Labor Organizing in Response to “Gig Academia”
In a new article published in Communication Education, Susana Martínez Guillem and Marco Briziarelli address what they call “gig academia,” or the “gig economy” of academia. Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli describe “gig academia” as higher education’s increased reliance on non-tenure-track or adjunct faculty members and the increased use of learning management systems (LMS) or online software designed to facilitate teaching through the use of an online gradebook, discussion boards, and other tools.
Tenure-track faculty members are those who are eligible to receive tenure, which protects their academic freedom and provides job security. In contrast, non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty are not eligible for tenure and may be part-time employees. Unlike their tenured colleagues, adjunct faculty are usually paid by the course and are subject to regular contract renewals. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), 73 percent of positions at all institutions, including research universities, four-year colleges, and community colleges, are non-tenure positions. Research institutions employ the highest percentage of tenure-track faculty, while institutions that grant associate degrees have the lowest percentage.
In the past two decades, as universities have become more reliant on non-tenured and part-time faculty, they have also become increasingly reliant on LMS. LMS are used in face-to-face classes, but they are also pivotal to online classes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, LMS, along with virtual meeting software, have been crucial to moving classes online. But even in 2018, some 15 percent of undergraduate students were enrolled in online-only programs.
While online education and LMS have greatly expanded the reach of courses, the production of related course materials can be used to exploit academic workers. Once produced, online educational materials can be reused repeatedly by any instructor. This automates and cheapens some teaching practices, thereby contributing to increasing precarity among faculty. Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli argue that this process “contributes to deskilling, disqualifying, and—why not say it—demotivating the workforce.”
Instructors and students also can become alienated from one another in the digital space. Online instructors may find themselves serving as “tech support” for online classes, fundamentally changing their communication patterns with their students. And, with the increased disconnection between students and faculty, online learning may feel like a “game” of earning points by following the rules of the syllabus. At the same time, instructors may feel increasingly detached from institutions because of their precarious employment. These dynamics are especially damaging for non-normative students and faculty (i.e., those whose very presence challenges racist, heteronormative, or ableist ideologies), as their “unruly bodies” are literally erased from physical educational spaces.
Yet, Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli argue that labor unions provide hope for the future. A 2018 Pew survey showed that 55 percent of Americans had a favorable view of labor unions and just 33 percent had an unfavorable view. In addition, unions at academic institutions have increased in number. Non-tenure track and adjunct faculty have also created new unions to represent their interests.
Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli acknowledge that online teaching poses challenges to unionization, both because some faculty members are disconnected from one another physically, and because of divisions between tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty. According to Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli, opportunities for socialization on campus can help overcome these challenges: “Faculty meetings and interdisciplinary committee meetings, together with other socializing opportunities across colleges, ranks, and job descriptions, can actually become important assets in the struggle to create a strong and diverse base of unionized workers with common demands.” The authors also argue that labor organizing at universities should transcend classification by focusing on the needs of students and by using “organizing as [a] means to guarantee that the university can fully deliver its mission.”
Common experiences among workers can also serve as a uniting force for faculty and other workers who rely on digital technology. Cybertariat is a term that Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli use to refer to workers who employ digital technologies. Although these workers may feel isolated and precarious in their work, recognizing the common role that digital technology plays in their work can help them see the benefits of organizing collectively. For example, the authors argue that normalizing “slow work,” or taking more time to prepare and teach, can be a useful first step toward challenging how online education platforms affect faculty labor. They note that “slow work” can serve as an effective organizing strategy because it draws attention to the fact that some students and faculty have no option other than to work slowly because of ableism, sexism, racism, and other factors.
Martínez Guillem and Briziarelli conclude that the reliance on LMS during the COVID-19 pandemic creates the opportunity for faculty and researchers to reflect on online education and how online education can be part of a solution for addressing inequalities and precarious work conditions in academia. They note that future Communication research should address these issues to help universities fulfill their educational mission.