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Tackling the Politics of Contingent Labor: A Look at a New CCCC Statement


When my husband accepted his first tenure-track position in an English department at a mid-size Southeastern university in the 1990s, I was offered a full-time, non-tenure-earning position teaching writing at the same institution. Each semester, I taught four writing classes and spent weekends juggling grading and course prep with my dissertation research and a part-time job at a local department store to help us pay our bills.

While I was grateful to have a position, I admit that I never quite felt on par with my colleagues who held tenure-earning lines. I made less money per course, relied on health insurance that I’d brought with me to the job and that carried a high deductible, and lacked confidence that the position would be renewed each year given last-minute budget cuts and changes in administration. And while many of my colleagues welcomed me into their conversations about research, I knew that this wasn’t the work on which I was being evaluated.

I thought about this period of my professional life when I had the opportunity to talk about a new CCCC position statement with three colleagues who have devoted their careers to improving working conditions for writing faculty in non-tenure-earning positions.

Addressing Contingent Labor

As I learned from Seth Kahn, Professor of English at West Chester University, the CCCC Statement on Working Conditions for Non-Tenure-Track [NTT] Writing Faculty was a charge given to the Task Force on Contingent Faculty Working Conditions, convened in November 2014 by chair Howard Tinberg, Professor of English at Bristol Community College. 

The task force members considered and discussed numerous questions and issues raised by part- and full-time NTT writing instructors—What work policies for NTT faculty should chairs of English departments implement? Which best practices are followed in other institutions with NTT writing instructors? How much should NTT faculty expect to be paid?—and then began putting the guidelines they’d agreed to into writing.

“We wanted to develop something concrete that would be acces- sible and useful to people and institutions interested in advocating change,” Kahn said.

After much negotiation with CCCC leadership, said Kahn, the task force came up with a statement that was both “thorough and adhered to the requirements for the genre of position statements.”

Advocating for Social Justice and Student Success

The two core principles on which the CCCC statement focuses are

  • equitable treatment of NTT faculty, and
  • consistent application of workplace policies and conditions to faculty at all ranks.

While these principles encompass a diversity of factors, from fair compensation and benefits to access to copy machines and support for professional development opportunities, the individuals I interviewed emphasized the importance of these values for the academic enterprise as a whole, especially in offering students the best education drawing on pedagogical research accumulated over decades.

Amy Lynch-Biniek, associate  professor of English at Kutztown University, worked as an adjunct instructor for ten years before joining the tenure track, and serves as editor of Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty; she praised the CCCC statement’s detailed handling of basic workplace resources.

“Too often,” Lynch-Biniek says, “we [NTT faculty] think the pay and conditions we’re working in are normal.

What’s needed is some context for individuals located in these positions nationwide.” Having an official statement articulating what contingent faculty should expect helps them, and their institutions, measure existing circumstances against a professional standard.

“When I was sharing a bullpen with 18 other faculty, taking turns using the space,” she added, “I couldn’t teach effectively.”

For example, “if a student brought in a very personal essay, it’s impossible to conference about that paper, talk about grades, anything sensitive . . . without violating FERPA (the Family Rights and Educational Privacy Act) or Title IX. Other faculty are there, sometimes other students who can overhear what’s being said. Working conditions affect students’ learning conditions.”

Material realities of a workplace influence the caliber of what writing teachers can bring to the classroom.

“Students have less access to faculty who don’t have office spaces” in which to meet them, agrees Sue Doe, associate professor of English at Colorado State University and member of the CCCC task force that created the Statement on Working Conditions for NTT Writing Faculty.

“Also, retention of [contingent] faculty might be more dependent on student evaluations alone,” Doe says, “so instructors—also known as precarious faculty—do not have the same protections as tenure-line faculty who can freely challenge students’ ideas, stake their own unpopular ideas as counter-arguments to students, and hold students to high standards without fear of reprisal on the student course survey with resulting consequence to renewal.”

More than a set of guidelines for how to define NTT positions and treat NTT faculty, the CCCC statement reveals the connection between the policies, protocols, and protections for all faculty and the ability of an institution to meet the needs of students.

Doe believes hiring writing faculty into less secure positions at the same time that universities are investing in “increasingly complex classrooms and increasingly complex student bodies” makes no sense.

“It’s a tough sell [to administrators],” Doe continued, “but we have to rely on these kinds of [position] statements to provide pushback . . . communicating that it’s important for universities to invest in infrastructure—including faculty!—as they grow their student bodies. . . . The ‘here today, gone tomorrow’” model of treating contingent faculty needs to be perceived as “a less-desirable arrangement for the students, the administration, and so on.”

While Doe, Kahn, and Lynch-Biniek all currently hold tenure-track positions at their institutions, they insist that how faculty at any rank are treated influences every writing teacher. Kahn says that poor treatment of contingent labor “devalues the work we all do, largely in lower-division writing courses,” and substantiates the argument that "ripples are profound for any department that rides on the backs of contingent faculty." If institutions care less about the contingent faculty who staff lower- division composition courses, then they also devalue the expertise needed to teach these courses in the first place.

For example, Kahn says that the ways in which salaries are determined for contingent faculty often reflect an assumption that “those writing instructors hired at a lower tier are only worth a percentage of what those of us hired at a higher tier deserve. We’re allowing management [administrators] to write job descriptions that don’t accu- rately represent what contingent faculty actually do.”

Kahn, Doe, and Lynch-Biniek all agree that contingent faculty are too often considered through a reductionist lens.

“If administrations want fully acting, fully engaged faculty,” Kahn indicates, “then faculty at any rank need to be treated as professionals. There’s [frequently] an assumption on the part of administration that contingent faculty only teach and do some service.” In fact, as Doe and Lynch-Biniek also make clear, NTT department members do much more—they conduct research, attend professional conferences, advise students, become valued faculty advisors for student organizations—and deserve credit (and compensation) for these larger contributions.

Language used when talking about NTT positions matters as well.

As a case in point, Lynch-Biniek says that terms such as “visiting professor” and “temporary faculty” have become synonymous with “contingent faculty” in many places.

"Some of the ‘temporary faculty’ at my institution and others have been working for the same department, teaching the same courses, for a very long time,” she added. “At the same time, they are often excluded from conversations about” a number of issues that affect their everyday lives, including “the curriculum they teach.”

To remedy the inequities that affect many NTT faculty members and, by extension, all of us who teach writing in the academy, Kahn insists that “CCCC and other professional organizations must be resolute in holding institutions accountable for their treatment of contingent labor.”

Cynthia Ryan is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she teaches courses in composition and rhetoric. She can be reached at cynryan@uab.edu.


 

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