Letter in support of Encounters faculty circulates

Grace Jackson, News Reporter

A letter began circulating among faculty in January to show solidarity with the adjunct faculty members who will lose their jobs with the termination of the Encounters program. As of Tuesday, Feb. 18, 102 faculty members have signed.

Encounters will be eliminated in the coming year and replaced with a new first-year seminar course geared towards student interest. Changes to the first-year experience come partially based on the recommendations of an external review completed in 2017. 

Several faculty members with adjunct status, meaning they are considered to be part-time and non-tenure track, exclusively teach Encounters. Encounters is Whitman’s only required course and has existed in its current form since 2012, although the reading list was significantly reduced by the Encounters committee for the 2019-2020 school year.

Visiting Assistant Professor of German and Gender Studies Eva Hoffmann drafted the letter and is part of the group of faculty that initially circulated it among non-tenure track faculty on Jan. 21. 

Hoffmann wrote in the letter, “If you are one of the ‘Encounters’ instructors who are forced to leave after this semester, we want to let you know that no matter how long or short you have been at Whitman, we acknowledge the hard work you have done. We know that you have taught classes that by many accounts are some of the hardest and most important to teach, and we know that you have done so passionately and with all of your heart and expertise.”

Hoffmann stressed that her aim was not to critique Encounters or the new first-year course. 

“The reason why I wanted to write something was that a lot of people in contingent positions — faculty positions — often, they started to talk about the feeling of invisibility, that their story isn’t being heard,” Hoffmann said. “So I thought a letter would be a great way to draw attention to their situation.”

The letter was then shared with the entire faculty on Jan. 30 by Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies Matthew Reynolds in his capacity as the Whitman chapter president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP is an advocacy group for university faculty that has been active on Whitman’s campus for almost a century, according to their website.

“I think there was a general feeling on campus of confusion and sadness after the dismissal of faculty members affiliated with Encounters,” Reynolds said in an email to The Wire. “Even though the faculty voted to approve the changes to the First Year Experience, many of us felt like this wasn’t the best example of good shared governance.”

According to Reynolds, some of the Encounters faculty were not able to participate in the vote. 

“The way the decision was being made — to end the Encounters program and to replace it with the First Year Experience — I don’t think felt like something that came from the faculty body entirely,” Hoffmann said. “And yet it affects a lot of the tenure track and tenure faculty as well because now, without the staffing being increased, [more of] the tenure track and tenure professors will have to teach for the First Year experience program, so all of these changes affect everyone.”

Provost and Dean of Faculty Alzada Tipton stressed that all faculty were consulted in the first-year seminar decision-making process.

“The changes made to the first-year experience were made entirely by the faculty, as is appropriate, given faculty’s authority over the curriculum,” Tipton said in an email to The Wire. “The faculty on the General Studies Committee consulted with the whole faculty extensively as the new program was developed.”

Tipton is familiar with the letter.

“I always appreciate it when faculty express care and concern for each other,” she said.

The letter is ultimately about expressing care for colleagues and appreciation for all the hard work they have given to the Whitman community through Encounters, according to Hoffmann.

“The Encounters classes are often some of the most formative classes for students and they’re also — I think— one of the most difficult to teach,” Hoffmann said. “I feel like a lot of these instructors who taught Encounters on this campus have done a lot of the heavy lifting and very important work.”

Despite the college’s efforts to find new positions for Encounters faculty, some of them will be leaving at the end of semester. Adjunct Assistant Professor of General Studies Monica Streifer is one of the faculty members who will be leaving Whitman at the end of the academic year.

I’m deeply grateful to Prof. Hoffmann for writing the letter, and to many of my colleagues for signing it,” Striefer said in an email to The Wire. “It makes me feel appreciated and proud of the work I’ve done at Whitman to see how many people signed it.”