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Taking Action for Contingent Faculty

What can the MLA and other organizations do to work towards taking higher education back.

December 4, 2011

Recently, after my post about taking back higher education, there were a number of discussions on Twitter about what, if anything, the MLA should be doing on behalf of their non-TT members (or, in my case, non-TT non-member who needs some convincing as to why I should bother joining again). We were pointed to the MLA’s recommendations put together by their Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession (PDF). The document focuses on departmental concerns that, while valid, fail to address the larger, more systematic issues in higher education that are the root cause of the exploitation of contingent faculty. The document, to me, reads like a way to alleviate the symptoms rather than advocating for a cure.

I wasn’t the only one. John C. Casey wrote two posts, addressed to Rosemary Feal, on why he thought the MLA’s response and actions were less than adequate. The first post generated a great deal of discussion in the comments, from Feal herself and incoming MLA President Michael Bérubé. But the blame game was in full force; whose responsibility is what, and at the end of the day, what can we really do?

(If I hear, “it’s been like this for almost 30 years,” one more time, I’m going to scream. How many historical injustices both big and small existed simply because things had always been that way. Come on, people, we can do so much better than that!)

Unfortunately, and not unexpectedly, Casey’s response to Feal and Bérubé and others went if not unread, then at least un-responded. Casey went on to highlight that strongly-worded letters condemning the questionable actions of universities are no longer going to cut it. Open these three posts up in another tab, read them, and come back, because what Casey is saying is important and he is doing so under his own name without the protection of tenure. Plus, he makes some powerful arguments, arguments that either are true because they remain unrefuted or so painful to face that we are shamed into silence.

But I also understand that it is easy to slip into despair about these issues. What can we really do? There is a bit of a backlash against the Occupy MLA twitter feed because many people are wondering, what exactly do they hope to accomplish?

(There is also backlash because of some anti-#alt-ac tweets, but I think that that is a topic for another day.)

Some of the more popular suggestions include seeking the help of unions, but as recent articles have highlighted, unions do not necessarily accurately and adequately represent contingent concerns, going as far as reinforcing the uneven and hierarchical nature of current academic attitudes. But, as Casey points out, unions do little (or have done little or can do little) to address the systematic problems in higher education of the dwindling number of tenure-track positions.

Feal herself, commenting on the dwindling number of tenure-track positions advertized this year through the MLA, says, “it isn’t enough.” She goes on to note:

All the Occupy movements taking place on campuses lead me to think that if tenured professors, administrators, students, faculty members from all ranks and job-seekers join together, then we have a chance for solving some of these huge problems facing us.

May I suggest some things that the MLA (and the AHA and the AAUP and the CCCC and any other organization that is associated or affiliated with higher education) can do:

  1. Get rid of the conference job interview. With Skype and other advances in communication technologies, there is no reason why there still needs to be the annual meat-market of desperate job-seekers. Graduate students and contingent faculty have very little monetary support to attend the MLA (or AHA) in order to interview (or worse, potentially interview) for a job. Departments could use the money in other ways than sending the hiring committee out to the conference site. The MLA could redirect the resources to other activities, which leads me to suggestions number 2…
  2. Provide more resources for alt-ac work. If the MLA and other organizations are indeed serious about alt-ac work for PhDs, then they should put their money where their mouth it. Have people/companies/organizations set up a job fair type event where PhD students (and their supervisors!) can learn about what they are looking for and what opportunities are out there. Also, provide free Resume workshops, job letter workshops, and other job-seeking skills sessions beyond the round-table success stories that nominally appear in the conference program.
  3. Work to create meaningful leadership opportunities for contingent faculty. I’m not just talking about internally, within organizations. I’m talking about real mentorship and leadership opportunities within higher education. Take, for example, the ACE Fellowships (which Feal herself is currently participating in). These types of programs are completely unavailable to those who are off the tenure-track because any meaningful leadership position is reserved for those who are on the tenure-track. What if the MLA, the AAUP, and other organizations created a position expressly for contingent faculty to see how the organization is run and to work within the organization for a year and gain valuable leadership and organization experience? Or sponsor these types of positions within higher education?
  4. Work with other organizations to do an all-out media blitz. I can’t help but think of the meeting that is about to take place at the White House with college and university presidents. College affordability is the subject of the meetings, but the faculty voice is being left out of the discussion. We need to start targeting students, parents, and alumni, letting them know EXACTLY how little of their tuition money is going towards the salaries of those teaching. Advertize in alumni magazines, college guides and magazines targeted to students and parents, and keep it simple: tenure is disappearing. This is bad.
  5. Stop being afraid of calling ourselves out on this issue. The AAUP and the MLA (and others) always publish a list of institutions that are violating academic freedom. The disappearance of tenure is threatening the entire concept of academic freedom within higher education. It is happening at each and every one of our institutions. We need to stop talking in general terms and start naming the worst offenders. Publish the list everywhere. Put it in a press release. Be brave to even face the reality that your institution is just as guilty as any other. Don’t just bring it up at the department level; bring it to faculty senate, board of governors/regents, alumni associations.

This is just a preliminary list. What are your suggestions? There may finally be a willingness to move beyond words and to turning those words into real, concrete action. We can take back higher ed.


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