Archive for December, 2011

A Circus of Bad Faith Garnished with Incivility

In looking back on my skirmish with the MLA, I’ve struggled to find the right words to describe the experience.  The title above is the best summary I’ve come up with to date.  Perhaps I was foolish to assume this, but I had always believed that in Higher Education a higher standard of discourse would apply.  After all, aren’t we the ones supposedly teaching the next generation how to argue effectively and lead ethical lives as engaged citizens?  The response to my Open Letter from many quarters suggests that our students might be better served looking elsewhere for their models.

Why do I say this?  One reason is the shockingly high incidence of bad faith evident in the discourse on academic labor.  Those in the upper tiers of the profession are more than willing to descry oppression out “there” in the world but are willfully ignorant of the part-timer down the hall grading papers in a walk-in closet sized office with two other adjuncts squeezed in.  These are the workers who shoulder the heavy burden of the undergraduate curriculum so that tenured and tenure track faculty in the Liberal Arts and Sciences have the time to research and teach more graduate students to enter the already saturated market of MA’s, MFA’s, and PhD’s.

This same group is ever so cautious about what to call “undocumented workers” from Latin America but are more than willing to sneer at the “contingent faculty” who have failed to make it in the profession.  I remember once as a Graduate Student being told to not speak with the Adjuncts as they were all losers.  Because I’m a humane student of the humanities, I refused to listen.  I guess I caught their disease.  Ha!  No canyon is as deep as the one that separates the promising Grad student from the wan cheek of the Adjunct.  At least, that is,  if you listen to the myths propagated by a certain breed of senior faculty.

Luckily for the profession, this attitude towards Adjuncts is slowly lifting.  But the reason is simply that of crisis.  The Age of Austerity has hit the Humanities particularly hard and even tenured faculty are starting to realize the implications of these changes.  Yes, your job can be outsourced to.  It can also be turned into a contract gig that can be changed or cancelled at any time for any reason.  What works for the goose works for the gander.  Now if only that message would shift up to the rarefied air of Professional organizations like the MLA.

Added to this circus of bad faith is an incivility that would make a Congressional Lobbyist blush.  One angry writer went so far as to dissect my CV to show why I was unqualified to have an opinion on the issue.  Most simply called me a whiner and suggested that I shut up and look for a full-time job outside of academia.  In all honesty, Grumpy Reader, I’m giving it serious thought.  But I happen to like teaching and am quite good at it.  My only regret is that I can’t seem to do what I love and pay the rent at the same time.  So much for the recurring trope of the “teacher shortage.”  Seems to me more like a cheapness epidemic among employers.

When respondents weren’t busy engaging in personal attacks, they instead decided to patronize me.  One writer suggested that the issues I brought up had already been addressed “before my time” while the other argued that only massive social change would alleviate the condition of “contingency.”  I don’t know what bothers me more.  A direct personal attack or a pat on the head by the sympathetic bystander.  Both are demeaning but at least the former has some degree of sincerity to it.

All of this leads me to conclude that I was barking up the wrong tree in addressing my concerns to a scholarly circle like the MLA.  Prince Prospero is happy in his castle.  Blissfully unaware of the imminent arrival of the Red Death.  Consequently, I’ll leave him to his happy ending and move on to arenas where people are actually doing something to save the profession.  One is the New Faculty Majority Summit, which will be held in Washington, D.C. this January.  The other is in my local union chapters (NEA/IEA and AFT/IFT).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again #leadorbeleftbehind.  The times they are changing and if we don’t take an active role there may come a day when language and literature are only taught by Kaplan for workplace communication and witty rejoinders at corporate events.

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We Are Not Contingent! An Adjunct Manifesto.

In my last post I promised readers of my blog that I would move beyond the problems in Higher Education to focus on a list of solutions that pertain to non-tenure track faculty.  This is an issue I have been discussing for some time with my colleagues at both Columbia College and UIC.  What follows is a list of proposed workplace changes composed by Brianne Bolin and myself as part of an Adjunct Manifesto.  This list is simply a piece of the larger work.  To read the full text of the manifesto, go to this site:


  • All hiring and firing of adjunct faculty will be handled by a non-partisan committee composed of tenured and non-tenured faculty in the same discipline, a union representative (if applicable), and a human resources staff member.
  • All adjunct faculty will be hired on a contract that is a minimum of one year and a maximum of five. No longer will adjuncts be hired by the semester or the class.
  • Tenure will be opened to all faculty. The current system treats adjuncts status as a stigma and blocks advancement from within. Even in corporations, this does not align with common practice.
  • Evaluation of all faculty for tenure and promotion will be based on three components: a dossier of research and/or educational materials, teaching evaluations, and a classroom visit report from a senior member of the faculty in their discipline.
  • Governing bodies of an institution, such as departmental committees and faculty senates, will be comprised of representatives in a ratio that mirrors that of the faculty.  For instance, if adjuncts represent 77% of the total faculty at a college of university, they must account for 77% of the departmental committee appointments and faculty senate membership.
  • Courses will be assigned based on expertise. Many of us hold degrees and experience that allow us to teach courses at the intermediate and advanced level, yet because we are deemed “contingent,” we are only assigned introductory-level classes. Not only is our current system of course assignment arbitrary and unfair, but it shortchanges our institutions. By adopting this practice, our institutions will be supporting greater diversity and innovation of instruction.
  • Salaries will be based on experience in a field of study, evidence of quality teaching practices, adoption of innovation in instruction, job performance, and length of service.
  • Terminology will be clarified to more accurately reflect the expertise of existing faculty. MA and MFA holders will be referred to as Instructor or Senior Instructor, regardless of their employment status. PhD holders will be referred to as Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor, with the prefix “Visiting” added to those not on the tenure track.

