Eighty Dollars an Hour!!!

As a member of the select board in my small town (and the board clerk), I receive a stipend of $700 per year. I’ve never actually done the arithmetic, but as close as I can tell, that comes to about a buck or buck and a half an hour. The $700 sounds pretty good (and frankly, coming as one lump check, it’s handy at Christmas), but the hourly rate is much less appealing.

I have a friend who, because she had more than 30 hours of college teaching experience, was hired to teach one course at a unionized school for about $80 an hour. Wow!!! $80 an hour! I’ve had some pretty good jobs in my life, but I’ve never ever gotten close to $80 an hour.

Let’s check that euphoria, though. That’s $80 per contact hour, as a convenient way of figuring out a pay rate. A three-credit course (a 15-week class that meets three hours per week) is 45 contact hours, which means that the stipend for that course is $3,600. But the accreditation expectation for a credit hour is an hour a week in class and two hours of student work outside class. And every teacher I’ve ever known has worked WAY more hours than any one student. Between writing the next session’s notes and grading papers or tests and writing e-mails of encouragement or praise or threat of failure, I’ve personally never had fewer than five hours outside class per one in. But let’s be conservative, and say that the 45 contact hours per semester comes to 180 actual hours of labor (one in-class per three out-of-class).

All of the course prep—the creation of the syllabus, the selection of the readings, the coordination with the department chair over learning goals, the coordination with the IT department over getting materials onto the course management system—lies outside the 15-week window, and is work provided for free. Let’s be conservative there as well and say another 80 hours. Then there’s the end of the semester—the grading of final papers or final exams, the agonizing over assigning final grades, the collection and archiving of student work for the accreditation visit. That also is outside the window, more free work. Let’s say another 80 hours for that. Plus the generic e-mail crap that happens in every organization, more or less non-stop: another 40 during the semester? (That’s two or three hours a week, which seems pretty low.)

So the fact is that those 45 contact hours are a fiction that conceals about 350 to 400 hours of work. And a $3,600 pre-tax stipend, which doesn’t carry any benefits like health care or retirement contributions, spread over 400 hours of work comes to $9 per hour. Where I live, in Vermont, that’s just shy of the minimum wage.

Now, of course, if I teach that course a second time, and I’m a sloppy teacher who doesn’t care about my work, then I’ve already got the syllabus in the bag and just change the dates; I’ve already got the reading list, regardless of which readings were helpful last semester and which ones weren’t; I’ve jettisoned almost all of my serious homework for quizzes; and I’m reading my lectures off the same notes I made for last year, because I don’t really care if they’re listening to me or not. So now, at that least-effort scenario (which probably wouldn’t get me re-hired, by the way), I might get my workload down to maybe 250 hours for the course. Whoa, baby! I’m all the way up to $14.40 an hour!

And this is for the most educated workforce in the nation, the adjunct teaching population who’ve amassed PhDs and EdDs and MFAs galore and had it come to naught. People stick with it because they love teaching, or because they don’t want to let the dream die, or because it’s just humiliating to know that you can actually make more money at Dunkin Donuts.

Oh, and that $3,600 for the course is actually pretty good nationwide. The AAUP reports that the median for a three-credit course nationally is $2,700. So take everything I’ve said and figure three-quarters of that.

On Academic Writing

I was writing to a friend this afternoon about her dissertation work, and remembered a story I’d forgotten until today.

I finished my dissertation in November 1996. I’d explicitly structured it as a series of stories, each about a particular kid in a particular place, and then pulling it together like Aesop or Rod Serling to provide the moral of the story, the intellectual lesson to be learned about teenagers’ meanings of the places in their lives. I’d cleared that approach with my dissertation committee two years earlier; in fact, I chose my committee because they were in agreement about its potential, and about my ability to pull it off. (Thanks, y’all.)

Some months later, after having graduated, I got an e-mail from the department’s director of sponsored research. I knew her to say hi to in the hallway, but I’d never really worked with her. I was too naive to understand what “sponsored research” even meant or why it mattered (it’s in the book now, though, look it up), and so hadn’t worked with her to locate any potential funding or anything.

