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.

 

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The worst thing about contingency is contingency

July 26, 2014

Prompted by a very interesting conversation this morning on my Facebook over this blog post, which contends among other things that:

Though peo­ple are loath to admit it, the tenure-track posi­tion is the most scru­ti­nized and pressure-packed of fac­ulty posi­tions when talk­ing strictly about pro­fes­sional expec­ta­tions. This, of course, is because exist­ing depart­ment and insti­tu­tional bylaws require more reviews, paper­work, hoop nav­i­ga­tion, and file pro­duc­tion from this employee class than any other. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the tenure process twice now in two dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions, I could go on for months here. As a mat­ter of fact, one of the things I did before leav­ing my pre­vi­ous insti­tu­tion was to help change our depart­ment bylaws in order to make life less ridicu­lous, bur­den­some, and puni­tive for those on the tenure track. (For exam­ple, there is no need for your 2nd year reten­tion file to be 300 pages by require­ment, is there?)

I didn’t react well to the claim, even though it is “strictly about professional expectations.” As what some people might describe as a rabid activist for adjunct labor equity, I immediately and strongly contested the author’s allocation of institutional power, which says that pre-tenure tenure-track faculty aren’t very powerful either, and that the commonplace adjunct rhetoric claiming that tenure-track faculty could just fix it all if we wanted to is wrong-headed.

The conversation on Facebook got a little testy, as many of these conversations do, but it got me thinking about some things I wanted to say in more detail than the Comment boxes invite.

One of the points I was trying to make is that I fully agree about how stressful it is to be a junior tenure-track faculty member. Every single thing you do or say feels monitored–and sometimes is. As tenure-track positions become rarer, the stakes go up. It’s common to get bad advice–sometimes from people who mean well, sometimes not–and difficult to know what’s what as a new person navigating an unfamiliar institution. And so on. I think the author of this blog post gets all that right.

I think he’s right too when he says that the generalized animus towards tenure-track and tenured faculty is misplaced. Not many of us are as active in pursuit of labor equity as I’d like for us to be, but very few of us are as actively willing to see contingent faculty suffer as many contingent faculty seem to think we are. Or put another way, there are lots of us trying to do at least some of the right things. It’s not enough, and I’m not saying that calling out complicity in an unjust system shouldn’t happen. I am saying generalizations like “All tenured faculty are happy to have adjuncts doing their work for them” are incorrect and unhelpful. I’ve come close to throwing it in a couple of times when faced with an onslaught of that animus; there’s only so many times you can hear yourself accused before you walk away.

In fact, I would go even further in contesting some of the common wisdom about the differences between adjunct and tenure-track positions. He doesn’t address the “We do the same job ” trope, for example, which makes me crazy. Yes, there are adjunct faculty who do research and service to the extent their positions afford it, but those are rarely requirements (I would be fine if they were–this isn’t an argument about qualifications). Even as a tenured full professor, I can get fired if I stop doing them–and rightly so. It would take a long time and I’d get lots of chances to fix it, but the fact that my position requires it and my adjunct colleagues’ don’t makes my job different. Before you respond that they teach more than I do, no they don’t–not in my system, where the full-time teaching load for both contingent and non-contingent faculty is 4/4. I had this argument early this summer on a national listserv of adjunct activists, and it didn’t go over very well.

So I’m willing to concede that I overreacted to the author’s position, given that I’m agreeing with his major points and adding to them. With that said, I’m not fully satisfied with the tension he leaves unresolved and think this next part needs saying loud and clear.

Are tenure-track faculty under a great deal of pressure? You bet. I’m in my professional teens as of this year (starting my 13th year out of grad school), so it hasn’t been that long since I was untenured. And I was untenured in a place where the politics surrounding tenure and promotion aren’t nearly as vicious and capricious as they are in many (Union Yes!).

But, and this is the point I was trying to make originally on the Facebook post, the 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); if you’ve read this much of this post already, you know this litany already. In practical terms that 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. No matter how complicated an institution or a political dynamic, I just can’t see that any other way right now.


“I don’t know”

September 12, 2012

Although most of my blogging these days happens on the blog I contribute to for our faculty union local, every once in a while I have to say something higher-ed related that I can’t publish under the auspices of the union. This is one of those…

In the last month-ish, on two occasions high-level managers on my campus have answered questions that seemed extremely important to know details about with rather off-handed “I don’t know.”

