I’m starting at the end of the story.
Last night, I was in my hotel room unwinding after a very long day. I had just spent 10 straight hours basically taking public notes (in the form of tweets) on everything that happened at the NFM Summit. By the time I finished dinner, all I wanted to do was go to bed. I even justified grabbing an $8 beer from the minibar fridge. That’s what credit cards are for, right? Anyway, John A. Casey and Lee Skallerup Bessette called me out on Twitter, and told me to join them in the mezzanine (Thanks for that). So, I literally got out of bed, got dressed, and went back downstairs. And I’m glad I did because that’s where the end of the story begins.
The low light of the mezzanine created a dark, bar-type atmosphere. Ambient music, comfortable chairs. Lee, John, and Justin Jury were already lounging at a table when I got there. Clearly, the mood was much more relaxed than it had been earlier in the day. I was pretty relieved to see that, considering I had only gotten about an hour of sleep the night before, and I wasn’t really up for formality.
As I pulled up a chair, I noticed that, sitting near us—definitely within earshot—was a man I recognized from earlier in the day. I knew he was affiliated with NFM, but I wasn’t sure to what degree. He seemed to be focused on his own work; however, I could tell he was casually eavesdropping. Which is why I got a little bit uncomfortable when our conversation turned to a critique of the day’s meeting. Justin was really digging in to the conversation by pointedly asking each of us to divulge our thoughts about the “positives and negatives” of the day. The line of questioning was a bit unorthodox because it was really forcing us to be honest. It was clear he wasn’t interested in the standard brush off response where I could smile and say, “It was great—really energizing,” or something dumb like that. He pointed at me and directly asked, “What did you not like about the meeting today. And I will be honest with you all, there were some things I didn’t like, but I was content to keep them to myself. Especially knowing this mysterious affiliate was lurking over my shoulder, likely listening to my response. Not to mention my tendency toward negativity when I haven’t slept.
I’m glad Justin was so unrelenting because it really blew open the discussion. It was the dynamite that exposed the diamonds.
In my usual style, I found a way to use my words as a smokescreen for my real feelings. At first. I remember saying something about how the summit was designed to be a “critical mass” of like-minded people. That it would fire up our group and create a large ripple out into the rest of the country. What I really meant (and I think these highly intelligent fellow professors recognized) was that I was a little bit disappointed by the lack of development of any concrete plans. Much of the summit was us high-fiving each other and pointing out the problems. Which is something we have all already been doing for a long time. When we left Saturday evening, we were given no specific plan at all about how to grow the movement. No goals were set. No challenges were issued.
Let me just say quickly that I know why this happened, and to a certain extent it couldn’t be helped. NFM is a national organization. And the adjunct advocacy movement requires a very localized attack. Every single college has very different needs and goals. That was apparent at the table last night even, where each of the four of us had our own set of pros and cons at our respective institutions. So, ultimately, it would be almost impossible to design any kind of specific, focused national approach because it would inevitably be too aggressive for some schools and too tempered for others. Specificity on the national level would be paralyzing. We all realized that, but we still wanted more.
Back to the story…
As it turned out, we all had similar ideas on this lack of direct action at the summit. But, we were torn on the question of how to make this work. Lee and I appreciated the “squishiness” (as she called it) of NFM’s loose outline for the “Program for Change.” It allows for a lot of flexibility on the local level. With it, each school can tailor a mini program for change according to its needs. John and Justin, on the other hand, had a very different argument. One I hadn’t heard before, but found myself understanding. John has a background organizing with unions in Chicago. He was concerned that if we don’t set specific and measurable goals and outcomes, we would never gain traction in cities that value practicality, as opposed to openness and flexibility. As he put it, Chicago has a “top-down” mentality. He explained that, in Chicago, you look for the boss and you do what he/she tells you. Because of this, the vague language of the Program for Change would never fly at his school. For example, he needs to be able to tell someone: If you sign up, we will be fighting to earn you x more dollars every semester. Very clear goals with a measurable outcome. I definitely see where he was coming from.
