Reflections on the New Faculty Majority Summit 2012

A few hours ago I returned to Chicago from the New Faculty Majority (NFM) Summit, which took place this Saturday from 8am to 5pm at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C.  I was invited there along with Josh Boldt, Lee Bessette, Brian Croxall, and Karen Kelsky as part of a “social media” team.  Our job was to amplify the voices of those at the summit and make its issues and conversations known to audiences all over the world.  From what I have seen so far–I think we succeeded.

The first session began with a discussion of the origin, development, and scale of the shift from tenured to non-tenure track labor in Higher Education.  Much of the material in this panel has been covered by writers such as Marc Bousquet (http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/) and will be familiar to those who have been working and researching Adjunct and Grad student labor.  However, given the nature of the coalition that NFM seeks to forge, joining Faculty, Staff, Students, and Parents, it was necessary to first set the context for the discussion before we could proceed.

Following this opening session the summit moved on to examine successful campaigns for adjunct’s rights (see in particular Vancouver Community College’s Program for Change http://www.vccfa.ca/program-for-change/index.html), effective strategies for coalition building, and ways to change attitudes towards Adjunct faculty on campus.

The post-lunch sessions involved small group meetings where each room examined NFM’s own Program for Change draft and made suggestions for what to change, add, or leave out.  Summit participants closed the day with a reflection on the results of their break out sessions.

If it’s possible to be energized, daunted, and disappointed all at the same time that is where I am at following the close of this summit.  I think Josh Boldt’s recent post (http://karmaslide.com/2012/01/29/nfm-12-post-two-stop-looking-for-the-treasure-map-and-start-laying-bricks/) describes my emotional state as well.  Perhaps you should read his words before proceeding to finish reading this post.  Of course, he puts me to shame as a writer in that piece.  So maybe you should wait to read it until later.

I really loved the energy generated early in the day and gained some really useful insights, many of which ended up in my twitter feed under the hashtag #newfac12.  These included:

  1. You don’t need to form a Union to organize.  Something of a revelation for this Chicago Democrat.
  2. Coalitions should include more than one interest group.  This relates to point one.  Unions only allow those seeking a labor contract under the law to join.  A non-union coalition isn’t hampered by this.  Parents, students, staff, and even administrators could join.  As Joe Berry put it during the summit, to have a successful coalition you need both “insiders” and “outsiders.”  The outsiders raise hell and the insiders create a framework to make sure that changes stick.
  3. Changes in Adjunct labor begin with attitude.  In particular, Adjuncts should act “as if” they were not contingent but stable members of a department.  Show up to social events, colloquia, open meetings.  Have conversations with tenured faculty over coffee and tell them what you are working on in and outside of the classroom.  And don’t be afraid to keep looking for a better job.  We are devoted workers but we shouldn’t be martyrs.  (Shout out to Karen Kelsky goes here.  See her website and in particular this post:  http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/01/24/adjuncting-and-stockholm-syndrome/)
  4. Not all Adjuncts are teachers.  Don’t forget the Alternative Academic community.  Librarians, Technical Support, Laboratory workers, Research Assistants, etc.
  5. Educate yourself.  coalition building and advocacy depends on accurate information, which includes budget numbers, faculty appointment data, and documented working conditions across campus.  We should also relearn the old fashion skills taught in civics class such as how to lobby our congressperson and get legislation introduced at the local, state, and federal level.  It’s your government.  Find a way to make it work for you.

Ok, now for the disappointed and daunted part of my post.  As Josh Boldt expressed it, I was hoping for some concrete goals to take back home at the end of NFM.  Some things that NFM wanted me to do to get the national coalition off the ground.  I didn’t get that direction.  Reading through their Program for Change draft (http://newfacultymajority.info/PfC/?page_id=2) I couldn’t help but fear that I’d be another “guy with a clipboard.”   You know, the person on the sidewalk trying to sign you up for a worthy cause for reasons that as yet remain unclear.

There are just too many petitioners for our time and money in realtime and online.  How and why does NFM stand out from this large number of social activist groups?   My hunch is that NFM’s niche is as a higher education advocate whose special focus is Adjunct labor rather than simply a labor focused organization. Unfortunately, this strength does not stand out in the current Program for Change language.  This puts the would-be organizer for NFM at a daunting disadvantage.  Not only do they have to create the coalition but also create the language to convince it to come into being.

The lack of direction in most break-out sessions reflected the overly “squishy” (Lee Bessette’s word) nature of the Program for Change document.  I fully understand why it was made general–to allow for variances at campuses across the United States.  However, this decision puts too much pressure on local groups to create the NFM message without proper guidance from a national office.  To borrow the metaphor from Peter Brown (cited by Josh) we only have the walls of the building.  But I would argue there are not four walls (a full shell).  Instead, we have two.  Give me two more and I can put up a roof and start filling the interior.

