Negotiating Precarious Positions/ Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol 4 (2)


Negotiating Precarious Positions: Strategies for Working As and With Adjuncts, and Other Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Positions in Cinema and Media Studies

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol 4 (2) 
Edited by Beth Corzo-Duchardt, Dawn Fratini, and Isabel Pinedo

Table of Contents

When Precarity is Too Much and Academia is Not Enough by Jorie Lagerwey

“New Weapons” for the Precariat in Film and Media Studies by Charles Burnetts

Politicizing Documentary Pedagogy in the name of the Precariat by Ben Stork

Casual Lecturers in UK Universities: A View from/off the Edge of Europe by C. Paul Sellors


By Beth Corzo-Duchardt, Dawn Fratini, and Isabel Pinedo

In 2001 sociologist Stanley Aronowitz called the tenured humanities professor “the last good job in America.” Since then, decades of neoliberal policy initiatives have undermined the job security, compensation, and autonomy of professions throughout the economy, including the vaunted professoriate. In 2016 the State College of Florida eliminated continuous tenure-track appointments in favor of one-year contracts for new faculty (Joselow). Due to Illinois’s rocky fiscal status and unreliable support for education, tenured professors in state colleges are leaving to take untenured positions, some at lower salaries and rank, in other states (Strahler). Though these are extreme versions of the undermining of higher education in neoliberal times, most of us work in universities that systematically deny job security, commensurate compensation, and academic freedom to adjuncts and non-tenure track contractual instructors. The resulting three-tier system in academia has diminished the professional prospects of a growing number of graduates and the future of academia. We are not alone. The deprofessionalization of academic labor and the widespread nature of contingent labor is a broad-ranging phenomenon both domestically and internationally. Other workers, blue collar and white collar, in the domestic or international labor market are underpaid, overworked, and underemployed. In academia, contingent faculty suffer the brunt of these practices. Thinking globally, and acting locally, what can we do to advance the working conditions of adjunct and other contingent faculty?

When we set out to craft our Call for Papers for this dossier, the first thing that became apparent was that this topic means different things to different people according to their positions, experiences, and leanings. It also became apparent that this subject is difficult to address because it is a vast and complex issue in which the microcosm of one’s own experiences or institution cannot be understood without taking into account the macrocosm: the academy’s shift toward training and away from education, toward administration, corporate sponsorship, and real estate and away from faculty, pure research, and knowledge that enhances our critical abilities; shifts toward precarious labor in the larger culture (including the media industries we study); and cultural shifts toward neoliberal commodity-based philosophy and globalization which depend upon inequalities of wealth and access to insure exploitable pools of labor. This very complexity and interdependency contributes to making the issue of precarious labor in cinema and media studies a topic to be avoided, the elephant in the conference room or faculty lounge. This silence perpetuates the embarrassment and shame that prevents precarious faculty members from voicing their struggles and appealing for help. At times, faculty who have avoided or escaped the purgatory of contingency may even be complicit in perpetuating the myth that those who have not landed the coveted job are just not working hard enough, or just not as good as those who have. We hope this discussion leads to a reconsideration of that judgment.

This dossier represents a small step in giving voice to the topic, under the aegis of SCMS, because the conditions under which we labor hold as much relevance for how we teach as do more familiar topics in Cinema Journal’s Teaching Dossier. The articles assembled here demand that we attend to the uncomfortable reality before us, not merely by re-stating the obvious (yet too often ignored) fact that success in our profession is as contingent on luck and privilege as success in Hollywood, but also by advancing various ways to traverse the personal and political constraints that define our economic reality.

For instance, in “When Precarity is Too Much and Academia is Not Enough,” Jorie Lagerwey critiques the triumph narrative that shames anyone who has not “arrived,” understood as attaining a tenure-track job. She speaks eloquently about the difficulties of enduring the precarity of contingency and suggests that we need to realistically “re-imagine definitions of academic success…within the academy we have” while we fight for “the academy we deserve.”

Charles Burnetts issues a call for a return to class analysis that extends to include the university environment itself. In “‘New Weapons’ for the Precariat in Film and Media Studies,” he suggests that we weaponize “our training as producers of discourse in CMS, using our own skills, training, and embodied experiences to identify the injustices and inequities of the knowledge systems we find ourselves operating in.”

Ben Stork’s essay, “Politicizing Documentary Pedagogy in the Name of the Precariat,” offers an example of what these theoretical weapons might look like, by explaining how to turn the documentary film classroom into a space for creating change by first creating common ground with students based on our shared frustrations with the neoliberal educational system. Since “[d]ocumentary has always claimed to teach its audiences,” Stork argues, “now we should use it to teach about the conditions of teaching.”

