Thoughts on “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor”

I’ve watched “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor” twice now today, even though I don’t have anywhere close to enough time to be doing that– and I don’t have time to write this post, either. But I kind of can’t help myself, I suppose….

Anyway on the positive side:

  • It’s probably the most heart-felt and honest discussion about the problems of adjunct/contingent/non-tenure-track faculty teaching writing in college I’ve ever seen.  The movie features both adjuncts and tenure-track faculty from all over the country  who are interested in these labor issues. Though it’s only about teaching first year writing– I’ll come back to that in the “not so positive side” of things– the things these folks are talking about here are raw and real.  Not a lot of punches held back.
  • I talk to a lot of MA students (or would-be MA students) who tell me that they’re interested in our program in Written Communication because they are hoping to teach first year writing at a community college and they figure they’ll get started with part-time work and take it from there. I try to explain why that isn’t the best of plans, but I think they often think I’m just being a pessimist. This video ought to be required viewing for these people.
  • There are a lot of good ideas toward the end of the movie to help with the “adjunct problem,” most of which has to do with (basically) reimagining how it is we hire people to teach courses like first year writing. What we try to do at EMU with lecturer positions is sort of an example, but it’s worth getting to the end to hear some of those smart ideas.
  • This is the clearest argument I’ve seen in a long long time in support of the “abolitionist” school of thought regarding first year writing alá Sharon Crowley and others. In brief, that position is higher education should eliminate the “universal” requirement for first year writing because the labor conditions necessary to teach so many sections of fycomp are blatantly unethical. (Often included in the abolitionist argument is the claim that first year writing is of limited pedagogical value, but I’m not going to go there for now.) So instead of making every first year student take fycomp, simply staff as many as you can with GAs, tenure-track faculty, and teaching but non-tenure-track faculty (albeit inevitably “second tier” faculty, which is its own problem) who have adequate training, who are treated more fairly, etc., etc. If that means at a place like EMU we’re only able to offer 25 sections of first year writing instead of 100, so be it.

The downside of this is you have to be careful what you wish for. If students didn’t have to take first year writing at a place like EMU, fewer students would obviously take the class, and that would have an impact on department credit hour production, which in turn would have implications beyond the adjunct problem in fycomp. That credit hour production from the required sections of first year writing helps to offset the lower enrollment in other upper-level courses and it also helps us justify tenure-track hires. Further, a lot of the adjuncts complaining now about the injustices of their current employment would simply be out of the classroom entirely.

And this brings me to some of the not so positive sides of this movie:

  • This isn’t about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in “Higher Education” generally; this is specifically and exclusively about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in first year writing. I can understand why this is the case– the folks who made this movie were adjunct first year writing teachers– but to me it’s a striking weakness of this project.  Why didn’t they talk to adjuncts in other fields? How hard would it have been to have done that? It suggests that the long-standing argument about the adjunctification of higher education generally might indeed be mostly limited to first year writing, and if that’s the case, then the solution of abolishing the requirement is all the more appealing.
  • It’s difficult for me as a tenured professor to know how I’m supposed to situate myself as an audience to this piece. This is the case with a lot of this genre. A lot of the commentary from adjuncts in the movie is angry and even hostile to tenure-track faculty– or it at least puts me on the defensive– with repeated claims that contingent faculty are “just as good” as tenure-track faculty, that the jobs are no different, that the conditions are arbitrary, and so forth.  Besides the fact that that isn’t true– that is, the jobs are different in a myriad of ways and tenure-track faculty tend to have more degrees, experience teaching, etc– it’s difficult for me to grab on to how I’m supposed to react to this. “We don’t like your privilege, but what many/most of us want is a tenure-track job.” “We don’t like how you are abusing us, but we want you to help us.” It’s a strange space to be in. If I’m sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help; if I’m not sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help.
  • I thought that a lot of the folks interviewed for this were oddly naive and otherwise unaware of how “the system” works regarding adjunct labor. What I mean is while I think their critiques of what’s wrong with the adjunctification of higher education are spot-on (and again, that’s what’s good about this movie), I find it surprising that they didn’t seem to know this when they started down the adjunct path.  For example, a couple of folks seemed disappointed that their part-time teaching job has turned out to not be a way to wiggle into a tenure-track position. And along these lines a lot of these folks (maybe most of them?) seemed to be trying to make the adjunct life work by stringing together gigs at two or three different places, something that is a recipe for bad teaching and grumpy teachers. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been blogging about this for a long time, maybe it’s because I’ve always told adjuncts that this is not a way to get a tenure-track job and this is not a way to make a full-time income, and maybe it’s because of my comfy job security in a tough market. It just seems a lot of these people should have known better. Which leads me to my next point:
  • There is no doubt that “the system” exploits adjuncts. They do it because (as someone says in the movie) administrators are “addicted” to cheap labor, and administrators are playing off of the “do it for the love” of the job (and not the pay or the security or whatever) that just about everyone who teaches has. The folks in this video clearly feel exploited, and one of the things that also comes up somewhat indirectly is the extent to which  exploited adjuncts are women. That said, I think these folks are allowing themselves to be exploited. Miya Tokumitsu has an absolutely brilliant essay about this here, “In the Name of Love” that was originally published in Jacobin, so I’ll just point there for the time being.
  • Because here’s the thing: I can understand the frustration and sadness that comes from being stuck in this exploited position especially after you have a dream or a calling for this work and you’re not successful at it. I was in an MFA program; I am familiar with the “failed dreams” of would-be novelists. But these folks all have advanced degrees and undoubtably could remake themselves into gainfully employed people outside of academia. They aren’t “trapped” the same way that exploited workers are in other lines of work– migrant workers, the fast food worker without a high school diploma, and so forth. Universities are exploiting folks by offering them jobs at shitty wages, no doubt about that. But folks are allowing themselves to be exploited by agreeing to take those jobs. Universities aren’t going to stop exploiting adjuncts until would-be adjuncts stop  agreeing to being exploited.
Posted in Academia, Teaching, The Happy Academic | 4 Comments

