The Cost of Precarity: Contingent Academic Labor in the Gig Economy

In our recent reflection for Art Journal Open responding to the “Beyond Survival” open call, we wrote about the need for scholarly communities to maintain a diversity of voices and career stages. “Robust discourse,” we wrote, “and a sustainable educational community, depends on contributions from all parts of the academic pipeline—from graduate students, who vitally support institutions during their progression to a PhD, to full professors and those that have transitioned to advanced administrative positions.” As with any functioning and viable ecosystem, institutions require a healthy interaction and balance between populations—be they students, faculty, staff, or administration—to ensure resilience to various types of external stressors. Unfortunately, in the United States, this equilibrium is nowhere to be found, and the system seems to be on the brink of irreversible collapse.

This predicament is especially precarious for recent PhDs, scholars who finished their degree approximately within the last five to seven years. With dwindling tenure-track options, these academics often enter a highly competitive workforce in the only ways that they can, as contingent laborers: part-time, adjunct, visiting, and/or non-tenure-track contracted instructors. Despite years of institutional investment and countless hours already spent researching and teaching, an entire generation of young educators/scholars will not have the working conditions to realize their potential. A humanities PhD has become the endpoint and culmination of an academic career, when historically it has marked only the very beginning. This essay explores the detrimental effects of the “gigification” of higher education, and illuminates some of the innovative ways that adjunctification is being combatted from within.1

While the ideal educational system thrives on equity, diversity, tolerance, and community, the stranglehold of greed has become the structuring principle of higher education. Like the crisis in healthcare, education is becoming increasingly privatizated/corporatized/neoliberalized (choose your term). These new models often stand in opposition to the ways that those in the professoriate were actually educated. The university has become a business in which the institutional priority is profit and not learning, broader intellectualism, critical thinking, or democracy.2 Vocational training has superseded the pursuit of knowledge, along with engaged citizenship and social consciousness. The doom-and-gloom rhetoric of higher education is reinforced by the escalation of online learning enrollment, rising tuition costs, excess of executive salaries, promotion of a “technically trained docility,” and the race to establish top-rate (luxury) facilities to draw students.3 Meanwhile, on average, state funding has decreased spending per student since the recession, with a 16% decrease between 2008 and 2017 (in eight states that number was over 30%).4 As we face the uncertain future, some share the popular sentiment of Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, who predicts that half of college and university institutions will go bankrupt within the next decade.5 If there is a way to prevent or address the future Christensen predicts, the time for attention and change is now.6

Within this difficult climate, the gap between fragile graduate-school beginnings and lofty ambitions of becoming a tenured professor has widened dangerously for aspiring humanities scholars. The bridge between has all but collapsed under increasing systemic duress, as freshly minted PhDs find themselves in contingent positions in a tightening market. Why is precarity quickly becoming the norm, and how is this acceptable to anyone paying ever-escalating tuition and/or working toward a degree? What are institutions of higher education without a stable labor force of committed educators? Moreover, we are seeing a change in tenure-track professorial positions. The traditional expectation is that professors maintain duties across the three areas of teaching, scholarship, and service. While the balance between the three has always differed from community colleges to research institutions, overall and across the board, research is diminishing, teaching loads are increasing, and what defines “service” is shifting to suit business needs such as recruitment or the erasure of departmental staff positions—all with highly problematic outcomes. When did being a professor turn into a teaching-only or a teaching-by-the-class gig? What will, and has already been, sacrificed under this new paradigm of the gig economy? This is not the educational model that inspired us to complete PhDs to become educators and researchers. Yet, it is the unsatisfactory system that we, and the majority of our colleagues, are teaching within. In some cases, it is the only option for many of those still fighting to keep the academic “dream” alive.

On Saturday, January 25, 2014, dozens of adjunct and contingent faculty, along with community allies, met at the University of Washington for a symposium entitled “Confronting the Inequities in Higher Education.” Photograph by SEIU Local 925; reproduced under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

In our essay “Generation Wipeout,” we lamented the fundamental exploitation of the gigification of higher education.7 It is well known that non-tenure-track faculty comprise the vast majority of all college-level educators, assessed at 73% in 2016 for all US institutions, with fewer tenure lines extended every year in the humanities.8 While this oversupply of talent certainly extends to unemployment issues in other industries, academia has been hit particularly hard. For early-career academics and those in programs, time to degree (nearly a decade, on average, in 2012) must be weighed against the time one could have spent building skills and vital job experience in other industries, producing a distinct opportunity cost caused by accrued intellectual capital.9 This has caused panic and controversy about decreasing time to degree (apparent in the debate over the Five Year Movement), lowering graduate enrollment numbers considering the paucity of tenure-track jobs, in addition to a lack of graduate funding that would in turn only increase student debt.

