Discipline-Based Organizations Aren’t Lost Causes

By  Seth Kahn

Blog etiquette usually recommends against long posts; oh well. I want to make the case that disciplinary organizations are worthwhile venues for adjunct equity work, and I want to describe an effort I’m currently involved with that my collaborators and I hope addresses at least the most obvious problem with doing so. Be patient while I try to do two things at once….

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Our professional organizations can be powerful forces for normalizing the discourses of labor equity.

 The Case for Working in/among Disciplinary Organizations

Last April, I was on a panel with NFM President Maria Maisto and Research Director Marisa Allison at SEIU 500’s Coalition of Academic Labor conference; my part was about working for adjunct equity within and among discipline-based organizations. I talked about work I’ve done in two organizations, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), ending with a list of ten strategic/tactical recommendations for doing this kind of organizing/mobilizing.

Yes, getting substantive progress on adjunct equity out of our disciplinary organizations is hard. There are some obvious reasons for that: most of their members are tenured/tenure-track (T/TT), so they’re “serving their membership majority” (yes, that’s self-fulfilling—don’t bust my punchline); the membership often benefits from adjunct labor because it provides the scheduling and workload flexibility the members [say they] need to do their own scholarship; the rules and bylaws of the organizations make enforcing rules and disciplinary standards difficult; and so on. Nothing really new here.

On the (slightly) upside, there are some reasons to work with discipline-based organizations towards equity:

  • Although most disciplinary organizations won’t claim their position statements regarding workload and other working conditions as standards, most organizations have at least established positions. As an example, see the CCCC’s Principles for the Post-Secondary Teaching of Writing. Maria Maisto and I are co-chairing a CCCC Task Force charged with writing a position statement for contingent faculty working conditions, due November 2015. Fellow NFM Foundation Board Member Sue Doe and her colleague Mike Palmquist have written an outstanding essay that traces the uses and limits of position statements. Position statements aren’t magic bullets, but they can help when used carefully. Making sure those statements do right by adjunct faculty is a good move.
  • Disciplinary organizations have resources, particularly funds for research. And most of those research funds aren’t earmarked for TT/T faculty like so many of our campuses do. Obviously, those funds don’t solve other structural problems that make research difficult for adjunct faculty, but they exist.
  • Disciplinary organizations offer networking opportunities that are often easier to pursue than networking on campuses: listservs, discussion forums, wikis, all kinds of electronic venues (for people who can’t travel to conferences), plus the opportunities that conferences provide (for people who can).
  • They offer venues for TT/T allies to be more effective than we can often be on our own campuses. I also think it’s easier to build NTT/TT alliances in these venues than on our campuses. The argument here is complicated, even without trying to deal with the problem of how important or desirable it is, so please just take it as a working proposition for now.

Further, I’ve become increasingly convinced that working in/among/through disciplinary organizations can advance our work for equity in another important way that goes beyond those incremental, concrete changes. As I argued in the CAL presentation last April:

I firmly believe that our professional organizations can be powerful forces for normalizing the discourses of labor equity. The policies we put in place may have no legal force; the resources we can offer probably won’t overwhelm the resources of neoliberal hegemony. But healthier organizational discourses keep us from sounding like the trouble-makers, and instead makes people who don’t speak those discourses sound as inhumane as they are.

What got me thinking about this, initially, was noticing in CCCC Position Statements the constant references to tenure/promotion decisions that could (and should) easily include renewal/non-renewal decisions. That the statements don’t include this is, in an obvious way, further evidence that adjunct faculty just weren’t on the radar. But those documents are exactly the sort of place for references to adjunct faculty issues to become habitual, to become a feature of the landscape such that their absence is stranger than their presence. Panacea? No. Nothing as melodramatic as a paradigm shift or similarly grandiose metaphor. But routinely registering that attention to adjunct faculty issues matters? Why wouldn’t we? And from there the ripples are interesting and potentially powerful.

The Missing Piece

In a word? Resolve. It’s not quite fair to say that disciplinary organizations tinker with or gesture at adjunct equity, but it’s clear that other priorities almost always come first. In order to change that, it’s incumbent on the membership of those organizations to demand organizational resolve; in making that demand, it’s equally crucial for the members to resolve the same for themselves. It may (OK, it does, but bear with me for a minute) sound hokey, but I’m a strong advocate of the resolution genre (alongside, not as a replacement for, policy and position statements). Done and deployed well, resolutions (ahem) resolve to do what the resolutions provide for.

Here’s an example of a resolution I’ve co-authored with a group of about twenty people, aimed at the memberships and leaderships of disciplinary organizations in English/Rhetoric and Composition/Writing. The Indianapolis Resolution* (see a quick version of the backstory here) calls on disciplinary organizations to rethink the authority they claim for their own workload/labor recommendations/statements; to help work towards rewarding and punishing (non)compliance; to commit to candor in discussing labor conditions in our field with graduate students and untenured (TT and NTT) faculty; and to commit to supporting labor-oriented research in ways that we’ve been hesitant about up until now.

The big picture goal of the Indianapolis Resolution is this: the authors and co-signers of this document are asking our professional organizations, institutions, and departments/programs in Composition, Rhetoric, Writing, and English to work towards reducing the extent to which departments and the field writ large use and exploit contingency to solve problems that primarily benefit the more secure members of those units. Further, while we acknowledge that some instructors want the option of contingent positions, institutions should work towards a default state in which everyone who enters the profession is treated like a professional.

The resolution has only been open for public endorsement for about three weeks; I announced it during a plenary talk I gave at the CWPA conference in July. With limited pushes via social media and one national listserv, it has garnered about 400 names including some very recognizable members of organizational leadership. We don’t know what will happen over the long haul. Our project’s predecessor, the Wyoming Resolution (originally drafted in 1987, adopted—sort of—by CWPA in 1998 and CCCC in 1989, mostly eviscerated and swept under the rug soon thereafter) has become a historical artifact and occasional club with which we smack ourselves for not being more assertive about labor.

The authors of the Indianapolis Resolution are convinced that the time is right to return to our disciplinary organizations for a renewed resolve. It’s not the late 1980s anymore. The field has changed. More importantly, thanks to the work of NFM, COCAL (lots of organized efforts), unions like SEIU, UAW, AFT, CFA and APSCUF* that work hard for adjunct faculty, and many loosely organized and freelance activists, the zeitgeist demands that our disciplinary organizations step up their efforts—but they won’t do it unless we, the membership, push and push.

A Final Note about Expectations

Disciplinary organizations can’t solve adjunct labor abuse on their own, and they won’t do as much as they could without pressure from their members to do it. On the other hand, there are resources—material and discursive—that can help the current, growing movement reach the critical mass we need to achieve real progress. As long as there are people willing to work within those organizations, and as long as putting our energy there isn’t drawing too much away from other crucial venues, the efforts are worth it.

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*If you’re a member of any organization in these or related fields, we’d certainly appreciate your endorsement: NCTE/CCCC, MLA/ADE, AWP, CWPA (and/or any of the regional affiliates), IWCA (and/or regionals), RSA, ATTW, any of several WAC/WID-based organizations. If not, then we’d encourage you to think about how you could use or adapt any of these principles into a similar resolution for your own disciplinary organization.


Seth Kahn is a member of the New Faculty Majority Foundation Board and Professor of English at West Chester University of PA, where he teaches courses in writing/rhetoric. His research focuses on activist rhetoric, specifically adjunct labor organizing. He co-chairs the Labor Committee of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and has co-chaired (with Maria Maisto) the Contingent Faculty Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication. You can reach him at herecomestrouble1208@gmail.com and see his profile here.

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