Higher education and unions

April 5, 2011

While I was finishing my Ph.D. I took a job as an adjunct
professor at a small, state-run college. The experience was a lesson in
humility. Most of the time, fancy graduate degree or not, I was treated like a
cog in a machine--and a suspicious cog at that. When friends asked me about it,
I would say, "It feels a little bit like working in a university and a little
bit like working at Hardee's." (I'd done both.)

In the name of standardization, the legislature wrote the
course descriptions, and my job was to download the appropriate description
from the college's website and insert it into my syllabus. I got the feeling
that the state legislature would have preferred to download my lectures
directly into my mouth as well.

With the large-scale withdrawal of state funding from many
public colleges and universities--and the successful state-level efforts
to undermine the rights of public employees--two recent op-ed pieces shed some
light on my now-thankfully-past situation. In a conversation with Walter Benn
Michaels about unionization in higher education, Stanley Fish writes
that for many years, he opposed unionization on the basis that faculty members
are not workers in the same sense as people working in factories. But he's
since changed his mind:

If I and my colleagues are not
employees, from whom do we receive salaries, promotions, equipment, offices,
etc., and to whom are we responsible in the carrying out of our duties? (If it
looks like a duck . . . .) It's not God and it's not (despite some claims to
the contrary) students, and it's not awestruck admirers of our dazzling
intellects. It must be our employer, and if that is so the only question
becomes whether, as employees, we can do better for ourselves by ourselves or
whether we will be in a stronger position if we unite.

Fish and Michaels are responding to a piece
by Naomi Schaeffer Riley, who argues that unionization in higher education
caters to the lazy and the radical. I heard in Riley's words the same anxiety that
made the Colorado legislature suspicious of me and my probable laziness and
radical tendencies.

The unionization of faculty is a compelling prospect, but I
wonder if it would have had any impact on me as a part-time adjunct. I never
considered my status permanent, and despite my left-leaning support of unions,
it would have been painful to pay any portion of my scant wages to a union. But
the scenario might be better for full-time faculty as they find ways to have
more say about their curriculum, teaching and research.


Adjunct Unions

A thoughtful piece. When we organized a union at my university, my pay increased by about 30% and I got health care over the summer -- just those two things are worth far more than all the dues I will ever pay! I think of dues not as money I give to someone else ("the union") to do something for me, but as part of my contribution to the collective effort!

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