Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Scenes From COCAL: A Conference for Contingent Faculty Looks to Seize Its Moment

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New York—Inside a classroom at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, nearly 30 contingent academic workers debated which verb was more powerful: “shape” or “animate.”

It may sound like a trivial matter, but the group had a job to do. By the end of the two-hour session, participants had to craft a 100-word proposal on how higher-education laborers could build a national strategy for change. Every word counted.

“Can we get the idea of defense in there? I like the word ‘defense.’”

“Well, I think we already implied that.”

“I’m not worried about that as much, but I am questioning another word: ‘reanimate.’ That’s painting the past too rosy.”

“I agree. Let’s say ‘animate.’”

“What about just ‘shape’?”

“Isn’t that the conference title?”

“Do we have too many words?”

It was the second day of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor’s 11th biennial conference (COCAL), a three-day gathering of contingent workers from the United States, Mexico, and Canada. And it was the third time this particular crew—one of several “interest groups” assembled to tackle themes of importance to adjunct professors and other contingent employees—got together to talk strategy. Down the hall, other groups were holding similar conversations on different topics: media organizing, student issues, legal issues and legislative advocacy, and bargaining for equity.

The interest groups were a new wrinkle at COCAL XI. In the past, the event had taken on a more traditional model, offering workshop sessions on specific topics and presentations from keynote speakers, said Marcia Newfield, a conference organizer and vice president of part-time personnel for the Professional Staff Congress, which represents more than 25,000 faculty and staff at CUNY.

But attendees complained there wasn’t enough collaboration and discussion. “They didn’t feel like they were able to talk,” Newfield said. “So we decided to make this more like a think tank for 200 people.”

That it was. Unlike most of the higher-ed conference circuit, COCAL has no call for scholarly papers, no hiring committees tucked into hotel rooms conducting interviews, and no discipline-specific seminars. Instead, it’s a conference where attendees call one another “brother” and “sister” (in three languages), where tweed suits are replaced by jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with union numbers, and where laborers come to voice opinions often dismissed at their campuses.

It’s a conference where “Solidarity Forever” is sung (and sung loudly), where adjunct-themed poetry becomes lunchtime entertainment, and where academics do more strategizing than navel-gazing. It’s a conference that offers a group rate on luxury hotels and 12-bed-to-a-room hostels.

Developing an Agenda

And it’s a conference that’s attempting to harness the energy of a growing but diffuse group of contingent academics. Adjunctification has become a higher-ed buzzword; adjunct unions are gaining a foothold in a number of metropolitan areas; a few national lawmakers are devoting attention to the working conditions of contingent professors. Looking out at what seems like a potentially receptive climate, the COCAL conference set its goal, according to the agenda, to “emerge with ideas, strategies and campaigns for action.” The interest groups played an integral role and marked a new experiment in communal planning.

At the start of the conference, participants joined one of the five groups, and though they weren’t prohibited from bouncing from one to another, they were encouraged to follow one topic from start to finish. During the first two days, the groups were asked to formulate tangible action plans on their topics—proposals that had to include a step-by-step strategy for attendees to take back with them, and had to be applicable for every country. On the final day of the conference, a representative from each group presented the proposals, and the floor was opened for comments and recommendations from the crowd.

“I’m impressed with what they came up with,” Newfield said of the interest groups. “I’m also impressed with how disciplined everyone was. They really followed the directions.”

Well, kind of: COCAL attempted to put a 100-word limit on each interest group’s final proposal. Every group admitted to exceeding it.

So how actionable can a 100-word plan be? The media-organizing group suggested contingent faculty rebrand their image from the “poor adjunct” to the “pillars of the university” when talking to media members. They even provided a list of press contacts.

The group on building national strategies—the ones debating the merits of “animate” vs. “reanimate”—proposed the creation of a “Democracy Index,” a tool that would evaluate institutions based on a criteria like pay equity, shared governance, and transparency.

These plans, and those proposed by other groups, will soon be posted to the COCAL website. But the question, of course, is: As adjuncts return to their institutions, what happens next? Ray Leibman, a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University, said the plans will only do good if they’re acted upon. “If it’s just something we write on a webpage and forget about, I would be disappointed,” he told the crowd at the closing session.

Kane Faucher, an assistant professor of media studies at University of Western Ontario who suggested the index, offered assurances that he is already working on his project. He’s recruited a few people from the conference to be part of an oversight committee, he said, and he’s ready to get more people from his union on board. “I won’t let this fizzle,” he said.

Looking Forward

In the meantime, COCAL has a couple of years to plot its next conference. Attendance remains small—about 200 people attended this year’s event—but big-conference complaints crop up now and again. Concerns about the main event’s inclusivity and accessibility led to an alt-conference called #altCOCAL.

Newfield’s main goal is to make the conference more accessible. The cost of the conference—$250 plus travel and lodging expenses—prohibits some contingent workers from attending the event, she said. But much of that money goes to necessary expenses, like the Spanish and French-language translation service (a hefty $26,000 this year) that enables COCAL to fulfill its trinational mission.

“It would be useful to get a grant going,” she said, and suggested the advisory committee begin looking into options for the 2016 event. She also mentioned the possibility of live-streaming the event online to widen COCAL’s reach.

Until then, she’s pleased with the gains made this year. And, drawing from comments made in the conference’s close, attendees are, too.

“I didn’t come with any expectations,” said Faucher, who attended the conference for the first time. “But I’m absolutely going to do this again. I feel refreshed and ready to go back to my union with ideas.”

Image: The John Jay College of Criminal Justice (credit: LERA Engineering)

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