Monday, April 25, 2016

what to do when you're doomed

It’s evaluation time for non-tenure-track faculty at the university. That’s the time I get the most faculty rights work, because when it comes to evaluating contingent faculty, there are no holds barred. 

Under the collective bargaining agreement the faculty union has with the administration, contingent faculty in the CSU (a.k.a. “lecturers”) have something contingent faculty nationwide generally don’t have: rights. The rights are procedural only, and are guaranteed by the amazingly thin concept of “careful consideration” for recommending future re-appointment, but they are rights. Contingent faculty get to see the procedures and criteria for evaluation, and the evaluating persons can’t deviate from them or simply write nice letters for people they like and rotten ones for people they hate. 

But the creativity of people stuck with bureaucratic requirements finds ways to produce fruit, however strange it may be. Already this season I’ve seen evaluations that use hearsay for evidence, lack of evidence as evidence, or ignore evidence of overall positive assessments of their work in favor of single complaints. Some departments don’t have, or don’t explain their criteria. Some departments impose higher criteria demands on lecturers than on tenure-track faculty. A fairly large number of departments go through nominal evaluation procedures with the result that whoever is chair decides which contingent faculty to re-hire on an entirely subjective basis. 

In a lot of cases, when a faculty member with a lousy evaluation letter comes to me, it’s too late. Because they are unaware of their rights, or even that they have rights, they don’t follow the rebuttal process, lose their chance, and end up losing their work. Worse than that is when it’s obvious that the evaluation is being done unfairly, in order to get rid of someone the evaluator doesn’t like, or in order to carry out a proxy war against a colleague by not rehiring that colleague’s pet lecturer. 

Today this reminded me of my last weeks teaching in Pennsylvania in Spring 1998. The university I was teaching at part-time had already informed me I was not going to be re-hired. They said this was because of the way their union contract was written, but I didn’t believe them. I had had a run-in with a dean at the satellite campus I worked in, over the temerity with which I assigned failing grades to students who had deliberately flunked logic, making the satellite campus, and hence the dean, look bad. 

I was teaching a class through that university conjointly with Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, for a cohort of students who were training to be school teachers, and had taken a deal that gave them loan forgiveness in exchange for a minimum of four years teaching in poor inner-city schools. I was teaching a class that was called something like Ethics of Race that I was totally unqualified for. 

During the semester it had become clear that the students really could not understand the philosophical texts I had them read. I got into the practice of writing extensive notes on all the readings, so that we could spend class time actually trying to discuss the relevance to race issues and their future endeavors. And when I say extensive, I mean extensive: for an excerpt of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, my explanatory notes were often longer than the text itself. I provided the notes on a web site I had through Geocities (remember Geocities?). 

The situation was this: I had no future job prospects. I had every reason to believe this would be the last time I taught philosophy. I was doomed.

Before every class session, I drove over to the North Side, to the weird CCAC campus made of decrepit mansions of the managerial bourgeoisie that had been donated but couldn’t be kept up, and modern multiple-use boxes. My class was in one of the old mansions, and I loved it. I didn’t have an office, so I held “office” hours in the formerly grand, currently unheated foyer. I would get there and start prepping, and look around to see all my students exchanging the copies they made of my notes and talking about the notes, the text, and their questions in hushed voices while they milled about trying to stay warm and waiting for the classroom to open. 

It was ridiculously intense work. I had that class, and two others on the other campus of the university, a total of three totally different preps, all for students who were not ready for prime time. And I was doomed.

Class would start with their questions, then the text, and finally a set of uncomfortable questions about ethics, race, class, and teaching. Then I got back in the car to drive to the university satellite campus to teach Intro or Ethics or whatever it was. 

On the 90 minute drive, I could only think, I am doomed. This is the last semester I will ever get to teach. These are the last students I will ever teach. 

Late in the semester, the administrator involved in the cohort program (among a million other things) asked me to meet with her. The only time we could meet, because of my commute, was just before the class, around 8 AM. My recent experience of administrators had taught me that a meeting with an administrator is not a good thing. It means what so many things mean to contingent faculty: I’m doomed. 

She asked me what was going on in the ethics and race class. I asked what she meant. Well, she said, she’d never had students make comments about a class or an instructor like this before. I asked again what she meant. The students had been in for advising, and individually and in groups had been telling her that the class was amazing, that I was an incredibly dedicated teacher, that our discussions in class made them understand philosophical ideas that they had never imagined before, all kinds of wonderful stuff. The administrator said she wished she had a job for me, and would hire me on the spot if she had. She asked if she could write a letter of recommendation for me. 

It was mid-April. The vast majority of jobs teaching in colleges and universities had long since been filled. The last Jobs for Philosophers was printed on two pieces of letter size paper. So I turned down her offer. I didn’t have any jobs to apply for, so a letter of recommendation wasn’t going to be very useful. I was doomed.

When I walked through the hallways today on campus, I thought about all the lecturers I know here who are doomed, and wondered what they’re thinking, and how they manage to keep doing their jobs. 

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