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

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol 4 (2)
Charles Burnetts, King’s University College, Western University

This essay seeks to reproduce the candor and incisiveness of the adjunct memoir in its critique of contingent hiring practices in the academy, without being an adjunct memoir in its own right. It is inspired in part by Gilles Deleuze’s observation, in a prescient article concerning the advent of “control societies,” that feelings of fear and hope initiated by a critical political situation must come secondary to the imperative of finding “new weapons.” In such a vein, and despite my own experience of precarious employment as a distinctly noxious emotional cauldron of self-doubt, depression, anxiety and quashed hopes, I speculate here on the stakes of taking up arms against the “new normal” of precarious labour and what the profession in particular can use by way of weapons. I argue in particular that it is time for cinema and media studies (CMS below) to imagine ways of allowing our “precariat” identities to inform our critical discourse, rather than annexing it to a shaming non-visibility. Just as the regimes of gender, race, sexuality and so on entered film studies as vital interventions that speak to who we are as embodied subjects, challenging a more homogenous or universalized model of spectatorship, so the adjunct or NTT instructor has cause to weaponize his or her own status, to use it as a mode of resistance and critique.

Of course, I use the word “profession” extremely advisedly here, for one of the principal problems facing academia, and CMS particularly acutely, is the feasibility and politics of any longer calling what we do a profession. CMS, along with other fields in the humanities, has been hit extremely hard by the gradual decline of tenure lines and the casualization of academic labor, a process that has surely now reached its “stage four.” As my former PhD supervisor in the UK informed me after my several years of job market gloom, “the job market is over.” What I took this to mean is quite simply that, notwithstanding the annual smattering of advertised tenure-track jobs in my own field of film studies, the probability of successfully attaining a sustainable career as a professor in CMS is negligible to the point of no longer constituting a credible career option. The job market’s decline in turn reflects wider changes in the neoliberal university and its handling of humanities disciplines. With departments beleaguered by corporatized models of cost cutting and downsizing, austerity has been imposed on the humanities with devastating effects concerning the composition of the academic workforce. As Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue, the North American academy now comprises a “three-tier workforce” (81) made up of tenured and tenure-track professors, non-tenure track full time professors, and adjunct instructors. Alongside the often-deplorable working conditions and pay faced by non-tenured faculty, particularly adjuncts, has come a breakdown of accountability and leadership on the part of faculty and administration. Bérubé and Ruth argue indeed that a fundamental “deprofessionalization” has been visited on the academic workforce, manifest in situations as diverse as the exclusion of most professors from any faculty governance, the loss of job security and an excessive volume of courses taught by non-PhD instructors.

The consequence of this gradual decimation of the workforce over the last three decades is a situation that has affected CMS in ways comparable to other humanities disciplines. The always harsh competition for tenure-track jobs has become a fierce war of strategy, prestige and self-branding, wherein everyone must keep their eyes on the prize of the coveted post-doctoral job, and plan their graduate courses of study with an appropriate level of austere efficiency. As evidenced by the proliferating advice columns and books informing us how to apply, network, research, and generally blow our own trumpets more successfully, academia seems ever more determined to stretch out the affective labour of its workers (particularly its least supported). While pre-professionalizing, by way of conference attendance, pre-graduation publication, and networking, has always rightly figured as an important element of graduate school preparation, the job application process has become a sadistic ordeal requiring candidates to convey a perfectly professionalized and accomplished image of themselves at all levels of candidacy. The reality of this is that a candidate will spend days and weeks tailoring their letters and other materials for jobs they won’t get, a form of labour that is inefficient and psychologically trying on supposedly respected peers in our profession.

