Adventures in Ungrading
A few (in-person and on-Twitter) friends have asked me to debrief on my first semester doing what I’ve been calling my “all-in” with ungrading. In the spirit of sharing that has allowed me to grow and learn from so many of you good folks, here’s what I’ve learned so far—I still have so much work to do!
First, a brief history of how I got here.
I have been experimenting with versions of ungrading for a few years now. I began with individual assignments, defining what elements a draft had to contain in order to earn an A. I used the + and – designations (and my judgment) for grades that fell between letter’s descriptions.
This may sound a lot like a common rubric; in my own experience, the difference was specificity. While still somewhat subjective, the descriptions were the most specific I’d composed, targeted to the individual assignments and the writing moves or tools we were practicing in it. If we weren’t actively discussing and practicing something in class, it did not appear on the list of objectives for a grade, AND I didn’t let it affect the grade. I also used phrasing that evokes not the perfection of the draft, but the work of the writer. For instance, in an assignment focused on writing for a specific audience, I included these (among other) objectives:
In that system, I was still grading each assignment, but my in-class activities, early-draft feedback, and final-draft comments were more targeted than before.
I also still graded some individual homework and in-class assignments beyond drafts, mostly judging them by completeness.
Next, inspired by Asao Inoue’s tweets and his excellent book Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom , I experimented with labor-based grading. (You can download it for free at the WAC Clearinghouse site!) I jumped in and tried his system, tracking tasks, not giving grades, and using a spreadsheet of tasks to weigh and calculate a grade at the end of the semester. Inoue has generously made his own syllabus and course materials free to access and use.
Inoue’s book has made me a firm believer that we should not be grading the quality of final products, ever, in a writing class. The work, the process, the practice should be the focus. I can’t urge you to read his book enough. It changed me.
While I appreciate his system very much, I may have jumped in too soon. I learned (again) that my brain detests a spreadsheet, that I needed to spend more time laying the groundwork early in the semester for reluctant students, wary of the system and craving grades. And I needed to feel more confident, too.
So, the next semester, I tried an altered version of labor-based grading. I still focused heavily on tasks (labor), but also included more specific learning objectives, the things I wanted students to practice (but not perfect) in final drafts, as in the two objectives I list at the start of this post. I felt more confident, students liked having grades throughout the semester, and I was still moving away from the very problematic focus on the quality of final drafts, rather than on writing experimentation and practice, which is always messy.
But—BUT! I still felt that my confidence was rooted, at least in part, in this return to the familiar—I was regularly giving grades again! Students, too, were comfortable because this system was more like the ones they’d seen in every class.
I began to read more and more of the #ungrading conversations on Twitter and consumed more books like the excellent An Urgency of Teachers. I worried that grades throughout the semester, however reframed, were still discouraging real experimentation and practice. Students were chasing a grade in what to do next, and not allowing themselves to be messy, to fail, to dive deeply. Why try something risky when it may not lead to the coveted grade?
Then came the pandemic and the shift to online learning in Spring 2020. My students were anxious, exhausted, and struggling, and so was I. None of us were doing our best work. At the semester’s end, I had a lot of zoom and email conversations with students about what they had tried to do, what they’d learned about the moves and tools and objectives, even if their drafts didn’t turn out the ways any of us wanted or expected. Turns out that they learned a lot, even if extra shifts at the warehouse, bouts of depression, or sharing computer time with three siblings meant that the final projects were unkempt or unfinished.
As I moved into my second semester of teaching in a pandemic, I felt that this was the best time to go all-in on ungrading. I created my own version, crafted from the reading I’d done.
I divided the semester into four main assignments. For each, I listed associated tasks, including drafts, homework, and in-class activities. I also listed learning objectives, the specific writing tools and moves they would practice.
I did not describe A, B, C, D, or F grades. I did not grade at all throughout the semester.
I maintained a checklist of the tasks that both students and I could access, so we could see how many they’d completed or missed.
Feedback (both mine and peers’), homework, and in-class activities focused on the leaning objectives.
