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Paying Adjunct Professors Like Real Professors

I went to Crooked Timber to see if Henry Farrell had written anything interesting about the Greek riots (he hadn’t; or even anything uninteresting) and stumbled upon a recent post by Michael Bérubé, newly installed president of the Modern Language Association, and that organization’s push for improving the plight of adjunct professors.

The outlines of the proposal:

Following a review of best practices in various institutions, the MLA recommends minimum compensation for 2011-12 of $6,800 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course or $4,530 for a standard 3-credit-hour quarter or trimester course. These recommendations are based on a full-time load of 3 courses per semester (6 per year) or 3 courses per quarter or trimester (9 per year); annual full-time equivalent thus falls in a range of $40,770 to $40,800.

UGA adjunct writing instructor Josh Boldt, not surprisingly, loves the idea:

I personally have taught at schools that pay right at or below $2000 maximum per course. Feel free to do the math on that one (Hint: a 5/5 pays $20,000 annually). You can be a terrible human being and still recognize that a full-time teacher should earn much more than that. Just in case you’re not familiar with the usual procedure, full-time professors generally teach much less than 10 courses per year. Some teach as few as three. The MLA’s recommendation is based on the assumption of a 3/3 teaching load, which sounds about perfect. I would venture to say most adjuncts would agree. Three courses per semester is ideal because it allows teaching to be the primary focus (as it should be), and it also permits some time for research and professional development. So, about $40,000 a year. That isn’t too much to ask I don’t think. Especially considering all adjuncts have advanced degrees in their fields.

Bérubé responds,

It is not too much to ask. We think it’s the bare minimum: it certainly doesn’t constitute making a comfortable living. It merely allows NTT faculty a standard of living a bit higher than the one Boldt references later on in this post, in which college professors “eat Ramen noodles for dinner, and worry about whether or not they have enough gas in the tank to coast to work the rest of the week.”

He’s pushing an effort by something called the Coalition on the Academic Workforce to gather and publicize data on what various institutions around the country pay adjuncts, apparently in the hopes that doing so will shame the worst offenders and encourage a race to the top.

Not only does this elide the fact that  strong market forces–a glut of PhDs in English and some other fields who can’t find tenure track jobs and are thus desperate to build a CV in hopes of improving their odds–push adjunct salaries down but it’s based on absurdly idealized view of what life is like for most full-time academics.

With few exceptions, colleges and universities have been facing severe budget pressures for the better part of two decades. One presumes that the ongoing global recession has added to that. It’s just absurd to expect them to double or triple the pay for adjunct faculty–especially when there are likely half a dozen highly qualified applicants for every adjunct opening at current prices.

Additionally, having spent all of my brief teaching career in institutions where a 4/4 load (that is, four classes per semester) was standard for tenure track faculty, I have to chuckle at the notion that adjuncts ought to be able to make a decent living teaching a 3/3 load while having zero obligation for institutional service.

Additionally, it’s aimed in exactly the wrong direction. The problem isn’t that adjuncts don’t make enough money but that colleges employ far too many adjuncts rather than hiring full time faculty. While I suppose raising the pay of full-time adjuncts to that of tenure-track faculty would indirectly lead us in that direction, it’s emphasizing the wrong problem.

Is it exploitative that people with some 21 years of education are being paid $2000 for teaching college courses? Perhaps. But, hey, they knew the risks when the went off to grad school. The real crime is that students are paying ever increasing tuition to attend institutions of higher education and then being taught by part-timers with no commitment to the institution and whose prime focus is on landing a job somewhere else.

Having a large part of a department’s workload performed by adjuncts simply reduces the academic quality of the institution. Aside from the lack of continuity and divided focus, there’s the lack of academic freedom. Adjuncts being hired on a course-by-course basis aren’t going to risk their Ramen money by being controversial. So, the adjunctification of the university also contributes to the sense that it’s just the 13th Grade.

The ideal model for adjuncts is not the unsuccessful academic who’s not attractive to tenure track hiring committees but rather successful professionals who can teach a specialized course here and there. And those people really aren’t doing it for the money but for the chance to give back to the community and interact with students.

 

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. The real crime is that students are paying ever increasing tuition to attend institutions of higher education and then being taught by part-timers with no commitment to the institution and whose prime focus is on landing a job somewhere else.

