About the shifting culture of WPA-l

November 9, 2018

A grad student who I don’t know posted a query on the Writing Program Administrators listserv last night about members’ experiences of the list. The post and subsequent responses got me thinking about how the culture of the group has changed over the years. [I’m putting this here instead of there because it’s pretty self-indulgent.]

Short version: three contexts (choose your own spatial metaphor for how you’d arrange these) have changed–the field of comp/rhet/writing studies around which WPA-l circulates; the profession’s labor situation; and the sociopolitical moment in which we marginalized/oppressed people increasingly boldly (and organized-ly) refuse to put up with it anymore.

When I joined WPA-l in Sept 1998 as first-semester PhD student, the list was mostly about two things: (1) WPA business, which I was interested in following because I didn’t know anything about it; and (2) doing what Joyce Locke Carter described as being “in the hotel bar and hallway at CCCC,” i.e., listening to people talk about what we do. Also, as a brand new PhD student, the “hallway” was full of famous people in our field being informal, sometimes just chatty, because for many (when a LOT of “lonely WPAs” worked with colleagues uninterested in what we do), the list served a social function along with its professional functions. I remember grinning ear-to-ear when Steve North responded to a comment about snow in Syracuse with a joke about snow in Albany.

Because the membership was smaller, and people on it really were needed each other, it was also more welcoming to new people–although in retrospect it’s clear to me that one reason I found it that way is my identity, and I hereby apologize to anyone who tried to tell me that without my hearing it.

Around the same time, it was becoming more of an expectation that members of the field talked about ourselves in “more scholarly” ways, so the discourse of the list started to change. It didn’t entirely move away from the business of WPA work, but it expanded to include a lot more theoretical debates/arguments. Especially as a grad student, and still (way back when) as a junior faculty member who was finding a place in the field, it was thrilling to be able to hear and to have those “hallway chats” with experts, and to do it all the time!

So we have, circa 2001, 2002, a list that’s adding a function (more intellectual debate) to its historic functions. Then (I’m truncating radically here) two other things happened/are happening: (1) as the field grew in numbers, so did the list membership, so the kind of we-all-know-each-other ethos didn’t hold anymore (and one of the problems is that some of us long-timers still act like it does); and (2) the academic labor context changed, such that people like I was in 1998-2002 (and other grad students who felt comfortable participating in vigorous conversations with “important people”) can’t assume a safe future (or, can’t afford to be as cavalier about their chances as I probably was). These two points are connected in ways I’m glossing over.

And now: the work many of us thought we’d been doing for years, working against bigotry, working to share power with people who historically denied it, working for equity and equality and justice, is coming home to roost courtesy of a new generation of list members who are bold enough to bring it.

Let me say very clearly that’s not a criticism of list members who have observed and been victimized by problematic and oppressive behaviors for years and didn’t feel safe saying so more publicly. That’s the whole damn point.

I applaud the individual courage of those who are pushing us long-timers to be better people, better mentors, and better co-workers.


Kairos matters. It’s time.



What Democracy Looks Like

October 5, 2018

A convergence of two recent lines of thought–I need to spend a few minutes putting them together. There’s not a lot new in here, but as I often preach in class, nothing is too obvious that it’s not worth saying at least one time.

This semester I’m teaching a course in environmental advocacy writing and was talking yesterday about working for Greenpeace in the summer of 1989. Greenpeace has always framed its activism as democratic organizing against corporate power (rather than about individual responsibility), and that’s the frame I “grew up” in.

This morning (Fri Oct 5), David Sirota published a furiously brilliant opinion piece in the Guardian (“America’s New Aristocracy Lives in an Accountability-Free Zone“), in which he describes what wealthy and powerful people have done in this country to insulate themselves from any legal or political consequences for their abuses.

Sirota’s explanation of what it will take to pierce the accountability-free zone is exactly right and worth quoting at length.

To wedge open the gates of the accountability-free zone, everyday citizens will have to be organized enough to overcome already-well-organized money.

In the political arena, that means electing pro-accountability candidates of both parties, and then forcing them to follow through on prosecuting wrongdoers and voting down aristocracy-approved nominees who represent the accountability-free zone.

In the consumer economy, it will require boycotts, pressure campaigns, union drives, #MeToo movements, shareholder resolutions and other direct actions to hold companies and executives accountable (and as the recent minimum wage campaign against Amazon proves, those efforts can succeed). It will require support for companies that offer different models of corporate behavior, and it will require swarms of cable-news-addled dittoheads to shut off the TV and instead support other forms of media that are serious about questioning, scrutinizing and challenging power.