Anyway, she sends me this e-mail, now lost to the weedpatch of the internet, but in paraphrase, she said “I had the chance to read your dissertation, and I had a lot of problems with it as the culmination of an academic process. If you wanted to write a novel, you should have made that clear in your proposal.”


Academic writing is a form of courtly ritual, in which you bow to your elders. It’s properly sequenced, properly dressed, layered in the dozens of rules of decorum that mark you as part of polite society. Citing Derrida and Foucault is good; calling something “Derridean” or “Foucauldian” is even better. And in my colleague’s eyes, I’d shown up to the cotillion in board shorts and flip flops, PBR can in hand.

Trust me, if you get on about Toyotist labor relations or “transgressivity” or “further complicating” something, no human being will ever, ever follow you down that road. You will almost literally hear the web browser go on to another page. Much of academic writing isn’t really writing at all; it’s a form of supplication. As a doctoral student, you’re in the equivalent of charm school, learning how to use a fish fork and to whom to curtsey, which direction to turn to change partners in the waltz and how to properly manage the tails of your evening coat while seated for dinner. Your dissertation demonstrates that that you know the appropriate layering of corset and petticoat and hoopskirt and overskirt, that you know how to properly wear a chatelaine, and that you have the leisure (or the servants) to keep all of that clean and pressed.

I’d make a terrible dissertation advisor, because I like to read, and I don’t like to be bored. (I’ve actually been a dissertation committee member twice, and both of those students wrote really interesting, narratively charged research. Neither has an academic position now. I feel as though I helped them as writers, and hindered them as scholars, because I myself didn’t—and still don’t—care about the details of courtly protocol.)

So, please, write your dissertation as a proof of membership. And then write the book for me.

Wait, what?

One of the joys of being on my small community’s selectboard is that you never know what the next meeting is going to bring. Buy 440 cubic yards of gravel? No problem. The ATV club wants permission to operate four-wheelers on North Street? Sure, we’ll consider that. Property tax rates, counting votes, painting the cemetery sign, we got it all covered.

And right now, we’re looking to hire a maintenance worker for our highway crew. (Applications close Monday 8/15, get your materials in soon… Come on, you think you’re getting a faculty job? Get ready to be a plow truck driver.) And one of the applicants, under the kind of equipment he knew how to operate, included the fact that he could run a backo.

backhoeI love that. A backhoe (this thing on the right, sometimes called a bucket loader, depending on which end you’re looking at) is the ubiquitous piece of light construction equipment that every town and every landscape contractor and every utility company owns. And when you say it on a Vermont jobsite, it totally sounds like “backo.”


I work with a lot of faculty on writing instruction, and invariably someone will complain about how badly their students spell. And I always try to explain that our students have grown up with auditory media, with TV and YouTube and text spelling, and they just don’t have as much experience as we do in looking at words on a page. Whereas I have read millions and millions of words that I can define and spell but can’t pronounce.

This is the fate of the self-raised scholar (excuse me, the autodidact). We are perpetual prodigies, overachievers, always playing above our level and always knowing we could be caught out as impostors at any moment. And one of the traps we’ll catch ourselves in is mispronouncing some word in a way that labels us as rubes. We’ve read it, we know it, but we don’t hang out with people who use it in conversation, and so we may never have heard it.

So here’s a quick pronunciation quiz. Don’t look at the bottom, play it fair, and see if you’re fit for the faculty lounge.

ITEM A: The word “hegemony” is pronounced:

  1. HEDGE-a-money
  2. HEGG-a-money
  3. huh-GEM-uh-knee

ITEM B: Your college’s president is throwing a “gala.” Does that most closely rhyme with:

  1. paila? (as in, “We’re gonna need another paila joint compound up here, Larry!”)
  2. holla? (as in, “Yo, Larry, holla back when you get this!”)
  3. palla? (as in, “Yeah, Larry’s an old palla mine from way back.”)

