Tuesday, April 26th 2016
I’ve come out of bloggy hibernation to share with you an email I just sent to my Chancellor and Provost. If you support NTFC #6546 (and you should), please write firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com to encourage fair contract negotiations.
Dear Chancellor Wilson and Provost Feser,
I am writing to you today to ask that you agree to the terms of the NTFC #6546 contract they are requesting, specifically their reasonable request for evaluations and, after years of good service, multiyear contracts. I am astounded that contract negotiations have stalled given NTFC’s rather meager request. Further, I believe, as do many other students, faculty, and staff, that a strong contract for our non-tenure track faculty will strengthen the mission of this university.
When I was in graduate school, I was a union organizer. I was a member of GESO, now Local 33, the graduate student union at Yale University. The organizing I did over five years of my PhD provided me with a better education than any of my classroom experiences, fieldwork, or dissertation writing. My time as a union organizer is the reason I had the strength and confidence to dare to follow my scholarly instincts and study sexual harassment and assault within science. I’m sure you can imagine the kind of backlash I and my collaborators experienced just by daring to pose the question, and what we continue to experience today by colleagues who wish we had kept the whole thing quiet. But our discipline is changing, and other disciplines are following suit, from philosophy to astronomy, and I know a big part of it is the research we conducted that blew open the idea that scientists are different, more ethical and moral creatures than other humans.
Labor unions are powerful, positive forces on campus. They provide training, a mission, and a voice to those workers with some of the most mentally and financially oppressed conditions. They are often the only organizations on campus to push against the casualization of labor that has been a constant in academia for the last several decades, the only ones trying to turn terrible wages into living wages.
Unions give workers pride in the work that they do, and a sense of their real value, something that unfortunately Illinois has failed to do for non-tenure track workers for some time. As a tenure-track faculty member, I have been told by my colleagues far too many times to “rebudget my time” away from teaching and outreach. I have been told it is not valued here and will hurt my chances at tenure. One of my colleagues, in his first week of campus, was told by no less than six of his departmental colleagues to “keep in mind that the only person to not get tenure in our department was the one who won the teaching awards.” You know this is the culture here, and you know that in many departments the people who care most about our students and most about teaching are the non-tenure track faculty. They keep the teaching part of this university’s mission alive more than most other constituencies on campus, they provide substantial face time to our undergraduates, and they often teach the lowest-level, least gratifying courses. Non-tenure track positions are also more likely than tenure-track positions to be occupied by women and men of color and white women.
Here is the education our undergraduates receive when you continue to stall on the issue of multiyear contracts: they learn that they don’t matter, that we want them for their money as part of a big accreditation machine. They learn that their favorite teachers, the ones that helped them when they agonized over a major, that directed them to mental health services and kept them alive at a vulnerable moment, that provided tough love on a paper draft, won’t necessarily be here next year to teach, advise, and write them letters of reference.
Here is the scarier thing that our undergraduates learn from you: they learn that the leaders of their university don’t value good working conditions and good relationships with their workers. They learn that good business decisions call for turning away from low-paid workers, for disrespectful conduct towards those doing the most service on campus, for a cynical perspective on what we are all really trying to do here. Perhaps they pay it forward in their own workplaces and create hostile conditions for others, or perhaps they just decide Illinois is the sort of university to whom they will never, ever donate.
The education I want for my students, a perspective shared by the non-tenure track faculty I know, is quite different. I want my undergraduates to learn that Illinois leads, that it does right by its workers, that when situated in a small town in central Illinois, you recognize that your most prized resource is always your people. I want my undergraduates to learn that our motto, Learning and Labor, still means something to a lot of us, and that these words go hand in hand every working day. I want my undergraduates to be challenged, to be forced to question closely held beliefs, to gain skills that will help them secure good jobs and live good lives. This is the work done by so many of my non-tenure track sisters and brothers. This is also a risk that they take, every day, because they have no job security.
One final point: Illinois has invested resources recently in more progressive pedagogical practices, particularly around the Learning Design Laboratory (name?). This suggests to me that Illinois leadership recognizes the importance of taking risks when it comes to our teaching. My non-tenure track colleagues will not be able to radicalize their teaching or take as many risks as tenure-track faculty without more job security. I have had to endure upset students who are resistant to active learning strategies many times over the last eight years. But I have never feared that I would lose my job for taking these risks to encourage more engagement with my students.
Without multiyear contracts, it is difficult to expect non-tenure track faculty to build programs, maintain institutional memory, and develop relationships with their students. As you head into what I hope is your final negotiating session with NTFC #6546, I hope you take the needs of your students, and the core mission of this university, into account.