In this series, a number of scholars respond to Kate Daley-Bailey’s provocative essay, “For the Good or the ‘Guild’: An Open Letter to the American Academy of Religion,” which appears in the most recent issue of the Bulletin journal, Vol 44, No. 4 (2015). The essay can be found here, with an abstract reading as follows: This letter/essay addresses some of the critiques and recommendations I have for the American Academic of Religion regarding its treatment of adjunct concerns. I recommend the American Academy of Religion reassess its values and priorities and ask that the organization decide if it is a nonprofit organization or a guild. Subsequently, I recommend the American Academy of Religion discontinue its obfuscation of data on adjunct existence in the field, readjust its membership dues and conferences fees with the monetary plight of its underemployed or unemployed members in mind, and avoid marginalizing or patronizing those members who find themselves within the cycle of contingent employment.
Where is the Revolutionary Love for Labor?
by Kate Daley Bailey
While others might find the AAR’s theme of Revolutionary Love overtly confessional given that it is foremost an academic organization, I am fine with this theme as long as we acknowledge that this theme comes laden with cultural baggage and as long as the AAR and its members are sincerely dedicated to that theme. I am asking the members of the AAR to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk,” to use another common phrase of Evangelical Christian parlance. If we are to take this year’s AAR theme of Revolutionary Love at its word, and if the AAR and its membership mean what they say regarding labor and human rights, then, as Charles McCrary so poignantly noted in his response “Revolution, Love, the Good, and the Guild,” it is adjuncts who are in the most desperate need of a revolution and their love.
Dr. Debra Erickson, writing in 2011, notes the apparent inconsistency between the AAR’s and the SBL’s support of the working man in regard to the Hyatt housekeeping staff strike during the 2012 conference and the plight of academic laborers. In her article, Standing by the Working Man, she eloquently points out that AAR’s sympathy does not seem to extend to those laborers within the academy itself. Dr. Erickson wrote her complaint in 2011. The AAR finally published its Statement on Contingent Faculty Practices in September of 2015.
Given this past tangle with issues regarding labor and the reaction it garnered from AAR members and the press, I am startled by the AAR’s continued reluctance to address the issue of contingency within their own ranks. It is admirable that the AAR has created a Contingent Faculty Task Force but I am disheartened to learn that even members of the task force feel that many of the changes the task force has been working tirelessly for have been neutralized. Merely look to Dr. Kelly Baker’s lament regarding her decision to leave the Task Force. A best practices document dealing with contingent faculty, which was meant to at least set a precedent for individual departments and colleges was revised (to make the document more palatable to AAR’s executive board) until it was lame and toothless. I applaud the work that AAR’s Contingent Faculty Task Force is doing. They are fighting the good fight. Unfortunately, the good fight, as many of us who study religion know… often ends in martyrdom. If you have not already done so, please read Dr. Kerry Danner’s response to my open –letter here for how to raise awareness about this issue.
The Meetings Industry
I do not pretend to be knowledgeable of the meetings industry but I take executive director Jack Fitzmier at his word that the costs of organizing conferences are staggering. Fitzmier, giving one example of such logistical burdens, refers to the cost of $60,000 to manage the book exhibit. The book exhibit is truly a highlight of the annual conference. According to the most recent exhibitor and advertiser packet for the San Antonio meeting, the cost to rent a booth is roughly $2,000. I am not sure how many booth/exhibits this year’s conference will have, but the 2014 San Diego exhibit featured roughly 137 booths. If the AAR sells a comparable number of booths this year, they will acquire a little over $247,000. I am no accountant but that seems to somewhat offset any cost which the AAR absorbs.
How many of these expenses of infrastructure might be mitigated by soliciting bids from various large universities who want to host an annual conference? Isn’t the AAR’s own office (in the Luce Center) on the campus of a premier university with programs in Religion and Theology (Emory), which is located not far from downtown Atlanta, with its own conference center, numerous university buildings, and multiple hotels and dorms surrounding the campus?
There may be various hurdles to make such a radical change as this but I am asking the AAR and its members to grasp the gravity of this situation for all of higher education in the United States. I am asking the AAR and its members for change… radical, revolutionary, change.
I am asking the members of the AAR to take seriously the words of James Baldwin invoked by AAR’s President, Serene Jones:
I use the word love here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
The plight of contingent faculty and adjunct labor is not going to go away on its own. The academic market is not going to self-correct. Adjunct faculty cannot change these numbers alone. This is going to take courageous action on the part of senior faculty as well as professional organizations who willingly take our conference and membership money. It is in the AAR’s best interest to appeal to contingent faculty. If the numbers of contingent faculty within Religious Studies and Theology are consistent with the numbers of faculty overall, then in the U.S., contracted faculty and part-time instructors make up a majority of those in the field. According to the latest report from the AAUP, “the majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent (part-time tenure-track positions make up about 1 percent of the academic labor force).” The modern university is beset on multiple sides and if it doesn’t modify itself, it will be modified from the exterior. As Jason Sager’s response astutely points out, this situation resembles something akin to what European monasteries faced during the Reformation. Needless to say, things do not look good. Check out Brave New Films’ Professors in Poverty film for an inside look at adjunct existence.
I am happy that the AAR’s executive director, Jack Fitzmier, acknowledged that for contingent and adjunct faculty “things are that bad,” but I find his desire to separate contingent faculty woes from those of adjunct faculty problematic. Both adjunct and contingent faculty sign precarious contracts on a semester or yearly basis. Both groups bear the bulk of teaching responsibilities in their departments. Neither group are rewarded for department loyalty and both will likely be passed over when a more permanent position opens up and the hiring committee chooses the shiny new PhD from an esteemed Ivy League program no matter what miraculous feats or selfless sacrifices these individuals have made for their departments. They will simply not be rehired if they speak out. Both are shunned by the academic community. No, these two groups, notably, resemble each other much more than either resemble their tenured collogues.