These are just a few of the solutions that came to mind.  I encourage readers to think of their own and also to offer suggestions about how to improve those listed above.  We are but a handful thinking and speaking on these issues for the first time.  Add your voice to the conversation and turn these musings into realities.  Once we gain critical mass, perhaps we can motivate those organizations that supposedly represent our profession to take action on our behalf.

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Passing the Buck–Higher Ed Style

The first lesson you learn upon entering the realm of Academia is that “it” is always someone else’s problem.  What constitutes “it” depends on the specific setting of your conversation, but this ethos remains surprisingly consistent.  If we are talking about a conference or journal article, “it” is the hegemonic forces that are “hiding,” “masking,” “distorting,” or otherwise oppressing someone or something.  If we are talking about a department meeting, “it” is the College Administration (i.e. the Provost, Dean, President, or Chancellor) who just doesn’t understand the value of what we do.  If we are talking about meetings at the upper echelons of Academia, “it” becomes the legislatures or broad social forces that hamper the leaders of colleges and universities from making much-needed changes.  Everywhere in the Higher Education the message seems to be–Our hands are tied.  We’re waiting for Godot to come and untie them.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Pozzo and Lucky.  I’d invite them to dinner if I could and, of course,  make them wait an insufferably long time for their food.  But too much is at stake to continue the hand wringing and finger-pointing that has thus far passed for action on the problems in Higher Education.  While we wait for Godot, our professions are increasingly marginalized.  Many schools have already consolidated individual language departments into one massive campus unit and it is only a matter of time before those mega-departments are deemed “too costly.”  Then work can be outsourced to private contractors to tutor students in foreign languages.  Much maligned First Year Composition programs, quite frankly, are the only reason most English departments have remained intact.  However, in some schools English is now part of a new department of Media and Communications or is blended with History or Language study.  Seismic changes are coming soon to a humanities program near you and yet not many in the professions are agitating to be at the helm of these changes.  Or, if they are, they have been shut out due to their marginalized place in the academy.  As I’ve said before, the most active and engaged members of the profession right now are the non-tenured who are easily fired for making waves.

And so, at the risk of sounding monotonous, I ask again:  WHAT IS TO BE DONE?  My recent tiff with the MLA shows that their idea of action is a committee report.  We don’t need any more data.  There are probably giant warehouses along the Potomac filled with statistics and studies that no one has ever read let alone used.  Picture the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.   The problems we face in Higher Education have not changed that much since I entered school as an undergraduate fifteen years ago.  They have merely intensified.

When it comes to taking action, HASTAC and THAT Camp are among the few groups who seem to be getting it right.  Embracing technology rather than fearing it or treating it as a fad, they are looking at how that aspect of Higher Education is changing the ways in which we understand grad school in the humanities and the nature of the profession as a whole.  Also, unlike legacy organizations such as the MLA, they are doing something to make sure that students (both undergrad and grad) are learning the knowledge they need for the 21st century.  If you haven’t been following these two groups, you should.  HASTAC is holding a conference in Ann Arbor, MI as I write this post and I’m sure that more learning will take place there than at the MLA in Seattle this January.

Despite my frustrations with the current system in Higher Education, it would be foolish to deny all that I have gained from my experience as a student and a teacher.  Among the lessons learned are two key truths.  The first is how little I actually know and that I am dependent upon others to help me fill in the complete picture.  This is something that Cathy Davidson addresses in her own way through examining attention blindness.  The second is that keeping silent is not an option for intellectuals.  The state paid a lot of money to educate me and I have a duty to society to share what I have learned.  That is what I try to do both in the classroom and out.  Scholarship is either vital, active in the world around us, or it dies in a sub-basement somewhere.  What I do is of value to the non-academic community and I am proactive in asserting this.

In my next post, I’m going to address a specific set of solutions in Higher Education that affect me directly, listing some suggestions that I have for changing work conditions for Adjuncts.  Until then I encourage you all to think about solutions rather than problems, changes that might be applied to whatever you do in the academy. And yes, I am looking squarely at you Occupy MLA.  Your heart is in the right place, but some of your tweets make me want to scream.  If you have any solutions specifically relating to Adjuncts that you’d like to see in my next post, send them along.  We’re all in this boat together.  We can either collaborate to fix the leak and survive or drown alone.

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