CCCC 2014 Reviews

"Both Contingent and Central: Labor Discussions at CCCC 2014"

Reviewed by Laura Anderson (thatrhetprof@gmail.com)

This year’s CCCC dedicated five panel portions, nearly a dozen assorted papers, one closed committee meeting, and a special interest session to contingent labor issues. The conference also hosted the debut screening of Con Job, a full length documentary emphasizing "the dire problems and possible solutions higher education faces as regards contingent labor" (Hawisher, 2014), published by Computers and Composition Digital Press. Around seminar tables and in reservation lines and trying to smoke in Indiana’s winter wind, the once secret fear is increasingly spoken about openly.

According to CCC Forum Spring 2010, 83.8% of composition instructors teach off the tenure track (Hammer, 2010, p. A4). Both the total number and the percentage of student hours taught by contingent faculty are on the rise nationwide. There are even stories of adjunct instructors teaching thirty five classes a year at three different institutions.

CCCC’s discussions of contingent labor display all the sophistication and erudition one would expect from an immensely complex issue being tackled by excellent rhetorical minds. The buzzwords are appropriately dire. Casualization and de-professionalization of the work force. Exploitation. Marginalization. A series of delicate dances emerged around dichotomies and alliances, terminology and definitions. Variations in terms used by universities and departments, as well as writer-rhetors’ love of jargon and flourish, complicate the possibility of generating productive solutions (I couldn’t simply write "makes problems harder to solve"). Efforts to equalize workers’ treatment are called both "pro-adjunct" or "anti-adjunct," depending on whether the value of the persons in positions or the value of the positions as they stand was being emphasized. "Full time" and "tenure track" are often used interchangeably to discuss non-contingent positions, an inaccuracy that makes negotiation difficult.

Participants in discussions about contingent labor at such prestigious conferences are necessarily self-selected for a variety of reasons. Firstly, contingent faculty are less likely to be recognized or rewarded for conference participation or research, and so they are less likely to consider attending CCCC. Secondly, costs of conference attendance, flights, hotels, and expenses are less tenable on insecure incomes. Thirdly, many excellent competing sessions draw full-time faculty and non-teaching researchers to sessions that seem more relevant. Seth Kahn of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Chair of the CCCC Committee on Adjunct and Contingent Labor, was present at many discussions. Kahn, seeking to foster full-time faculty support for pro- (or anti-) adjunct activism, believes awareness is already high: "I don’t think there are many people in the field who don’t understand how bad the situation is."

This tone is occasionally broken by the positioning of adjuncts as agitators against an oligarchy of a tenured professoriate, whose "cushy" "top rung" jobs are responsible for devaluing "lower" positions. Each contingent labor session saw several full-time and tenure-track attendees, and a special point was made of asking them to raise their hands and be recognized as involved and brave. One cannot help but wonder if such "raise your hands if you’re …" groupings perpetuate us/them and haves/have-nots binaries.

Even when accomplished, solidarity seems to encourage a search for a common enemy, and in panel and audience discussions, jokes about "grabbing pitch forks" sometimes simultaneously functioned as comic relief and as a rallying cry. As natural as this response is, we must resist the rhetorical construction of universities as single, deliberate decision makers. University presidents and boards are spoken of as actively scheming to extract as much work from adjuncts as possible to keep money in building projects and pet departments. One can almost see a brick building crouched, balance sheets open, rubbing its hands together in glee like a super-hero’s nemesis.

Such a villainous characterization unfairly simplifies institutional pressures, and attributes too much conscious forethought to university systems. While some employers’ reliance on contingent work is explicit, much more is likely to be, however shamefully, the result of neglect or inattention combined with the fact that amid budget cuts and rising student populations contingent labor is perceived as a victimless crime. The pervading sense that "one hand does not know what the other is doing" is most easily seen in macro effects. Bob Samuels, currently a lecturer at UCSB, notes in Con Job that "The same institutions that are producing new PhDs are also then eliminating the future jobs of those people by relying on graduate students and part-time faculty."

CCCC participants’ attempts to direct administrators’ attention to the matter highlight tensions between two viable arguments for an increase in full-time positions. On the one hand, "adjuncts are trained and experienced teachers who are just as good as faculty teachers," and, on the other hand, "classroom and learning experiences of students with adjunct instructors are inferior to those of full time faculty." To effectively navigate the distinction between these seemingly contradictory points, one must point to the destructive toll of the adjunct lifestyle: specifically, the conditions of employment that make it difficult for good teachers to teach well.

