Opinion: Professional Status, Professional Pay

PrintOne of the indignities that adjuncts complain most bitterly about is the not just the lack of respect, but the lack of pay. The two conditions are linked. In no other job that I have worked have I ever had so little respect for so little money. I’ve worked some really awful jobs in the pink collar ghetto of word processors, receptionists, administrative assistants, proofreaders, ad traffickers (ask me about that one sometime), and flunkies, but even when part of my job was to kiss the boss’s butt and get his coffee and dry cleaning, I did one thing I can’t do teaching at three colleges: I made a decent living.

Even when I was working part time, my hourly rate was between $35 and $60/hour, and—the real clincher—I was paid for all the hours I worked. If I was working, on site or at home, I was paid for it. Writing. Editing. Proofreading. Transcription. Layout. Production. They’re intensive jobs often requiring a lot of late nights to meet deadlines. I got overtime pay when that happened, or comp days, at least. I had a desk, computer, and phone of my own, free access to a copy machine, all the things I have to fight for as a college instructor. When I worked full time I had benefits, vacation, a pension plan.  And with the benefits, full-time work of the worst kind paid better than adjuncting, for far fewer hours. Alas, those jobs, born of a thriving economy, are gone now, or I’d be doing them.

But doesn’t it seem odd that,while people don’t balk at paying a lawyer $300/hour for their expertise (complain, yes, but ultimately cough up), they find paying a Ph.D. in history or math around a third of that outrageous? It’s not even that the rates are so awful, it’s that we’re not actually paid for the hours of work we do. In teaching, we’re paid by the credit hour swindle: apparently the only work we do is in the classroom, and that’s all we get paid for. Whoever thought that up was a fiscal genius and a rat bastard of the first stripe. And also completely ignorant of (or uncaring about) the amount of work that goes into teaching before and after you set foot in a classroom. So, if our pay is only for being in the classroom, do we get to write our lectures in the classroom too? And read the assignments there, and grade there? What will our students do? Oh, wait! Is this what they mean by the “flipped” classroom, where we and our students do our homework in the classroom and then listen the lectures previously re—no, that’s not right, either.

Piling on the Extra Responsibilities

In effect, whether our pay is figured hourly or per credit, most of us are paid a flat fee for a fixed number of hours and then spend far more than that actually doing the necessary work. Slipped into our boilerplate contracts (which are increasingly “agreements” and not “contracts—more on that in another post), sometimes illegally, are requirements for grading, communicating with students, course preparation, and office hours, each of which effectively lower the hourly rate until it hovers at or below minimum wage. It would be one thing if this were because of our own inept time estimates, but it’s not; it’s the rate set by administration who often do not understand how much work goes into teaching a class, and who appear not to value our actual expertise, or at least value it far less than their own.

Imagine if this tactic were tried with freelancers, with whom adjuncts have much in common. I recently saw a cartoon that showed a graphic designer delivering to a client a portfolio of designs that had taken him a couple of hours to come up with. His client asks, outraged, “why should I pay you so much for something that only took you a few hours?” The designer, looking world-weary, replies: “You’re paying me for the four years of school and X years of practice that taught me to do this WELL and RIGHT in two hours.” In other words, clients are paying for expertise and education, for our hard-won ability to make what we do look easy because we’re so good at it.

If you’ve ever hung out with or are any kind of artist yourself, you’ve inevitably met the people who say, “I could do that,” or worse, “my two-year-old could do that.” (Really? Has Cake Wrecks taught you nothing?) Art only looks easy because artists practice. All. The. Time. Ditto with teaching. Good teachers make it look effortless. (And of course, for bad teachers, it usually is.) But “looks easy” and “is easy” are two different things. With a college professor, you’re employing someone with at least one and usually two advanced degrees and more accumulated knowledge than most people ever want, not to mention experience in the classroom imparting that knowledge they’ve accumulated. (Or as we like to say, creating it with students. Yeah, you try creating knowledge, suckah.)

