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What Texans Learned

What Texans Learned
May 17, 2011

This month the University of Texas System released 821 pages of “productivity” data for all faculty members and graduate assistants employed at the nine academic campuses that make up the UT System. As an adjunct lecturer for UT- Arlington, I am listed, along with my dear friends and colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, on pages 91 through 93. We are sorted alphabetically, our names stacked one atop the other much like our mailboxes in the departmental office, and beside each is information about teaching loads, external research funding, cumulative grade-point averages, and compensation received in the form of salaries and benefits.

In public conversations, those taking place in print and online media, it is the report itself, rather than its content, that is at the center of the controversy. Publication of detailed information about the professional activities of those employed in postsecondary education has reignited long-running debates about the often conflicting ideals of individual privacy and institutional transparency, the relative values of teaching and research, and the meaning of and purpose of academic freedom.

As these are presented in op-ed pieces and blogs, there is the sense that while academics’ opinions on the issues are complex and numerous, that the positions from which they may be formulated are simple and number only two: tenured or tenure-track professor. Further, much of the discussion has centered on the reactions at the flagship campus at Austin and how this type of public reporting will affect that institution’s ability to recruit and retain “superstar” professors. At both the national and local levels, the focus has been on the Austin campus and little attention has been given to those employed by the other eight campuses. Those of us who are outside of Austin and the tenure system find ourselves outside of the conversation, our concerns not represented. The result is that the discussions taking place publicly are incomplete.

On university campuses in North Texas there are two very different takes on what publication of salary data means. Those who are tenured or tenure-track are worried about the reactions of the general public. And with good reason. Those outside academe often have little appreciation for the economic, social and cultural contributions postsecondary educators make to the state and lack understanding of the research and publication processes. Though most professors earn only modest salaries, and only a few's could be described as handsome, many still fear that the public’s perception will be that they are receiving more than they are worth. In a time of state budget shortfalls and widespread economic uncertainty, those whose work is often invisible and so misunderstood, make for easy targets.

Adjuncts and other contingent instructors are uneasy for another set of reasons. Not even the most creative political commentator could accuse us of greed. Our wages are not only shamefully low relative to those of our colleagues, but also in comparison to the workforce as a whole. And so for us, the publication of salary data has a very different meaning. It turns what is ordinarily a private embarrassment into a public one. It is insult added to injury. Still, this is not our biggest concern. Our real worry is how this information may further erode students' perceptions of our worth.

Attitudes about the relative value of those within and those outside of the tenure system are an often-unacknowledged aspect of the university culture. These attitudes are communicated in subtle but powerful ways and students pick up on them. Students see that the names of some instructors are listed in directories and department websites and others are not. They take note of the fact that those who are not listed are the same ones who are also crammed like cordwood in shared offices that often lack basic equipment. Through these and other small indicators, students come to understand that adjuncts are not valued, that we are expendable, that we are — as we are designated in the report— "other."

When students internalize these messages — and it is inevitable that they will — they lose respect not only for the individual adjuncts, but also for what we do. The classes we teach, the information we deliver and the assignments we give are deemed less important and less valuable.

I know that I am not supposed to complain. Regularly, I am reminded that I am fortunate to have a job in academia. And twice a year, when classes are assigned and I find myself again having somehow managed to make the cut, I am thankful: I will have another semester of getting to do what I love in the place I have grown attached to. But then come the calculations: after withholdings, and the expenses I incur — gas, parking, dry cleaning, toner cartridges — how much is left? Each semester it is a bit less, even as I am asked to do a bit more — submit more progress reports, assign more written work, be more available to students, teach larger sections.

Like most Americans, I am finding ways to do more with less. What I cannot afford to do without is the respect and confidence of my students. I worry about the conclusions they may draw if they learn what I am paid: $2,500 per course. Put differently: that’s $12,500 for five courses a year, when a 3-2 courseload would be considered full-time at many institutions. It’s there, in black and white for anyone with the time and inclination to sift through the data and work the math. What the figure doesn’t show is the number of hours I spend preparing for those classes — reading, planning lectures, updating statistics, reviewing notes, tweaking and grading assignments. It doesn’t show the commitment I have to my discipline, those with whom I share it, and the university in whose name I do it.

My position is not secure. I have not yet signed my contract for next semester and I will admit to being a bit nervous as I write this. Still, I believe that the issues raised by the publication of the data are important and that if we are to address them, we must all be allowed and willing to participate in the conversation.

Bio

Harvest Moon is an adjunct in sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington.

 

 

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