We all agreed that we needed to stop talking so much and get more action-oriented, but we disagreed on where that action needed to take place—at the national level, or at the local.
It was about this time that our mystery man stood up from his chair. I immediately knew his actions were deliberate. He was going to join us. The candle on his table flickered and I could see his weathered and stubbled face. He slowly dragged his chair over to our table. It was painstaking how long it seemed to take. We all knew he was joining us, but no one had said anything yet. It was like a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean or something. I half expected him to pull a treasure map from inside his shirt and spread it out on the table before us. He even had an ear ring. He spoke lowly and confidently:
“I’ve heard everything you said.”
We, of course, welcomed him to join the discussion. He sat down and began listening quietly, interjecting occasionally. We continued our discussion. By now the original four of us were comfortable with each other and we were pretty involved in the subject matter.
Finally, he spoke again. “Were any of you in Berlin five years ago?” I couldn’t make this stuff up. I’m thinking “What in the world?’ We admitted we were not, and he proceeded to tell us a story. For the life of me, I cannot remember to what exactly he was referring, but the story itself is really the important part.
Apparently, there was a palace or something in Berlin (I’m hoping one of you readers can enlighten us. I’m sorry if I’m butchering this story. Again, I hadn’t slept much.). This palace was destroyed(?). In its wake was left an empty eyesore. The government intended to rebuild this structure, but did not have the resources to do so at the time. Thus, in order to maintain the majestic beauty of the area, there was a grand facade put up in its place. This facade was a shell of the former structure. It created the illusion that it was still standing strong. In time, as finances were allocated, the palace was rebuilt to its original beauty. At which time, the facade was removed to reveal the structure in all its glory.
You may have figured out by now that this story is a metaphor for the New Faculty Majority. NFM is a national facade, completely dependent on its members to build the structure. Without us and the groundwork we engage in, it will be a pretty face, but behind the doors, it’ll be hollow. The facade is there. It looks great. It creates a model for the finished product, but it can’t do anything without support. That’s where we come in. If each of us lays one brick on our campus, we will build the palace.
You may have also figured out by now that this mystery man was Peter Brown, founder of the New Faculty Majority. Um, yeah.
We ended up talking for hours. Much later than I had intended to stay. I finally excused myself about 1 AM. But Peter’s metaphor stuck with me. And I’m still turning it over in my mind this morning. I think both sides of our debate last night were right to a certain extent. We need both a stronger and more focused national message, and also a much stronger local presence. This was Peter’s main point. That we need to fill in the facade. My personal opinion is we need local chapters to be the “muscle” so to speak. The national group is making a lot of headway with major organizations like MLA and AAUP, and that’s great. We absolutely need this support. The national group needs to be the finesse, and it needs chapters to do the grunt work. To “lay the bricks.”
I’m not really sure how exactly this begins, but I think it starts with identifying local chapters. Get a couple people together on your campus, and start meeting once every two weeks or so. Discuss how things are going, share resources, get a cup of coffee. Whatever. Just start talking. Consider making a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Anything. It starts small. Contact NFM and make them aware that you are doing so. Keep yourselves accountable. For that matter, feel free to talk to me. I created a group when I lived in Kentucky, and I’ll be happy to share with you what we did. The key is be specific. What exactly do you want to accomplish? How will you go about it? Just get started. Start acting. Now.
So, as promised, I began my summit story at its end. Later this week, I may revisit the actual meeting itself, once I have some time to reflect. Honestly, though, I think I got more out of last night’s talk with Peter, Lee, John, and Justin than I did all day Saturday. I don’t mean to suggest that the summit wasn’t useful. It absolutely was. It was great to meet so many people I had previously only known via the web (not to mention all the excellent national attention we picked up yesterday). Building relationships is a huge part of this process. It’s the people who change things. When we unite, we can fill in the facade. Now, go lay some bricks.