(#Alt-)Academia Higher Ed

Returning to the Classroom

This spring, I’ll be co-teaching a course that I’m really excited about, along with my colleague Matt Brim: Equity, Elitism, and Public Higher Education. We are teaching together as part of the Futures Initiative’s slate of interdisciplinary team-taught courses. The opportunity to teach is significant for me: the last time I taught in the formal, classroom sense was over a decade ago, in spring 2009, as a doctoral student.

Teaching as a grad student terrified me. Like most doctoral students, I had almost no pedagogical training. I was tossed into whichever class needed staffing, sometimes introductory French language classes, sometimes broad humanities courses that covered literature, art, and music over a span of centuries. One notably difficult semester found me teaching Norse mythology, which, as someone mostly studying contemporary French and Latin American literature, I knew next to nothing about. Of course it was terrifying and exhausting to teach in these circumstances: I was a precarious worker, woefully underprepared and undersupported, though I didn’t know enough about university labor structures to understand that.

Now, though, I’m coming to the (virtual) classroom with a very different feeling. I’m nervous, but not as nervous as I expected to be. Mostly I’m incredibly excited. I am coming to this classroom from such a different place than when I taught as a graduate student. I’ve been working in and around universities for more than a dozen years at this point. Even though I haven’t been teaching in a classroom, informal teaching and mentorship is a cornerstone of my role. I also know so much more now about pedagogy, university structures, group dynamics, and so on than I did as a student.

Plus, the opportunity to build a small, temporary community and to engage in a sustained inquiry and conversation together feels almost indulgent. Over the past year, largely around the publication of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, I’ve given a record number of talks and workshops. But especially in a virtual context, these talks are so fleeting. I zoom into a space, meet wonderful people, and then it ends in a flash. As Matt and I have built this course together, we’ve prioritized a sense of slowness, trying to find a way to make and hold space as our class comes together to read and learn and digest.

Returning to the classroom also feels incredibly necessary to me. I’ve had my hands in so many different administrative areas over the past several years, and I truly enjoy working at a structural level. But classrooms are the lifeblood of the university, and as such I think it is incredibly valuable for me, as an administrator, to have a continued teaching practice. I don’t know yet what I will learn this semester, but I have no doubt I will be learning at least as much as students in the class.

Read more about our class here.

Featured image by CUNY Rising Alliance.

Higher Ed

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.