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April 2016


Protecting the precarious
Emily Lauer and Katelynn DeLuca


katelynn deluca
Katelynn DeLuca, adjunct instructor of English and adjunct EC rep for English, addresses benefits of FA membership at the March 19 meeting of the Northeast Modern Language Association conference. (photo by Charli Valdez)

"I value the academic freedom clause in our contract because I think about my teaching approaches that may be viewed by some as less-than-traditional when I have students thinking critically, synthesizing information, conducting research, etc. It calms my anxiety as I consider my own security as an instructor doing something I truly love."

This quote by Katelynn DeLuca (English) captures how the good work the FA does on behalf of adjunct faculty was recently celebrated at a discipline-based conference.

On Saturday, March 19, in Hartford, CT, at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) Conference, two FA activists addressed union issues for contingent faculty: DeLuca as a presenter and Dr. Emily Lauer (English) as panel moderator [biographies below].

As president of NeMLA's Contingent/Adjunct/Independent Scholar/Two-Year (CAITY) Caucus, Lauer organized the panel, and the following summarizes their good work in representing the FA.

Lauer: The CAITY Caucus represents and advocates for contingent and adjunct faculty, independent scholars and faculty at two-year institutions. This special event was born out of discussions at last year’s conference caucus meeting. This idea was to address the timely issue of adjuncts unionizing, with two speakers, both adjunct faculty, in very different union situations: one with a decades-old union representing both part-time faculty and full-time tenure-track faculty and one with a brand new union he helped along that includes only non tenure-track faculty.

Originally this panel had included two individuals associated with a part-time faculty union bargaining committee, SEIU Local 200, which is currently seeking to unionize only part-time adjuncts at Ithaca College. Neither of them could present, however: one had to cancel for a job reason and the other had to cancel for a health reason, and I feel that their absence is pretty poignant in this discussion of precarity.

emily lauer
Emily Lauer serves as president and secretary of the CAITY Caucus of NeMLA. The only community college representative on the Board of Directors, Emily advocates for contingent and adjunct faculty, independent scholars and faculty at two-year institutions. (photo by Bailey Wright)

DeLuca: Absolutely, and the opposite of precarity is security. They probably could have presented if they had job security. You know, as a child of working class parents, I first recognized the importance of unions when my mother began working as a bus driver for our local school district. Not only was she afforded the necessary representation and protections because of her union but she was also contracted to receive equal pay in comparison to her male colleagues. As the primary earner for our family since my father had developed multiple sclerosis, my mother was able to provide the basic necessities and have some security, knowing that her contract was in place and fought for by the union.

Lauer: The irony is that it can be a challenge to fight for such security and stability when you don't yet have such security and stability. One of the original presenters had emailed me that she hopes that as a result of this discussion more adjuncts will feel "capable and inspired to unionize and/or get more involved in their union." I think a lot of people already feel inspired; it’s arranging our limited resources to help each other feel capable that we need to work on.

DeLuca: Though my support for the union has always been present, my involvement in the FA increased significantly last year after being elected to the position of Executive Council representative for college-wide English adjuncts. Having this opportunity—and responsibility—to be the eyes and ears of the FA, I can easily report to the union anything I observe or hear that seems noteworthy. This reminds me that I am a valued and valuable member of the college community. I think it's precisely because we have both full- and part-time faculty in the same union that we feel so capable to accomplish what we do. There really is strength in numbers.

Emily: What else do you see as the benefit of having a union like ours?

katelynn deluca
At the NeMLA conference, Katelynn DeLuca describes the work the FA has done in making sure adjunct voices are heard, fighting for full-time lines and protecting academic freedom. Looking on is fellow panelist Charli Valdez. (photo by Bailey Wright)

DeLuca: Preparing for the CAITY presentation, I focused on three major benefits that truly mean a great deal to me.

