Archive for category Higher Ed

The Shrinking Middle–A Review of From Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities

The “crisis in Higher Education” has had so many studies written on it that its books alone could easily fill an entire library. Adding to this number is Richard DeMillo, a former Dean of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Chief Technology Officer for Hewlett Packard. In his 2011 book From Abelard to Apple, he makes a case that due to changes in both technology and educational cost those colleges and universities who reside “in the middle” of the Higher Education rankings should hasten to assess their current mission if they plan to survive.

Most of the schools in the middle addressed by DeMillo are state colleges and universities that flourished under the land grant act and the expansion of the pool of undergraduate students made possible by the G.I. Bill. Caught between the high prestige schools such as Harvard and M.I.T. and the for profit schools that have emerged in the latter half of the 20th century such as DeVry and the University of Phoenix, these schools in the middle are torn between “prestige envy” and a desire to be relevant to their prospective students.

DeMillo (as Jennifer Washburn before him in her book University Inc.) clearly illustrates that this push-pull between wanting to live up to the Germanic ideal of a University, a place where knowledge is studied and created for its own sake, and a desire to train students for specific careers has long dominated discussions of Higher Education. If nothing else, DeMillo’s book is useful for reminding us that the “end times” we feel that we face in 21st century Higher Ed are part of a much larger trajectory that is as much circular as it is a straight line. We are reliving many of the debates (DeMillo shows) that once dominated American discussions on the role of a college education in the early 20th century.

His book is non-linear in nature and provides a series of loosely interlocking vignettes that each provide a different piece of the puzzle necessary to prove his argument. It is not until the last chapter that DeMillo offers something of a blueprint for those leaders of colleges and universities in the middle who want to survive the coming extinction of the land grant institution.

The most pertinent suggestions he offers are to: Focus on what differentiates you from other institutions and establish your own brand. Then create a new balance between faculty interests and student interests using technology as well as locally created assessment tools to maintain it.

Although there isn’t much to argue with in DeMillo’s assessment of the problem, his solutions are problematic. Their heavy reliance upon the language of business enterprise makes me wonder if he believes there is any hope for the 19th model of the college and university imagined by Thomas Jefferson, Justin Morrill, and John Dewey. The ending of his book leaves one thinking that a “market correction” awaits in Higher Ed and that when the dust settles only the prestige institutions will be left with for profit online schools picking up most of the students once taught by the land grant school and community college.

From Abelard to Apple offers one more facet to our understanding of the problems in Higher Education that face the United States in the 21st century but it remains unable (as most of the books that preceded it) to offer a roadmap out of our current difficulties. This is not DeMillo’s fault but reflects a larger tendency in Higher Ed to overcomplicate the problem to hide its source. If everyone is to blame, than no one is to blame. We are all at fault and can therefore sit on our hands and feel bad for ourselves while sipping an over-priced latte.

Read DeMillo if you want to see another side of the problem but don’t bother if you want to find a way out.

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Quality Over Quantity–Computer Assisted Grading Revisited

A Reuter’s report describes recent efforts to create computer software that could scan and grade common errors in student essays.  Mark Shermis, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, is supervising a contest created by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation that would award $100,000 to the programmer who creates an effective automated grading software.

Shermis argues that if teachers weren’t swamped by so many student papers in need of grading, they would assign more writing and student’s would greatly improve their written communication skills.  He sees this new technology as an aide to the overworked writing teacher rather than a potential replacement.

Steve Graham, a Professor at Vanderbilt who has conducted research on essay grading techniques, argues, in contrast, that the replacement of writing teachers by grading software is not only “inevitable” but also desirable as “the reality is humans aren’t very good at doing this.”

As the writer of the Reuter’s article notes, talk about paper grading software is not new.  It began in the 1960s.  Now, however, technology has reached a level where such grading is not only possible but also probable.  But the question still remains:  Is it a good idea?

Leaving aside for a moment the question of faculty employment, machine grading sidesteps a more important question than how to get students to write more and grade that writing effectively.  Namely–what is writing and who is responsible for teaching it.

In too many schools writing is viewed as the “problem” of the English department.  Students are sent to writing classes to learn essay structure, research techniques, and grammar.  Only the last of these is universal.  The other two skill sets are discipline specific.  I guess that explains why to my students everything they read is a novel and every paper a literary analysis.  They’ve been taught after all that writing equals English.