At the beginning of the semester, we read about and discussed grading and ungrading. In a midterm meeting with each student, we discussed their work, including their practice with and understanding of the learning objectives. We just talked bout their writing, too: how was it going? What did they like in it? What were they struggling with? Some begged me to estimate their grade at that time. I was steadfast in my refusal, sometimes asking them: how do you think you’re doing? Why?
The final week of classes was dedicated to thinking about grading and writing reflections. I created a collaborative document listing the grades A through F, and another document that compiled the checklists of tasks and learning objectives of each assignment. As a class, we wrote descriptions of each grade, then reread, discussed, and struggled with what we had written. That document was not meant to be a final guide for me, I made clear, but a way to help us all think about grades, to prepare for our final one-on-one meetings.
In the reflection, students wrote at least a paragraph, with specific examples from their projects, about their learning and practice with each objective. E.g.: What have you learned and / or practiced about writing for an audience? I also asked them to comment on the completeness of their work. Finally, they had to suggest & explain a course grade for themselves.
During exam week, I didn’t read and comment on stacks of projects. Instead, I read their reflections in preparation for our meeting. I’d already read so many drafts of each project! In our meetings, I asked them to tell me more about what they’d said in their reflections. Then, we discussed the grade.
Most of the time, I was either in complete agreement with students, or I suggested a slightly higher grade. (One student told me he wanted to suggest a C; his family had talked him into saying B; I told him he did A-level work.)
In a few cases, a student asked for a grade higher than I’d have given. We talked about it. The results were just about split down the middle. In half of these cases, I was helped to see where and how they were indeed trying to practice some objective, that they did have a better handle on it than the drafts displayed, and perhaps shown that work had been completed that I’d missed recording—so I went with the grade they suggested. In the other half, I pointed out missing elements in drafts and uncompleted tasks, and the students very willingly said yep, you’re right. The battles I’d anxiously steadied myself for didn’t happen.
This was also a pandemic-semester. So, I had cases of students with incomplete work due to a variety of issues beyond their control. We worked out how to deal with that individually.
It was the least stressful exam week I’ve ever had. Many students, though certainly not all, commented on how this approach was less stressful for them, too, and helped them to focus on the writing rather than the grade. Anecdotally, those who were stressed out by ungrading this semester were very much invested in standard approaches to grading. Some of my honors students, I think, identify with their grades so much that they felt very vulnerable without them. I’m going to work on ways to mitigate that.
Next, I have more reading to do, starting with Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) edited by Susan Blum.
That’s it! That’s my quick reflection on the journey so far. Hope this is useful to someone!
On Friday, June 26, Kutztown University and PA State System of Higher Education revealed the Guide to Fall 2020 Semester. Note that KU’s president says the plan is a “living document.” I hope so. This is my plea for changes that will protect all students, faculty, staff, and their families.
I am well aware that many jobs can’t be done online, & I am grateful for the medical professionals, janitorial & facilities staff, grocery workers, checkers, restaurant staff, delivery persons, & others who risk their health and their loved one’s health every day.
Most teachers and higher ed staff don’t fall into the same category as those persons, however. I know I can do my job online, even though I prefer f2f for both pedagogical and personal reasons. Most teachers in most disciplines can, & most staff persons can. Before you @ me, I know it’s not all. In the sudden shift to online teaching in Spring 2020, many of us stumbled, but we also demonstrated that we can do this work remotely when circumstances call for it, and we can do it even better if given adequate time to prepare. (And for the record, many faculty are talented online instructors, and their courses may be even more successful online than f2f.)
I look forward to a return to f2f work, eventually. I miss the teaching methods and social interactions that working on campus allows. Really, I miss being in the same room with my students and collaborating with colleagues. I even miss my cramped office. But you don’t have to believe that online work is ideal, or even like it very much, to admit we can do it satisfactorily. And a pandemic is a very good reason to allow or even embrace a practice you may find to be less than ideal.
It may be that KU and other PA public schools will move the majority of classes online. As of this writing, however, professors have not been informed of any pending changes to their f2f schedules and have been given a process for applying to teach online in Fall 2020. Without more information, many of us are anxious about the application process as it suggests, first, that those who don’t apply will be teaching on campus, and second, it limits who can request the move to online work.
