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Ask the Administrator: Upper Level Pay for Upper Level Course?
February 17, 2008 - 8:11pm

A befuddled correspondent writes:

I'm an adjunct with a Ph.D. and plenty of upper level experience via a former full-time, but non-tenure track position I held at an elite SLAC. Most of my day-to-day teaching at any of the four institutions at which I work in any given semester is at the introductory level. Sometimes it's Intro to Lit (yes, I'm English) and other times it's first year writing. However, at one of my institutions, I was recently invited, or asked to teach an upper level course. My first reaction was Yippie!! Woot, Woot! I've made my peace teaching first year writing, but 5 or 6 sections of it per term is a grind no matter how you slice it, and so a break from that grind is quite welcome. But, then I realized something -- something likely obvious, but lost in my initial euphoria: I will be paid at the same adjunct rate for this senior level course, which means the institution is getting a very cut-rate bargain.

I should add something here. Amongst the adjunct staff at this particular institution, I am in fact the only Ph.D. -- the others only have M.A. degrees -- and this is what qualified me for the open slot. There are full time, tenured professors here, but for whatever reasons, none of them is qualified for this particular field. I am.

Now I'd love to ask for more money, but I already know what the answer will be. And truth be told, I'd dearly love a respite from first year writing, and the course would be a blast to teach. I've not really gotten to sink my teeth into a meaty subject since my days as a full-timer. (I mean no offense to fyw instructors or the courses -- I teach them, I make my living teaching them -- but fyw is not an upper-level course no matter how happily one regards it) But at the same time, I'm aware of the cut-rate deal the institution is getting by *using* me to teach this class, and it bothers me in a way that is hard for me to articulate. Should I be bothered, or should I simply regard this is a bit of karmic reward for all these semesters in the trenches of fyw? Are others bothered? Or is this much ado about nada?
Maybe I've been on this side of the desk for too long, but this doesn't strike me as unusual. At my cc, adjuncts are paid by the credit hour, so any three-credit course is paid the same as any other three-credit course. Even for full-time faculty, teaching loads are denominated in credit hours, so a three-hour 'upper level' course counts the same as a three-hour intro course.

That may seem cold or reductionist, but it makes cross-departmental or cross-disciplinary equity possible. Is Drawing II easier or harder to teach than Educational Psychology? I don't even know how to measure that. But I can count hours. Lest that seem entirely soulless and bureaucratic, I'll add that the faculty union fully buys into the credit hour system for workloads. For them, as for me, ensuring some sort of basic equity across disciplines is the overriding consideration.

It's also much easier for planning and budgeting purposes to simply have a flat rate. If every course has to undergo some sort of 'comparable worth' analysis, the headaches would be staggering, and the payoff hard to specify. (In order to pay some courses more, and still balance the books, we'd just have to pay other courses less. The odds of the faculty union going for that are approximately zero.) It may seem counterintuitive to pay the highfalutin' specialized courses for majors at the same rate as the plain vanilla intro classes, but, in my experience, it's actually standard practice.

(Thought experiment: how would a market fundamentalist answer this? On the one hand, specialized courses have fewer potential instructors, which would imply higher pay. On the other, as your note shows clearly, many people would vastly prefer to teach the more specialized stuff, which would imply lower pay. In non-extreme cases, those probably roughly cancel each other out, so a flat rate is probably a reasonable way to keep the transaction costs down without doing fundamental violence to the substance of the thing.)

What I like about the question is that it highlights one of the great perversities of American higher education: we throw the least experienced or supported teachers at the students who are least able to teach themselves. As they move up in the hierarchies, professors with the option generally flee the intro classes, farming them out to adjuncts. (Community colleges are less prone to this than midtier comprehensives, since in most states our curriculum tops out at the sophomore level. Full professors in the English department teach Comp 1.) The idea seems to be that 'just anybody' can teach an intro course, so the way to prove your rank is to teach higher level stuff. Pedagogical nirvana is understood to be teaching graduate students the research you're working on at the moment. What this says about the attitude towards tuition-paying students, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Wise and worldly readers - have you seen a different system? Would something else make more sense?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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