  1. Hearing our voices. As both an SCCC student and now adjunct instructor, I’ve recognized the important and meaningful impact unions have for both groups. Of primary importance is the union’s ability to ensure our voices are heard. Faculty should have a say in the conditions of our own employment. We are the ones working directly with students every day and we know their needs. By making sure our voices matter, the union empowers our students’ success. It’s frustrating to speak up and have no one listen. I don’t want a megaphone, but I don’t want to be whispering into closed ears either. I cannot advocate for my students’ needs if others—the ones who can make things change—don’t even hear me talk about what I’m seeing and doing every day. As an adjunct, it is the union who asks for my perspective. I have so much to share and I absolutely want and need to do what’s right for my students. It’s not that the avenues of communication are closed; they haven’t even been built yet. Except for the union, where I’m an EC rep. They regularly ask for my input.

  2. Fighting for full-time lines. Paramount to our students' learning conditions and our own working conditions is the union's ability to continue fighting for full-time lines. The FA says it best: Faculty working conditions really are our students’ learning conditions. By increasing full-time faculty lines, we put student needs at the forefront. Full-time faculty are more readily available for students during office hours, by appointments and drop-in visits and when advising student clubs.

    It’s not that adjuncts don’t want to be available—I’m positive that we do—but if we’re racing between and among jobs, we simply don’t have the time in the same way full-time faculty do. As an adjunct who’s working at St. John’s and at two of the three campuses of SCCC, too much of my time is wasted on the Long Island Expressway. I’m an English instructor. I can’t help but consider the number of projects I could respond to as I travel 70 miles to and from campus. Such situations, as I know many adjuncts share, are untenable. My students get sufficient time and attention from me, don’t get me wrong, but that comes at the sacrifice of my sleep and it shouldn’t have to.

  3. Protecting tenure. Finally, we need unions to continue fighting for tenure. There’s a public misunderstanding that tenure means "a job for life." We work hard to teach that there are two major purposes of tenure: financial, so administration can’t unilaterally fire senior faculty and hire a slew of junior faculty at lower wages, as well as philosophical, to give faculty the freedom they need to question the status quo and teach from a wide range of perspectives whether or not they’re safe or popular.

    As an English professor, tenure is of extreme importance to me. It comes part and parcel with academic freedom. I take a sociological approach to literature in my courses, which means that we talk about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs and other identity markers. Students must remain respectful of others’ perspectives, but I want them to speak openly and honestly so we can engage with their good ideas and thinking. These issues come up in literature all the time, and students address a wide variety of issues that periodically strikes their classmates as offensive when they read each others’ final drafts. I need to know that there are structures in place to enable the fundamental freedom to engage with and question those ideas so students can all learn and grow from it.

    I’m fortunate enough to be part of a union that seeks to protect me as an adjunct while also fighting for tenure track lines. Not only does this demonstrate the respect adjunct and contingent faculty need but that we deserve as scholars and experts in our fields.

Lauer: I agree and I'd like to add a couple thoughts. One is a call for transparency: discussions about our working conditions and those of our colleagues are vital to ameliorating crappy situations. Let’s all keep talking to each other and to our various coworkers at our institution and at other institutions about what’s good, what’s bad, what has worked where.

The second is related. In another session at NeMLA, Mark Ouellette brought up institutional memory. As we are opening and maintaining lines of communication about these issues, we need to look back, out and forward. We need to research the local history of labor issues in our regions, in and out of academia, for context. We need to disseminate information through existing channels now, and look for how that information might be preserved and helpful for future generations.

One way to do some of that might be to get involved in the caucuses of our disciplinary organizations that focus on labor and working conditions—and get involved in our union!

Katelynn DeLuca, adjunct instructor of English and a professional assistant in the Ammerman and Eastern writing centers, is a Ph.D. candidate in the St. John's University department of English with a focus on composition where she regularly teaches and tutors. She has recently presented at NeMLA, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the national MLA Conference and the College English Association and will present in July at the Conference on Writing Program Administration.

She currently has an article under review for an edited collection. Katie serves as the FA's elected Executive Council representative for adjuncts in English.

Dr. Emily Lauer is an associate professor of English on the Ammerman campus as well as serving as president and secretary of the CAITY Caucus, which makes her the only community college faculty on the Board of Directors for NeMLA!

Her scholarly work has included articles for the journals Transformations and Textual Cultures as well as a chapter in the book Brave New Teenagers, which won the Children's Literature Edited Book Award for the year of its publication, 2013.