Posts Tagged Adjunct Labor
Greetings from foggy and damp Chicago! I hope the weather is at least a little nicer wherever you are. This third blog post was meant to be a space for NEMLA members to share their thoughts on the relationship between teaching and research, a topic explored in my last blog post. However, upon checking my email inbox, I discovered that no one had sent in any responses.
Consequently, for this month I’m going to focus on two things. First, reminding NEMLA members that you have until Midnight TODAY to submit your proposals for this year’s conference in Hartford thanks to a deadline extension. Session descriptions can be found at https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp. Second, focusing on the role of technology in the field of American Literature.
Since I am writing a blog post, perhaps the best way to start is with that medium. Blogs aren’t really a new technology. They have been around since at least the 1990’s. I remember using a primitive version of web journal during my undergraduate years that looked a lot like a blog and allowed users to communicate within the university’s computer network (intranet) in a manner similar to today’s chat rooms or discussion boards. Yet it has only been in recent years that blogging has evolved from a niche mode of communication for the tech savvy to a form of expression that now overshadows most other genres of writing. This growth in the number of bloggers is due in no small part to the creation of blog templates such as Blogger and WordPress that eliminate the need for writers to know coding languages. Online writing tools used to require someone to create them before any writing could be done. Now an aspiring blogger simply needs to pick a service provider, choose a template, and start writing.
I came to consistent blogging fairly late in my career. After my introduction to this form of writing as an undergraduate, I didn’t write anything that might be considered a blog until 2011. At the time, my decision was based mostly on frustration. I felt that no one in my immediate circles of colleagues was interested in my area of research and I couldn’t afford to travel to the conferences most relevant to my field. Blogging allowed me to connect with other scholars that I might otherwise never meet face to face and share my research with the world. Of course, it also gave me space to play as I created both a professional blog (on which this post was written) and a current events blog that was more for fun. On that second site I wrote about topics in the news that I had strong opinions about (most local in nature). It was like my own personal editorial page.
Not long after creating these two blogs, I discovered that one of the problems of online writing is figuring out how to develop a reading audience. Even a print author grows discouraged if no one seems to be reading their works. The same is true of a blogger. If one is writing for themselves or for close acquaintances that they see everyday, the task of writing soon becomes a burden and the blog dies. My current events blog suffered just such a death. Another species of problem that can arise is gaining the wrong type of readership. Much has been written on internet “trolls” who hijack discussions on websites and bully writers of blog posts into silence. A different problem is when one gains readers but not on the subject originally intended. My professional blog was intended as a space for me to share my research on American Literature, but soon developed into a venue for debating issues related to academic labor.
Initially I fought notoriety as an advocate for adjuncts as it is not something I’ve done research on, unless you count experience as a form of research. Then I embraced it for the readership. Finally, I discovered that after my initial round of posts, I had nothing else to say. Having spoken my peace, I returned to my original topics of interests and my readership underwent a precipitous decline. Most of the traffic on my blog site today (johnacaseyjr.com) is still connected to my posts on adjunct labor and not my writings on American Literature.
What I’ve learned through my experience with blogging is that you need to create face to face networks before you can successfully establish an online readership. You also need to have a clear sense of your blog’s purpose and audience. The blog site you are reading this post on has developed into more of a website (content to read) rather than a gateway for virtual conversation. Part of me wants to accept that while part of me continues to seek audience interaction. I think the design of my site reflects this tug of war.
I’ve rambled so long this month about blogs that I don’t have much time to talk about other technologies used in the teaching and research of American Literature. Next week I’ll discuss another tool I’ve come to both love and hate–Twitter. This will lead me to a prelude of the issues I plan to discuss in my round table session in Hartford.
Until next time….
In what may qualify as the non-event of the year, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW) released its report on Adjunct working conditions yesterday. The data paints a picture similar to that of Josh Boldt’s earlier crowdsourced study the Adjunct Project. Non-tenure track faculty are working long hours for little pay, and they would gladly accept a full-time career track position if one were made available. The more interesting statistic from the CAW study that gets lost in the overwhelming focus on pay is that a significant majority of those working off the tenure track are women who teach in humanities disciplines.
Reading through the CAW’s study, I couldn’t help but feel that the time spent on this project would have been better used somewhere else. The trends in Adjunct labor have not dramatically changed since the CAW was founded in 1997. What has changed is that each year conditions in Higher Education have become steadily worse. Studies don’t change society, men and women possessing moral courage who are mobilized for action do. What makes this study even more useless (in my opinion) is the small number of non-academics who will ever see it. They are the ones who need to see the data. I would wager they are the only ones who would be surprised by the content of the CAW’s study.
So it’s official, the dead horse has been beaten once again.
More promising but still cringe-inducing is the plan endorsed by Middle Tennessee State University to create a four phase plan for non-tenure track faculty that would recognize their integral role in departmental life. It would allow those teaching on semester-to-semester contracts (Adjuncts in the truest sense of the word) a path to becoming full-time lecturers and (eventually) senior lecturers.
That path is severely flawed, as the Homeless Adjunct points out. Moreover, it’s not even that inventive. My employer already has such a system in place and has for at least as long as I’ve worked there (2000).
Yet in spite of these flaws, talk of a phased system of Adjunct employment moves us beyond the statistical study of “the Adjunct Question” and the tiresome stories of victimization to actually doing something about the problem. Let’s hope that more talk about solutions comes into vogue so that better plans than Middle Tennessee’s might emerge.
If nothing else, the CAW study and the “four-phase” plan adopted by Middle Tennessee and endorsed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) demonstrates the epistemological gap between the tenure track and the non-tenure track in Higher Education. It also demonstrates that Academic Professional Organizations are paper tigers. I guess that explains why union membership on college campuses is up while professional groups struggle to maintain their ranks.
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.