ITEM C: Someone writes that your research is “sui generis.” When you read that to your dissertation chair, you pronounce it:

  1. swee generous
  2. soo-eye gun-AIR-is
  3. soo-ee je-NAIR-is
  4. soo-eye generous

Scoring: The last answer in each list is preferred. If you didn’t get three for three, we have an opening on the road crew. (An extra point if you know that different syllables are emphasized in hegemony and hegemonic.)

Bureaucratic Blues

It’s increasingly evident to me that accreditation is an instance of Oscar Wilde’s observation about “knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Wilde used that as his definition of a cynic, and accreditation increasingly feels cynical to me.

Bureaucracies are almost by definition cynical enterprises. They have to believe that everybody who participates in them is about to cheat somehow, or at least is too stupid to organize their work properly, and so must develop policies and flowcharts and rules for documentation. And every one of those rules was derived, in fact, from a cheat or a pettifogger in the past. That one moment of malfeasance was hardened into a code that we all must live by, one that takes up valuable time and goodwill from those of us not interested in cheating. We all have to take off our shoes in the airport line, have to bring our birth certificate to the DMV. Bureaucracies are born of fear, grow from fear, harden and become rigid from fear.

It’s a shame that classrooms, those potentially most open and courageous of spaces, only live within bureaucratic structures. Higher education is increasingly a category mismatch, invention housed within rigidity.

How does a school lose its accreditation? Not for producing insufficient scholarship. Not for having its graduates unable to pass professional exams. Not for abusing thousands of grad students and post-docs, or for having a 30% success rate in their doctoral programs. No, the only problems that seem to threaten accreditation are a) being broke, b) taking way too much federal financial aid, or c) lying on your paperwork. I wait for the day in which some fourth-tier college loses its accreditation because its faculty just isn’t very bright, or because their students drink far too much and have a rape-culture problem covered up by the dean of students.

So when we write about our schools in our accreditation reporting, we can never write about what matters. We can never write about the curiosity and goodwill with which we approach the work. We can never write about the generosity with which we support our students. We can never write about the day-to-day collegiality that enlivens the corridors. We can only demonstrate that the accounts balance.

Learning to Teach

I remember being a TA for ARCH302, Architecture and Human Relations. It was my second year of grad school, and I got to give three or four of the semester’s lectures. And because I was still pretty new to the field, and because I didn’t trust either my knowledge or my speaking skill, I spent three weeks writing each one, and then read it. It was the equivalent of playing from your sheet music on the stand.

Now, for a huge lecture, I’m comfortable spending a day writing a few pages of notes to keep me on track, and to remind myself of key phrasing. I’ve done a 90-minute talk to six hundred people, glancing at my notes every forty seconds or so to make sure I wasn’t skipping something important, and gotten rave reviews. I couldn’t have done that in 1992, but it was comfortable and familiar by 2013.

I’m comfortable leading a seminar, walking in with nothing but the book we’ve all read and helping a dozen people find new things they’d overlooked. Helping a student examine why she thinks some passage mattered. Helping a student make a connection between this book and the article they read two weeks back.

Twenty years of practice has to be good for something. But I apologize for some of the sessions I practiced on along that path.

It’s not talked about much, but teaching has a lot of parallels with musical performance, one of which is that you have to learn it. And there’s no practice sessions, no private tutors, no high school band where you get to be awful on the way to being better. You learn through public performance, by giving the teaching equivalent of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with all the missed notes and poor timing of any fourth grade trombonist.

College families don’t really know this, either. They don’t realize that some of the courses their golden child will take will be taught by the teaching equivalent of Evelyn Glennie, and others will be taught by the teaching equivalent of the kid down the block who just got a guitar and an amp for his thirteenth birthday.

For those of you learning to teach, be prepared to do it poorly for a while. If you come with good intentions, your students themselves will help you find the boundaries, will show you what worked so that you can recover from what didn’t.

For those of you experiencing a bad teacher, please remember that it may not be his fault. Nobody’s taught him how to do this. He may be picking up his first piece of sheet music and stumbling his way through his first recital. If you come with good intentions, it’ll help him figure some things out and be better in November than he was in August.