I was kindly invited by the MLA Committee on Academic Freedom to participate in their roundtable at the conference this year, "Roles & Responsibilities: Faculty Members at Work in Applied Humanities." I thought I'd share the bit I wrote for my five-minute "opening remarks" before we had our conversation. Enjoy!
So, I’m going to admit it: I think I was invited here because of Twitter. It is common knowledge that Twitter can be a raging pool of anger & trolls. But, the good news that I’m sure many of you here know: it can be also be a place in which to find community, to extend our professional conversations, and for me, to grow as a teacher and a labor advocate.
I’m a professor of composition, so of course I’m passionate about writing pedagogy. Because I’ve been working in composition for 22 years, I am also passionate about labor advocacy. Long before the rest of higher ed began the slide into contingency, so that now approximately 70% of teaching jobs are NTT, English departments were the unfortunate pioneers into the uses of adjunct labor above and beyond the original intentions for these positions. I was an adjunct for years and have the privilege of being the rare bird who made the migration to a tenure-line job.
One of the questions that our chair Heather asked us to contemplate in preparation for today is: “What are our responsibilities to those who are directly impacted by our applied humanities work?” I believe that social justice should be the frame for any answer. I can only rationalize working in a profession that marginalizes the majority of its workers, and that marginalizes my field, composition, by using my service, scholarship, and any other platform I may have to advocate for change, even a meager few hundred folks willing to engage me on Twitter. (Some of whom are no doubt bots.)
That can take many forms, but on social media it means four things to me: First, amplifying contingent voices & research (because I can never presume to speak for anyone). Second, sharing both my pedagogical successes and failures as a composition teacher (because tenured profs have much to learn, too). Third, live-tweeting conferences I attend (remember: many don’t have the institutional support or means to attend; being here today is either a significant privilege or a significant financial burden). Finally, talking openly to my tenure-line colleagues about the concrete ways that they can—and I’d argue should—advocate for labor justice. Sometimes people want to get involved, but really don’t know how to begin, what to do.
These uses of Twitter might seem trivial, but genuine good can come of them. Personally, my own teaching and advocacy work have evolved thanks to the work of the NTT faculty I’ve learned from on social media. For example, I have supported and spread the word about Precaricorps, a nonprofit helping adjuncts economically & professionally, created by my twitter friend & former adjunct Joe Frucione. Over on Facebook, I joined Tenure for the Common Good, born on that platform, an organization that among other things is working to change the way U.S. News & World Report ranks colleges, so that labor practices are taken into account. I’ve learned that while we are getting marginally better at including a diversity of voices in our scholarly conversations about teaching, reading, and writing, it’s still very rare that NTT voices are given as much attention & access. (Note, too, that in academia most of our increases in diversity generally are in NTT positions.) I’ve learned to listen, and to insist that sometimes people shouldn’t listen to me, but to NTT.
I hope these are all things we can consider in our conversation in this session and as we navigate the conference this year. Thanks.
Eileen Schell made waves with her excellent Gypsy Academics and Mother Teachers, published in 1997. She analyzed the complex cultural and economic forces that lead to woman making up the majority of composition teachers in higher education. She made clear the sexism implicit in keeping cadres of women in precarious positions teaching “service courses,” especially those, like writing, often deemed less scholarly or important than other disciplinary offerings.
Twenty years after the publication of Schell’s book, even more higher ed faculty are contingent, with estimates ranging from 60 to 75%.
In January 2016, the co-directors of the Center for the Study of Academic Labor released the “Contingent Faculty Report, Based on 2010 Survey Data Collected by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce.” That document made concrete what we’ve long known anecdotally: adjuncts are mostly women (62%). The largest numbers of adjuncts are in English departments. And if you’re in an English department, you know what work these faculty mostly do: the “service courses.”
Freshman composition and literature survey courses: these foundational courses are where we employ the most vulnerable, underpaid, and under-supported portion of our faculty.
At least now we are talking about it. In my own department, my colleagues are very much aware of the distribution of labor, in part because of persistent, noisy tenured labor activists and allies among us. They care. I’m very proud of the progress the department has made in transparent and ethical treatment of all our faculty, whatever their employment status. I can’t emphasize that enough.