A few random thoughts on the VCU MFA reunion

"Borrowed" from Pam Gerhardt--

“Borrowed” from Pam Gerhardt–

This coming weekend is the 30th anniversary reunion for Virginia Commonwealth University’s MFA program in creative writing. Originally, I thought I was going, but delays in information about the schedule of events, conflicting life events and obligations, and this pesky day job that makes getting to and from Richmond on a weekend in the middle of the term ultimately are all preventing it.

And actually as I think about it right now, that’s been the story of my life regarding reunions. I missed my 20th high school reunion because I was in Hawaii. I’m missing this one because of the above, but oddly and for unrelated reasons, I’ll be in New Orleans. Maybe I don’t actually like reunions but I am not willing to admit it. Maybe I want to lock the past in the past. There is something to be said for that.

I started in the MFA program in 1988 in large part because Greg Donovan, the director of the program then and I think the director of it now, called me up and offered me a graduate assistantship. I recall being rather coy and full of myself, saying something about mulling over other offers– which I had, sort of. I had been admitted to a couple of other programs but without funding. Greg said something like “Well, it’s not worth it to go into a lot of debt to get a degree in creative writing” and I was signed up.

At 22, I was the youngest person in the program at the time I was there– maybe up to that point. I always thought this gave me certain advantages because if I did something good, people would say “yes, and he’s only 22!” whereas if I did something bad, people would say “well, he’s only 22.”

I don’t want to romanticize it all now– there were a lot of “bad times” of various kinds and flavors, mostly of the sort that I think to happen to any 20-something graduate student living far from home– but I mostly hold on to the good. I think it says something that I’m on much better “Facebook-like” friend relations with people from my MFA program than I am with people from my PhD program. Oh, Annette and I still have some good friends from Bowling Green days, but the PhD was rather “intense” (to put it mildly) and didn’t exactly foster social bonds that well. I don’t like this word, but there was a lot more “camaraderie” in the MFA program, maybe because we were helping each other try to be artists, maybe because a short story or essay workshop class can seem a lot like group therapy. Maybe I feel that way now just because I was so much younger and way WAY more naive.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and when I get a chance to advise students now about whether or not to go into a creative writing program, I always say that it’s a great opportunity just as long as you realize that it doesn’t inherently translate into a job after you finish. You won’t find a lot of ads on Craigslist or that say “MFA in fiction writing required,” with the exception of jobs actually teaching creative writing, and those positions are few and far between. What I got out of it was the luxury and privilege of being with a group of other people who all cared passionately about their writing. In a lot of ways, it didn’t even matter a whole lot if that writing was any good or not.

And who knows? I’m on sabbatical next winter (the story of that is another post I’m mulling over), and it might be time for me to take up foolish things again, things like making something up.

Posted in Friends, Fun, Life, Writing | Leave a comment

CCCC 14 in Indianapolis Recap

A recap of (for me) a very MOOC-centric CCCCs, more or less in this order and/or with some recall help from my Twitter feed as notes:

