Anyone attempting to shed light on the problem of adjunct or contingent teaching labor (as some prefer to be called) in the United States’s colleges and universities is fighting a lonely political battle with few allies and many opponents, both of whom have a stake in keeping this issue quiet.
Higher education in the United States is foundering on the problem of labor, which threatens to undermine the pedagogical and research missions of higher education. An agreement to remain silent exists between administrations, tenured faculty, and the face of that problem, contingent faculty. It is in the interests of administrations and faculty to keep silent on this issue; adjunct faculty are cheaper for colleges and universities so employing them keeps costs down and, depending on the school, part-timers ensure that tenured faculty continue to have reasonable course loads, time to research, and the opportunity to teach upper-level and graduate courses. For those contingent faculty members, silence is coerced. They have no job security. As a result of this lack of security, a justified fear keeps them from demanding fair pay and benefits. In addition, the institutions’ ability to create a sense of shame and inferiority often inhibits the desire to even demand fair treatment.
This silence has created a gap between how college and university teachers are viewed by the public and the reality of teaching in those institutions.1 Bradley Rettele worked as a contingent faculty member for eleven years, teaching anthropology in the California community college system. After the spring of 2014, he left academia to make documentary films. Now he is completing a documentary on the problems facing contingent faculty in California’s community college system. Rettele is currently raising funds to complete post-production work on his film, Freeway Fliers, and we spoke recently, discussing the educational, cultural, and human cost of building educational institutions on exploited labor. The stories told in the film give lie to the notion that working diligently and quietly will “pay off” in the end, and Rettele has deep understanding of how the coerced silence which perpetuates this lie is tied to the larger effects of neoliberal policies and the privatization of social institutions.
If you think that describing college teachers as “exploited labor” is hyperbole then Rettele’s film is a must watch. He is not interested in preaching to the choir, as he makes clear in the interview below, but wants to show the facts about the working conditions of college teachers, how these conditions degrade the quality of education for students, and how they violate our ethical and moral principles of equal pay for equal work.
For the purposes of full disclosure, I should say that I went into the interview sympathetic with Rettele’s project and, in speaking to me, he was very much preaching to the choir. The problems of higher education are of particular importance to us here at Contrivers’ Review. As always, we invite responses to everything we publish. If you feel something was misrepresented here, please send us an email at email@example.com.
Bradley Rettele: What I discovered was in this film—as I start more or less in a random place—There’s a nationwide network that’s loosely, in fact I’ll say very loosely, organized and connected in response to the large numbers of adjunct, part-time, and contingent faculty that are teaching in our schools. Myself, I’m a product of community colleges both originally as a student, then for eleven years as an instructor at multiple institutions. And specifically the focus of the film is on community colleges in California, which is the largest post-secondary educational institution in the US. So that’s the specific emphasis.
In the community colleges approximately, 75% of the faculty—depending on who you talk to, some people have very strong views on the terminology you use—are either adjuncts, part-timers, or contingent faculty. More or less those terms are interchangeable and, more or less, mean the same thing. Some people are very opposed to the term “part-time” because the majority of instructors work multiple part-time jobs, many of them work more than a double or triple load of classes much of the time. Some people are opposed to the term “adjunct,” since the contingent faculty are the majority they’re anything but adjuncts any more. They are the majority. And we have a situation specifically in the California community colleges [where] 75% of the teachers are adjuncts, depending on the school, and approximately 50% of the courses are taught by so-called adjuncts. Again depending on the school or more specifically on the district in which they teach, they’re compensated at about 33% at the rate of full time or tenured faculty. And that’s just in community colleges.
My own story is that after eleven years of teaching at multiple schools and in multiple districts, and doing all the things one would hope that would result in a full time job—getting positive performance reviews, cultivating positive relationships with my peers as well as the support staff, etc.—I started looking at the data and came to the conclusion—and this has only been supported by the research I’ve done since then—that neither myself nor the vast majority of adjuncts are ever going to get a full time job. Now one of the problems is that adjuncts in the community colleges at least and in many of the universities as well—some of this changes on a school by school case—but they can be fired or let go at any given time without any kind of justification or reason. What that means is that the majority of the adjuncts are reluctant to speak up or get involved in a serious way with union activities or activism because their jobs are so precarious. In fact, many of the faculty members refer to themselves as “the precariat”—they lead precarious lives.