Performances in what one is inclined to call “tenure-face” indeed become mandatory for scholars whose resilience, intellectual passion and finances are increasingly stretched by an academy that fails to support an overwhelming majority of them. Such demands are met in turn by a fear of specialization in a field where jobs often require a unique (and often quite random) combination of sub-fields in their ideal candidates. Looking over the job boards in CMS of the last three years, I am struck by the preponderance of jobs that seem to require candidates that can do a bit of everything, from film theory to television studies, new media to film production, world cinema to digital humanities, thus undermining the specialization that is traditionally instilled in the PhD candidate. By way of personal example, the one interview I was offered in the last four years was a TT appointment at a US community college that required a professor with the ability to teach subjects as diverse as film and media, drama and acting, public speaking and percussion, a mix that completely coincidentally correlated very well with my background as a one-time drama student and actor, a current film scholar, and a semi-professional percussionist in a Latin-American band. As it turns out, to my amazement, I lost out on the appointment to someone I assume had demonstrated an even better fit.

Indeed, one of the problems facing CMS is a fundamental indeterminacy about what a newly minted CMS PhD should now look like. In the first instance, the PhD in CMS is entirely undermined by casual hiring practices that often consider instructors with little more than a Masters qualification (if that) acceptable for teaching introductory courses. Moreover, the demand for PhD candidates with specifically CMS backgrounds is threatened increasingly by hires from adjacent fields that can teach CMS courses under a different departmental banner. This has undermined the disciplinary autonomy of film studies perhaps the most visibly. As Thomas Elsaesser commented in discussion with the SCMS in its “Oral Histories” series, “we have given a lot of people the opportunity to teach film without actually being formed in film studies. Anybody thinks now they can teach film.” (12) Such comments are valuable in helping us understand how the “backbone” of film studies and its “coherence as one particular genealogy” has been lost by various institutional amalgamations, noting indeed that film studies scholars were the “first victims of a downsizing of the humanities quite generally.”

CMS, particularly film studies, has thus been eroded by the neoliberal university’s dismantling and co-optation of once coherent fields, a process that seems inexorable in its demands that we do “more with less.” As CMS scholars, we must defend these coherences of field and subfield, for they are vital to preserving any sense of the PhD as a training that encourages specialization and intellectual play. The “weapons” we must find to counter contingent hiring practices, I believe, must accord indeed with 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. While Cinema Journal itself should be commended for this special section on contingent labour, the experiences and observations of contingent faculty remain structurally bracketed here from the “professional” labour of critique and scholarship, a demarcation that allows us still to contextualize contingency as a labour issue rather than a necessarily critical one. I suggest rather that speaking from the position of an academic “unprofessional” may be of equal, if not of more critical importance, than whatever else we (or anyone else) have to say about film and media. We should no longer feel required as such to wear the garb of the tenured professors we can’t become, most particularly perhaps in terms of the discourse we produce and the structural alignments it affords with privilege and job security. Through such forfeitures we may become and produce something more vital, and it should be in the interests of our professional associations to give us voice in whatever way possible, if for no other reason than to cease a field’s mere fiddling while its Rome burns.

The term “adjunct taint” has emerged in recent years to refer to the very real problem of being on the job market for so long that one’s record of employment as contingent labour serves as a stain on one’s professional prestige in the eyes of a job search committee, wherein the newly-minted ABD candidate will seem so often to be the preferred choice. The SCMS and scholars in our field need to interrogate such practices of exclusion, privilege, and prestige, and part of this must be a critical engagement with adjunct/contingent “status” and its deployment as a mode of resistance and contestation with an increasingly hierarchical faculty. Put differently, and amplifying points made by this dossier’s editors, class must return as a central filter for our analysis, for few terms define the CMS precariat better, quite frankly, than “underclass.” While some may consign such debates to the category of “first-world problems,” such a perspective itself smacks of privilege and denial, not least in light of reports of adjuncts on food stamps and the continual challenges to higher-ed at the state level, such as in Wisconsin. To reverse the “adjunct taint” logic, CMS is tainted by the contingent labour problem, which it sees as incidental to its modes of discourse, and it must be made visible through a self-reflexive reimagining of who we are and what we, as professionals, have to say.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October 59. (Winter, 1992): 3-7.

Bérubé, Michael and Jennifer Ruth. The Humanities, Higher Education, & Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Elsaesser, Thomas. “SCMS Oral Histories: Interview with Thomas Elsaesser.” By Patrice Petro. Fieldnotes, March 21, 2014, http://www.cmstudies.org/?page=fieldnotes

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.


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