Unfortunately, adjunctification has been a trend for some time and has only been exacerbated by the financial crisis of 2008. This danger has been tracked by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and widely reported across media channels, from the Chronicle of Higher Education to Forbes. The statistic that nearly three-quarters of the professoriate are contingent laborers is practically the inverse of the tenure–to–non-tenure-track ratio of the 1970s, fondly referred to as the “the golden age of higher education.”10 This predates, yet neatly coincides with, the advancement of neoliberalism at the end of the decade. We are now experiencing the fallout of predatory capitalism in academia, with the majority of academia’s workers belonging to the class of the “academic precariat.”11 Moreover, the adjunct workforce is actually starting to shrink due to the 2011 “bubble burst” in the for-profit-university sector, filled with institutions that rely heavily on adjunct labor—in some cases to the tune of ninety percent.12

For recent PhDs transitioning from the post of graduate student to faculty member, postdoctoral positions in the humanities are scarce and ridiculously competitive. Even though such fellowships hardly guarantee a tenure-track job, this competitiveness perpetuates a culture in which only a precious few have the time, space, and funding to develop a dissertation into the benchmark “first book.” Even more disproportionately, the great majority of those who have recently completed a PhD are contingent laborers in the academy. They are overburdened, overstretched, undervalued, and underpaid, and thereby lack the time and funding to sustain an active research agenda. Moreover, they are quickly dropping out of the academic labor pool and seeking more satisfying work across multiple fields and sectors, popularly referred to as “alt-ac.”13

Although it often goes unsaid, this younger generation of educators and scholars is quickly being snuffed out. For every person writing their own version of “quit lit,” there is another who has silently fallen by the wayside due to poor wages and lack of institutional support. This is well-known and documented, but solutions remain elusive. Is there a way to facilitate survival until things get better? Can we reasonably believe that things will? If current conditions do not improve, we risk losing thousands of laborers, thinkers, mentors, and creatives in higher education, especially from the demographics of current PhD candidates and early-career scholars. We also risk the greater health and stability of the academic community—and, by extension, American intellectualism—at an indisputably critical time.

The Visitors: Art Department Faculty Exhibition, installation view, Richard D. Baron ’64 Art Gallery, Oberlin, OH, October 24–November 10, 2017. Photograph by Devin Cowan; originally appeared in Julia Peterson, “Visiting Faculty Showcase Works in New Baron Gallery Exhibition,” The Oberlin Review, October 27, 2017.

These challenges notwithstanding, what kind of successful combined efforts have occurred between contingent faculty and their employers to improve conditions, and what other forms of coalition, solidarity, and support have surfaced? Are there any models or tutor initiatives across organizational, institutional, and research arenas that might be working toward more equity for the diverse workforce? The following discussion addresses some of the most promising directions and efforts.

There has been increased acknowledgment and support of contingent and precarious labor by national academic organizations, which are beginning to officially recognize this bloc of scholars and teachers. The Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association funds travel grants for early-career faculty to attend the PCA/ACA National Conference, as well as for faculty at two-year colleges. The American Historical Association gives preference to advanced doctoral students, nontenured faculty, and unaffiliated scholars applying for its grants and fellowships. And for the past seven years, the American Studies Association has funded the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Award for Independent Scholars, Contingent or Community College Faculty. Honoring Anzaldúa’s own contributions as an independent scholar of feminist and LGBTQ+ studies and as a contingent faculty member, the award ($500, lifetime membership, and publication subscription) is given to a scholar whose work resonates with Anzaldúa’s work in American Studies. Finally, after members self-organized into a Precarious Labor Task Force, the Society of Cinema and Media Studies voted unanimously to approve a board seat for a contingent, adjunct, part-time, or non-tenure-track member, to be voted upon organization-wide and appointed in February 2019. This new organization for precarious labor will be developed along the lines of the organization that already exists within SCMS for graduate students.14 Such efforts are indicative of crucial solidarity between tenure and non-tenure track faculty across various kinds of institutions. These initiatives enable and facilitate vital conversation and mentorship. They recognize that the path tenure-track faculty had even five to ten years ago is not necessarily available to aspiring scholar/teachers today.

Programming at national conferences is also beginning to reflect these changes. CAA’s 2019 conference featured a session titled “Get Up, Stand Up: Contingent Faculty and the Future of Higher Education in the Visual Arts.” Chaired by Naomi J. Falk and Richard J. Moninski, the panel’s speakers explored not only the failings of the system (Mark Stemwedel), but the possibility of balancing the needs of stakeholders in higher education (Christopher L. Williams) and the creation of a customized mentorship program that strengthens support for adjuncts (Laura Rodman Huaracha, Erin Marie Freeman, and Chercy Lott). Adjunct and labor advocacy also emerged as key point in the conference’s Open Forum on Diversity and Inclusion. Panels and forums such as these are promising initiatives to start the conversation, but conferences like CAA can do more to provide workshops tailored to accessing resources, and networking events catered toward facilitating deeper community connections for contingent faculty.