If we really want students to learn not just writing but effective communication, parents, teachers, and administrators need to spread the responsibility for this instruction across the curriculum.  Some schools already do this but most are content to leave communication training to literary scholars.  Machines won’t change this.  They will be programmed to evaluate whatever curriculum is currently in place.  Until the curriculum is changed, the machine will not only replicate the error but multiply it.

Moving on to the issue of employment, part of my unease with a machine that grades papers is it would most likely put me out of a job.  I have 48 student essays in need of grading that are staring at me right now as I pen this post.  Of course, the curricular changes I suggest would more than likely have the same effect, with or without machine assistance.  The way to counter this, however, is to lower class sizes.

This is the other aspect of the issue that is completely ignored by most research.  If class sizes are lessened, not only will more teachers have employment but writing will become a less onerous task to teach and evaluate.  It could also then be meaningfully integrated into the entire curriculum and not remain the purview of the English Department.

Would such changes cost a lot of money?  Yes.  But it is a good investment.  Far better than the money we’ve wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan and the even larger sums of money we spend incarcerating drug offenders.  It’s even better, dare I say, than the cost of a certain software currently being designed to solve all my problems.




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Marching for Higher Ed–A Post Action Report on the National Day of Action in Chicago

On March 1st the group Occupy Education, part of the larger Occupy Movement, called for a National Day of Action on behalf of higher education in the United States and across the globe.  Here in Chicago events centered around the National Education Association (N.E.A.) Higher Education Conference (held at the Palmer House Hilton).  Members attending that conference led a group of educators, students, and concerned citizens on a march through the Loop.  The group’s first stop was at East-West University where a picket line marched in front of the main entrance to demand the reinstatement of Curtis Keyes, a Professor at East-West who was fired for his union organizing activities on that campus, as well as pressure the university to meet with the now federally recognized union to negotiate a contract.  From there those taking part in the march stopped in front of the main building of Columbia College Chicago at 600 South Michigan and were joined by members of Occupy Columbia and the student group C.A.C.H.E. (Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education).  A picket line was formed here as well to protest rises in tuition at Columbia that are accompanying cuts and massive restructuring about to occur in the college curriculum as part of the school’s year-long “Prioritization” process.  The student organization C.A.C.H.E. took over the march after this point from the N.E.A. and led the group from Michigan and Congress first to Chase Bank (one of the major lenders for student loans) and then to De Paul University where they joined members of Occupy De Paul to protest a 5 % raise in tuition rates.

This day long series of marches, rallies, and pickets was intended to expose to the general public the dire state of Higher Education in the United States, which has become unaffordable for average citizens at the same time that a Bachelor’s degree is needed to even be considered for most jobs.  (A friend of mine without a college degree was recently turned down for a telemarketing position that required a Bachelor’s degree of all its applicants even though it paid just a few cents over the state minimum wage of $8.25.)  Those taking part in the National Day of Action all had different perspectives on the solutions needed but all agreed that immediate changes are needed to keep college education open to the largest possible number of people.

I had the privilege to march along with both the N.E.A. led and then student led groups during the course of the day.  It was humorous to note the large Chicago police presence, which got even larger as C.A.C.H.E took over control of the march from the N.E.A.  Even without the police presence it seemed clear that protestors were determined to keep the event peaceful in order to gain public support.  Many bystanders in the Loop stopped to learn more about why we were marching and more than a few nodded their heads in agreement.  Local news coverage was disappointing, but that is to be expected of our geriatric journalists in Chicago.  Unless the news comes to them, they don’t bother reporting it.  Next time I guess we should march over to CBS studios and the Tribune tower.  Occupy De Paul got a quick reference in the evening news as did the portion of the march that occurred in front of Chase Bank.

The most heartening event of the day occurred right before I was about to head home that afternoon.  A police officer said to me, “Hey, you can’t leave.  The protest ain’t over yet.”  I told him I had been outside most of the day and needed to head in to warm up and get some food.  He let me know he was just kidding around with me but then we had a brief conversation.  We agreed that college should be open to all who needed  or even wanted it.  We also agreed that peaceful protest was the best way to reach those outside of the college and university campuses, many of whom don’t realize just how bad things have become.  He worried about his own families chances of going to college and being able to live the American Dream.  I worried about my loan debt and the ongoing struggles I’ve faced to find a full time job let alone a career.  Problems in search of an answer.  March 1st was simply the beginning.