  • Indianapolis is about a four hour drive from Ypsilanti, so even though I wasn’t all that excited about going there specifically (or unexcited– Indianapolis strikes me as being the quintessentially average midwestern city), it’s nice being close enough to drive. That won’t be the case for a few more years– Pittsburgh will be in 2019.
  • I wasn’t very diligent about making hotel arrangements early because I sort of figured I could find a cheaper hotel near the conference hotel a month or so in advance.  No dice– nothing was available Tuesday night and all of the downtown hotels were about the same price, I guess because of other conventions/events going on, including an enormous middle school/high school girls volleyball tournament. Luckily, my friend, colleague and much better planner Derek Mueller made a reservation at the conference hotel and I was able to room with him.
  • Unlucky for me though, I had to leave early Wednesday morning to be on a roundtable discussion about MOOCs that was part of the Council of Basic Writing Pre-Conference Workshop.  Made it with about 40 minutes to spare. A good chat and I got a chance to reconnect with MOOC book contributors Jeff Grabill and Ben McCorkle, and I also got a chance to briefly participate with an interest group at the CCCCs that is largely foreign to me.
  • Spent some time playing with the Twitter stream #4C14 and posted this picture of a tweet of a previous tweet of me taking a picture of the Twitter stream screen. Perhaps its best not to think about that too much.
  • The JW Marriott was a pretty swanky-nice place and one of what seemed like 5 Marriott hotel products within a five block radius, but wifi in the room was $15 extra, so I spent a fair amount of time Wednesday afternoon (before going off to functions like the Purdue party) in the lobby with the laptop, catching up– always catching up….
  • Thursday was my main busy day. I started off by doing something I haven’t done in a while: I attended one of these publisher focus group things where they are simultaneously seeking advice and trying to sell you a product. I don’t want to be too specific least I violate some clause in my agreement to participate (though I don’t remember signing anything like that), but it was about an online/portal product. What I was more struck by than anything else was the variety of different kinds of institutions and approaches to things like first year writing represented. It’s a problem for publishers for sure. I mean, courses like “Biology 101″ are pretty much taught the same way everywhere, so it’s relatively easily for publishers to produce textbooks that satisfy a broad audience. On the other hand, the dozen (or so) people at this focus group thing represented a dozen or so different approaches to “freshmen comp,” and some of the differences were pretty striking.
  • Jim Ridolfo and I had a nice moment in the Parlor Press booth. Here’s a picture I took of him taking a picture of his book The Available Means of Persuasion; here’s a picture he took of me doing the same with Invasion of the MOOCs.
  • I went to a session called “Composition MOOCs and Pedagogy by the Thousands:  Reflections on Four Open Education Innovations” that featured Joe Moxley and Rebecca Burnett, and also comp/rhet teachers and MOOC book contributors Karen Head, Kay Halasek, and Denise Comer.  A good talk, and some of the takeaways for me:
    • Running MOOCs is very labor-intensive, involving lots and lots of people who all have to be involved in changes/revisions (“it takes a team”), lots of hours of time developing them, etc., etc. Kay described the model as “not sustainable” in terms of labor and time (this seemed to be the sentiment of others too), which seems to me to be obviously at odds with those who see MOOCs as part of the “solution” to the cost problems of higher education.
    • There were a lot of interesting questions/discussion coming out of this group about why students sign up for MOOCs in the first place and just what exactly MOOCs are for.  Everyone on the panel was quick to say they didn’t think their MOOCs should be for credit at their institutions and they implied they shouldn’t be for credit anywhere else. Of course, that’s not what a lot of administrators and legislators are thinking.
    • On the up-side, these folks all had good things to say about the interactions with students from around the world. On the downside, lots and lots and lots of problems with Coursera; stalkers; unintended consequences for students in other countries (Karen told an interesting story about some of the problems female students in Iran faced through these assignments and peer review); FERPA.
    • I tried to ask a question but it didn’t come out very well, but basically, a lot of what they were all talking about to me just suggested a further disconnect between some of the intentions of MOOCs and what has actually resulted. What I mean is I think the ideal audience for all of these writing MOOCs has been introductory college students around the world– a fairly broad audience that isn’t just made up of American 18-year-olds, but that assumes students who are just beginning higher education. Instead, what we’ve generally seen that a high percentage of MOOC students already have a degree, have no interest in the course for credit, and are taking the course for “edutainment.” Anyway, I don’t think I asked my question that well, but I also don’t think the answer was as clear as it could have been.
  • Then it was time for the session I organized, “MOOCing Back to School: A Roundtable of Professors as Students in Massive Online Open Courses.” I thought it went okay; unfortunately, Alex Reid couldn’t make it, but he did blog about what he would have said here. I thought Liz Losh’s opening statement was pretty interesting because I think it was a preview of her forthcoming book The War on Learning. For what it’s worth, here’s a link to my opener. I think the real value of the discussion was during the Q&A, and I guess the thing I remember now was it occurred to me during the session how our reactions as MOOC students was a lot more mixed than the reactions/presentations about MOOCs from teachers in the previous session. It makes me wonder: what would it be like to bring a group of actual first year composition students to the CCCCs and have them talk about their experiences in the class? Where would there be overlap and discrepancies from the teachers’ experiences?
  • After that, it was a book signing/meet-n-greet sort of thing in the Parlor Press booth for Invasion of the MOOCs. It was cool, though kind of weird too.  I actually did sign two books, one for a friend and one for a very nervous grad student, which was both kind of flattering and a little strange. But it was nice meeting some of the contributors and just generally kind of hanging around and getting some good vibes about the book project.
  • Then I went to a session organized by Derek, “Polymorphic Frames of Pre-Tenure WPAs.” I missed the first couple of speakers, but they all did these short “ignite” styled presentations and put them on YouTube, so follow that link and you can get a pretty good flavor.  I thought it was a pretty good and spirited discussion, though it also made me feel old because I interviewed at least four of the people on that panel. Thursday night was the annual Bedford-St.Martin’s party (always a hit, especially with the grad students looking for free food and drink) and then some dinner with Benninghoff, Bill, and one of Bill’s old grad students.
  • Friday was quite a bit more low-key. I spent a fair amount of time working in the lobby bar (always catching up and online teaching never sleeps), which was actually a kind of good way to socialize– folks would come by and chat with me, I’d work some more, etc. I went to the Committee on Computers in Composition and Communication (or the “7Cs”) which I kind of had to go to after stirring the pot about the conference on the tech-rhet mailing list. And I had a fantastic night out with my friends Karen and John Mauk. We went to a place called Harry and Izzy’s Steakhouse, which is the “sister restaurant” of St. Elmo’s Steakhouse. Besides steak (obviously), both of these places are known for some pretty dramatically sinus-clearing cocktail sauce with their shrimp cocktail. Great stuff.

