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The Adjunct Project is by adjuncts, for adjuncts.  

You Get What You Pay For

by AdjunctSlave

What if there were many, many more aeronautical engineers than the aviation industry could absorb and companies like Boeing found they could get engineers to work for $15 or even $10 per hour without benefits? What would happen to the quality of airplane construction? In some cases, nothing. Some passionate people who just really, really love designing airplanes would still invest in those careers. They would live in a cardboard box and find a way to make it work. But over time, airplane design would erode – safety, efficiency, capacity and aesthetics would all stagnate or go into decline. Many of the most passionate, talented people would leave the profession when they found they couldn’t at least stay in the middle class. Those who stay would need a “real job” on the side and, to keep within the human limits of time and energy, begin looking for ways to cut corners in their aeronautical work. So even if the market could let them pay engineers minimum wage, the aeronautical companies would not go that route.

We face a scenario not unlike this. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, the market is flooded with PhDs who want to teach. If we don’t like the adjunct pay, we can leave. The school won’t bat an eye, since they can just hire someone else. The market will keep our wages down. Unless we figure out a way to all threaten to quit at once, we have zero market leverage. If we try to outrun market forces, we will lose. But we have another argument: quality will still suffer. The quality of teaching goes down if it is just a distraction, a side job, a transition during early career, a hobby for well-endowed retirees, charity work or a job pieced together out of several jobs, teaching eight or 10 classes per term. If teaching isn’t a profession, it won’t be professional, regardless of how qualified the teachers are.

That is not only intuitively or theoretically obvious. It is empirically observable. Adjuncts generally do not teach as well as tenure track instructors. As we get more of the former and fewer of the latter, overall quality drops. I see it in my own career. Low pay demoralizes me. Low pay forces me to forgo research – research which informs my teaching even at the 100 level – or even doing as much side reading as I should do. Most importantly, low pay forces me to teach beyond capacity to teach well. We all have our stories.

Now, in the aviation industry, it wouldn’t take long for the public to notice the problem. Accidents would make headlines. Investigations would uncover the root problem. We don’t have that advantage. Who notices when a generation of students get poorer history or literature education? There will be no horrific front-page photo and the headline, “Othello analogy overlooked, 34 killed.” How would any overall cultural decline be traceable to low-quality teaching by highly educated but overworked adjuncts? It is much more difficult. It will continue to creep up on us. Indeed, the problem feeds itself because we breed a generation of people who come to think of this as the norm. At one of the schools I taught for, more and more of the faculty themselves were coming out of degrees earned under the online adjunct wage system they now teach for. This is what higher education is to them. They think cookie-cutter classes taught by people who do other work on the side and don’t do research are the norm, even at the graduate level. The ethos of higher education and scholarship erodes. The contingent of people who identify with the system grows. If we tell all those grads their degrees aren’t as good as back in the day, they won’t be on our side.

Thus, we need to always remember to include overall quality high on our list of arguments about compensation. Until the day comes when you really can discuss King Lear intelligently with a CD ROM, we still have a case. Regardless of how many of us there are that will step into jobs at minimum wage, the logistics and biological constraints of human teaching at a quality level require pay above what the market allows.

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25 thoughts on “You Get What You Pay For

  1. I don’t want to dominate this conversation. I’m trying to take a step back and make sure others have a chance to reply. While reading the piece, formulating my own agreements and disagreements, I was reminded of the piece Greg Petsko wrote in response to SUNY gutting the humanities:

    I think the above commentary plus Petsko’s can provide an effectively reasoned argument for the compensation issue as well as the overall discussion of disciplinarity.

    • In my experience since mid 1990s, the hobbyist, less than qualified, non-researching, mediocre to poor part time teacher has diminished considerably over the years. The surplus of PhDs who can actually teach — at least in the Liberal Arts — is staggering.

      But, that quality still has a price: when I was MA and ABD I was paid $1800-$1950 per course and then with PhD I maxed at $2050. In a neighboring state, the same work, the exact same course pays $3000. One town over the same course pays $1500.

      For years, the “better teachers” caused the most disruptions to their precious meeting-after-meeting after initiative after strategic planning meeting. The students complained; they wondered why we were being so difficult; and one administrator wondered why we were trying to hard. Intentional, deep learning, maybe even praxis, requiring students to engage directly with each other, their teachers, and the course materials is VERY new for them. It takes a month maybe even five weeks to hook a class of introductory level humanities students to take charge of their work.

      Rather than support great pedagogy, we were persistently badgered to scale it back a bit and make sure the students can complete the course. Doesn’t have anything to do with retention rates or federal assistance does it?

      First thoughts . . . .

