The title of my presentation, "Addressing the Scarlet A: Adjuncts and the Academy," was inspired by the fact that around the country, adjunct faculty -- and not exclusively those in English departments -- have seized upon The Scarlet Letter as an allegory of what they have experienced as faculty on contingent appointments. Through media as diverse as buttons, t-shirts, signs on office doors, and digital and traditional scholarship, faculty activists have invoked the novel's themes and appropriated its symbol of shame in order to expose the way that the adjunct faculty member recalls Hester Prynne. (Not surprisingly, it is the still-majority
Transcript of "Addressing the Scarlet A: Adjuncts and the Academy"
Presentation by Maria Maisto, President, NFM and Exec Director, NFM Foundation
on the presidential panel at the 2013 convention of the Modern Language Association
Boston, MA January 3, 2013
Faculty activists' clever use of The Scarlet Letter in their advocacy represents an increasing awareness of the importance of "accessibility" -- to invoke the theme of this convention -- in and to the movement for contingent faculty equity. So what I would like to offer are three strategies for making our communication more accessible to the wider audience we know we need to reach, and thereby more effective. I've articulated them in language that we often use when we give feedback on our students' essays, in part as a reminder that what we do is so intricately connected to what we do for students. However, my suggestions are also the result of NFM's effort to construct our strategies intentionally, through constant reflection on the theory and process of change.
My suggestions are that we must 1) revise the argument; 2) tell the stories; and 3) pay attention to language.
1. Revise the argument. If you review the history of activism on behalf of contingent faculty, it becomes clear that the fundamental structure of the argument for reform has always included as its primary warrant, or rationale, the immorality of exploitative practices. A good example of this is the Wyoming Resolution of 1986, later adopted by the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which begins with the following "Whereas" clause:
WHEREAS, the salaries and working conditions of post-secondary teachers with primary responsibility for the teaching of writing are fundamentally unfair as judged by any reasonable professional standards (e.g., unfair in excessive teaching loads, unreasonably large class sizes, salary inequities, lack of benefits and professional status, and barriers to professional advancement)...
It is no surprise to me that the authors of this resolution were so attuned to the injustice of contingent employment and so sincere in their resolve to address it. They, and many of the activists before and since who have taken on this quest, have in common a highly developed, inspirational sense of justice and fairness. As a parent, I would be eager to have my children taught by professionals like them.
However, as a former child and now a parent, I also understand that the appeal to justice and fairness does not always translate well into action. This is NOT, I would like to stress, to say that justice and fairness should be abandoned, either as goals for which to strive or as principles by which to live. Rather, it is to say that if we are to achieve those goals and live by those values, then sometimes we have to find different ways of thinking about and articulating them.
female contingent faculty who are drawn most readily to the Hester Prynne analogy.)
Contingent faculty and their supporters have found The Scarlet Letter to be a good conversation starter because its place in American culture makes it a useful point of reference for explaining contingency to non-academic audiences. For example, my friend and colleague Sue Doe referred to the novel in her testimony before the Colorado state legislature in support of a bill -- which passed -- allowing multi-year contracts at state colleges and universities, explaining that "[O]nce a person has worn the Scarlet A for Adjunct for even two or three years, it becomes increasingly difficult to have any opportunity for a different kind of appointment."
This is precisely what we have done at NFM. Rather than leading with the statement that contingent faculty working conditions are exploitative, we lead with the statement that "faculty working conditions are student learning conditions." We were not the originators of this slogan , but it is our operating principle. We use it not because we believe that faculty are not exploited, but rather because one of the most important lessons we have learned in our short existence is that all of the arguments that we make about the need for reform of NTT faculty working conditions must be linked to the fundamental principle that students and faculty deserve access to quality higher education.
We learned this lesson through an interesting interaction with, of all entities, the IRS, which I've written about elsewhere if you're interested in that story. Essentially, the IRS was not convinced that advocating for contingent faculty could possibly fit the definition of a "public charity" charged with advancing education. They didn't get our unstated assumption (because it was unstated!) that education is a public good and that students are harmed when their teachers are not respected or supported. Michael reflected on this very problem -- the problem of assuming that an audience shares your understanding and your value system -- at our summit and in his column reflecting on the summit. He suggested that in communicating with those outside of higher education, we have to be aware that
tell[ing] people that non-tenure-track faculty members need a measure of job security and academic freedom if they are going to be able to do their jobs . . . amounts . . . to telling parents, students, administrators, and legislators that they have to fight for the right of professors to challenge their students intellectually. . . . This argument will resonate with people who understand what higher education is all about. They are a subset of the American electorate, but they know why academic freedom is essential to an open society, and they believe in the promise of higher education. The question is whether they can be persuaded that the promise of higher education is undermined when three-quarters of the professoriate is made up of los precarios.
