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The Contingent Campus – Adjunctification And The Growth Of The Academic “Precariat” (Kelly J. Baker)

Higher Ed

Editors note: This introductory essay is the first in a series on “The Contingent Campus”.  The essays will be published once or a twice a week from this date forward.

There’s a graph from Precaricorps that I like to use when I write, or give talks, about contingency in the field of religious studies.  It documents the percentage increase of employees at institutions of higher ed from 1975 to 2011.

Full-time tenured/tenure track faculty increased by a mere 23%, while part-time contingent faculty increased a dramatic 286% and full-time non-tenure track faculty (NTFF) by 259%.  Full-time non-faculty professionals, or the administrative class, increased 359%.

There’s a story that those numbers tell about higher ed that should make us wonder, question, and interrogate what’s happening to our institutions, those colleges and universities that both train/trained us and those that employ (or no longer employ) us. Those numbers stop me in my tracks, even though I can recite them from memory. But, do they stop the rest of us? Do they give us pause? Or do we ignore those numbers while training graduate students for jobs for the minority of jobs available to scholars?

What’s striking is that stereotypes of high-earning, high-prestige professors persist (usually in think pieces that decry universities and their liberal influence), while the increasing casualization of labor in higher education, especially in the humanities, is our reality. Adjunctification rotates in and out of the news cycle, usually followed by outrage and concern that PhDs train for years for jobs that just don’t exist in the same way as they once did. Yet, there’s still not necessarily thoughtful discussion of how to turn the tide of contingency or whether tenure is worth it when it protects so few academics.

And it remains true that many, so many, campus employees work in the low-wage, low-prestige positions. As the Precaricorps graph shows us, tenure track positions are unicorns, a rarity not a guarantee (as if they ever were guaranteed). Adjuncts, NTFF, and graduate students teach the majority of college courses.

My own alma mater, Florida State University (FSU), likes to claim to be post-adjunct because they no longer hire adjuncts to teach. FSU still admits graduate students to fill out the rosters of their PhD programs and relies on these students to teach introductory courses in departments. It is strange that FSU ever required adjuncts at all.

Non-tenure track jobs are the norm, not the exception. This is a truth that we can no longer deny, but folks still try to as adjuncts, on average, earn about $2700 a course without benefits, office space, or much-needed technologies. The problem of contingency also impacts grad students and undergrads, who are also a part of this low-cost and easily replaceable workforce.

Labor exploitation is a routine part of higher education. A feature, not a flaw. Faculty, graduate students, staff, and undergraduates work long hours for low and stagnating wages, less prestige, and cultural hostility. This situation doesn’t appear to be changing. Yet, I try to remain hopeful that change is possible.

Additionally, contingent labor complicates the branded images of campus that colleges and universities present to current and prospective students as well as their parents. If you believe the ad campaigns, campuses are the spaces where students live, laugh, learn, and thrive. These ads, however, neglect to tell students and parents that courses are often staffed by adjuncts and graduate students, not full-time professors. The brochures never mention how much a contingent laborer is paid per class alongside the estimation of tuition and fees for the term. A drop in the bucket compared to what each class costs.

The modern university is contingent; contingency has consequences. In 2017, why is there still a reluctance among some to admit that this is the case?

The modern university is contingent, I find myself saying over and over again at conferences, in articles and in casual conversations. Sometimes, folks tell me that the situation can’t be as bad as I suggest (I point them to the graph). Folks tell me that perhaps contingent laborers didn’t approach the job market in the right way (I resist the temptation to toss Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works at them).

Folks try to explain away contingency and absolve themselves of responsibility for the situation. These all-too-common reactions makes me wonder if anyone ever listens, really listens, to me when I discuss the over-reliance on contingent labor and what that might mean for religious studies.

If the modern university is contingent, religious studies is contingent too. Scholars of religion labor in precarious positions, whether you want to admit it or not. Precarity impacts not only our scholarship (and the support and resources for our work), but also our students and institutions. Contingency erodes the ability of scholars to be scholars and teachers, but also affects our lives. It’s beyond time for us to recognize that.

This series of posts, The Contingent Campus, reckons with contingency as a particular problem for religious studies scholars, our departments, our students, and our institutions: What does this increasing reliance on contingent labor mean for our campuses? What do the dominant forms of labor mean for scholars in the humanities and social sciences? What are the conditions of our labor in departments and larger institutions? What about scholars who lack affiliation and institution? How has the increasing reliance on contingent labor impacted how and what we teach? How does contingency impact the scholarship we produce and the functions of our departments? What do we learn when we pay careful attention to the working conditions of scholars?

Moreover, what is life like, for students, staff, and faculty, on the contingent campus? What factors have contributed to the contingent campus, especially as related to political theology? And what can we do about it? What must we do about it?

The last question is the most pressing one that I hope all readers consider as they work their way through these essays.

Kelly J. Baker is the editor of the newsletter Women in Higher Education, which has as its goal “to enlighten, encourage, empower and enrage women on campus.”  She is a freelance writer with a religious studies Ph.D. who covers religion, higher education, gender, labor, motherhood, and popular culture. She has regular columns at the Chronicle for Higher Education‘s Vitae project, Women in Higher Education, Killing the Buddha, and Sacred Matters.  She has written for The New York TimesThe Atlantic, Bearings, The Rumpus, The Manifest-Station, Religion Dispatches, Religion & Politics, Christian Century, Washington Post, and Brain, Child.

(2) Comments

  1. “What are the conditions of our labor in departments and larger institutions? What about scholars who lack affiliation and institution? How has the increasing reliance on contingent labor impacted how and what we teach? How does contingency impact the scholarship we produce and the functions of our departments? What do we learn when we pay careful attention to the working conditions of scholars?” All very important questions you ask, Kelly!
    If we weren’t so locked into our present institutional models, we might wonder if the university , like the religious corporation, has been co-opted by corporatism and its rigorous march toward efficiency and profit AT ALL COST, particularly now that the corporation has been anointed “person” by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Another question we might wonder: Should we be looking at a different kind of “contingent” university? One that seeks thinkers who love their subjects and their students…one that is focused predominantly on wisdom to share and questions to engage…one that pushes and pulls students to do the thinking and creating…something more like and beyond the ancient “universities”? …small diverse “universities” everywhere accessible to everyone?

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