So a good conference for me, one of the best CCCCs I’ve had in memory. I guess a lot of it has to do with the book– I got a lot of positive vibes/shout-outs for it and it’s kind of cool to have people coming up to you and saying they’re going to buy it or they’ve downloaded it or are looking forward to it or what-have-you. And I also got a lot to think about in terms of the sabbatical project on MOOCs– or potential project. More on that later.

Addendum: As I mentioned originally, I went to the 7Cs meeting on Friday afternoon at the conference, mostly because I kind of felt like I had to after “stirring the pot” a bit on the tech-rhet mailing list. Someone on Facebook wondered why I didn’t talk more about that 7Cs experience, so I thought I’d add more– a slightly edited version of my email response on tech-rhet.

I did attend the open meeting part of the 7Cs (or 8Cs– whose counting?) and I’m glad I did for a number of reasons. First, I think the last time I went to something like this was when there was C&W-type SIG event way back when. I can’t recall ever going to one of these meetings nor reading any sort of minutes/results/communication from this group, and I have to blame myself for that. Granted, I think that the information about the committee is a little opaque and hard to find (more on that in a second), but it’s my own fault that I didn’t know how this committee works. After going, I realize that there is more of a structure there than I thought.

Second, it didn’t take me long at this meeting to see the point of this arrangement.  Now, a big part of me still would like to see some entity/organization/association/whatever completely independent of NCTE or the CCCCs. I think there lots of good reasons why it would be a good thing to create some distance between this community and NCTE/CCCC and I think there is some “street cred” that comes with being an independent group. But I also see why doing that would be challenging (just getting something like that off the ground would take a tremendous amount of work and I sure as heck am not volunteering to do *that*), and it probably isn’t necessary if the primary charge of such a group would be limited to running the C&W conference. I think Dickie Selfe put it really well in the open part of the meaning (to paraphrase, I hope accurately): the advantage of the current arrangement with this 7Cs committee is the board/oversight organization for the C&W conference can remain light, nimble, and comparatively informal, while simultaneously having the backing and official affiliation with a giant, stationary, formal, and
well-recognized group like the NCTE/CCCCs.

Having said that, I have two gentle observations/gentle suggestions for improving communication and transparency (and I made these at the meeting on Friday, too):

*  I think there needs to be a 7Cs meeting/report/presence at the C&W conference– even if such an open meeting might be only sparsely attended– for a number of reasons. For starters, that would make the connection between the 7Cs committee and C&W explicit. A closely related point is the overlap between the CCCCs and C&W is perhaps not quite as clear as it once was: that is, lots of people go to C&W and not the CCCCs and vice-versa. I assume if someone wants to be a member of an official CCCC committee (like the 7Cs), one has to be a member of NCTE/CCCC; so that means under the current structure that if someone wanted to get involved in the group that oversees the C&W conference (and that would include hosting the conference), they’d have to get involved in the CCCCs too. So I guess what I’m getting at is if the 7Cs is going to continue to be the “organizing structure” of the C&W conference, then it ought to be physically present at the conference to make the connection more clear and to give folks who aren’t going to get involved in NCTE/CCCC a chance to be a part of the organizational structure of C&W.

*  I think there needs to be some more robust communication about what the committee is doing, both in terms of getting the word out on future conference sites (and how to propose for future sites) and also in terms of the other activities this group has been involved in over the years. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the entire NCTE site sucks, and so the presence at is not enough and it isn’t completely up to date. The other web site associated with the group– –seems like a good idea to me, but I don’t think it’s that well utilized and is probably ripe for a re-haul/refresh/re-visioning for the group. Simply put, the best way to break down that “insider/outsider” dichotomy is to make more information about what’s going on on the inside to outsiders. The web is good for that.

By the way, while I am certainly not volunteering to start a whole new organization, I have indicated to Doug Eyman that I’d be willing to serve on the 7Cs committee and let me also publicly volunteer to take on a revamping/restarting of I’m willing to get that going, assuming that there are others out there who would be willing to pitch in a bit too.

As for the non-profit status: as far as I can tell from my modest search of, it’d cost about a $1K, which is a lot more than I thought but which also doesn’t seem completely out of the question. Of course, I also wonder now if we aren’t already in this category vis a vis NCTE: that is, since we’re already associated with a big huge organization that has already established itself as an official 501(c)(3), why couldn’t people make donations to C&W and then deposit it into some kind of account at NCTE specifically earmarked for the 7Cs? And it also strikes me that filing the paperwork for becoming a 501(c)(3) is the sort of thing that a university or a lawyery friend of the group might be able to do pro-bono, maybe? And really, maybe it’s unnecessary if all the group needs is some kind of bank account that can serve as “seed money” for the next conference, as a place for donations, etc. We’re not talking about tens of thousands of dollars here.

Anyway, an interesting and informative meeting and I feel better about the extent to which the annual conference actually is “organized.” Looking forward to C&W in Pullman and also to what could be an interesting announcement about C&W in 2015.