    I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment. I was a Criminal Justice major and Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness minor and I found that the courses with adjunct faculty were the most informative and most useful.

    This might not apply to all fields, but I think faculty that actually have some particular, up-to-date experience in a field are a lot better than people that have been sitting in a college office for the past 20 years.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 2

  2. Additionally, it’s aimed in exactly the wrong direction. The problem isn’t that adjuncts don’t make enough money but that colleges employ far too many adjuncts rather than hiring full time faculty. While I suppose raising the pay of full-time adjuncts to that of tenure-track faculty would indirectly lead us in that direction, it’s emphasizing the wrong problem.

    I’m afraid that is still exactly in the wrong direction.

    The real problem is that when you tie compensation to class load, you remove the imperative to make instruction more efficient. What if some change, investment, gizmo made it easier and/or cheaper to teach that subject? Who cares! If there is a fixed compensation per unit it makes no difference.

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  3. (This is perhaps why many instructors founding online learning companies are doing them as start-up companies, rather than trying to make them fit that kind of environment. “Hey, I just taught 200,000 people!” “Compensation is per unit, get over it.”)

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  4. mattb says:

    @Timothy Watson:
    There are two primary adjuncting scenarios. In professional/vocational programs, adjuncts often cover higher level, specialty areas where its difficult to maintain a wide range of expert knowledge on staff.

    The other scenario, which James is writing to, are where adjuncts are used to cover lowel level, large enrollment courses. In some cases those could be service courses — writing is a prime example — and in other cases those could be things like programming 101.

    @john personna:
    To that point, one of the things that isn’t being discussed here is how headcount factors into things. Because, in many institutions, lower level courses are often covered by adjuncts, those instructors often are dealing with more students on average per class than tenure track faculty people. That’s when the economics — especially around grading — get really bad for adjuncts fast.

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  5. @mattb:

    One of the 2012 predictions at Hack Education is the rise of Robot Graders. To which I semi-joked, “it’s the difference between an A paper, and a paper which is statistically an A ;-)”

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  6. (I get you though. If you really wanted to incentive teaching, you’d (1) have to remove grading from the instructor’s preview, and then (2) pay per student passed.)

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  7. steve says:

    College costs are going up faster than medical costs. Teacher salaries are under pressure. Adjuncts make $20k/year. Is administration and new dorms really chewing this all up? While I feel sorry for the adjuncts, I think they chose to go into a crowded field. When the labor market shrinks, pay will rise.

    Steve

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  8. JKB says:

    The amusing thing is the idea that a PhD in English Literature is the best qualified to teach composition.

    As Paul Graham said:

    And so in the late 19th century the teaching of writing was inherited by English professors. This had two drawbacks: (a) an expert on literature need not himself be a good writer, any more than an art historian has to be a good painter, and (b) the subject of writing now tends to be literature, since that’s what the professor is interested in.

    Better to return to composition and rhetoric, along with critical thinking (study skills)as distinct training separate from the research men so the freshman is able to benefit from their later studies. But then, if composition was taught by those skilled in writing and teaching writing, how would the English department, not mention the over abundance of literary theorists survive?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  9. mattb says:

    Adjuncts make $20k/year.

    Something that isn’t highlighted within James post, I just wanted to mention that Adjuncts typically do not receive any benefits (health, retirement, etc). So part of that $20k/year needs to go to self-insuring.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  10. I get the idea that you start a negotiation by reaching for the moon… but outside of high cost-of-living areas, the compensation structure Berubé/MLA suggests is basically preposterous. At many schools, faculty (at least at the assistant level) with 40+-hour commitments to the institution are making around $40k, and they’re usually teaching 2-4 courses more a year, and are expected to engage in advising and professional development (including, at 4-year schools, publishable scholarship), and institutional service, as well.

    I agree with James that really the focus should be on trying to create more full-time positions at realistic wages. In my mind that would include more teaching-focused positions at research-oriented institutions that provide for tenure (or tenure-like conditions) but emphasize service and teaching over research, rather than proliferating the adjunct track and the permanent instructor track.

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  11. @steve:

    Adjuncts make $20k/year. Is administration and new dorms really chewing this all up?