In the job market, it will require employers to actually fire executives when they lie, cheat, steal, harass and otherwise mistreat their workers.

And at a cultural level, it will require any and all efforts to rescind and deny social status to those who have committed egregious war, financial and sexual crimes — and it will require doing that even if those miscreants wear nice suits and have gilded credentials.

I had a micro version of this realization during the summer I spent canvassing for Greenpeace. Outside the office one day before work (yes, playing hacky sack!), one of my comrades was ranting about how EVIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 3M (the target of one our major campaigns) was.

I said, “Y’know what’s ‘evil?’ Satan. If 3M is really evil, we’re probably not going to out-organize Satan, so we should just go drink beer instead. If that sounds as silly to you as it does to me, let’s get to work. There are millions more of us than there are of them.”

The wealthy and powerful don’t get away with being terrible because nobody can stop them, but because not enough of us band together to do it. The work of making that happen is hard, but the concept isn’t.

That New NTT Hire Needs Your Help Too

August 13, 2018

In the 8/12 Chronicle of Higher Education, Jane Halonen and Dana Dunn offer senior faculty advice to help new hires adjust to new positions, institutions, locations, and cultures. Much of the advice is great; I’m not broadly attacking their piece (certainly I’m not thrilled with all of it–if you’ve heard my rant about pieces that ignore teaching-focused jobs, you can guess the rest), but I saw the link posted and responded to by adjunct faculty, and I share their irritation that it ignores them.

So I decided to produce an analogous piece for tenured/tenure-track faculty to help new NTT hires adjust to their new positions too. You probably have more new contingent colleagues than new tenure-track colleagues anyway. Not all of this is new, but for some of you it will be newer than others.

I’m not going for perfect parallelism, but in some cases I’ll quote them so you can see why I’m saying something.

Respect the background, skills, and qualifications of your new hires.

Their version:

Today’s new … hires are likely to arrive much better prepared, since the tight tenure-track market means they aren’t necessarily new to the profession. They may have had supervised teaching opportunities in graduate school and worked … as contingent instructors. Many… have an ambitious scholarly agenda and multiple publications….

My version:

Many new contingent colleagues have more teaching experience than you, and you should respect them for that. Ideally, you should create opportunities for their strengths to benefit the department, especially them, but at least recognize their professionalism. Furthermore, many are just as ambitious scholars as you, and can be plenty productive if you don’t deny them resources because you assume they don’t want/need them.

Mentor actively.

Their version:

…the watchful eye of a department chair is different from that of a graduate adviser. There is no guarantee that their new supervisor will alert them to common pitfalls (e.g., that doing a course overload for extra income may mean they get little else done that semester) or closely track their research progress so that their tenure prospects remain favorable.

My version:

If you’re a supervisor, supervise. That means more than making renewal decisions based on flawed (at best) student evaluation instruments. Make sure they know how to access resources. Make sure they know what the rules and standards are, and if somebody is struggling, help them.

Also, protect them as much as you can from, for example, losing a few thousand dollars and maybe access to health insurance because that “course overload for extra income” probably was supposed to be the adjunct’s course.

Help them adjust to the complexities of a new setting by treating them like people who belong.

Their version:

Even with the preview of academic life [I’m going to ignore how patronizing that is. Oops, apparently I’m not.] that adjunct appointments provide, new full-time faculty members may be surprised by the complexity of their new department’s culture and traditions, the characteristics of the specific student population, and the challenge of finding a reasonable work/life balance.

My version:

If they’re invited to participate fully in the department, and credited for it, and recognized as human beings, the rest of this is less of a problem. Treat them the same as anyone else.

Recognize that NTT faculty often have research agendas, and you should help them pursue those.

My colleague Katie Feyh and I have done workshops at the last two Rhetoric Society of America conferences on sustaining research agendas in contingent positions. While some of you may believe resources are tight enough that you’re leery of distributing them even further (Right answer: fight for more resources. Wrong answer: treat colleagues like they don’t exist), some supports cost nothing. For example, if your IRB has a policy against adjunct faculty applying as PIs, offer to sponsor applications. Better, try to get that policy changed.

Provide opportunities (and compensation) for service for NTT faculty who want it.

Your NTT faculty might want to participate in curricular conversations, or assessment projects, or deciding departmental awards, or….  Why anyone would ban them from doing this is beyond me; on the flipside, it cannot become a de facto expectation, and you can’t expect or demand it without compensating them.

