Thursday, September 4, 2014

Why you should not miss that expensive conference: One Adjunct’s Reflection on the 11th International Conference of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL)

In a candid moment at the COCAL XI debriefing, organizers admitted that the high cost of travel to the New York City location limited conference access for many adjuncts living on fixed incomes.  I was fortunate enough to hobble together enough support from my union local and inlaws to subsidize my attendance at a conference.  It took 10 emails requests before I identified funding sources but I am reminded that as adjuncts we miss opportunities when we don’t ask or get discouraged from the first 9 “no’s.” 

In exchange for a one thousand dollar sponsorship my union chapter requested a written summary of the event.  To streamline my synopsis I tweeted throughout the event and my interactions with fellow adjunct activists are ongoing.  Some contingent faculty that could not get to COCAL XI joined through social media and that was great.  Physically being in New York facilitated meaningful face-to-face conversations with international colleagues that were not limited by character entries. 

I am an adjunct professor in Communication Studies in California State University, Bakersfield and I am also a Doctoral candidate in the Educational Leadership program.  At COCAL XI, I met a fellow adjunct from Mexico who is also in the process of completing her dissertation to earn her Doctorate in Education. I should make the distinction that we are not graduate assistants but, instead, adjuncts who are also completing our terminal degrees.  Together we, two adjuncts/doctoral students, made plans to collaborate in collecting future data.  This one interaction is representative of the kind of exchanges that occurred throughout the 3-day COCAL XI conference held at CUNY’s John Jay College on August 4-6th, 2014. 

An academic labor journal will soon chronicle the topics discussed at COCAL XI, but this blog is meant as a humble prelude.  It is hard to fit three days of articulate discussion into one short write-up, but here are a few ideas that made COCAL XI an event not to be missed.

The Democracy Index

What matters in learning conditions varies between university management and university faculty. A recent CHE survey ranked Cal State University San Marcos as one of 2014’s “great colleges to work for.” However, if you look closer at the survey results you realize that the ranking was based on just one of 12 criteria: Facilities, Workspace, and Security.

At COCAL XI the faculty interest group “Building National Agendas” came up with the idea to create what they called the Democracy Index. The Democracy Index would be a faculty generated rating system that like US and News World Report would rank colleges and universities as learning institutions. However, instead of graduation rates and alumni success, it would focus on other factors such as shared governance, teacher to student ratio, and tuition. A new rating system could shift the conversation away from what the public is told makes a good higher education institution to revealing democratic colleges and universities.

The Wall Street Skim

I have spent eight of my nine years as an educator in higher education fighting to remain in the classroom. Since the economic crisis of 2008, funding for higher education has been under constant attack. As the economy has improved the plight of adjuncts has not. 

The national campaign for “Adjunct Action” has been working to expose the role of big business in exploiting higher education. Adjunct news is not all bleak in America where Senator Durbin has recently introduced a bill that would make adjuncts eligible for a federal loan forgiveness program. 

However, disparity in pay still exists with adjuncts internationally. Some speakers at  COCAL XI shared that they have terminal degrees and experience in the classroom but are not paid the living wages given to their tenured peers. In Mexico an adjunct professor can make as little as $200 a month, whereas some adjuncts in Quebec are making more than 7,000 per class. As Rosa Manoatl, a UNAM PhD student in pedagogy who has taught in higher education in Mexico for more than 30 years, stated, “We need to dignify the job of the professor in my country.”

Adjuncts are the Pillars of the University

The heading of this section is not meant to indicate that without a cheap labor force the university would collapse. Colleges can afford to pay their teachers a living wage. Instead, it is important to recognize that adjuncts make up the NewFaculty Majority. Contingent faculty outnumber tenured faculty and teach the majority of higher education courses. The adjunct ranks are growing not only because they are generally cheap labor, but also because they are doing a good job. Though most off the tenure-line are hired to teach and focus on pedagogy, many voluntarily participate in research, publication, creative works, and service, without financial or employer validation.    

Discussions about theory and activism were alive in every lecture hall at COCAL XI. One common conversation in sessions was the theoretical implications of corporatizing higher education. Similarly, there were stories of adjuncts empowered to unionize, bargain for equity, and mobilize on adjunct issues. During one lunch conversation a fellow adjunct memorably commented that, “I used to feel secure in my job and work closely with management.  When they got rid of my appointment I became more involved with the union and was able to weaponize my institutional knowledge.”  The implication that adjuncts who are reduced are no longer running scared but using what they know to strategically demand our rightful place of permanence in higher education. 

I could not afford to miss this conference.  It gave me the opportunity to tweet with other social media junkies, collaborate with educators from thousands of miles away, and be inspired by the trailblazers that founded the conference.  Though attending conferences stretches contingent faculty financially, it is important to find a way to get there. Meeting with fellow adjuncts is an investment in the future of the profession and of higher education.  

*This post was published on the Academe blog but was re-posted today on my personal blog to be included in storify of COCALXI