Posts Tagged Unions

Two Years Later: Revisiting an Open Letter to Rosemary Feal

In what has become something of a yearly ritual, controversy has erupted leading up to the 2014 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago.  This has led to a spike in readership for my sleepy little blog. Specifically the November 21, 2011 Open Letter that I wrote in response to a Twitter argument with the Modern Language Association Executive Director, Rosemary Feal, in regards to the role of a “scholarly/professional” organization such as the MLA.

Being a literary historian by training, I have to admit that I’m addicted to comparisons (then vs. now).  So let’s pause for a moment to see what has changed since I penned the most read piece of writing I’ve ever composed (2,221 readers and counting).

I guess the best place to start is with my life and career.  For those readers who’ve taken the time to click on my CV link, you’ll see that I was not fired from my job for writing the open letter.  Instead I found myself hired as a full-time lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then went on to serve as Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies at that same institution.  In addition, I have a book manuscript soon to come out based on research from my PhD dissertation and I’m getting married to the love of my life in June.  So you see, good things can happen off the tenure track.

None of these personal events, however, negate the systemic problems that remain in Higher Education. Students, crushed by a heavy debt burden, are leaving the humanities in droves for fields of study that appear to promise lucrative employment following graduation.  Administrators are using this trend to hire more non-tenure track faculty and consolidate department structures.  Back in 2011 it was much easier to find a department of English or French and locate its chair.  Try doing that same activity today.  You’ll find that many have become programs housed within “schools” of language and literature whose leadership roles are primarily symbolic. Faculty and Staff find themselves squeezed, burdened with extra work, most of it unpaid.  This leads to a climate of greater isolation and snarkiness in many instances.  An ethos that all too readily migrates to the internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Those who should be fighting together are instead (in many cases) fighting against each other.

Frustrated by the circular rhetoric deployed by the MLA leadership, I turned away from pushing the Modern Language Association for change in 2011 and instead turned to a union (the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Association of American University Professors).  We’ve accomplished quite a bit on the UIC campus since then.  The most astonishing change I’ve seen is a growing solidarity between tenured and non-tenured faculty who don’t need to study “vulnerable times” because they are living them–together.

As I’ve long argued, many of the issues faced by NTT faculty are issues of prestige and recognition.  These can be dealt with at the departmental level.  One we addressed on our campus was the lack of name placards for NTT faculty on their office doors.  We are also working to get biographies of NTT faculty added to the department website to recognize the work done by these hard working teachers and scholars.  In addition, our department’s associate head has begun storing NTT faculty CV’s to get a sense of the full range of capabilities possessed by the department’s full faculty (TT and NTT).

While the department works to change the attitudes of TT and NTT faculty, union leaders are currently struggling to work on issues of appointment and compensation.  Even though state law requires NTT and TT faculty to have separate contracts, we are one bargaining team and one union fighting to save the university as we understand it.  Our union, UIC United Faculty, voted in the fall to authorize a strike.  We hope it doesn’t come to that, but we are willing to put our beliefs to the test.  Now is the time to fight not form a committee to study the subject of resource allocation in higher ed.

Has the MLA done the same?  Have they finally realized that we’re at war with a Neoliberal system that wants to return to higher ed as it was in the Gilded Age (a handful of prestige institutions such as Harvard and Yale surrounded by an ocean of trade-specific academies)?

Yes and No.

Since 2011, the MLA has made significant gains in changing the leadership roles for NTT and Alt-Ac members. It has also worked to update the conference format and encourage graduate students and graduate programs to look at alternate career paths for PhDs.

What remains unaddressed, however, is the need for activism.  The MLA still sees a “scholarly/professional” organization as a neutral body.  Neutrality was a farce in 2011.  It remains so today.

If I’ve been silent on these issues for so long on the internet, it’s not because I don’t care.  It’s because I’ve been active taking part in the creation of the kind of educational system I want to see in place for my children. The time for words is over.  We’ve spent a lifetime studying “vulnerable times.”  Let’s start doing something about it.

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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 (http://howtheuniversityworks.com/wordpress/) and will be familiar to those who have been working and researching Adjunct and Grad student labor.  However, given the nature of the coalition that NFM seeks to forge, joining Faculty, Staff, Students, and Parents, it was necessary to first set the context for the discussion before we could proceed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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