In spring of 2007, after nearly two years without a contract, the faculty of the 23 campuses of the California State University system (of which my university is a part) voted to ratify a contract. Among other things, that contract included raises to help our salaries catch up to the cost of living in California. (Notice the word “help” in that sentence; the promised raises, while making things better, don’t quite get the whole job done.)
The negotiations for this contract were frustratingly unproductive until my faculty union organized a rolling strike that was planned as a set of two-day walkouts at each of the 23 campuses in the system. For most classes, this would have meant losing one instructional day, which would minimize the impact on individual students. As well, a two-day rolling strike would make it pretty pointless for the administration to try to bring in replacement workers. Even with syllabi in hand, our courses are not easily staffed with subs on short notice. (Reasonably, someone would need my notes — some of which are pretty darned cryptic — and if I’m walking a picket line, I’m not going into my office to dig out my notes and hand them over to a scab.)
When strike dates were announced (and, we are told, with some serious political pressure behind the scenes to avert a strike that would have garnered national and international media coverage), the administration came back to the bargaining table with a contract the negotiating team deemed reasonably good (a judgment with which the faculty showed its agreement by voting to ratify the contract).
The staggering thing to me is that we went almost two years without a contract before we could bring ourselves to the point where we were ready to strike.
Now, because California is in the throes of yet another budget crisis, the Chancellor’s office is making noises about revisiting the contract currently in force and renegotiating those promised raises. (Apparently, the state might not be able to afford them, even though we seem to be able to afford raises for administrators.) So the faculty may find themselves in the position of having to fight to get what was promised in the last round of fighting.
There are certain features of a good many faculty members that seem to make it hard for us to embark easily on a job action. Because we’re back in negotiation mode a lot sooner than expected, I think it’s worth examining them.
University teaching is a caring profession.
We care about our students. Many of us see our life’s work as giving these students the best education we can, because we understand, in a way that our students (and administrators and legislators and taxpayers) often do not, the ways that education can play a role in human flourishing. We are not just training docile workers with specific skill sets that plug into the current or anticipated needs of the capitalist system (as I discuss here). We are trying to provide the tools of critical thought and the space in which our students can evaluate everything — including the status quo. Professorial types, especially at teaching-oriented public universities like those in the CSU, regard a life of the mind as something from which every human being might benefit, rather than as a luxury item that only the rich kids in private schools have use for.
We empathize with our students. We take their interests seriously, and we see their interests as deeply tied to our own in terms of the society we will share.
In the event of a job action, we know the students will be affected. The administration may have to deal with bad publicity, but our students miss a day of instruction. We don’t want to hurt our students. So, until our situation gets dire, we find it hard to work up enthusiasm to strike.
Faculty have gotten used to trying to do more with less.
When you’ve spent years in school (as most faculty have), your sense of how much there is to know is expansive. Trying to fit any sensible subset of knowledge into the bounds of four years of study, or fifteen weeks of a semester, is already a challenge. Further, we have to face the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day — and that the majority of our students have jobs or family responsibilities or both — which means that there are only so many pages that can be read, only so many problem sets assigned, only so many papers written. (The 24-hour day similarly limits how much grading and preparation for class we can accomplish.) Even in the best of circumstances, an academic can feel pretty MacGuyverish, cobbling together clever pedagogical plans that are amazing when they succeed.
We have not, at least in the time I have been on the faculty, been working in the best of circumstances. Our resources have been driven by enrollments, which means our class sizes have grown. Larger classes make it harder to engage students in the classroom, and harder to respond as usefully to student work. The limited resources also mean that fewer classes are offered, so students have a harder time getting the classes they want or need to graduate, and thus are stuck paying fees for more semesters than they would otherwise. Meanwhile, tuition has skyrocketed.
We see the students getting squeezed along with the academic departments. We want to help them get what they deserve. So we accommodate the larger classes and either cut back on the useful feedback to the students (via multiple-choice tests marked by computers), or cut back on our sleep that we may provide something like useful feedback.
What are we supposed to do as the enrollment targets creep upward and the resources dwindle? What options for pushing back are available that won’t hurt our students or our departments? We grow so used to stretching what we have that it takes us a while to notice when we have crossed into territory where we are being asked to do the impossible.
And that attitude carries over to our paychecks.
Years of graduate school warp our relationship to self-interest.
Many of us professorial types still remember the days when our dinners alternated between rice and lentils and instant ramen noodles. I have friends who economized by living in their vehicles during the summer. Spending years after college graduation working like mad but getting paid just enough not to qualify for food stamps warped us. Finding out what our college classmates were making in the real world would make our jaws go slack.
The first academic job offer, just by virtue of paying some significant amount more than a graduate stipend, seemed a wondrous thing.
And it was not just the almost-a-grown-up-salary (at least as far as we could tell, emerging from our caves) that seemed so wondrous. The very fact of getting an academic job offer in a market that, in many fields, seemed flooded by an excess of Ph.D.s seemed like a stroke of good luck. Many worthy scholars and teachers did not get job offers. This fact planted a seed of fear: I am easily replaced.
Between the lean years that we brought upon ourselves by pursuing graduate studies and the abundance of talented but unemployed people who might fill our positions just as well as we do, it can feel almost like we’re tempting the universe to smack us down if we complain too strenuously about our compensation. Shouldn’t I regard it as lucky even to be able to find work as a philosopher? (My parents, on some level, are still surprised I’m not living on their couch.)
Pessimism about changing our conditions.
Faculty are adaptable. And we know our students can change and grow because we see it before our eyes. But how to get administrators to change is a great mystery.
They control our resources on campus. At the highest levels of the system, they decide how much money to ask the legislature for, often without asking us what we need in the trenches. They seem bent on understanding our larger purpose as akin to producing widgets, while we see educated people and their production as fundamentally unwidget-like. Yet our attempts to explain seem never to change things. Decisions seem always to be made from above, and to rain down on us below. It almost seems like we believe the situation is as unchangeable as gravity.
Who in their right mind fights gravity?
Fear of short-term pain for long-term improvement.
Resisting larger class sizes, or “mission creep” when it comes to assessment, or dwindling pools of instructional resources, scares us. To draw the line and say, “With what you give us, we can do this much and no more!” could mean leaving some students without classes they need, or losing faculty billets. We don’t want to lose colleagues or hurt students. We resent being asked to do the impossible, but we often can’t stomach the short-term costs of fighting for what we need to do the job well.
It took us nearly two years to get to the point where we were willing to sacrifice ONE day of instruction in each of our classes to push back against unrealistic work conditions. Many of our students skip more class than that for far more trivial reasons.
I do not think it is a bad thing that faculty take their students’ interests so seriously. But I worry that we are in a situation where, having lost cabin pressure, we need to remember to put on our own oxygen masks first so we can better assist those who depend on us for help.
An earlier version of these musings was posted on the dear departed WAAGNFNP blog.