No Choice but to Serve

By Nardo, Anna K. | Academe, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

No Choice but to Serve


Nardo, Anna K., Academe


Faculty members need to help colleagues look for the union label through collective bargaining.

During my thirty-seven-year career as a professor of English literature, I have learned as much from professional service outside my home institution as I have from my work as a teacher and scholar. Engagement with the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the Association of Departments of English (ADE) has both enabled my service at my home institution and awakened me to threats that neither the MLA nor the ADE can counter. Fundamentally, however, I am a teacher. I do research so that I have something to teach. I worked to reform a curriculum, and I chaired a department, in order to improve conditions for teachers. Now I am trying to organize a union in order to create a power base that can protect educators. Given the threats education faces, university professors have no choice but to serve our profession in order to ensure its survival. What follows is the story of how I came to this realization.

Awakening of a Union Organizer

I have spent my entire career at a large state univer- sity. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was too busy preparing classes, grading stacks of essays, and trying to become a legitimate scholar to make professional service a priority. Once I received tenure, however, I began to take on committee assignments, the most important of which was chairing a steer- ing committee for curriculum revision. It was the late 1980s, the "culture wars" were raging, and our department was divided. Should we create a cultural studies concentration, retain the Shakespeare requirement, expand our requirements to include courses in critical theory and literature by women and ethnic minorities, or do all of the above? Although these questions seem quaint now, the heat they generated at the time threatened to derail our revision-until we joined a curriculum revision project sponsored by the MLA with a grant from the federal government's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Knowing they were part of a national project, fractious faculty members gradually began to work together and build sufficient trust to complete the revision. Nevertheless, the grueling process took five years, and without the extrainstitutional work we did with the MLA/FIPSE project, I am sure that the revision would have failed. My university valued my leadership in this project enough to award me a university professorship. So far, so good.

When I served as department chair (2004-10), I became even more engaged with the work of the MLA through its offshoot, the ADE. As I attended summer seminars, served on the ADE's executive committee, and eventually chaired the ADE for one year, I began to read and use the voluminous MLA and ADE reports on the status of the profession. In negotiations with the dean and upper administration at my home institu- tion, I repeatedly invoked these studies. Sometimes the reports' authority enabled our department to change the culture of the institution. For example, using the 2002 report The Future of Scholarly Publishing and the 2006 Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion, we won administrative approval for a set of departmental rules to accompany the university policy statement on tenure and promotion. As a result, our department is no longer subject to the "tyranny of the book," meaning that a tenure and promotion portfolio can succeed without a single-authored monograph.

But my story of progress in using extrainstitutional service to enable intrainstitutional change ends here. What I also learned from reading the many MLA reports-especially the 2007 ADE report Education in the Balance: A Report on the Academic Workforce in English-is that my profession is under threat. Citing US Department of Education data on the academic workforce in 1995 and 2009, in his column in the spring 2012 MLA Newsletter, MLA president Michael Bérubé sums up the dismal situation: "That fourteen-year period witnessed an explosion in the hiring-and exploitation-of NTT [non-tenure-track] faculty labor: undergraduate enrollment increased by forty percent, or by 5. …

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