Saturday, November 20, 2010

Refusal, Resignation, Resistance

(Image Credit: Steve Garfield's photostream on Flickr)

(Brief Note from the Office of Snort-Inducing Visual Allusions: In the unlikely event that you missed Glee this week and need a recap to understand the left side of the above image, go here. In the even more unlikely event that you don't get the right side of the above image because you think Sally Field made it big through Boniva commercials, go here.)

Once upon a time several weeks ago, before the mania for Xtranormal cartoons and the pressures of November interrupted the flow of normal blogging around here, we intended to weigh in on a conversation about salary stagnation in higher education that our pal Tenured Radical started late in October. We return to the subject now because it still seems important, as evidence of faculty discontent and institutional desperation continues to mount.  First, we direct your attention to some extraordinary tidbits from those earlier posts that convey the deep anger and demoralization faculty are experiencing as the expectation that they will do more while earning less begins to seem like a permanent rather than a temporary condition of their work lives. Tenured Radical lays down a line in the sand, declaring her “bottom line” on the pressure on faculty to earn additional income (for themselves and their institutions) by teaching, in effect as adjuncts, for summer and winter extension programs. Acknowledging the reality of financial problems in higher ed and the need for restructuring at her own institution, she nonetheless offers up a fiery je refuse to the idea that faculty should take on extra labor to make up for the inadequacies in compensation for the work they have already contracted to do.

“I refuse to sell myself for less than I am worth,” she declares. “I refuse to contribute to the casualization of academic labor; and I refuse to do what is essentially volunteer work for my employer.”

That has the feel of an oath or a pledge, doesn’t it, kids? Raise your right paw and repeat after me: I refuse to sell myself for less than I am worth, dammit!

TR, who is 52 and has committed to retiring at 65, ends the post by dangling before us the possibility of her leaving academia to become a fulltime writer.

Meanwhile, over at Historiann, there was talk of an atmosphere of resignation among the tenured faculty, of postponing completion of second books because merit and promotion raises are currently miniscule or nonexistent, of feeling disinclined to take on service commitments when class sizes have increased and there is steadily more work for fewer people to do. “We’re all turning into Alfred E. Neumans,” Historiann sardonically quips, “captioned by ‘What – me bother?’” That sad joke brought an even sadder figure to Moose’s mind -- Hurstwood from Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), who ends his life in a flophouse with a weary, “What’s the use?” after his prosperity and prestige have slipped away through a series of poor judgments and failures to adjust to changing circumstances.

What’s the use? Is that what we’ve come to, my pretties? In truth, I don’t think we have, and I include Tenured Radical and Historiann in that royal, bloggy “we.” In these gestures of refusal and resignation, the queer optimists of Roxie’s World choose to see encouraging signs of an overdue resistance to the grim and getting grimmer conditions of academic work in the 21st century. We want to keep the resistance going. We want to see it get broader and deeper and more concrete. In raising our paws and taking our own oath against collaborating further in the casualization of our labor, we would like to start a conversation about steps faculty might take or changes they might advocate that would make more efficient use of faculty time. That's right, kids: Efficiency. We can play that game, too!

Here then are our Faculty Tips for Surviving in the Age of Excellence Without Money (™RW Enterprises, LLC). Read 'em. Add to 'em. Live 'em -- Unless you secretly long to end up starring in the next viral video of the Professor Who Totally Lost It.

Refuse to take on independent studies. That won’t really hurt students, who tend to take independent studies as much for the sake of scheduling convenience as to satisfy a burning desire to conduct research that couldn’t be undertaken within the context of a regular course. Special note to the untenured: You should say no to independent studies under any and all circumstances. They are major time sinks. You get no credit for them, and they take away from the already limited time and energy you have available for the work that will matter come tenure time. The clock is ticking! Say NO!

Refuse to take on service roles that feel pointless and don’t advance the cause of shared governance. Example: Conducting merit reviews in years when there is no merit money. The argument has always been that you do the reviews anyway so that the money can be awarded retrospectively on that magical day when the bronze turtle out in front of the library turns into a pot of gold. Bull$hit. Conduct the review if and when the funds materialize. Stop wasting our under-compensated time in the meantime.

Reduce the size of thesis, exam, and dissertation committees. In the moms’ department, for example, dissertation committees have four members from inside the department and one from outside. Lop off one of those insiders, and the student is still assured a range of input and an adequate supply of recommendation writers. This seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? Efficiency means that you don't need too many cooks hanging around the kitchen arguing over the meaning of the recipe, right?

Scale back the surveillance/mentoring of junior faculty, which crossed the fine line between helpful and pathological about two years ago. Moose jokes that junior faculty are observed so frequently that their classes might as well be co-taught. She heard tell recently of a department that conducts a fifth-year review before tenure – on top, no doubt, of an extensive second- or third-year review. Don’t get us wrong. We adore our junior colleagues and want more than anything to see them succeed, but we are not convinced that constant monitoring is in their or the department’s best interest. For dog’s sake, people, you admired these young whippersnappers enough to hire them – How about just letting them do the job? Paging Goldilocks. Goldilocks, come in, please. Can we strive for just right when it comes to the amount of adult supervision the untenured are forced to endure and the tenured are asked to supply?

Similarly, dial back on the number of external reviewers required for tenure and promotion, which slipped into crazy territory about a decade ago. Srsly, folks, given the size of some fields in the age of hyper-specialization, it's darn near impossible to find six people that candidates haven't known in either a biblical or dissertational sense. I know that the point of having a bazillion letters is to limit or offset the damage of a negative letter, but how large and loud does the chorus of praise really need to be? Imagine the sighs of relief that would be heard across the land if four reviewers became the standard again in the humanities. When was the last time you saw a department chair turning cartwheels in the center of your campus, darling?

