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Guest Post: Academic Fragility/Academic Imagination

“I pray every single day for a revolution.”

April 4, 2019
 
 

Guest post by Paula Patch

Every week brings news of new union activity at campuses across the nation. Whether you agree with unionizing or not, I think it's clear that as the ranks of adjunct faculty increase, the attempts to unionize will, too.

And while I think the best response to unions by administrators and nonunionized faculty and staff is to say, “OK, you’re here, let’s work together to forge a new path,” the traditional response from universities seems to be to bust -- or worse. I can understand this way of thinking; tradition is what has worked for the larger institution. Indeed, the institution creates the traditions.

For those for whom the “traditional channels of communication and shared governance” work very well, operating outside, against, around, under or anything other than within or through these traditional channels seems absurd, an affront, treasonous.

What it is, is a threat.

And the response to it could be called something like “academic fragility,” the feelings and corresponding actions that come when elitism and academic labor privilege are exposed as something that might look less like pure, individual, institutional success and more like playing a role in an oppressive system that rewards certain types of people in ways that directly degrade other people in the same system.

That’s as far as I want to go with that idea for this post. Because what I really want to talk about are unions. But not unions, really. Maybe academic labor. No, not quite. Let’s talk about people, not abstract concepts or collective units. Let’s talk about rank and status and how that dehumanizes and degrades the people we hire to fulfill the promises we make to our students and communities.

Want to truly keep unions off your campus and work with faculty through the channels already established at your institution? That starts with changing our perspective on rank and how it defines the ways people are invited to and rewarded for work.

I am not necessarily pro-union. I, too, long for a truly inclusive faculty governance model, but that depends on a truly inclusive employment model, and most of higher ed just doesn't have one when it comes to people who work off the tenure track, especially those who are nonpermanent.

As my institution learned when the Faculty Forward arm of the Service Employees International Union arrived on campus after successfully unionizing untenured faculty a few minutes away at Duke University, the ranks of those who teach in ways that are not understood from a “tenured” perspective are large, unwieldy, complicated -- and absolutely vital to providing students with the education we promise.

Who teaches? Folks employed part-time and full-time, both voluntarily and “involuntarily” (1). Folks employed full-time in student life but who teach one-, two-, three- or four-credit-hour classes in a specialty or passion or aspirational area. One of those staff people teaches one course per year in our first-year writing program. Several sections of our signature first-year seminar, required of every single student, are taught by staff with faculty rank. About half of our signature first-year orientation course are now taught by staff who work in areas as widespread as leadership, campus recreation and university advancement. Folks on those mysterious staffs with faculty rank/faculty with staff rank lines. University librarians.

Lord, have mercy.

The biggest mystery when the union came to town was not that they were on campus, but who the heck would/could/should be included in the bargaining unit. Everyone not on the tenure track was listening and talking and arguing and wondering.

Everyone on the tenure track and many in the administration were … surprised and offended. That’s academic privilege that comes from a “tenure-forward” perspective not on who teaches, but on who should teach or be in higher education fully and permanently.

On the academic side, folks are employed on eight different types of faculty lines: tenured, tenure track, continuing track, staff with faculty rank, lecturer track, visiting, limited term and part-time.

Imagine, if you will, those eight types arranged vertically. That shouldn’t be too hard, because that is the traditional structure. It’s how these ranks are listed, with links to their descriptions, in the Faculty Handbook. It’s how names are listed, without links to descriptions, in the course catalog. It’s how people are listed, some without photographs and some erased every single semester then added back again, erased and added, erased and added, in the faculty and staff directory.

Now, imagine them arranged horizontally. Venn diagram?

Jigsaw puzzle.

Melting pot.

A nice tossed salad.

Use your imagination. This is the revolution I pray for.

Our institutional leaders are a prayerful bunch. While I may not share their personal religious beliefs and traditions, this gives me hope. Anyone who spends time each day in deep contemplation, who surrenders themselves to something higher and better than themselves, is capable of the imaginative, transformative thinking that it will take to change the ways we do, talk about and reward work in higher education.

My own spirituality comes from wild places and books, from people for whom buildings and binaries and tradition don’t quite work. In “Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality,” Gloria Anzaldua writes frequently of imagination as cosmic, transformative force for good. Anzaldua scholar Analouise Keating says, “While imagination can deceive us, inviting us to escape from the so-called real world, when we ground and center ourselves in order to align with spirit and tap into the larger cosmic force, we can work with imagination to generate new, potentially transformational ways of being in the world -- and, thus, of transforming it.”

An inclusive, equitable model for staffing our institutions with a variety of well-supported, appropriately rewarded teachers is possible, but it requires shifting the mind-set from tenure stream as the legitimate -- or top -- rank in a hierarchy to recognizing, including and rewarding across different ranks in a flatter, more flexible structure, one that accommodates a lot of different ways of teaching, leading, mentoring and knowing.

Equity doesn’t mean making everyone the same. Equity does mean allowing people to access the same opportunities and rewards in different ways.

More important, equity is generous and does not look like withholding things from people who are doing good work just because the way they do it or the way they arrived at it looks different.

The ability to move within an institution, to teach, serve, lead and study unencumbered by demands associated with achieving tenure, affords a freedom to thrive that many people may seek -- and from which institutions benefit in ways that many don’t know how to reward.

I’m not arguing against tenure or against non-tenure-track lines here. What I am arguing against is persisting and insisting on seeing higher education from only one perspective -- the tenure-forward perspective -- and designing systems thusly.

Radical idea, perhaps. But times have changed. Now is the time to be flexible, to bravely reconsider the culture that is rather than the culture that was.

If tenured continues to be considered the perfect standard, anything other will always be imperfect and subject to negative thought and action, to exploitation and erasure. We've created this culture in language and custom; we can recreate it with the same tools.

I’m not sure yet what this new, transformative structure looks like (although I have ideas!). But I know it can’t be found by combing through traditions or studying the best practices at the peer and aspirants. It can’t be found because it is not yet there, because using the traditional methods associated with maintaining academic privilege and avoiding academic fragility make it unknown, ineffable, still somewhat cosmically out of reach.

Where it can be found is by putting aside -- or pushing through -- academic fragility and harnessing our academic imagination to do better for all the humans involved.

Paula Patch is a senior lecturer in English at Elon University, where she coordinates the first-year writing program and has taught composition and language courses since 2006. She is the incoming vice president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and chairs the Untenured WPA and Faculty Caucus of that organization. You can find her on Twitter: @profpatch.

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