor mistake, but nothing worth getting fired over. If he were a member of my union and he came to me to file his grievance, I’d fight for him. I understand he’s unhappy about losing the job and feels like he’s been done an injustice. Maybe he has.

But I’m really annoyed that nobody who’s talking about this seems to understand how often that injustice happens to the people he sees in the hallways every day. Now you’re furious. Welcome to it.

On a more optimistic note, I hope he wins (although I can’t imagine he will). Anybody who makes a dent in management’s right to hire and fire at will is doing a great service.

 


Redux: Contingency is Still Worse

May 12, 2017

In July 2014, I wrote a piece called The Worst Thing About Contingency is Contingency, which concluded:

[T]he pressure on tenure-track faculty simply isn’t comparable to the stress on contingent faculty whose jobs may shrink or disappear without notice or explanation; whose benefits, if there are any at all, are often tied to their teaching loads in such a way that losing a course could cost them much more than simply the lost salary (which already sucks)…. [T]hat risk is not as prominent for some contingent faculty as for others, but it’s never not there. Pre-tenured faculty at most institutions can, I realize, lose their positions in the first two or three years without cause, the risk of which is horrifically stressful, but even then–during the academic year, they’re guaranteed full-time work, full-time benefits, and full-time pay.

As long as contingent faculty jobs can be changed or taken away for any or no reason at all, their employment situations are worse than mine.

Today, I feel some urge to pull and highlight those points again due to a conversation on Facebook about TT/T faculty’s reaction to adjunct faculty agitation for improved conditions: the TT/T faculty “is trying really hard but can’t do much” and then makes the NTT faculty’s agitation about their feelings instead of the actual conditions that are problematic.

If you’re a TT/T faculty member/administrator whose reaction to NTT faculty agitation/self-advocacy is to understand why they feel bad but not to fight to improve anything, here’s a reminder of what many (most) NTT faculty face that TT/T faculty (usually) don’t.

  1. Crappy compensation. We lefties who decry neoliberalism and corporatization know that universities/systems justify the exploitation of contingency based on market-logic. Thus, the pay is lower, benefits often non-existent, and when available often more expensive than they are for TT/T.
  2. Unstable workload. Institutions moving to term contracts guaranteeing workload are helping to alleviate this, but those are still few and far between. For the majority, contingency means that their workload is based on “need,” which can fluctuate semester by semester. On contracts that re-up each semester, somebody  could go from full-time to zero with no notice (for the record, I know at least 4 people who have lost their entire full-time loads a week into a semester). You could lose work for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your performance.
  3. Which cycles back to #1. When you’re paid by the section and lose one because [doesn’t matter why], that income is likely impossible to replace. Depending on the context, that financial hit could compound in increased insurance/retirement expenses (for those even eligible for such things). For example: in my system, most NTT faculty currently make about $6000/section. A full-time load is 4 courses. They become benefits-eligible at a half-load, but the costs are on a sliding scale; they cost more for half-time faculty than for full-time. So, when somebody who has a 4/4 load for a year and on our health insurance loses a section at the last minute, not only do they lose $6000 in pay, but their insurance premium co-pay goes up too.
  4. Schedule instability: Even NTT faculty whose workload is guaranteed are generally low on the priority list for scheduling, which means last-second changes affect them more often than us TT/T folks (and is often because of us, e.g., we ask for schedule changes without thinking about the ripple effects). This sucks even for faculty with guaranteed full-time loads, especially those with other obligations (like family–think about how pissed you’d be if you structured your childcare around your schedule, and then had it change 2 days before the semester started and had zero notice). Yes, this happens to TT/T faculty sometimes too, but not as frequently, certainly not definitionally (the adjuncts are “contingent,” right?), and almost never reciprocally (NTT faculty don’t do this to us). This problem can be disastrous for freeway flyers, who may depend on complicated schedules among multiple institutions. A change in one place often eliminates their ability to work elsewhere (or keep your job, or both). Which then cycles back to #1 because….

This is, unfortunately, the kind of list that could go on and on and on and on. Instead, I’ll just make the point again–

Even the possibility that NTT faculty could lose work and chunks of compensation, can get bounced around like superballs, become ways to solve other people’s logistical problems–those conditions are terrible, and nobody (in any job really) should be asked to accept them. And there’s simply no excuse for propagating them.

None.

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[ADDED FRI AFTERNOON–COMRADE LES KAY LEFT THIS COMMENT ON A FACEBOOK POST AND OK’ED MY PUTTING IT HERE. HE’S EXACTLY RIGHT, AND I WISH I’D THOUGHT OF IT. –SK]

I’m baffled at just how shitty contingent pay is. For all of the academy’s critiques of corporate culture, corporate culture does a much better job of PAYING contractors for flexibility and the lack of benefits. As a contractor in corporate work, I make more than I would as an FTE to account for that. The same is true, I believe, in all other government work as well.