At the same time, when we sit down to discuss hiring and conversion (our contract in the PA state system allows for conversion of adjuncts into tenure lines in some circumstances; I wrote a thing about it), composition is perpetually the afterthought, the add-on, the lowest priority, unless it is a fashionable flavor that may appeal to majors. (Is it “digital”?!?) The freshman course? Rarely is it seen as important enough on its own to merit a full-time position or tenure-line. Yet it is one of a handful of courses we offer every single semester, and the only course in our department every student in the university will take.
I get that this issue is complex—we must serve English majors, and offer courses in other specialties, and we don’t want to be perceived as the “service department.” But when the rubber hits the road, that can often translate into full or nearly full schedules of composition once again being taught by contingent faculty.
Most English departments in the U.S. have a tiered system, with composition instructors at the bottom. They are still the gypsy academics and mother teachers whom Schell described, mostly women, doing “service” with little or no stability, less pay, and little or no benefits.
They are, however, organizing. Every day, I see a news story about another adjunct union forming, or a job action, or a mobilization success. National Adjunct Walk-Out Day in 2015 brought much needed perspective. Campuses are being forced to see first-hand, or at least to imagine, what campuses become without adjunct work.
What would happen to first year composition nationwide if even just the women adjuncts walked out? A day without an adjunct writing teacher would have a lot in common with a day without a women.
It’s 2005. I’m an adjunct at a small private college. I’ve been working at several colleges for a couple of years now, and I’m feeling really good about my current gig: instead of cobbling together a schedule of courses at three schools, I’m working at one. No more freeway flying! I have three contracts: teaching writing and a literature survey course (you know, the “service courses”), directing the writing center, and directing the theater production. While these commitments keep me working long hours, I am still categorized as a “part-timer.”
A professor in the History department who often stops in the writing center for coffee and friendly chats asks one day, “Hey, are you going to serve on that new assessment committee?’
“I don’t usually work on committees,” I reply, “I’m an adjunct.”
During a long pause, he blinks at me.
“But you’re here, like, all the time. More than me, really. You’re part-time?”
Hours and effort don’t make one tenure-track (or insured), and I had some version of that conversation several times with various faculty.
In 2005, adjuncts weren’t getting much press; they weren’t making news for mobilizing or unionizing. In my work as a Composition and Rhetoric teacher, I knew that most or all of the staff teaching comp at the campuses employing me were adjuncts. I didn’t yet know that adjuncts were becoming the new faculty majority nationwide. I heard Marc Bousquet speak at an event hosted by my grad program just before he published How the University Works, so my eyes were beginning to open.
Today, on Day Without A Woman, I’m in a very different position. I’m fortunate to be a tenured associate prof, teaching what I love. I have a four-four load at the public university, making some of my tenured colleagues elsewhere aghast. I used to teach five or six or seven, pretty regularly, so my four-four load still feels light (most days). I have health insurance and (for now) a retirement package. And, I have the ability to take this day off. To reschedule my office hours and a meeting with student. I have a personal day.
So, today, I’m home writing and researching and tweeting about women adjuncts in academia. Why? Because “women make up between 51 and 61 percent of adjunct faculty nationwide. Women in contingent academic employment are most likely to be among the most politically vulnerable and economically precarious in the academy” (The Women & Contingency Project). And because I can. Me in 2005 couldn’t take the day off.
I’ll be writing in this space and posting to @amylynchbiniek on Twitter off and on all day. I hope you’ll join me in bringing increasing awareness and taking whatever actions your circumstances allow to make this Day Without a Woman represent the adjuncts on your campus.
I'm so pleased that we'll be back to work as usual on Monday.
To every student who wished me well, sent me notes of support, you made my very difficult decision easier.
To those of you who brought your teachers water, coffee, and snacks on the line, and even went so far as to walk with your profs on the picket line, I am humbled by your generosity and faith in our cause.
Many of you wrote to your legislators, the governor, and the chancellor, and we know this made a difference.