    Did you notice Timothy Watson’s major and minor? Nothing against him, but did a school really need to break out a Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness minor from Criminal Justice?

    Kind of mind-boggling.

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  12. JKB says:

    @steve:

    How could you? They are following their passion. It would have been better if they hadn’t gone for the blond but they did and now block each other. Leaving them with a second poor choice that isn’t eager to reward them.

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  13. CSAcademic says:

    In my mind that would include more teaching-focused positions at research-oriented institutions that provide for tenure (or tenure-like conditions) but emphasize service and teaching over research, rather than proliferating the adjunct track and the permanent instructor track.

    @Chris Lawrence: How are you distinguishing what you describe from the “permanent instructor” track? Lecturers at my institution have more job security than adjuncts, though they are not tenured.

    Just for reference, tenured professors in my area (computer science) make at least $90K or so. Lecturers make around $50-$60K, but I’m not sure about that. I don’t know how much adjuncts make. Our adjuncts are pretty good. Some of them are outstanding.

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  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I’m torn on this. I currently work a day job doing financial analysis for a state agency, and then teach two sections of Accounting Principles at night on an adjunct basis.

    I get paid $3500 per section per semester. I have 15 – 20 students per section. Because of the small class sizes, I am able to give exams with more problems and short essays, and fewer multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.

    On the plus side, an extra $14,000 per year on top of my day job is a sizable bonus. I love teaching, but don’t want to get a Ph.D. (I have an MS Accounting and am a CPA). The opportunity cost of 4 – 6 years doing academic research that is completely unrelated to accounting practice is far too high for me, and at the end of the end, I am happy teaching as a Professionally Qualified faculty member rather than an Academically Qualified faculty member.

    At the same time, I know that my teaching skills are not as top notch as someone more grounded in pedagogy. I do my best to convey information through practical examples, but I don’t have a background in curriculum development, and between teaching, grading, class prep, and doing my day job, my free time is very limited. As a result, I have to rely a lot on the textbook publisher’s materials and what assistance I can get from the full time faculty.

    I’d love to be able to teach full time at the university, and devote more time to curriculum development. $40,000 seems about right for a nine-month 4/4 contract, at least in Austin. If I could get a longer term NTT contract (say, 3 years renewable) with health insurance, I’d do it, and I’d still cost about half as much as a new minted Business Ph.D. who views classroom time as time away from research. $40,000 for a 3/3 nine-month contract just sounds ridiculous.

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  15. CSAcademic says:

    One more data point is that my students (computer science) typically get jobs that pay in the $60K-$90K range. So, they make less than what tenured professors make (not counting possible summer salary), but not a whole lot less. Of course, usually they have to live in more expensive parts of the country.

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  16. @CSAcademic: A “permanent instructor” to my mind would have a 5-5 teaching load, maybe some advising, but not be considered an equal member of the department and probably not have tenure or tenure-like protections (they might have a union contract that makes them harder to fire, though).

    I’m thinking more of what is sometimes called “professor of the practice”: a teaching load closer to 3-3, service commitments, a commitment to professional development (including potentially scholarship, particularly scholarship related to teaching), and being on an equal footing within their department with the “research” faculty, with eligibility for tenure or some tenure-like arrangement.

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  17. @Gromitt Gunn:

    I don’t have a background in curriculum development, and between teaching, grading, class prep, and doing my day job, my free time is very limited. As a result, I have to rely a lot on the textbook publisher’s materials and what assistance I can get from the full time faculty.

    With your perspective, how do you think these guys are doing?

    There is a bit of a philosophical split over Open Educational Resources. I find it very similar to the early programmer’s reactions to Open Source. People try to wrap their head around someone else doing it for free, while their own career path in mind. The way it worked out in programming seems to be that while much is open and free, there is still plenty, especially at the cutting edge, which is not. And so, a game-promise can pull in a million on kickstarter.

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  18. CSAcademic says:

    @Chris Lawrence: Hm…we don’t have anything like that in computer science, though I could see it definitely being of benefit. Our lecturers do not have the status of the TT faculty, though they do participate in faculty meetings, etc.

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  19. @CSAcademic:

    It would be nice if very CS department could hire a few hot-shots at competitive wages, but then offload some of the teaching to places like Udacity or MITx.

