• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Calling B.S....B.S.

I've come to recognize that I'm the world's greatest sucker. That's not entirely my fault, though.

September 8, 2014

There are a million things to say about the recent New York Times article by Andrew Ross Sorkin on Bill Gates’s favorite history class. [1].

I have explored Bill Gates’s particular mindset about education and how he thinks there is a universal “best” way to do things in the past, so it’s an observation of Sorkin’s – talking about the difficulties that have plagued Gates-style “innovations” in education – that brought me most short.

“In many ways, education is a lousy business,” Sorkin observes. “Teachers are not normal economic actors; almost all of them work for less money than they might fetch in some other industry, given their skills and advanced degrees.”

Sorkin believes the same is true for students: “Students are even weirder economic animals: Most of them would rather do something else with their time than sit in a room and learn algebra, even though the investment is well documented to pay off.”

Sorkin’s observations are rather banal. If teachers didn’t do the work for reasons outside economic gain, we might not have any teachers. Students are, well … students.

The assumption underneath the observation, however, is radical, in that Sorkin seems to suggest that teachers and students should strive to be better economic actors.

We’re just not behaving right, economics says so.

I began to wonder what might be different in my own life if I had been a less “weird” economic animal, if my economic actions had been more in tune with the marketplace.

What I’ve come to realize is that I’m one of the world’s biggest suckers.


I worked at Clemson University from 2005 to 2011[2]. My title was “lecturer,” and during that time I covered four 3-hour courses per semester, 90% of which were 300-level and above, including several 400/600-level graduate classes in creative writing and literature. I advised a student-run humor publication for which I secured a grant to provide seed money[3]. I was on the advisory board of the South Carolina Review.

I advised both undergraduate and graduate creative writing theses, because at the time, there was only one other fiction writer on the faculty and because when students would ask for something I would always say yes.

I published two books, nine short stories, two pieces in print anthologies from major publishers, and dozens of articles and essays. I also co-edited two anthologies and was “Chief Creative Czar” of my own publishing imprint[4].

I wrote 42 letters of recommendation.

The only work I did not do that would be part of a tenure track faculty member’s profile is to serve on committees, and the formal academic advising of English majors. The standard teaching load for TT faculty, however, was 2/2 versus my 4/4.

During this time I was paid approximately 25k per year. Had I been paid as a tenure track assistant professor, I would have made, at minimum, 60k per year.

Six years times 35k per year = $210,000.

Until last week, I had never done the math.

Looking at that figure makes me feel physically ill.

I cannot stop thinking about this money, the lost opportunities it represents. It is over five years of my current teaching salary. That money invested at a 5% annual rate of return is well over half a million dollars by the time I reach retirement age. My wife and I will have to work much longer and harder than we will want to, or maybe even be capable of, because of that “lost” income.

This is not a complaint, but a lament, primarily directed at my weird economic animal self. The only conclusion I can come to is that I am a fool, or worse, a sucker, because suckers deserve to get played.


During those years, I never thought about the money.

Maybe some of this was self-preservation, that to admit to myself what I was choosing meant confronting a personal failure, that in hindsight feels like cowardice.

Another important factor was, thanks to my outside income, my well-employed spouse, and our decision not to have children, we were financially comfortable. We owned a house and took a vacation every other year. We had and have no debt outside a mortgage.

We had more than we needed, and when the recession hit hard, and so many others did so much worse, it was hard not to see us resting squarely on the bright side.

But really, the reason I was the world’s biggest sucker is because somewhere along the line, teaching got its hooks in me. On a day-to-day basis I was genuinely grateful for the work because I loved it. I had experienced years of work I didn’t love, so I knew the difference.That cowardice was fear that "they" would take even this away from me. (Of course, that's what "they" count on.)

It wouldn’t even take Bill Gates money for me to teach for free. (I wouldn’t teach quite so much, but I definitely wouldn’t quit altogether.)

Teaching felt -- still feels -- vital and important to me. That’s worth something.

Still, why was I paid less than half of others who were doing essentially the same job?

The economics of adjunctification are well-understood. I won’t repeat them here.

Why do I, in my current position as a visiting instructor, make 60% more than our adjunct faculty who do the same job as me?


Why do freelance journalists covering important stories in some of the most dangerous places in the world have to pay their expenses out of their own pockets while Buzzfeed rakes in seemingly endless amounts of venture capital cash?

Economics, consumer economics, the free market, the same force that Andrew Ross Sorkin and Bill Gates seem to think should drive our society, and that will somehow solve our problems.

Unleashing the market on education doesn’t seem to have done us much good, either at the K-12 level, or in higher ed.

At the college level, we have a model that requires suckers like me to keep its labor costs artificially low.

It hasn’t really done much good for quality journalism either, that is unless you think the listicle is innovative.

What we are doing to these institutions that I still believe are vital to our democracy, and the human beings who work within them, is wrong. It is immoral.

It is, dare I say it, un-American.

We can either continue to blame people for their own exploitation, or we can call bullshit, bullshit.

No matter how culpable I am in my own exploitation, what Clemson did to me was straight-up bullshit.

What scores of colleges and universities are doing to their adjunct instructors…total bullshit.

That fast food workers can work full-time and still be eligible for public assistance...complete bullshit.

Students spending lifetimes trying to pay off student loans...wholesale bullshit.

I’ve heard all the but’s, all the rationales, the reasons why we can’t change, or why every individual gets what they "deserve" according to the market.

Bullshit. Is this really the world we choose to live in? Is this a system that works?

I want to be clear. I’m not asking anyone to even start to undo the system.

I’m not even laying blame, because the root causes and possible solutions are really complicated. I’m just saying, as a start, let’s just call it what it is...bullshit[6].

If this catches on, if we grapple with the fact that we’re complicit in a culture of bullshit, maybe we can start to dig ourselves out of the pile.


Plenty of B.S. on Twitter, but also lots of good stuff.


[1] Bill Gates is apparently “baffled” and “frustrated” over becoming a “polarizing figure” in education. His bafflement baffles me. I can’t imagine why career educators would look askance at a federal education initiative that was developed almost exclusively by educational consultants and testing companies and was bought and paid for (to the tune of over $200 million) by a single private citizen, can you?

[2] Dedicated readers have heard some of this story in this space before. If so, pardon the repetition.

[3] A grant that was later reabsorbed into the department when the 2008 economic crisis hit. I spent less than 20% of the money. We had been saving to put out a four-color print anthology.

[4] Like my grant for the student humor publication, it was also a casualty of the recession.

[6] For a good example of calling B.S., B.S., see John Oliver on student debt and the for-profit industry.



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