Thoughts on “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor”

I’ve watched “Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor” twice now today, even though I don’t have anywhere close to enough time to be doing that– and I don’t have time to write this post, either. But I kind of can’t help myself, I suppose….

Anyway on the positive side:

  • It’s probably the most heart-felt and honest discussion about the problems of adjunct/contingent/non-tenure-track faculty teaching writing in college I’ve ever seen.  The movie features both adjuncts and tenure-track faculty from all over the country  who are interested in these labor issues. Though it’s only about teaching first year writing– I’ll come back to that in the “not so positive side” of things– the things these folks are talking about here are raw and real.  Not a lot of punches held back.
  • I talk to a lot of MA students (or would-be MA students) who tell me that they’re interested in our program in Written Communication because they are hoping to teach first year writing at a community college and they figure they’ll get started with part-time work and take it from there. I try to explain why that isn’t the best of plans, but I think they often think I’m just being a pessimist. This video ought to be required viewing for these people.
  • There are a lot of good ideas toward the end of the movie to help with the “adjunct problem,” most of which has to do with (basically) reimagining how it is we hire people to teach courses like first year writing. What we try to do at EMU with lecturer positions is sort of an example, but it’s worth getting to the end to hear some of those smart ideas.
  • This is the clearest argument I’ve seen in a long long time in support of the “abolitionist” school of thought regarding first year writing alá Sharon Crowley and others. In brief, that position is higher education should eliminate the “universal” requirement for first year writing because the labor conditions necessary to teach so many sections of fycomp are blatantly unethical. (Often included in the abolitionist argument is the claim that first year writing is of limited pedagogical value, but I’m not going to go there for now.) So instead of making every first year student take fycomp, simply staff as many as you can with GAs, tenure-track faculty, and teaching but non-tenure-track faculty (albeit inevitably “second tier” faculty, which is its own problem) who have adequate training, who are treated more fairly, etc., etc. If that means at a place like EMU we’re only able to offer 25 sections of first year writing instead of 100, so be it.

The downside of this is you have to be careful what you wish for. If students didn’t have to take first year writing at a place like EMU, fewer students would obviously take the class, and that would have an impact on department credit hour production, which in turn would have implications beyond the adjunct problem in fycomp. That credit hour production from the required sections of first year writing helps to offset the lower enrollment in other upper-level courses and it also helps us justify tenure-track hires. Further, a lot of the adjuncts complaining now about the injustices of their current employment would simply be out of the classroom entirely.

And this brings me to some of the not so positive sides of this movie:

  • This isn’t about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in “Higher Education” generally; this is specifically and exclusively about the problem of adjunct/contingent labor in first year writing. I can understand why this is the case– the folks who made this movie were adjunct first year writing teachers– but to me it’s a striking weakness of this project.  Why didn’t they talk to adjuncts in other fields? How hard would it have been to have done that? It suggests that the long-standing argument about the adjunctification of higher education generally might indeed be mostly limited to first year writing, and if that’s the case, then the solution of abolishing the requirement is all the more appealing.
  • It’s difficult for me as a tenured professor to know how I’m supposed to situate myself as an audience to this piece. This is the case with a lot of this genre. A lot of the commentary from adjuncts in the movie is angry and even hostile to tenure-track faculty– or it at least puts me on the defensive– with repeated claims that contingent faculty are “just as good” as tenure-track faculty, that the jobs are no different, that the conditions are arbitrary, and so forth.  Besides the fact that that isn’t true– that is, the jobs are different in a myriad of ways and tenure-track faculty tend to have more degrees, experience teaching, etc– it’s difficult for me to grab on to how I’m supposed to react to this. “We don’t like your privilege, but what many/most of us want is a tenure-track job.” “We don’t like how you are abusing us, but we want you to help us.” It’s a strange space to be in. If I’m sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help; if I’m not sympathetic to the cause, I’m not doing enough to help.
  • I thought that a lot of the folks interviewed for this were oddly naive and otherwise unaware of how “the system” works regarding adjunct labor. What I mean is while I think their critiques of what’s wrong with the adjunctification of higher education are spot-on (and again, that’s what’s good about this movie), I find it surprising that they didn’t seem to know this when they started down the adjunct path.  For example, a couple of folks seemed disappointed that their part-time teaching job has turned out to not be a way to wiggle into a tenure-track position. And along these lines a lot of these folks (maybe most of them?) seemed to be trying to make the adjunct life work by stringing together gigs at two or three different places, something that is a recipe for bad teaching and grumpy teachers. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’ve been blogging about this for a long time, maybe it’s because I’ve always told adjuncts that this is not a way to get a tenure-track job and this is not a way to make a full-time income, and maybe it’s because of my comfy job security in a tough market. It just seems a lot of these people should have known better. Which leads me to my next point:
  • There is no doubt that “the system” exploits adjuncts. They do it because (as someone says in the movie) administrators are “addicted” to cheap labor, and administrators are playing off of the “do it for the love” of the job (and not the pay or the security or whatever) that just about everyone who teaches has. The folks in this video clearly feel exploited, and one of the things that also comes up somewhat indirectly is the extent to which  exploited adjuncts are women. That said, I think these folks are allowing themselves to be exploited. Miya Tokumitsu has an absolutely brilliant essay about this here, “In the Name of Love” that was originally published in Jacobin, so I’ll just point there for the time being.
  • Because here’s the thing: I can understand the frustration and sadness that comes from being stuck in this exploited position especially after you have a dream or a calling for this work and you’re not successful at it. I was in an MFA program; I am familiar with the “failed dreams” of would-be novelists. But these folks all have advanced degrees and undoubtably could remake themselves into gainfully employed people outside of academia. They aren’t “trapped” the same way that exploited workers are in other lines of work– migrant workers, the fast food worker without a high school diploma, and so forth. Universities are exploiting folks by offering them jobs at shitty wages, no doubt about that. But folks are allowing themselves to be exploited by agreeing to take those jobs. Universities aren’t going to stop exploiting adjuncts until would-be adjuncts stop  agreeing to being exploited.
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