An increasing number of colleagues are opting out of tenure-track positions, sometimes because of what Halonen and Dunn rightly call vicious politics. Don’t judge.

A growing cadre of faculty are choosing not to enter (or to leave) the tenure-track for lots of reasons. Don’t assume that colleagues aren’t on tenure lines because they couldn’t be; more than you think just don’t want to be. And that’s a choice you should respect.

Halonen and Dunn close with a list of specific advice I won’t try to parallel, but one item is just as applicable to new NTT hires as it is to new TT hires:

Show them the town. Get brochures… to help introduce a new faculty member to life beyond the campus. Share tips on the best festivals, brunch spots, barbers, dry cleaners, day-care centers, and so forth, so that the new person isn’t starting from scratch in every practical decision that attends moving to a new place.

Don’t assume NTT faculty couldn’t get better jobs somewhere else, or retired from “real jobs” and are now teaching because it’s something to do, or the other stereotypes we all too often have about NTT faculty. They’re people, and if humaneness matters, it matters for everybody.

[UPDATED: One other point: don’t invite your NTT colleague to collaborate on something with you, and then take the credit for it “because they don’t need it.” Yes, this happens, and you’re a monster if you do it.]

Their last two sentences are exactly right. Since Halonen and Dunn didn’t explicitly apply them to NTT hires, I will.

[T]he level of care extended to its members reflects the character of a department. Ensuring that newcomers have a humane workplace means you do, too.

University executives’ pay and “fat cat” faculty

July 21, 2018

The Chronicle of Higher Ed’s yearly “Executive Compensation and Private and Public Colleges” is making the rounds again on Facebook, which got me thinking about some of the problems faculty face in using information like this.

Asking why executives deserve so much money invites bad actors to answer “You’re right. Let’s not pay anybody well!” Every time I see a list like this, I immediately want to demand that, like faculty, management justify their pay according to the value they bring their institutions. Put another way–while James Ramsey was president of the University of Louisville (which he was when this survey was published), what on Earth did he to earn this kind of money?

Screen Shot 2018-07-21 at 8.42.59 AM.png

To be fair, the base salary is only (!) about $330K; let’s work with the figure of $330K.

The Louisville Business Journal compiled a database of U of L and UK employees (using 2016 salary figures). I generated a list of English Department faculty at U of L (I’m not going to name any names here). The highest paid faculty member in English makes over half the president’s base; the next highest about half; the third highest about 40%. Most faculty in the department make less than 1/3 the president’s base salary, and eight of the forty-four listed faculty earn roughly 10%.

In case the point isn’t clear:

What actual work justifies such a massive pay differential between him and the faculty who do the teaching and research that comprise the function of a university? I’m not arguing that he doesn’t “do anything.” Part of me thinks he needs to answer for how much state money he’s pocketing–not just relative to his own job description, but also relative to what other people at his institution earn for labor that, frankly, the university could do without less than they could do without his. (If that’s not true, then the proof is exactly what I’m asking for.)

The problem making this argument to decision-makers is that challenging the value of somebody else’s labor is unlikely to increase anyone’s perception of the value of yours. So my gut reaction to want to demand it is probably not tactically very sound.

Misunderstandings about university work allows purse-string-yankers to conflate…a whole bunch of things…

Given the inconsistent terminology for positions even within academic circles, why would I expect my neighbor to know or care a whole lot about what an Associate Vice President for University Advancement and Director of Sponsored Research? At the same time, a curious neighbor can look at a list like the Louisville Business Journal’s (or similar projects) and see that lots of people who work at Nearby University are making well into six figures in base salary. If you see those numbers and don’t really know/care how those titles differ from “Professor,” it’s easy to believe that most people at the university (except people serving food and cleaning, but who thinks about them?) are making lofty sums.

The consequences of the problem aren’t clear until the (mis)information gets to people who want to undercut faculty and/or public institutions. Too often they get away with claims like “Look at how much those people are getting paid” without acknowledging (although they know) that we aren’t all the same people. Because neither their handlers nor their constituents have much reason to care about the difference between an Assistant Vice Provost and Director of [insert office here] and an Associate Professor and Director of [insert program here], the fact that one probably makes three times the salary of the other doesn’t register. Worse even: the Assistant Professor of Practice and Associate Director of the University Writing Center (NTT) whose salary is probably one sixth (if that) the Assistant Vice Provost, but the title is just as oblique!

Because most voters and handlers of legislators don’t have a stake in pushing back against this conflation, faculty are largely left to our own devices–and it’s hard to do without sounding defensive, self-aggrandizing, or both.