      The three latest positions at the college have been filled by unqualified teachers as a choice to pay them less. The FT position in Liberal Arts was contracted for about $37K

      • Thanks for the link to the wonderful Petsko article, alas misplaced until now. I agree that together these make an “effective reasoned argument” but would add one of many from Createquity on related issues in arts. Start with this one,

        Your own bit about effective teaching biting you in the butt, being “persistently badgered to scale it back,” sounds so familiar. Students going in a group to the chair complaining that they were writing too much and wanted more grammar (translation: more online interactive grammar exercises) and the chair putting a note in my file for it, not taking it out when students (sometimes) came back saying they were wrong because it’s handy to have paper on troublemakers.

        • //Your own bit about effective teaching biting you in the butt, being “persistently badgered to scale it back,” sounds so familiar.//

          At one Vermont community college I spent July to October 2006 in email hell because a student complained that I showed BLADE in a Vampire class. When I wouldn’t back down from the notion that in contemporary vampire lore is nothing more important than BLADE (especially the opening), this moved us into the “meeting” phase. At the end of the day, I was in good shape. Both the “site coordinator” and “Academic Dean” (I’m still not sure to this day what s/he did) were behind me. 100%. I was just amazed they wasted that much time on a no brainer.

          This student was also offended by this clip from THE LOST BOYS — man — I’m going to write one hell of a “war story” memoir!!

          On top of being unbearable, disruptive, and unwilling to follow the syllabus, this student was also a raging homophobe: “I don’t like gays.” So, of course, not knowing better in my early days, I just played the clip over and over again. 90% of the class understood why I was repeating the scene and offering commentary re: homoeroticism, sexuality, and remixing in vampire lore but all was lost on the student in question.

  2. This is an argument that is difficult. There actually is no empirical proof that adjuncts, as a national category, teach less well. In fact, because adjuncts personality wise are perhaps marginally less competitive, less “me-first”, less motivated to attain the status of FT work no matter who or what they must step on to do it, they are sometimes, as a group, I would say “better teachers”–with more social and community spirit–and more of the “soft” qualities (caring) that a good educator would find indispensable….though there is no “empirical” proof of this either! FT faculty are also super overloaded with admin responsibilities, and the guilt of being the higher status worker by a set of rolls of the dice that are fundamentally accidental, so their work (outside perhaps of the elite U’s) is suffering, too. In areas like California, PTF are approaching, in many districts, parity–equal pay for equal work… So arguments that say PTF are, by group, “worse teachers” is a difficult one to promote as a national narrative. Of course, if this (worse teacher theory) was demonstrable some way, there would be a flood of lawsuits by the “second-tier” students who, without knowing, enrolled in a class taught by a second-tier faculty, yet were paying the same amount of tuition.

    A more useful narrative might be that all teachers, and the educational system, suffer by having such a high percentage of faculty poorly paid, poorly benefitted, without adequate and stable office, not well integrated into the life and governance of the college and university, and vulnerable to a host of job insecurity factors (performance, enrollment, whim, starvation). Just having a half a million faculty members with no dental coverage, well , you get the whiff.

    So, Slave, what you are saying might be correct in the worst-offending states, or institutions (quality eventually suffers with the $1000 per course adjunct–and somehow could be empirically shown), but perhaps not as a national narrative. Once we open that gate ( adjuncts teach less well, necessarily), then we have a very tough time arguing for “equal pay for equal work”.. In California we are tenacious about unifying around the fact that our work IS equal and should be paid EQUALLY.

    I think I do see what you mean about the “technician” type training of some of the newer faculty. People who have learned a “system” and are sticking with it. The fluid, experimental, highly original teachers who are always actively trying new things that they didn’t learn in a 2-hour “workshop” are getting rarer and rarer. In aggregate, taking into consideration many factors, I agree: college teaching is becoming factory-farming at its worst: efficient, impersonal, fake, unhealthy. But I don’t want to yet say that it is ‘because” adjuncts are worse teachers!

  3. I actually have heard an opposing view floated about: that in administrative terms, adjuncts are a genius money-making (or money-saving) scheme, because you get high-quality, mostly-unpaid labor from highly motivated individuals. Why are they so motivated? Because many are still following the carrot of a full-time, tenure-track position, and believe if they work hard enough, go to enough workshops and conferences, and model what their full-time mentors tell them is good teaching, they will win the prize. I agree that the hobbyist, do-it-for-the-fun-of-it adjunct is mostly gone, at least in the English and math departments, which tend to teach the most courses and employ the most adjuncts.

    • As far as merit and reward, or for many basic COMPENSATION for WORKED HOURS (grrr), I think there needs to be a broad discussion of how sustainable, livable wages contribute to the long term revenue generation rather than just work in spikes on the statistical chart or steady below livable wage.

      Here’s a scenario that I think summaries everything.

