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

From Chronicle Vitae:

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.

Read the full story here.