It is precisely these conditions that take center stage in the documentary Con Job, where personal narrative couches systemic criticism by "giving voice to the actual adjuncts who are living in this situation." The film’s frank exploration of recent complications (rises in course hours, changes in health care laws) demonstrates the issue’s complexity and urgency, but the film’s genius is in demonstrating how adjunct status itself reduces the quality of teaching. Hiring at the last minute means no time to prepare, much less innovate, curricula specific to the students. Adjunct work also allows less time, and often no established space, to meet with students. Low wages and credit hour caps often force instructors to cobble together a living wage by teaching at more than one campus. The increased travel, logistics, and bureaucratic negotiation involved in working at multiple campuses furthers adjuncts’ sense of isolation, marginalization, and displacement. It also serves to confirm the institutional view that adjuncts are not committed to a particular campus or its students and are thus unworthy of more serious consideration. Instructors hired with virtually no institutional investment, often "sight unseen," find it difficult to advocate for the importance of what happens once they’re in those classrooms.

Much was said at CCCC about discouraging interactions with administrators. Part-time and contingent faculty continue to be viewed by universities as a cost-saving measure at a time when administrative salaries are rising and administrative ranks growing. A study published early this year claims colleges and universities added an average of 87 administration and non-academic employee positions every working day while turning increasing numbers of student-facing hours over to contingent faculty with tenuous ties to the university system (Marcus, 2014). The rising overhead and bureaucratic costs of these "deanlets" does little to contribute to student education, and demonstrates clearly the skewed priorities guiding recent expansions of higher ed. Eileen Schell raised this concern in a CCCC 2013 panel, referencing a 2010 report that showed the number of full-time administrators had risen at twice the rate of instructors over fifteen years (Greene, 2014). One might be curious about how many of these new administrative positions assist in coordinating the hiring and supervision of the growing army of contingent faculty.

A university working to reduce or even eliminate its tenured positions can still offer meaningful, secure, full-benefit, full-time contracts to screened faculty. Many current adjuncts would trade semester-to-semester uncertainty (partially sustained by a shimmering promise of eventual lifetime job security) for the middle-ground of rolling contracts or annual reviews. Perhaps some tenure-track faculty would renegotiate their pending appointments to support colleagues and encourage universities to invest in additional full-time positions.

Productive discussions of plans and activism also took place at CCCC. The Labor Caucus will become a standing group for CCCC 2014. Several experimental solutions are taking root around the country. Professor of Practice positions and other non-tenure track full-time options have opened at some institutions. Full-time equivalent adjuncts have won longer contracts, benefits, increased security, and promotion paths. The rise in contingent faculty has received increased attention at national conferences and in field publications, as well as consumer news viewed by voters, parents, students, and noticed by administrators. A study by Northwestern University suggests students show better outcomes in first year courses taught by adjuncts than by tenure-track professors, which is a credit to the persons in those positions that should be seen as evidence for further criticism—not validation—of the positions themselves (Figlio, Schapiro, & Soter, 2013).

After attending numerous panels, roundtables, and discussion sessions about the plight of contingent faculty, I was becoming increasingly despondent about my future in my chosen profession. Steve Kahn listened patiently to my lament after the Labor Caucus Special Interest Group. "Don’t get depressed," he said simply, pointing to my notes for this article. "Get feisty."


Figlio, David N., Morton O.Schapiro, & Kevin B. Soter. (2013, September). Are tenure track professors better teachers? National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper. Retrieved 30 July, 2014, from http://www.nber.org/papers/w19406(external link)
Greene, Jay P. (2010, August). Administrative bloat at American universities: The real reason for high costs in higher education. Goldwater Institute. Retrieved 30 July, 2014, from http://goldwaterinstitute.org/article/administrative-bloat-american-universities-real-reason-high-costs-higher-education(external link)
Hammer, Brad. (2010). From the editor: The multiple voices of compositionist labor. Forum, 13(2), A1-A5.
Hawisher, Gail. (2014, March). Responses to premier of Con Job: Stories of adjunct and contingent labor. Address presented at Conference on College Composition and Communication. Indianapolis, IL.
Marcus, Jon. (2014, February). New analysis shows problematic boom in higher ed administrators. New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Retrieved 30 July, 2014, from http://necir.org/2014/02/06/new-analysis-shows-problematic-boom-in-higher-ed-administrators/(external link)

CCCC 2014 Reviews

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