CCCC 2014 Reviews

C.12 "Against All Odds: A Review of Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor"

Reviewed by Natalie Dorfeld (ndorfeld@fit.edu)

Chair: Megan Fulwiler, The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY

Megan Fulwiler, The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY
Jennifer Marlow, The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY
William Thelin, University of Akron, OH
Seth Kahn, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Gail Hawisher, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Once upon a time, as most tragic fairy tales begin, professors could make a good living. They were not rolling in the dough by any means, but one could make a modest salary, complete with medical benefits and retirement. Today, roughly 3/4 of the professors teaching in colleges and universities across the nation are adjuncts. Adjuncts are part-time professors, even though they may teach greater loads than full-timers. To make matters worse, they receive no office, benefits, retirement, or guarantee of work from semester to semester. The dream as we know it is over.

Dr. Megan Fulwiler, Associate Professor of English at the College of Saint Rose, and Jennifer Marlow, Assistant Professor of English at the College of Saint Rose, tackle this growing epidemic in their documentary Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor. The fifty minute film, which can be found on YouTube, brilliantly displays the adjunct phenomenon for what it is in humanities today, which for all intents and purposes is a derelict system of labor exploitation. Regarding its medium and message, Fulwiler states:

There’s been a great deal of research on the issue of contingency (the March 2011 special edition of College English, for example), but we felt that the actual voices of adjuncts were still largely missing from this important discussion. We decided to conduct qualitative research in the form of interviews with as many different stakeholders as possible. Central to our mission in doing this project was to provide a means for contingent faculty to share their stories in their voices and we felt that film was a medium that would make the invisible visible. It’s also a medium that has more currency in the culture beyond academia and we felt that was important in terms of reading a wider audience.

True to form, the documentary does not sugarcoat the situation. Within the first five minutes of the piece, definitions of the words adjunct and contingent are given. Once more, in just one working generation, according to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, the full-time vs. part-time ratio has completely inverted itself. In 1970, only 22% of the workforce in academia was part-time. Now, it’s 75%, with composition studies coming in at a disheartening 83.8% (Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor).

Although the majority, many contingent faculty members feel alienated from their peers. Jennifer Lee, an adjunct at the College of Saint Rose and Hudson Valley Community College, has an all too familiar tale. A freeway flyer shuttled between three campuses, she juggles the paperwork of 100+ students, uncertainty of work from one semester to the next, and concerns over expensive health care premiums. She adds that with the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide health care to those working 30 hours, schools are cutting back adjuncts’ hours and limiting courses more than ever.

Julie Demers, a fellow adjunct, also discusses her shriveling bank statement. She wanted to buy groceries but came to the conclusion she would have to wait until the end of the week, payday, to do so. At the same time, a student of hers came to class with a latte from Starbucks, which costs around $5.00. She remembers thinking that would be almost twice as much as her half gallon of milk that she wanted to purchase but could not afford. It was a startling "aha-like" moment for her. “It shouldn’t be like that,” she states.

The stories like this go on and on, ranging from an adjunct professor obtaining services from Planned Parenthood because it was all she could afford to another telling her students she might be selling frozen yogurt in the mall next semester, presumably because it would be more lucrative. The bottom line is always the same – These professors love what they are doing, but the system is slowly destroying them physically, emotionally, and financially. The question then becomes why? Why do people put up with it? Why are administrations letting this happen to their own? Why has this growing reliance upon contingent faculty gotten out of control so quickly?

According to Dr. Mark Bousquet, Associate Professor of English at Emory University, it boils down to two words: “cost and control.” He claims administrators have asserted remarkable control over the curriculum in the last 40 years. They have managed to generate larger and larger pots of money through tuition hikes and spent them on self-serving initiatives. Ironically enough, in the spirit of "we are a team," these enterprises are not necessarily the same that the faculty are committed to at the end of the day (Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor).

Dr. Cary Nelson, Professor of English of the University of Illinois, and Dr. Seth Kahn, Associate Professor of English at West Chester University, also chime in on the power issue. Nelson states that humanities in particular has become the “fast food discipline,” meaning administrations in English and Foreign Languages have pioneered labor exploitation hiring amongst the faculty. Kahn adds that English Studies has been a “gigantic contributor” to the creation of the current conditions, including the divide between tenured faculty and part-time faculty, the so-called haves and have nots of electives vs. service courses. In the end, as most in academia know, it comes down to money. Part-time professors are cheap labor, and cheap labor saves schools millions of dollars (Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor).

