Will Teach for Food: Beggar Faculty in American Academia

As I near the end of my graduate career, I’m filled with anxiety over jobs and money. If an article on Al Jazeera is any indication, those anxieties are entirely founded.

More than 65 percent of all teaching faculty (in terms of credits taught) at American institutions are part time, short term contract workers who are poorly paid and offered little or no benefits at all. Even as tuitions have skyrocketed, full time, fairly compensated job prospects in academia are drying up.

My academic career began when I started teaching math part time at Jackson Community College. Though I was happy to have the opportunity at the time, I worked more than 20 hours a week per course, and was paid the measly sum of $1100 a semester for a 3 credit class. Even if I taught full time for all three semesters (isn’t that a trimester?), I couldn’t reasonably break $14,000 a year, well below the poverty level. Part time instructors had no union representation at the time. We fought for it, but were blocked by both administration (who saw us as an expense) and the current faculty union (who saw us as a threat). I’m not sure what the situation is now.

Eventually, I quit. The poor compensation just wasn’t worth the time put in. Worse, despite poor wages, the school became increasingly intrusive on course design, reporting, management and even whether what we could say in the class room.

There is a direct correlation between freedom on the job and payment. Poorly paid people have little freedom and little respect, well paid people have all the freedom and respect they could ever want. This clearly has vast implications for academic faculty.

The world likes to think that academics live a life of opulence and guaranteed employment. The truth is, that in 2012 most do not. Academics are going the way of just about all employment sectors. Services, even in public institutions, are becoming widely privatized, and the ability of workers to band together and demand improvements in working conditions and compensation undermined. Employer based benefits are disappearing, and compensation is falling. Anti-intellectuals should be rejoicing.

I worry that in 10 years, every university will be taught by robots managing watered down and expensive online courses, geared to giving anybody a fake degree. Academics in the United States is something to be very, very proud of, though the future is very suspect.

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About Peter Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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