Families at Risk
The limited circumstances under which faculty and staff can apply to work online or with what HR calls “a flexible work arrangement” embodies an approach that likewise does not consider the wider picture. The official process by which to request remote work leaves those of us with at-risk family members out in the cold. In the current version of KU’s and the PA State System’s plan, having immediate family in risk groups is not a reason to apply to teach online.
Students, too, are being asked to work with the Disability Services Office if they wish adjustments to learning environment, implying that family-related risks are not a part of the equation for them. Again, this may not be the case, but these are easy conclusions based in the information provided.
Today, my husband, mother, father, and mother-in-law are all in risk groups for hospitalization and death if they contract COVID-19. If I return to f2f teaching, I become a dangerous potential infection vector for them. To keep them safe, I will have to stop living with my husband and find someone to look after my parents and mother-in-law. If any of them get sick, I’ll need someone else to take care of them. You can imagine why I’d prefer to teach online: I can both do my job & keep them safe.
I very much want to do my job. I love working at KU. My students, teaching, and the community mean a great deal to me. I’ve dedicated fourteen years to this university, and I have always intended to retire from it. After a year on the faculty, I asked my husband to give up a lucrative job and move to Kutztown. He did. When my parents retired, I asked them to move to the area so I could take care of them. They did. My mother-in-law soon followed. As a family, we are all-in on KU. I am saddened that PASSHE’s current policy does not extend compassion to them as part of the community.
I am deeply troubled as well for the students who will find they may not take some classes remotely and will likewise have to risk exposure to COVID-19, and then either expose their families or isolate from them. What’s more, current policy will likely shrink the available classes.
The only official option provided to those faculty and staff with at-risk family is unpaid leave. (The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides paid leave if a family member is currently infected with COVID-19 or under quarantine, or if a child’s school is closed due to COVID-19.)
I have heard talk of an “unofficial process” for those with at-risk family. They can work with chairs and deans who will try to accommodate them. If this is true, it’s a step in the right direction. But it begs several questions: Why is it unofficial, rather than a transparent part of the process? Why haven’t all faculty been informed of it? Open communication would certainly put a lot of minds at ease.Then, what happens if these faculty cannot be accommodated? Well, back to unpaid leave & cancelled classes, I suppose.
If classes are not canceled, administration will have to reassign them. The remaining faculty have full schedules, begging the question, who will teach these courses? Will adjuncts be hired, put at risk at a reduced cost to the university? That would not only be ethically gross, but interesting in the face of the Chancellor’s statewide order to reduce the number of adjunct faculty.
Please take a look at this piece in The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, "Combating White Supremacy in a Pandemic: Antiracist, Anticapitalist, and Socially Just Policy Recommendations in Response to COVID-19." The authors spell out how responses to the pandemic often ignore "the ethical and social impact ...in terms of race, gender, disability, sexuality, citizenship status, economic status, and other marginalizing factors." A must read. In his section, Seth Kahn hits the nail on the head:
"Nobody will be surprised if at least some of those contingent faculty whose jobs disappeared are rehired if enrollments are more stable than expected; try to pay attention to faculty who were laid off or non-renewed and are rehired into worse positions: long-term lecturers, for example, rehired in part-time lines with no benefits but teaching the same loads and courses. Disaster capitalism (Klein 2007) is real. Conversely, contingent faculty in other places (frequently posted in social media) are reporting offers of increased workload, but with no guarantee that it will extend beyond one semester, and rarely offering access to medical insurance that those faculty are generally denied because they don’t teach enough."
We need to be vigilant about how our most vulnerable faculty are treated--was well as our most vulnerable students.
While some comments out of the PA State System have suggested otherwise, the vast majority of teachers are not driven by narrow self-interest. I’ve dedicated my adult life to teaching, so my concern very much includes students. Some of KU’s reopening policies are very generous to these students financially. At the same time, like faculty and staff, they are being asked to document disabilities in order to request alternative learning environments. Some may not have the resources to navigate that process or family who can aid them in advocating. (For an excellent and in-depth look at the many issues affecting students, again, please read "Combating White Supremacy in a Pandemic: Antiracist, Anticapitalist, and Socially Just Policy Recommendations in Response to COVID-19.")
