Monthly Archives: March 2014

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.

There is a story that has been making the rounds on the internet.  If you are an academic, you should read up on it.


Go ahead, I’ll wait for you to return.


As you can see, there are many sides to this story (though as far as I can tell, there has no been no official response from the university).  It might appear that every angle has been explored in the various comments sections on the above pages.  I know, a good rule of thumb is to never read the comments.  I try to live by that rule when playing around on the internet.  But in this case, I think you should read the comments.  Not for what they address, but for what they ignore.


Many commenters believe that “W” was treated poorly, while others assert that the university handled the situation appropriately.  I have no interest in taking a stand either way.  For starters, I don’t think there’s enough information available.  But more importantly, I think that most people commenting and/or blogging about this story have missed the larger point.


This is not a story about how search committees operate.  Nor is it a story about the preparation (or lack thereof) of job applicants for academic positions before hitting the job market.  It’s not about proper negotiating, academics who are out of touch with “the real world,”* or even the realities of the tenure-track job market.  Nor is it about the difference between “teaching” and “research” institutions.  I know it seems like it’s about all those things, but it isn’t.  And I didn’t realize that until just today.


I was discussing this story with some friends of mine, both academics, neither of whom are on the tenure track.  And it wasn’t until this conversation today that I realized that this story is a perfect example of how willfully ignorant many academics are to the realities of the academic labor force.  This is not the first time I have turned my attention to the academic labor problems, and I suspect it won’t be the last.  Feel free to scour the web for stories about the changing face of the academic labor force, but really all you need to know right now is that non-tenure-rack faculty make up the majority of educators in higher education, and this trend is not going to change.**


“W”‘s story highlights one of the central – and often unacknowledged – problems with the move toward a permanent force of temporary academic laborers.***  The fact that it’s even possible for academics to negotiate their contracts for tenure-track positions is a stark reminder of the fact that adjuncts have no such ability.  There are many commenters/bloggers who are outraged that Nazareth would not even consider negotiating with “W,” many of whom provide anecdotes and/or “real world experience” as evidence that Nazareth acted poorly.  There are many more who argue that “W” asked for too much, that she didn’t understand the nature of her bargaining position, and should have asked for less.  What both sides of this debate take for granted is that “W” should have the ability to negotiate terms.  That is, it’s simply expected that finalists for tenure-track positions will try to improve the terms of their contracts.^  Adjuncts, however, are expected to simply accept the terms of their employment.  It’s common for PhD advisors and other professionals to offer detailed advice on how to negotiate tenure-track job offers.  But, as far as I can tell, no such system is in place to help adjuncts negotiate the terms of their individual contracts.  (Yes, I will mention unions later on.)


But it’s become commonplace that adjuncts not negotiate the terms of their contracts.  In fact, I have never heard of such a thing happening.  I myself have never done so, and I have adjuncted at multiple schools.  I simply accepted that the job paid what it paid, and I had to live with it.  When I wanted to make more money, I asked for more courses.  During the same years that I was earning my PhD and being coached on how to negotiate tenure-track job offers, I was also adjuncting at another local university and had never once thought to negotiate my contract.  Hell, I have been on strike as a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – a strike that attempted to convert part-time jobs into full-time jobs – and I never once thought about even asking to negotiate my adjunct contracts.


There is an adjunct at my university who has been working at the same job, teaching the same classes, for nearly 25 years.  In all that time, he has never once asked for a raise.  Not once.  This is not because he couldn’t use the money.  It’s because nobody expects adjuncts to negotiate.  It’s also because adjuncts are painfully aware of the temporary nature of their employment.  Adjuncts don’t have to get fired; they can simply not be renewed.  Those on semester-by-semester contracts are essentially re-hired for their jobs every 4 months.  In the SUNY system, there are also 3-year renewable positions; those who hold those positions must be reappointed by their departments every 3 years.^^  The terms of these contracts are set by SUNY, and are non-negotiable.


So what I’ve been wondering is, why are so many people on the internet so outraged over “W”‘s experience?  The vast majority of college faculty hold positions with non-negotiable terms.  The vast majority of academics have contracts that nobody expects to be negotiated.  And for all the outrage that has been expressed over “W”‘s situation, where is all the outrage regarding adjunct contracts?  It took less than 2 weeks for a petition to be posted demanding that the American Philosophical Association “Publicly condemn the actions of Nazareth College and amend the APA Handbook on Placement Practices.”^^^  That is, it took less than 2 weeks for someone to be pissed off enough to demand that the field take notice and press their professional organization for change.