If we are going to make the case that the promise of higher education is undermined when 75% of the professoriate is exploited, then, we need to lead with a conversation about the promise of higher education itself. What is that promise? To whom is it made -- or in the language of this convention, who has access to it? Is the promise of education made to faculty too? How is the promise of education fulfilled? What are the conditions necessary for it to be fulfilled?
We soon found that others working on this issue were coming to a similar realization about the need to refocus the conversation. Revising the argument to emphasize educational quality is exactly what USC Associate Professor and NFM member Adrianna Kezar has done in conceptualizing her groundbreaking Delphi Project, which the MLA is involved with along with NFM, all of the faculty unions, and representatives of almost every sector of higher education, from administrators to accreditors to the AGB. The project's full title is The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success. By foregrounding research and practice that tie support for faculty to support for students, it debunks the notion, currently in vogue, that making all faculty positions contingent is somehow good for higher education.
Now, I know that when faculty hear that educational quality is being invoked as an argument against contingency, their immediate, and understandable fear is that the argument will be construed as a direct attack on the credentials, professionalism, and even character of the faculty members in question. (That's why Michael has requested that we consider solutions that do not devalue the work of NTT faculty.) This fear is legitimate, and I will address it a bit later. For now, I want to be clear that in encouraging that we revise our argument to emphasize educational quality, I am NOT saying that statements about the exploitation of faculty should be eliminated or even downplayed or minimized. What I am saying instead is that as a matter of rhetorical strategy, the idea of exploitation should be reframed. Exploitation as a violation of justice and fairness should not be separated from the concept of educational quality, but rather fully integrated into it.
Here is another way of putting it. A practical program to reverse exploitative practices is not only consistent with but is in fact rooted in the fundamental purpose of education in and for a democratic society. To explain this idea, I'd like to quote historian Rich Moser, an NFM member and trusted advisor, who I believe has articulated it best. At a meeting of the Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor, Rich observed that “the campus is a distinctive but integral part of the broader society serving the public good. If we take a step further and define the public interest as the defense of core values, then the campus should become an exemplar of freedom, democracy, equality, and justice. The constitution of the campus could be considered its most important pedagogy and the efforts to shape that constitution our best classroom.” As my late colleague and friend Steve Street and I observed, writing about this in AAC&U's journal Liberal Education, "there are few more compelling definitions of the purpose and process of education. As every parent and every educator knows, there is no better—or more unforgiving—pedagogical tool than the power of example."
2. Tell the stories. My second suggestion for making our argument more accessible is based on what we so often tell our students when their papers have a great thesis but not enough evidence -- or poorly organized and presented evidence -- to support it. There are a number of stories and ways to tell these stories out there, ready to be used. The problem is that they are too often not accessible, and, I'm sorry to say, that sometimes we don't make them accessible to each other. Not because we are being proprietary about them, but rather because we adjuncts, like our stories, are not organized enough.
Consider, too, these stats: according to the AFT, of the 10.4% of faculty positions held by members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, 7.6% are contingent -- which means that 73% of underrepresented faculty hold contingent positions. Tonight you are hearing some additional examples of effective storytelling in the service of the argument that we all deserve access to quality education. In addition to these stories, we at NFM have been working on telling stories about the effects of contingency on quality to legislators and policymakers. We are tapping into demands for more information, like the Students' Right to Know Before You Go bill and the White House College Scorecard. Part of the goal of NFM and its Foundation, then, is to be a national clearinghouse, a library, a hub, a center -- that provides activists with access to the stories they need -- and the fellow storytellers with whom to work -- to make their argument most effectively. It is no coincidence that organization is a fundamental principle of both social activism and effective communication. That was part of the point of our summit earlier this year -- to present the stories and to connect the storytellers. We are quite proud of the fact that our summit, by connecting Josh Boldt to Michael Berube, led to one of the biggest stories of the year: the launch of The Adjunct Project. As you've heard, The Adjunct Project has been part of an unprecedented convergence of data collection efforts around adjunct faculty working conditions, along with the MLA's fantastic database and the Coalition on the Academic Workforce's contingent faculty salary survey. I don't know about you, but for me as a person of letters more than I've ever been a person of numbers, the narrative power of the numbers that these projects are revealing is awe-inspiring.
For example: at the college where I teach, Cuyahoga Community College, the number of non-tenure-track faculty has gone from 14.1% in 1995 to 77.7% in 2009 (10% part-time in 1995 to 76.3% part-time in 2009), according to the handy MLA database.