      Spring 2012 three classes were scheduled in my department. We had me and two back up people. An administrator in a vendetta kinda mood post-retirement of key full time faculty and chair decided to push all on line students into face to face sections. It was purely to guarantee the three of us — all union drivers from 2010-2011 academic year — not receive any contracts.

      I’ve done the math elsewhere but why was it a sound decision to kill $35,000 in revenue?
      In other scenarios, the administrators at at least two separate colleges would not budge on multiple sections when the numbers exceeded 20. We were already accredited for 13 per section (like Columbia, like Princeton, like UChicago writing programs, online and off) and at risk by adding the seven per section. When the numbers reached twenty six, we were actually aligned perfectly with faculty and accreditation expectation. Two sections of thirteen. total cost to the college: $4100 plus expenses for “overhead” — that magical number no one ever seems produce.

      We do generate significant revenue.
      Many of us can teach large lecture, small seminar, online, hybrid, and laborator/workshop.
      Same for talent re: curriculum development, assessment, advising, granting, etc.

      The talent pool is formidable whereas in the past it was monopolized by a certain clique of adjuncts and full timers.

      Working together to create equitable situations where the balance of teaching and advising or teaching and research is restored, where consistency can be respected and shown as a necessary requirement for continued success. Right now, success is still linked to enrollment numbers and the money saved by paying us so little.

      This is how corporate restaurants work. I spent as much time in kitchens as I did as an adjunct. The logic was exactly the same. But, when I moved into kitchen managment, I was hell bent to prove that livable wage was linked to revenue generation and the radical lowering of turnover. In cafes and mid-size businesses (like a Panera Bread) this worked perfectly. In the corporate area, the challenge was always lower revenue than what was brought in by indentured wages, under the books, etc.Doing things legally and safely was frowned upon but we were left alone as long as we were making money.

      I’ve wondered about this sustanability model and its application to the university.

      I’ve also wondered what would happen if professors and chairs were able to work in less of a police state and more of a state of empowerment. All the checks and double checks all the busy work all those friggin meetings endless meetings about meetings like a scene from OFFICE SPACE that didn’t make it to the final cut.

      What if the administrators worked more on grants?
      What if the administrators worked more on curriculum development?
      What if revenue through industry relationships were emphasized more than giving me a hard time about being a difficult teacher (defined as “holding students accountable for their actions”)?

      If revenue is the issue, then what exactly does the adminstrator do to generate income? How is the $60-$100K plus benefits job justified in terms of actual measurable profits?

      Or said in OFFICE SPACE language by one of the Bobs (John C. McGinley): what exactly is it . . . . . that you DO?

      The long term sustainable generation of revenue plus increasing job satisfaction through measurable retentions should be applauded, celebrated even. How little you pay someone or how much static you generate whenever the question of contact hours and pay comes up should be the basic requirement for being ostracized from a professional community.

      • Help me out here. I don’t understand how moving the students from online to face-to-face killed any revenue.

        (BTW – Please, PLEASE don’t encourage administrators to do more “curriculum development”! Let them take part in overall degree-path planning, yes. But we already have too many people with education degrees with their fingers in all the humanities course planning.)

  4. “If teaching isn’t a profession, it won’t be professional, regardless of how qualified the teachers are.”


  5. Thanks for the comments so far. I will return to this thread again over time to respond to more.

    On the quality issue, I thought I had seen articles that made the case that, overall, adjuncts don’t teach as well, but now I can’t find them. Perhaps it is not statistically shown that adjuncts teach poorly. At least there aren’t any “deadwood silverbacks” in the bunch.

    Here’s a similar formulation of the argument:

    “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.” (

    While I would not say I shy away from being controversial, I have felt pressure to inflate grades (because retention matters, grade inflation does not) and keep my mouth shut in situations where I might not have otherwise. And I feel almost no institutional loyalty. It is simply inertia that keeps me at one of the schools I teach for. Divided focus, lack of continuity – that plays a role.

    The system feeds on the euphoria of the first several years of adjuncting when you think, “Wow, I’m actually teaching college!” During that phase, the university does get full bang for half a buck. But – at least I have felt it – time erodes quality by the kinds of factors I mentioned above.

    • Great thread – sorry to get in late
      I think these two articles have some of the info you’re thinking of:
      Jeffrey Klausman, “Not Just a Matter of Fairness: Adjunct Faculty and Writing Programs in Two-Year Colleges,” Teaching English in the Two Year College 37/4 (May 2010): 363–371 and Peter Schmidt, “Use of Part-Time Instructors Tied to Lower Student Success,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 14, 2008

    • I would say “full bang for a quarter,” but other than that, great point about grade 13. In California this will soon include standardized testing in CCs…which is what all that SLO writing has been about…betcha a quarter!

