Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rachel Dolezal and the De-Professionalized University

Rachel Dolezal, currently this week's Object of Public Shame on the Internet, has apparently been fired from her job teaching at Eastern Washington State. Or rather, I learn from today's New York Times, they didn't have to bother firing her. You see, Dolezal was what's called an "adjunct instructor," someone who teaches on a course-by-course basis for low pay without any security for the next semester. There are more adjunct teachers than normal salaried professors in American universities today. So, EWU didn't have to fire her. She's just not hired for any classes for next fall. And they can tell the newspapers that she is "no longer employed" by Eastern Washington. Not fired, mind you. Just no longer employed. It was harder to take her off the Department web page (which happened sometime in the last four days) than it was to end her employment.

Now, you may think Dolezal deserved to be fired. I'm not going to argue the general Rachel Dolezal Situation, because frankly I don't think it gets us anywhere. Singling out one person's weird behavior  is not useful, and it's already very clear that no one is going to learn anything of from l'affaire Dolezal, because nothing about the case is changing anyone's mind.

But whether Dolezal had given EWU just cause to fire her or not doesn't matter, because EWU doesn't need just cause. And that I do want to talk about.

If you think Dolezal had it coming, ask yourself this: how did Dolezal get hired to an Africana Studies department in the first place? How did she get on that department web page? Didn't anybody check this person out? Probably not, actually, because of the terms of her employment. When you're hiring someone for zero job security and next to zero money, the search process is a lot more laissez-faire. And after all, the whole point of replacing permanent, full-time faculty jobs with short-term, allegedly part-time jobs is to save money.  There isn't money or time to do extensive vetting. So Eastern Washington had someone they didn't know much about in their classrooms. But they aren't the only ones. Most universities are employing a large number of teachers whom the school knows relatively little about.

Adjunct faculty and full-time faculty aren't necessarily different in terms of talent or skills. But the two hiring processes are incredibly different. The decision to hire a full-time, salaried college teacher, tenure-track or not, is typically made a year and a half before that new employee starts the job; many college administrations decided in March or April 2015 which job openings they would announce for a fall 2016 starting date. The job application process will take most of the 2015-16 school year, from official advertisements in the early fall to final decisions sometime in the spring, and then the lucky job-seekers will move to their new jobs in new towns over next summer.

That search process involves multiple rounds of interviews with several different interviewers; several letters of recommendation; a number of elaborate professional documents, typically including statements of teaching philosophy and one or more scholarly writing samples; and day-long visits to campus by the finalists for formal presentations, more interviews, and often a teaching demonstration, sometimes guest-teaching a class. Each of these job searches costs the deans thousands of dollars just to fly two-to-four people to campus and put them up in hotels. And of course all of the finalists' references get double-checked with phone calls from the hiring institution. Someone like Dolezal, who's not being entirely straightforward about parts of her background, might slip through that process anyway. But it would be much harder and rarer to do.

Adjunct hiring decisions are much less elaborate. The jobs aren't necessarily posted at all, and a department chair or program director might be hiring people to fill gaps a week or two before the semester starts. It's a local search, and not a national one. There's a resume and an interview with the program director or chair. There aren't necessarily letters of reference, certainly not in the numbers and detail that full-time jobs require. And that's about it; anything else is often up to the person doing the hiring. Certainly, references don't always get called. The most likely reason no one from Howard University told Eastern Washington about Rachel Dolezal's earlier self-presentations is that no one from Eastern Washington called anyone from Howard.

This difference between the two application processes is only getting sharper, as the pressure of the terrible job market for full-time jobs keeps raising the bar higher and higher. In an insanely competitive environment, applicants keep trying to get an edge by doing more (I've started to see job ads stipulate a maximum number of letters of recommendation, at least three but no more than five or six) and universities keep adding hoops because they can (one of the current debates at places like the Chronicle of Higher Ed is whether it's ethical to call references whom applicants didn't list). And the more adjuncts a department hires, the simpler that process has to be.

This two-track application process does a disservice to the people being hired on the low-paying track. Many adjuncts don't need to be educated about the tenure-track job search; they're fully qualified applicants for those jobs who have simply been crowded out because there are so few jobs to go around. Some adjuncts aren't interested in the qualifications for tenure-line work, because they have MAs instead of PhDs or because they aren't interested in doing research. But there are a number of people on the adjunct track who are interested in switching to the tenure track but aren't entirely clear how. Those people are not at all served when the process for picking up some classes for the semester bears almost no resemblance to the process for getting the full-time job they crave.

And in some places, sorry to say, there is little in the way of supervision or training for adjunct faculty. There is a mind-set, not everywhere but in too many places, that says that people being paid so little should be just left alone to do whatever they like in the classroom, because how much can you ask of someone you're paying two hundred bucks a week?

Many adjunct professors are wonderful and admirable professionals. But from the university's point of view, that's just luck. The universities themselves didn't do anything to foster that professionalism. They didn't seek it out, and they certainly don't reward it. When you de-professionalize an occupation, when you take away the salary, the benefits, and the job stability that go with being a middle-class professional, you undermine the professionalism of your own workplace. Most adjunct faculty do the right things the right way, because those things are right and not because they get any reward. But if you don't reward good behavior, you have to expect pockets of unprofessionalism or weirdness.

Eastern Washington University has a flood of publicity it doesn't want this week, because one of its many casual employees, whom it has only casually overseen, turns out to be fairly weird. But the real truth is that could have happened to almost any school in the country, and they would never see it coming.

cross-posted from, and comments welcome at, Dagblog

No comments: