Archive for category Higher Ed

“Go Big or Go Home.”

The words quoted in my subject line are taken from a tweet by a participant at Occupy Cal events this Monday and they express a sense of frustration with the faculty in the University of California system for doing so little in response to the beating and pepper spraying of peaceful protestors at Berkeley and UC-Davis.  Aside from a few courageous souls such as former poet laureate and Berkeley Professor of English Robert Hass, most have been content to passively serve the machine.  Then, as if to add insult to injury, they pass resolutions or statements of condemnation.

One of the more recent entrants in this growing circus of bad faith is the Modern Language Association (MLA), whose President just issued a statement today condemning the actions of police on the UC campuses and calling for greater vigilance in the protection of free speech.  As another member of the Twitterverse notes, “Search all your parks in all your cities / You’ll find no statues to committees.”  You also won’t find great historical changes effected by words alone.  Without the Union army, what good would have the Emancipation Proclamation done the slaves?  Faculty are either blind to their power to effect change on campus or choose not to use it.  Either way, they are letting students down during their hour of need.

Here in Chicago, somewhat ironically, violence has not been a problem on our campuses as much as crushing student debt and cutbacks to services.  But again, faculty inaction has proved a plague to meaningful change.  The only members of the faculty who seem willing to agitate are also the most vulnerable members of the institution–the Adjuncts.  When I go out to Occupy Chicago and Occupy Colleges related events, I see hardly any tenured or tenure track faculty amongst the ranks.  Instead they seem content to live in a bubble, writing and teaching on issues of social justice and freedom without actually participating in their defense.  What are they so afraid of?  Tenured faculty in particular have a job security of which I can only dream.  Yet I put my livelihood on the line because I am scared for the future of my country as education becomes a scarce resource available only to the superrich.  What will it take to stimulate them to action?  Does their job have to be outsourced too?

Sometimes it seems like the majority of those in academia are indeed sitting in an Ivory Tower, looking down upon the current dysfunction in the land.  I refuse to be one of those who simply shakes his head and waits for Godot because he’s not coming.  We are Godot.  The time to act is now while there is still something left to save.

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Denizens in the Realm–A Response to Rosemary Feal

Director Feal:

Our main point of disagreement is not concerning the solutions to the problems we face in Higher Education but in how we interpret the nature and purpose of a “scholarly/professional organization.”  Both in your remarks as well as those of First Vice President Michael Berube it is evident that the MLA leadership understands the organization as above the mundane concerns of daily life in the disciplines that it represents.  These problems are apparently best left to the university and the individual members of the organization who should talk directly to their supervisors.  Should the problem prove particularly intractable, you suggest, it should be taken to another organization whose job it is to deal with such problems: the AFT, COCAL, or AAUP.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the logic of this position and its implications.

First, it is a self-congratulatory stance that evades the ways in which the MLA has itself helped to create the problems in Higher Education today.  While tenured faculty slept, the ranks of those tenured shrunk to historic lows.  While tenured faculty slept, Higher Education became a business rather than a duty owed to society.  While tenured faculty slept, privatization found the university and outsourcing became the new norm.  Why were they sleeping?  Because their professional organization was convinced that scholarship was limited to the dissemination of works among friends.  A few tried to shape themselves into public intellectuals and activists, but they were the exception rather than the rule.  Most were content to let someone else take care of the problems in Higher Education or conduct a study telling others how to fix the problem.  And we wonder why the phrase “it’s academic” has entered the idiom of United States English as a pejorative.  Inaction is not the same thing as innocence.  In fact, in my opinion, it is worse than the actions of those committing misdeeds.

Second, it places undue pressure upon the individual member to fix these problems on their own.  The MLA asserts that it has provided a roadmap or “guidelines” for its members with which several MLA leaders were more than happy to supply me.  They then tell me–“Find your way out of the problem.  If that doesn’t work, go to your department head or supervisor.  Go to your Provost or Dean.  Show them the MLA roadmap and pressure them to help you out of the problem.”  With all due respect, I’m a part-time worker without even a yearly contract.  I’m hired by the course or by the semester.  As an intellectual immigrant who is perhaps best understood as the academic equivalent of a day laborer, I somehow doubt that those in the university administration are all that interested in what I have to say and more than likely would fire me for making waves.  In fact, I’ll be surprised if this series of letters to you, Director Feal, doesn’t lead to me losing my job.  Yet another inequity of power that you seem content to overlook.