Posted in Academia, MOOCs, The Happy Academic | 5 Comments

Get your copy of “Invasion of the MOOCs” Today!

book-cover-800 Well, it’s finally and officially here: Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, edited by me and Charlie Lowe, is out, available for sale and as a free PDF download. Parlor Press is selling the paperback for $30 and the hardback for $60, so if you download the free version and you like what you see and want to give Parlor Press publisher David Blakesley some props for supporting open access publishing and innovative methods for distributing scholarly discussions, go and buy a copy.

Oh, and if you do download it and/or buy it and like what you see, give us some positive feedback on, too.

This has been an interesting process, to say the least.

A little less than a year ago, at the CCCCs in Las Vegas, when MOOCs were at their peak in the MSM and working their way into the conversation at the conferences (ATTW along with the CCCCs), I was chatting with Dave and Charlie at the Parlor Press booth in the CCCCs book area about the idea of this collection, and about trying to get something out rather quickly since MOOCs were (and are!) such a fast-moving target. Much longer story short, here’s this collection.

To put this together, we contacted folks who we knew were already doing interesting thinking and writing about MOOCs– mostly in comp/rhet, but a few folks beyond that tribe– and asked for relatively short essays, hopefully with an audience beyond fellow writing teachers in mind. Then we tried something that, to the best of my knowledge, was new. The traditional process for collections like this is proposals are solicited by editors (either the way we did it– asking people directly– or via a public call), the editors decide what to take on, writers write drafts, editors (sometimes reviewers, too) review and give suggestions, writers revise and editors edit, and then you have an edited collection. This can take a long time, obviously, and as a writer (and not previously an editor), I have found this sometimes frustrating because I didn’t necessarily know what was going on with not only my essay but my essay in relation to the others in the collection.

So partly as a way to save time and also as a way of fostering some interaction/ collaboration between contributors, Charlie and I divided everyone up into peer review groups– not a whole lot different than what’s commonly done in a first year writing class– and we asked everyone to work together to make these essays better. We did all this with shared Google docs, which meant that all the contributors could see the comments from others and could also see contributions beyond their peer group. I sort of “directed” things by commenting on all the drafts and sometimes pointing different folks to essays outside of their peer groups they might find interesting.  So in this process, writers revised after this peer review process, and then Charlie and I edited, etc.

I’m of course biased about this, but I think this worked fairly well. It wasn’t perfect for all kinds of different reasons obviously, but I felt like the original intention here of getting contributors more involved in the process worked. I don’t know if I’ll be doing an edited collection anytime again real soon, but if I do, I’ll certainly do something like this.

But now that it’s done, take a look!

Posted in MOOCs, Scholarship, The Happy Academic, Writing | 12 Comments

Not Dead Yet

Let me start with what I think Ann Larson and I both agree about, at least as she discusses it in her post “Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead.” I think collective bargaining/unionization for academics is a good thing: faculty, lecturers, part-timers, and grad students ought to all organize, along with other units on campus. I’ve been in an academic union my entire life on the tenure-track, and while the union is far from perfect, I’d rather have and be in a union than not have and be in a union. I think that’s especially true at places like EMU.

But I disagree with pretty much everything else she says in this post, including her characterization of what I wrote here a while back. More after the break.

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Posted in Academia, The Happy Academic | 21 Comments

Coming soon/by the CCCCs: Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses

I am happy to report that the book of essays that Charlie Lowe and I have been editing is that much closer to being out. It’s called Invasion of the MOOCs: The Promises and Perils of Massive Open Online Courses, it’s being published by Parlor Press, and it ought to be available at the CCCCs.

This collection was imagined/conceived less than a year ago, at the CCCCs in Las Vegas, and I like to think it takes a slightly different take on MOOCs, at least different from what I’ve seen in the educational press, MSM, and the blogosphere. These are not essays from administrators, entrepreneurs, and/or pundits who have little to no experience teaching (online or elsewhere) and who haven’t been a student in any sense since their days as an undergraduate. Rather, the contributors here have all been involved in MOOCs as critical observers, students, and MOOC professors. This is not a collection of essays written squarely around the theme of “MOOCs will be the end of us all” or “MOOCs will be the grand savior of higher education. Rather, these essays examine, reflect, and (even though I kind of want to avoid this word) problematize the simple polemic of MOOCs.

It’s a fairly “comp/rhet”-centric collection since that’s the field/discipline that Charlie and I know, though we also have been able to draw some contributors from a few other fields as well. We were also lucky enough to have contributions from faculty who developed, taught, and otherwise oversaw some MOOCs in the last year or so: The E-Learning and Digital Cultures course from the University of Edinburgh, English Composition I: Achieving Expertise from Duke University, Writing II: Rhetorical Composing from Ohio State University, First-Year Composition 2.0 from Georgia Tech, and  Michigan State University’s Writing MOOC.

I’ve included the Table of Contents after the break:

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Posted in MOOCs, Scholarship, Writing | 10 Comments

What is this, “MLA?”

About a month ago, Annette and I both received a Facebook message from a grad school friend of ours asking if we were going to MLA this year. My smart-ass reply was “What is this ‘MLA?’”  As I have mentioned many times before, I have zero interest in the agenda/program for the conference, so I haven’t been in about a decade or so. It would have been nice to make the weekend trip to catch up with our old friend, but weather delays and other distractions around the house made it not happen.