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March 1st National Day of Action on Behalf of Higher Ed

This week is one of those rare occasions in which the blog post for both sites I manage is the same.  My reason for this overlap is the severity of the crisis we face in Higher Education in the United States.  In the last thirty years, public funding for Higher Education at the state and federal level has consistently been reduced.  Private colleges have also been squeezed more each year by a decline in alumni giving and the investment returns from their endowments.

With colleges and universities living in a constant state of budget crisis, students are more dependent upon loan debt rather than scholarships and grants to finance their education.  A recent study conducted by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success indicates that the average student indebtedness in the United States is around $26,000.  In my home state of Illinois, 62% of college graduates reported owing some form of debt upon graduation.  That is up from 46% in 1990.

Students are also becoming part of the low wage economy through work-study jobs that not only have no connection to their studies but have unwittingly helped dismantle blue-collar employment on campus.  Who wants to pay $45,000-$65,000 a year to clerical and service workers when the same work can be done by an undergraduate for pennies on the dollar.

Colleges were forced by circumstances to find ways to “economize” and “monetize” their existing assets, but inviting corporate logic into the realm of Higher Ed was like welcoming the fox into the hen-house.  Higher Education has now become a factory that turns out graduates while remaining agnostic about their fate subsequent to graduation.

In order to address this crisis, Occupy Education, a branch of the larger Occupy movement, has called for a National Day of Action to be held on March 1st throughout the United States to draw attention to the problems we face and hopefully prod those interested towards crafting a solution.

Here in Chicago a number of rallies are planned throughout the city. I will be at events taking place in the Loop beginning at 8:30am and ending around 4pm.  Here are a list of those events:

8:30am– A panel led by Diana Vallera, the president of Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Union (P-Fac), and Curtis Keyes, the lead organizer for the union at East-West University will be held as part of the National Education Association (NEA) convention taking place at the Palmer House Hilton.  That panel will address the current crisis in Higher Education and the work that unions have been doing to combat it.

11:00am–A rally will meet outside the Palmer House as Curtis Keyes speaks with members of the student group C.A.C.H.E. (the Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education) prior to marching south to the main offices of Columbia College at 600 South Michigan Avenue.

1:00pm–C.A.C.H.E. will continue its march to Congress and Michigan and hold a rally.

These are just a few of the events occurring that day.  Hundreds more will pop up all over the city so keep your eyes open.  If you are unable to find or participate in one of these rallies, check out these facts on Higher Ed and share them with a friend or coworker.  Together we can insure that college education is available for all who want it and maintain the educated citizenry necessary for a healthy republic to survive.

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Knowledge Is Power

Somewhere in the top drawer of my dresser is a metal insignia that reads Savoir C’est Pouvoir–Knowledge Is Power.  That insignia was given to me by my uncle years ago when he left the 82nd airborne to return to civilian life. He had served for several years as an intelligence officer with his unit and that service was reflected on the insignia he wore on his maroon beret.

What is true for the armed forces is often equally true in other areas of life.  In this case the quest to reform the conditions of teaching and learning in higher education.  To achieve any kind of victory, it is first necessary to understand what exactly you are up against.  Good data can save lives on the battlefield and it can shape for the better (or worse) the future of students and teachers in the college classroom.

The task to gather accurate intelligence on Adjunct labor conditions began with a vengeance last week as Josh Boldt, an Adjunct Professor of English at the University of Georgia and fellow attendee of the New Faculty Majority summit, created a Google docs spreadsheet where Adjunct faculty can list their salaries, benefits, and working conditions.  Here for the first time the general public can see in one place how much Adjunct faculty make at institutions throughout the United States and (in some cases) the world.  I’ve added my information to the spreadsheet.  I’d encourage you to do so as well.

Reading through all the information on the spreadsheet is a bit daunting and at some point it will need analysis and visualization to work as an organizing tool, but I anticipate some great coalition building campaigns emerging from out of this data.  Administrator’s can easily dismiss claims based on ethos and pathos but they can’t dismiss the logic of numbers.  A quick scan of the data on this sheet shows that the median salary for Adjunct faculty is well below the suggested MLA guidelines and is far lower than the amount needed to sustain oneself let alone a family.

In a recent post to her Inside Higher Education Blog, College Ready Writing, Lee Bessette extols the benefits of this “crowdsourced” project on behalf of Adjuncts everywhere and I am inclined to agree with her.  My only quibble is with her use of the word “hero.”

