Teach for Free!

WalSmart U 4-RCBAdjuncts! You know how much you love to teach. You put up with poor pay, lousy working conditions, lack of benefits and no respect to do what you do. So why not take that last step and just do it for free?

“Preposterous,” you say? (That’s probably the cleanest response we’d get to that proposal.) And yet, it’s becoming a trend, one that started as early as 2013 with this posting on Craigslist (Craigslist!) for “a part-time (15-30 hours a week) Biological Sciences un-paid volunteer researcher for an Academic Immunology, Inflammation, and Microbiology lab in La Jolla. Particularly interested in individuals who are highly motivated, function independently and efficiently, are already trained in microbiology and immunology, who have an excellent academic record, and who already have a graduate degree (PhD).”

I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up.

(And read the comments about this job here; they’re highly instructive about the state of STEM postdoc positions.)

This unnamed lab in La Jolla is not by any means the first institution to try to squeeze unpaid labor out of desperate academics. Also in 2013, Durham University advertised unpaid teaching positions, as did the University of Birmingham and University College London the previous summer. The Birmingham and London jobs were quickly withdrawn after complaints from the University and College Union (UCU), while the Durham jobs have become a continuing bone of contention for graduate students there, though the program has been advertised as “voluntary for everyone concerned.”

Now, the tuition-free University of the People and Southern Virginia University, a Latter Day Saints (LDS) institution, are advertising for similar positions. Like Durham, these are “voluntary” positions, and the SVU jobs come with housing and 5 meals a week. The SVU posting has been blowing up the internetz since it surfaced. To be fair, the SVU listing is apparently aimed at LDS members as part of their church duty, rather than as a substitute for, you know, actually paying faculty for their expertise, and the listing was never meant to be public. The University of the People is a different story.

UoPeople, as they style themselves, is an online learning community “[c]omprised of students from around the world” with a “curriculum … supported by respected scholars who participate in class discussions and oversee the assessment process.  They also develop ongoing procedures for curriculum development and evaluation.” Their corporate and academic partners include, among others, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, The Clinton Initiative, and The Deans of NYU (who—bonus!—will make you eligible for admission to NYU Abu Dhabi, that den of human rights iniquity flashy new extension campus in the Middle East). Their 2014 999s are quite interesting: payments to affiliates are $500K, and their payments to instructors are $77K, and their liabilities for loans to trustees, directors, etc. amount to $2.5M. Hmmmmmm. Meanwhile, tuition payments for the “free” university amount to $90K (which is not really a lot of money, but still. I thought it was free? Oh yeah, fees. Right.). So their total remuneration to all instructors amounts to one reasonable full-time tenured professor’s salary, but their payments to “affiliates,” is half a million?

And the qualifications for volunteer professors, who are asked to devote 10-15 hours per course per week?

  • A minimum of a master’s degree; Ph.D. degree is desirable, but this is not a requirement.
  • Instructors teaching general education courses at the undergraduate level must possess a Master’s degree in the assigned general education subject field or have a Master’s degree and 18 semester hours in the general education subject field.
  • Expertise in the subject area of the course.

The courses they’re offering are indeed mostly basic gen. ed., including English Composition, which I can tell you I have no desire to teach for free and would require a lot more than 10-15 hours/week of online work. What is most objectionable here is the “business model” that partners with wealthy foundations, businesses, and other universities, yet demands that its “content providers” and people doing the actual work of education give their services for free. What is the rationale behind this idea that makes my middle finger itch so much?

Answer: the belief that teaching is somehow, at its core, not actual labor requiring training and what a friend calls skull sweat, but a mere moral duty, a gift of charity, a personal offering rather than societal obligation.

When I first saw the UoPeople (doesn’t this make you think of “Up with People”?) ad, I thought it might have developed out of the underground Freedom University in Georgia  that sprang up in response to the bill barring undocumented immigrants from public universities. But no. It’s also not to be confused with efforts like that or the Free University of NYC, which offers a truly free education in public spaces and via the digital commons. Both these efforts are radical, political labors of social justice, like the hedge schools of Ireland, defying and undermining the oppressor.

UoPeople is anything but that, with its corporate partners and Big Boss capitalist model. As we often discuss in my classes on social violence and social inequality, the UN Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 26 that “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” Health care is also a human right, safety via law enforcement and a justice system are also human rights. But I’d like to see anyone suggesting that doctors or lawyers (many of whom do indeed perform free volunteer work, but are not expected to) not get paid, ever, for their services. Adjuncts are already the lowest-paid folks on the academic ladder next to graduate students; asking for voluntary labor on their part sets a dangerous precedent all too familiar to writers, artists, and freelancers, wherein the work is demanded and consumed without any expectation of being paid for—and the worker left without a livelihood.


Sure, I’ll add value to your business venture for the privilege of being seen there!

There’s a strange equation in American labor that says if you love your job or have certain kind of job (arts, humanities, public service) you should do it for nothing or next to nothing, simply for the joy of benefiting others. Generous monetary remuneration is only for those of us who are mired in misery in horrible jobs—you know, neighborhood “sanitation engineers” and oil rig workers (who deserve every penny they’re paid). Or corporate CEOs (who by and large don’t). But you can’t eat love. You can’t eat cultural capital. You can’t eat (but you can die of) exposure.

Repeat after me: Teaching is not charity work. Teaching is not charity work. Teaching is not charity work. Click your heels three times…

–Lee Kottner (h/t to Gordon Haber for the 999s and to Rebecca Schuman for another angle on this phenomenon)


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