NFM ’12 Post Two: Stop Looking for the Treasure Map, and Start Laying Bricks

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.

Berlin Stadtschloss

The Berlin Stadtschloss from Peter Brown’s story.

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.”

Gulp.

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.

  • http://johnacaseyjr.wordpress.com johnacaseyjr

    Excellent post Josh. The best reflection on NFM12 that I’ve read so far. Like you, I felt that I gained more from our midnight convo than some of the earlier sessions. Our little meeting was what I had hoped the breakout sessions would be like. Well worth staying up til 1am even if the taxi ride to the airport at 7am came too soon.

    I’m back in Chicago now and will be writing my own post soon inspired by your words and the issues you describe.

    Yours in Solidarity,

    John Casey

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Thanks, John. It was a real pleasure to meet you. Looking forward to our future interactions. Glad you made it back; I’m sitting at the airport as we speak.

  • VanessaVaile

    On the other hand what works in Chicago probably won’t in GA or TX. That is where the flexibility comes in – add to local option and let regions design their own. Chapters are key but need to be as autonomous as possible. Think distributed networks IRL. Every chapter a network but also a node in the larger network, some in larger membership areas might be hubs but distributive not hierarchical.

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  • VanessaVaile

    PS ~ as for “Consider making a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Anything. It starts small. Contact NFM and make them aware that you are doing so” ~ two points: 1) TAG everything identifying NFM connection, and 2) PLEASE let resident (default) NFM social media slave know too. Sometimes information does not flow as well as it could and I just might miss it in all the feeds I try to track.

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Thanks so much for everything, Vanessa. I was sad to hear you weren’t coming. Was really looking forward to meeting you.

      • VanessaVaile

        You, John, Lee, Brian and Karen made up not being able to be there. Thanks to the bunch of you, I (and so many others) got a good and balanced sense of how the summit, better than depending on press releases and mainstream academic press. This is even more than what I hoped for. Now for Karen’s and Lee’s takes. Maybe others, but now I’m off to reply to comment on the the Chronicle’s Summit article that Peter just posted to adj-l ~ tell them to read the blogs for the real skinny.

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  • professorisin

    Josh, this is an amazing post. I am really glad I read this before even beginning to write my own post about NFM ’12; it totally sharpens and clarifies some previously inchoate thoughts. I’m still in mid-reflection stage so I will stop here, saying only thank you for bringing both the potentiality and the limitations of the event into such sharp focus. And, it was great meeting you in person.

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Thank you, Karen. I’m glad it helped. It was a pleasure to meet you, and I look forward to reading your take on the summit.

  • http://www.newpaltz.edu/~brownp Peter D.G. Brown

    Josh, I love your blog about the NFM Summit, as well as the conversation from which it germinated. Anyone interested in reading more about Berlin

  • http://www.newfacultymajority.org Maria Maisto

    Josh — This is a terrific reflection. I have to say that I’m giggling in appreciation of the visual you created of Peter emerging from the shadows in a scene that evokes Pirates of the Caribbean (remember, I know him well)! But I’m jealous that he got to spend hours talking to you guys. I’ve been thinking of all the coulda/shoulda/wouldas and having time to spend with all of you definitely makes the list.

    A few thoughts: we have been dying to build local chapters. We’ve got fledgling ones in Ohio, Indiana, Connecticut … but we need to get them up and running — that’s where you all come in. We have some new technostructure to facilitate communication within and among chapters — eager to get it out to the membership — and we’re eager to help you all start building your local groups.

    Here is one of the many things I’ve learned from Peter: after he got NFM started, he immediately stepped aside to make sure adjuncts were in the leadership. What has excited me most about the summit is that it’s allowed us to connect with leaders like you and our other contingent faculty (pace John!) colleagues. Ex: Did you see Shana’s FB post that John Kerry was on her plane so she talked to him and gave him NFM materials? (Justin will appreciate the seizing of the exigent moment there!) That’s the kind of fearless leadership I see in the folks who came to the summit.

    Regarding action coming out of the summit: We wanted the breakouts to point us in the right direction, so February is mobilization month — to build membership, to see what kind of public consensus we can build around the principles we presented, to build the task force and the framework for long-term change … in the meantime, let’s not let the petition to Joe Biden fizzle out. One thing that was clear yesterday from the breakouts: we need to communicate beyond the circles in which we always move, educate the powerful (on campus and off) who so clearly need to be educated.

    So how’s this for an achievable short-term goal: a meeting between Joe and Jill Biden and a contingent (ha ha) of NFMers by the end of the school year. Can we do it? I think we can.

    What do you think?

    • VanessaVaile

      Many Summit tweeters and followers tweeted & RT’d reminders about the petition, with links ~ even Rosemary, both as herself and @MLAconvention (*that* one went to a lot of people). There’s been a jump today in signers, up to 1,192.

