#contingentacademiclabor

Updated 6:50 PM, 10/24/2016:
The English Department meeting began with the chair’s announcement that there would be no layoffs this year.
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I have A LOT of thoughts about the conversation that followed, but for now it is enough to say three things. First, congratulations to my friends and colleagues. Second, thank you to everyone who tweeted, posted on facebook, wrote letters, made phone calls, and otherwise turned out to support the English Eighteen (as I will henceforward call them). It is clear that the “social media storm” – as it was called in the meeting – was a major force for good in this case. Finally, as the response to my tweet above suggests, the work to address contingent labor continues. Professor Jani is working to organize a continuation of these conversations at the next Brown Bag Lecture at OSU on November 14. The social media outreach revealed a number of organizations working to increase awareness of the struggle to achieve better working conditions in the academy. And, most importantly, we have seen clearly that #contingentacademiclabor can find support among TT faculty, part-time and temporary faculty, staff members, students, journalists, non-profit organizations, alumni, and administrators alike.

Thank you again for spreading the word and joining the fight.

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The English Department at The Ohio State University is struggling to come up with the funds to fulfill the contracts for 18 adjunct lecturers. These folks have contracts that extend through the summer of 2017, so I do not quite understand how those arrangements can be terminated but that’s where we are. I will be attending the department meeting this afternoon to learn more and show my solidarity.

The short version of the problem goes like this: When the university converted from quarters to semesters a few years ago, the department needed to find a way to cover first year writing courses that had been spread out over three terms and were now compressed into two. Under the quarter system, graduate students teaching one class per term were teaching three courses every year, but under semesters teaching one class per term meant that graduate students were teaching only two classes each year. So what to do for the 1/3 of classes that now had no instructors? As it has recently been explained to the department, “The Provost (three provosts ago) said he would pay the cost–about half a million dollars–for the Lecturers needed to cover those courses. That Provost did cover the cost at first, but over the past three years the funding has ceased to come from OAA. We do not know why. Each year the English Chair would make a “cash request” of the Dean for the half million during the budget process in the Spring, and each year s/he would wait with baited breath to find out shortly before Fall semester started whether the money would come through. This year, we put off hiring the cohort of Associated Faculty whose salaries depend on that money until about 10 days before the first day of classes, and then three days later we learned that we had been given only a fraction of the money requested.”No one has given an explanation for the shortfall, and no one at the College or the Division level appears ready to come up with the money to pay instructors (who let’s not forget already HAVE CONTRACTS FOR THE YEAR).

There is a longer version of this story that details how departments across the humanities have been asked to trim more than 10% from their budgets over the past five or six years, how the English Department has been losing full-time faculty over that period and not provided new hiring lines from the College, how the graduate program has also been recalibrated since the conversion, and how all of this plays into a broader “crisis in the humanities” or costs of undervaluing the liberal arts in favor of “STEM” or “STEAM.” That big story is important. And we should understand what is happening here as part of larger conversations happening across the country (see the strikes in PA last week or the decision to eliminate degree programs at IPFW). But we must remember that these things that seem part of larger political, fiscal, or ideological conversations are taking their tolls on campuses, in classrooms, and on students as well as their instructors.  In other words, what is happening to my friends and colleagues – here and elsewhere – is not abstract.

The news of what is happening at OSU arrived only a week after I learned of another series of layoffs at a private university where I am also adjuncting. In that case, the university’s financial crisis resulted in the dismissal of at least six full-time faculty members. The case at OSU, however, feels significantly different – and not just because OSU does not experience the kind of financial difficulties that a small, private Catholic university encounters. What is happening at OSU seems different because it appears as part of a larger pattern of OSU’s corporatism. (Some might remember this gem from a couple of years back.) It feels different because OSU is a place that tends to talk about “the student experience” rather than “student learning outcomes.” It feels different because the people who make decisions about department funding and hiring lines are often not the people in the departments or in the classrooms. It feels different because there is a strong sense that no matter how much support the English Department garners for its 18 instructors, the department will have little sway over the layers of bureaucratic decision-making. I will be interested to see what Dean, Provost, or other administrative official chimes in as the English Department wrestles with ways to fund their colleagues, to fulfill instructor contracts, to teach students, and to offer the courses that draw folks into our discipline, but I won’t be at all surprised if the decision to fire my friends comes from someone who has never served as #contingentacademiclabor.

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