In fact, that’s one of the interesting issues covered at a union conference that I went to a few weeks when we were discussing why the adjuncts don’t participate in significant numbers in union activities. And that was one of the issues; they’re afraid to. So for myself, for me to get involved as I have and cause as much trouble—if you will—as I hope to, I really had to be in a position where I didn’t depend on that income or wasn’t expecting at least to go any further or try to make a living. Again for the most part trouble makers are sent to Siberia. So I’ve been working on this film since October along with two collaborators who are also adjuncts but, because of the precarious nature of their employment, they are remaining anonymous at this point and probably will remain so for a period of time because of the precarious nature of their employment so they’re listed as Professor X and Professor Y.
Pete Sinnott: In the film you use the term working poor. Other people that I’ve spoken to about this issue have said that when they try to get other people in activism or unions they often met with comments like. “Unions? We’re not truck drivers.”
Rettele: And that’s sort of one of the sticking points because these are people that are highly educated—they all have graduate degrees—and they like to think of themselves as members of an esteemed profession or as having jobs with social cache. So there is a reluctance by a lot of people to admit that they’re hurting. I know from my own experience with my students, it was often times hard to admit or acknowledge where I lived.
There’s a story I’ve told a few times of a student of mine, a young woman, who was moving out of her home and was looking for an apartment to live in. She expressed the fact that she was having a hard time finding a place she could afford. So I suggested a town that I was living in, San Clemente, and I told her that you could often find apartments there that were relatively affordable. And the next week, I asked her after class, “How’s the apartment hunting going?”. And she said, “Well, I found a place I could afford, but it’s kind of in a dangerous neighborhood and the building is kind of run down.”
I said, “In San Clemente?” “Yeah.” So I asked, “Well where is the place?” And so she described the address and it turned out to be the very same building I lived in. So there is some reluctance… Sadly and basically without exception, adjuncts are living poorly from the material perspective and not in very comfortable situations, in beat-up apartments in rough neighborhoods and driving shoddy cars. Many of the adjuncts are able to qualify for the Affordable Care Act. Some of the adjuncts are able to qualify for food stamps. Most of them collect unemployment for portions of the year to augment their income.
That’s one of the interesting parts of the story: Many people, including those in academia will criticize Wal-Mart or McDonald’s for funding their low-paid employees by augmenting their compensation with food stamps, but that’s exactly what’s happening in education. Colleges hold symposia on how you apply for and qualify for unemployment and one of the considerations that these adjuncts have told me, many of them, they often times weigh whether they should teach classes in the summer or apply for unemployment—which compensation will actually be greater.
It really is a situation that’s indefensible on multiple levels and that’s just the human cost on the teachers. And lot of the people I know on social media would say, “Well, these people should have pursued degrees in something where they could have gotten a real job” or “If they were so stupid to study”—I’ll use myself as an example here—“anthropology or get a graduate degree in anthropology that’s what they deserve.”
But the reality is that there’s plenty of work. People are working, [but] they’re just being poorly compensated for it. And it’s not as if the market is holding the pay level down. It’s an institutional and artificial condition of compensation for people who do the same work with the same qualifications and often times with the same amount of experience but they’re compensated in such disparate ways.
Another aspect of this that I’ve discovered—and I know this from my own experience—is that most like what they do which makes them highly exploitable. They have a dedication to their craft and the vast majority of people I’ve talked to put in way more work than really would be necessary to simply be competent. They put in a lot of time and effort, but, despite that, the students in most cases are getting short changed. In most cases—and in most districts in the California community college system—if you take a class with an adjunct, that adjunct doesn’t have an office to begin with and is not compensated for office hours. So that’s a whole component of education that doesn’t exist. For me personally, the people that got me through college were those professors that offered me extra assistance, or even more importantly put me together when I was starting to frazzle or would give me advice about what classes to take or where to transfer and all those bits of wisdom and information you don’t get when you can’t develop those relationships with your professors.
