Casualization of Academic Labor: A Moment of Possibility for the Communication Discipline?
Numerous reports in recent years show an increase in the number of Ph.D.s available on the academic job market, but not nearly enough tenure or tenure-track positions to support them. Therefore, hundreds of job seekers each year take on “academic labor” – they are lecturers, part-timers, and adjuncts, who are ineligible for professional development funds, retirement benefits, or even dedicated office space. A 2016 study from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that 70 percent of all faculty in higher education worked off the tenure track.
But this isn’t a sudden crisis, argues Kathleen McConnell of San José State University in her introduction to a special issue of NCA’s journal Review of Communication; this state of employment in academia is “well established and widely accepted.” Further, the field of Communication Studies has contributed little to the conversation about the academic workforce over the decades, and McConnell declares that “it is time the field explored alternatives and reconsidered how we work.” Her intro includes a survey of literature that “attempts to dispel the belief that higher education is in crisis.”
Casualization and Communication Studies
McConnell offers a few theories on why there has been relatively little literature from Communication scholars on the topic of academic labor. She references Jonathan Sterne’s essays from 2011 that explain the difficulties of assessing hiring within the field because “it is difficult to define and distinguish the communication studies job market.” The discipline includes everything from performance studies and rhetoric to health communication and broadcasting and journalism. Thus, there is “little understanding of what constitutes the market,” leading to a reliance on anecdotal data. NCA has been issuing jobs reports since 2004. The 2014 report characterizes the job market for academic positions in Communication as “quite healthy,” which McConnell argues is a “conclusion that only makes sense within the context of a job system that does not track how departments staff lower-division courses and presumes that a significant number of Ph.D.s will never secure tenure-track positions.” (See the 2018 report here.)
Another reason for the longtime lack of concern within the Communication Studies field may be because some faculty have viewed labor activism as less a political question than a professional one, McConnell suggests. “Professionalism has preoccupied communication faculty who for decades struggled to elevate the status of speech communication and secure its standing as an area of scholarship; arguably, it is the object of study through which the field has grappled with higher education’s employment practices.” This emphasis on professionalism, McConnell argues, is partly why Communication faculty have generally not addressed the trend toward casualization; indeed, they “confirmed higher education’s growing reliance on tenure-ineligible instructors.”
Neoliberalism and the Gig Economy
According to the author, the influence of neoliberalism and “higher education’s uptake of corporate organizational models” have furthered the reliance on non-tenure track academic labor. Casualization wasn’t just a strategy for staffing the lower division, it helped universities to lead an overall employer trend of “transforming work in the name of flexibility.” McConnell references literature on this topic from Randy Martin, Sheila Slaughter, Gary Rhoades, Marc Bousquet, Thomas A. Discenna, and others, writing, “Higher education’s more significant contribution, some suggest, might be its success in transforming stable and upwardly mobile professionals into contingent and precarious workers.”
There is no shortage of anecdotes or essays that portray academics’ tireless attempts to maximize their opportunities in ways that are similar to efforts of entrepreneurs, devoting the bulk of their time to activities such as attending conferences, keeping abreast of new scholarship, maintaining a social media presence, and more, all on top of their overloaded course schedule, grading, and related responsibilities. “Professors have never conformed to conventional work schedules,” McConnell writes. But “an inexhaustible passion for research, teaching, and service is ‘now a compulsory means of securing future work’ (Gill and Pratt).” As faculty devote all of their time to academic work, the burden of finding sustainable and fulfilling work shifts to them, regardless of a dismal job market, making it easier to “hold individuals responsible for structural inequities and deficiencies.”
What’s Next for Communication Studies?
So what does all of this mean for the field of Communication Studies? Why should the discipline contribute to the conversation about academic labor now? One reason, according to McConnell, is because “we can generate a more accurate account of the time and expense that teaching and researching communication entails and how, where, and by whom the work is done. Refusing to recognize the full extent of the labor and resources that go into academic work devalues academia.”
Ultimately, the way we organize Communication Studies says “a great deal about how we think about communication, its purposes, capacities, and hazards,” McConnell states. Further, the current approach may mean that students are under-prepared for the workforce and for life. She poses a final question: “As [the current employment model] continues to eclipse older ones, what will happen to other (deliberative, critical, experimental) modes of communication?”
Read the special issue of Review of Communication for four essays exploring additional reasons the discipline should address academic labor issues.