CUNY Panel: Labor Justice in Writing Programs

On Friday, December 4, 2015, New York area faculty and graduate students gathered at Guttman Community College, CUNY, near Bryant Park for the 11th annual Mina Shaughnessy Speaker Series – Labor Justice in Writing Programs: Strategies for Building Solidarity. Among the speakers for this year’s program was the MLA Committee on Contingent Labor in the Profession’s (CLiP) own Nicole B. Wallack, senior lecturer and director of the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University. The goals of the presentation were to:

  • Recognize resources/privileges available to attendees;
  • Identify and access people who can make decisions regarding working conditions at our institutions;
  • Explore what actions are already underway on our campus to improve conditions for contingent faculty;
  • Learn about actions for NFM, COCAL, and within disciplinary organizations, that could help us to prioritize or focus our work for the immediate future;
  • Understand alternative possibilities for solidarity when unions are legally restricted.

Sean Molloy, a Writing Across the Curriculum fellow at Hunter College served as the panel’s “warm-up act,” speaking about the career of Anthony Gallo Penali, a writing instructor in CUNY’s SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program, which formed in 1965 to expand college opportunities for students in impoverished New York City communities. Molloy pointed out that, despite an acknowledgement from SEEK co-founder Leslie Berger that “teaching a writing course requires far more time commitment than any other type of course” and Penali’s extensive contributions to SEEK, his position in the program was contingent. Molloy concluded his remarks by suggesting that Penali’s legacy challenges the notion that contingent faculty are fungible, expendable, and forgettable.

Leo Parascondola, adjunct professor at William Patterson University, opened the main panel, discussing his experiences as a member of the MLA Graduate Student Caucus, which introduced a number of resolutions related to graduate student and contingent labor during the Delegate Assembly at the annual conventions, including a 1999 call for graduate student employment by professors to be viewed as labor, even if the professor/employer is also the student’s academic mentor. He pointed to administration views of contingent and graduate student labor as profit centers as the impetus for many efforts to exploit non-tenure-line faculty.

Parascondola concluded his presentation by asserting that current efforts by university administrators to replace tenured positions with contingent labor leads naturally to a division between full-time and part-time non-tenure-line faculty, with full-time faculty fearing the loss of their jobs to part-time instructors. Parascondola argued that the best way to combat this division is for non-tenure-line faculty to unionize.

CLiP’s Nichole B. Wallack began her presentation by pointing out that Columbia University’s undergraduate writing program is composed entirely of non-tenure-line faculty, making the university’s required writing course the only element of the core curriculum to be taught entirely by non-tenure-line instructors. Following up on Paranscondola’s discussion of early writing program activism, Wallack focused on the importance of tapping into the energy generated by labor justice frustration, challenging the audience to consider what can be done “before the resolution happens.” She asserted that one possible answer lies in naturalizing the discussion of contingent labor issues during academic governance conversations at all levels.

Wallack suggested that a pathway to this naturalization lies in the question: “What does it mean when we speak with, speak for, and speak as contingent faculty?” The answer, she posited, is not as straightforward as it seems since many tenured faculty don’t know how the term “adjunct” is applied at their universities or what an adjunct faculty contract entails. She stressed the importance of discussion, rather than guessing at the needs of different contingent faculty groups. This discussion must take place on multiple levels, including within academic departments, in faculty senates, and at national gatherings like the MLA convention. Wallack concluded her remarks by pointing to contingent labor activism at Columbia, where the faculty senate has drafted a resolution calling for longer notice periods for nonrenewal of contingent faculty contracts, and the Committee on the Core is pressing for the university to adopt the MLA’s recommended professional guidelines for contingent faculty contracts.

The final speaker, Seth Kahn, tenured professor of English at West Chester University, turned the panel’s focus toward engaging with activism at a moment when “the zeitgeist for academic labor is the most powerful it has ever been.” While Kahn acknowledged the natural reticence of many contingent faculty toward becoming activists, he also stressed the importance of solidarity and the potential for tapping into existing contingent labor efforts. He highlighted the experience of writing instructors at Arizona State University, who saw their teaching loads increased with no additional compensation in 2014. They were able to use Change.org, a WordPress blog, and a Twitter campaign to bring national attention to the issue and effect change.

Kahl also highlighted the importance of challenging assertions by university administrators that contingent labor decisions are the result of financial necessity, citing the efforts of Howard Bunsis, accounting professor and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) member, to teach faculty how to audit university budgets and confront misrepresentations about their programs’ finances. Kahn concluded his presentation by urging contingent faculty to make use of data available from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce and the Delphi Project to inform their campus activism.

The panel was followed by an audience discussion, during which attendees were also encouraged to text questions for the wrap-up Q&A. One issue raised regarded the extent to which students can or should be made aware of contingent labor issues. While a clear consensus couldn’t be reached during the time allowed, several possible approaches were raised, including explaining reasonable boundaries on faculty time to students within the context of contingent labor conditions, approaching student newspapers about covering contingent activism, and incorporating a discussion of contingent labor on campus into orientation week programs. Overall, the panel was both engaging and informative – offering the audience perspectives on a multi-level approach to addressing questions of academic labor justice in university writing programs.

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