Anyway, I saw two essays in Inside Higher Ed today that makes me ask want to ask my question again but with a different emphasis and purpose, as in “What is this, MLA?!?”

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Posted in Academia, The Happy Academic | 2 Comments

Three things that could (maybe) change the academic job market in small, medium, and large ways

I’m still procrastinating on getting ready for the start of the winter term (we call it winter and not spring here– and for good reason– and it starts next week), and for whatever reason, I can’t quite let go of trying to respond to the kind of rage about the terrible academic job market I talked about a couple posts ago. I’m not sure why; maybe because it’s just rage and complaining without any suggestion for a solution. Ask these folks who are complaining about the unfairness of the job market/tenure “what do you want?” and the main answer seems to be “a job that leads to tenure;” in other words, they want to become part of the problem as they see it. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Anyway, in thinking this all over while I continue to be (quasi) snowed-in and before I get started actually working on things for next week, I thought I’d write about three things that aren’t solutions but what might be tangible things academia really could do that could help make the academic job market a little more humane in the short, medium, and longer term. You will note that none of these ideas are “increase government funding of higher education so we can hire more faculty;” I think that’s a pretty futile project, though the folks at the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education do have some interesting ideas. And you will also note that I am not suggesting something abstract like “make ‘the Humanities’ matter to students and others” either.

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Four (and a half?) thoughts on “social media” and academics– about Kansas and generally

Happy New Year! And I’m going to start off blogging in 2014 with something I meant to blog about a few weeks ago, a little bit about the “social media” and the Kansas Board of Regents’ policy against it.

I’m assuming most people who are reading this are familiar with what I’m talking about, but just in case: as reported here in the Lawrence (Kansas) World Journal, the state’s Board of Regents passed a policy where employees of the state’s universities can be fired for inappropriate use of social media. This apparently is the result of some tweets a journalism professor named David Guth had back in September about the shootings at the Navy Yard facility in DC.  The tweet that sent the Kansas board over the edge (apparently) was “The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

I’ve got four (or so) thoughts/points I thought I’d share, but before I do, it seems to me like I ought to bracket all of this with a simple rhetorical question: What the hell is wrong with Kansas?  I mean, it isn’t just the board of regents that is a bunch of right-wingers, as this Rolling Stone piece from last June points out.

Anyway, more or less in this order:

First, for more and ongoing information on this, go read Phillip Nel’s blog, “Nine Kinds of Pie.” Specifically, you might want to check out this collection of links, which he says he’s going to keep updating. Nel is a professor at Kansas State who has been blogging about lots of stuff for a long time.  Good stuff.  And because he’s a Children’s Lit professor/scholar, Annette knows him.  Small world.

Second, this policy is so stupid it’s irrelevant. Probably. What I’m getting at is this is just so ridiculous and ill-conceived by a board who obviously doesn’t know how these things work that I just have a hard time believing that anyone working at a university in Kansas is actually going to get fired for a tweet. How exactly does this get enforced? Who’s going to be screening the tweets and facebook updates and blog posts of thousands of different employees? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would hold up in court, and it also seems to me like it would be pretty easy to circumvent in a variety of different ways– posting to social media anonymously, for example.

In a way, this all reminds me a bit of a rule/policy that was (supposedly) in place in Oregon when I was teaching at Southern Oregon University. As I understood it, faculty were not allowed to express a political viewpoint, meaning (basically?) it was against the rules for a faculty person to campaign for one political candidate or another. But the details about what this really meant were never clear to me. I suppose it would be against the rules to spend time in my classes explaining to students why they had to vote for so-and-so (which I wouldn’t do anyway), but it wasn’t clear to me if I was going to be violating this policy if I hung a campaign poster in my office or if I wore a campaign button while teaching or if I parked my car with a campaign bumper sticker on it in the faculty lot. When I asked people about this policy, they inevitably just rolled their eyes. And while I was only there for a couple of years, it seemed like a largely ignored policy to me.

Probably though. I think this “policy” will go away and this article from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education implies that the board is rethinking things a bit. But like I said, Kansas is a pretty nutty state, and I for one wouldn’t want to be the professor in the Kansas system who is the “test case” for this rule.

Third, social media can be a good thing for universities, too. is a good example of that. This is more or less my “hobby” blog about EMU, though I always make it clear that this has nothing to do with my day job and it has no official connection with EMU.  I’ve been running the site for about seven years now, and while the number of hits varies quite a bit and it isn’t as high as it once was, I’m still getting on average about 10,000 hits there a month. A lot of it is critical/negative about EMU of course, but a lot of it is also positive and I think the site serves as a good source for unofficial news and campus gossip.

I also know that official folks at EMU feel the same way. I’ve met lots of them and I even get fairly regular “press release” kinds of information to post on the site from the PR folks.  And interestingly enough, no administrator-type at EMU has ever a) said anything negative to me about the site and/or b) suggested I ought to shut the site down/not publish something “or else.” I mean, I was never worried about my job because I’m a tenured full professor at a place with a strong faculty union that is not in Kansas, but I have to say that I am surprised that I haven’t received any blowback from the site.  Which brings me to my next point:

Fourth, there are consequences to all kinds of speech, and everyone– perhaps especially academics– ought to think before they tweet/post/otherwise share online.  I’m specifically not going to refer to a certain writer/blogger I reference in different ways in my two previous posts, though that’s an example of what I’m getting at. No speech is ever completely “free” and in normal face-to-face settings or in scholarship, and I think everyone understands that. If I say the wrong thing in a meeting with my department head or my colleagues, there are going to be some bad feelings and other repercussions. If I present/publish something in an academic setting that lots of other academics think is wrong, then these people will think less of me and my ideas.

