Contract or job?

The gig economy is getting some pushback from workers who claim that they’re actually employees rather than contractors, and thus deserve some of the rights normally afforded to workers. Notably, Uber has lost such a case in England, and in 2013, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against an employer based on six criteria:

  1. does the employer exercise control over how the work is performed?
  2. does the employee risk profit or loss depending on his/her managerial skill? (Note that key word managerial. Not technical, but logistical and supervisory.)
  3. does the employee provide materials and equipment necessary for the job?
  4. does the service provided require a special skill?
  5. how permanent is the presumed working relationship?
  6. to what extent is the service provided a core element of the employer’s business model?

No legal case is a clean 100% slam-dunk; that’s why we have lawyers and judges. But look at this list and think about the lives of adjunct teachers.

  1. The college sets the curriculum, often sets a lot of the course content (especially for lower-division courses), sets the time and location and number of students.
  2. The teacher’s contract is renewed based primarily on showing up, lack of complaints, and student performance. Is this a managerial skill or a content skill, or something other altogether? Not too much different than the criteria for Starbucks baristas, after all.
  3. The teacher does not provide the campus, the classroom, or the learning management software. The lab teacher does not provide the lab equipment nor the experimental materials. The music teacher does not provide the instruments nor the music stands nor the CD player.
  4. The teaching of upper-division specialty courses by one-off adjuncts requires a special skill: contract law, say, or clarinet performance. The teaching of lower-division general education courses is much more commodity-based, with thousands of people in the Boston metropolitan area who could provide freshman comp or a western history survey.
  5. Again, the professional who stops in and teaches a specialized course every so often is really a la carte. But lots of schools have armies of reliable adjuncts whom they turn to over and over and over for those core classes.
  6. Classroom teaching is the fundamental product of the higher education business model.

Call me crazy, but I think that rather than fighting for better stipends for adjuncts, unions would be better served by filing a federal suit claiming employee status for a sizable proportion of adjuncts.

Just for fun, here’s the Form SS8 that the Internal Revenue Service uses to determine contractor or employee status for tax purposes. Fill it out and see what you think.

Professional Boundaries

What can lawyers do that paralegals cannot?

  1. They can establish the attorney-client relationship
  2. They can offer legal advice
  3. They can sign papers and pleadings on behalf of a client
  4. They can appear in court on behalf of a client
  5. They can set and collect fees
  6. They can earn a national average salary of $133,000, as compared to an average paralegal salary of about $52,000.

What can RNs do that LPNs cannot? Basically, they can enter your body through any natural or artificial opening, and I’m going to leave it at that. Except that they can earn a national average salary of about $70,000, as compared to an average LPN/LVN salary of $43,400.

So what can faculty do that adjuncts cannot? (Aside from making, on average, $57,000 as assistant professors instead of the national average of $2,700 per course?)

  1. They can participate in the ongoing life of their program or institution, through:
    • Hiring new colleagues
    • Reviewing those colleagues at promotion and tenure time
    • Choosing new graduate students
    • Setting the larger course of the curriculum
    • Engaging in budget deliberations
    • Serving in or being consulted by the faculty senate
  2. They can participate in the ongoing life of their discipline, through
    1. Being supported in the pursuit of their scholarly work
    2. Being supported in presenting and publishing the outcomes of that scholarly work
    3. Serving as mentors to upper division undergraduates doing senior theses or undergraduate research, or serving as doctoral committee members or chairs

These restrictions are often presented as liberations—”You won’t be responsible for research or service, just teaching.” We can also, by so doing, liberate you from decent wages and benefits, liberate you from any sense of permanence or mutual responsibility, and liberate you from any further academic contact with the very best students in your intro course who want to be able to take more classes with you in the future.

Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose…

The Barber’s Wisdom

Every six or eight weeks, I go to the next town over and stop in for a haircut. It’s a one-chair barbershop in a ratty 19th century commercial building, behind the laundromat and across the street from the convenience store.

Jeff has three kids. One just got his PhD, one teaches high school physics, and the third is an academic librarian. Jeff is none of those things himself, just a barber with a coffee table of magazines (golf, hunting, cars and motorcycles) for the waiting crowds. Dads bringing their sons in for their monthly buzz cuts. Retirees keeping their hair tight enough to fit under feed caps.

Jeff’s thwarted a couple of armed robberies by just being alert to what’s going on outside his shop, once calling the cops and delivering careful descriptions of two people carrying a bag out of a branch bank. Said bag had purple smoke coming out of it, a pretty decent giveaway that something was awry.

