Rhetoric of Academics: Making a Living

by Dr Davis on February 3, 2014

I’m thinking a lot today about the rhetoric we use in relationship to our profession. This has been brought on by a series of readings, mostly unrelated to each other in terms of clear point-by-point connections, but related to each other at least through my interest in them and that they have comments about how we speak (mostly) about the profession.

Won’t Make You Rich

William Pannapacker @pannapacker
Saying academe “won’t make you rich” obscures the reality that most academic workers are adjuncts making $2,700 per course on average.

My response to this was, who makes $2,700 per course? I know there are some places that pay $4,000 a course, (I believe it was University of Anchorage.) but Cost of Living there more than makes up for that difference.)

But this was actually a later post. His earlier post said this:

William Pannapacker @pannapacker
Think we need to stop telling students that going into academe “won’t make you rich,” as if material considerations were purely mercenary.

What about the mercenary material considerations?
My eldest son chose not to go into teaching, even though he is good at it and enjoys it, because “it’s twice the work for half the money.”

I think he would have been okay with twice the work or half the money, but not both.

What did Pannapacker mean by mercenary material considerations? Maybe he meant that we shouldn’t say “you won’t get rich” because students aren’t really concerned about being rich. If that is what he meant, then I definitely agree.

If Pannaker meant we shouldn’t talk about work in terms of finances, which I do not think was his point, then he would be way off track.

But his first post in the list (the later Twitter post) actually clarifies what he meant. Don’t tell your students they won’t get rich. Tell your students they will barely survive financially.

Why don’t students believe that?
So why would our students, who read as well as we do–and sometimes read more, believe us when we say academics don’t get rich? They know it’s not necessarily true.

People tend to dwell on the extremes. So the professor who sold the freshman calculus book and owns a multi-million dollar home in Canada is news as well as the full-time adjunct with a PhD who gets food stamps.

Students aren’t idiots. They know these are the extremes. They don’t expect to be on food stamps and they don’t expect to own a multi-million dollar home in Canada (or anywhere else).

What they do expect is to be in the middle. It’s the norm.

What is the middle?
My response to Panneker’s post, which probably did not appear particularly relevant, said:
They read. “study shows that at UC-Boulder tatt prof ave salary $103,513.teach & office hours ave 4.93 hrs/wk” –It was Twitter. I only had 140 characters.

I read the above statement just yesterday in the comments on an article about adjuncts, I believe. Yes, WNPR News: Adjuncts in Academia.

A study under way shows that at UC-Boulder tatt professors have an average salary – excluding a myriad of benefits – of $103,513. They teach and hold office hours for an average of 4.93 hours a week (and that’s for the 30-week academic year). They publish an average of 0.63 papers and 0.06 books a year; the median number of citations of their works is 3.35 per professor/year. In a word: the faculty at Boulder are paid high salaries for teaching 148 hours a year and for publishing works that are not only extraordinarily little in number but are demonstrably of almost no interest to their fellow academic.

The commenter’s point was that professors get paid too much to do too little.

This is what students think is the middle.

At My University
Even at my school, where ft tt professors make considerably less than their public school counterparts, there are professors making six figure incomes. Students may think, okay, I won’t make that starting out, but they do think that eventually they will get there. And they might–if they are teaching business or law.

What students at our college don’t realize is that those six figure incomes are the extremes here.

The university employs very few adjuncts (both percentage and in raw numbers) and most of those are truly part-time. They teach a class or two and they are rarely hired two semesters in a row. They cannot make a living on it, a fact true of most adjuncts anywhere, but there is not systemic abuse. This semester my department, the largest on campus, has 1 adjunct teaching 2 classes. I am fairly sure if a department were hiring multiple adjuncts for multiple classes it would be news on campus.

Students here know you can’t make a living as an adjunct. They haven’t even seen people try it, though they may have seen past graduate students cobbling a living together doing a combination of full- and part-time jobs. But they also know that there are plenty of people doing those full-time positions and living on that salary. They assume the part-time work is for love of the discipline—which it often is.

What happens when you tell students academia is a poor choice for a career?
Students don’t believe it. I think the number one reason they don’t believe it is because it is our career. We are the professors doing what they want to do and we are saying don’t do it. Normally that would make us an expert. In this case, though, I think it works against us.

They see the professors telling them they won’t survive surviving. They don’t see the loans, the unfixed floors, the vacations that are working trips funded by grants. They don’t even see our salaries, since we are private.

They may look at professors at public universities and think that is the norm and they look at the range of salaries and expect to be in the middle—not realizing that the range of salaries is dependent on both time in the field AND the field.

In the humanities, our students will start at the bottom—if they can find full-time work.

But students don’t believe that. No one believes that. Everyone always believes they are the exceptions.

Dr. Lee Skallerup @readywriting and I have had this conversation before. I have a ft-tt position. I was an adjunct for years. She has a ft, non-tt position. She was an adjunct for years. Our students see us having made it and they think that they will make it, too.

That’s why they don’t believe us.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Alan smithe 02.03.14 at 12:22 pm

My prof gave me the “won’t get rich” lecture but I was distracted by his gold rollex

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