But while we understand this in face to face/conventional settings, it seems like a lot of academics forget that these same rules apply online as well. There’s a false sense of intimacy created by social media: we feel like we are only posting on Facebook to our friends or to our Twitter followers, and it can feel like no one is really reading what we write. In many cases, that’s true– a lot of social media/the blogosphere goes unread or unnoticed– but anything posted online can also turn out to be awfully difficult to take back. Many years ago, educators worried about students posting things on social media that would come back to haunt them later. Now it seems like the educators are forgetting that the same is true with them.

So I’m not saying that a certain not to be named in this post rage-filled blogger/tweeter doesn’t have the right to write/post whatever she wants, and I’m not saying that David Guth didn’t have the right to post that tweet. I’m just saying that every speech act has consequences both wanted and unwanted, intended and not.

Oh, and I’m not saying I’m in favor of all of these consequences. Guth probably went too far in wishing ill upon the children of the NRA and “damning” them, but I understand his emotion and anger and his academic right to speech. I certainly don’t think this means he should get fired and I don’t think it justifies the Kansas policy.

The other example of Twitter and its consequences in the news right now is the Justine Sacco incident and this tweet:

And this post by someone who “was a communications executive for IAC, the parent company of a range of tech products such as Vimeo, CollegeHumor, and” You’d figure she wouldn’t forget the reach of social media!

Sacco was fired before her flight to Africa landed, and given who she worked for and what she did, that’s not that surprising. Though the online mob that wanted to kill and/or rape her was obviously out of line, that too is an example of unintended consequences. As I wrote about in my dissertation what seems like a million years ago now, the “immediacy” of rhetoric mediated in electronic environments can simultaneously be intimate and explosive.

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As long as I have your attention: one more addendum on the state of the job market and decreasing tenure-track jobs in “the humanities”

Boy, mention Rebecca “pan kisses kafka” Schuman in a post about a fight on the Chronicle of Higher Education site and the hits just pile up! All of this and some tweets from Elizabeth “@badcoverversion” Keenan about trends in higher ed and non-tenure-track hiring and a whole bunch of tweets from Schuman this morning! Follow the link/follow Schuman to get the whole story, but here’s a screen-shot of those Schuman tweets:

A lot of what Schuman and her various followers are talking about is the job market in higher education, the tenure-track “haves” versus the non-tenure-track “have nots.” I get that. As I mentioned before, I have had survivor’s guilt in the past and I think it’s always a shame when anyone doesn’t get what they want/think they’ve earned/think they deserve. In my experience, a lot of people start PhD programs with wildly rosy world views about love of the field but by the end, after all the work and jumping through all the hoops, they want a freakin’ job. I understand that.  And I’m certainly not going to defend “the system” overall, in part because a lot of it is obviously not defensible, but also because there is no one “the system,” as I am attempting to detail here. Anyway, that’s what is motivating this addendum on my take on the job market– that and some procrastination from other things.

I think there’s reasonably clear evidence that there has been a decline in the number of tenure-track jobs in universities, especially in some areas like Literature, foreign languages, Classics, Philosophy, usually lumped together in the media as “the Humanities.”  This trend has been going on in U.S. higher education for at least 30 years and, on a macro-level, it is depressing and distressing. I think it’s become increasingly depressing/distressing in the last couple of years because of the attention higher ed has received about student loan debt, about things like MOOCs, about decreases in state funding, about “assessment,” etc., etc.

That said, I think there are a lot of subtle things about the world of non-tenure-track work in universities that complicate the narrative of “winners” and “losers,” of the “haves” and have nots.” All of what I’m saying here is anecdotal or based on my observations, so your results may vary of course. More or less in chronological order:

  • After I finished my MFA in 1990, I was an adjunct until I started my PhD program in 1993. But I was always a part-time adjunct, just teaching a section or two of first year writing at night while I had a “real job” as a temp and then as a PR Rep/Tech Writer for a now defunct state agency in Richmond, Virginia. I knew people who did the full-time/part-time/”road scholar” thing back then, but I always thought that was a bad idea for all kinds of reasons. It’s still a bad way to approach the world of part-time teaching,  I advise anyone I can to not do that, and I think anyone who does do this in the hopes of cobbling together work that will somehow lead to a tenure-track position is kidding themselves.
  • When I was in my PhD program between 1993 and 1996, I saw firsthand the strange irony of Comp/Rhet as a field. I knew plenty of PhD students in literature and American Culture Studies who thought it was foolish to study Comp/Rhet because all you’d end up doing is teaching freshman composition. But PhD students in Comp/Rhet were getting tenure-track jobs teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing and doing quasi-administrative work, and while most of us went into the field because we actually liked FYComp, we didn’t get much of a chance to teach it because we were assigned to other things. On the other hand, a lot of those folks who really wanted nothing to do with FYComp ended up teaching part-time or in non-tenure-track positions where a lot of the teaching load was/is– you guessed it!– FYComp. Like I said, it’s a strange and ironic field.
  • I started my first tenure-track job at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon in 1996. Ashland is a stunningly beautiful town about 14 miles from the California border. People used to come through town and stop in the English department office to drop off a CV and to plead for any kind of part-time teaching because they would do anything to be in Ashland. There were folks who had been teaching part-time at SOU for decades because they just could not fathom living anywhere else. When Annette and Will and I moved from there to southeast Michigan because of much better future job prospects (Annette was never going to get anything but part-time work there and I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my position), people thought we were insane.  Anyway, my point here is a lot of people end up as part-timers/non-tenure-track faculty because they decide to put other “lifestyle” changes ahead of an academic career. So be it.
  • I’ve been at Eastern Michigan University since 1998. EMU comes out of the “Normal School” tradition and still has an enormous number of students who want to be K-12 teachers and administrators. It’s an “opportunity-granting” institution that has always had a bit of an identity problem because it’s less than 10 miles away from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My department– English Language and Literature– has had between 45 and 50 faculty for at least 45 years, which is to say that I don’t think we’ve really seen much of a decline of faculty lines in the department. But I have seen two trends that might make it seem that the department has gotten smaller. First, up until about 30 years ago, 30 or more of the faculty in the department were specialists in literature; nowadays, that number is about 17 (depending on how you count it). This is because there are now more faculty who are specialists in other fields within English Studies– Comp/Rhet, Children’s Lit, Linguistics, and Creative Writing– and also because our department has the unusual arrangement of including journalism and public relations.  Second, the nature of tenure-track work has really changed at EMU (and I think everywhere else) in that a lot of faculty are also quasi-administrators. This has always been the case in Comp/Rhet with WPA work, but I think it has become even more wide-spread.
  • The definition of “part-timer,” “adjunct,” “non-tenure-track faculty,” “lecturer,” (etc., etc., etc.) is a lot more complicated than the discussion I’ve read from some of these critiques from Schuman and others. Twitter “discussions” can be pretty ham-handed because of the 140 characters thing, but I haven’t read things a lot more subtle on Schuman’s blog either.
  • As the very useful Adjunct Project makes clear, there are of course part-time teaching positions (aka “adjunct”) where people get paid per course. According to the site, EMU pays “English” part-timers (that’s almost exclusively FYComp) $3375 per class, Washtenaw Community College pays around $2500, and U of M pays between $5500-$7985 for “English” (I’m not sure, but this might actually be in Literature) and $7500 for the Sweetland Center for Writing (tutoring and probably also FYComp– again, that’s just a guess). So even what it means in terms of money (and presumably qualifications) to be part-time at 3 institutions less than 10 miles apart from each other varies tremendously.
  • Then there are also full-time/lecturer/non-tenure-track positions at all of these places. We have them at EMU, and they’re unionized (as are the part-timers at EMU, actually), the pay is so-so, they get benefits, and they are more or less permanent jobs. I know there are similar positions at Wayne State because we have some recent MA graduates working in them. As I understand it, the University of Michigan has several layers of non-tenure-track positions. I know a couple of people reasonably well who have positions there that might as well be on the tenure-track. My point is simply this: it’s much more complicated than “either/or,” it’s much more complicated than “haves/have nots.”
  • So, to sum up and to respond to Schuman’s tweets above there in reverse order:
    • If you never assumed you were going to “beat the odds,” then why all the rage now that you have indeed not “beat the odds?”
    • The Comp/Rhet “bubble” isn’t a bubble; it’s simply about supply and demand. I think the market is tighter now than it was a few years ago because of the “Great Recession” and because there are perhaps too many PhD programs in the field, but it is still a field where people find jobs.
    • The reason why “the Humanities” thing bothers me so is because it just simplifies a more complex problem. I expect MSM to do that, but I find it depressing when people who I would assume know better do that. But no need to bow to Comp/Rhet; just acknowledge that there is no field called “the Humanities” and speak in more specific terms like German, like American Literature, etc.
    • No doubt you have to be devoted to the field to study it, to dissertate about it, to continue to engage in scholarship about it, and to teach it. I’m not arguing that people ought get into Comp/Rhet just for “the job.” But what I am saying is that anyone pursuing graduate work in a field which they love but also a field in which there are no jobs is setting themselves up for the rage and disappointment you have. This is one of the main reasons why I didn’t get into a creative writing PhD after my MFA: I knew the job(s) wouldn’t be there and I doubted my abilities and my talent.
    • And by the way, it seems to me that PhD programs in fields like German are perpetuating a sick and inhumane system by taking on students even as foreign language departments are closing down. If you want to address people who really could do something to “change the system,” talk to them.
    • It’s hard to pin down exactly the “systematic problems that made the field bad” and I’m not trying to ignore them. But short of a paradigm shift regarding funding for higher ed in the U.S. and an equally huge shift in what higher education is for– education/democracy rather than training/”a job”– I don’t see a solution.  Other than closing down some PhD programs in fields that are no longer in demand.
    • I find it strange that someone who so often takes on such an aggressive and angry voice in her writing about all kinds of things and in all kinds of places thinks I’ve been smug, full of scorn, and conducting a personal attack. Sorry you feel that way.
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