Jeff may not have a PhD himself, but he’s no dope.

Last time I was in, a couple weeks back, we were chatting about the new solar-generation project and such, and he was talking about the things he’d seen change in our area. I asked him how he got into barbering in the first place…

Well, I was never much for school. I didn’t like to read, didn’t like doing homework. My brothers went to college, and I knew I didn’t want to go. But my folks said I gotta do something. So I went over to New Hampshire and went to barber college. Then I moved to Western Mass and worked there for a year or so, and I thought, “I don’t really like it here, I’m gonna move back to Vermont.” So I came back up here and rented this spot, been here since 1975. Never signed a lease. Fella that owns the place, he pays the heat and I pay the lights. Worked out good so far.

Back when Jeff started his shop, a little less than half of all high school grads went to college. Now it’s nearly 70%, because of our mythology of “college for all” and “21st century workforce development” and such. And I wonder… how do we make more room for Jeff? How do we help kids become intelligent, productive adults in ways other than four more years of classrooms? Even trades are now most often taught in “trade schools,” sometimes of high cost and dubious merit, since unions have been decimated and have had to reduce their apprenticeship programs.

My wife is writing about a man who grew up in this area in the 19th century. He was apprenticed at age 10 to a wood turner, and ultimately became a highly talented maker of spinning wheels (along with owning a sawmill). He had what by all accounts was a good life, ten kids and a good member of his Quaker community. It’s easy to think of this as antiquated, but many of us even now are the first in our families to go to college. My own father quit school at 14, probably seventh or eight grade, and got a factory job to help support his family. That was enough to build a forty-year career as a machinist, to buy a house and raise four sons.

Being good in school ought to be only one of innumerable life paths, not the 70% model. We need more options, more definitions of successful adulthood, like the independent barber who anchors his community and sent all three of his own kids to college and beyond.

Flooding the Market

Just got back from some chores, looking through the mail. My wife (Ph.D. Environmental Psychology, CUNY Graduate Center, 1982) got an alumni solicitation letter from the psychology program’s new-ish “Acting Executive Officer,” crowing about the status of the program and asking for dough. Along with the bragging points about $25M in recent funding from the federal alphabet science agencies (NIH, NSF, NICHD), they had this glowing bit of news:

Over the past 5 years (2012-2016), we produced 337 Ph.D.’s, many of whom are receiving this letter now as alumni! Congratulations, and I hope that your careers have been successfully launched.

Well, first off, “hope” is not a strategy, as the saying goes. Does the psych graduate program actually DO anything to make sure that its doctoral alumni have successfully launched careers? Probably not so much. But second is just the raw numbers. This acceptably good program, ranked 44th out of the nation’s 185 doctoral psych programs by the National Research Council, has produced an average of nearly 70 new PhDs a year? Into a job market that accepts only a few hundred new tenure track hires? And you’re PROUD of that? It’s like training gladiators to be fed to the lions. As Marc Bousquet says, the PhD is now correctly understood as the END of one’s academic career.

The National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates shows 3,765 new PhDs in psychology in 2014. These people entered a hiring pool that the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s JobTracker research project estimated at 326 tenure-track positions at four year schools for the 2013-14 academic year. That’s one faculty job for every eleven and a half new scholars!

But grad students make cheap teachers, cheap lab assistants, and keep a 44th-ranked doctoral program afloat so that its director can send out fundraising letters and its faculty can rake in research funds. Really, it’s not much different than a payday lending operation; a way for those already wealthy to scrape a few more dollars out of the pockets of the desperate, leaving them on the streets when they’ve run dry.

And they wandered in
From the city of St. John
Without a dime
Wearing coats that shined
Both red and green
Colors from their sunny island
From their boats of iron
They looked upon the promised land
Where surely life was sweet
On the rising tide
To New York City
Did they ride into the street

See the glory
Of the royal scam

Steely Dan, 1976

Generational Mobility

The great immigrant experience is often told in terms of the plucky Irishman or Slav who came over on a crowded boat, got through Ellis Island, and managed to raise his family here in the land of the free. And while those stories are fascinating and plentiful, they’re also partial, because one of the reasons those people came was because they wanted better lives for their kids as well. The Staten Island bricklayer worked in the mud and the cold for pennies an hour, but his son became a cop; the cop’s son became a lawyer; the lawyer’s son became a partner in a big law firm and sent his son to Yale to become something no one could imagine. The waitress’ daughter became a hairdresser; the hairdresser’s daughter became a teacher; the teacher’s daughter became an engineer and sent her daughter on to Stanford to become something no one could imagine.