I would like to address the question of responsibility the AAR’s director noted in his response because there is an element of communal responsibility that needs to be addressed here. Fitzmier outlined various ways to approach the “mess” of contingency: in terms of morality, economic parlance, or utilizing the idiom of responsibility. My thought is that if this issue was created collectively then there should be an attempt to remedy the situation collectively. It is high time that contingent and adjunct faculty no longer shoulder the weight of this issue alone.
As Dr. Helen Ramirez brilliantly illustrates in her response, The Snakes and Ladders of Academia, the blame for the current “mess” is always squarely placed at the feet of contingent faculty and adjuncts (in concert with “neoliberalism, greedy administrators, and politicians”) but that “some of the guilt for our subordinate status sits with regular faculty who haven’t used their privilege effectively.” Ramirez points out an often dismissed element of the adjunct dilemma: “regular faculty will not collectively assume any guilt for what they preserve for themselves regardless of the cost to us.” The silence from senior faculty I am sorry to say is deafening to those of us suffering from this new market paradigm. Fitzmier recommends that AAR members, especially those at the senior level, should share the AAR’s Statement on Contingent Faculty Practices with their Chairs, Deans, and Provosts to the extent that they “feel safe” in doing so. I ask that these same senior members whom Fitzmier describes as “feeling vulnerable, expendable, or otherwise endangered” try to imagine what contingent and adjunct faculty experience because they are, in fact, vulnerable, expendable, and otherwise endangered: they don’t just feel that they are these things. If senior faculty members are scared of speaking up, imagine the terror of those of us without the safety net of tenure, a savings account, health insurance, and the moral support of their professional organizations. The current situation is untenable and the only way forward for senior faculty as well as contingent and adjunct faculty is together. Senior faculty members have more power than they imagine and even just a kind gesture of support and comradery goes a long way with contingent faculty. We are your students, your friends, and your peers and if ever the AAR has needed to be a community that time is now. If our own professional organizations and their members will not speak out against injustices regarding academic labor, which intimately affect their own members, for whom or for what will they break their silence?
I ask the AAR and its members to come together as a community, a beloved community if you will, in the face of this plight. I ask the AAR and its members to not throw its people away but pull together in this time of upheaval. I ask you to sign the linked petition letting the AAR and the SBL know that you would rather invest in a community than a corporation and that you would happily forgo the annual conference tote bag if that would help contingent faculty members make it to the conference. Tell these professional organizations that the community they help foster means more to you than a week long vacation at the Hyatt. Tell these organizations that we are in this together as a people. Tell them you are willing to volunteer to help contingent faculty and the organizations through these times. I leave you with the words of an icon of revolutionary love, Alice Walker, regarding what it means to radically love another, to honor another as your friend.
No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended. Or who belittles in any fashion the gifts you labor so to bring into the world.
Become a friend of adjuncts and please Petition the AAR and SBL:
“Contingent faculty within Religious Studies and Theology desperately need the moral and financial support of their leading organizations and members of said organizations. According to the American Association of University Professors’ latest report, within the last forty years “the proportion of the academic labor force holding full-time tenured positions has declined by 26 percent and the shareholding full-time tenure track positions has declined by an astonishing 50 percent. Conversely, there has been a 62 percent increase in full-time non-tenure-track faculty appointments and a 70 percent increase in part-time instructional faculty appointments.” Adjunct and contingent faculty need their professional organizations to lower conference and membership rates for those in this precarious plight, they need help networking from established members of their field, and they need tenured professors to fight for them.”
Here are some possible personalized messages you could include:
I would like the AAR and SBL to consider hosting a conference at a large university to save on conference costs.
I would like to forgo my JAAR publication this year to allow that cost to be applied to adjunct resources.
I volunteer to mentor adjunct and contingent faculty and to help them navigate the treacherous field of employment.
I wish to donate money so that adjunct and contingent faculty can attend a national conference.
I am a chair of one of the many committees which meet at the conference and my committee has agreed to supply our own refreshments to help offset the cost of allowing adjunct and contingent faculty to participate at the annual conference at a decreased rate.
I am the chair of a committee and my committee agrees to dedicate their panel to the issue of adjunct and contingent labor in our field.
I am a department head, dean, or college president and I volunteer to raise awareness regarding adjunct labor concerns with faculty under my purview.
I am a tenured faculty member and I volunteer to advocate for adjunct rights within my department.
I am a tenured faculty member who teaches about social justice and human rights. I volunteer to spend some time in my classes discussing the plight of academic laborers.
I am a graduate student coordinator and I volunteer to talk to each incoming graduate student seriously about the current state of their prospects.
I am a department head and I volunteer to balance the load of teaching responsibilities within my department so that adjunct and contingent faculty do not bear the brunt of disproportionate teaching loads.
I am a department head and I volunteer to honor the value of quality teaching in my contingent and adjunct faculty and if the department will not continue to hire them, I will personally help them find employment.
I am a tenured faculty member and I choose be an advocate for adjunct rights at university council meetings.
I am not tenured and I am an adjunct ally.
I am no longer a member of AAR or SBL but I might consider returning if these organizations take the lead in supporting adjunct and contingent faculty.
I am an adjunct or contingent faculty member of AAR and this issue is real.
I am no longer a member of AAR or SBL because I am an adjunct and cannot afford it.