  6. This is anecdotal and far from empirical, but in my antiquated subsection of the humanities the PhD program at one school is pretty similar to the last and all eventual PhDs turn out to be well-prepared to teach the introductory courses (and blindly dedicated to the field in addition). As a result, I can distinguish little quality difference between contingent and TT classes. If anything, I would join the voices claiming that adjuncts are better teachers by character (they really love the material) and design (they have experience).

  7. There are so many interesting ideas and posts in general on this blog. One thing to add to the discussion on quality control is the issue of full-time faculty release time and overload. At least in the district where I teach, many TT instructors take significant release time to be on committees, serve on unions, etc., as well as overload (sometimes as many as 7 or 8 courses in one semester). Whenever the issue of quality control is brought up by adjuncts, it is met with strong resistance. Similarly, when the issue of taking overloads and “bumping” adjunct courses at the last minute (especially in a time of budget cuts) is raised, it was met with similar resistance. (The Union finally made a half-hearted statement on this by some pressure from adjunct faculty.) Where I’m going with all this is that the issue of quality tends to get brought up with adjuncts and NOT with TT, ft faculty. At a campus where I teach, a recent meeting was held to talk about quality control with some TT faculty pointing the finger of blame at adjuncts. It took a while for the discussion to come around to the concept that ALL faculty struggle with this issue.

    • I cannot help but think that if the high paid power elite (talk about an old school referene, huh?) were doing their job, there wouldn’t be the need to manage half as many crises as I saw in my seven years as an adjunct. Did it ever feel to you, Lucia and others, that each semester was a brand new world with hidden requirements and needs when in fact it was just the Spring semester starting as it had for decades. OMG! We might have a last minute rush for electives if we get an influx of new students. And vice-versa: what are we to do if the course numbers are low?! Well, we can slide some into FT courses and some to TT — no — I know — CANCEL ALL THE COURSES and then complain in two months about a significant drop in revenue from tuition.

      I don’t know if you can tell but I’m 100% DONE with criticism about adjunct quality when it takes most administrators months if not years (if ever) to complete new policy guidelines or someone whose never stepped foot in a classroom let alone someone outside my discipline who doesn’t understand that “best practices” may work across an interdisiplinary faculty but not between accountants and philosophers. (It’s not an impossible point of integration to discuss common ways students learn best; it’s just not something that requires a $60K plus salary or endless meetings.)

  8. Here in CA, Deans and administrators make between $125 and $150 K. Compare that to adjuncts who make between $18 and $40 (if they are teaching at multiple campuses).

    • Another way to align our objections with the larger Occupation movement.

      I’m going to create a short video that repeats John McGinley from OFFICE SPACE saying “What exactly is it . . . . THAT YOU do. . . ” as a way to flash mob administrators.

  9. I am worried about the argument for equity. If we show or claim that we are just as good as full time or TT faculty, but cost half or a third as much, what are possible results? We are indeed a brilliant alternative, a cash cow. Or: Why have TT at all? If quality _doesn’t_ suffer from poor conditions, and equity is valued, why not just give everyone the poor conditions? That would be equity, after all and quality would not suffer.

    On the thread here about what administrators actually do, I direct you to a post I wrote over at “College Misery” a while back, in 2010 or so. I’ll link it here for your enjoyment. It didn’t survive at the original location for some reason, but someone mirrored it here a few months ago:

  10. The evidence has already begun to collect. Undergraduate education majors who were taught mostly by adjuncts have graduated, and have taught K-12 students that we are getting as illiterate undergraduates in our classrooms today. This process has been underway for the past 15 years already, and the inability of so many of today’s college students to even write a decent sentence in English is the early fallout. Poor skills in reasoning, and a general lack of preparation for a post secondary education are rampant among 18 and 19 year olds. Why are colloeges admitting these students anyway? $$$$$.

    • Oh. So. Now adjuncts are to blame for lower literacy rates. How?

      I’m sorry Isfein but there is very little of qualitative or even circumstantial evidence to support your claims that adjuncts and education outcomes have resulted in a decline in composition skills. What seems more important is to note or study where composition outcomes are integrated into other curricula — math, social science, business, etc.

      If a student doesn’t write beyond a composition elective, how can we expect that student to achieve anything beyond cursory if not lower skills?

    • While I’m not going to hold myself out as an expert here, I’ve noticed the decline in writing skills of my undergrads over the last few years. I’ve taught the same class at the same school, so ceteris is paribus .

      If I had to guess at a cause, I’d look to the increased emphasis on fill in the bubble standardized tests in K-12. Teaching how to write requires time consuming critique and drafting, which takes time away from test prep. Work out the incentives facing most school districts and you’ll understand why.

      I have upper-class students who claim to have not written a paper in their first two years. Perhaps pre-tenure TT and adjunct faculty don’t have the time to grade essays or papers any more.

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