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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


2 Salaries That Tell a Story

Why can’t we provide resources to what we say we value?

February 14, 2022

This past weekend, the salaries for two different jobs caught my attention.

One salary was $40,000. The other was a range, $52,000 to $58,500.

The $40,000 salary was for the position of assistant editor at the venerable Harper’s Magazine. It is a full-time gig in New York City and includes benefits and health insurance. The tweet from Harper’s announcing the position specifically tagged organizations for Black, female and disabled journalists, apparently signaling their openness to an inclusive and diverse workplace.

The announcement was not well received in the replies to the tweet, with many noting that $40,000 does not go very far in N.Y.C., and that if they were truly interested in a diverse workplace, they might try paying a living wage. While the cultural and industry prestige of Harper’s has a certain value that may pay off in future opportunities, only those already wealthy enough to be able to work for unsustainable wages can afford to even start on that path.

Last year in a post, I noted the commonalities between editorial staffers at The New Yorker who engaged in a work stoppage over a collective bargaining request for a salary floor of $45,000 per year, and contingent faculty working for adjunct wages in the hope that years of unsustainable salaries might one day lead to something more secure.

Both systems have grown comfortable with a structure that essentially churns through lower-level laborers in order to preserve the relative privilege of those above—and perhaps most importantly to allow the institution to continue to operate. The promise of a dream, of doing “important” knowledge work among other like-minded people, is sufficient to fuel enough people to continue to feed the system.

(Or at least it has been thus far.)

Institutional leadership by and large seems to have grown comfortable with this system, settling into what I call “institutional awe” (derived from Fobazi Ettarh’s “vocational awe”), where there is no individual sacrifice too great in order to preserve the status quo functioning of the institution. That these sacrifices disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations is simply the (one supposes, regrettable) price of doing business.

Harper’s posting a job ad with an unsustainable wage and specifically tagging professional groups for laborers who make up a minority of the profession looks like a really bad case of institutional awe to me. At the same time, I have no doubt that this is the wage that Harper’s Magazine believes it can “afford” under this current status quo.

A New York Times profile by Ben Smith of the magazine and its publisher, John R. MacArthur, tells the story of a magazine seemingly run by the whims of the wealthy. Harper's Magazine is funded in part by the Roderick MacArthur Foundation, a philanthropy primarily devoted to civil rights issues, and John R. MacArthur earns only $20,000 per year as the magazine’s publisher.*

After years of resistance to demands for collective bargaining, MacArthur broke an employee union in 2015. The profile ends with the story of the only Black editorial staffer leaving for a job fact-checking at The New Yorker. After telling MacArthur her new salary[1], he remarked, “Well, that’s too bad. You know we can’t pay anybody close to that here.”

Harper’s Magazine will have no trouble filling the position.

(*Note: This post originally incorrectly identifed the source of funding as the John T. MacArthur foundation, which was incorrect. The error was mine and I've now corrected here.)

Just about everywhere I’ve taught in higher education, someone has apologized to me about my salary, usually something along the lines of “I wish it was more, but it’s really the best we can do.”

I accepted every single one of those offers, maybe feeling as sheepish as the people apologizing for them. I suppose we both believed there was nothing we could do it about, probably because we couldn’t.

Having maxed out at a salary of $35,000 per year as a full-time instructor, I would sometimes imagine what kind of salary it would take for me to feel sufficiently secure to keep teaching. I also imagined what it might be like to teach student loads consistent with recommended disciplinary practices.

I didn’t want to be greedy about the salary amount. The number I had in mind was $50,000 a year.

That $52,000-to-$58,500 salary range is from a job listing for teaching assistant and teaching associate professor openings in the University of Denver Writing Program teaching first-year writing. For those not in the field, the UD Writing Program is considered a model for how writing programs should be run.

Faculty teach 0-3-3 loads on a quarter system with 16-student caps on each section.[2] In an additional humane move, the initial request for application materials is limited to a CV and cover letter.

In a vacuum, objectively there should be nothing special remarkable about that salary[3] and a student load consistent with what we know to be best practices for quality of instruction. However, while I am aware of these conditions existing places in addition to the University of Denver, they are very much the exception when it comes to the resources dedicated to nontenured instructors of first-year writing.

I honestly found the job announcement kind of thrilling in the sense that it demonstrated that it actually is possible to establish the conditions that would allow for people to do the job for which they’re hired.

At the same time, what does it say about this work that these conditions are so rare? When institutions claim to view general education as important, why should we believe them? When politicians claim that providing educational opportunities are a priority, why should we believe them?

At these times, I always think of all the people I’ve labored alongside over the years who were required to fill the gaps between the available resources and the mission and how the vast majority of us don’t teach anymore, even though many of us genuinely loved it.[4]

Higher education isn’t any different from a lot of sectors of American employment in this way, not just highbrow cultural journals, but K-12 schooling, health care, newspapers—you name it.

I know there is enough money somewhere to afford these things, but I’ve never seen it.

I wonder if I’ll ever.

[1] She was making $37,000 a year at Harper’s.

[2] I never had a cap below 20 in my entire career.

[3] The position requires a terminal degree and three years’ teaching experience.

[4] The pull is eternal. When I read the job ad, I called to my wife from my home office how she’d feel about moving to Denver. I didn’t really mean it—except part of me did.

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