To this, you more than likely would retort, “Go to COCAL or the AFT. They will solve your problem and protect you from recrimination.”  I’ve worked with Unions and grass roots labor ogranizations  in the past such as Jobs With Justice.  They would more than likely help me to retain my job as they are interested primarily in issues of labor law and workplace regulations.  They are not, however, interested in issues specifically relating to deep rooted problems in the profession of English and Foreign Languages.  Nor should they be.  That is the job of the MLA.  I am not asking the MLA to become a pseudo-Union or labor organization.  I am asking the MLA to become an activist professional organization that backs its words with deeds.  How many of these Deans, Provosts, and Department Heads that would never listen to my concerns about the steady decline of the profession are fellow members of the MLA?  If the organization leadership can’t effectively speak to them on my behalf as an adjunct, then the MLA is not a true professional organization but an erudite book club.

This brings me to my final point about the membership of the organization.  Just as every book has a target audience, every organization has an ideal member.  Based on the responses I’ve received from the MLA that ideal member has the following characteristics.  They are tenured or tenure track, work at a major state university or well-known private school, have held their position for three years or more, have published multiple books and/or articles with high visibility presses, and are more interested in research (per se) than issues of pedagogy.

So where does that leave the rest of us who do not fit the mold of the ideal MLA member?  In my case, I seem to fit the “cranky graduate student” stereotype who will assuredly (the satraps believe) grow out of his awkward phase once he gets a tenure track job.  Should that not happen then I will be politely asked to move to the back of the bus, joining one of the committees or discussion groups meant to address my “condition” of contingency.  For what is the Committee on Contingent Labor if not a back seat on the bus.  Those of us who do not fit the MLA ideal, regardless of how we are pigeonholed, are the Denizens of the realm.  We are subject to the will and pleasure of the reigning aristocrats and apparently should be quiet and simply bask in the glory of being amongst the cognoscenti at annual conventions while they discuss issues relating to oppression in literature and culture.  Does no one else see the irony here?

I can’t say that I am all that surprised by the elitism and willful blindness of the MLA.  Legacy institutions tend to suffocate under the weight of their own bureaucracy and inertia which are born of outmoded traditions.  I was, however, hopeful (for at least a moment) that my words would matter.  Now I see that I was mistaken.  My membership dues are good until the end of this coming year.  After that date, I intend to let my membership lapse and use the money to join a professional organization that not only shares my ideas but allows me space to nurture my talents as a scholar-teacher.  To all my true colleagues, those who have read this post and found yourself in essential agreement, I encourage you to do the same.  Vote with your feet.  Leave the MLA and join an organization that better meets your needs.

Should my words have caused offense, I can only remind you Director Feal that you wanted to know what was on my mind.  Now I have told you.  The secret’s out and we are right back to where I left our conversation on Twitter so many days ago.  We will have to agree to disagree.  The one rhetorical advance we seem to have made in this verbal figure eight  is in exposing the exact nature of our disagreement.  In doing so, my point has been deftly illustrated that we hold the same degree but live in different worlds.  The ground upon which you stand is very different from mine and it affects your point of view.  Perhaps if you came down into the valley, you’d see the village is on fire and would grab a bucket to help put out the flames.  I’d like to believe that of you as you seem from your words a well-meaning person.


John Casey, PhD

Adjunct Professor of English

University of Illinois at Chicago


Columbia College Chicago

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An Open Letter to MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal

UPDATE:  I have removed from this letter two inappropriate analogies that compared the MLA’s failure to act directly on behalf of its non tenured members to citizens in Nazi Germany and Penn State during the sexual abuse scandal surrounding its football team.  I apologize to both Rosemary Feal, Executive Director of the MLA, and Michael Berube, its First Vice President, for this needlessly inflammatory rhetoric. Neither comparison is justified.  The rest of the argument stands awaiting an answer (12/06/2011). 

I wrote this open letter in response to a spirited discussion that took place this Sunday between myself and MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal via Twitter.  Having worked in academia for some time, I hold no illusions as to the efficacy of my words.  I wrote this open letter primarily because it was the right thing to do.  Too many non-tenured faculty are silent out of fear.  I refuse to keep living in darkness.  Here is a little piece of light.  Hic Placet.

An Open Letter to Rosemary Feal

Executive Director of the Modern Language Association

November 21, 2011

Director Feal:

On Sunday, November 20, we engaged in a spirited conversation via Twitter about the role of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in advocating for non-tenure track faculty.  I claimed in my initial tweet that the organization was woefully behind the times and you asked me for specific examples to explain my position.  To your initial inquiry, I replied with a list of requests, starting with a call for a change in attitude of tenure track faculty towards adjuncts and moving on to more tangible demands for equity of resources (i.e. computers and office space) and opportunities for professional development such as sabbatical leaves and the ability to design new courses.  Your reply to my list of requests was that each item on it was a “university issue” and related to the “profession” more than the “organization” that is the MLA.  Following this observation, you requested that I more fully articulate what I believed the MLA was not doing for its adjunct members.  In your words, you asked me to tell you “what a scholarly/professional association like the MLA can do for its members.”  I write this open letter to you in response to your request.