Where is the outrage over the use and abuse of contingent labor?  Where are the petitions demanding that universities be publicly condemned for creating, growing, and relying upon an army of faculty who are not expected to have any negotiating power with respect to their contracts?


In other words, why are so many people pissed off that this is happening to finalists for tenure-track jobs, but so few people are outraged that this has been – for years – standard operating procedure for the hiring of adjuncts?  Or if they are pissed, where are their petitions and blog posts?  As one of my friends very astutely pointed out: people are outraged because (potential) tenure-track faculty are now being faced with (one small part of) the lived reality that contingent faculty have faced for years.  The underlying argument seems to be that we need to fight right now in order to save tenure-track jobs (and their current contractual realities and working conditions) and ensure that these privileges for tenure-track faculty do not erode.  But the truth is, they have long-since eroded, as with each passing year universities move toward an ever-expanding contingent labor force.  Those of us like myself who are lucky enough to hold tenure-track positions are the minority, and in all likelihood we are the last generation of tenure-track faculty,^^^^ unless universities make significant changes.


I have been an academic for most of my adult life.  I spent nearly a decade holding adjunct positions at universities (before and during my time in a PhD program).  I have been on strike for labor issues.  And I have spent some time this past year (since earning tenure) reading about, writing on, and advocating for adjuncts.  And I didn’t realize any of the above until just today.  And this is because, for all my interest and concern, I too have been ignorant to the realities of the academic labor market.  I am ignorant, and I have been paying attention.  I, like most of my colleagues, have come to accept the following:

1. That adjuncts are a permanent part of the academic labor force;

2. That adjuncts will not enjoy equity in the academic labor market (pay, benefits, advancement, support, etc.);

3. That adjuncts will not be expected (or in many cases allowed) to negotiate for better contracts.

Unionization might be a good step in the right direction.  However, adjunct unionization does not change the underlying problem, which is the acceptance of adjuncts as the future of higher education.  While I do believe that unions can be successful in improving the lives of adjuncts, I fear that adjunct unions will only solidify the reliance on adjuncts as the primary workforce for higher education instruction.


Unfortunately, I have no solution to offer.  No grand idea that will change the world.  I will only reiterate what I have written before: work to clean up your own backyard.  It’s not glamorous.  It’s not sexy.  It will take time away from your research.  And some of your colleagues will resent you for it.  But it’s the right thing to do.  And if you work for a department that doesn’t rely on adjunct labor – or has been working to decrease reliance on adjunct labor – please share your experiences.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  Academics, on the whole, have simply accepted that it is.  And if there are places where this is not true, we should learn from them.

*A phrase I hate, by the way.  I may blog about this later, but I can assure everyone reading this that I live in the real world.  I have a job.  I have bills.  I am subject to the various social and political tensions that exist in the world.  There is no Ivory Tower.  Or if there is, I haven’t yet found it.  And believe me, I looked.

**Previous posts on this issue have different links.  By all means, check them out.  There’s plenty of information available for those looking to learn more about the topic.

***Yes, I phrased it that way on purpose.  Think about it: permanent temporary employees.  Yes, it is possible to spend one’s career in academia, holding one position, in one department, at one university, for 25 years, and still spend one’s entire career as a “temporary” employee.

^This was certainly true in my case.  However, because I am a bad negotiator, and felt I had no leverage, I did not do so when I was offered my job.  I have no idea what, if anything, I might have been able to negotiate.  But honestly, I don’t care.

^^I am still trying to change the voting policies in my department because, as of right now, contingent faculty are not allowed to vote on the reappointment of contingent faculty.  This, in my opinion, is pretty idiotic.  But it’s also SOP.

^^^As of today, that petition has 50 signatures.

^^^^At my institution, most open tenure-track faculty lines are not filled.  The last university president announced one year that we no longer have “faculty lines,” and that academic departments should no longer expect to be able to replace tenure-track faculty.  He explicitly noted that departments will need to rely on contingent labor to meet their curricular demands.  Our current interim president has asked all departments (academic and otherwise) to submit reports explaining why they should be kept at current staffing and why their ranks should not be reduced.  Even among the faculty, there is an assumption that we cannot even ask for tenure-track labor; one department is attempting to build a new minor that will be run entirely on contingent labor.


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Where now? Who now? When now?

“What does any of this have to do with literature?”


As a literature professor, that’s not a question I hear very often.  It’s rare, in fact, that my classes (other than my film classes) spend much time outside of the literary texts.  Don’t get me wrong; I can get off topic with the best of them.  However, students almost always see what our digressions have to do with the literary texts.