Our new APSCUF president, Dr. Jamie Martin, emailed faculty across the state system to express her dismay with current reopening policy, and I hope that the union and all of my colleagues will fight like hell. In the meantime, I am preparing for a possible return to campus. What will that look like?
The Realities of F2F in Fall 2020
As described the Guide to Fall 2020 Semester, f2f classes will involve masks and barriers; social distancing and disinfectant wipes. Students will often see half or fewer of their classmates at one time, as well as staggered lines to get into and out of rooms and buildings. These are all necessary mitigations, and if we must return, I am grateful they will be in place.
While on campus, students, faculty, & staff will share anxiety over those who won’t follow guidelines—right now, we’re directed to report those who won’t wear masks, for instance, which does nothing to protect the other persons in the room at the moment of the violation. (No word on what follows that reporting.) As masks have become politicized, this is a genuine concern.
Moreover, the necessity of the guidelines does not negate their effects on teaching and learning, which will of course be very different in these circumstances. So, faculty and staff aren’t weighing the benefits of online work as compared to the version of f2f classes & interactions we held pre-pandemic. We are weighing f2f work that comes with real risk for the whole community and online work that safeguards us until circumstances improve.
Uncertainty and Anxiety
While I don't like disclosing my personal medical history publicly, I’ll reveal that I have both asthma and high blood pressure. These are listed among the diseases that put one in a risk group, and, in turn, mean I am eligible to apply for “a flexible work arrangement.” So why I am still concerned? Why worry that I can’t apply based on my family’s risk alone?
First, I’m not a selfish monster. If I am granted an online schedule due to health conditions, other teachers and staff without applicable health conditions, but with families at risk, are still in trouble. While no details about students’ options have been made public to us, I fear they are in the same boat.
Second, I have no idea if my conditions will be deemed serious enough to merit a move to online work. The language used by HR suggests that after “validation,” impact on operations will be considered before requests are approved:
“Validated requests (minus medical documentation) will be sent to the appropriate supervisory area to determine the impact on the university’s operational capabilities and whether a flexible work arrangement in duties, schedule, location, or modality will be granted.”
Will the appropriate supervisory area (my chair? the dean?) decide that my heath is not as important as this impact? I can’t know with the information I have been given. What terribly dire “impact on the university’s operational capabilities” could my working from home even cause? They don’t say. When will I be informed of the status of my request? I have no idea. Is KU dedicated to the aforementioned unofficial process? Is it just a rumor?
A Different Way Forward
I understand that the PA State System may fear that, if we go fully to online teaching or if too many teachers are allowed to opt into it, students will pull out and attend schools that are fully f2f, or that they will defer attending. Of course some students may do that. (Some may have very good reasons for doing so, too, which I won’t get into here, in an already long essay.)
I have faith in the empathy of those students who can partake in online learning. KU students are neither cruel nor superficial. They may prefer f2f classes, as I do, but they also don’t want to risk the lives of teachers’ and classmates’ families so that they can get one semester of their preferred instructional mode. I believe that they know these are exceptional circumstances and will work with us online for now, especially if we dedicate time and funds to getting them internet access and laptops instead of plastic barriers and disinfectant wipes.
So what might the PA State System do instead? Here are some approaches working at other universities:
Once the U.S. gets a handle on the pandemic and once a vaccine is widely distributed, we can enjoy the benefits of f2f interaction. In the meantime, I ask the PA State System and administration: make decisions that will keep the entire community safe.
At MLA 2020, I'll be hosting a workshop with Carolyn Betensky and Jennifer Ruth, "Fighting exploitation of contingent faculty from within: How tenure-stream allies can help to create equity on campus." We'll each speak briefly about specific context for advocacy before helping audience members to brainstorm and problem solve.
I'll be speaking about departmental-level work. Below, you can read the notes for my talk and see my slides.
Advocacy in the Department
As my colleagues have established, advocating for equity is work. Tweeting and publishing on these issues are good steps, but they don’t amount to much without the work, without striving to take action on our campuses and in our organizations.
So, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that we are encouraging you to do more work, when you may already feel overwhelmed. I can’t help but think of Nancy Welch’s chapter, “First-Year Writing and the Angels of Austerity” in the excellent Composition in the Age of Austerity. She argues that austerity measures more and more mean that “the work of education” is performed by angels in in austerity’s architecture,” (137) without compensation or recognition. This is largely true of the work of labor advocacy.