Likewise, when it comes to the bottom line, there are no easy answers. For those thinking about teaching in humanities, many feel graduate schools could do a better job, at least on a honorable basis, at a) offering more alternative tracks and b) providing students with the grim yet realistic statistics of landing a tenure track position in field. Dr. Megan Fulwiler adds:

My understanding is that the job market for English has historically ebbed and flowed, but the reality of the current job market and the historic levels of student debt should give English departments with graduate programs pause. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to an ethical consideration: What story are we selling our graduate students? And what story are we not telling?

Dr. Jennifer Marlow, the co-director of the film, recalls being given an orientation packet at the beginning of her Ph.D. program. She states:

I believe, at that time, the numbers were: 1,000 doctoral graduates to 75 TT jobs in English. There wasn’t any additional context provided, and the realities of higher education’s labor system were not further discussed. I think the little “So You Want a PhD in the Humanities” excerpt that we include in our film provides a moment of levity, but I think it also truly represents how so many graduate students feel – that is, “I will be the exception to this rule” based on all my hard work and due diligence . . . I think we go into higher education because we want to help people pursue dreams, not dash them. Unfortunately though, programs are reluctant to limit the graduate student pool because it is currently a self-sufficient system that keeps the labor pool of higher education well stocked, so that large numbers of sections of first-year classes are covered by grad students, ABDs, and NTT instructors.

Critics argue that no one is forcing part-timers to put up with these conditions. Why don’t they just leave? Who could blame them? The system is corrupt. However, it’s hard to tell someone like Jessica Brouker, an English adjunct, to give up her dream. She states, “But if I have to leave teaching, which it’s looking like I might have to do because I can’t survive with four courses, it will kill me a little each day, mentally and emotionally. It really will.” Some of these “career adjuncts” have been at their schools for 20+ years. Present but marginalized; fervent but exhausted (Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor).

How will it all play out? It’s hard to say. Several authorities in contingent labor offer advice throughout the film, including spreading the word through the student newspaper, offering adjuncts renewable contracts with wage increases, and unionization. Unionization, with its power in numbers and obvious legitimacy, however, is often met with roadblocks.
For one, adjuncts are told they are easily replaceable by administrations, so they fear rocking the boat en route of losing their positions. Even those with more stability, like individuals with full-time contacts, feel the pinch in right-to-work states. It’s risky to stick one’s neck out with the current supply/demand demographics. Secondly, because the adjunct demographic is so migratory and diverse, ranging from students fresh out of grad school to working mothers to retired school teachers, their motivations for teaching are varied. Some wish to become professors; others are already established and not dependent upon the measly income. Dr. Seth Kahn adds:

There are two sets of problems here. One of them is internal organizing. In her talk at our panel, Tracy Donhardt pointed out that until just a few years ago, part- time adjunct faculty at IUPUI weren't even listed in the university directory. How are people supposed to find each other when they literally can't find each other? And even in less melodramatic circumstances, developing a network of people who don't have offices, steady email access, etc is very hard. The second set of problems is not having training/leadership to solve the first problem. SEIU's Adjunct Action campaign is incredibly important in this regard. Whatever happens in terms of union elections/certifications, the training that adjunct faculty are getting during those efforts is invaluable.

Without support, however, the movement to improve conditions is dead in the water. Those with more stable positions, according to Kahn, need to help the people directly in their department. If not, their very own jobs, tenure tracks, might be in jeopardy next, the so-called “byproduct of the managerial imperative to flexibility (which is a code word for ‘control,’ as is the allied term ‘responsiveness’)” (Kahn).

Regardless of where one stands, as the thought-provoking documentary points out time and time again, it’s a very sensitive issue with a glaring divide between the heart and head. Adjuncts often go above and beyond the call of duty for the love of their subject, students, and schools. Some can scrape by with other jobs; others find the hamster wheel too exhausting. Pioneers for change, like the Adjunct Project, New Faculty Majority, and freelancers, such as Rebecca Schumann and Joe Fruscione, are greatly contributing to the equity movement, but much more work needs to be done (Kahn).
Indeed, the ivory tower has lost its lure. What once was a solid career has been divided, corrupted, and sold to the lowest bidder. Contingent labor can no longer be viewed as an individual problem, and the directors hope their film plays “a small role in helping contingent faculty recognize their own stories while also seeing how their experiences are part of a larger structural system” (Fulwiler). Adjunct exploitation hurts tenure track faculty, staff, parents, and students; therefore, bettering the working conditions of the backbone of academia, 75% of the educators, is in the best interest to everyone involved.


Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor. Directors Megan Fulwiler and Jennifer Marlow. Utah State University Press / Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2014. Film.
Fulwiler, Megan. Personal interview. 27 March 2014.
Kahn, Seth. Personal interview. 27 March 2014.
Marlow, Jennifer. Personal interview. 01 April 2014.

CCCC 2014 Reviews

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