    Of course that kind of mix, with both conventional degrees and online certificates, is probably years away.

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  20. John D'Geek says:

    @JKB: Taking Comp from a professional in the field can be much better than taking it from a tenured Faculty member. My Comp II class was much, much better than my Comp I class — I actually learned how to write! On top of that I enjoyed it, and I’m not confident in my ability to write. Mr Bomboy was a professional working in the field — he wrote for a living, so he knew what it was really all about. And he was a good teacher on top of that.

    I’m a Software Developer with a Masters Degree in Computer Science. I would love to transition to teaching full time, but I can’t afford the wages being (publicly*) offered at the typical Community College. But then there’s a thriving market for Software Developers; Engineers and Software Geeks with graduate degrees are hired at very good wages in the industry, almost always much better than academia.

    * – ~40k per year is what I’ve seen so far. I’ve been told that for Engineering and Technical disciplines the salary is typically much higher, especially for folks like me that have tons of experience in the field, but I’ve never actually seen that in writing. E&T PhDs at a 4-year university seem to typically be much better compensated, however, and more in line with what I’m making now.

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  21. WR says:

    Yes, we should definitely pay adjuncts as little as possible to teach. That way we can continue to shovel even more money at university presidents and other executives, who are taking home hundreds of thousands of dollars. Because they are why students go to college.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  22. John D'Geek says:

    @John D’Geek:

    … and I’m not confident in my ability to write.

    Erk. Should be “… and I’m confident in my ability to write.”

    Ironic, I know.

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  23. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @john personna: I worked in tech environments for a while, including a couple of years at a start up, so I am definitely on board with the idea that information wants to be free. I’ve been aware of the MIT Open Course model for a few years, but honestly hadn’t thought about incorporating materials from their courses into my own. I’ll have to check that out.

    My overall opinion is that the textbook industry should be considered an illegal cartel. Heh. I took a couple of community college courses last summer, and the books cost more than the courses. The instructor materials that they provide aren’t that great, usually. I don’t get the pick the book for my course, and I have been slowly developing my own powerpoints, because the ones the publisher provides are so poor. Considering these kids have to pay $200 for the book, the least the publisher could do was pay an instructional designer to create decent presentations.

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  24. CSAcademic says:

    @john personna: I guess it depends on what the hot-shots are for. In computer science, I definitely see a lot of tension between the different roles/incentives in our department. For example, the vast majority of the students are really looking for job training, which I have nothing against. As a research university, our incentives, though, tend to run towards grants and publications. That means that we have a lot of professors who don’t actually have much experience doing day-to-day software engineering. (Some of them don’t seem to even enjoy programming, which I think is a crucial requirement for any professor in CS, though I might be willing to give theoreticians a pass on that.) Teaching is still important, but I don’t think we have good metrics to measure the effectiveness of teachers, which is a complicating factor. The only thing which seems to be used is student evaluations, which is problematic for a number of reasons.

    I also think it’s challenging to teach a lot of the skills that makes a good software engineer, but that’s another topic.

    I see a lot of problems in academia, though I believe that they are generally systemic ones. I don’t see any “bad guys”, just people responding to incentives.

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  25. @Gromitt Gunn:

    I’m a retired programmer myself, interested in the education hacking thing as … a possible inflection point? And evolution of the knowledge society? Something like that …

    Anyway, Hack Education is a good read for “the pulse.” Other than that, “OER” is the big key word for open source materials (and as I say, kind of a battle-ground right now). The Wikipedia OER page is good.

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  26. CSAcademic says:

    … and I have been slowly developing my own powerpoints, because the ones the publisher provides are so poor.

    @Gromitt Gunn: What’s up with that, anyway? Even in computer science, they are incredibly crappy, to the point of being useless. A textbook with good Powerpoints would definitely be a strong factor in deciding which one to use.

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  27. @CSAcademic:

    Perhaps at some point in the future, the hot shots can mentor/research while … lol, basically checking the students’ Stack Overflow score ;-)

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  28. (My Stack Overflow score is only 387, but I don’t spend much time there. I’ve answered 23 questions and earned 9 badges. Stack Overflow does think I’m a “teacher” and a “scholar” for what that’s worth. lol.)