Some of you traveled to Harrisburg to show your commitment to quality public education, and I am so very, very proud to share that commitment with you.
At one point on Thursday, I passed a family who were touring Kutztown University--a college visit, the sort many of you did just this time last year. I worried that they might see our job action as a reason not to choose KU. My fears were alleviated, though when I overheard a father say to his daughter: "The students clearly support their teachers. That says a lot about this place."
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Some of you politely disagreed with the union's decision to strike. I admire your choice to disagree civilly, to keep the discourse and exchange of ideas respectful. Real democracy means we get to have differences without attacking one another
To the very, very few students who shouted at us, who called me a Communist and a Russian--first, U.S. teachers unions have nothing to do with Communism or Russia. I hope you'll take a course at KU that will provide the context for labor movements in the U.S. There's some thoughtful criticism of unions out there, but, unfortunately, we are also living in a period of a lot of anti-union rhetoric based in half-truths and misplaced anger. I hope that you'll study argument in one of our writing courses, too--you'll learn that one doesn't persuade an audience with angry shouts and rude gestures. Let's arm you with better tools.
More than one angry person on social media accused me of being lazy. Believe me, I was very busy working during the strike. What's more, I will always prefer working out negotiations at the table than on the picket line. Sometimes, though, we need to take a more dramatic stand when the stakes are very high. I am eager to be back at teaching, back to working with you. It's what I love to do.
The support of so many students across Pennsylvania allowed us to return to work so quickly. I hope you'll savor that moment.
You won. Together, we protected quality higher ed. We won.
Yesterday, the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty (APSCUF), the faculty union of which I am a part, declared a strike for the first time in its history. Over 5000 faculty from across PA are walking picket lines or providing APSCUF support in other ways in efforts to bring the PA State System back to the negotiation table. You can read about the context of the strike and get the latest news here.
We've enjoyed overwhelming support from students. I was moved to tears by students delivering us snacks and water, carrying signs, singing protest signs, and posting supportive messages to social media. (Shout out to @strike_ku !)
A few students have exercised their right to disagree with us. One theme in that disagreement prompts me to write: that faculty somehow prefer picketing to teaching, or that I'm on some sort of vacation, being lazy and avoiding work.
I didn't vote to authorize the strike lightly. I love teaching. My students are very important to me. Specifically, teaching writing, mostly to freshmen, mostly to first-gen college students, is my passion. When strangers ask what I do for a living, they all too often express dismay over the state of student writing, lament the ignorance of freshmen, or yearn for some mythical past in which college students were better prepared. I always correct them quickly: I love teaching composition, my students are smart and eager, and they are actually far more communication savvy than generations past. Helping students to discover their potential, to improve their critical thinking, and to express themselves more confidently is the best job I could ever ask for.
But I'm not in the classroom today. When the strike was officially announced, I cried. I haven't slept well in days. I'd much prefer to be talking to my College Comp students about audience today, or practicing reading scholarly studies with my Research Writing class. Even so, I am proud to be standing with my APSCUF colleagues today, I do this not just for our faculty, but for my current students, and for my future students, the ones I haven't met. I walk not just for more money (that's the story the State System perpetuates), but to protect the structure of higher education, to ensure that all faculty can do their jobs in an environment that supports the best possible learning conditions.
That said, I am also walking for pay, but not with my own pay at the top of my agenda. As an advocate for labor generally and for contingent labor in higher ed, I am especially motivated by this particular sticking point, as described in an APSCUF press release:
The state system wants to "Put adjunct faculty members, 60 percent of whom are women, on a separate — lower — salary scale. APSCUF is concerned about this as a pay-equity issue, [APSCUF president Ken] Mash said. While the State System's proposal did include raises, those raises were higher for higher-ranking faculty and lower for lower-ranking ones, a further unfairness APSCUF believes was meant to divide union members, Mash said. APSCUF is proud to have adjunct faculty members in its union and wants them treated with the same respect as tenured professors, Mash said."
