Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Fair Compensation in Academia

I was catching up on my RSS feeds tonight after a week or so with sporadic computer access, and came across a comment on Anastasia's blog (an adjunct working in, I believe, religious studies) that I wanted to highlight.

Over at her place, on a post (which everyone should go read now) in which she discussed the poor treatment she received from one of the two schools where she adjuncts, commenter "Inside the Philosophy Factory" notes that
"It's curious, in other business models, the people who bring in the most profit are treated well... in acadamia they're treated like an imposition."
This really struck me, because although I was basically ignorant about adjuncting as a Thing until the past couple of months, I have often made this observation about academia myself during my years teaching as a grad student.

To highlight my own experience in grad school ... I was a grad student who loved teaching, and whose evaluations were consistently high and whose courses were consistently  overenrolled. In fact, in each of the four different courses I taught in grad school over eight semesters, I noted that my enrollments kept climbing and climbing, even if my courses were offered at inconvenient times. My students nominated me for teaching awards several times, and each semester I had students tell me that they had enrolled in my class on the recommendation of friends who said that my classes were "amazing." Meanwhile, my evaluations were consistently excellent while I worked to keep my courses rigorous and engaging.

And at the end of every semester, my department would yank me around, waiting until only a few weeks before classes started to tell me whether I'd be teaching again ... as if I'd done something wrong by teaching an overenrolled, successful class. Twice, I watched them give the classes I'd just taught to increasing enrollments and with glowing reviews to newer grad students who'd never stood in front of a classroom before, while I stood back hoping that something would come through for me so that I would have funding the following semester, so that I could afford to finish up my degree.*

I'm not writing this to toot my own horn. I was a grad student, and certainly my department was not required to give me my preferred courses or to even keep funding me once I was advanced. However, the comment at Anastasia's made me think about my experiences, and more generally about how universities value teaching, learning, and the instructors who bring in tuition-paying students. Specifically, that at most universities it doesn't matter how good of a teacher you are. You won't be rewarded (much) for bringing in more tuition money, or for doing a particularly good job teaching. They'll keep letting you do it, but you won't be paid according to your worth.

And the way academia views the education of its tuition-paying undergraduates is even uglier. While universities purport to be about educating undergrads, their actions reveal a very different mission. Around half of undergraduate courses are now taught by low-paid adjuncts, who are given no job security or health benefits and low pay despite semesters or even years of service. At the same time, undergraduates in departments with lots of Ph.D. students are often taught by graduate students who may not even be good at teaching the courses they're assigned.

Instead, the goal of a university seems to be to just stock undergraduate (and even graduate) courses with whatever warm body they can get, regardless of experience ... the quality of undergraduate education be damned. And in the case of adjuncts, to keep paying the best ones $3000 (or less) per course even as they attract more and more students and continue getting glowing evaluations. The university makes more and more profit, and the adjunct or grad student gets that all-important "experience" that the tenured profs swear will lead them to the ideal tenure-track job. But that's not the way it works.

Do not misunderstand - if you are an adjunct or a VAP, you will likely remain in such a position for a long time ... potentially forever. The simple fact is that other universities will look at your "temporary" employment status as evidence that you could not handle a tenure-track job. And as for the university where you're a contract faculty member where you think you "might" be hired for a permanent job? Well, let's use an old, ugly, sexist cliche to describe what they're doing - why would they buy the cow when they can get the milk for (almost) free, through hiring low-paid adjuncts?

Academia. It's one of the few places where demonstrated competence and revenue-generating job performance will almost assuredly not be rewarded by a raise or with better job security.

The business world has its share of problems, but to act as if academia is some noble institution that is more fair or just is simply laughable.

* The psychological impact of this on someone trying to actually finish grad school cannot be overstated, by the way. Being assigned a brand new course to prep and teach two weeks before the semester starts by your graduate director ... only to have that director come back a month later to ask why you aren't making more dissertation progress ... well, let's just say that this was more than a little frustrating.

1 comment:

  1. I'm surpised no one has commented on this. ^ This is (among many, many more) a major reason why I'm leaving academia. I paid for all of my college education (minus the assistantships and fellowship $ I received) and have a hard time with the idea that "Superior University" could give a rats @$$ how well it actually teaches its undergrads (and grads, for that matter). I will not be a part of that system.

    Agreed that the business world has it's share of issues, but the rising cost of education coupled with the insane amount of administrative pay is borderline criminal