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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.


The 'Administrative Fiction' of Faculty Workloads

If we're going to solve problems, we must first dispense with myths.

March 2, 2017

I believe one of the first steps towards progress in solving problems is to dispel common myths attached to those issues.

Some of the most important higher ed books of recent vintage essentially function as myth busters. Susan Blum’s I Love Learning; I Hate School suggests that the connection between school and learning may be more tenuous than we wish.

Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, by Sara Goldrick-Rab reveals that the students for whom our financial aid system have been designed (a generous word on my part) are, in fact, largely mythical. And most recently, we have Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, by Tressie McMillan Cottom, which demonstrates how policing and regulating “lower ed” (and higher ed for that matter) without also addressing systemic problems in our labor markets is likely to not amount to all that much.

I read these books and am convinced by them and while real solutions don’t seem easy, they at least start to look possible. The world they describe at least makes sense.

As Dean Dad/Matt Reed recently wrote here at IHE in summarizing an appearance by Prof. Goldrick-Rab at Raritan Community College that revealed the terrible truths of some of our myth-based financial aid policy, “As depressing as some of the numbers were, though, the whole thing felt hopeful. The students were engaged and some of them seemed grateful that their reality was being described. And there’s something encouraging about seeing people tell recognizable truth.” 

I’m tempted to blow that last sentence up to poster size and put it above my desk as a reminder of what I’m aiming for when writing in this space.

Over the years I’ve banged my head against some of what I believe to be myths over and over again. For example, it seems obvious that at least to some degree, tenured faculty benefit from the exploitation of adjunct faculty. 

I understand why it may be tough to give up this myth of blamelessness, but I also often see progress towards a more equitable workplace when the myth is challenged. At a recent faculty senate meeting at my place of employment, I was encouraged to see the condition and treatment of adjunct faculty on the agenda. After a presentation, a robust discussion commenced. It is the kind of discussion that is necessary if we’re ever going to see progress.

But during the discussion, a little myth popped out, an “administrative fiction” in the words of one of the faculty senators.

The myth I speak of is that a good rule of thumb to measure faculty workload is to account for two hours of work outside of class for every credit hour in the course. So, for a 3-credit course, one should expect to spend six hours per week on other course-related duties. In other words, as an adjunct teaching a single 3-hour course, I am compensated on an assumption that says I spend nine hours per week on this work.

Maybe this is true in other disciplines, but in writing instruction, it is laughable. The same must be true in any discipline where assessments are graded by humans, not machines.

The myth allows the college administration to declare that the $2650/semester salary I receive for a 3-hour course is the equivalent of $16/hour. That’s not great, but maybe it isn’t, I don’t know…shameful?

Reality is different. My per hour wage last semester ended up dipping below $11/hour, and this is for a course I’ve taught many times before, while attempting to be absolutely as efficient with my work as possible in order to limit my own exploitation. But student work needs reading and commenting, conferences must be held. Is it not a bare minimum requirement that I re-read the stories I have assigned to my students prior to class?

If I was teaching the significantly more demanding first-year writing, even though it is a 4-hour course and thus in theory equates to twelve total hours of work per week, the reality is that my effective hourly wage would be well under $10/hour and have the potential to dip towards minimum wage.

As Susan Schorn, the Writing Program Coordinator in the School of Undergraduate Studdies at UT-Austin, wrote in a guest post here, research shows that the average writing instructor spends 40 minutes per paper per student on grading. This means that in a week where an assignment is turned in, with a 20-person class, an instructor can expect to spend 13 hours on grading alone, never mind prep, office hours, conferences, or class itself. 

Of course, this myth, which has been used to give administrations some measure of cover for low adjunct wages, and is an even more convenient fiction to dodge benefit requirements for full-time employees, is also damaging to tenured faculty because it allows their teaching labor to be devalued as well.

This matters. It is about to matter more.

The headline for higher education in the Wisconsin state budget was a proposed increase, but that additional $100 million comes with a requirement to track faculty teaching loads. 

The details aren’t yet known, but how would it feel to know that your two, 3-hour classes are only the equivalent of 18 hours of work per week? How long will it take for Scott Walker, on behalf of the Wisconsin taxpayers, to come gunning for tenured faculty, insisting on a 3/3 or even 4/4 course load, with no reduction in research responsibilities (unless an external grant buys you some freedom), of course.

The sooner these myths about our labor are busted, the less likely they are to be weaponized against all faculty.

Don’t do it for the sake of the contingent, do it for yourselves.

Remember: There’s something encouraging about seeing people tell recognizable truth.


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