Thanks to the convergence of generous funding from CCCI and the support of De Anza’s VP for Instruction who finds value in the Faculty Association’s members being as up-to-date on bargaining issues as possible, I was able to attend this year’s Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) conference. Billed as the only conference exclusively focused on the issues facing contingent faculty and offering itself as a conference built from the bottom up rather than the top down, COCAL XI had much to offer its conference participants.
Focused on contemporary issues in higher education and tales of successful organizing respectively, the conference’s first and second plenary sessions were particularly informative and showcased a couple of dynamic speakers. That each speaker’s time limit of five minutes was upheld forced a focus and clarity too often lacking among plenary and keynote speakers. That the same time and focus requirements were not demanded of audience participants was unfortunate.
The heart of the conference was the “Interest Group” discussions and subsequent summarizing reports given by each group. Though having each group develop practical campaigns and strategy ideas was a good concept in theory, these group discussions were perhaps not as beneficial or productive as other uses of attendees’ expertise and energies might have been. Broken into five topics or foci—Legal Issues and Legislative Advocacy, Student Issues, Media Organizing and Narratives, Building National Agenda, and Bargaining for Equity—each group was led by two facilitators supported by up to six “Resource Persons” who were salted among the participants. While many saw this structure as innovative and somehow empowering, what it provided, as proved by the groups’ summaries at the conference’s close, was, ironically enough, merely restated verities well known by most attendees before they arrived at the conference. Out of the working group I attended, Legislative advocacy, for example, the results of our three sessions were that the issues of just cause for termination, rehire rights, stabilization, and professionalism needed more focused attention at a national level, for which the group did collectively suggest ways to focus that attention.
It certainly seems that with so many years of experience and knowledge represented in any particular interest group, energy could have been better directed had participants stipulated to the realities of the myriad problems that nearly all contingent faculty recognize, confront, and deal with so that they could have instead devoted their efforts to finding concrete, viable ways to address, ameliorate, or correct those known problems. It is the rehashing, ad infinitum, the endless—and too often long-winded into the bargain—retelling of anecdotes of personal or collective suffering or harm that sapped the attention and the life out of many in the room. That this phenomenon was not unique to the XIth iteration of this conference can be seen in the reality that contingent faculty labor under conditions more onerous and demoralizing than they did twenty years ago when COCAL was birthed.
Though billing itself an umbrella organization encompassing the North American nations’ bewildering variety of units representing contingent faculty, COCAL’s self-congratulatory internationalism suffers from what seems a glaring and significant blind spot. The American contingent is almost exclusively bi-costal. California, New York, and New England were well represented, but excepting a Chicago presence, the vast middle of America was unrepresented save solitary outliers from Arkansas, South Carolina, and Missouri, and while their alternately angry and anguished voices received applause—though whether for their presence alone or the courage their attending suggested was never clear; what did seem clear was there was no support offered, no reaching out, no efforts to build bridges or coalitions to the vast middle of the continent where contingent faculty could arguably be said to be laboring in more hostile environments than all but the most unfortunate of their bi-costal brethren.
The isolation of contingent faculty laboring in middle-America—seemingly somehow completely beyond the shade offered by COCAL’s big umbrella claims—was as troubling as the international participation was welcome. The Canadian participants, though not without their own concerns and challenges, often served as persons of envy while the Mexican members of the panel and audience were often inadvertent clarions of how dangerous and disrespected toiling in the fields of academia can be when nearly all power is held by a government that chooses when and what kinds of “rights” it is willing to permit the nation’s professoriate.
Looking back at what was learned and looking forward to what might follow is a bit disconcerting or disorienting. Though much of what was most interesting and instructive came in the conversations that took place in the interstices of the formal or scheduled agenda, it was certainly still a conference worth attending. Connecting with other contingent faculty, hearing their stories, their struggles, their successes and failures is always welcome and instructive of course, but that so much time was expended in restating what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “known knowns” seems a shame. Something more tangible—specific legislative initiatives or coordinated national organizing days perhaps—should have come of a conference organized entirely by volunteers, funded by generous donations from various labor and allied organizations, and attended almost exclusively by contingent faculty and their few allies. Perhaps something will, but it will have to come from persons who as likely as not have now returned to positions both tenuous and enervating.
by Raymond Brennan, Ph.D.
De Anza College