But even this is not a good analogy; the lawyer analogy works far better. A lawyer, if s/he is even thinking about your case, or making notes, or doing a little research, or taking your call to update you on its progress, will charge for that time. I should be able to do that, too. Likewise, when doctors and dentists charge you a fee, they have figured in the cost of their education to gain their expertise, as well as their overhead. You’re paying a fee for their professionalism. What’s more valuable? The professional, or the professional who teaches and helps create the professional? When you offer lawyers $80-$100/hour to teach, that’s a big pay cut for them. When you don’t even pay them for all of their hours worked, that’s wage theft.

More, Please, Sir?

Here’s another example: I have a colleague from grad school who now works as a freelance consulting writer/editor for business-to-business white papers for clients like IBM, Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, Cisco, and Big Pharma. She read law at Oxford initially, but her Ph.D. is in English literature and it’s this expertise she’s hired for. She bills like a lawyer, though, at triple digits/hour, and rightly so. And you know what? Her clients come back to her year after year after year after year. Recently, some penny-pincher in one client’s accounting department asked her to come up with a 20% reduction in her fee over the weekend. She replied with a curt note that said, first, she does not work on the weekend for free and secondly that she has worked with X client for many years and he (the accountant) had a lot of damn gall (my words, not hers) trying to negotiate with her, and finally, he could take her offer or leave it. She copied her client’s project team leader. They paid her original asking price and reprimanded the accountant.

The moral of this story is two-fold: 1) management will always try to whittle down your pay and undervalue you; 2) if you don’t value yourself, they won’t either. We have to stop being Oliver Twist, holding out our empty porridge bowls and asking if we can have a raise, or be paid for office hours, or for the hours of grading compositions and the work that anyone who does not use Scantron exams does at finals. (And can we just stop the 48- or 72-hour deadline for final grades? Again, fine if you have Scantron exams; nightmare if you have 60-100 student research papers.) What would happen if we presented a bill for services at the end of the semester? All of us? Let’s do that!Adjunct Consulting Invoice-Bolin

Another story, this one from one of my lean years of adjuncting at the community college level in the early ’90s. The father of one of my students was a STEM Ph.D. researcher at a Big Pharma company that had a fit of downsizing and “accidentally” downsized Dad. The company then discovered that he was the only one with expertise in a particular drug they were developing and tried to hire him back. Instead, he negotiated a freelance contract deal with them for $300/hour (like our aforementioned lawyers) and eventually moved on to found his own lab.

We are every bit as much professionals as lawyers and PhDs and MDs and DDSs outside academe. We should not have to say this. It’s insulting to pay us as badly as our institutions do. Each of us guides 120-300 students a year through the thickets of academe, mostly successfully, helping to mold and launch a new group of professionals. Why is that not a valuable ability, along with our own research and creative output? As a colleague says, “we teach because of professionalism—and because [of] LOVE. You know the calculus of love and decency” that administrators rely on to figure our wages. They rely on the fact that we won’t quit mid-semester in disgust at the insult, and that we’ll keep coming back for less than our non-academic colleagues would because we love our students.

Other professionals who sometimes teach as adjuncts have noticed this too. Another full-time adjunct observed that if you scratch a professional who’s teaching as an adjunct, you’ll find an angry, disrespected professional. They claim at first to do it for the love of teaching and the love of their students (sound familiar?), but they know they’re not being paid what they’re worth, any more than we are.

Such treatment puts a very low value not just on us, but on students, as well. There’s a calculus of “butts in seats” that’s become more and more common in every university as well, as though packing students in like sardines in a lecture hall, no matter what the course, was the answer to fiscal shortfalls.

One big difference: in this calculus, there is no love, and the only valuable professional members of the university are sitting in the airy suites of the administration building, soaking up the payroll.

–Lee Kottner


2 thoughts on “Opinion: Professional Status, Professional Pay

  1. Pingback: COCAL Updates | Majority Rule

  2. Pingback: Killing Us Softly, Part 2: Magical Thinking | Majority Rule

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