Necessary but not sufficient conditions

March 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 11.17.30 AM

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

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

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TT/T faculty need to fight for adjunct equity, but adjuncts don’t need for us to save them

September 5, 2015

A flashback: in a panel on contingent faculty issues at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in 2011, during the Q&A, an audience member announced very directly that “We don’t need you [TT/T faculty] on our side. We can do this ourselves.” She was referring to the fight for labor equity that at the time was right on the edge of becoming the much more recognizable movement it has become. Another audience member, my friend and comrade Amy Lynch-Biniek, responded that (at least some) TT/T faculty who work for adjunct equity are doing it because it’s an obvious issue of social justice, and that she (only speaking for herself, but a position I fully endorse) doesn’t believe that our work is crucial to adjunct faculty success.

Back to the present: last week (9/1/2015), a professor of theology named Randall Smith published an essay at The Public Discourse called “The Social Injustice Done to Adjunct Faculty: A Call to Arms.” His argument in a nutshell is that TT/T faculty have spent too long riding on the backs of adjunct faculty, and that we have a clear, largely-unfulfilled responsibility to commit to (read: work our butts off for) labor equity for our adjunct colleagues.

Obviously, if you know me, you know how strongly I agree. Our current academic economy is built on the backs of contingent workers, and those of us who have benefited the most from it owe the most in return.

My only quibble with Smith’s piece is the two-sentence lift-out at the top of the piece:

The time has come. If senior faculty members don’t force the issue of justice for adjuncts, no one else will.

The thing is, lots of somebodies else already are, as the CCCC audience member in 2011 declared, and as has become clearer since then. The growing adjunct-equity movement involves some TT/T faculty but not many, and there have been successful adjunct-only campaigns all over the country that have led to significant improvements in working conditions, compensation, and professional standing on campuses.

My point, again, is that TT/T faculty have an ethical obligation to work for labor equity, but adjunct faculty don’t need us in the way Smith seems to think they do. Can we make contributions to the effort? Of course. Do we have a place in the movement, as long as we earn and maintain the trust of adjunct faculty? Sure. But we need to be very, very careful not to overclaim our own importance–because when we do, we’re reinforcing the exact same hierarchy we purport to be fighting against.

Proclamations of solidarity work both ways. If we’re all in it together, then we need to respect the work our adjunct comrades are doing on their own behalf, and we need to do our part.


A lesson in ‘tenure-splainin’

June 5, 2015

For those of you who don’t move in adjunct activist networks, you may not have encountered the term “tenure-splainin'” very often if at all. Some activists use it to refer to lectures from TT/T faculty about the stresses and difficulties of the tenure-line, almost always as a reaction to adjunct faculty assertions that TT/T faculty have it better pretty much by definition (I’m generalizing here, obviously, because it would take thousands of words to nuance this as much as it deserves). The short version of it is, we’re tenure-splainin’ when we say anything that smacks of “If you’ve never been in a tenure line, you can’t understand it, so let me tell you all about how hard it is.”

To be honest, I’ve done it. I’ve made arguments publicly (including on the blog), for example, that contest the claim from some activists that adjuncts do “the same job” and should therefore be paid the same. And I’ve argued in other venues (including a management search I served on several years ago) that nobody who hasn’t been in a tenured/promoted position should be evaluating applicants for tenure or promotion. There is an experiential difference (one that we TT/T folks would do well to remember cuts both ways every single time we invoke it).

So, having both tenure-splained a little and having agreed with some accusations of same from some of my adjunct activist comrades, imagine my surprise when yesterday I realized that it was in fact happening to me as I (a tenured full professor with a 4/4 load of mostly gen-ed) was getting lectured that faculty in teaching positions have no claim to be tenure-eligible. I don’t feel like rehashing the whole conversation here, mostly because it was frustrating enough to have it the first time–and to be fair, probably just as frustrating to the blogger as it was to me–but in short, her argument is that only research faculty need tenure and academic freedom protections because the value of what they produce (new knowledge) is so high that it trumps the labor problem created by protecting due process for otherwise-at-will employees. I tried to argue that AAUP’s definitions of tenure and academic freedom say otherwise, to no avail. I tried to argue (in response to her claim that she’s pro-union) that the essence of union logic is to contest at-will employment. Didn’t work. I’ve thrown in the towel trying to discuss it in that venue with her, and I’m sure she won’t miss me.