Unionize if you can; work like hell to make your faculty senate an effective advocate on workload and compensation issues if you can't. A recent study suggests unionization "'greatly increases faculty influence' over faculty salary scales, individual faculty salaries, and the appointments of academic department heads and of members of institutionwide committees."

So, what do you think? What would you add to our list? What are you planning to do to feel a little less miserable in your work life? Tell us! Best suggestion will get made into an Xtranormal cartoon featuring the feisty and entirely fictional rabble-rouser, Professor Louise Sawyer. Call me crazy, but I think Louise looks an awful lot like you. Peace out, proffies, and have a better tomorrow.


  1. Scale back the surveillance/mentoring of junior faculty, which crossed the fine line between helpful and pathological about two years ago.

    This may make a fucktonne of sense in the humanities; I would have no way to know. But in the natural sciences, the problem is the opposite.

    Junior faculty get their jobbes because they were really fucken good at sitting at a benche doing experiments in someone elses labbe. As soon as they get the keys to their own labbes, their jobbe becomes completely different: writing grants, recruiting and managing their own trainees who sitte at the benche doing experiments, networking and salesmanship marketing the importance of their labbe's research in their fields.

    Because they have almost always received no training whatsoever at any of this shitte before they became junior faculty, they have a dire need for intensive mentoring by their more senior colleagues. I have been voluntarily doing a substantial amount of this kind of worke at my own institution, and even helping junior faculty at other institutions. My opinion is that the mentoring of junior faculty should be considered as essential a part of the performance of more senior faculty as the mentoring of grad students and post-docs.

  2. CPP: You're probably right that this suggestion applies more to humanities departments than to the sciences. It might also be more relevant to large R-1 humanities departments that have gone a little overboard on this stuff. Note that we said "scale back" and not "eliminate," though. Mentoring is obviously important to junior faculty in the humanities, even if what they are called upon to do as asst profs isn't hugely different from what they were doing as grad students. Still, it's reached levels that seem intrusive and infantalizing, at least in our neck of the woods.

  3. Candy Man9:44 PM EST

    Brilliant suggestions, Roxie! I will absolutely be taking these to heart.

  4. Sane and smart. How to do it and share how savvy this is, is going to be hard. I sigh just thinking about trying to persuade some. Some are revving up the punishments because they cannot control what happens by rewards.

  5. Hells to the yes on all of this--it's really great advice. (Or, as my Puritan subjects would perhaps style it, after Mr. C. Mather, "Warnings from the Dead!") I must say: it sounds like you at QTU are pretty overboard in terms of the monitoring and surveillance of grad students and junior faculty! We don't have so much fat to trim there at Baa Ram U.

    In my department, "independent studies" for undergraduates are usually really "I f'ed up and forgot to register and now all the classes have filled but I need 3 more history credits" requests, in addition to requests for scheduling convenience as you note. The only "independent studies" I supervise are actually "Masters Theses," with students who have proved their worth and responsibility. And yes, junior faculty should *just say no* until they are sure they know the students in question. Slacker students prey on the youthful and inexperienced for "independent studies," precisely because they're usually less discriminating.

  6. I hope you don't mind, but I've put up a post about this post and have directed my readers to come over here to converse.

  7. Great suggestions, Roxie, especially about the, um, limited usefulness of writing extra evaluative reports for merit when money's not going to materialize in our lifetimes. How do you dial back the number of external reviewers, though, when those are mandated by administrators who have a lot more time on their hands than we do?

    Captcha is "dogramos." How appropriate to have a dog captcha!

  8. How about "Refuse to participate in or demand to be compensated for additional duties such as 'assessment of student learning' that go beyond regular teaching duties." My (public liberal arts) college is obsessed with assessment, but the time spent doing it (or having to figure out how to do it meaningfully) is neither compensated nor rewarded in terms of 'counting' towards tenure or promotion.

  9. Hell yeah, Roxie! The other thing people have to get a grip on is the teaching of extra courses at adjunct wages. Mr. Big, at Zenith, tried to tell me the other day that people taught these courses because they really wanted to teach them. I said no, people with children teach these courses because they want to send their children to college; people without children hope to retire someday or need to put a roof on the house; and people who live alone are more economically vulnerable than all of the above.

    He looked shocked. I realized that he really believed people taught extra courses for no money for some kind of higher reason.

  10. @Historiann: Would we MIND you kindly directing your legions of smarty-pants readers our way? Hardly, my dear! Thanks for the linky-poo. This being the season for thankfulness, we are grateful for your blogalicious buddy-ness.

    @Ahem: Oh, goodness, how could we have left assessment off the list of ridiculous tasks faculty should start refusing to perform? However, LOA is already on the long list of subjects my typist is considering for the next Professor Sawyer cartoon, so stay tuned -- and thanks for the brilliant suggestion.

    @TR: I am thinking there is a Mr. Big (and Clueless) on every campus. Where do they get these crazy ideas?

  11. NingaTurtle10:31 PM EST

    How about women refuse to do anything for free every again. That means no children unless you get paid for it, no cooking at home for no pay, no marriage to men and laboring for free with men. Hey better yet, no marrying men period. No doing any volunteer work of any kind, no more donations of money from women.
    NO NO NO and more NO! Just say NO :-)


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