So it’s a pretty thick kettle of fish I’ve managed to get myself into, and I had no idea I would be this deep in this stuff. But it’s just layers and layers and there’s so many people that are involved.
Sinnott: In terms of the workplace environment, one person you interview in the film describes working as a contingent instructor—I’m paraphrasing here—as a job with long hours, poor pay, and an environment in which you’re humiliated every semester. I think that’s one of those aspects of the job that a lot of people don’t understand; how status plays such an important role in that workplace and what the status of a contingent instructor really is. How did that theme come out in the interviews and the film?
Rettele: In that instance you’re referring to, he was specifically talking about the fact that at the end of every semester you’re essentially fired. But also there’s the fact that you don’t have an office—and of course this does depend on the institution—you don’t have access to the same resources as full-time faculty members, and there’s always constant reminders that you are an outsider which is one of the thematic devices that I’m using in the film. Maybe you have access to a computer on campus, but you have to share it with scores of other people. You’re not often not welcome to participate in governance: union activities, academic senate, or course curriculum development. Even when you are allowed to participate, you’re not compensated for it whereas full-timers are compensated. But there’s also the fact that a lot of people I talk to say that it’s not uncommon to be referred to in your presence—like you’re a child they’re speaking in front of, a three year old who can’t understand what they’re saying—as subaltern or not deserving. They say “You guys don’t do as good of a job,” and there’s this idea that the meritocracy is working correctly, those that deserve it get the job, and those that don’t deserve are destined to be bottom feeders.
Sinnott: One of the reasons that I brought this up is because, as I said, most people don’t really understand the dynamics of this situation. Even students don’t realize the difference between adjunct faculty and tenured faculty.
Rettele: Absolutely. You know, I think they [contingent instructors] are reluctant to bring it up with students or be honest about it. It’s like saying, “Hey we all work here at Burger King but I’m getting paid one third less because… who the hell knows why?” Students are not hip to the system and the schools are not, generally, overt about expressing this. Imagine going online “Apply to this school you get great faculty. By the way, 75 % of them don’t have health insurance and 25% of them are on food stamps.” It’s something that academia is reluctant to acknowledge.
Sinnott: In some ways this has to do with the issue of governance that you bring up, and this is a really important issue that also escapes public notice because it deals with some of the more mundane, everyday things that faculty do—curriculum committees within departments or university-wide committees that deal not only with academic policy but seemingly boring stuff that like who gets to use what buildings or facilities. All of this is another, pretty practical way, that status is conferred and also determines the everyday qualities of one’s work environment in that more basic, practical sense…
Rettele: You’re absolutely right, and that’s one of those things where you would think that the people who interact with the majority of the students, over 50% of them, should be involved with. Shared governance is a core part of being a faculty member and also important in terms of their significance. Now, the reality is that on most campuses you have the same 20 people, 20 full timers, that are on every committee. Even in the case of most colleges, it’s a relatively small percentage of the people that are actively involved in this stuff. But it is something all faculty should be encouraged, if nothing else, to participate in.
Those full-time faculty when they participate in governance are compensated for it. That’s part of their job, along with grading and instruction and whatever else. But if you’re a part-timer, it’s all on your dime. And for the most part, getting involved can only draw negative attention unless you’re just a rubber-stamp member of the committee; they go along to get along sort of thing.
And for promotion and tenure this is a big deal. Some of our most important academic principles are at risk when the majority of the faculty have to be extremely careful about what they say. Even disagreeing with the person that hires and fires them, the department chair, is a big deal. The faculty are now the “landlords,” if you will.
One school at which I taught, two people were the chairs of four different departments, and one was also the grievance chair of the union and the other one was also the president. So if you had a conflict of any kind with your job, the person you would address that conflict with, take your complaint to, was the often the very person you had a conflict with. They got you by so many nooses that it’s silly. It’s sad but it’s silly.
