I had one of those nightmares you have just as the new semester is starting. It wasn’t as scary as the one I had when teaching a first term seminar for the first time. In that one, all of the students showed up in my bedroom for some reason, and I faced them realizing not only was I not yet dressed, I hadn’t created a syllabus or a plan for the first day of class. It wasn’t until I was chatting with a more seasoned teacher that I learned these start-of-term anxiety dreams are common, if not universal.
This fall, I’m not teaching a full course, just a variety of sessions and a lab section of a methods course in political science. In this nightmare, I went to teach the lab and discovered all but four students had left, saying they didn’t need it. The teacher (who was someone I’d never met, not the actual course instructor) just shrugged. Oh well. This must have been triggered by the general sense of anxiety that comes from glazed looks and the occasional teaching evaluation in which students say “I already had a library session” even though all of ours are different and closely tailored to the discipline and the assignment. Fortunately, in reality, all of the students in the lab section attended on their first day and were perfectly willing to learn new things. Besides, I had prepared.
I wonder how the students are faring at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. To preempt the possibility of a strike and to take a hard line in negotiating a contract, the faculty were all dismissed, their health insurance canceled, and their campus email accounts disabled in an unprecedented lockout. Administrators were assigned to teach courses and adjuncts were hastily recruited to open the fall semester with the semblance of a curriculum. Students using the #liulockout hashtag on Twitter don’t seem too happy with their substitutes.
Fewer than 200 hires were made to teach the courses of 400 faculty. Staff have had to fill in. Imagine being thrust into teaching a course on a subject you know nothing about because you’re an administrative employee of an institution of higher learning that decided to show their uppity faculty that they are replaceable. Now, that’s a nightmare.
In a sense, we’ve seen a slow-motion lockout across the country as universities replace full-time permanent faculty with cheaper adjunct labor, piece by piece. But no institution has ever locked out its entire faculty like this to avoid paying them more. Rumors are flying that maybe the university wants to its Brooklyn campus to fail so that they can sell the valuable land it occupies, retreating to its other campus further out on Long Island which has a whiter, wealthier student body. (Wage disparity between the two campuses, where faculty are represented by two different unions, is part of the dispute.) Wild rumors are bound to circulate when communication is deliberately broken, along with trust.
I don’t know how this will turn out. The university has rejected the union’s latest offer to have a temporary détente while negotiations continue. Students have walked out to join the faculty protesting the lockout - and then found themselves literally locked out of their campus, too. How many students are withdrawing this week so they can get a refund? How many were hoping to graduate, but now have no idea what will happen? If negotiations ultimately resolve the contract dispute, how will the rift between administrative leadership and faculty be healed? How will the university's reputation recover?
It seems a self-immolating move. Administrative leadership told the world and their students they don't actually care who teaches their courses, that recruiting talent isn't necessary, that with a textbook and a syllabus anyone can provide their brand of education. They burned their own village down in a preemptive move, supposedly to save it. Let's hope this idea doesn't spread like wildfire.
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