The first time, our state-level boss, the Chancellor, encouraged (in some way we don’t exactly know the details of) the Provosts of all 14 schools in the system to sign contracts with a for-profit company called Learning Counts. If you don’t have the time/energy/stomach to click through, Learning Counts invites students to submit portfolios describing “prior learning experiences” (professional, military, etc) that Learning Counts converts into recommendations for college credit. That is, they believe what people do out in the world should earn them course credit at colleges. I’ll set aside my dispute with that claim (for now–it’ll get another post soon), and instead focus on a different problem. In our system, the evaluation of students’ petitions for course credit (via transfer, or a process some departments have called Credit by Exam, or by AP/CLEP) is done by faculty. Not only is it work that we’re better suited to do (because we’re the ones who write and understand our own curricula, not to mention all sorts of things about teaching and learning because we’re [bleeping] professionals), but in our system it’s also work faculty get compensated for. So, the system has asked Provosts to sign an agreement that hands off faculty work to people who may well do worse at it.

At a periodic face-to-face meeting the union local has with management (called Meet and Discuss–I’m not sure how common that term is in other unions), we asked the Provost some questions about this agreement after learning that she’d already signed the contract. Most evocative of the problem here, we asked, “What do you know about Learning Counts’ process for evaluating courses, or their criteria? How does this work?”

“I don’t know.”

WHAT?

Understand that I’m not attacking the Provost personally here. I have no idea what was happening in her head, nor do I know what kinds of demands were made of her and her fellow Provosts, or any of that. But I’m very distressed that she, anybody, would sign onto an agreement that has severe implications on faculty work, curriculum, and the quality of our institution’s degrees and brands, without knowing how that agreement gets executed.

Second (and I did post something about this on our union chapter blog last night–click here for background). I had an email exchange with the WCU VP responsible for answering Right to Know requests about National Educational Services’ use of the term “internal research” as the rationale for their information request. This morning, the VP told me that he doesn’t really know what they mean by the term, but once they have the information they can pretty much do what they want with it.

So. Anybody can make a Right to Know request and offer only the vaguest excuse for wanting the information. Then, once they have it, they can do anything they want with it even though that use has nothing to do with the request for asking.

So why bother vetting those requests at all?

Gee. I don’t know.


Serendipity, or When You Need Evidence for a Really Bad Idea, Sometimes the Internet Provides

December 18, 2011

I really, really don’t have time to be thinking about this right now in the face of our final grade deadline, but this is just too good to pass up.

The juxtaposition between two texts sometimes couldn’t be more serendipitous. This is one of those moments.

1. On December 14, 2011, the Chancellor of the PASSHE system, Dr. John Cavanaugh published an opinion piece in the Views section of Inside Higher Ed in which he contends, as part of a larger argument about the need for universities to rethink the way we measure and credit student learning, that faculty are sticks in the mud who add little, if anything, to the college experience. His contention is that easy access to information means that those damn elitist old fashioned faculty members might have to give up some of the turf we’ve claimed as our own in terms of deciding what students ought to learn and how.

I have a lot to say about his argument (this specific part of it and some others), but I’m going to set those aside for now in favor of juxtaposing it with an entry I just read a few minutes ago on the Politics USA blog.

2. In a rather partisan attack against wacky conservatives who invoke conspiracies for political expediency, Hrafnkell Haraldsson points to a recent example of a rather common phenomenon in blogger circles (I’m guilty of it too to some extent): the failure to check the accuracy of somebody else’s information before you propagate it. In this particular case, a wingnut blogger refers readers to a site that purports to show an Executive Order, signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, that confers to the Federal Government the authority to do pretty much anything it wants to anybody it wants to, anytime it feels like it. This canard has a long history of circulating among conspiratoids and has been discredited quite thoroughly (by simply reading the actual Executive Order, which Haraldsson correctly reports you can find in about 20 seconds).

Although Haraldsson’s article is framed as an accusation against conservatives that they trump up insane fears for political reasons with utter disregard for, y’know, evidence or reality or anything, the substance of his point couldn’t demonstrate more clearly why Chancellor Cavanaugh’s point about faculty’s lack of added value is so silly.