As management becomes more populated by people without academic credentials/experience, and by people who are friends with those same people who already don’t like us, it makes the reach of that mis/dis-information campaign even longer.

Even bracketing off malice as a motive for letting this situation get so toxic, it’s become easier for university upper-management and state-level decision-makers to be too cozy as their backgrounds have become less distinct–or sometimes (e.g., Mitch Daniels at Purdue; John Thrasher at Florida State) literally indistinct. Or like Bruce Harreld (forgot about him, hadn’t you?) at the University of Iowa: a corporation-friendly governor installs a big-businessman as president, thus ensuring the circular logic necessary to (self-)justify that move.

circular reasonining .gifcircular_reasoning_magnet-ra983f6e7462e4b9b8aa87d90eb7ec662_x7js9_8byvr_307.jpgcircular reasonining .gifclear-495a83e08fc8e5d7569efe6339a1228ee08292fa1f2bee8e0be6532990cb3852.gif

The university needs to be run like a business. Why? Because we needed a businessman to run it. How do we know he’s doing well? Because he says so. How do we know how well he ought to be compensated? Because we believe businessmen. Neat.

So what’s the point here?

This problem has been building for years, and faculty haven’t handled it well. We’ve allowed powerful people with bad (ranging from malicious to selfish) motives to mix misleading data with misunderstood university structures to produce a public impression of faculty as a bunch of overpaid [choose your own slur].

Responding well is complicated. Once something is as entrenched in public discourse as the overpaid-faculty meme, it’s hard to dislodge–just like any meme. In this case, it’s also hard because what it means to “win” the argument isn’t obvious.

But a couple of things I think are probably true about our approach.

1. I don’t think highlighting pay disparity helps–certainly not as the central argument. It’s especially problematic when people making comfortable middle-class salaries are the ones doing it.

2. This is not an argument (as if it were just one) to make in “the public sphere” (as if there were such a thing) with the expectation that “winning” it would change anything. A bunch of newspaper op-eds explaining what faculty “really do” isn’t the answer. It’s not harmful (done carefully), but there’s no reason to expect it to accomplish much.

3. The heart of the argument (I’m hardly the first person to say this) is that students and faculty come first because we’re the reason universities (colleges, community colleges, all of us) exist.

OK, this has gone on long enough. I’ll revive a question I’ve asked before as a way of hitting the brakes.

Who does it help:

To pay a university president $330,000?

To insult faculty work ethic?

To pretend damaging public institutions is about helping students?


The bigger picture about Vermont Law School’s tenure-stripping

July 16, 2018

If you follow academic labor news, you probably know that on July 1, 14 of 19 faculty at the Vermont Law School were stripped of tenure via the school’s claims of financial exigency.

It’s one thing (and not wrong) to react to this story by defending tenure, as I’ve seen many friends in social media do. I have tenure and am not in giant hurry to give it up, so yes, I think it’s worth defending.

That said, take a minute (really just one, or two if you really feel like working hard) to think what you’re mad about, and maybe what you should be mad about.

It’s vile that these faculty have been de-tenured. It’s vile not just because it harms them personally, but because it exposes them to what tens of thousands of non-tenure-track faculty face every day. It makes their employment unstable at best; it challenges their academic freedom; it makes them at-will employees of incompetent and capricious management.

Or put another way: why does the Vermont Law School want this? Because it makes the faculty easier to exploit, abuse, and erase. Just like our adjunct/NTT colleagues have been explaining to us for years.

If you haven’t heard it when they said it, maybe you’ll hear it when (formerly) tenured people say it. And if you’re angry about this now (and I hope you are), I also hope you’ll be angry on behalf of people who have never been tenured and never will, not just people who were lucky enough to have it in the first place.

Open Letter to Ball State University re: Papa John Schnatter

July 14, 2018

I’ve just mailed this to the President of Ball State University. I added the link to the actual newspaper story in the text of the letter.

President Mearns:

I’m a faculty member at West Chester University of PA, with friends among BSU faculty (current and former) and your university’s alumni network. I’m not claiming to represent my university or my state university system.

I read with some dismay a story dated July 12 in your local newspaper indicating that the university feels it’s “premature” to respond to the explicitly racist language of Papa John Schnatter reported widely in national news outlets over the last week.

Given Schnatter’s own admission that he said it and (weak but ostensibly sincere) attempt to take responsibility for his own actions, I can’t imagine for the life of me what else BSU expects to find out about what happened before issuing a strong reaction.

