It's Work Week on AOA, which is pretty much what it sounds like -- we're talking with people about their jobs and working.
When most of us think about the people who teach at colleges, we probably think of faculty with PhDs and tenure (or working toward it), teaching a few classes a semester, good pay, great job security, maybe a sabbatical.
In many situations, though, the reality of the higher education workforce is much different. Depending on how things are counted, somewhere between half and 3/4 of the people teaching in colleges and universities don't fit in that category of tenured or "tenure-track" faculty. They're part timers, "contingent labor." They're adjuncts.
Modern academia floats on a huge pool of people in this situation. In some cases, that's not a problem -- maybe it's a person teaching a course on the side of their regular job. But for many adjuncts, trying to piece together a full-time job and career, it can mean teaching multiple classes at multiple campuses for pay that approaches minimum wage levels with no benefits.
Prompted by growing restlessness by people in these jobs -- and in part by stories like this one recently in Pittsburgh -- there's a rising call to address the situation surrounding adjuncts in higher education.
Part of that attention is a documentary project titled Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, by two College of Saint Rose English professors: Megan Fulwiler and Jennifer Marlow. It aims to tell the stories of the adjuncts who teach first-year writing classes at many of the colleges in the Capital Region and beyond.
What they've found: people who say they feel invisible, living paycheck to paycheck, even as their labor makes the current system of modern higher education possible.
So what was it about the issue of adjuncts and contingent labor in academia that caught your interest and prompted to you think you really had to look into this?
Megan Fulwiler (associate professor of English (tenured)): It started with a film in our own discipline called Take 20, where they took 20 sort of luminaries in the field of composition and rhetoric and asked them the same questions about teaching writing. And Jenn and I had seen this, and I've used this as a professional development tool. But we both started saying, isn't it interesting that the people who are actually teaching first-year writing aren't the scholars who are famous in the field?
They may teach one or two sections a year, but it's over 83 percent of all first-year writing classes are taught by part-time, contingent faculty -- who aren't represented in this film. So we got interested in what would they have to say, the people who are in the trenches, in the front line of teaching these courses. So that was the impetus for starting the project 3.5 years ago.
And I think it really grew out of conversations I had with Jenn, and I began to realize that I thought I knew the situation, and the more I learned about it and the more we talked with people, the more I realized it was a lot worse than I imagined.
So what is the situation, for people who are not familiar with the way modern academia works? What is the situation for contingent labor and adjuncts?
Jennifer Marlow (assistant professor of English (tenure track), adjuncted for 11 years): The state of contingency varies from institution to institution, and discipline to discipline, and person to person, so it's a tough snapshot to capture. But essentially anyone in a contingent position, as that name indicates, does not have job security. They're working either semester to semester, or a year-to-year contract, or sometimes if they're lucky they're on 3-5 year renewable contracts. They are most likely working part time, at least at one institution. So they may be teaching a few classes at one institution and a few classes at another, and sometimes even at a third institution, or they're teaching online. Or perhaps they are working full time, but without benefits, without an equivalent salary to tenure stream faculty.
So these are laborers who are seen by administration as flexible and kind of expendable, who are not guaranteed job security, who do not have benefits -- again, most of the time, some of them are unionized -- and who work for significantly lower pay than tenure stream faculty do.
With this setup, what are the consequences and the effects you've heard about from people you've talked to for this project? How has it affected them?
MF: We're interested in the effects at all levels. But it directly affects our instructors, that they have no job security. There's a sort of living semester to semester.
They're often called frequent flyers and work out of their cars. Depending on the institution they might not have office space, they might not have access to computers or telephone. So it affects them on the pedagogical level in terms of their professional identity in the institution. And one of the words we heard over and over in interviewing people was "invisible," about being a ghost or not being part of a community. So I think it affects them at a professional level.
It definitely affects them at a personal level, just in terms of most of them don't have health insurance. And most of them are living paycheck to paycheck. One of the women we interviewed this last spring described seeing a student come with a latte or one of those five-dollar drinks from Starbucks and just that morning she had looked at her bank statement and realized she had to wait until she got paid to buy groceries.
But we don't think of that when we think about the professor at the front of the classroom. We don't tend to think of them as someone who's on the edge of poverty.
These are people with a lot of education, they have masters degrees, they have doctorates. Traditionally when we think of people being very well educated we don't think of them in those circumstances.
MF: No, we think of education as your way out of poverty, right? And I think given the current economic climate, but also the job market, especially in the humanities, it's incredibly tight. And there just aren't a lot of tenure track positions.