As my Kutztown University colleague Kevin McCloskey explains beginning at 0:20 in the the student-produced video at the top of this post, our adjunct colleagues are MAs and PhDs --with the student loan bills to show it--they are professionals who deserve to be paid fairly for their work. Right now, the State System is hoping that tenure-line faculty will accept a raise at the cost of hurting these colleagues. We're standing up to that.
Other issues rankle as well, like the state reducing professional development funds to $0. Those funds allow me to attend conferences to stay up on the latest teaching methods and scholarship in my field. They allows me to attend seminars and to research so that I am the best-informed prof I can e be. I'm a better teacher for it. It's also a required part of my job--I must do professional development. But without those funds, I can't afford conferences fees and travel, or research fact-finding trips or classes. My adjunct colleagues are even less likely to be able to afford professional development. How can we do this part of our jobs without any support from our employer?
I'm not lazy. In fact, I keep finding myself thinking about the student assignments that I still need to comment on, the projects ungraded. I want to do that work. But standing up for what's right is the more important move right now.
I stand #withAPSCUF.
Note: I teach in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education [PASSHE] and am a member of our 14-school union, APSCUF. Professors statewide have been working without a contract for a year. This post is addressed to my fellow tenure-track / tenured colleagues in response to PASSHE's latest contract proposal, which you can read here.
The June proposal from PASSHE contains several passages that significantly impact adjunct faculty—called “temporary faculty” in our contract, despite that fact that many have worked in the system for 10 or more years. Some of my fellow tenure-line faculty may wonder why we shouldn’t just concede on these demands, use them as negotiating chips to leverage better health care, for example. In this post, I’m going to posit why the State System’s treatment of adjunct faculty matters to all of us, from the adjunct on a semester-long contract to the tenured full professor.
First, let me get the obvious out of the way: at the very heart of the concept of union is the belief that the working conditions of all members matter. We should not sell out a portion of our colleagues to protect our own self-interests. We should think beyond ourselves, our departments, even our individual campuses, and consider the health and welfare of the whole of educators and education in Pennsylvania. We should fight for reasonable course loads, pay, and benefits for adjuncts because they are professionals and human beings. They are our colleagues, and we already benefit in disproportionate ways from their labor. It’s just the right thing to do.
Beyond that, the State System’s proposals concerning adjuncts add up to bad news for teaching and learning conditions on all of our campuses, in ways that will affect all of us down the road.
Three proposed changes, in combination, are particularly alarming, as they will reshape the face of education in PA. The State System wants to: raise the cap on adjunct faculty from 25% to 30%; increase the course load of adjuncts from four to five; and allow all graduate students to teach.
Think it’s difficult to get a tenure-line to replace your retired colleagues now? Wait until this proposal goes into affect. That 30% cap does not include graduate students, so in reality, the percentage of contingent teachers will be greater—at some campuses, much greater. This is both an attack on adjuncts specifically and an attack on tenure generally.
With more adjuncts and grad students teaching a larger percentage of courses, administration may be less likely to see the need for new tenure-track professors. Smaller departments and programs are especially in danger: how can you convince the Provost to release that line when the bulk of classes needed for Gen Ed can be covered by adjuncts and grad students? There’s a reason that one of the most visible adjunct advocacy groups is called “The New Faculty Majority.” APSCUF has successfully staved off the adjunctificaiton of our universities thus far, but PASSHE’s proposal would very quickly put us on that path. What happens to shared-governance when, as the loudest faculty voices retire, they are replaced with vulnerable adjunct labor?
Some of you may be thinking what Administration is saying: “But it’s like this everywhere now.” Sadly, this is (mostly) true; nationwide, an estimated 70% of all faculty in higher education are on some kind of contingent contract. Even so, this “but everyone is doing it” reasoning confounds me. If abuse of labor is rampant, our reaction should not be to shrug and give in. Indeed, the willingness to fight adjunctification is what has kept public education in PA something I can be proud of. The only way I can rationalize working in a profession that abuses labor is to consistently fight to change that system.
What’s more, the face of labor is changing nationwide in other ways, too: as labor conditions in higher education have gotten more attention, adjunct and graduate student unions are on the rise. There is significant pushback from the New Faculty Majority. They are winning more and more battles, and we should be fighting along side them.
