Twice the work for half the pay (or, why I opted out of an academic career path)

Apparently the IRS is having to force colleges and universities to be honest in calculating how much their part-time workforce actually works:

The Internal Revenue Service this month issued proposed rules for employers that acknowledge the special work circumstances of adjuncts—among them, the way adjuncts rack up work hours outside of the classroom—that need to be considered when evaluating whether their employers must provide them with health benefits.

Under the new law, which takes effect in January 2014, employees who work at least a 30-hour work week must receive health benefits from their employers. Some colleges are concerned about how to tally up the hours adjuncts spend on the job to determine if they have reached that full-time status. Most adjuncts don’t receive health benefits, and the legislation appeared to pave the way for them to finally get access.

[C]olleges must “use a reasonable method for crediting hours of service,” the IRS document says. In the case of an adjunct faculty member, the document adds, it would not be a reasonable method of calculating an instructor’s work hours for colleges to take into account “only classroom or instruction time and not other hours that are necessary to perform the employee’s duties, such as class-preparation time.”

I have some insight into this. Bear with me, because this is a long post—or you could just skip it, if you’re not into it. I won’t be offended.

From the beginning of 2009 to the end of 2011, I taught economics and geography at the University of South Florida and at St. Petersburg College. I was hired on as what is known as an adjunct professor, and if you know what the word “adjunct” means, you probably already have a pretty good understanding of the nature of these positions. We adjuncts are hired on to supplement the permanent, tenure-track faculty. We’re hired on a semester-to-semester basis, with no guarantee—or even implication, in many cases—of continued employment beyond the moment we hand in our final grades for the semester.

I worked as an adjunct for three years. During that time I came to recognize it as a completely exploitative system that is made necessary by our country’s aversion to paying for things like education, infrastructure, and generally anything that we can’t turn an immediate profit on.

First, let’s clarify the difference between adjuncts and regular professors. Adjuncts are not on what is known as the tenure track, or the career path that leads to a lifetime of job security (though even tenured professors can be fired—it’s just a lot harder to do). In my opinion, the tenure system is a good one, even though it does have its drawbacks. One of the knocks on tenured college professors is that too often, they’re more focused on their research and see teaching as a necessary evil, part of a trade-off that gives them access to the equipment, facilities and low-wage labor (i.e., graduate students) they need to publish papers and win Nobel Prizes and suchlike. And often, there’s more truth to that complaint than most professors like to admit. It’s not their fault, though—it’s a side effect of the system we have, under which colleges and universities build their reputations by chasing grant money and conducting high-profile research. In a system like that, when it comes time to grant tenure, professors are judged more by the research they’ve done than by the teaching evaluations they’ve received.

In other words, if you don’t publish enough important research, you don’t get tenure when your first six years in the department are over. And what if you don’t get tenure? Well, it means you get to go look for another job. You don’t get to stay in a department that has denied you tenure. So yeah, it’s kind of important.

But as I mentioned, adjuncts are not eligible for tenure. They teach, and usually they teach the classes that more senior professors don’t want to teach. Which is fine, because someone has to teach Intro to World Regional Geography or Fundamentals of Microeconomics (both of which I enjoyed teaching immensely). And since adjuncts are hired to teach and only to teach, they’re not expected to do research, which is a good thing because it’s next to impossible to survive on an adjunct’s salary and find time to do any quality research anyway.

Adjuncting pays really, really badly. That’s an inescapable fact. Depending on the institution and your own level of education (adjuncts with Ph.D.’s do generally make a little more than those who stopped at the MA or MS level), you can expect to be paid between $2000 and $4000 per semester per course. So teach three classes, earn $12,000 for the semester.

Which doesn’t sound completely unmanageable, right? If you extrapolate that over the course of a full year, you’d end up with $36,000 before taxes, and while that’s not a great salary for someone with so much education, it’s enough to keep a roof over your head and clothes on your back. Well, hold on – there are some pretty generous assumptions wrapped up in that conclusion. First of all, that assumes you can even get three classes in a semester. In my experience, departments prefer to spread the wealth among a pool of adjuncts, rather than give one person as many classes as they can handle.