Contingent faculty should receive similar bumps in compensation (with fair accounting for what they do), and the fact that they don’t is a tribute to institutional inertia and just how very egregious the practice is at every level. What’s genuinely tragic is that adjuncts aren’t even asking for anything close to that, and badmin still frames it as somehow too much.


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?


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.


Responding to ASU’s “response”

December 18, 2014

Thanks to John Warner at Inside Higher Ed for linking to this statement from Arizona State regarding the restructuring of full-time NTT instructor job responsibilities in the English Department. I agree with Warner that the statement is “weak sauce” but would go even further to point out the Orwellian nature of this aspect:

Generally, full-time instructors are not assigned professional development or faculty committee duties. In this case, full-time instructors that had those duties (previously 20 percent of their jobs) are having those duties taken over by others in the department so that the instructors can focus fully on teaching.

I really, really, really, really, really want somebody to explain to me how somebody’s professional development is to be taken over by somebody else. Huh? Does this mean a TT/T faculty member is going to attend that brown-bag lunch in your stead so you don’t have to? That as long as somebody is presenting at that local workshop, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t you? What the [bleep]?

And the point about service being taken over–sure, many of us who do lots of service see it sometimes as drudgery that we wish we didn’t have to. But only the most cynical of us really misunderstand the nature of it, which is to say that the word “service” is really a shorthand term (particularly at the department level) for “self-governance.” The simple substitution of one for the other demonstrates how nonsensical the claim is. “Your self-governance is being taken over by other people so you can teach more.”

If that’s what ASU means, then for goodness sakes, just say it. If not, then don’t do it.


“Yeah, but…”

September 4, 2014

It happens a couple of times a week. I write or post something about contingent faculty equity on a professional listserv or on Facebook. Then, as I described in one of those listserv posts last week:

I can probably count on the fingers on one hand the number of exceptions I’ve seen to this pattern when adjunct equity pops up on listservs or Facebook threads or even at conferences: adjuncts try to do something positive for themselves, sometimes ungracefully, sometimes quite skillfully; some people express support or agreement or something at least sympathetic; and then the Yeah-Buts start. “Well, but if they don’t want to teach composition they shouldn’t be doing it.” “Yeah, but they should just get other jobs if they don’t like these.” “Yeah, but if they were good enough to get hired into tenure lines, they would have.” “Yeah, but they don’t do scholarship.” Yeah but, yeah but, yeah but.

Y’all might be able to imagine how frustrated I get when that happens, and I’m not paying any personal price whatsoever for the intransigence and skepticism that gets expressed in those Yeah Buts. Imagine how furious it makes the people who pay a heavy price for it, and then think again about whether the voice they’re speaking is “whiny.” Is it shrill sometimes? You bet it is. Is it surprising at all? No, it’s not. Does it make the substance of the arguments any less real and nasty? No it doesn’t, but pointing it out all too often provides an excuse not to listen. If I could change anything about the way all too many people react to these conversations it would be that one.

My friend and and longtime collaborator on academic labor research and writing projects Amy Lynch-Biniek wrote a blog entry the other day that has encouraged me to answer the Yeah Buts more publicly. She makes two key points. First, more often that most of us tenured/tenure-track faculty want to believe, merit is not what distinguishes us from our contingent colleagues, many of whom have the exact same credentials and skill that we do; I would add that even among the many who don’t have the exact same credentials, there’s a lot more willingness to pursue those or at least move towards them than most of us seem to think. She also makes a point that I wish I could transplant directly into the brains of TT faculty everywhere:

The only way I am able to reconcile working in a field that systematically abuses the majority of its workers is to dedicate my service and scholarship to addressing the problem of labor in higher ed. Too many lucky tenured, though, believe as Stuckel does, that they are special snowflakes. Or, they turn their eyes away, saying “I can’t change it,” or “I need to focus on my students.” I call bullshit. We can change it, and improving the working conditions of all teachers is focusing on your students. The time for silence is over. In fact, there never was a time for silence. Become allies to your adjunct colleagues. Do something. Say something.

Her rhetorical style and mine are somewhat different. My version of that argument:

 If you’re willing to say “Yeah, but,” then try stopping at “Yeah” and see how it feels.