Cultural capital, like financial capital, accumulates over generations. Samuel P. Bush was a preacher’s son who became a steel manufacturing magnate; his son Prescott Bush was a financier involved in government military contract regulation; Prescott’s son George and his grandson George both became U.S. Presidents. In a very real way, the George W. Bush presidency was the tree that grew from the acorn of the blacksmith Timothy Bush’s decision to send his son Obadiah to school to became a schoolmaster. The 43rd presidency was born five generations back, in a village near Buffalo, at the turn of the 19th century.

Tatos Kardashian’s parents came from Turkey as religious emigrees. Tatos (later Americanized to Tom) started a garbage disposal business in the flourishing, booming Los Angeles basin. His son Arthur owned a vast meat packing business. Arthur’s son Robert became an attorney, who served as part of O.J. Simpson’s defense team. And Robert’s kids are now everywhere, Kourtney and Kim and Khloe (and Rob, too, I suppose). Reality television stardom was launched by a trash collector a hundred years earlier.

It takes a special kind of imagination to believe that one’s own prospects might be limited but safe enough to give one’s sons and daughters something larger. We talk easily about social class mobility, but on the scale of the individual, that’s really pretty rare. I think it happens far more often on a cross-generational level, descendants climbing the steps rather than leaping up the bluffs all at once. Those that do make the journey in a single generation are often, like all climbers ascending too quickly, afflicted by disorientation, vertigo, nausea, unexplained but persistent aches.




Not being a Marxist economist, I can’t add much to the concept of the commodity fetish, except to point out its multiple connections to contemporary higher education. The simple commodity is a product that has absolutely no differentiation by producer and no intention of a relationship between producer and consumer. A hundred pounds of milk, for instance, a standard unit of measurement in the industry. It’s picked up at the dairy, pumped into in the giant truck of other raw milk from everybody else, goes through the same processes and packaging as the milk from hundreds of other dairies, and winds up in a plastic jug in the supermarket, molecules intermingled with those from every other farm. Every dairy farmer gets the same price per unit, with no claim to unique quality being made except for a minimum threshold of purity and non-contamination. It can’t be any worse than the bottom, but it doesn’t need to be any better.

A college credit is just as commodified. As students become more mobile, as transfers become more common, the three credits you’ve accumulated in Intro Sociology at one school need to be recognized and converted into three credits of Intro Sociology at another school. The uniqueness of the experience you might have had with that teacher, the insights she led you to regarding the notions of stigma and shame, are no longer relevant; she has been eliminated from view in favor of the three credits of content she provided, and you likewise have been eliminated from view in favor of a person who owns three credits of content. Sociology and milk, uniform and impersonal products, drawn as needed from the common tank. To use my wife’s favorite word, they are fungible, non-differentiated and mutually exchangeable.

The fungibility of the commodity places downward pressure on price and on qualification of producer. If a particular dairy farmer thinks he needs $11.50 per hundredweight to break even, but the going market rate from the co-op is $11.20, then $11.20 it’s going to be, and the individual farmer gets to choose to a) lose 30 cents per hundred pounds or b) stop selling milk altogether. So too for adjunct faculty. Your Intro Sociology could be bought in the Boston Metro market for about $2,800 per three credits, so your choices are to a) teach for an embarrassingly small stipend or b) not teach at all. As long as you’re above the floor of competency, it doesn’t really matter if you’re any better.

So as the college experience is abandoned in favor of the college credit, it makes perfect sense to move to a Darwinian competition between desperate providers. The scary thing is the degree to which we’ve accepted the loss of the unique experience, are willing to settle for the quantifiable product. A college course should be a unique thing that you do, not a uniform product that you buy. But the logic of exchange consumes all other ways of thinking if we aren’t wary.

And frankly, if I think back on all of the college credits I’ve bought, how many of them were really uniquely valuable experiences? At Michigan Tech, none out of sixty. At Laney College in Oakland, a dozen out of thirty, most because of the unique brilliance of Tom Turman. At Berkeley, 27 of about 60. In grad school at UWM, maybe 36 of 54. You have to work really hard (and increasingly be really lucky) to deserve a quality premium, to be differentiated in the marketplace from the other content providers.

News sites, colleges, magazines, dairy co-ops… the place to be is on the inside. The content providers looking in from the outside will cannibalize each other, driving prices down for a chance to compete at all.


Oversimplifiers of the World, Unite!

For years, I’ve made the case that every faculty member plays three roles for their students, even without knowing they’re doing it.