Perhaps the best place to begin is with your distinction between the university, the profession, and the MLA as a “scholarly/professional organization.”  The way in which you reference these terms makes it unclear to me whether you believe these spheres overlap or are distinct regions within Higher Education.  My impression from your tweets is that you view the MLA as a sacred space—distinct from the schools that employee its members and the disciplines it represents.  As a long time student of the work of Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, I cannot help but see such a distinction as a fallacy of the highest order.  It is impossible to separate “the profession” from the organization that represents its many branches.  Likewise it is not possible to separate the MLA as “a professional/scholarly organization” from the campuses where that organization’s goals are (at least in theory) expressed.  These spheres are interlocking and mutually supportive.  Together they have long worked to enforce the status quo in research, teaching, training, hiring, and disciplinary structure.

In response to my complaints about the MLA’s support of the status quo, you brought to my attention the work of the executive council, delegate assembly, and various committees of the organization such as that on “contingent labor” (a term that I despise for its dehumanizing connotations).  You assert that great strides have been made in the last five years.  As a member of the MLA for over a decade, I can assert that from the ground upon which I stand little seems to have changed for the better in the academic landscape.  In fact, conditions have grown steadily worse.  Every committee report and nonbinding resolution only signals for the other half of academia a reality that they as non-tenured faculty already knew.  Statistics and statements mock rather than comfort.  They suggest failure and futility rather than foster hope and innovation.  What we (i.e. the non-tenured members of the MLA) need Director Feal is not another proclamation, study, discussion group, or committee.  What we need now more than anything is action.

You rightly assert that the MLA cannot effect structural changes in Higher Education on its own.  Individual members, particularly tenured members, and the schools in which they work must shoulder their part of the burden.  However, the tone of your remarks resounds heavily with the ethos of “passing the buck.”  “We at the MLA have done our part,” you imply, “Others have dropped the ball and let you down.  Our hands are clean.”  Somehow the MLA manages, in your view, to stand pure and whole in the middle of an ocean of dysfunction in which its members swim.  Perhaps they receive a magic towel to dry themselves off when they enter the halls of 26 Broadway or preen on the convention floor.

The time is now Director Feal.  The MLA must lead or be left behind.  If the organization is up to the challenge, here are five suggestions from a member of its heretofore silenced majority.  Five ways to take action on behalf of non-tenure track faculty rather than writing more speeches on their “condition”:

1.  Leadership positions in the MLA must be made to more accurately reflect the heterogeneous nature of its membership.  How is it that an organization of nearly 30,000 individual members has no community college faculty let alone non-tenure track faculty in its main governing body—the executive council?  Standing committees on contingent labor and community colleges not only represent tokenism at its worst but have all the trappings of a ghetto for paying members who don’t fit the MLA’s desired type (i.e The Research One Tenured Professor).

2. There must be consequences for members both individual and institutional who do not abide by the already existing resolutions on academic labor.  One reason that talk about the “condition” of non-tenure track faculty is cheap is the official words of the MLA come with no power of enforcement.  The MLA needs to back its words with action.  Any member (individual or institutional) who does not abide by existing MLA resolutions on labor and workforce conditions should face potential expulsion from the organization or sanctions preventing them from accessing organizational resources.  Moreover, violators of MLA labor standards should be placed on a public list on the organization’s website and members should be warned not to engage in business of any kind with those institutions.

3. The MLA should learn from organizations such as HASTAC how to better incorporate alternative academic job paths into its convention and also its governance structure.  They should additionally lobby member institutions for changes in educational practice to make graduate students at the MA and PhD level aware of these nontraditional paths and give them an opportunity to train for jobs other than that of college teaching or research.  For those already in the non-tenured faculty pool, the MLA should create funds to help those interested in doing so to retrain.

4.  The MLA must quit its stance of neutrality.  At best it is acquiescence to the abuse of non-tenure track faculty and at worst it is complicit in the destruction of Higher Education.  The organization must become more active politically.  Its presence must be vocal and visible in the state capitals as well as Washington, D.C.  If the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) can do this, why can’t the MLA?