According to the CAW survey, annualizing contingent faculty compensation reveals that the difference, in terms of dollars and as a percentage, between what faculty make and what peers with the same level of education make working outside of higher ed, ranges from a low of $21,950 (65%) to a high of $69,500 (310%).
As I mentioned, The Delphi Project (which recently administered a very revealing survey to two national deans' organizations) has also been compiling research and stories of best practices to share, and our NFM Foundation just this past summer published a report based on our back-to-school survey of contingent faculty hiring practices. It harnesses the narrative power of quantitative and qualitative analysis -- numbers and stories -- to explain how faculty working conditions affect student learning conditions.
For our report, produced with the Center for the Future of Higher Education, we framed the issue of quality around the student's experience of being faced with a professor made invisible, powerless, and anonymous as well as the faculty members' experiences of either donating or being denied the tools and support that colleges should be providing.
Our survey, like the CLIP departmental questionnaire released last year, is a story-creating tool that all institutions and faculty groups should use in the pursuit of quality. Our finding -- that anywhere from 30 to 60% of contingent faculty are getting their teaching assignments with three
weeks or fewer to prepare, with scanty access to professional tools from offices to parking passes, and in spite of the fact that a significant number have taught at their institutions for years and even decades, is a powerful counter-narrative to institutional claims of the need for flexibility and more managerial control. We support that counter-narrative by invoking the voices of students and also administrators. Community college students reported on one recent survey that that they are very much aware of what is going on and do not appreciate being shortchanged with ever dwindling access to the teaching, advising, and mentoring that they want and need:
In a recent Gates Foundation survey, community college students said introductory courses -- the ones most likely to be taught by adjuncts and subject to JIT ["Just in Time"] hiring -- "are not offered in a way to help them succeed." Faculty "who offer support and guidance" are "in high demand" but "hard to come by.” In 2008, the then-vice president for human resources at the University of Akron, A.G. Monaco, declared, "Wal-Mart is a more honest employer of part-time [faculty] than are most colleges and universities."
Research like this exposes the stark difference between institutional policies that are self- serving and activist arguments that are student-serving.
Another project we are working on to tell the story of how adjunct working conditions affect the quality of education focuses on one of the other important themes of this conference -- access for people with disabilities. Our acting research director, Marisa Allison, just wrote a brief for the most recent newsletter of the GWU Heath Resource Center, an online clearinghouse on postsecondary education for individuals with disabilities. It explains the impact of contingent academic employment on students with disabilities -- how poor working conditions obstruct contingent faculty from serving these students. As the mother of a child with Asperger's, and an instructor who has supported students with disabilities by sacrificing resources I needed to provide for my own family, I am very committed to the story of how "avenues of access" -- for contingent faculty and for persons (and families of persons) with disabilities -- converge.
I'd also like to make a plug for continuing to expand access to contingent faculty stories more generally. From listserv testimonials to documentaries to novels and artwork, the stories are out there in abundance. There is subversive fiction, and humor -- Fight for Your Long Day, True Adjunct Tales, Doonesbury. True stories about adjuncts like Doug Wright and Sissy Bradford. Ghosts in the Classroom, Teachers on Wheels, 'Junct, Con Job. Our colleague, Vanessa Vaile, has been at the forefront of our social media efforts, singlehandedly curating the most comprehensive collection of stories about the contingent faculty experience that currently exists. She has also been responsible for connecting so many storytelling activists to each other that she should have the title "national adjunct faculty organizer." Appropriately, one of the sites she manages is called "A is for Adjunct."
At this point, I'd like to address again the constant fear that focusing on educational quality will devalue or blame adjuncts themselves. On this particular issue I'd like to suggest that unearthing and curating and disseminating the stories of the adjunct experience is the natural antidote to the perception that the problem lies purely with the adjuncts themselves. In fact there is a reason that the system has stumbled along and not collapsed, unlike the effort of the NFL team owners to replace the cohort of "real" refs with replacements. Unlike the replacement refs, adjuncts are not incompetent. They are not fake professors; they are real ones. If they were really incompetent, the system would have collapsed ages ago. So that is the paradox of the argument about the effect of contingency on quality.
Some people believe that the dedication and success of adjunct faculty in spite of their working conditions should not be the theme of the stories of adjunct experience. Such "heroic narratives," they contend, undermine the thesis that the quality of education is being negatively affected. Or as one administrator put it, if adjuncts are always surmounting the obstacles that are placed in front of them, then what incentive do institutions have to change their ways?
My response to that is that adjuncts risk nothing by striving for professionalism and telling the stories of what it takes to provide it -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- in the face of considerable obstacles. Again, our argument -- supported by considerable research -- is about the structural inequality of the contingent system, not the individual quality of the instructors.
