26 August 2016

Monsters and Mythical Creatures of Higher Education

More on that U of Chicago letter to the students...

Things that pose a threat to "freedom of inquiry and expression" in higher education:

1. declining levels of public support for higher education.
2. the widespread belief that higher education exists primarily to train an entry-level workforce.
3. student debt
4. ongoing failures to give all students access to an equal K-12 education
5. the increasing adjunctification of higher ed
6. increasing reliance on private and corporate partners to foot the bill for public higher education
7. the proliferation of third-party vendors and educational corporations in the delivery of higher education.

Things that don't pose a threat to freedom of inquiry and expression in higher ed:

1. professors' efforts to prevent bigoted students from derailing discussion.
2. the acknowledgment that traumatized students may find some material difficult.
3. events, spaces, organizations that give students who have, as a group, been historically excluded from certain institutions the opportunity--if they want it--to have community and a sense of belonging at those institutions.

Things that don't exist*:

1. institutionally enforced expectations that faculty not talk about certain things.
2. institutionally enforced expectations that students be allowed to opt out of anything that makes them uncomfortable.
3. institutionally enforced expectations that students be protected from disturbing ideas.
4. the large-scale excision of intellectually viable yet controversial subject matter from college curricula.

*At least not in my experience of teaching at a public R1 for the past 12 years and interacting with lots of faculty at other institutions.

Preserving Intellectual Safe Spaces for White People

It's been a couple of days now since that University of Chicago letter to admitted students erupted all over the media, and I'm still trying to figure out what an "intellectual 'safe space'" is. I've been in and around higher education since 1992, mostly at R1 institutions like the U of Chicago (where, full disclosure, I got my BA). Here are the "safe spaces" I've encountered:

1. A so-designated room in the Women's Resource Center on my campus. I was part of a panel discussion on trigger warnings (more anon) and it was pointed out to everyone at the start of the event. The discussion--which was not part of any formal class--was pretty dry and academic, which I gather is not always the case. Anyway, no one made use of it.

2. Cultural houses on my campus where students of color for whom the predominantly white and privileged campus is not itself a "safe space" can spend time with people who share their positionality.

3. (Not on my campus, that I know of): stickers given for faculty to put on their doors alerting LBGTQ students that said faculty member is "safe" to come out to (e.g., won't "out" them to others or try to talk them out of being LBGTQ).

I'm guessing "safe spaces" like these are not what Dean Ellison had in mind. Closing off these kinds of extracurricular resources would just be mean, and the University of Chicago's own Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (which provides them on that campus) seems to be in no particular danger. I'm guessing it was exactly to exclude such instances that Dean Ellison modified "'safe spaces'" with "intellectual."

So what did he have in mind?  I've certainly heard of faculty using the term "safe space" to demarcate rules of engagement.  As Dean Ellison himself points out, "Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others." Occasionally professors set down guidelines about how what "civility and mutual respect" mean in a classroom; many trust to their own modeling and guidance to convey that message implicitly. It would be really nice if we lived in a world where professors and students alike could be counted on to civilly and respectfully shut down racist comments and behavior as quickly as they would shut down a creationist demanding equal time in a genetics classroom, but any student of color on my campus can tell you that we are not yet living in that world. I have yet to encounter white students who have been censored by heavy-handed efforts to bring it about.

I have also heard the phrase "this is not a safe space" used to signal to students that class discussion is likely to touch on controversial matters in which students may have some personal investment. I'm sure that those applauding Dean Ellison's letter would be glad to hear of it, except that such statements could be taken to be "trigger warnings" and those are, I gather, a bad thing.