At the New Faculty Majority summit I was frequently the annoying pragmatist who pointed out the need for data and clear talking points not simply to push our adversaries back on their heels but also to energize the people we hope to form into a coalition to change higher education.  Call it lamenting, kvetching, carping, whatever you like–the fact remains, I have been witness to and participant in ALOT of failed organizing campaigns.  I’d like to think that I have learned something from those experiences and what I was saying came from that perspective.

We don’t need heroes in the quest to reform higher education.  Instead we need patience, perseverance, and clarity of vision.  These are the qualities that inspired Srdja Popovic in his campaign to topple Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and later guided uprisings in places such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

Let’s not kid ourselves.  The status quo works for the people in power.  If it didn’t, contingent labor wouldn’t be expanding and it wouldn’t be invisible to the general public.  To make it stop working will require thousands of micro-strikes against it rather than one dramatic lunge.  We are small but mighty.  Non-violent guerilla war against corporate higher education has begun.

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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 ( 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, 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 ( 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:
  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 ( 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 (  I’ll be doing that tonight.

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The High Cost of Networking–Some Thoughts on the Academic Conference

Imagine this scenario:  After weeks of preparing your talk and struggling to cut it to fit the 20 minute time slot of your three person panel, you arrive in the conference room to find that not only is your session chair missing but there are three people in the audience, one of whom is your best friend from grad school.

Think I’m making this up?  Well, I’m not.  It really happened.  I was one of the three people in the audience at the above named conference panel and I felt bad for the presenter.  I did my best to ask her insightful questions but I couldn’t help wondering where the other attendees had gone.  Where was the loyalty to intellectual inquiry and more important where was common courtesy, which should have dictated to the panel chair that he contact his panel in advance to let them know he would be absent?

Although I have no way of knowing exactly what led this scenario to occur, it is possible to make two assumptions.  The first (in the venerable tradition of Stanley Eugene Fish) is based on the Convention program which was well over 1,000 pages long and listed hundreds of events each day starting at 8am and ending around 8pm. Even the most dedicated audience member couldn’t help but crash after about four panels.  I tried to listen in on five or six a day but found myself succumbing to the “museum effect.” All of the talks started to merge into one huge cluster of meta-discourse in my brain.

Some professional organizations such as the MLA (Yes, I am complimenting them.  Try not to gasp too loud.) have made positive steps to ameliorate this effect by implementing new conference presentation formats.  The dominance of Digital Humanities at this year’s MLA convention made this change much more prominent than it might otherwise have been as presenters in these fields are quite frankly much better at using audio-visual equipment than traditional humanities scholars. They also seem to have learned how to be succinct without omitting essential information in their talks.  This allows more time for discussion and is less overwhelming for the audience.

The second assumption  I gleaned from listening to conference attendees talk in the hotel lobby.  As I sipped a coffee and prepared for my own presentation, it became clear that cost concerns or job pressures forced many to attend simply for the day of their talk.  It was also clear that some convention attendees were more interested in sightseeing than their were in listening to the latest scholarship in the field.

Bearing all of this in mind, it is worth asking–What exactly is the purpose of the large academic conference in 2012?  In the age of social media such as Twitter and Google + why not simply hold a “tweet-up” or create a “google hangout” for scholars in a particular field of study?  These virtual arenas would cost participants far less and could be used at any time during the year.

The short answer to these questions seems to be career networking.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of face to face interaction with scholars in my field.  I value it greatly.  However, $800, which is the average amount I’ve spent attending academic conferences, seems a steep price to pay for networking.  Almost as much, in fact, as my monthly rent.  That is why I make a habit of attending conferences only if I’m either presenting or chairing a panel.

I wonder how many make the same choice and are thus shut out of the opportunity to network and exchange ideas in real-time.  Yet another way that non-elite faculty are prevented from full participation in the discipline they help sustain.

Among the many changes that I hope will take place as the discipline of English is forced to evolve or disappear is a reexamination of the annual convention model.  It seems at best overly bloated (a point made by Fish that most of his readers conveniently ignored) and at worst hopelessly out of date.  Fewer panels of shorter duration, new presentation methods, new division structures, less pressure to conduct face to face membership business one time a year.  These changes are all desperately needed.  Maybe regional conferences affiliated with national ones could pick up the slack.  Or perhaps a lot of the work needed could be done online.

In any event, if we want all the members of the profession to have a say in its future, we need something better than the traditional annual convention.  The premium for attendance is too steep.  Even if you might get to shake hands with Michael Berube.

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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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