I have composed – and deleted – several posts in the nearly two months since I last wrote something here. And if I’m being honest, I’m having trouble posting about creativity and pedagogy in higher education. I’m sure I still have much to contribute – and I have many wonderful friends and colleagues who could provide compelling and though-provoking posts – but lately I simply cannot bring myself to compose anything worth reading on the subject.
One reason for this is my previous post, the one on adjunct issues. In some ways, that post was so much more…important than most of what I had previously written about, and certainly so much more popular with readers. How do I follow up on such a post with comments about syllabus construction or assignment design?
However, much as I would like to write a follow-up post, I feel that I have very little to say. One deleted post was a short history of my own time as an adjunct, work that has undoubtedly informed my position with respect to workplace equity. But as I was writing it, I found that it became about me, and the important issues were buried beneath my own navel-gazing. And honestly, I am also leery about writing a post about my time as an adjunct because of my current position. I do not want to be the tenured professor who feels he can speak on behalf of adjuncts because at one point in his career, he was there too. It’s been more than a decade since I supported myself as an adjunct, and the landscape has changed a great deal since then. My experience has informed what I think and how I work, but it certainly does not reflect the current state of affairs in academic labor.*
But I would like to share with those reading this blog my recent efforts toward workplace equity in my own department. As I claimed in my last post, “if you are not trying to change things in your own backyard, you don’t get to complain.” And I firmly believe that. So if nothing else, this post serves as a reminder to myself that I need to keep fighting the good fight. But most importantly, this post serves as another opportunity for me to hear from other people, who may have ideas, tips, and their own thoughts to share.
Earlier this semester, I approached some members of my department about attempting to change the language of our department’s by-laws. As they are currently composed, our by-laws state that only tenure-stream faculty are allowed to vote on personnel issues. All teaching faculty, however, can vote on other department matters. As I interpret the by-laws, personnel matters are too important to allow adjuncts to vote. The underlying assumption** seems to be that – for some reason – adjuncts are either undeserving of such voting rights, or incapable of providing a well-informed vote. In my department, this is simply not the case.*** I would like the by-laws to be revisited by the department, and for the department to have a larger discussion of the role of adjuncts and workplace equity.
When I raised this issue with my department, I was met with a stunning mix of apathy and hostility. Not all colleagues were either apathetic or hostile, but enough of them were. And that is disturbing. One colleague in particular spoke to me after the meeting to explain why adjuncts should not be allowed to vote on personnel matters. Among her reasons were:
1) We should hold adjuncts to the contract status they were hired to;
2) Adjuncts don’t generally attend meetings, so they are not aware of department matters;
3) Adjuncts don’t have the same experience in the department as tenure-stream faculty.
I could explain in detail why I think these are bullshit reasons, but I won’t do so now, except to say that I am uncomfortable with the idea that adjuncts are somehow constitutionally different from tenure-stream faculty. Some of our adjuncts have PhDs in their fields. Some have been teaching in my department longer than most tenure-stream faculty. Some have experience in professional service and research that could benefit the department as a whole.
But perhaps most importantly, they are all members of the department, and have a stake in how the department is run and the decisions the department makes regarding personnel issues.
Although my department does not conform to the norm, we are slowly inching our way there. We have fewer tenure-stream faculty than when I was hired, and more non-tenure-stream faculty. Despite what some of my colleagues may want to believe, this is not an accident; we are slowly working our way toward an over-reliance on non-tenure-stream faculty, and part-time faculty in particular. As these numbers change, an increasing percentage of my colleagues will be disenfranchised, at least when it comes to personnel matters.^ And such disenfranchisement can only lead to tension. Maintaining a split whereby some faculty “count” in ways that others do not does not create goodwill, does not build community and, perhaps most importantly, does not reflect the values at the core of the liberal arts education that we provide.
Although there has been no decision yet regarding my proposal – other than a department vote whereby the proposal will be reviewed by the new ad-hoc by-laws committee^^ – I am not hopeful that we will see any change. But I will admit that this hopelessness is also due in part to my attempts to raise this issue with my local chapter of the UUP. I have emailed my union representative multiple times to talk about adjunct issues, including the possibility of unionizing adjuncts. Sadly, I have not received any reply from my union rep.^^^
So now is the time where I pose questions, and hope that my readers can provide some much-needed advice:
1) What can we do, at the department level, to enact change? And more specifically, how do we cut through the layers of red tape, institutional inertia, and veiled hostility to enact change?
2) Does anyone know of examples of departments or universities that have worked to provide better working conditions for adjuncts?
I’m positive that I am missing something, that there are tactics and methods I have not considered. And I’m all ears.
*Sadly, one thing that has not changed but should is adjunct pay. When I was adjuncting at Northeastern University in 1999, I was paid almost $1,000 per credit hour. When I was adjuncting at Eastern Connecticut State University in 2007, I was paid $1,000 per credit hour. When I teach my summer course here a SUNY Potsdam – and am paid the same rate as adjuncts doing the same work – I am paid $1,000 per credit hour.
**An assumption, I recently learned, that is shared by more than one of my current colleagues.
***I understand that there are other reasons for not allowing adjuncts to possess full voting rights, and that some of these reasons may well apply to other departments. In my department, 11 of the 31 faculty members are not in the tenure-stream. In this regard, we are very much not a reflection of the current state of affairs in academia, where roughly 76% of all teaching faculty are not in the tenure stream. Further, unlike many universities in more urban areas, we do not have a large pool of potential adjuncts. As a result, most of our adjuncts have been teaching in my department for several years; of those 11 colleagues, 8 have been teaching in the department longer than I have. In short, the non-tenure-stream faculty in my department have served the department – and its students – for many years, and their knowledge of the student body and familiarity with institutional history should not be discounted. Further, many of these faculty members engage in department service (including advising) even though it is not contractually required. (I am not happy with this fact, as they are not paid for this work. However, it does demonstrate their commitment to the department and reflects the unacknowledged fact that they are doing the same job as the tenure-stream faculty, and are not compensated – either in terms of money or in terms of voting rights – as tenure-stream faculty.)
^One reason this is so important to me is that I really do believe that personnel matters are the most important matters a department can vote on. Who we are – who we hire, promote, tenure, and elect to office – determines the course of the department. All other matters are a direct result of our personnel votes. This is one reason why I joined the department Personnel Committee this year.
^^A committee I was not invited to join despite my clear interest in this work, and despite having volunteered to serve. And a committee made up of faculty who did not support sending my proposal to committee for consideration.
^^^This is particularly disappointing given that my union rep recently sent an email encouraging tenure-stream faculty to help promote workplace equity. However, this encouragement is meant to come in the form of wearing buttons and talking to adjuncts about their experience. Organizing, unionizing, or working toward actual equity was not mentioned in the email.