Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Earlier Optimistism Probably Erroneous: Farewell to Fifteen Adjunct Positions

There was a time a few short weeks ago when I believed that the outrage over what could happen to adjuncts was going to make a difference in the department at School One--this is the place where our very own department reduced our workload down to 3/3 from our former 4/4 full time, year-long schedules, thus making me a two-school Unarmed Education Mercenary.  Several tenure track folks got angry enough to speak out publicly and also called for the issue of our cut hours, ridiculously unaffordable heath care situation, and part time status to be discussed at full department meetings both in the fall term and this spring.  Readers of the blog already know that I went to a portion of that first meeting, but I never really wrote fully what the fallout was from that day.  I think that it has taken me this long to comprehend it all myself.  It has not been a mentally easy few months and the last few weeks have been especially discouraging.  From trusted reports, it is probably better that I did not attend the last meeting.  It sounded like an ugly scene between colleagues that likely has deepened the divide between undergraduate and graduate faculty.  A divide as apparent to an outside assessment committee as it is to those working there. Instead, I taught my classes, which are scheduled the same time as the departmental meetings,

Aside from a disinterested disregard for what happened to the adjuncts by many people who spoke up at the first meeting--a lot of people didn't speak up at all, so I don't know what to say about that other than maybe they agreed with those who did--was an utter lack of respect for liberal/general studies courses, both the people who teach them, and the students who must take these required classes.  Underscored by reports from the latest meeting, it seems to be the view that the overly large doctoral program students deserve these formerly adjunct courses as places to gain teaching experience.  It is already a practice that there are Teaching Associates granted a few courses and nominally supervised by mentors, but these positions have been highly competitive.  How that competition plays out is, perhaps, a story for another blog or even another writer, but these positions do exist.  The competition is supposed to ensure the best qualified candidates get the positions.  This also should guarantee, by extension, that undergraduates aren't exposed to educated fools who have no idea how to construct, direct, or assess learning.  I'm fairly certain no chairperson or dean wants to be inundated with grade or unprofessional conduct complaints, and having once covered classes for a TA who could not take the pressure and left unexpectedly, I was told that "avoidance of all grade complaints" was the goal as I covered the last four weeks and finals while trying to salvage some shred of learning for those students.  Art Linkletter used to say that "Old age isn't for sissies," and I would revise that to "Contemporary teaching isn't for them either."  Education is an art and a skill that can be learned, but it should not come at the expense of undergraduate students paying full price.

When I think of how many times undergraduate non-English majors have told me that my class has been the first English class they've ever enjoyed or felt the freedom to really write in, I am very pleased.  I also neither appreciated or followed the advice of tenure track faculty who told me, when I was a TA and an adjunct finsihing a dissertation, to let the classes languish in favor of my own work or I would "never get done" with my degree. Do what now?  I'm supposed to give a class of students who have paid the same amount as everyone else a sub-par experience because my writing is more important?  I guess that makes sense to certain people, but most likely not those from professional education backgrounds.  I neither compromised my classes or my work and, TA-DA, degree in hand, for what good it does me. Is that what those advice-givers did?  Did they sacrifice the quality of their undergraduate teaching in favor of their own work?  Doing a dissertation is not dissimilar from working on a scholarly book, so teaching while writing should be the norm and not something to get past. 

This move to gift all the former adjunct positions to less qualified teaching associates seems a direct disservice to the many highly qualified adjuncts who do a great job AND an equally bad move for undergraduate students.  It also furthers the rift between graduate and undergraduate faculty as in, dear undergrad profs, your classes are not really worthy of anything but a learning experience for our doctoral programs.  W. O. W.  Way to undercut morale while missing the boat for on-campus recruitment and retention of majors, which seems to always be a concern we are to keep in mind.  Additionally, this particular campus likes to claim, both in PR materials and in on-campus recruitment tours, that "At mega-universities, students might catch a glimpse of the professor; too busy doing research to be in the classroom, he or she passes the class off to a graduate assistant.  Not at _(Insert name of PA State System School)___, where the professors who conduct the important research also teach the class." Furthermore, according to projected course offering data and current coverage statistics, Professor "Staff" will cover over 50% of undergraduate liberal studies required courses.  This is based only on currently scheduled courses and does not take into account those invariably added during summer orientation sessions as required courses fill to the maximum and new ones are approved for the overflow.

To compound the situation further, readers of the blog may recall that there is indeed a faculty union at this school--one that is for tenure track faculty AND adjuncts alike!  Ah but herein lies a terrible conundrum that has led me to an answer I pondered earlier:  can a union represent both tenure track and adjuncts equally?  The answer in this case is a resounding NO.  The union failed us utterly.  In the fall our concerns were treated as no major issue.  A union member sympathetic to our cause told me at one point that a policy grievance on behalf of all 15/16 of us was being filed.  It disappeared.  My contact could not discover what became of it.  I guess this place has one of Winston of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame's memory holes.  This spring, when our chair summarily dismissed us with the notice of a policy change in fact giving all the classes to graduate students, our grievance chair went from reportedly outraged, to wishy-washy in a meeting with some adjuncts, to nothing happening again as the short clock on our window to file ticked away.  What happened here? 

In the latest round of contract negotiations between this union of PA state system faculty and the state powers that be, our team stood up for adjuncts when the state wanted to reduce us all to part timers to ostensibly save a few bucks.  No, said the union.  This is wrong.  However, I believe that the union team did not go far enough to protect us.  Perhaps, being union members, they could not fathom that our very own union members, faculty themselves would then turn and do to adjuncts exactly what administration wanted in the first place!  With no explicit language in place to protect adjuncts, the wonderful conversion to tenure track option for long term temp facutly can be subverted by any department willing to flout solidarity and the spirit of the contract.  In my opinion, either this contract, voted for and approved by a statewide membership covers EVERYONE who is a member or it is a useless document fit for the bottom of birdcages.  If our nominal protections can be subverted for the will of this department or that, then why should anyone abide by the articles of it at all?  That is not solidarity, it is pick-and-choose, not unlike those people who use one verse from Leviticus to denounce their favorite sin while shoveling in likewise forbidden shellfish as they sport polyblend clothing!  

Torn Union SignAdjuncts, I think that if we are going to successfully work for better working conditions for us and better learning conditions for our students, we should trust ourselves and our OWN unions.  This situation has made it clear to me that very few people still clinging to the tenure track dream are truly concerned with the reality of the situation that their very own programs are complicit in creating.  When job searches nationwide generate 200-300+ candidates per posting, the reason so many PhDs remain jobless in the academic field is not the incompetence of those candidates, but rather the dearth of positions for which we have been trained.  It is not a case of not trying hard enough or being good enough; instead it is entirely because full time positions have been systematically reduced and divided until there is the appearance of only part time work.  The classes are there.  The money is being diverted elsewhere.  It is time to fight a system bent on perpetuating itself on the backs of adjucnt faculty and out of the pockets of parents and students.  

No comments:

Post a Comment