The other thing we found at Saint Rose, most of our part-time adjunct instructors only have a masters degree. That's not a terminal degree so they wouldn't even be eligible for a tenure track position were we to hire or advertise for one. So it's enough education to teach in a college classroom, but it's not enough education to give you the opportunity to apply for a tenure track position. So you're in a sort of liminal space.
And what are the consequences for students in this situation?
MF: One of the things that we found, and I think research supports this too, is that where you'll find the highest percentage of adjuncts is in liberal education classes or core general ed classes, intro classes in the humanities. So it's very conceivable a student could go for two years of their college experience and encounter nothing but adjunct instructors. And that's not to say that adjunct instructors aren't doing a great job, they may be doing a terrific job, but it suggests that a student isn't getting access to experts in their field who are enmeshed in the campus culture and the campus community until their junior year.
So why are things like this?
JM: Because we're addicted -- we're addicted to cheap labor.
MF: From our research it looks like it's now about a 40-year problem. That until the 1970s there had always been the use of temporary, part-time teachers to fill gaps, to handle different enrollment. And in the 70s, the number we've come across, is that about 25 percent of the professoriate was off tenure track in some sort of contingent position. But in the last 40 years that proportion has flip flopped. And now between 73 and 75 percent of all professors in higher education are contingent -- they aren't in the tenure stream. It changes the portrait of higher education a great deal.
There's a lot of money in higher education. And we always hear about tuition costs, and tuition is a lot of money. So why can't schools take more of these people on in conditions that might be considered more fair?
JM: Part of this story, and part of the difficulty in getting people to be invested in this and to care, the casualization of labor is happening everywhere. And that's become the go-to business model.
FM: The Gig Economy, as some people call it.
JM: But I think we like to think of higher ed as protected from or different than that corporatization. That higher ed is not a space that's supposed to be driven by the bottom line and the way that other businesses are. But ultimately it's here and it's happening in the same way it's happening in many other sectors of the economy for the very same reasons. That it's flexible, that it's cheap, that it's ultimately about the bottom line.
FM: And there's an endless supply. You don't have to invest in a full-time, tenure track faculty job -- which is a couple million dollars, when you think about [the longterm costs] -- you can pay someone by the credit. And if they don't want that job, someone else does.
The situation sets up this really stark disparity between the people teaching on a campus. On the one hand tenured/tenure track faculty who make, all things considered, pretty good money and have job security -- and on the other hand you have people who are working for wages that are very low and who have no job security. To what extent do the tenured faculty have some sort of responsibility for the way things are or have some sort of responsibility for changing the way things are?
MF: That's like a million dollar question. I can speak for myself as a tenured faculty member, I think we have a tremendous role to play. The first step is awareness, knowing and acknowledging this is a problem. That this has become the status quo but it shouldn't be. And I think a lot of it has to do with us recognizing our own privilege and at what cost does our privilege come. I think we've gotten used to, oh, I'll take a course release or I'll take time off and there's this army of adjuncts who can fill in. So in some ways I think we participate in that mindset, we participate in the two-tiered system.
What struck me in this whole project was that I thought I knew a lot about the situation, and I thought I worked closely with adjuncts in my department. It worries me that it's worse than I thought -- and I was working most closely with them.
So I think a lot of tenure track faculty have no idea, or turn a blind eye to it. I think there's a lot of confusion. We brought it up at a faculty meeting and one of our tenured colleagues was like, "Wait, what's contingent? Are you talking about people who are not tenured yet?" And we're like, no, we're talking about 50 percent of the teachers at this institution. So I think there's a lack of awareness and a lack of knowledge.
I think there's also a kind of willful not wanting to deal with it, where's there's a sense of, well, they should just go get a PhD and they should just get the tenure track position. Which doesn't acknowledge the reality of the situation at all.
JM: There are a lot of different views in the people we've talked to, among various labor activists in higher education. And some make the argument that it has to be the adjuncts who rise up, that there's never been a labor movement in history where upper level management or administration has made the move to change the way the system operates. So it has to come from the adjuncts themselves.
On the other hand, it's sort of like, which campus are they going to pick this fight on? They're on three campuses -- and that's just in one semester. In another semester they could be on another campus. It's sort of the divide and conquer thing -- the more that you can keep them separate and not in a stable position, the less that they can actually do to create change because they won't be there for a prolonged period of time.
MF: And they don't know each other.