Especially frustrating is that I suspect the reality is mentioned in passing about halfway through the same news story: his major financial contribution, along with the Koch Foundation, to the academic unit that now bears his name. I can appreciate that it would look really bad for BSU to have to acknowledge publicly that the person you honored so proudly has turned out to be so… problematic. I can also appreciate that as a public institution in a state with little interest in supporting public anything, the risk of alienating such a generous donor is significant.

I hope you recognize in return that simply sitting on this and hoping people forget that you’re shielding a confessed racist isn’t a good look for the university either. More substantively, as the leader of a respected academic institution like Ball State, surely you understand that the people you lead (and their colleagues out here around the country, like me) expect you to be the face of what universities do: make and share knowledge avidly, and understand how to act on it ethically and effectively.

Acting like you don’t know who John Schnatter really is and how poorly he reflects on Ball State cuts against both of those responsibilities. Be courageous because of what you know to be true, and tell Schnatter to take his bigotry and his checkbook elsewhere.

At a time when academic institutions are under attack from every direction, this event provides a powerful opportunity to do the right thing and earn back the trust of at least constituency who matters a great deal: those of us who put fighting racism ahead of financial problems that are solvable in other ways than ignoring racism.

In hopes that Ball State will do the right thing, I’ll say thanks in advance.


Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English
West Chester University of PA


Good riddance to fair share?

June 28, 2018

[I’m writing this on my personal blog rather than on our union chapter blog; this is not intended to represent the position of APSCUF.]

Like most advocates of unions and unionism, I’m appalled at the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v AFSCME, issued June 27, 2018. It’s a naked attack on union power. By the logic [sic] of the wealthy, greedy people who propagated this nonsense through the court system, taking agency fees/fair share payments (click if you need a primer) out of the mix means that public employee unions have less money with which to protect workers, lobby for better funding for public institutions, and campaign for labor-friendly candidates. Those are all true–we will have less money to do those things–if nothing else changes about how our unions conceive of and activate our membership.

I’m hardly the only person making a version of the argument I’m about to make. In the wake of Janus, unions need to be a lot better about making sure our members don’t want to leave, and making sure potential members become actual members. Maybe my favorite of the bunch is Dave Kamper’s “How to Defeat the Post-Janus Union Attacks,” which published within minutes of the decision. I especially appreciate one of Kamper’s claims that felt really counter-intuitive at first, which I want to take even further than he did.

One of the implications of this decision is that it recreates the free-rider problem; that is, bargaining-unit workers who choose not to join and pay dues are still entitled to its services, including grievance and workplace protections. Those services are expensive in terms of time and money, and demanding in terms of intellectual and even emotional energy (just ask anyone who’s done grievance work). I served as chair of my union local’s grievance committee for years, and I get the urge to tell free-riders to bugger off.

Here’s the guts of Kamper’s response to that position:

[T]he “free-rider” rhetoric makes unions’ duty to represent all workers sound like something to be resented — a drag on the organization — rather than an ideal to aspire to. The more unions pursue this line of messaging, the more they’ll weaken the concept of “solidarity” — the idea that in the fight against the boss, workers rise or fall together — within the rank and file. In the long run, this will weaken members’ commitment to the union more than anything else.

Solidarity sometimes means we have to take care of people we might think–as individuals–don’t deserve our energy. Sometimes we have to give more than we get. Some relations of equality are more equal than others.

Kamper ends by making the point that the only way to beat back attacks on solidarity is to stand in solidarity:

The whole thrust of the Right’s political message for the past several decades has been to atomize workers — to get us to embrace only our own personal needs and to regard collective action as a surrender of power to those less special or talented. Unions are the living answer to that argument. So long as we are here and we are strong, we refute the lie that we’re better off on our own. That is the core of unionism, and only by embracing that core can we survive the coming opt-out attack.

With Kamper, I’m issuing a call to union leaders and members here. Our commitment to solidarity demands that sometimes we act in solidarity with people who aren’t committed to us. Why? One version of the response is his: we all rise or fall together. I agree. Another version (not that much different but worth saying anyway): solidarity literally cannot happen in an environment where we’re the ones denying it. And another: if we tell people who opt out that they’re never welcome, we lose any chance at getting them to opt in.

Look–I get it. It feels obvious that people who don’t do their part, who opt out of contributing to solidarity, ought to have to contribute something to the structures our solidarity provides for them. But I think that’s a reflex response, and as organizer/comrade Alyssa Picard of AFT put it yesterday:

[R]eflexes are no substitute for values, and we are in a time when it pays to slow down and discern them from one another.