The phrase "trigger warnings" seems to be, uh, triggering, to people who aren't themselves in higher education. It provokes a reaction disproportionate to the words themselves, conjuring up nightmare visions of words, phrases, whole realms of inquiry being declared off-limits and pathetic students cowering in dismay. I don't know where this fantasy comes from. I've certainly never encountered it. The terms is, I admit, irritating, but I'm not sure how one teaches disturbing material productively without the concept embedded in it. In fact, I was using "trigger warnings" before they were A Thing. It's just good pedagogy.  When I've taught Eliza Haywood's 1725 novella, Fantomina, for example, there's a scene of sexual violence early in the story.  I've long been in the habit of letting students know it's coming and that we're going to be talking about it in class--not to get them off the hook for reading it, but because a survivor of rape who knows to expect it is more likely to engage with it intellectually than one who gets blindsided by it.  Depending on the nature of the class (I have had the luxury of small discussion-centered classes), I may mention before we start discussion that some students may have personal experience of sexual violence and so connect differently to the scene than those for whom the question, "Is it rape?" is more abstract.

Is that censorship? It may cause a student who has not considered these matters to think twice and look for some textual evidence before suggesting that Fantomina "was asking for it." There may have been rape survivors who choose that day to take one of their allotted absences. Either way, I'm okay with it--I don't see where either outcome vitiates the intellectual process. Acknowledging the intersection between this three-hundred-year-old text and present-day concerns leads to a deeper discussion than does allowing students to uncritically internalize the narrator's assumption that it's ultimately all in good fun--or asking them to pretend that rape is a thing that only happens in the safe spaces of the printed page.

So when I see people applauding Dean Ellison's bold stand for intellectual give-and-take, I'm baffled. Of course, rigorous debate is a good thing in college, as is coming up against ideas that are troubling and challenge one assumptions.  I've blogged about it, in one of my most popular and enduring posts.

It's that one paragraph, though, that undermines the whole enterprise:

Trigger warning and safe spaces are, in my experience, how students of color, LBGTQ students, rape trauma survivors get the support they need to participate fully in the painful conversations that are part of the University of Chicago experience. To take Dean Ellison's words at face value, to assume that he writes out of some rich understanding of the function of trigger warnings and safe spaces would be to sssume that the majority of University of Chicago students are such delicate flowers that the mere acknowledgment that other students come at these matters from different life experience and need different kinds of support constitutes a deadly threat to their ability to engage fully. And one must then echo the many supportive commentators and ask, how are these students going to cope in a world where people of color expect to being taken seriously as human beings? Where trauma survivors expect not to have their experience erased? Where the intellectual enterprise is supposed to take into account the whole of human experience, and not just that of privileged white people?  What a trigger warning Dean Ellison has given!  And what glorious reassurance, that the University of Chicago is a safe place where the world view of white students will be preserved intact and without threat.

But it would be a mistake to take Dean Ellison's words at face value. As I said, above, the "safe spaces" provided by the University of Chicago to its minority students still stand, and I have every expectation that conscientious faculty continue to to frame their subject matter in ways that will encourage participation from all students. All this letter does is make it clear to the mass media and any well-heeled alumni paying attention that the University of Chicago is dedicated to preserving its intellectual-macho brand. The letter also makes it clear to students of color and trauma survivors (both incoming and prospective) that the brand will be preserved at the expense of their access to it.

The whole letter:

01 June 2016

Putting the "Public" Back in "Public Employee"

"This great university system is not in danger of shutting its doors, but..." the wheels are off the bus, the train is off the rail, and the slow-moving wet garbage fire of the Illinois state budget is emitting ever more toxic smoke. We need new metaphors. Even more, we need a plan of action.

President Timothy Killeen domesticates the sh*t-show in today's MassMail. The doors will not shut.he reasssures us, while inviting us in to share his humble meal of advocacy: "significant cost-saving initiatives, structural reforms and prudent financial management." Our place is set, however, with a dire future:

All options are on the table as we go forward – layoffs, reductions of academic programs, closure of units and cuts in a health-care enterprise that provides critical care to underserved populations in Chicago. All would damage the very core of our mission to serve students and the public good, and erode a rich, 150-year legacy of academic excellence and economic impact that would be far more costly to rebuild than sustain.

