Precarious Employment in Higher Education

This summer I had the privilege of editing an issue of Cinema Journal‘s online Teaching Dossier: NEGOTIATING PRECARIOUS POSITIONS. Usually the dossier features articles that share pedagogical ideas, materials, approaches, and discussions. Our issue went meta and addressed the conditions under which we teach, including how these conditions shape and effect how and what we teach.

If you are an academic, I urge you to read and join in the discussion, whether at Teaching Media or elsewhere. If you are a student, I hope that you will read and begin to take an interest in what is going on behind the scenes of your education, because it does shape the education you get.

This is a topic near but not dear to my heart. When I decided to go after my PhD at age 40, I received encouragement from all fronts: family, colleagues, friends. Everyone thought the task would be difficult but worth it. How could so many people be so wrong?

Once I was fully embedded in the Cinema & Media Studies program at UCLA (and sinking into debt), I started to realize there would be no job for me at the end of the PhD road. The tenure-track jobs in cinema studies were already scarce, and I would have the “adjunct taint” (years of non-tenure academia) on my resume. I had had no idea there even was such a thing as “adjunct taint,” until it was too late for me to undo my job history. Furthermore, I would be too old to be an attractive tenure-track employee at the university level, but that didn’t worry me much, as I’d intended to return to the state college or community college arena. What I had tragically not foreseen….

In the realm of community and state colleges, cinema studies (the academic courses, as opposed to the “production training” courses) had begun to be seen as frivolous, elective courses. At these institutions, film programs were attempting to become industry training programs — which formerly had only been the purview of bonafide film schools such as those at USC and UCLA. Thanks to digital technologies, community college administrators began to imagine they too could offer entertainment industry training. I had several absolutely surreal job interviews during which, unblinkingly and sans humor, these people asked how I would train their students for YouTube-style production (with little or no equipment) and then ensure them industry jobs. I could not b.s. enough to convince them to hire me. They preferred to hire someone with “production experience” (no degree required), who would do hands-on training and pick up a film history or media studies course now and then — because, of course, any one can teach that.

The Humanities in general have been under pressure, being seen as somewhat frivolous in our neoliberal era, but they have fought back, establishing Digital Humanities, which loosely refers to harnessing digital technology in the service of data-driven, networked, interactive scholarship. This works great, actually, for English, Art History, Musicology, etc. But it hasn’t been as easily applied to Cinema Studies because of that film-trade-school connection. That is to say, no one expects an Art Historian to teach Photoshop, HTML and Design Basics in order to ensure their students jobs. Instead they use digital technologies to inquire more deeply into Art History.

I tried, over the ensuing years, to ignore these realities of the job market. (What else could I do? It was too late to turn back, student debt and all that.) But adding insult to injury, I began to see, that I was perceived by superiors, peers, and the field in general like a sweet, crazy, old lady. Wasn’t it cute that I wanted a PhD? Was I independently wealthy? Retired? At the annual SCMS conference, you are invisible and routinely snubbed — especially by young graduate students — if you’re not a tenure-tracker, and they have even recoiled from me in fear when they realized I was still just CPhil, at my age.

And somehow it is built in — into our whole American culture perhaps — that being unemployed or unemployable is so shameful that one cannot rail or wail against any of this. It is unseemly. Sour grapes. You are either a commodity, or you are not. If you are not, you must step aside and make way for the younger, brighter, and luckier ones. But thankfully people have started railing against it all, people who are younger and have more energy (and hope) to fight back than I do. I am very proud to have worked with a few of them in preparing this Teaching Dossier, and hoping against hope that a dialogue — or several — will open up thanks to this prodding.

I am sure, eventually, cinema studies and higher education in general will come back around to a healthier, post-neoliberal state. I will be retired by then, but hopefully (please, Fate) still alive to see it.

Just a couple articles (and a book) of interest on this topic:

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