Let’s think selfishly for a moment, though. How might PASSHE’s proposal affect our departments? Until now, PASSHE has been able to attract quality adjuncts. I think of my adjunct colleagues in the English department at KU: scholars, teachers, writers, each invested in our department and our campus, each dedicated to quality education. The more we allow their pay and conditions to deteriorate, the harder it will be to hire teachers of their caliber. While the State System’s treatment of adjuncts has been far from perfect, we’ve been able to offer conditions that attract excellent academics from across the country. Who will move across the country or across the state for a temporary gig when the working conditions are just as bad (or worse) than the conditions everywhere else?
Let’s consider how those working conditions will affect both the teachers and the quality of education on your campus carefully. The proposal suggests that adjuncts would be evaluated only on teaching; no more scholarship required. This means that a significant percentage of the faculty may not be doing research in their fields, keeping up in their disciplines.
My specialty is composition and rhetoric, and a large portion of my course load is the gen ed freshman writing course. I mention this because composition has historically used a disproportionate amount of adjunct labor, often rationalized with a belief that anyone who can write can teach writing. Having a doctorate in comp, I can assure you that that there is much to study concerning how students acquire advanced literacy skills. Before my PhD, though, I was an adjunct with a Masters in Medieval Literature and taught composition. I worked very hard teaching five or six sections a semester. I did my best, but I had very little time and no institutional support to learn what methods might actually be most effective. In short, my lack of scholarship mattered.
Do you doubt that your adjunct colleagues might be too strapped for time to keep up in their fields with the proposed 5/5 load? Let’s be honest—adjuncts are most likely to be given the general education courses, the ones some of my tenure-line colleagues don’t want to teach. In English departments, the example nearest my experience, this means one prof teaching five sections of freshman writing. Commenting on multiple drafts of multiple projects. I barely have time to do my laundry when I’m teaching two sections of comp. Were I to go back to my days of teaching that many sections of writing in a single semester, I’d have to cut corners on my pedagogy just to get through the semester. No more one-on-one conferences to discuss drafts. Read the latest issue of Research In Writing? Forget it.
Or I think of my colleagues teaching gen ed Health or History, each of their five sections populated by 50, 75, even 100 students. Scantron tests might be the best option for making that workload survivable. In short: the quality of education suffers.
I could go on, ask you to think about the office space available to adjuncts on your campus; issues with students in our Master’s programs teaching undergrads; or what happens to both groups when their health care is insufficient. I’ll stop here, though, hoping you have some food for thought, hoping you’ll join me in fighting for a better contract.
[Note: This post has been updated to reflect that the Indianapolis Resolution, writ large, was not adopted by CCCC. As the chair reminded me, we crafted three actionable items that the Business Meeting then voted on. Further, the language can be confusing, as the Labor Caucus's document is called the "Indianapolis Resolution," and the three items we brought to the meeting, based in the Indy Res, packed together, was called a "resolution" lower-case r. ]
Two years ago, when the Conference on College Composition & Communication [CCCC] was held in in Indianapolis, Indiana, a group of us in a workshop sponsored by the Labor Caucus found ourselves writing an update to the Wyoming Resolution for our 21st century labor contexts. You can read more about that day here.
Many hands, brains, drafts, and discussions later, after an open community discussion at CCCC 15 and a lot of canvassing, the Labor Caucus created the Indianapolis Resolution and today brought three items, packaged as a resolution, reflecting the actionable items in the Indy Res to the CCCC Business Meeting, asking that the organization vote to institute them. I'm so, so, happy to report that these resultuions passed by a large margin. Discussion was lively, and I was so proud and pleased to see people like Eileen Schell, Les Pearlman, and Bill Lalicker speak in favor of the motion.
I want to write more about this. I will. Right now, though, I'm hopped up on adrenaline and too much coffee, tossing stuff in my backpack so I can get to the airport on time.
I just wanted to write this brief note to mark this occasion, to express how grateful I am for the many people who wrote the Indy Res and worked to spread the word.