The imperative to say something doesn't always mean that there is something to say. Let us grant that this particular MassMail is among the most straightforward administrative writing most of us have ever seen from the upper level of U of Illinois administration. Yet the core is hollow, and it doesn't need to be. "Tim" ends the MassMail as follows:

We will continue to do everything in our power to preserve the world-class quality that is synonymous with the University of Illinois, ramping up efforts that have been underway for well over a year to advocate at every turn for the interests of our students, our employees and the people and families of Illinois. I hope all of you will join us, and I will update you as the budget process unfolds.
That "we" again. Apparently the "we" that advocates for the university in Springfield differs from the "you" that receives MassMails. Yet as this MassMail boomerangs around academic Illinois Facebook, the solidarity is palpable. It is, after all, "our misson" under threat as faculty and staff share the link and the alarming "on the table" pull quote -- not just our livelihoods and benefits, not just our investment as Illinois citizens and taxpayers. We do our work because it matters.

"I hope all of you will join us"?!? We're in.

Now what?

04 May 2016

An Interesting Thing Happened on the Way to Graduation...

Last year, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign started collecting information on what all its graduating seniors were planning to do next. A few colleges and schools had been collecting such data for a while, but this was the first effort to tap all students on their way out the door to find out what their plans were.

Some of us were sort of dreading the outcome, for all the reasons you might think: our majors have a reputation for having a hard time landing jobs, we've heard the tales of graduates floundering for a few years before landing in a career, we know students who defer job-hunting until finals are over. We wished that the data could be gathered six months after graduation, when our students have had some time to get settled into post-graduate life.

Turns out, we didn't need to worry.  This is what the data looks like:

How about that.

Three caveats here. First, employment data is not broken down by quality of employment, so a student who plans to scoop ice cream all summer while applying for professional jobs looks the same here as the student who is headed directly to a high-paying consulting job.  Second, the respondents may over-represent students with post-graduation plans, as they would be more likely to complete a survey like this than students with no plans. Third, this is the first time we've done this--there are no doubt bugs to be worked out in framing the survey and encouraging full participation.


Looks like an English or literature/cultures/linguistics major is about as employable as an economics, math/statistics, or political science/global studies/area studies major.  The English major is about as likely to still be seeking employment upon graduation as a chemistry major, and less likely to be seeking employment than the earth, society and environment major. English majors are far less likely than psychology majors to be headed directly to graduate school; on the other hand, they have a much higher rate of initial employment.

There is certainly room for us to do better channeling traditional humanities graduates into employment (yes, I see those numbers for history and philosophy vs. communications), but this is hardly the dire picture painted by media outlets and popular wisdom.

Even our own student newspaper, The Daily Ilini, claimed in a recent editorial that "now, it seems an undergraduate degree outside of STEM fields carries hardly any more weight than a high school diploma." The editors go on to argue that "lowering the cost of tuition or the interest rates on loans would allow students to choose their majors unburdened by financial or societal pressures," which is certainly true. The nationwide decline of state support of public universities threatens to turn them into employee-farms for corporations, not institutions that educate citizens for the full range of occupations in a functioning, healthy society.

But please, can we stop telling people that English majors don't get jobs? It's just not true.

01 May 2016

Faculty Union Success

Well. After a nail-biter of a day, this evening, NTFC Local 6546 tentatively agreed to a full contract with the UIUC administration. Further details will be disclosed to the membership tomorrow (Sunday) at a meeting where members will vote on whether to suspend the strike; ratification will take place on Thursday (corrected).

Many things can happen, of course, but it looks like we may be back to work on Monday.

Eventually, too, the drumbeat of strike chants will fade away from my brain.  But for now, variations are triumphantly and insistently resounding in my head.