What would those two walls consist of?  Here are two suggestions.  First, an organizer’s kit with “suggested” talking points and statistics gathered by NFM on Adjunct labor.  Some of the materials from the summit (contained in the tote bag) might double in this role.  I need to read through it all before I can come to a conclusion on this.  Sorry, I was busy tweeting all day yesterday.  Second, some mechanism to check in on locals and see how they are doing.  Even if you don’t plan to mandate standards for local NFM groups, you still need to make sure they are doing something to justify the affiliation.  An occasional request for a status update would help.  This information could then be uploaded to the NFM website to demonstrate progress (even of the smallest nature) and would help boost morale in other parts of the NFM network.

I can’t end this post without expressing my immense gratitude to NFM for inviting a relative nobody like myself to take part in the summit and paying for my travel as well as part of my hotel expenses.  Let’s face it, Washington, D.C. isn’t cheap.  To show my gratitude I will continue to write on NFM’s behalf through twitter, Facebook, and my blog.  I will also get to work on coalition building here in Chicago with groups such as P-Fac, Occupy Chicago, IFT, and CACHE (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education).  Most importantly, however, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and join the New Faculty Majority.

If you’ve read my post and want to get involved in shaping and sustaining the great work being done by NFM, you can donate online at their website (http://www.newfacultymajority.info/national/).  I’ll be doing that tonight.

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  1. #1 by VanessaVaile on February 8, 2012 - 5:07 pm

    I’m still in mental wrap-up and RT/link share ~ recycling ~ phase. Someone is working on updating the chapter toolkit. You are right about the need for an organizers’ toolkit too. Send me your list of what to pack in it. Better yet ~ write a post. I wouldn’t mind calling it something else. Personally, I’d like to see digital organizing tools and an Occupy influence. Having lived and worked in right-to-work (for less) and less than labor friendly states, I’m giving a lot of thought to coalitions and organizing “tools” that won’t raise suspicions in hostile territory. We need either at least two kits (labor hostile and labor tolerant if not actually friendly) or a dual purpose armory, although that name would, alas, strike some as unsuitably threatening.

  2. #2 by New Faculty Majority on February 1, 2012 - 11:55 pm

    Great list of insights, John. The one about not needing to unionize to organize was an epiphany for me here in Ohio where part-timers are barred by law from collective bargaining. If only the unions here would see the wisdom in it too!
    Your recommendations to NFM for what is needed from a national office are right on. We do in fact have a chapter toolkit and are trying to build the technostructure to support chapters effectively. We are also working on revamping the website to become a better resource. (We have to fundraise simultaneously to be able to do all this, which is why it takes longer than we’d like it to).
    The “status update” component you mention is part of the reason we see the climate commitment project as a good model. Status updates on chapter formation/progress and other organizing efforts.
    We are so glad we found you and could bring you to DC. Looking forward to continuing to work with you!

  3. #3 by VanessaVaile on January 30, 2012 - 12:35 am

    It’s hard to disappoint cynic … expecting it. Not being disappointed comes as a pleasant surprised.

    “energized, daunted, and disappointed” regularly but nothing if not tenacious (or pig headed ~ I’ve heard ruder). Adversity feeds the tenacity. Whenever anyone points out that I don’t “know my place,” I smile, thank them for the compliment…

    I agree about the narratives, putting together our own inconvenient truth. Besides Debra’s film, there’s Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor. And thousands of web cams for homemade videos that can be shared, uploaded and crosslinkes to multiple networks, edited… just thinking today about a YouTube channel and playlists

    And collaborate, cooperate (connectivists make a distinction that I always get confused) …. networks, by definition, not a game of solitaire. I think we made a start on that.

  4. #4 by Josh Boldt on January 29, 2012 - 8:11 pm

    Hey John,

    Good call on the “organizer’s kit.” I think that’s a great idea. At the very least, the kit could provide a starting point from which local groups could build. Thanks also for fleshing out some of the details I glossed over.

  5. #5 by Karen Kelsky (@ProfessorIsIn) on January 29, 2012 - 6:56 pm

    Really great post, John. I have to start by saying you are very, very far from ‘a nobody’–you have a strong voice of leadership in the issue of NTT labor, and people are listening. It was an honor to share the table with you.

    Ironically, I, so typically the cynic, was rather more energized than disappointed by the summit. True, we didn’t leave with action points per se. But we have a kind of shared mission now, that I am not sure was there before, and a platform, and a real organization, and a lot of stories to tell and share about adjuncts coming forward and sharing their experiences and their goals. I do think education is needed, and as came out in our breakout session, I think we need an “Inconvenient Truth” about adjunct teaching not just at the macro level, but reaching down into personal stories and the small as well as large humiliations, struggles, desperations, and disrespect. We can all start generating that narrative and sharing those stories now. At least, that’s my plan. Hope there are more chances to collaborate, meanwhile.

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