The question of unionization, and its potential to improve working conditions for non-tenure-track “gig” laborers, has been a point of debate and answered by research. In a recent article, Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley claim, “In short, the unionization of adjunct faculty is among the most important recent developments shaping higher education.”15 Their study tracks recent movements in collective bargaining and organization and its effects on everyone from graduate student workers to those further up the non-tenure-track chain. Analyzing thirty-five collective-bargaining agreements between 2010 and 2016, Edwards and Tolley found that such agreements lead to 1) higher salaries, varying in amount, in all cases; 2) 97% increased job security in the form of multiyear contracts; 3) health insurance options for part-time faculty in 89% of all cases; and 4) funding for professional development and/or conference travel in 94% of all cases. Additional reported gains include greater academic freedom, office space, reimbursement for field trips and course resource expenses, and minor compensation for canceled courses. However, none of Edwards and Tolley’s case studies established any kind of agreement to increase full-time and/or tenure-track positions. And, despite the AAUP’s call for increased shared governance for contingent faculty in 2013, the vast majority still do not participate in any kind of institutional decision-making processes. While immediate and short-term working conditions have improved, it seems that long-term employment (barring five-year contracts) and influence may still be out of reach.

Unionization and the effort to generally combat institutional overreliance on contingent faculty has been further supported by the emergence of new organizations and initiatives. Since its beginnings in 2009, New Faculty Majority has been a leading voice in contingent faculty rights; it bears the motto: “faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.” It is jointly comprised of the National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity and The New Faculty Majority Foundation.16 The AAUP has also established the One Faculty campaign, with the major objective of reducing contingency, as well as the new One Faculty, One Resistance campaign, fighting to uphold democratic ideals in education more broadly.17 In an effort to demystify salaries, and compete with websites like Glassdoor, the Chronicle of Higher Education created Chronicle Data, a database in which one can easily search for faculty, staff, and adjunct salary data at many colleges and universities. On a national level, these organizations and initiatives indicate the need to support faculty outside of the traditional tenure system.

We are also seeing an uptick in research on issues impacting contingent faculty and their students. Initiated in 2012 under the auspices of the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education, in partnership with AAUP, the Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success has researched and illuminated the detrimental impacts of institutionally imposed adjunctification on student learning outcomes. Aside from reportage, the Delphi Project’s mission more broadly “provides tools and resources to help create new faculty models and better support faculty off the tenure-track to enhance higher education institutions.”18 Its website provides means for self-assessment, suggestions on how to implement change, case studies to use as models, and access to various reports. In addition, the initiative has created the Delphi Awards: a $15,000 cash contribution to one two-year and one four-year school. Through an open nomination process, the awards recognize those institutions that have established positive practices and innovative actions to support non-tenure-track faculty—in turn, directly promoting student success.19 While by no means comprehensive or scientific, prior efforts to research and spotlight the issue of contingency appeared in “The Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education,” a report released by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in the US House of Representatives.20

Although there is evidence of action, solidarity, and coalition in the examples above, the broader academic community must commit to collectively improving conditions or admit, at all levels, that the current model is untenable so that we can explore and create new options. If we take no action, then we will all bear some responsibility for the consequences. Greed is powerful, and while “good” for the likes of Gordon Gekko, it is ripping the heart out of higher education.21 We realize that underpaying, offering no benefits, and disempowering a labor force has already proven highly profitable. We are also aware that those in power are unlikely to let that power go. No individual or collective is in a position to gut the system, nor are privy to the ins and out of administrational priorities and complexities that vary by institution. It is our hope that more institutions and organizations will do what they can to actively, regularly, and transparently support multiyear contracts with benefits, livable wages, job placement, networking, conference travel, publication, and research opportunities for this majority class of contingent academic laborers. After all, the greed of institutions has created this problem—not the laborers. While we can hope that administrations will shift policies and start taking responsibility to work towards viable solutions, we also resist a passive approach in which the powerless simply wait for change.

Additional Reading:

Fabricant, Michael and Stephen Brier. Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Harrison-Kahan, Lori. “Blaming the Victim: Ladder Faculty and the Lack of Adjunct Activism.” Chronicle Vitae. July 17, 2014.

Kudera, Alex. Fight for Your Long Day: A Novel. Kensington, MD: Atticus Books, 2010.

Mortiz, Katie. “How College Funding Cuts Are Hurting Students.” Rewire. September 6, 2017.