Tell me what democracy looks like? THIS IS WHAT democracy looks like!
Tell me what excellence looks like? THIS IS WHAT excellence looks like!
Tell me what organizing looks like? THIS IS WHAT organizing looks like!
Tell me what leadership looks like?  THIS IS WHAT leadership looks like!
Tell me what improving higher ed looks like?  THIS IS WHAT changing higher ed looks like.
Tell me what saving the liberal arts looks like?  THIS IS WHAT saving the liberal arts looks like!
Tell me what higher ed should look like? THIS IS WHAT higher ed should look like!
Tell me what the future looks like? THIS IS WHAT the future looks like!

If we can do it, so can others.

29 April 2016

Also: Vuvuzelas (Can We Get Some by Monday?)

Day 2 of NTFC Local 6546's second strike.  (Read about Day 1 with backstory here.)

It's the fourth day we've set up and maintained a picket line, but this part was new: it was the first time we've done all of that while our bargaining team was simultaneously in a mediation session on the other end of campus.

We seem to be part of a nationwide trend towards these kinds of things. FWIW, here's some of what we have learned:

1. Bags of cough drops ready to hand are key.
2. Supporters bring doughnuts.  There has been no shortage of doughnuts (thanks everybody!)
3. Early choir/chorus training sticks with you.  Pushing chants out from the lungs, not the mouth, and using your chest voice helps preserve the throat.
4. Feet hurt more when you stop walking.
5. Pushing fliers on people who don't want them doesn't pay. Seizing on a momentary hesitation to start a conversation does.
6. Solidarity is a long game.
7. A strike has many moving parts. Everyone will find one that requires his or her particular strengths. But anyone can help fill out a picket line.
8. Drumming is hard on plastic buckets and water cooler bottles. Get a lot of them.
9. It's really hard to deliver information in easy-to-remember words set to 4/4 time.  Just make noise.
10. Keep all this stuff in mind for when you need to put in a few hours on someone else's picket line.
11. Only time will dislodge the strike chants from your brain.

We had some friends on hand from upstate. We also had a May Day rally, which had been planned   by others independent of our labor action, but nonetheless expanded to be a rally for us, too:

And then two more unprecedented things happened.  First, there was meaningful movement from the administration team several minor things and one key issue (a real key issue): reappointment. Second: the administration team agreed to come back at 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning (tomorrow!) to continue negotiations.  That may not seem like a big deal, unless you lived through the year plus when they insisted on three weeks (or more) between bargaining sessions and still showed up unprepared.

We are hopeful. But also prepared to have hopes dashed. I'm pretty sure this is all new territory for everyone concerned, and it's hard to know how things will go.

What can you do, dear reader?

I'm guessing neither Acting Chancellor Barb Wilson nor Interim Provost Feser will be taking calls at work or reading work email between now (Friday evening) and the end of bargaining tomorrow (Saturday)--though a voicemail or email certainly couldn't hurt (see corrected contact info below).

More important is to be ready for another strike day on Monday: be prepared to come show your solidarity on the picket line on campus, if that's possible for you. If you can't, or you're far away, continue letting our administrators know, from the moment they arrive in the office around 8:30am Central Time on Monday, what you think about continued stalling on our contract.  I'll be back here over the weekend if there's news one way or the other.

Contact Info for UIUC administrators 
(My apologies for the incorrect email for our provost in my previous two blog posts. The correct email address is here.)
Interim Provost Ed Feser: 217-333-6677; feser@illinois.edu.
Acting Chancellor Barb Wilson: 2​17­-333­-6290; bjwilson@illinois.edu.

Ask them to bring this labor action to an end by urging the administration bargaining team to agree to a fair contract (like the one the U of I administration signed with NTT faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago).

28 April 2016

Inside Illinois? A House Divided Against Itself

Updating with my thumbs from the picket line: the Provost's CORRECT email is feser@illinois.edu.

