Admitting We Might Not Be Doing the Job Anymore
The psychology of "making do" can blind us to how far we've fallen.
I’m rapidly approaching an effective wage of less than $13/hour for teaching a 3-credit bearing course in fiction writing.
My pay for the 16-week semester is $2850. At 13 hours per week, that’s over $13 per hour, but I’ve recently tipped just past averaging 13 hours per week on the course, and it’s looking grim in terms of getting that average back under 13 hours per week before the end of the semester.
One big mistake I made was starting work prior to the 16-week semester, but I didn’t think it would be a good practice to plan the entire semester the day before the first class meeting. That put me 15 hours in the hole before the clock even officially started.
Thirteen hours a week isn’t bad, but to be honest, if I wanted to up my per hour wage, I could find some efficiencies. I read every student story submitted to the laboratory (what others call workshop) twice and write marginal comments plus an 800-1000 word response. After the laboratory discussion, I’ve always scheduled individual 30 minute conferences with each student that often extend to 45 minutes once we get on a roll. If maximizing return was the name of the game, I could cut those down, or even eliminate them entirely.
What I’m doing now is pretty standard practice for the discipline, entirely ordinary, but students wouldn’t know the difference if I endeavored to increase efficiency. It’s their first creative writing course, and I’m a pretty friendly and engaging instructor. My end-of-semester evaluations would be fine, and they’re conditioned to defer to my authority anyway.
The fewest hours I could spend under the bare minimum definition of the job is five, class plus two office hours, so with a ruthless focus on the bottom line I could get down to something like nine hours per week. A little tough in a class that involves responding to writing, but possible. At best, I could get up to $18 an hour.
But while students might not know the difference between these two approaches, I would know.
I would know I’d be delivering an inferior experience.
One of the questions those outside of contingency often ask is why so many of us persist in these clearly unacceptable situations for so long.
Why not just quit?
The psychology of it is pretty explicable. At first, it’s easy to believe that the present non-optimal situation is going to improve. You compromise on things like achieving financial security believing it’s only temporary.
During that period, you also fall hard for the job. It offers intangible rewards, one of which is that you believe the work is important, you’re good at it, and if you didn’t do it, the lives of the students you’ve come to believe in would be diminished.
It doesn’t matter if this isn’t actually true, the psychology has taken hold, and even as reality sets in that there is no better future, it gets harder and harder to break the cycle, even as conditions deteriorate further from the already bad baseline.
The costs of stopping or doing something radically different are just too great, the sense of mission strong enough to override good sense.
The only thing to do is to continue to make do.
Until you break apart entirely, all at once.
Our public and non-elite private higher ed institutions are well-versed in making do.
In fact, the same psychological trap that captures so many contingent faculty informs the dynamic on many of our campuses, where progressive and permanent austerity has made “doing more with less,” standard operating procedure.
And so we do things like hire instructors who make less than $3000 a course, while also raising tuition, increasing class sizes, and changing requirements. That two-semester first-year writing sequence gets compacted down to one semester, and because you can’t afford to staff foreign language as a gen ed, you figure out how to waive more and more students through on their high school transcripts. Russian got the boot years ago, then Chinese, and now Italian, which is basically like Spanish anyway.
Tenured folks take on more committees, more advising, more assessment, more more more. The last raise was almost a decade ago. The health care co-pay goes up; so does the deductable. More, more, more, but for less pay.
Each year there’s some fresh glimmer of hope, rumors of additional money from the legislature for that new data science program, a larger out-of-state freshman cohort whose higher tuition will fluff the bottom lin. Some new technological innovation is going to save us. A billionaire alum is getting on in years and the foundation is targeting a bequeathment.
Maybe this year you get to keep two out of the three of the tenure lines of retiring faculty, when last year it was only one out of two.
But when you look back at five, ten years ago, when you first thought things looked a little dire, you start to think if you could just get back to that, everything would be golden.
The only thing to continue to do is to make do.
When does it come time for our institutions to say, “enough,” and admit we aren’t making do.
No matter what degree of funding indignities fall upon our public institutions, as much as we protest and claim to be experiencing pain and argue against austerity, it seem rare to actually admit that we aren’t doing the job, that we aren’t actually making do.
The fear of admitting that we’re not doing the job seems rooted in a belief that if we speak the truth, we will be punished with even harsher measures, that if we say we’re hungry and need sustenance, we’ll be invited to see what it’s like to starve.
The is the psychology of the contingent. If I complain about my low pay or bad schedule, they may take away even this, and then what do I have?
In a lot of places, we haven’t been making do for quite some time.
The price to students and their resulting debt suggests this.
That we can’t staff courses unless people either work for less than $15 an hour suggests this.
That we have class sizes and student loads well beyond what anyone would describe as reasonable suggests this.
That we add graduate programs as revenue streams above all else suggests this.
That students’ time to degree is extended because we can’t even offer classes often enough suggests this.
That we waive what used to be required courses because we can’t guarantee when that course will again be staffed suggests this.
I bet many of you could identify similar examples of how we haven’t been making do.
It’s hard to admit the truth, that you’re not getting by, that you’re failing. Shame attaches. Every time I write about the fate of contingent faculty, someone always arrives and makes it clear we are to blame for our own exploitation. “Just quit!” “Do something else!”
I’m certain people feel the same about our public institutions of higher education, that they are to blame for their own fates, and no doubt we could identify many missteps along the way.
But perhaps the worst has been to pretend we’re making do when we’re doing no such thing.
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