The thing that always galls me the most is that at the college, I’m in the social sciences division. So I’m hanging out with people that seem like or appear to be left of Fidel Castro on social issues. But when it comes down to their own department or their college, they’re somehow immune or don’t have to acknowledge that. They say, “Well I don’t shop at…” What is that arts and crafts store?
Sinnott: Hobby Lobby.
Rettele: Hobby Lobby and “I don’t shop at Wal-Mart and blah, blah, blah.” But when it comes to their own program they’re somehow immune, which I think it’s ironic to say the least.
Sinnott: They only have politics when it’s convenient.
Rettele: Right. A lot of the people that I talk to that have been involved for a long time, at a certain point in time, at a certain age, they’re kind of stuck in terms of their professional options. So they don’t have very much choice but continue to slog away. One guy that I interviewed is a former priest that is an adjunct instructor in philosophy and has been for twenty years. And he says, “Retirement is not an option. I’m just gonna have to do this until I die because I’m never gonna be able to retire.” They’re a lot of them [contingent instructors] that are like that.
That’s one of the reasons that I decided to leave the field. There are a lot of instructors that are pretty embittered by their experience and rightfully so. But that’s not how I want to interact with my family or my friends or the world in general, being a person that hates their circumstances that much. I’d rather be a poor flunky than a poor embittered person.
Sinnott: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I decided to hang up my teaching spurs, so to speak.
Rettele: Oh, you were an adjunct?
Sinnott: Nothing so dignified. My spouse’s job brought me out here to California while I was finishing my dissertation, and I taught at a for-profit, technical school. It was not a great experience. It was… Well, on one hand I loved the students there…
Rettele: Exactly! That’s a big part of the problem; you do something because in the short term it’s good but in the long run you’re participating in this terrible system.
Rettele: But teaching so much fun when it’s good.
Sinnott: And I was pretty good at my job. Some of the other part-time faculty were not, and given the pay, the ridiculous expectations, and what they [the school] thought your job responsibilities should include—some of these were unique to for-profits—it was tough to do a good job. But, I’m a good teacher and loved doing it, but at the same time I was helping legitimate that institution in the eyes of the students and by doing so I wasn’t helping them in the long run, because that place—for a lot of reasons that often had nothing to do with what went on in the classrooms, mine or other instructors’—isn’t a legitimate educational institution but this isn’t really the time to get into some of those reasons. I got to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore even though I still loved teaching and really liked my students.
Rettele: Right, and really—and we both know this though I haven’t mentioned it—the story isn’t really necessarily about education or post-secondary education. The real story is about privatization and neo-liberalism and generally structuring education, if not the entire economy [around privatization and neoliberalism]. So that’s the big picture, but I’m not equipped to make that film…
Sinnott: But you tell the stories you can tell, and this an important one. It’s part of that big picture. And this relates to what you were saying earlier about people arguing, “If you wanted a good job why did you study anthropology?” or “Why didn’t you do something useful?” But that attitude, that question, isn’t a real question because it’s a symptom of the larger problem you’re talking about here. What’s considered “useful” is only what you can make money off of, and that’s the only thing that’s valued.
Rettele: And the emphasis is on the skills that will train people to be workers in the system. And if you don’t have a marketable skill in science, math, or engineering, then what good are you? Which again is part of that bigger story.
Sinnott: Speaking of that bigger perspective, you worked as contingent faculty for a while, and I’m curious whether you’ve seen the attitudes shift over time. And this question relates to the National Adjunct Walk-Out Day that occurred recently. Is that a sign that perceptions have changed and that there may be a growing awareness of these issues? I’m curious as whether you’ve seen a shift in perceptions from the time you started working in academia to what’s going on now.
Rettele: I think—this is my guess and my perception—is that there’s a relatively small number of adjuncts that are involved in any kind of meaningful way. They’re the ones that are making the noise and using social media, which is how that adjunct walk out day started. And I think that people are looking for any grain of hope because there is sort of a spirit of hopelessness that permeates the adjuncts after a certain time. So myself and most of those that are active like to think that there’s a change in the course of things. But at the same time they’re cynical enough and skeptical enough that they don’t want to have too much hope because they’re used to being disappointed.
