Faculty Work

The membership of the CSU faculty union, CFA, has voted to accept the furlough plan proposed by CSU Chancellor Charles Reed. Staff and management will also be furloughed two days a month. On our campus that means that two Fridays a month will be furlough Fridays, and the campus will be closed for most business other than Friday classes. Faculty will be teaching courses, even though the campus is otherwise closed. As one of my colleagues pointed out, this situation will be similar to teaching night classes, when the offices are closed, but the buildings are open and the campus police are still working.

Faculty who are teaching Friday classes are supposed to designate other furlough days in which they normally would get paid, but are not teaching. It is possible to designate teaching days as furlough days, but doing this too much would go against the “compelling operational needs” of the campus. There is a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to all of the policy surrounding the furlough plan.

The CFA Frequently Asked Questions document reflects the nature of the fantasy world in which we now live and work. The following two exchanges get to the crux of the problem:

Can I work on a furlough day?

No. Prior to starting your assignment for any term between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010, you will have to certify in writing that you will not work on furlough days and that you will not work beyond the duties assigned for weeks with one or more furlough days.

Can I refuse to certify that I will not be working on furlough days? I will have to work on furlough days and do not want to lie.

No. Refusal to do so constitutes insubordination and may subject you to discipline. Instead, you should reduce (rather than just reshuffle) your workload so that you do not have to work on furlough days.

We must sign a document designating furlough days and promising not to work on those days. But what is “work” under these conditions and how can we avoid doing it?

Teaching current courses requires time-sensitive preparation. It is no fun to walk into a classroom unprepared, and winging it is rarely an effective teaching strategy. You have to review the reading assignments, score quizzes, respond to papers, plan activities, read background material and write lectures. It is a little easier if you have taught the course many times before, but it is still necessary to review the materials and take care of student work. In winter, for example, I am scheduled to teach three courses back to back on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, from 9:15 to 2:05. If I designate every other Thursday as a furlough day, it is almost guaranteed that I will need to do at least some preparation work on that day. Of course, I could shift some of the preparation work to Saturday or Sunday, but the fact of the matter is, faculty already do that. Why should it be forbidden to work on a furlough day when it is not forbidden to work on the weekend?

These days, there is also a steady stream of emails, discussion board postings, blog posts, and other electronic communications from students, faculty, administrators and others. Most faculty I know respond to these as they come because to do otherwise is to lose track. Once the email moves off the screen it is likely that it will not be answered. Committee work is another pressing, time-sensitive need. The committee can’t function if the members haven’t read the documents.

So far in the time-sensitive category we have teaching, course prep, electronic communications, and committee work. Are all of these banned on furlough days? But not on weekends?

Now for the long term activities. Reading books and journal articles is essential for keeping up with the field. Doing research, writing articles, scholarly books and textbooks are essential for being active in the field, and for retention, tenure and promotion. This is clearly work, but is it part of what the faculty member is paid to do? A professor who does not do these things will quickly become out of date and ineffective. Often there is a direct connection between the long term projects the professor is engaged in and the design and content of his or her teaching. Is this work banned on furlough days?

What if I read a science fiction novel that I am thinking of teaching in my science fiction course? Is that work, or am I just reading a novel?

Some administrators seem to think that the knowledge is in the textbooks, and that the professor is just a facilitator who assigns readings, administers and scores tests, responds to papers and assigns grades. In fact, unless the professor has written the textbook, the assigned text is often something the professor corrects, expands, contextualizes, explicates, or disparages. The professor should be at least as powerful a force in the classroom as the texts, and it is the intellectual life of the professor outside of the classroom that bestows this authority. In the modern university, the professor is responsible for the creation of new knowledge, not simply the passive transmittal of the old.

It is nearly impossible to separate the intellectual life of the professor from his or her role in the classroom. Is the furlough day to be a day of suspended cognitive animation, a mental blackout curtain, an intellectual dead zone? Just because we are not getting paid?

Do we have to promise not to think?

Perhaps we are to spend the day playing croquet with hedgehogs and flamingos? In the world of the furlough, only nonsense makes sense.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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1 Response to Faculty Work

  1. Jim says:

    In other words, there is all of the silly stuff on paper and then there is real life, eh?

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