As one colleague once put it, adjuncts shouldn't worry about being blamed for any negative effects of contingency because if the adjunct is performing poorly, then it can be attributed to the poor working conditions. If the adjunct is performing adequately or exceptionally, then it is in spite of the conditions. The onus is on institutions, not instructors, to make "all things equal" so that adequate comparisons among instructor quality can be made. Adjuncts, simply put, should not be afraid to advance the argument, and the research, that shows that their working conditions affect student learning conditions negatively.
3. Be attentive to language: Finally, I'd like to address the perennial issue of language. As illustrated in my last point about the fear of being blamed personally for any decline in quality, we know that no matter how much we stress working conditions, some audiences are going to hear what one listener heard when listening to a recent Washington DC NPR show on adjunct faculty organizing: "So you mean that I'm paying for steak and getting hamburger? I'm not getting a real professor?" Clearly the response to that is, "no, you're getting steak, but you need to call the health department, known as accreditors in higher ed, to expose the colleges' lack of safe food handling practices."
So our job is to be attentive to language, both in conversations within our communities and outside them.
Here is another perennial example. Many people focus on the problematic language of titles: adjunct; lecturer; etc. While this can be a distracting enterprise, it can also be empowering. We can take a lesson from Hester Prynne, and make the badge that is intended to humiliate us into one that honors us.
I have suggested, for example, that rather than continuing to use the words "adjunct," contingent" or any of the other terms out there, we should use the expression "extraordinary faculty." This idea came through a tenured friend at Georgetown who refers to tenure-stream faculty as "ordinary" faculty. The term suggests that faculty work should be so essential to the institutional mission as to be “unmarked” in linguistic terms while at the same time allowing NTT faculty work to be “marked” as “extraordinary.” I like "extraordinary” because of its positive and negative connotation: it communicates both the heroism necessary, and often exhibited by, the majority faculty in order to teach well in the current system, and the appalling nature of the system itself. As a final practical suggestion, we should be attentive to language by getting involved in debates that specifically involve language, especially definition. This may be shaping up as one of the most promising avenues of reform on the horizon. Most of these definitional issues are coming up around labor and employment issues and human resources, which Beth Landers has addressed. These issues are already on the radar screen of legislators and policymakers, under the umbrella of "misclassification of workers." My own senator, Sherrod Brown, co-sponsored the first bill addressing this widespread problem: The Employee Misclassification Prevention Act, or EMPA.
Three manifestations of this problem in higher education have been very prominent recently, and we can use that wonderful expression "trying to have their cake and eat it too" to describe how colleges have manipulated definitions in order to derive the benefits of using those employees without having to incur the costs associated with using them.
Unemployment Compensation: To adjuncts, colleges say you have "no expectancy of continued employment," while to the Dept of Jobs and Family Services, they say these faculty have "reasonable assurance of continued employment." Exposing and correcting this contradiction is the focus of our Unemployment Compensation Initiative. Finally, looking at contingency from an HR perspective brings up the ubiquitous but little understood definition of exempt vs non-exempt employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, like unemployment, is under the jurisdiction of the DOL. The category "Exempt" is DOL jargon for "exempt from hourly wages and overtime." Just like they do with unemployment, colleges disingenuously classify extraordinary faculty one way for one purpose and a different way for another purpose, all to the benefit of the institution, not the faculty member or the student.
So my last and most practical recommendation to this assembly is that the MLA, as the leading association devoted to language and letters in higher ed, ought to take a leading role in these language and definition-dependent policy issues.
To conclude, I don't pretend to be a Hawthorne scholar or to have studied The Scarlet Letter as carefully as so many of those here present. However, I believe that the novel provides us with some powerful strategies for confronting contingency.
How does Hester Prynne co-opt a symbol meant to shame her and reshape the argument over what her future would be? As my colleague Anne Wiegard has put it, Hester performs an act of resignification, finding a way to tell her story the way she wants it expressed. She makes a beautiful “A”, altering the form of the letter artistically with vivid embroidery the color of sacrifice and of passion, and displays it prominently. Instead of rendering the letter on a small scale and trying to hide it, she embraces it and owns it.
Adjuncts and full-time contingent faculty - extraordinary faculty -- are now the majority. It’s time for us, and for those with whom and for whom we work, to change the conversation from a legalistic and mean-spirited debate over who "deserves" to have access to the highest possible quality education, either as a student or a faculty member, to a conversation about how to ensure that the social contract at the heart of education is nourished and strengthened for the good of all, so that one day the scarlet "A for Adjunct" will, to paraphrase Hawthorne, "cease to be a stigma which attracts higher education's scorn and bitterness, and becomes a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too."