Second, there’s summer. There just aren’t as many classes available over the summer, so you can’t count on getting anything during those months – and certainly not three classes’ worth.

Third, most institutions have limits on the number of classes you are allowed to teach each semester – and those limits include courses taught at other institutions. Naturally, these limits are frequently ignored—I did that myself once, by teaching three classes at SPC and two at USF one spring, and it damn near killed me*—but it’s a pretty good bet that if you want to teach more than three classes in one semester, you’re going to have to do it at two separate campuses where nobody knows you’re also teaching at the other one.

So yeah, it’s really, really difficult to make a living on adjunct professor gigs. I sat down and figured it out once, and I worked out that in order to make half as much as a typical first-year assistant professor over the course of a calendar year, as an adjunct professor I would have to teach twice as many classes.

That should tell you something about how much—or, rather, how little—most universities value classroom instruction today. It should be apparent that most of a tenure-track assistant professor’s paycheck is based not on teaching, but on research activities instead. That’s because, from the university’s point of view, there’s just no money to be made from teaching. All the big bucks are in getting research grants, so that’s where universities want their permanent faculty to focus their efforts. And that’s why so much of the actual work of teaching falls to an army of underpaid, overworked part-timers with no benefits, no job security, and no meaningful participation in the professional academic community they’ve worked so long and so hard to be a part of.

It’s a completely exploitative system—hence the need for IRS intervention—and it’s only gotten worse as our country’s politics have turned more and more reactionary. Public university systems don’t get anywhere near the level of state funding they used to—I read somewhere that Ohio State only gets 8% of its budget from the state of Ohio—so they’re forced to either a) jack up tuition rates and make it harder for lower- and middle-income students to pay for college at all, or b) direct more of their resources toward securing outside money instead of toward teaching. Most universities seem to prefer b), which has the side effect of requiring more people to look for grants, donations, gifts, and the like. Those new administrators are paid for by reducing the number of full-time faculty. Of course, someone still has to teach classes, but since there are fewer tenure track professors to actually do that, the administration hires more inexpensive and disposable adjuncts to fill the gap. And since most universities haven’t reduced the number of Ph.D. students they accept (in order to better align with the  tighter job market these new academics will face when they graduate), there are more qualified people competing for a shrinking number of tenure-track jobs. Many of us labor under the delusion that spending time in an adjunct position will, in some measurable way, help our chances of eventually landing a tenure-track position. In the old days, that was probably true. Hell, it’s still probably true in some cases even now.

But the market has changed—or, as I would have explained it to my Fundamentals of Macroeconomics students, the demand curve for professors has shifted inward, while the supply curve has, if anything, shifted outward.

I’ve been alternating between trying to play by this system’s rules and fighting it since 2007. I’ve already accepted that, no matter how good a teacher I am, I will never ever get a tenure-track position. It’s too late for me—I’ve had my Ph.D. for five years now, and these days the hiring process is a game of finding reasons to exclude as many applicants as possible. Going this long without a tenure-track position is as good a reason as any.

And you know what? That’s fine with me. I can learn and write and think and create knowledge without being on someone’s faculty. There are plenty of other opportunities out there, even in the private sector that’s allegedly only motivated by profit and dollars, unlike the grant-chasers of … uh, academe … um, okay. Yeah.

I’m not going to say that I’ll never adjunct again. But I will say that if I ever do, it’ll be on my terms. And it definitely won’t be because I need the money.

* Yes, I know that high school teachers teach more classes than that all the time. I get it. But college and high school are not the same, in many ways – class sizes, the depth of expertise expected on the part of the instructor, the number of sections of a particular class (if you teach more than one section of a class, that cuts down on your required prep time significantly). It’s a different world, and trying to compare the two directly just doesn’t work.