The reason I’m writing about it now, and on my blog instead of hers, is that it occurs to me there’s still an important lesson to be gotten from the exchange (several, really, but for today just this one!).

I also spent much of yesterday and this morning venting/commiserating about this on Facebook, during which time I noticed that a great many of my TT/T colleagues were every bit as irritated by the blogger’s claims and persona as I am. And although I don’t think any of my TT/T FB friends are guilty of tenure-splainin’, at least not that I can recall, I can easily imagine people like us who would contend simultaneously that: (1) people who don’t think college-level teachers need tenure/academic freedom protections are dopey; and (2) adjuncts (and allies) who sometimes angrily rail against tenure or tenure-privilege are wrong because they can’t possibly understand the tenure-track.

Those aren’t flatly contradictory claims, at least not within the confines of propositional logic, but it’s hard to argue well that people doing primarily teaching work deserve tenure, and that the very same people doing most of that work don’t know what they’re talking about. And if you empathize with my frustration at being told that I don’t understand tenure (as a tenured full professor who studies academic labor rhetoric), then you have a glimmer of the annoyance adjunct faculty feel when we tenured folks play the “You don’t understand the tenure track” card as a silencing move.


What Ezra Klein gets wrong about pedagogical innovation

May 27, 2015

On Vox this morning (May 27), Ezra Klein mounts an interesting defense of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, arguing (in short) that Sanders is catalyzing lots of policy debates that need having, even if he has little to no chance of actually winning the Democratic nomination. I agree.

Too bad he includes a bizarre claim in response to Sanders’ higher education proposal, which includes two key provisions–a tax on financial transactions to pay public college/university tuition; and second, a mandate that 75% of courses taught at US public colleges/universities are taught by tenured/tenure-track faculty. To the first, Klein responds that some students who don’t need the money might benefit from it, which I think is silly; as long as it helps the people who need it most, why is it bad to also help other people?

But it’s his response to the faculty ratio provision that makes my head hurt:

And even if I’m not a fan of the move toward adjunct labor in universities, the requirement to use so much tenure-track faculty might kill off innovations in teaching that we haven’t even considered yet.

Admittedly I read this while I was halfway through my first cup of coffee, but I’ve tried three times since then and still have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Well, OK, I sort of do. Or I think I can kind of cobble together a sort of logic that maybe makes whatever he thinks he’s trying to say sound like it isn’t complete nonsense. My armchair mind-reading effort:

1. Many adjunct faculty are innovative and excellent teachers.

2. Many TT/T faculty, especially in research-oriented jobs, don’t care as much about teaching.

3. Therefore, reducing the number of innovative teachers in favor of less-interested teachers is bad.

And if that’s actually his argument, it’s not horrendously wrong. I do think he’s overdrawing the extent to which TT/T faculty don’t care about teaching, but not completely.

The problem is this. As it’s formulated now, essentially what he’s claiming is that precarity drives innovation. Huh?

If he wants to make sure that there’s more emphasis on teaching innovation and quality at US colleges and universities, I’m with him. But to claim as blithely as he does that maintaining our reliance on precarious adjunct labor is the way to do it is, um, not the “policy debate” we were looking for. It puts all the pressure to innovate on people who get no support for innovating, and it attaches the motivation to innovate to a structural condition that nobody should be subject to. If hiring/firing faculty at will, and under-compensating faculty for our work, and refusing to include faculty in shared governance, and all the other harms that come from contingency are the primary source of “innovation,” I’d rather not have it. Or on a more positive note, there are lots of ways to support innovation without exploiting our way to it.


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.