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  29. (Speaking of writing/typing. I think mine is particularly crappy today because I hiked 17 miles yesterday, up beautiful Southern California’s Mount Echo and Mount Lowe. I’m kind of messed up ;-)

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  30. CSAcademic says:

    @john personna: Out of curiosity, what’s your use number, if you feel comfortable with giving it out?

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  31. @CSAcademic:

    You’re typing like a programmer ;-) My user number is 282157.

    I’ve had some hits and misses. Sometimes a pretty good answer isn’t good enough. There are some really good answers on SO.

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  32. Gromitt Gunn says:

    To build on what some others have written, I definitely see a place – at least in business academia – for people who have their subject matter qualifications and also some sort of training/credential/degree in curriculum development, instructional design, or college teaching on staff full-time. Perhaps as someone who teaches a specific number of courses per year while also taking on tasks such as textbook selection/recommendations, staying current with classroom technology, developing modules for Blackboard, etc. I’m sure that there would be a percentage of tenured faculty that wouldn’t want to have anything to do with that person and another percentage that would be more than happy to dump as much as possible on him or her, such that in the end it would probably work out.

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  33. CSAcademic says:

    @john personna: For a “retired programmer”, you seem to be pretty up-to-date. Sigh, the only things that I’ve learned more about since becoming a professor are Word and Powerpoint.

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  34. @CSAcademic:

    Thanks! I dabble now and then. I should really do an HTML5 tutorial or two. “Apps” in that space look neat.

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  35. @john personna:

    but did a school really need to break out a Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness minor from Criminal Justice?

    It has been all the rage since 9/11 and many CJ and/or public administration programs have built concentrations around these topic areas in the last decade. A lot of it, IMHO, is marketing and part of it is adapting to new realities (including jobs) in the public sector.

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  36. steve says:

    Just a question for the academics. Watching my son and other people’s kids go through school, I get the impression that schools are having to deal with fads quite a bit. The hot major seems to cause overloads fro departments. This seems to shift a fair amount and quite rapidly. True, or just among the kids I know? How does that affect costs?

    Steve

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  37. CSAcademic says:

    @steve: I can only speak for my department (computer science). We do respond to shifts, but slowly. For example, over time, we’ve shifted to using Java as an instructional language, away from C/C++. We don’t respond in a way that creates huge staffing problems for us, though.

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  38. CSAcademic says:

    @steve: Or are you referring to shifts from one department to another? Obviously, fluctuating enrollments are an issue, but we try to keep the numbers relatively stable by controlling how many admits we give.

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  39. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @steve: A lot of schools respond by having pre-majors. For instance, you may have to declare a Business pre-major, and then pass Financial Accounting, Managerial Accounting, Macroeconomics, Microeconomics, and Business Calculus with a “B” or better in order to actually apply to the major. Or an English department may require you to pass one or two composition courses, plus surveys of American Lit, British Lit, and Shakespeare with a certain GPA in order to declare.

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  40. JohnMcC says:

    Just a data point from someone who is suddenly very very glad not to gone to graduate school back in that day:

    In 2009, High School teachers earned an average annual salary of $55,150 and reported an income range of $34,600 to $82,000. (from http://www.alleducationschool.com/education-careers)

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  41. steve says:

    Thanks guys, I was thinking of the popularity of computer science at my son’s school. It has become the most desirable minor. At my nephew’s school, engineering has become the hot major. Given the low, low fees they pay adjuncts, I am surprised they dont just add courses. Maybe they are trying to keep courses taught by full time staff.

    Steve

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  42. Richard Gardner says:

    @steve: At my nephew’s school, engineering has become the hot major.

    And guess what, about 25 years ago when I graduated with an ABET-accredited engineering degree, less than a third of entering Freshmen in Engineering graduated (my school only took in the top 10% to begin with, a University of California (UCI, MCL)). I had talks then with successful folks that my school was trying to recruit as Engineering School supporters that were 20-40 years past college, and they said the same. And guess what, the numbers are similar today.

    BUT – almost all of those falling out of Engineering did graduate college (like 75%+). Folks entering Engineering are in the top half to begin with.

    Even if engineering is “hot,” most won’t make it. Numbers haven’t varied much since WW II (removing “Computer engineering vice Computer science)

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