Sinnott: How would you describe them?
Rettele: They’re these really smart outsiders. They’re really hard-core, adamant, and organized and doing stuff outside the structure of the schools and outside the structure of the unions, and they really make me enthusiastic.
On the day of the walk out, this group along with a union for other campus employees of colleges and universities (UPTE) instead of having a walk-out proper or a picket, you know wave your signs on the sidewalk, they were hip and savvy enough to arrange a dozen face to face meetings with staffers of California senators and assemblymen. They were engaged in legislative actions that unions just aren’t doing.
That’s one of the lines I have to ponder, I guess, when I put this film together; my inclination is to be supportive of labor, but much of what I’ve discovered with unions is that they may be publicly supportive and make statements but—and maybe this is because of time and resources and all the challenges that face organized labor today—but they often don’t follow through with action. Again, I’m not trying to slam unions here and I want to be supportive of them, but there are some real limits to the kind of activities [in which] they often engage.
Sinnott: Just to finish up our conversation because we’ve been talking for a while a now and I know you’re busy, but what are your plans for distribution of the film?
Rettele: The film is going to be available to stream online for free, and that’s both a practical decision and in the spirit of the film. The reality is that in the twenty-first century shipping out DVDs to everyone is a bad idea, a twentieth century idea. Even more importantly and slightly less practically… I’ve been basically working on this film full time and because I got so deeply into this, I’ve spent more time on it than I ever intended to. But, I feel strongly enough about the issues that film needs to be freely available to anybody and everyone that wants to see it. Not only would it not be practical to try to make money on the end of it, but it would be contrary to the what we’re trying to do, contrary to the spirit of the thing. This is stuff that parents need to know about, and people have asked me, who do you intend your audience to be? Well, I hope that film appeals to Fox News watchers in Orange County California. People that are anti-labor or that think teachers already have it too good. They complain that teachers only work five hours a day for nine months a year… My Dad, that’s who we’re talking about actually.
If I’m doing my job correctly, the issues have to be relevant to those people who think that they hate educators for imposing liberal ideas on the minds of our children, instead of teaching them to love America they encourage them to question our country and American exceptionalism. Well, you’re familiar with the rhetoric…
Sinnott: I certainly am.
Rettele: And a lot of my relatives, including my Dad, who I love and respect but don’t talk about politics with, are barometers of that perspective. They may be anti-labor or anti-union but if I can run these ideas by them and they’re willing to listen to the argument and see the facts, then I’m on to something.
Sinnott: To get beyond that rhetoric is important. In terms of what you were saying earlier about unions, there’s no doubt that there’s often problems with unions but that attitude you’re talking about basically, and sorry for the cliché, but it throws the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of thinking about what the unions are really for—ensuring safe working conditions, fair wages, length of the working day and so on—they just see the problems and conclude, “Well, industry will take care of those things.” If you’ve read any history though, you know that’s not true.
Rettele: Right. You reform it. But a good part of our population thinks that the magic hand of the free market fixes everything and that’s, again, part of that bigger story.
In 2006, CNN’s Money Magazine and salary.com ranked college professors number two on their top 100 jobs list. In 2013, Forbes published an article that counted college professors as one of the least stressful jobs in America. Neither Forbes nor Money/salary.com included contingent faculty in their stories, and Rettele’s documentary offers strong evidence that the stereotype of the easy life of the college professor persists. While the 2008 financial crisis certainly expedited the process, the steady increase of adjunct labor is a decades long trend. According to a 2007 report by the American Association of University Professors, non-tenure track faculty positions accounted for accounted for three out of five appointments, while exceeding that number in community colleges. Moreover, the same report states that enrollment may have increased since 1976 but “instead of increasing proportionately the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty positions needed to teach these students and mentor these graduates, since 1976 institutions have increased the number of part-time faculty by 119 percent and the number of full-time non-tenure-track faculty by 31 percent.” ↩