Almost always, because this is becoming less and less true with my courses on literary theory.


I have taught an introduction to literary theory three times now, and increasingly, I am spending less and less time discussing literature.  Part of this, of course, is because I am spending a great deal of time working through the theoretical works.  Literary theory is, for most of the students I work with, very difficult to work with.  Many students – rightly so – have a tough time grasping Derrida, Halberstam, Irigaray, Spivak, etc.  I give historical and intellectual background, cover major concepts and terms, and walk students through the logic of the piece (and, as many of you know, some of these writers consciously work to challenge their readers).  Then, we spend time exploring how these works (the short selections included in Rivkin and Ryan’s massive – but sadly dated* – anthology).


However, increasingly, I spend less and less time working with the literary texts we read for the class,** and engage students in discussion about the application of these theories to the world they live in.  This semester, for instance, we have spent much time discussing the fashion industry (particularly when reading about Feminism, Gender Studies, and Queer Theory), popular music and television (particularly when reading about Structuralism and Deconstruction), etc.  Students are always more engaged when we can get out of the books for a bit, when they can bring their own interests, passions, hobbies, etc. into the class.  (This does not mean that they are not interested in literature.  This class carries no general education designation, so it only satisfies graduate requirements for English students, though now and again non-English students do register.  However, much as they love literature, homework and class time is always work.)


I have long included references and allusions to work done outside of class.  I teach “Call Me Maybe” in Introduction to Literature (to show them they really do understand scansion; I show clips of popular television shows to discuss characters types and common tropes.  (In fact, at the introductory level, much of what I do is show students that they grasp the concepts I want to teach them; they often just apply them in a haphazard fashion and without the proper critical terminology.***)  This semester, however, I seem to have (inadvertently) spent more time on the digressions and less time on the literary texts.


So last week, I was taken aback when a student asked me “What does any of this have to do with literature?,” because that’s honestly not a question I hear very often at work.  


It was easy to answer, and just as easy to move discussion back to the literary text (Frankenstein).  But since this happened last week, I’ve been thinking about it often.  And something I have come to realize about the two sections I am teaching this semester is that the students seems to understand the theories better than before.  Maybe I have better students (sometimes, we just get lucky with out courses), and maybe I have become better at teaching this material over time.^  But to be honest, I think it’s because I spend more time talking about “Hannibal,” “Project Runway,” Batman movies, and Dr. Pepper commercials, among other aspects of popular culture that students have a working knowledge of.  One of the best moments of the semester was when a student and I started talking about the Lord of the Rings movies as a ay of understanding Deconstruction.  Things may have become a bit silly (which I’m certainly not opposed to), but after a few minutes students were contributing to the discussion, trying out connections, and most importantly, pushing the discussion forward without the fear of being wrong.  As I have discussed earlier, students are often terrified of failure.  Even brilliant students, in my experience, will often remain quiet in class out of a fear of being wrong (though there are certainly many reasons why students do not engage with their classmates).  But when discussion moves beyond the literary works, students lose that fear.  In fact, I find that discussing popular culture is a great way of getting students to talk at the start of the semester.  Perhaps I need to do a better job of getting outside of the texts more often.


But, I can hear some of your asking, this is a course on literary theory.  Shouldn’t you be spending all your time in the literature?


Maybe.  But I’m not convinced.  


Over the past week, I’ve been asking myself what the value of an introduction to literary theory is for my students.  In our department curriculum, it’s the gateway course to 400-level special topics courses, making sure students have a foundation in advanced literary analysis and research.  And in that regard, it’s an important course.  But increasingly, I have come to feel that there’s no reason why the course should be limited to such myopic goals.  Most of my students will never do graduate work in literature (by choice, as most of them are not interested in such work; many are going on to K-12 teaching, or aspire to be creative writers).  Personally, I think literary theory is the cat’s meow.  But I know that my students aren’t going to find something fun and exciting just because I insist it is.


And then it occurred to me that most of what we are reading is not, strictly speaking, literary theory.  Judith Halberstam did not write Female Masculinity, for instance, solely so we could better understand literary works.  Sure, such works have become important for literary analysis, but there’s no reason why class discussion should be so limiting.  I hope that most of my students will continue to read after they finish their degrees, and will enjoy reading more because of their background in theory.  However, I know for a fact that they will all live in the world.  They will all engage with a variety of media, and will continue to be a part of a complex social fabric.  And while a grounding in critical theory will be of use for their immediate academic pursuits, I think it might be more interesting – as well as more important – to show my students see how critical theory can help them better navigate the world they live in.  (This semester, more so than any other, students are letting me know about how these theories are helping them make sense of things outside of class.)