5. There should be limits to the number of times that a member can consecutively publish materials in the organization’s publications or present papers at the annual convention.  This would allow MLA members outside the upper tier to more actively take part in the scholarly activities associated with the organization.  Fresh voices provide fresh perspectives.  These in turn will allow the organization to change in order to meet the new exigencies of the twenty-first century.

Failure to take action will simply precipitate the decline of the MLA, which has become for many of its members no more than an acronym for a citation style and a place to interview for jobs.  I am cautiously optimistic that having gained your attention some of my suggestions might be at least considered if not implemented.  Whether this blessed outcome happens or not, I am nonetheless grateful to be noticed and taken seriously by a member of the Research One elite.  As an adjunct faculty member I am, quite frankly, used to being ignored or used as an example of what can happen to a profligate graduate student.  This letter offers me the opportunity to remind those in the inner sanctum of academe that I am not tenured but I am faculty.  I don’t have books published by scholarly presses but I am an intellectual.  I am unable to obtain a tenure track job but I am not a loser.  I am you but for a twist of fate and your patronizing resolutions hurt more than simply being ignored.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the reality that there are consequences for me writing this open letter.  As a non-tenured professor, I could easily have my contract “not renewed” (a handy euphemism for being fired) at any time for any reason.  I take this risk of perhaps losing my job on behalf of future generations of students (both undergraduate and graduate) as well as the inspiring non-tenure track faculty who increasingly teach them.  I have known in my eleven years of teaching as a Graduate Instructor and Adjunct Professor so many non-tenure track faculty that have given so much of their time and effort while receiving so little in compensation or recognition from their schools and the professional organizations that ostensibly represent them.  It is for this silent majority that I speak today.  I hope my words meet their approval.

Respectfully Yours,

John Casey, PhD

Adjunct Professor of English

University of Illinois at Chicago


Columbia College Chicago

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“Thank God I’m Done with English.”

When you teach at one school for any length of time, you inevitably run into students wherever you go.  This past Friday I was on my way to Greektown for a gyro and encountered a former student from my First Year writing course two semesters ago.

I don’t know about you but I always find these situations a little awkward at first.  Most of these students I don’t see after they take my freshmen level courses.  They go on to their various fields of study and I don’t have the opportunity to see them again.  Consequently, I’m never really sure what to talk about.

In this case, I gravitated towards the predictable.  “So what classes are you taking this semester?  Are they going well?”  As this student answered my utterly banal questions, she eventually blurted out “Thank God I’m done with English.  Now I can get on to what I want to study.”

Being a long time teacher of the core curriculum at this school, which is universally required and almost as univerally reviled by students, I’m used to comments like these.  I just laugh them off.  What made me sad, however, was the grain of truth in what she was saying.  My course would more than likely be the last “English” (i.e. writing) course that she would take in her college career.  Admittedly she will have classes that require her to write, but never again will writing be a deliberate part of her instruction.

Perhaps this is just the English teacher in me speaking out, but I find this reality disgusting.  Without any meaningful iteration, First Year writing courses are indeed what students claim–a waste of time.  They jump through the hoop to make those in power happy and then go on their merry way.  This attitude will not change until writing or more appropriately COMMUNICATION  at ALL LEVELS of the curriculum and in ALL DISCIPLINES becomes a subject worthy of sustained attention.  When we write, we communicate our ideas with others.  If we can’t do this effectively, our ideas may as well not exist.  If we can’t do this effectively, it is not the English teachers that have failed our students but those who feel that effective communication is the problem of a selected few.

Let’s hope that sometime in the future, students like that young lady mentioned above will see the global value of good communication and not cringe in fear of the “English” class.

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“Now You See It.”

If you have not already read Cathy Davidson’s new book, you should be.  It is the first positive discussion of the changes happening in Higher Education that I’ve seen in a long time.  Davidson takes the words that scare the bejesus out of us tweed jacket types (i.e. “crowdsourcing,” “gaming,” “relevance,” “open source”) and puts them on the table for discussion in a bold but generous way.  She encourages those reading her book to see it as a field guide to our new learning environment, which is still in the condition of becoming.  Most importantly, however, she reminds us that as educators it is our duty to keep changing–to unlearn material that has caused us to stagnate and look to the emerging trends for clues to what lies around the corner.  Could it be video games?  I have no idea.  Neither it seems does Cathy.  But she deserves credit for asking the questions about what is truly wrong in academe that most have avoided and providing a few suggestions of how to overcome our current malaise/stagnation.

If you are in Chicago, Cathy Davidson will be speaking on the Future of the Humanities at the Chicago Humanities Festival on Saturday, November 5 at 11am at the UIC Forum.  See the Chicago Humanities Website for more details.


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