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?


OK, so the “progress” hasn’t been “amazing” [A correction to something I said at MLA 2018]

January 8, 2018

On Saturday, I was part of an MLA panel called “What Tenured Professors Can Do about Adjunctification.” A group of us who have responded to various calls to work for contingent faculty equality/equity gathered to generate ideas and tactics for tenured faculty to motivate others in our cohort to fight against the exploitation of contingent faculty (and contingency more generally). Our purpose wasn’t to strategize a movement, that is, but to get tenured faculty involved in work that’s already happening.

We began by introducing ourselves and explaining our reasons for joining the panel. The first two speakers noted the lack of progress we’ve made nationally on addressing labor inequality. As I listened, I was concerned about the tone this would set. We were there to catalyze new activism, and starting by emphasizing failures felt, well, awkward.

When it was my turn, I responded directly to the claim that nothing has really changed. Because I was trying to accomplish too many things at once, I said something that (I hear secondhand) rang a sour note for a lot of adjunct faculty; I need to clarify what I was after. I don’t remember the exact language, but it was something like, “I disagree that nothing has happened. There’s been amazing progress around the country, and the wins we’ve seen have set the standard we all need to be aiming for.”

My friend Amy Lynch-Biniek was live-tweeting the session. I don’t use Twitter so I never saw any reaction, but I learned last night that some contingent faculty reacted badly to the “amazing progress” claim. After an exchange on the Tenure for the Common Good Facebook page, I realize why. For many contingent faculty, the claim that nothing has changed rings truer than mine that lots of things have.

Point taken.

What I wanted to get at, but didn’t say well, is that I agree we haven’t overthrown neoliberalism or the casualization of higher ed. Tens of thousands of contingent faculty positions are still contingent–and as I’ve argued here before, contingency is more stressful than permanence, even when pay and working conditions are equitable. But the wins, even those at smaller scale, also count for something–not least for the people who benefit from them, and also for the sense of possibility they generate for everyone else.

Not just the sense of possibility, either. Those efforts and successes call on the rest of us to do better. As our panel convener, Carolyn Betensky, said (loosely paraphrased) in her opening remarks: the faculty most vulnerable to retaliation and job loss for their activism, and whose conditions are worst even if they keep their jobs, shouldn’t be alone in fighting back against the casualization of the academic labor force.

We have a responsibility to our colleagues off the tenure track and on it; and to the students who attend our schools (and more). That responsibility starts with treating each other like human beings and demanding that others do the same.

[I’ve written at length about ethical problems for tenured/tenure-track faculty doing adjunct-activist work. If anything I’m saying in this post is setting off those alarms for you, I hope you’ll read this chapter and see that I get it.]

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.

“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.




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.