Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Teaching the Tide By Dianne Perkins. Illustrations by Michael HawthorneGo Back to the Table of Contents
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Part-time instructors (often called “adjuncts”) comprise another popular pool of instructors in the Core--primarily because they are cheap. They are cheap because universities, since the seventies, have offered few tenure-track positions, which cost promotions, pensions, and job security. One retiring professor these days is often replaced by two part-timers--a trend that imposes a particularly degrading form of downsizing. For if their credentials and teaching talents are as good as any, part-timers are exhausted, and eventually embittered, by the conditions of their employment. Consider the typical case. A new Assistant Professor in the Humanities is hired to teach five courses a year for a median salary of $33,000 and full benefits. Granted, he is also expected to publish. A part-timer typically teaches the same five courses at a median rate of $2,000 per course to eke out an annual salary of $10,000. Nor does she receive benefits. Or invitations to departmental meetings. Or the possibility of promotion. Or a vestige of job security. (Adjuncts are often hired a day or two before the semester to meet last-minute enrollments.) Forced to teach at two or three universities to eke out a living, relegated to the status of intellectual migrant labor, provided with no incentives for loyalty--or service to students--adjuncts furnish much of the instruction in Core Curriculum programs, particularly Composition. This practice challenges universities’ commitment to fair labor practices, let alone their typical public relations mantra, “the quality of undergraduate education.”

Who else is typically hired to teach required courses?

Tenured faculty members whose Milton or Toqueville course, alas, didn’t enroll enough students--and who, to retain their contractual full-time status, must replace that course with another. But to replace a small seminar fed by one’s research interests with a course such as Composition, which requires getting down in the trenches to talk to Freshmen about logic, critical thinking, even the rudiments of grammar; a course that would have required a total of 36 graded papers (twelve students in the Milton seminar multiplied by 3 papers) with a course that requires 240 graded papers (thirty students in the Comp course multiplied by at least eight papers) does not a happy substitution make.

And understandably not. For having appropriated the tactics of corporate enterprise, our universities have subverted those corporate credos that are rational and just--particularly the axiom, “Time is Money.”

Among several normative inversions in the structure of the American university is a salary scale that treats one course as equivalent to another--as if all courses demanded the same amount of preparation or the same number of hours for paper-grading. But anyone who has taught Freshman Composition (a Core course) and a Survey of English Literature (an upper-division course) can attest that Composition is, by far, the more demanding--requiring a command of complex disciplines (logic, critical thinking, tactics of organizing, developing, and refining ideas; fine points of grammar and style); diplomatic skills needed to critique student essays in exhausting one-on-one conferences; and nearly triple the number of hours needed to grade student essays. Indeed, the real reason that Composition--like all Core courses--ranks low in the hierarchy of the university’s teaching totem-pole is that it demands at least twice the work of any undergraduate course at the same rate of pay. This dirty little secret of academe is, however, relegated to the unconscious by professionals too comfortable, or effete, to challenge economic inequities, however exploitative, that tend not to taint the tenured caste.

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