That is, rather than starting to tick off the reasons you shouldn’t be taking on problems of adjunctification, try thinking about why you should. Even as a thought experiment. Even as the kind of exercise you ask students to do all the time–“Imagine the other side of the argument and see if you can understand/articulate their positions! Maybe it’ll help you think a little differently! If one reason you buck against being active on contingency issues is the politics of your academic discipline, try thinking about beyond that context; there are adjuncts in lots of fields, and the working conditions they face are only occasionally less crassly exploitative than most.

As another thought experiment, try articulating the “buts” without the tepid gestures at sympathy and see how different they sound. “They’re not trained well enough to be in tenure-lines.” “They’re not talented enough or diligent enough to have gotten TT jobs.” “They don’t do scholarship, despite the fact that their positions make it nearly impossible.” “They should just leave.” If those sound harsher to you than they did without the “Yeah” in front, they should. Except that they aren’t. To my ear, it’s even worse to start with a handwringing expression of sympathy and then immediately to deny that it’s your problem or anybody’s but theirs.

That is, if you don’t feel like the problems of contingent faculty are yours to address or think about, don’t even pretend like you do. If you feel like those problems are yours at all, then I’m asking you to make a concerted good faith effort to act on them rather than to respond to them with all the reasons you feel like you can’t. Of course you can.

At the risk of pissing off the NCTE publication gods, because there’s no web-based version of a publication called Forum: Issues about Part-time and Contingent Faculty for which I did an article (“‘Never Take More Than You Need,'” Spring 2013 issue) a couple of years ago, I’m going to list a set of recommendations I made in that piece here. None of them costs TT faculty a cent. One of them asks you consider being more judicious about asking for reassigned time, and another to be more mindful about how and when you ask for it. Otherwise, these could happen tomorrow at little to know risk for just about anybody.

First, and it’s a shame I feel I have to say this out loud: Meet your contingent faculty members. Learn their names. Talk to them as colleagues, because they are.

Second, and most lofty (read: impractical, but do it anyway): To the extent feasible, push for contingent lines to be converted, for pay equity, long-term contracts, full governance rights, and other rights enjoyed by full-time faculty. Our faculty union, which represents both contingent and non-contingent faculty, is working with our faculty senate and our campus curriculum committee to find seats for contingent faculty—and unsurprisingly finding some resistance. But we’re pushing and, I believe, making some progress.

Third, don’t take more reassign time than you need. On some campuses, getting reassign credits is a kind of game, or badge of honor. The losers of that game aren’t just the people who get fewer reassigned credits, but also the people whose job prospects are thrown into disarray as a result of the instability.

Fourth, find out the percentage of contingent faculty on your campus and what their compensation is. Compare it to other campuses, and post to The Adjunct Project spreadsheet. Share information from the spreadsheet and the blog with your colleagues, especially if your campus conditions would rate you poorly compared to others.

Fifth, work with members of your department to schedule sabbaticals/reassignments in order to maximize full-time spots for people who want them. For example, my system offers half-year or full-year sabbaticals. When I’m ready to take a half-year, which is all I’d want, I’ll do my very best to coordinate with other faculty in my department to see whether somebody is planning or willing to take the other semester of an academic year. I, personally, won’t take my semester until I can work that out. Once I have, and once the sabbatical is approved, I’ll work with my department chairperson and scheduler to ensure, to the extent possible, that one contingent faculty member gets a full-time load for an entire year as a result of an open full-time schedule for a year. Another example: My department chair asked me, a couple of years ago, whether I’d be willing to give up a general education writing course for an upper division course she needed to add at the last minute. I told her I’d do it under one condition—that she gave my rescheduled writing section to somebody who needed another section to become eligible for better benefits—that is, if she had to hire a new person for one section without any benefits, I wouldn’t do it. Neither of those ideas is terribly complicated or labor-intensive; neither costs anybody a penny. All it takes is a little foresight and mindfulness.

Sixth…, make your contingent faculty hiring and evaluation practices ethical and meaningful. Too many departments … are willing to hire and retain marginal teachers because they don’t cost much and are often willing to accept scraps of assignments. If we make it a priority to hire quality faculty and evaluate (and of course support) them well; and if we make it a priority not to retain faculty who aren’t doing the job well simply because they’re convenient, then we can go a long way toward addressing the darker, deeper underbelly of the situation, which I haven’t even tried to answer to in this piece.

As a final recommendation: go join and support the efforts of the New Faculty Majority. For every time you’ve said or thought, “Those adjuncts really ought to be organizing and advocating for themselves,” give NFM a dollar. For every time you’ve thought, “Those adjuncts should quit whining and do something,” give NFM another dollar. Then let’s talk about what else you can do after these baby steps don’t make you fall down and go boom.