Tag Archives: labor

Relying on contingent labor affects research, too

Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. This is perhaps the most important refrain of the adjunct activism movement, and the one that is most likely to lead to change. If the primary goal of colleges and universities is to educate students, then the ways that labor conditions affect student outcomes should be of central importance.

In addition to teaching, another major facet of universities is affected by the increasing reliance on contingent labor: Research. In the humanities, the impact of precarity on research hinges mainly on the absence of time and support for research and writing, but in the sciences the impact on research is more direct. While most contingent positions on the humanities are teaching-focused, postdocs in the sciences are generally research-driven. Much like adjunct lecturer appointments in the humanities, short-term postdoctoral positions are on the rise in the sciences, and the effects on research output are becoming more and more visible.

As Brenda Iasevoli reports in NPREd, the increasing reliance on postdocs for lab research—and the decreasing support that those postdocs receive—is directly affecting the quality of research. In the article, Gary McDowell (who holds a PhD in biology) notes that there are a rising number of article retractions, a shift he attributes to researchers altering data in the face of the increasing pressure of the academic job market. The UK bioethics report he uses to support his claim also suggests that senior scientists may not have enough time to devote to training junior researchers in best practices. (Echoing this claim, a recent joint report from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine argues both for better pay and stronger mentorship of postdocs, according to this Boston Globe article.) If both research integrity and teaching outcomes are being compromised by poor labor conditions, then everyone with any stake in higher education should be working to solve the problem.

There is some movement on that front. National Adjunct Walkout Day marked an important moment in the effort to raise awareness about faculty labor conditions. One thing that makes activism around contingent labor issues so difficult is that there are so many valences of contingency, some of which are more problematic than others. A postdoc can be a career turning point—my 18-month stint at SCI and the Scholars’ Lab was transformative. But the experience wasn’t positive by accident; it required careful structuring, mentorship, and opportunities for me to have ownership of certain projects. All of that takes time and energy on the part of staff and faculty. Similarly, well-structured graduate teaching positions are invaluable opportunities to learn effective pedagogical approaches *before* deciding whether one wants to seek a faculty career. There are elements of short-term, contractual positions that are essential opportunities for growth. The problem (well, one problem) is that these good examples are becoming eclipsed by exploitative short-term or part-time positions, and are sometimes lumped in with them in unhelpful ways.

It’s not easy to untangle these threads. CUNY has reduced the teaching load of most doctoral students to one course per semester, which is wonderful. But CUNY also relies heavily on adjuncts who earn an average of $3,275 (as reported by CUNY Adjunct Project based on data from Professional Staff Congress, the union for CUNY faculty and staff). I don’t know what the numbers look like for postdocs and grant-funded researchers, but I hope to learn more as part of our research efforts at the Futures Initiative. For advocacy efforts to be most effective, we need to have a much better understanding of the full picture of contingent labor across academic structures to that we can target our efforts toward the most problematic elements while strengthening the positions that provide genuine professional development. Both teaching and research stand to benefit from the effort.

Two months in: A few thoughts on the Futures Initiative

[Cross-posted at hastac.org]

My work with the Futures Initiative began with such a flurry of activity that I’m only now catching my breath and reflecting on what we’ve done and what we hope to do. As part of that reflection process, I’ve worked with my colleagues and our program’s graduate fellows over the past few weeks to develop a charter for our work together and to revise our mission statement. The time we’ve spent thinking through our values, our goals, and our priorities has been incredibly clarifying and invigorating. The charter is still in the works, and I look forward to sharing it once it’s finished. Here is the mission statement, which is also posted to our various sites:

The Futures Initiative aims to advance greater equity and innovation in higher education. Housed at the Graduate Center and reaching throughout the CUNY community, the Futures Initiative empowers the next generation of intellectual leaders with bold, public, and engaged teaching and learning. The Futures Initiative fosters greater understanding of the complexities of the higher education landscape by spearheading qualitative and quantitative research in areas such as academic labor practices and reward systems, open-access multimedia publishing, data visualization and interpretation, and institutional change. Through HASTAC@CUNY (a hub of the online network Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), the Futures Initiative extends its collaborative peer-to-peer practices across institutions, disciplines, national boundaries, and economic and social disparities, promoting reinvestment in higher education as a public good.

Without a doubt, our top-level goals—advancing equity and innovation in higher education—are sweeping. But the Futures Initiative takes an approach of experimentation, inquiry, and collaboration that makes working toward these goals more manageable. (We’re indebted to many people and places who have helped shape that ethos; for me, the deepest debt is to my colleagues and friends at the Scholars’ Lab.) We’re approaching questions about pedagogy, scholarship, and academic labor from many different angles, which gives us opportunities to reflect, learn, model new approaches, and highlight the creative work of our colleagues throughout the CUNY community rather than simply forging ahead on our own.

One branch of our program so far includes public talks and open sessions, which provide a venue for discussion of complex topics both within the Graduate Center and beyond thanks to the affordances of Twitter, livestreamed video, and the HASTAC network. In the two months I’ve been here, we’ve co-sponsored events on innovative dissertations, platforms for multimedia scholarly publishing, the role of ProQuest in the dissertation landscape, and new modes of evaluation for online and blended learning environments.

A second strand of our work will happen in the classroom. In fact, we have an incredible opportunity to work not only in a single classroom, but in a vast network of classrooms across New York City’s boroughs. In the initiative’s inaugural course, Cathy Davidson and Bill Kelly will be working with a class of graduate students in a wide range of disciplines, all of whom are teaching courses in various CUNY campuses. The class will think together about new approaches to teaching that can best prepare students for our highly networked world, and each week, they’ll test out new models in their own classes. The course depends not only on the deep engagement of the graduate students, but also that of the undergraduate students that they teach. All become peer teachers and learners. This is a pilot year, really, and next year the effect will multiply as six pairs of faculty members teach six classes of graduate students, whose undergraduate teaching will stretch even farther throughout the CUNY campuses.

And finally, we plan to launch a research project that investigates ecosystems of academic labor and research. I’m very excited about this component. There is so much happening right now with academic labor, all of it highly charged: increasing reliance on contingent faculty; more positive attitudes toward alt-ac careers; growing length of time spent in postdocs (mainly STEM, with a bit of an uptick in the humanities/social sciences); major draw of industry careers (again, mainly STEM). To my knowledge, these factors haven’t been carefully examined relative to one another. My previous research has focused on the career paths that humanities scholars pursue, and I’ve written extensively about why I think the increasingly positive attitude about these varied trajectories is a good thing. But that’s only one piece of the post-higher ed picture.

More and more, I’m interested in better understanding how the university’s core mission is affected by post-graduate career options. One of the big questions I’m grappling with, and that I look forward to examining more rigorously, is whether colleges and universities may be losing some of their most brilliant, dedicated scholars to alt-ac and industry jobs because staying on an academic track increasingly means enduring precarious and poorly compensated positions. And if that is the case, what is the broader societal impact? On one hand, we very much need deeply trained scholars participating in the workforce across all sectors of our society. But that can’t eclipse the importance of teaching the next generation of scholars, professors, and intellectual leaders.

I don’t know what I’ll find when I research those questions, but I really look forward to doing so. Relying both on existing datasets and (hopefully) new data collection, I plan to look first at the CUNY community, then outward to the broader higher education landscape across the US.

All of this feels like an incredibly promising start to the Futures Initiative. It’s a privilege to be charged with thinking through these big issues in collaboration with such wonderful colleagues and students.