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Guest Post: How Was Your Semester?

Mark Bresnan of Colorado St. University asks a common question with a complicated answer.

December 13, 2018
 
 

When I was teaching the semester defined my days - what I spent my time doing was dictated by where we were in the semester - and in that definition, I would sometimes lose sight of the larger whole. Here, Mark Bresnan wrestles with a question we get all the time. A worthwhile reflection that I hope may spur reflection among others? - JW

 

“How was your semester?” 

I’ll hear some version of this question at every department, social, and family event I attend from now until late January. My response is almost always the same: “Pretty good!” This response is both very simple and, over the past ten years I have spent teaching college composition and literature, almost always true. Teaching college students— in any capacity, at any institution— is a real pleasure. My students are invariably pleasant and good-natured; they are honest about their values and their priorities; they are almost always lively, producing something unexpected in each day of classes. It is challenging and meaningful work, still thankfully free, for the most part, of the sort of “bullshit” tasks that anthropologist David Graeber argues are consuming the 21stcentury workplace

And yet, “pretty good” does not really capture the way I have ever felt about my work, my employment, or my field. I feel pretty bad about all of those things, actually. 

It is difficult to explain the disjunction between my personal satisfaction and my professional anger, but I occasionally find something that captures it precisely. Here is one such item, an article published this fall in the Modern Language Association’s journal Profession“Worst Practices: How to Avoid Exploiting Contingent Faculty.”Having never been tenured, I have always been, in at least some sense, contingent. Reading these “worst practices,” then, I was immediately struck by the fact that every single one of the institutions and departments I have worked in has “lived down” to at least some of them. In many cases, the “worst practices” basically echoed Standard Operating Procedure for the employment and compensation of adjuncts, lecturers, instructors, and assistant professors.

Let’s start with compensation, the ultimate measure of how much our institutions value the work taking place in composition programs and English departments. The MLA, which I consider my professional organization, recommends a minimum per-course salary of $10,900 for contingent labor.[i]They base this on the idea that an entry-level full-time faculty member should make $64,500 for a 3:3 load

I have been teaching full-time for ten years post-Ph.D— as a visiting assistant professor, as a lecturer, as an assistant professor, and now as an adjunct instructor. I have never, ever, made $64,500. I have never, ever been paid $10,900 per course. I have never heard of any contingent faculty anywhere making $10,900 per course. I have never seen such a position advertised. 

My experience is not comprehensive, and I am sure such positions exist. But of course, this is the minimum recommended salary from the MLA, and they recommend higher compensation for those who teach writing classes with more than 15 students. 

Is per-course compensation based on a $65,000 salary an unreasonable expectation? Is it so strange to argue that a professional with an advanced degree should be able to earn a middle-class income teaching six courses a year? The overwhelming answer I hear to those questions— from administrators, yes, but from some faculty members too— is that it isunreasonable. And that makes me angry. 

And few forms of anger are as acute as the anger I direct at myself, because in the three years I spent as a Writing Program Administrator, I personally violated my own ideals of compensation and fair labor practices— ideals that echo what the MLA outlines. I have offered people I deeply respect— fabulous teachers, writers, and researchers— adjunct teaching at $3,675 per section for writing courses with 18 students. And then I’ve offered them the same deal in ensuing semesters, with no raise or opportunity for promotion.[ii]

I can rationalize this, of course, and I did at the time. We were (sadly) known as an institution that paid their adjuncts better than others in the area, and our writing courses were capped at 18 students– not as low as I would have liked, but at least close to the MLA recommendation of 15. I was up front about the salary when applicants interviewed and emphasized that there was no expectation that adjuncts do any work beyond teaching their classes. We also allowed adjuncts to teach three sections per semester, which I hoped would reduce the need to teach at multiple institutions.

See how I have talked myself into this again— the idea that a qualified professional could earn just over $22,000 (with no health insurance) for a year of full-time teaching? I’ve betrayed all of my principles in a paragraph. The problem, I think, is certainly not that faculty and administrators in my field— and even in higher education as a whole— do not have the right principles. Every department chair and school dean I have ever worked with has agreed on the need to provide better labor conditions for contingent labor. But clearly, we do not prioritize those principles enough. We rationalize when we need to reckon. 

How was your semester? The prevailing institutional pressure— and, I would argue, the pressure we generate in our field— is to talk about how well it went. This compulsion is analogous to what ZZ Packer recently described as the “civility trap” that values “order without justice, comity without commitment”—an appealing set of priorities for those of us working in jobs that we enjoy, with people we value, and for institutions we believe in. We want to advocate for and promote the great work we are doing in composition and English departments, and we feel compelled to be positive not in spiteof our poor labor conditions but becauseof them. “Look at what an impact we’re having!” we want to shout in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will take notice and start to reward that impact with proper compensation, new full-time faculty lines, and the same sort of breathless press releases that are devoted to a scientist who wins a competitive grant or a recent graduate who starts their own business. 

We don’t want to be angry, or to appear ungrateful, because we have seen the French department disappear and the introductory math classes move to online-only, and we don’t want to risk the same fate. But how else can one respond when the very courses that have been shown to have the most impact on student successare the ones that rely the most heavily on underpaid, contingent labor?

How was your semester? Yes, you enjoyed teaching, as you always do. But did you cut back your time conferencing with students because you were overwhelmed by grading for 120 students at three different institutions? Did you spend hours applying for other adjunct positions because your current position doesn’t guarantee you spring courses? Are you frantically combing through health plans on HealthCare.gov, trying find a policy that will prevent personal and financial catastrophe without taking too much out of your meager paycheck? 

I hope you answered no to all of these questions, and I feel extraordinarily lucky to have done so—but the very fact that they are legitimate and common inquiries in our “profession” should make us all furious.

 

Mark Bresnan is Instructor of English at Colorado State University and has taught composition and American literature for ten years at a variety of institutions. He has recently published essays for the Los Angeles Review of BooksEephus, and the David Foster Wallace Society. You can find him on Twitter at @mark_bresnan.

 

[i]Many compositionists align themselves professionally with the Conference on College Composition & Communication, the National Council of Teachers of English, and/or the Association of Departments of English, as opposed to the MLA. While the salary suggestions made in the CCCC’s last position statement are lower, they also explicitly defer to the MLA’s guidelines on compensation.

[ii]I say this without exaggeration: I could have built a small but imminently qualified English department out of the adjuncts I hired in my last position. Some of them would already tenurable at the vast majority of institutions.

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