So I think that, in the future, I will spend less time on the literature and more time on the extra-textual material.  Hell, I may even generate assignments designed to force them to engage in the world outside of the classroom.  In general, I think it’s always a good idea to get students to bring the class into their world while also bringing their world into the class.  I may just do a better job of formalizing that work.


If anyone has any thoughts, comments, or suggestions, I’m all ears.

*I should look for a new anthology that would include more contemporary theoretical work, as I can allude to such approaches as Disability Studies, Critical Animal Studies, Cognitive Studies, etc.  Admittedly, I didn’t even look this semester because, as I am also teaching two new upper-division courses (outside of my research areas, no less), I simply didn’t have the time.

**James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

***Despite often understanding the differences between poetry and prose, or imagery and metaphor, they often just shorthand everything to “story” or “symbolism.”  They cognitively understand the differences when explained to them, even if their limited terminology often suggests otherwise.

^Admittedly, I did not do a very good job my first time.  The assignments I had designed did not generate the kind of work they should have been doing.  I had not prepared for any kind of resistance (active dislike of the material or persistent confusion).  I did not manage the reading load as well as I could have, and hoped the readings would provide the contextual background that I now do with class discussion.



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The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. —

Hello everyone.  It’s been a month since my last post, and my only excuse is that I’ve been pretty busy.  I am slowly working on a post regarding new developments in non-tenure-track contract in the SUNY system, but it will be a while before I can write that post.  I’m currently talking to adjuncts to whom this contract has been offered, and trying to gather background information.  Needless to say, the contract is an abomination.  But that’s another post for another time.  Just letting you all know that I’m researching, and not letting my interest in this issue slide.


Today is the last day of February, so it’s time for me to post my monthly work update, accounting for the time spent working.  For a refresher, please see my earlier post; here is how I am accounting for my time:

Teaching: this will include the time spent in the classroom, in office hours and meeting with students, preparing for class, and grading.

Service: this will include time spent in department meetings, committee meetings, preparing for those meetings, and advising.

Research: this will include time spent reading for my research projects, taking notes, drafting and revising, and communicating with editors/presses.

*I need to point out that I am in no way trying to manage my time to fill a certain number of hours, or come to any pre-determined total figure.  In fact, while I am recording the time spent on a day-to-day basis, I have not been keeping a running tab.  I have not done the math yet.  In fact, please give me a minute while I grab my calculator…


OK, here are the results:


Time spent in class, office hours, and meeting with students: 66.5 hours

Time spent preparing for class: 30.25 hours

Time spend grading: 14 hours

Total teaching hours: 110.75 hours


Total service hours (meetings, plus preparation): 14.5 hours


Time spent reading and taking notes: 16.75 hours

Time spent writing and revising: 28.75 hours

Total research hours: 45.5 hours

Total work hours for the month of February: 170.5 hours


Because there were 28 total days in February, this means I averaged just over 6 hours of work per day, including weekends.

Because there were 8 weekend days, 2 days of February Break, and I took 1 sick day (for which I was paid), there were 11 non-work days, and 17 work days in the month of February.  However, because I am paid for sick days, let’s include those as “work days,” under the theory that if I am getting paid, I should be working.*  So over 18 days for which I was paid, I worked an average of just under 9.5 hours per work day.

So now, what does all of this mean, and what’s the context for the raw data?


First off, I’d like to note that this semester, I only have 55 students.  (6 students dropped since I posted last month, all from my sections of Literary Analysis and Research.)  Most semesters, I have over 100 students (last semester I had 112 students).  So I have half as many students this semester as I usually do, which means I am doing half the grading I normally would.  Also, of those 55 students 5 did not turn in any work this month.**

14 hours of grading in one month is not much at all, especially when you consider I only have to grade work from 50 students.  However, that’s less that half of my normal grading load.  Also, as the semester progresses, there will be more grading, as the assignments get longer.


However, because I am teaching two new upper-division courses (a senior-level course on Whitman and the Archive, and a graduate course on Batman), I am spending more time in prep than I normally would.  Because I don’t have raw data from previous semesters, I suppose it’s safe to assume that whatever time I am saving by grading such little student work, I am losing by preparing for two new courses, neither of which is connected to my research agenda.  Just over 30 hours of prep for the month means that I devoted almost an entire work week just to prepare for classes.