Smith, Sidone. Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016.

Umber, Alice. “I Used to Be a Good Teacher.” August 20, 2014. Chronicle Vitae.

Kristen Galvin is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research and teaching explores post-1960s visual and material culture in the United States. She is currently teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design and writing a book on the relationship between the decline of creative subcultures and rise of media nostalgias in the twenty-first century.

Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Christina M. Spiker researches modern and contemporary Asian art and visual culture. Her current work investigates visual representations of race and gender in Japan at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, with a unique focus on the indigenous Ainu. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of art history at St. Catherine University.

  1. We are not the first to discuss higher education in terms of “gigification” or the gig economy. For more, see Kim Tolley, ed., Professors in the Gig Economy: Unionizing Adjunct Faculty in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018); and the new title by Herb Childress, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
  2. Aside from numerous articles, there are many book titles that address the dangers of the neoliberalization of education. See Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Corporate Humanities in Higher Education: Moving Beyond the Neoliberal Academy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Almantas Samalavičius, ed., Neoliberalism, Economism and Higher Education (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018); and Henry A. Giroux, Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014).
  3. Martha Nussbaum uses the term “technically trained docility” to describe people who are technically trained but do not criticize authority. She characterizes them as “useful machines” and/or “useful profit makers with obtuse imaginations” and sees them as a threat to the life of democracy. Nussbaum, Not for Profit, 142.
  4. Michael Mitchell, Michael Leachman, and Kathleen Masterson, “A Lost Decade in Higher Education Funding: State Cuts Have Driven Up Tuition and Reduced Quality,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, August 23, 2017,
  5. Doug Lederman, “Clay Christensen, Doubling Down,” Inside Higher Ed, April 28, 2017,
  6. Michael Horn, “Will Half Of All Colleges Really Close In The Next Decade?,” Forbes, December 13, 2018,
  7. Christina Spiker and Kristen Galvin, “Generation Wipeout,” Art Journal Open, October 25, 2018, at
  8. This figure often ranges between 70 and 77 percent, depending on the source. The figure in this essay reflects the data cited in “Data Snapshot: Contingent Faculty in US Higher Ed: AAUP’s Data Show Weakening Protections for Academic Freedom,” American Association of University Professors, AAUP Updates, October 11, 2018,
  9. See David Lawrence, “Opportunity Costs of the PhD: The Problem of Time to Degree,” The Trend: The Blog of the MLA Office of Research, May 14, 2014,; and Colleen Flaherty, “5-Year Plan,” Inside Higher Ed, May 28, 2014,
  10. See A.J. Angulo, “From Golden Era to Gig Economy,” in Professors in the Gig Economy, 3–26; and Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey, “The Changing Academic Workforce,” Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, May/June 2013, Trusteeship 21, no. 3: 15–21.
  11. Bob Jessop, “On academic capitalism,” Critical Policy Studies 12, no. 1 (2018), 104–109,; and Kristen Edwards and Kim Tolley, “Do Unions Help Adjuncts?: What dozens of collective-bargaining agreements can tell us,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2018,
  12. Phillip W. Magness, “Are Full-Time Faculty Being Adjunctified? Recent Data Show Otherwise,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, May 19, 2017,
  13. While we are not specifically addressing the recent movement in humanities PhD programs to support “alt-ac,” or alternatives to an academic career path, efforts to prepare graduate students for more diverse career outcomes beyond the professoriate, and to even reimagine the humanities PhD, are growing; this national discussion and concern directly correlates to issues of adjunctification.
  14. Pamela Robertson Wojcik, Letter to members of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies, July 2, 2018, at
  15. Edwards and Tolley, “Do Unions Help Adjuncts?”
  16. New Faculty Majority, “Home,” at
  17. “Local Toolkit: One Faculty,” American Association of University Professors,; and “One Faculty, One Resistance,” American Association of University Professors,
  18. “The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success,” Pullias Center for Higher Education,; Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey, “The Delphi Project on The Changing Faculty and Student Success: Report on the Project Working Meeting,” Pullias Center for Higher Education, 2013, 1–47,; and Adrianna Kezar, Daniel Maxey, and Elizabeth Holcombe, “The Professoriate Reconsidered: A Study of New Faculty Models,” Pullias Center for Higher Education, 2015, 1–49,
  19. “The Delphi Project—Delphi Award,” The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success, Pullias Center for Higher Education,
  20. House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff, “The Just-in-Time Professor: A Staff Report Summarizing eForum Responses on the Working Conditions of Contingent Faculty in Higher Education,” January 2014,
  21. Gordon Gekko is a fictional character in the film Wall Street (dir. Oliver Stone, 1987). Within popular culture, Gekko symbolizes unrestrained greed. His signature line is “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”