In “Casual Lecturers in UK Universities: A View from/off the Edge of Europe,” C. Paul Sellors addresses the situation in the UK, which differs from the US in terms of institutional structure, educational policy, and funding practices, some of which may change after Brexit. Despite these differences, what emerges from Sellors’ essay is an insight that is broadly applicable to the United States and elsewhere: He suggests that the most effective approach to improving the plight of casual lecturers (similar to contingent faculty in the US) is to engage in nation- and university-wide policy debates that affect the future shape of labor conditions in higher education.

We offer here no ready answers to the wide-ranging problem of precarity in cinema and media studies, but these essays suggest first steps we might take and avenues for further action and discussion. Above all, we hope that by opening a dialogue on this topic, we can begin to replace a culture of “adjunct taint” and shame with one of academic solidarity and respect.


Special thanks to Emily Carman, Alison Hoffman-Han, Jennifer Moorman, and Laurel Westrup for their 2016 SCMS Workshop, “The Adjunct Crisis,” which inspired this dossier.

Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley. The Last Good Job in America: Work and Education in the New Global Technoculture. NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001.

Joselow, Maxine. “Shrinking Job Security.” Inside Higher Ed: June 23, 2016.

Strahler, Steven R. “Why are so many Professors Moving out of Illinois?” Crain’s Chicago Business: June 30, 2016.

Resource Links


Adjunct Crisis:


Charles Burnetts is an adjunct instructor for the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at King’s University College, Western University, teaching courses in film, philosophy and religion. He has also served as limited-term professor or adjunct instructor at Trent University, Western University and Indiana University, teaching “a bit of everything.” He has applied to over 150 academic jobs in CMS, ranging from local community colleges to Cambridge University, since receiving his PhD in 2011. His book is entitled Improving Passions: Sentimental Aesthetics and American Film (forthcoming 2017, Edinburgh University Press). He has published articles in Journal of Film and Video, New Review of Film and Television Studies, and Scope.

Beth Corzo-Duchardt (co-editor) is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Media and Communication Department and Film Studies Program at Muhlenberg College. From 2012 to 2015 she was an adjunct instructor in the Chicago area, and worked part-time at the Northwestern University Library to make ends meet. She has published articles in Feminist Media Histories and Screen. She serves on the SCMS Teaching Committee.

Dawn Fratini (co-editor) has been an adjunct on and off since 2002, when the dot com collapse forced her to leave the field of digital media design. In 2005 she entered UCLA’s MA/PhD program in Cinema and Media Studies, believing this would secure her position in higher education, despite the fact that she was already 15 years older than her cohort. She is currently an adjunct professor at Chapman University, and is finishing her dissertation, The Motion Picture Research Council: Hollywood’s Cooperative Technological Endeavors 1947-1960. She serves on the SCMS Teaching Committee.

Jorie Lagerwey now holds a tenure- and promotion-eligible post as Lecturer in Television Studies at University College Dublin. In the years since earning her PhD from USC, she has held precarious positions as a Visiting Assistant Professor and adjunct at Notre Dame, adjunct at Elmhurst College in Illinois, and as a lecturer on temporary contract at UCD. She is the author of Postfeminist Celebrity and Motherhood: Brand Mom.

Isabel Pinedo (co-editor) is Associate Professor in the Department of Film and Media at Hunter College, City University of New York, where she has taught courses on television, the horror film, gender, and social inequality since 1993. Prior to that she was an Assistant Professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Madison, NJ, a Visiting Lecturer at SUNY Purchase College, an adjunct at Fordham University, and a Teaching Fellow at Hunter College. She is the author of Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (SUNY Press, 1997). Her writing has appeared in A Companion to the Horror Film (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), Jump Cut, Journal of Film and Video, and is forthcoming in Journal of Popular Television. She serves on the SCMS Teaching Committee.

C. Paul Sellors is a Lecturer in Film Theory, History, and Criticism at Edinburgh Napier University. He is the author of Film Authorship: Auteurs and Other Myths (2010) and has published in journals including Screen, Living Pictures, Film and Philosophy, and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

Ben Stork has been teaching university classes as either a primary or secondary instructor since 2002, first as a graduate student then as an adjunct. He is currently beginning his third year as a Lecturer in the Film Studies program at Seattle University. He teaches a range of classes from introduction to film studies, film genres, film theory, and film history to philosophy of history and introduction to cultural studies. His research and teaching focus on the intersection of documentary, politics, and critical theory. He is also involved in the non-tenure track faculty union drive at Seattle University and adjunct activism generally. For another example of making precarity a topic in the classroom see his “On Not Being a Professor” at the Faculty Forward Network Blog.