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Peter and Maria,

      I’m so happy you were both able to read my post. I love the idea of “mobilization month,” and also the goal of meeting with Joe Biden. I think he owes us that. I had a great time this weekend, and I’m looking forward to growing our relationship as we continue to work together. Thank you again very much for everything you did.

      By the way, Maria–I’m glad you liked my pirate image. :)
      And, Peter, thanks for clearing up the mystery of the Stadtschloss!

    • eliana23

      Maria, that is an excellent goal. I agree that we need some specific goals, whether that involve ratio or something else.

  • Esther Merves

    Thanks, Josh for this post. I am grateful for the in-person we had together, and look forward to working together. Esther

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Absolutely. Thanks again, Esther!

  • http://www.newpaltz.edu/~brownp Peter D.G. Brown

    Repost from “Contingent Academics Mailing List” :

    Speaking only for myself and not for NFM, I would imagine that the draft document called

  • http://www.newpaltz.edu/~brownp Peter D.G. Brown

    For those of you not familiar with adj-l, the Contingent Academics Mailing List, go to:
    http://adj-l.org/mailman/listinfo/adj-l_adj-l.org
    The postings are read by hundreds of contingent academics around the country.

  • MFulwiler

    Hi Josh,
    Loved this report about the NFM summit and the mysterious lurking figure of Peter Brown. I have to admit that I interpreted his Berlin castle story in another way. While the brick-by-brick story works, I think the pretty facade is also an apt metaphor for the state of higher education where the majority of resources support exterior appearances rather than the crucial enterprise of teaching. There’s always money (look at the ever increasing cost of attending college and the record level of student debt), it’s just that higher education hasn’t made teaching a priority.

    Megan Fulwiler

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Excellent point, Megan. The metaphor has a darker meaning when you interpret it that way. I don’t remember the exact figure, but one of the speakers mentioned that only about 2 percent of a student’s tuition goes towards paying the actual teacher of the course! If that’s not exploitation, I don’t know what is.

  • eliana23

    Josh, I too was unfulfilled at the end of Saturday and have been struggling to put my finger on it precisely. Still working on it. Thanks for your thoughts, and company at the summit.

    Eliana Osborn

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Absolutely, Eliana. I wish we had been able to talk more. The day went so fast. Nice meeting you, at any rate. Looking forward to reading more of your work at The Chronicle.

  • michelle

    I loved the post. I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. I’m going to vent a little. (You of all people know my thoughts/feelings about all this, Josh, so I know you won’t take offense). I believe there is power in unity. But I also believe we need some sort of solid leadership in each chapter. We need goals, directives, structure. Right now everything still feels….loose, like scattered marbles. Further, did anyone at the meeting bring up:

    ~How do we lay bricks with little or no unity?

    ~How do we build unity when people are afraid? In this economic climate people are scared to lose their job–especially when it means that to lose the teaching job would mean going to McDonald’s, because, as we all know, fired PT people wouldn’t be eligible for any sort of unemployment benefits. Also, if fired, what would be the likelihood that we’d be able to find another teaching job? Here lately, I’ve tried getting retail jobs to supplement my income and they WON’T hire me because I have a Master’s degree; they think I won’t stick around; they think I’ll want more money; they don’t seem to understand I want whatever money they will give because I’ve got to eat and pay bills. I have to LIE about my Master’s degree on my application in order to even get a call back. I’m absolutely stuck in limbo. I can’t go up the ladder or down it. So, if I lose this job I’m royally screwed because I can’t even buy a job in the service industry, much less the academic one.

    ~How do we build unity when some adjuncts are doing it as a sideline to a full-time job and adjuncting isn’t their priority?

    ~Yet, how do we really grab attention from administrators, the kind of attention that will make changes, without some sort of mass sit-in, protests, dare I say it: strikes?

    ~Who’s willing to be a martyr (so to speak) to the cause? Who can afford it? I can’t help but think that there will be several martyrs before administrators will budge even an inch. One thing I’ve learned in my life is that admins. do not easily let go of money. That’s what they make the big bucks for.

    ~How do we get admins. to budge on increasing pay/giving benefits when (especially at our school) there is a budget crisis such that there is a current hiring freeze? If there’s a current hiring freeze and a drop in enrollment, admins. would think nothing about giving the ax to a few rabble-rousing adjuncts–it would save money for the school.

    Don’t get me wrong: I want change. I want a better way. But right now I’m living with a lot of doubt and fear and I have trouble admitting that because I’ve always placed a high price tag on a “no fear” attitude. Even as I write this part of my brain is shouting “No guts, no glory.” Yet, the undeniable fact is that I absolutely cannot afford to lose this job. I’m in a place of desperation which makes me feel weak and vulnerable–a position I’m not accustomed to, a position I despise, a position that makes me feel humiliated and ashamed, but one I’m not sure I can escape. What bit of empowerment I thought I had seems to be slipping like water through my fingers. It’s not my desire to be a buzz kill, because I know negativity will certainly not push the movement forward. But I suppose I’m attempting to reflect the feelings that so many of us in the trenches must be feeling.