[Slide 2] But if you’re here, you are interested in doing that work. So thank you.
If you are new to this work, it can seem overwhelming. Department-based initiatives might be the best way to begin, in familiar territory. Here are a few guiding principles for the first-time advocate.
So, talk to your NTT colleagues. Depending on the size of the faculty and other constraints, you might: visit them individually during their office hours; ask to buy them a coffee; ask if you can attend a meeting of any existing contingent faculty committees or organizations. You might also use an anonymized poll, though this requires that you establish trust and intent, usually by putting in facetime with the faculty first anyway.
Questions you might ask:
When you listen to critiques of your department, your academic home, sometimes you will nod in agreement or want to shout “Amen!” But know that you will also inevitably feel defensive at times, too. As in some creative writing workshop pedagogies, try to listen silently to the critique. It’s good for you, I promise.
2. Choose a widely-felt, winnable issue and make a game plan. [Slide 4]
In this section, I’m borrowing from the excellent Secrets of a Successful Organizer, from Labor Notes. (The Labor Notes website and training sessions are very worth a visit, by the way.)
3. Build recognition of & respect for the professionalism of NTT colleagues. [Slide5]
In my own department, colleagues and I worked for a long time to push back against the idea that NTT = less: less scholarly, less professional, less accomplished. The snobbery of some tenure-line faculty who believe that their pedagogical insights are more learned or their scheduling priorities more important because of employment status no longer surprises me; I’ve also accepted that it’s a snobbery the academy teaches us; we perpetuate this attitude. Just as we have to help FYC students unlearn the five paragraph essay, we have to help tenure-line faculty unlearn the notion that, say, the adjunct who has been teaching FYC for 15 years doesn’t have enough professional insight to provide useful input into textbook choices or curricular design. We can address strategies for doing this as need be.
4. Revise or clarify department and departmental committee bylaws and other rules. [Slide 6]
Where rules are exclusionary, vague, or ripe for abuse, propose revisions.
For instance, at KU, our contract indicated that “departments will establish a procedure” for the rollover of NTT positions. For years, the “procedure” was really an informal decision of the chair. Instead, we outlined a procedure that NTT faculty helped develop; took comments & suggestions for revision; then held a successful vote to put it into practice.
5. Fight for funding. [Slide 7]
While battles on the department-level often won’t affect per course payments or benefits, we can advocate for material compensation in small but meaningful ways. How about dividing up departmental professional travel funds among all faculty? Or using some professional development funds to pay NTT faculty for committee work?
6. Don’t be afraid of a little protest. [Slide8]
Attending a session of the CWPA this past summer, a comrade at a large R1 in the southeast described a tactic she used in her department to great effect. In every meeting at which she was slated to speak, whatever the topic, she would display a slide behind her as she spoke, simply listing the salary of FYC faculty, all of whom are NTT. She might have been talking about an upcoming student club event, a new course, anything, and they were all reminded of the low salary of their most vulnerable colleagues, teaching the foundational course. The worst she suffered was rolled eyes--she is tenured, after all, and this is one thing that tenure’s good for. She tells me that the departmental advisory committee (made up of TT faculty) and the dean are now all on board for increasing salaries; they await decisions about the state budget to be made in the legislature.
Bradbury, Alexandra, Mark Brenner, and Jane Slaughter. Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Labor Notes / Labor Education & Research Project, 2016
Kahn, Seth. “The Problem of Speaking for Adjuncts.” Contingency, Exploitation,and Solidarity: Labor and Action in English Composition. The WAC Clearinghouse/ University Press of Colorado, 2017.
Welch, Nancy. “First-Year Writing and the Angels of Austerity.” Composition in the Age of Austerity. Eds. Nancy Welch & Tony Scott. Utah State University Press, 2016.
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.
A Day Without A Woman Adjunct
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.
Walking the Picket Line #withAPSCUF
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.
Why the Contract’s Treatment of Temporary Faculty Matters to Tenure-line Faculty
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.
Oh, my. That's me.