Is there a wealth of fantastic information on the internet, available to anyone with a connection and a machine? You bet there is. But there’s also a wealth of unchecked, unvetted, detached-from-reality madness out there, and if nobody is having an organized, systematic conversation about how to tell the difference, not to mention what to do with that information even once you’ve decided it’s useful, then we’ve all but given up hope of any smarter, better–hell, let’s just say it: more ethical–exchanges of information and ideas, deliberations, calls to action, or anything else that more and better access to information is supposed to produce.


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.

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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.


Labor Activism at 4C

April 2, 2011

[This is the same message I’ve posted to the WPA, H-Rhetor, and Rhetoricians for Peace listserv.  Wanted to put it here so I could update it and/or point people to it.]

Sorry for cross-postings, but I’m trying to spread this as quickly and widely as possible.   –Seth

**************

On behalf of the CCCC Labor Caucus

 

Anybody in Atlanta Wed afternoon for 4Cs who wants to fight against the attacks on labor (organized and otherwise) across the country right now:

 

It’s not hyperbolic to say that organized labor, and working people more generally, are under assault right now. You know the litany: Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan, rumbles in lots of other places, all facing dangerous and heavy-handed efforts to hurt working people (academics and teachers at all levels included). While there are huge efforts underway in all these places to respond, we can’t let pass the opportunity to claim an organized space and time at CCCC for collaborating and collectivizing our efforts.

 

With the blessing of the Labor Caucus and CCCC, the group hosting the Pre-Convention Workshop “Labor Organizing in Hard Times” has decided to change our agenda for the day and to throw open the doors of the meeting at 3 pm to everybody who wants to join in the fight. Our decision to do this is based on the sense that it’s simply incumbent on us, as a Labor Caucus, to do as much of this work as we can together with as many CCCC attendees as we can find who share our commitments–or even come close.

 

Vitals:

Wednesday, April 6

3 PM-5 PM (Later if people want to stay and we don’t get booted out of the room)

Location: I don’t have an actual program yet, but we’re W.1 (Labor Organizing in Hard Times) in the program

 

It’ll be an open door, so there’s no need to RSVP. However, if there’s an issue you know you want to work on and want to make sure somebody else knows about it, feel free to let me, Seth, know (via e-mail is probably best: skahn@wcupa.edu).

 

I can’t say I hope to see you there because I hate that we have to talk about this. But we need to gather as many people as we can who care about labor across the country and put all these years of rhetoric training, all these years of activist experience, all the commitment we have to fairness and equity, to work.

 


An Open Letter to Governor Tom Corbett (R-PA)

March 10, 2011

[I just sent this letter to the Governor.  It takes up a theme I’ve been developing here on the blog for the last few weeks: “Who does that help?”  I don’t expect the kind of reply the letter calls for, of course, which is one reason I’m posting it here.  It becomes a lot harder for him not to answer if A WHOLE LOT OF US ask it.  Yes, that’s a call to action.]

***************

Governor Corbett:

As a faculty member and union leader on a PASSHE campus (WCU), I’m sure you can understand that I’m reacting to your proposal to halve our state allocation for next year with some dismay.
I’m also sure that other concerned faculty, who are better at making financial arguments than I am, have been (or soon will be) elaborating our case for a less draconian (from our perspective) budget cut–to you in hopes that you’re willing to rethink/compromise, and to our local legislators in hopes they’ll support us.
So rather than trying to convince you on specific economic grounds that we really need x dollars system-wide in order to function, I want to ask a somewhat different question.  If the Legislature gives you what you’ve asked for, and our allocation drops by half, who does that actually help?  Who, as specifically as you can say, actually benefits from that move?  Where, specifically, does that money go instead of to PASSHE, and how does that shift benefit the system’s students and their families, the system’s employees and their families, and the communities that depend on their PASSHE campuses in large part for their economic well-being?
Believe it or not, although I’m a committed liberal and a union officer, I’m willing to hear responses to that question with an open mind.  I will, however, be demanding in the sense that a response without specifics isn’t enough.  Who does it actually help if you win and enforce such radical budget cuts on a system that has already shrunk or condensed our operations as much as we can without sacrificing the quality education students and the Commonwealth rightly expect of us?
Thank you for listening, and I’ll be looking forward to your reply.
Seth Kahn, PhD
[Personal contact info, blah blah blah]