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Professor Staff: What Is To Be Done?

Professor Staff screen grabTwo weeks ago, the New Faculty Majority and the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education released a joint study, “Who Is Professor ‘Staff,’ and how can this person teach so many classes?” (executive summary | full report). Authored by Steve Street, Maria Maisto, Esther Merves, and Gary Rhoades, the study documents many of the educationally counterproductive aspects of higher education’s systematic over reliance on contingent labor.

Justifications like “flexibility” or “budget constraints” don’t really explain pervasive slights such as lack of access to a campus’s online tools or library resources, last-minute course assignments, and more. The study takes great care to focus on those slights that impact student learning and other aspects of the student experience such as cost. For example, if you have less than a day before class starts to order books, the odds are that your class’s books will be more expensive than they might otherwise be. The lack of academic freedom afforded to such faculty is also relevant here, as you often might have to teach a department-mandated book with which you are unfamiliar, again on quite short notice, with no time to prepare–time which would be unpaid, anyway.

There’s already been a fair amount of commentary on the report, such as Remaking the University‘s “Back to School . . . If They Need You”, Mark Brown’s “Academic Precariat”, Jill Rooney’s “We Are All Adjunct Faculty”. (Also worth mentioning: The AFT-CT’s “Dismantling the Professoriate”.

Rather than sermonize about the report, then, I want instead to point to two practical ways that it can be put to immediate use. First, the researchers have made the survey instrument available for others to use. It would be a terrific thing if governance bodies at as many institutions as possible distributed the survey to their contingent faculty. (In addition to drawing attention to problems of fairness, justice, and the like, it can also help you solve practical problems. Maybe your faculty orientation, to which contingent faculty are invited, is scheduled before many of the newest ones receive their appointments.)

And second, the conclusion of the report discusses practical, low-cost policy changes that faculty governance bodies, such as the senate, could easily adopt, or, at the very least, use as the beginnings of a discussion with the administration about improving student learning.

(I’ll skip here my usual exhortation to join organizations such as the New Faculty Majority, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, or the AAUP, since my focus here is on institutional governance, rather than personal strategies. It’s still good advice, though. :-)

It’s important to take the report for what it is, and to receive it in the spirit the researchers seem to intend: an invitation to organize your campus around the practical realities of contingency. It’s not just another opportunity for beard-tugging and head-shaking.

Photo is the lead image from the “Who is Professor ‘Staff’” report.

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