  • There’s the teacher, the person who introduces students to the material of a field and the rigor of its investigation.
  • There’s the supervisor, the person who takes an apprentice worker and guides him or her to participation in a larger project.
  • And there’s the mentor, the person who guides a cultural novice into a greater understanding of the culture s/he’s about to enter.

Nobody is equally good at all three, nor do they care equally about all three. I’ve always been most comfortable with the role of the mentor, at least in part because I’ve never shed the feeling of having been a cultural novice myself, and knowing how badly I needed someone to help me just figure out where the rocks were in the river. The content I could figure out on my own. I’ve always been a feral scholar, I just needed to be protected from the predators while I was foraging.

So I had a great weekend with a good friend who is fundamentally a teacher, someone who loves her material so much that she’s compelled to share it with her students in its fullness. And we were talking about Derrida. Now, I have to admit that I’ve never read a word of Derrida, which I know makes me liable to have my humanist license revoked. It’s like failing a drug test, you just don’t get to keep your job. But my friend was explaining to me that part of Derrida’s argument was that language was so fluid and so unreliable as a reflection of “reality” that even the endeavor of clarity was a cop-out. He made his arguments opaque, she said, as a challenge to his readers to reckon with the opacity of all language at all times.

I get that. I do. But my friend explained that with such patience, with such generosity, that it made me even more impatient with the hostility of the source material itself. I recognize that Derrida was writing for the other handful of political philosophers of his day, not for the great unwashed like you and me. He didn’t take as his mission bringing the youngsters along. But still, it raises important questions of how we introduce complexity for our students.

I often use the metaphor of sandlot baseball when I talk about undergraduate research. If we taught baseball like we taught any academic subject, we’d have a semester of hitting, and a semester of catching balls in the air, and a semester of catching balls on the ground, and a semester of throwing, and a semester of running… and kids would learn to hate baseball just as much as they learn to hate school. There’s no real THING being done. But instead, wisely, we let little kids just play baseball. They play really badly, and we watch them and give them pointers on the things they’re struggling with the most right then (which is different for different kids), but they’re really playing baseball. That’s how you build the love for the game.

I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, a writer unafraid to oversimplify. “You’re of necessity simplifying,” he said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian. “If you’re in the business of translating ideas in the academic realm to a general audience, you have to simplify … If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them: you’re not the audience!” I love oversimplifying, at least in part because I love talking with people who’ve seen something a million times but never noticed it, never put categories on it, never thought about what it meant. My audience can be captivated, can be inspired, by oversimplification. And if it makes them excited, they can go read the source material on their own.

The book project I’m embarking upon now will force me to think about my own values as a teacher and a scholar; aimed as it will be at a general readership, I will absolutely be oversimplifying. And I’m entirely okay with that.

America’s Most Ignored Holiday

At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.

The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”

—Linda Stinson, Historian, United States Department of Labor

I’m working for a client right now who’s pushed a deadline back to Tuesday, so that everyone involved can have the coming “long weekend” to work on it.

Can you spot both oxymorons in that concept?

  1. Working on the weekend
  2. Working on Labor Day

If we really want to honor our country’s history, we could take a stand and respect the things that our ancestors worked so hard to create for us. Not merely freedom of speech and the right to vote, but the huge efforts (and significant sacrifice and more than occasional bloodshed) to limit employers’ power over our lives. Labor laws of all kinds—from minimum wage requirements to the 40-hour workweek, from workplace safety rights to the ability to organize and bargain collectively—did not come easily, but have been pretty easily surrendered.

Higher ed has led the raising of the white flag. Stipends for adjuncts allow schools to evade minimum wage laws, while the move toward salaries has allowed schools to ignore overtime (or more accurately, to expect massive amounts of overtime to be uncompensated). TAs, RAs, and student athletes are classified fundamentally as “students” rather than “employees” to limit their ability to push back on labor conditions. Limited term engagements like postdocs and visiting scholars and professors of the practice allow the sloughing off of those deemed to be no longer necessary. For a bunch of supposed lefties, we’ve sure walked back from our commitments toward collective wellbeing.

So here’s a pain-free way to show your support for labor. On this coming Sunday and Monday… don’t work. (Go out on Saturday and buy beer and hot dogs and gas for the car and whatever you need, so that you’re not making anybody else work on Sunday and Monday either.) And then, just chill. Support America from your lawn chair, from your inflatable pool, from the dog park. Support America from the beach, from the forest, from your kayak.

Support labor. Don’t f*^#@ing work on f*^#@ing Labor Day!!!

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.