Also, I spent the equivalent of on full work week on research.  This is unsurprising.  I have looming deadlines for both of my current book projects (as well as an upcoming conference tied to one of those book projects), so I will be devoting a fair amount of time to those projects.  I hope to have both of them done and off to the presses by May, which will give me the time I need to grade final exams and final essays.


I should also note that all of the time accounted for is actually spent working.  None of that time includes breaks.  When I am on campus, I have 1 hour between classes, which I always use to do paperwork, answer emails, or deal with other small tasks while I eat lunch (and sometimes chat with colleagues who pop in to say hello).  But all of the time spent grading, writing, reading, etc., is time spent working.  To put this in context, when I worked in a labor union, I was giving 30 minutes of break time for every 8 hours of work.  So 8 hours “at work” meant 7 hours working, and 30 minutes on break.  The same is not true for my work now.  When I stop reading, grading, etc., I stop the clock.  So that 170.5 hours is all time spent working.***


This is not horrific.  That is, this is not an overwhelming amount of work.  I know many academic who spend much more time than this.  Especially adjuncts, who are often spending more time in the classroom and in other teaching-related activities.  Especially those teaching Freshman Composition, which is very time-intensive, especially when it comes to grading.  That said, however, roughly 10 hours per day for every day I am getting paid is clearly above-and-beyond my contractual obligations.  Now, I could easily cut that time back by spending less time on research.  I have tenure; I no longer need to do research to keep my job.  I could say the same, of course, about service.  I could drop all of my committee work.


That is, I could make my life so much easier if I stopped engaging with my discipline, and quietly dumped service work onto my untenured colleagues.  Of course, the first would quickly make me intellectually stale, and the second would make me an asshole.  I truly enjoy my research; I love the work I’m doing, the people I’m doing it with, and am finding exciting ways to bring it into the classroom.  Sharing my research with my students makes class more interesting, for me and for the students.  I don’t want to become that cliche, the tenured professor whose lectures haven’t changed in decades, who has no idea what is happening in the field.


But more importantly, I really don’t want to be that asshole who steps away from service because of tenure.  I loathe those people.  For starters, it’s an unethical move, forcing junior faculty to pick up the slack, knowing they are not in a position to say no.  That is precisely why I served on a search committee in my first semester on the job.  Why I took over directing my department’s First-Year Interest Group.  And why I spent time in my first two years updating the department’s internship information, even though I have never directed an internship.  All three of these were presented as “opportunities,” and I did not feel comfortable saying no.^  I will not do that to my colleagues.^^  


All that being said, however, it’s clear that the majority of my time is devoted to teaching, which I think is as it should be.  My university values teaching above all other activities – and explicitly notes that teaching is the most important consideration of tenure and promotion – and I do love being in the classroom.  I put the time I do into preparing for class because I want to do well, because I want to be able to lead conversation thoughtfully and expansively (meaning that I am prepared not just to talk about the text, but to move outside of the text in productive and creative ways).


So that’s my February clock-punching post.  I hope to have an update on adjunct issues at SUNY before my next monthly post.  And perhaps I’ll even manage a teaching-related post, likely on how I am incorporating the online Walt Whitman Archive into my teaching.  This is the first time I have ever used on online archive in the classroom, and I’m having a great deal of fun with it, and the students seem to be enjoying it as well.  I suspect I’m not making the most of the experience, but I am keeping notes for the future, so that hopefully I can do a better job by my students with such experiments in the future.


*Yeah, I think this is a pretty stupid way of thinking about it, too.  I have contractually-obligated sick days.  I am allowed to take them, and allowed not to work on those days.  So if we only count 17 work days, then I worked an average of just over 10 hours per work day.

**This is actually not uncommon.  I always have a couple students who just don’t turn in work.  They don’t turn in essays.  They fail those essays.  I really don’t understand it.  I will never understand students who just don’t turn in the work.

***When I read at home (or grade, or write, etc.), for instance, I note the time I start reading.  When I take a break, I note that time, as well as when I go back to work.  It might be a fine line that I am drawing, but I want to account for my time spent actually working, as honestly as possible.

^One of my colleagues, when I was asked to serve on a search committee, flat out told me that it was dangerous for a new faculty member to say no.  I was told it would make me look unhelpful and unwilling to “pitch in.”

^^We already have a difficult time keeping junior faculty.  Nearly half of all the Assistant Professors we have hired in the past 4 years have left for other jobs.


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