These days, experience gets you nowhere—fast. Just ask Debra Leigh Scott, who has had her share of career ups and downs over the past 20 years. While working as a part-time adjunct professor of English at several colleges in the Philly area, she found time to publish a book of short stories and provide editing, writing and corporate coaching services to business clients. She’s even written several plays, which eventually were produced. But by the time the market crashed in 2008, her resume wasn’t enough. Scott lost her Bala Cynwyd home and moved into an apartment with strangers she found on Craigslist. She lived there for a year while she tried to get back on her feet.
“I was like a lot of people,” she says over coffee in her Headhouse Square neighborhood. “You believe you’re going to find a full-time position for the first 10 years or so. You really think it’s going to happen. And it’s a horrible day when you finally realize you’re not going to get full-time.”
Which is a reality for many, considering full-time professorships have been on the decline since at least the ’70s. A 2006 American Association of University Professors report found that from 1975 to 2003, the number of tenured track positions in higher education had fallen from 56.8 percent to 35.1 percent. Today, about 1 million professors nationwide are adjuncts, and can teach up to 11 classes per semester at any number of schools. Eleven classes may seem like an enormous workload—but at $3,000 per class, how else do you make ends meet?
What’s more, Scott says, the student learning under that overburdened professor may be worse off. “Students are being taught by dedicated but demeaned professors who have no offices, who are hired semester-by-semester for wages lower than those of K-Mart workers,” she says. “Students have little to no personal access to faculty beyond the classroom. They receive no … face to face meetings, they are forced to resort to email exchange.”
These sentiments led Scott to embark on yet another project, one that would be the culmination of her career doing scrappy freelance academic and writing work. It began with “The Homeless Adjunct,” a blog that chronicled her jobs at various universities—Temple and University of the Arts, to name a few—where, as she puts it, we’re all being screwed by “the corporatized university, where the needs of the students and the value of the professors are minimized in the pursuit for a profit, which benefits neither.”
It was the stuff movies are made of. So she and filmmaking partner Chris LaBree set out to make one. The result was Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. in America, a documentary about the student-teacher-administration relationship at the American university, which she says relies on contingent workers and outsourcing—just like an American corporation.
In their research, Scott and LaBree said they found evidence of corporations moving in and taking over what’s taught in the classroom. Sharp cuts in state budgets have forced universities to rely more and more on corporate donations, which “come with strings attached,” Scott says. “You’re not going to get corporate donations in the humanities. You’re going to get research subjects from pharmaceutical companies, for instance, making large donations that are tax deductible, to universities, which then guide grad students into conducting research on behalf of the corporation.” Graduate students can easily become low-paid or unpaid labor on behalf of Big Pharma without knowing it.
Further, Scott says, when they graduate hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt (according to FinAid.org’s student loan debt clock, about $882 billion is owed) they become frightened, obedient workers who find work at the very corporations funding their laboratories, buildings and scholarships.
Such circumstances, the filmmakers say, have created a culture in which cheating and laziness, on both the students’ and teachers’ behalf, is the norm.
And it’s perpetuated by outsourcing. In recent years, online companies based around writing students’ papers have become extremely industrial. “I work at an online company that generates tens of thousands of dollars a month by creating original essays based on specific instructions provided by cheating students,” pseudonymed-writer Ed Dante said in a piece for Inside Higher Education . “You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students’ writing. I have seen the word “desperate” misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students … couldn’t write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school.”
Scott and LaBree have found a lot of people in academia who are open to discussing the problems with the university system—just not on film. “People we’ve talked to in Philadelphia are terrified [to speak on film],” she says. “I mean, the economy’s terrible and we just can’t afford the job losses. The people in this industry who still have employment are just desperately trying to hang onto it.”
But it’s not stopping the pair from spreading their message. They recently traveled to California to meet with adjunct labor activists and will be headed to a conference in Washington, D.C., this weekend for more interviews with professors.
“Debra’s film and book project and others like it will be invaluable for educating people both within and outside of higher education about the reality of adjunct faculty working conditions and the urgent need for action,” says Maria Maisto, an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. “I have to believe [the university system] can be saved. I have kids. I am not going to stand by and watch their educational future continue to be, as Debra has so cleverly and accurately put it, ‘junct.’”
Scott and LaBree are hoping to get Junct into Sundance, Tribeca or another big-name film fest. But, LaBree says, “the important thing is that it be seen period, even if it’s screened at a public library and I have to bring in the projection equipment myself.”
“I have a lot of hope that something’s going to blow up,” Scott says. “We’ve reached a tipping point. We’ve lost knowledge, we’ve lost the ability to transmit knowledge and that’s a huge thing to lose. But what have we gained? That’s been the question I’ve asked everyone I’ve interviewed for Junct so far. What have we gained and who’s the winner? No one seems to be able to answer that.”