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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.

Title

On Just Returns

Clemson's English lecturers are not paid in ways commensurate with their productivity. Does anyone care?

January 20, 2020
 
 

What does it say that upon reading the Inside Higher Ed quick take (of a Greenville News report) on how Clemson’s full-time English lecturers make $20,000 less than the national average and their university peers, I saw the $34,000 salary and thought … Dang, they got a good raise.

I was a lecturer in the Clemson English department from 2005 to 2011, during which time I was paid $25,000 per year, with the exception of the 2008, when every employee had to take a mandatory week’s furlough because of the sudden economic downturn of the Great Recession.

Of course, even with that raise, the lecturers’ salary is not commensurate with their expertise, training and the supposed importance of the job. When I was at Clemson, 75 percent of the sections taught out of the department were staffed by non-tenurable faculty (this includes TAs). This is the case in most every department that relies on non-tenurable labor. The courses lecturers teach operate at a tuition surplus, subsidizing the small seminars and grad courses taught by tenured faculty, which run at a loss.

The same day I read the news about Clemson’s lecturers, I was treated to a David Brooks opinion piece criticizing Bernie Sanders as a way of defending the capitalist system in which Brooks essentially argues that one of the ways we know capitalism is working is that workers are essentially paid according to what they produce.

Brooks: “As Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute puts it, capitalism is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s rewarding productivity with pay, and some people and companies are more productive. If you improve worker bargaining power, that may help a bit, but over the long run people can’t earn what they don’t produce.”

I was having a hard time reconciling this assertion with my experience in higher ed in general and Clemson in specific. I “produced” a lot. On an annual basis, I taught student and credit-hour loads that accounted for between $325,000 and $350,000 in revenue[1] against my salary of $25,000. If faculty are to be paid according to what they produce in a capitalist system, as David Brooks asserts we must, people like me would’ve been the highest-paid faculty in the English department.[2]

As it turns out, thanks to some close reading of sources by Erik Levitz at New York magazine, we see that Brooks left out some key bits of context about the Michael Strain column Brooks cited in support of his argument.

Levitz: To say that a worker earns what she “produces” -- as measured by how much revenue she generates for her employer -- is not to say that she earns what her labor is worth in some objective sense. Brooks does not assert the opposite explicitly, but the Michael Strain column he approvingly quotes does. “Capitalism produces unequal outcomes,” Strain writes. Such outcomes “are tolerable if people are getting, in some sense, what they deserve. But if wages aren’t determined by productivity -- if hard work doesn’t pay off and if workers aren’t receiving just returns -- then something has gone badly wrong with the system.”

Something has gone badly wrong with the system.

Indeed.

Having written often on these issues, I could have predicted the commenter replies to the quick take.

It’s about supply and demand! Sure, a hugely oversimplified, reductive understanding of the complexities of supply and demand, but yeah, I guess.

Maybe it’s the best job they can get and they’re being paid what they’re worth with those silly English degrees. Not really. I can name many colleagues who left for greener economic pastures. Most, like me, lament not being able to continue to do work which they find most meaningful, but none of them had difficulty finding other paying work at a higher wage.

Union! Not in South Carolina, you don’t.

And so on. I write much less frequently about contingent labor issues than I used to because the conversation has grown stale, and I’ve tried my best to explain how and why the labor structure of higher ed is so damaging to the mission of education and why we should think more deeply about these issues.

Even if the lecturers in Clemson’s English department (and all other departments) collectively walked away, this does not solve the problem that the work needs doing and it is best done by experienced, well-supported laborers.

Treating these instructors as fungible is simply indefensible if we care about the quality of instruction. There is no argument otherwise.

The appetite for ensuring the instructors see just returns for their labor seems rather limited. The excuses and hand waves over the problem are apparently bottomless.

I wish I still believed in a way out that doesn’t involve the collapse of institutions.

[1]No, this doesn’t include any kinds of tuition discounting or overhead, or anything like that. I’m not arguing the strict math, but offering it as a comparison to other faculty who are paid significantly more and yet account for much less in tuition revenue using the same metric.

[2]When state universities were largely publicly funded, this kind of calculation made little sense. The knowledge work of research and publication was subsidized by the public. Today, institutions are largely funded by tuition dollars, suggesting that if we wish to look at the labor through a capitalist lens of being paid for one’s productivity, salaries in contingent-heavy departments are upside down.

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