    • http://orderofeducation.wordpress.com Josh Boldt

      Hey Michelle,

      You raise some really good questions. I can respond to some of them.

      As far as the need for leadership goes, I totally agree. Even groups with the best intentions will fizzle without direction and accountability. Each chapter needs someone who is driven and committed and charismatic in order to keep pushing the movement forward. There has to be someone who delegates responsibilities and follows up to make sure things are getting done. I think this is part of John Casey’s argument. Somebody needs to take charge. And this is one bit of advice I would suggest to the national group. They need to establish a membership coordinator or something whose job is to check in with the chapters and ask how things are going. Someone to keep the smaller factions motivated and coordinated. I mentioned to Peter that after we created our Kentucky chapter, we basically had zero follow up from anyone at NFM. No one ever contacted me to ask how things were going, nor to keep us motivated. Obviously this is a problem. So, I completely agree with your suggestion that it can’t all be up to the “Go get em, group!” mentality. There has to be leaders who step up.
      And, to your next point, these leaders could potentially become martyrs to a certain extent. At least at first. I met several people at the summit who had been fired as a result of speaking out. Many were involved in litigation with their former universities as a result of this flagrant discrimination.

      I also brought up another issue we ran into at EKU, which was the reality that some adjuncts don’t really need the money because of a spouse’s primary income, for example. These adjuncts don’t really want to get involved in the movement because to them teaching is just extra pocket money. Honestly, no one offered a good solution to this issue. All I can really say is, who the heck would not want more money if it were offered? I think adjuncts in this position may be reluctant to join initially, but once we start really gaining ground, I can’t imagine they wouldn’t at least support the cause. But, as we saw, we can’t really depend on them early on.

      As far as getting the attention of administrators goes, it’s not going to be easy. One of the ideas I’m most excited about is the proposal to create a Hall of Fame list which would announce the schools who care most about making their campuses better for teachers, students, and communities. Schools who don’t make the list are committing human rights violations and short-changing their students by giving them a bargain basement education in which only money matters. I really believe this could become a powerful tool, especially if it eventually becomes one of the standards of accreditation (which it should be). Administrators will have a lot of questions to answer if they don’t make the list.

      Thanks for asking these questions. This is a start at answering them.

      • VanessaVaile

        Chapters:perhaps less taking charge than coordinating and – in particular – keeping the information moving. Flow. From the other side, I know how it’s been with chapters. Or rather I know how it hasn’t, particularly regarding information. Remember how surprised I was to hear about yours? Fine information person that makes me. Embarrassing. Very. Part is overload ~ so much for just a handful to keep track of. The other part and one we need to work on is lines of communication. Information flow again, both ways. So now you know (and tell the rest of the chapter): it’s OK to give us a holler. I’d like nothing better than to have all the chapters announcements on the wall, send me or the newsletter reports to blog. Does the chapter have a news / corresponding person I can put on my reminder (aka nag) list? Let me know…

      • http://www.newfacultymajority.org Maria Maisto

        Michelle, you’ve identified many of the reasons that NFM has to exist as a national organization. It provides the umbrella — protection — under which all the folks who have real reason to be afraid can continue to advance their cause. How does it work in practice? We will keep working at getting the attention of administrators, legislators, students, etc. We will meet with accreditors to talk about how accreditation can be more muscular. We can reach out to those “satisfied adjuncts” to remind them of their obligations to what is a profession, not a hobby. (And you should know that some of the adjuncts who came to DC are people who had no “personal” need to join the struggle but rather are in it because it’s the right thing to do if you care about students, faculty, and, not to be overly dramatic about it, the future of the country).

        To make this national organization work, though, we need the infrastructure and we need the humanpower! To be honest, our membership and our reputation grew faster than our infrastructure. We are only just this week rolling out a brand new membership database (these things cost money) that will allow us to keep membership records, communicate quickly and effectively, and manage the income. The reason this tool is so important: it will allow us finally to hold elections, to attract the leadership and the people who will really help us to forge that new way forward. It’s truly been a very small handful of people at the helm up til now, tramping forward relentlessly (some told us foolishly but we are also a stubborn bunch).

        Josh et al have taken up the important work of keeping the issue alive and in front of the higher ed community’s eyes and ears and consciousness. (That is action of the highest order, as far as I’m concerned.) The timing of Michael Berube’s presidency of the MLA couldn’t be better. The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education is mobilizing as well for a day of action in April. There are lots of other small and larger actions bubbling and percolating. As I said, February is mobilization month. Let’s see what emerges on the other end of the month!

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