JM: It's a very isolated world. So in that regard I feel that there's a tremendous responsibility on tenured faculty to at least be part of any type of movement on their particular campus. That might be a union on campus where they have access to that, or on campuses such as our own, forming some sort of committee or forming some sort of group or cohort that begins to try to implement change on the individual campus. And I think that tenured faculty should be a part of that. But there are definitely others who disagree with me.
MF: It's definitely an equity issue, but it's also an issue of representation. If 50 percent of your faculty are not tenured, they're contingent, but they're not represented in any faculty governance structure, what does that say about the role of faculty governance, or who can participate?
Increasingly I'm become aware of it on our own campus. Contingent faculty don't go to the meetings. So they have no say, no voice in policy decisions or curricular decisions or on any sort of decisions that have impact on their day-to-day life. They have no voice. So you have the invisible and the voiceless. And you have tenure track faculty who continue to operate like we are the majority -- and we're not.
Is there a way to bring those people forward so that they're not invisible and they're not behind the scenes?
MF: Ultimately, that's the hope, that's the goal of this documentary, which was that we didn't want to speak for these teachers -- we wanted a means for them to tell their own stories. To try to get those voices out there. And I know there are a lot of activist-type movements on campuses, there are things that people can do on their own campuses, and there are national movements.
I think the first step is to have people talk about it. What is it like on your campus? Who are these people? How can we support them so that they can be the best teachers? How can we invite them and include them in our campus culture? Because in many disciplines we'll never have [all] tenure track positions, it's just not a reality. But that doesn't mean we can't welcome and include all the people who are teaching our students in ways that are equitable and ways that are professional and supportive.
What are some specific ways that the situation could change -- both on the scale of a college like Saint Rose, but also on a much bigger scale -- to make things better for both people who are contingent labor -- and their students?
JM: This wouldn't be a real tactic (laughs) ... But in institutions of higher education it's the whole idea of the facade. When the parents show up on campus with their students, and all those gardens have just been freshly mulched and edged, and they've sprayed all the bird poop off the parking lots and sidewalks, and it looks pristine, you're not thinking about the labor that went in to that. You know, they have all the orientation stuff, and they take the parents aside and have a meeting about how much support is here and what the school is going to do. They should also have an adjunct on stage, who's like, "Hello, I'm going to be teaching your student, in fact maybe three or four of your child's classes will be taught by the likes of me. And I can't afford to buy milk until the end of the week because I get paid $2800 to teach this course. And think about how much you're paying for tuition."
I mean, this is not a real tactic, but I think there is something about reaching parents, in particular. I certainly think that parents as an audience could be very valuable in terms of thinking about return on their investment. And again that's not to say their investment is in shortfall because the adjunct instructor is a bad instructor, but simply that the support or security that's being described or seen when you look at the campus may not quite be all that once the proverbial carpet is pulled back.
MF: This is where we've had many debates or discussions. I think you are more revolutionary or transformative. And I tend to be more like, how I can work within the system and make small, on-the-ground changes that would have a direct and immediate impact on teachers' lives.
And I think in some sense you haven't changed the system, it's not a wrench in the system. But for me it's things like: Do you have an office space? Do you have a mailbox? Do you have a means of being in regular and consistent touch with your supervisors? Are you being observed and are you creating a teaching portfolio? Are you being mentored? Are you being given opportunities to attend professional development? Can you continue to grow as a professional?
So to me those are things that are professional, pedagogical support for you as a professional in this realm. And that could also be because I'm coordinator of writing ... I'd love to get you a full-year contract, and I'd love to get you a pay raise. But as of right now, I can't.
So those are very small things, but I think the small things can go a long way toward improving morale and your sense of belonging in the institution. Are those life changing? Probably not. But those are small things that we can do right now.
JM: Ultimately, it's a spectrum. Small, localized, institutionalized changes that could make a difference. And then people thinking about larger, more systemic changes. How can we revamp the system? How can we get various stakeholders, people like parents and politicians, involved in thinking about these issues, that can create larger change? And following the money flow -- it's big business. Where is that money going? Getting parents thinking, if it's not going to your child's instructor, where is it going?
So there's a whole range of ways to work on it. And we need to be working on both and all at once.
Fulwiler and Marlow say Con Job is currently under review at a digital scholarly press, with a release planned for sometime early next year.
This interview was edited and condensed. Also, for the sake of disclosure, AOA Greg is friends with Megan Fulwiler and helped show them how to set up the camera when they were first getting started on the project.
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.