Day 1 of NTFC Local 6546's second strike. To recap: 10+ hours of mediation on Wednesday ended with the administration presenting a slight variation on the same set of unacceptable proposals they've been presenting all along and then walking out. NTFC voted to strike the next day. So there we were, once again, today, walking in circles, handing out fliers, shouting.

A picket line is all about the noise and movement, yet once inside that noise and movement, it is easy to fall into a meditative state, at the edges of which you hear people explaining or trying to understand what the noise and movement is all about. "Multiyear contracts" come up a lot, as do "performance evaluations," "shared governance," "respect." Lots and lots of words get expended to make it clear that it's not about the money.

These are all accurate representations, all of them important. None capture, though, what motivates faculty to leave the classroom and spend hours at a time on the pavement, walking, walking, walking, shouting, walking, shouting, contemplating. We would all rather be teaching.

Multiyear contracts?  That sounds like something one could reasonably object to, particularly in a cash-strapped state like ours--but then we point out that the "multiyear contracts" in question are not anything tenure-like, just a commitment that after five single-year contracts, faculty get a two-year contract.  After ten years of continuous employment, they get a three-year contract. Automatically? No, not automatically--we want annual performance reviews, too.  No, we don't get those already--not everyone, anyway. Those, too, are something we're trying to get into our contract that the administration is resisting. Shared governance? We want departments to have to come up with policies for including us in it--we're not actually binding anyone to specific contractual provisions.

It all starts to sound rather pathetic. Except that the administration is peculiarly dug in on not agreeing to any of it.

Which is exactly why it's all so important.

"Shared governance" is traditionally how faculty are able to exert some control over their working conditions. Only it's not available to NTTs now and is not likely to be under Provost's Communications 25 and 26--though we continue to be urged to have faith that these policy documents will, one day, materially affect us. (There's some doubt about whether "shared governance" means much to tenure-stream faculty anymore either. Strongly worded letters and votes of no-confidence don't seem to have the power they once did.)

The way we can exert control is by forming a union.  Oddly enough, the U of I's "Inside Illinois" online billboard this week promotes a recent paper by our own law professor Robin Karr, "Contract as Empowerment: The Basic Theory." According to the marketing blurb, Prof. Karr gets it. Contract law, he is quoted as saying, "empowers people in a special way, which reflects a moral ideal of equal respect for all. This explains why contract law can produce genuine legal obligations and is not just a system of coercion.”

What NTTs have in the absence of a union contract is a system of coercion, where the institution leverages their love of their subject matter and commitment to their students or research to get them to do the work of tenure-stream faculty without tenure, tenure-stream working conditions, or tenure-stream remuneration. This, apparently, is what excellence looks like.

Without a union contract, NTTs have no countervailing leverage. They can do the work they love or they can leave. It's not a choice structure that naturally lends itself to excellence, so NTTs who chafe within it alternately find themselves scorned because they ask so little or scorned because they've had the presumption to ask for more.

Therefore: NTTs rightly ignore meaningless policy documents. They look instead to a union with the power to collectively bargain a contract bearing the "moral ideal of equal respect for all." We're walking and shouting because a union is only as good as the contract that it can bargain. A contract that codifies the system of coercion is no contract at all.


What can you do, dear reader?

If you're here at UIUC, come join us Friday (4/29) on the picket line at the English Building, 608 S. Wright St. We'll be there from 8am to 5pm.  Come for a little or come for a lot.  If you haven't picketed before, you'll feel weird doing it, but that's okay--everyone does. Once you get past the initial discomfort with chanting in unison, having an excuse to yell a lot can feel downright cathartic.

Also, whether you're here or not, let the administration know your thoughts.

Call or email Interim Provost Ed Feser: 217-333-6677; efeser@illinois.edu.
Call or email Acting Chancellor Barb Wilson: 2​17­-333­-6290; bjwilson@illinois.edu.

Ask them to bring this labor action to an end by urging the administration bargaining team to agree to a fair contract. The one that the University of Illinois has already ratified for NTT faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago will do nicely.