Organizing, Advocacy, and Knowledge Work

I’m a little bit professional, and a little bit angry.

Posted by Amy LB on March 13, 2008

I read Kevin’s post on Tony Scott’s article [see “The Cart, the Horse, and the Road Not Taken“] with glee. See, I’d just spent an afternoon reading up on university labor issues for a revision of my dissertation. Yes, unlike so many graduate students, I’ve been lucky enough to land a tenure-track gig while I complete the Big D. Everything I read today, however, including Kevin’s post, reminded me of how few compositionists will find full-time work after completing the PhD. And the trend seems to be addressing this labor problem not with thoughtful analysis of the skewed market-driven system in academia, but with “reforms” that give in to the market-system as an inevitability.

I read a piece by Scott Jaschik In Inside Higher Ed wherein he describes the movement to replace part-time, temporary or graduate workers with full-time positions with “multiple-year, renewable contracts” that have “better pay and benefits.” To me “renewable” still = temporary. Still means they are not considered professionals. Better pay is nice, but why not just commit to and invest in making a tenured comp faculty? As Marc Bousquet says, “what a large sector of composition labor…really wants is not to be treated as colleagues, but instead to be colleagues.”

Jaschik interview Doug Hesse, who has overseen the creation of a program at the University of Denver that uses such “renewable” labor. Hesse defends this system, noting the increased pay and benefits, as well as the benefits to students who are now taught by trained compositionists. Yet, he does admit to wondering if he’s made a “Vichy regime” of his program.

You know what? He has. I’ll say it. And I respect the man. I attended a session peopled by Hesse and other instructors in his program at the Writing Research Across Borders conference in Santa Barbara just a couple of weeks ago just to hear him speak. They reported on some fantastic research and teaching they are doing in U of D. But, when I asked what repercussions his results have for the rest of the field, where such great work is severely limited by labor conditions, he side-stepped the question. I think more of us have to hop on the Bousquet-Bandwagon and realize that we can’t make someone “a little more professional” or “a little less temporary” any more than we can be a little more or less pregnant.


3 Responses to “I’m a little bit professional, and a little bit angry.”

  1. sethkahn said

    Kevin could speak to the Syracuse Writing Program’s system, too, which consists of 10 or so tenured/tenure-track faculty (who taught gen-ed composition when they felt like it), graduate students in English and the Composition/Cultural Rhetoric PhD program, and, oh, probably 25-30 “Professional Writing Instructors.”

    PWIs (in all their euphemistic splendor and glory) taught 5 courses per year, made a decent per-section wage, got some health and retirement benefits, some travel funding for presenting at conferences. I don’t remember the exact renewal structure, but it was something like yearly for the first 3, then 2-year contracts for a couple of cycles, and then 3-year contracts ad infinitum. It was, therefore, pretty secure but not really, pretty equitable in terms of pay but not really, etc.

    One of the long-term PWI’s, Mike Murphy, published at least two pieces in CCC in which he lauded this system in much the same terms that Doug Hesse lauds the UD system. The problem, as I see it, is the creation of a permanent underclass, even a fairly well-treated underclass. PWIs get treated better than adjuncts at other, even comparable, institutions, but they still are crammed into offices more tightly than their tt colleagues; they can’t get tenure; they don’t hold voting positions in the department but are welcome to “volunteer” their efforts to TA training or curriculum development projects. And they’re expected to be grateful for how well they’re treated, which really pisses me off…

  2. One of the back stories of this last round or our contract negotiations was that this kind of system was discussed as a possibility. How seriously it was discussed is only known by the people at the table. However, early on in the negotiations there were “rumors” about creating a tiered faculty system. I put “rumor” in quotes here, because I seem to remember that APSCUF sent out some kind of informal suggestion about a tiered system…probably to get a sense of member reaction. Members, at least at Kutztown, were not pleased. So, best I can tell, the proposal for the kind of PWI system that Seth describes was dropped…

    …or was it. I would argue that the tiered system WAS formalized in our last contract. Our last contract (and contracts preceding that one) we had a 7% cap on part-time, temporary faculty members. There was NO CAP on full-time temporary faculty…though one could argue that a couple articles in our contract that helped prevent huge numbers of full-time, temporary faculty. Full-time, temporary faculty are like PWIs without the job security. They’re also not limited to Composition. Our new contract places as solid 25% cap on ALL temporary faculty. That is, up to 25% of our faculty could be part-time, temporary faculty. The kicker lies in the way th 25% figure is determined–FTE. That is, Full Time Equivalent. In other words, PEOPLE are not measured, COURSES are. So, one (1) FTE could be one full-time, temporary faculty member teaching our standard 4/4 load. Or it could be four (4) part-time faculty teaching one course a each.

    So a weird thing happened on the way to the contract: no explicit discussion of a tiered faculty system was had, yet a tiered system was instituted. The worse part about that, in my mind, was that we never got to have the discussion about the kind of PWI system, or Temple System, or Duke System, or….you get my point. I wonder what would have happened, for example, if Mike Murphy or Doug Hesse would have entered that conversation? How would we proceed?

    My thinking here is really one of the reasons I wanted to get a blog like this going. I think all of us here are on the (relatively) same page concerning working conditions and labor. However, we have very few sites to think through advocacy strategies and the kind of labor organizing that is needed in today’s higher education environment. Old School strategies are clearly not working…and the only “alternatives” that have been articulated within current higher ed unions seem to have the ring of labor/management partnership. I think the kind of work that Bousquet is doing is critical…and we, my dear APSCUF comrades, seem to be in a very interesting place to do it.

  3. sethkahn said

    Kevin is right on that (one of) the most insidious shift(s) in the new contract is in the way we count the cap on temporary faculty. The way that will play out on various campuses is complicated, but that very complication, I imagine, is at least one of the reasons PASSHE fought so hard for it. It absolutely produces a two-tiered faculty, one tier of which is likely to have almost no power of its own and will therefore depend on APSCUF to fight for it in a way that we never have before.

    The scenario Kevin describes (hiring 4 1/4-time faculty instead of one full-time) is more likely to occur on campuses in areas that are denser with adjunct jobs, such as WCU and Kutztown. Knowing that likely hires won’t have to move in order to cobble together piecemeal work, those campuses can offer minimal assignments. That will be tougher at more remote campuses–candidates aren’t likely to move to Shippensburg, for example, to teach one course.

    I want to think aloud a rhetorical stance that we might take in this regard. While the differences among campuses might divide us, we could also argue that even in job-rich (relatively) areas, the fact that we pay our temporary faculty pretty well should be considered standard-setting (i.e., minimum acceptable conditions) rather than bonus. In the Philly area, the mean per-section salary at other schools is less than half WCU’s, and our campus tends to frame that as “you’re lucky we pay you what we do for any sections we deign to give you….” Our stance in response to that, in my drafty current thinking, needs to be, “No, other schools are pillaging a vulnerable population, and we need to respond to that by hiring as many people as we can, at decent salaries with decent benefits, thereby raising the standards for temporary faculty everywhere, because our mission is to serve the region.”

    There’s still something in there that feels defeatist, and I can’t put my finger on it. If somebody else can, please do.

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