The work isn't over! We need to follow up with CCCC to make sure the work gets done. We need to bring the Indy Res to more of our professional organizations for adoption. We need to encourage more people to chip in and do the work of creating labor equity. Let's do this!
I'm a professor in the PA State System of Higher Education, one of many public employees dedicated to maintaining a tradition of quality, affordable education. As the new academic year approaches, we should take time to remember that nearly 2000 faculty across our 14-school system are adjunct, designated "temporary" in our contract language.
While the labels used for this segment of our faculty--"temporary," "contingent"-- are limiting, adjunct faculty are actually a vital part of our workforce. They have challenging teaching schedules, serve their campuses beyond the classroom, and maintain their own agendas of scholarship or professional development. Without them, the work of our colleges and universities would not get accomplished.
I'm proud of the fact that the collective bargaining agreement between our faculty and coaches' union, APSCUF, and the PA State System acknowledges the professionalism and value of adjuncts with better pay, benefits, and access to resources than are found at many institutions. But these conditions aren't set in stone! APSCUF and the State System are currently in contract negotiations. APSCUF wants to see adjuncts treated fairly in the next agreement.
Students, parents, tenure-line and adjunct faculty all have a stake in this issue.
When all faculty are treated as valuable professionals, the quality of education improves.
When we all share fair and equitable working conditions, we can focus on serving our students and our campuses.
You can help! As one means of reminding the State System Chancellor and Board of Governors of the importance of adjunct issues in our contract, APSCUF created a petition at Change.org. The petition thanks the chancellor and board for their past investments in the working conditions of adjuncts, and encourages them to maintain their support in the next contract.
Adding your name lends the petition weight, showing the State System that their constituents, employees, and students care about and pay attention to adjunct issues.
Please click here to read our letter / petition and sign!
Thank you for your time and consideration.
If you know me or my work, then you know that I am passionate about labor issues. I come from a labor-activist family; unions are what helped us to put food on the table. Today, I am an Academic Unicorn: a tenured assistant professor. I spent years as an adjunct, though, freeway flying and grateful that my husband's health insurance covered me (and my asthma and high blood pressure). After making the leap to the tenure-track, and as I've written previously, the only way I can justify working in a field that systematically abuses the majority of its workers is to dedicate my service and scholarship to addressing the problem of labor in higher ed.
So, I've been privileged to work with the CCCC Labor Caucus. If you're in Composition / Rhetoric / Writing studies, I hope you'll consider joining us! (Email me if you'd like to join our listserv). I've served on the steering committee, spent two years as chair, and currently serve as secretary and web monkey.
It was in the Labor Caucus that the Indianapolis Resolution was born. That's what I'd like to talk to you about today.
You can read some background here on how the Indy Resolution came to be collaboratively conceived and composed over the course of just over a year. Writers include writing center directors, WPAs, contingent faculty, tenure-track faculty, tenured faculty, and graduate assistants.
The authors & co-signers of this document are asking our professional organizations, institutions, and departments / programs in Composition, Rhetoric, Writing and English to work towards reducing the extent to which departments and the field writ large use and exploit contingency to solve problems that primarily benefit the more secure members of those units. Further, while we acknowledge that some instructors want the option of contingent positions, institutions should work towards a default state in which everyone who enters the profession is treated like a professional. To achieve those ends, we endorse reforms that may better ensure institutional compliance with fair labor practices; that incorporate labor study into graduate pedagogy and professional development; and that support research into the impact of labor practices on the teaching and learning of writing.
After collecting signatures, we hope to bring the Indy Resolution to the leadership of our professional organizations for potential endorsement. We also hope that, even if you and our professional leadership don't agree with every provision, it will evoke productive dialogue.
You can read the Indianapolis Resolution here, and see the names of those who have currently signed it.
You can follow a link there to add your name, or go straight to this document.
While reminding you that this is not my Resolution--I am one of many authors who have put the document forward--I'd be pleased to field questions about the document in the comments of this post.
Thank you for your consideration of our ideas. I hope you'll add your name, and add to the conversation.