So my first month as president of the Modern Language Association (MLA) has turned out to be surprisingly eventful. After receiving my very own gavel with my name on it and being given access to the nuclear codes,** I returned home from the convention in Seattle to write the president’s welcome letter, the letter announcing the theme for the 2013 convention in Boston, and my first (of four) newsletter columns (soon to be found in an MLA Newsletter near you, and of course on the MLA Web site). I then began the rigorous training regimen required for chairing the two-day meetings of the MLA Executive Council (February, May, October), which includes drinking egg-white smoothies and punching enormous hanging pieces of tofu in the MLA’s icy soy locker.
Then in mid-January, Executive Director Rosemary Feal and I decided I should attend the January 28 summit meeting of the New Faculty Majority, whose tweets I had been following on the Twitter machine. (I finally activated my account. Yes, I have a Twitter account. But I’m still not joining Facebook, now more than ever.) Washington, DC is one of the few places I can visit on short notice from my remote mountain lair, and the NFM is a group Rosemary and I want to work with during my presidential year and beyond—trying to get the US higher education apparatus (starting with the American Association of Colleges and Universities) to take seriously, and to ameliorate, the working conditions of non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty. So attending the summit, together with MLA Director of Research David Laurence, made all kinds of sense.
I reported on the summit for Inside Higher Ed, and then posted a longer (though not Holbonian—merely 2500 words) director’s cut on the MLA site. Rosemary and I then Tweeted these things to the Twitterati.
And here’s where things get interesting.
In the longer version of my essay, I had noted that the MLA publishes recommendations for per-course compensation for NTT faculty. This comes as no surprise to me; I remember very well when the Delegate Assembly authorized those recommendations over ten years ago, and when I was a member (and then chair) of the MLA’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities, I helped to update them, as we do each year. Indeed, one year we had a spirited discussion over whether our recommendations were realistic. You’re about to see why.
Apparently, few people—even among the MLA membership—know about these recommendations. So here they are, in relevant part:
Following a review of best practices in various institutions, the MLA recommends minimum compensation for 2011–12 of $6,800 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course or $4,530 for a standard 3-credit-hour quarter or trimester course. These recommendations are based on a full-time load of 3 courses per semester (6 per year) or 3 courses per quarter or trimester (9 per year); annual full-time equivalent thus falls in a range of $40,770 to $40,800.
University of Georgia writing instructor Josh Boldt, who also attended the NFM summit, responded on his blog “Copy and Paste,” from which I will proceed to copy and paste:
Almost $7K per course! Most adjuncts have never seen anything close to that figure. I personally have taught at schools that pay right at or below $2000 maximum per course. Feel free to do the math on that one (Hint: a 5/5 pays $20,000 annually). You can be a terrible human being and still recognize that a full-time teacher should earn much more than that. Just in case you’re not familiar with the usual procedure, full-time professors generally teach much less than 10 courses per year. Some teach as few as three. The MLA’s recommendation is based on the assumption of a 3/3 teaching load, which sounds about perfect. I would venture to say most adjuncts would agree. Three courses per semester is ideal because it allows teaching to be the primary focus (as it should be), and it also permits some time for research and professional development. So, about $40,000 a year. That isn’t too much to ask I don’t think. Especially considering all adjuncts have advanced degrees in their fields.
It is not too much to ask. We think it’s the bare minimum: it certainly doesn’t constitute making a comfortable living. It merely allows NTT faculty a standard of living a bit higher than the one Boldt references later on in this post, in which college professors “eat Ramen noodles for dinner, and worry about whether or not they have enough gas in the tank to coast to work the rest of the week.”
The problem, of course, is that most NTT positions don’t offer this bare minimum. As I pointed out in the longer version of my NFM report, only 7% of the departments surveyed by the MLA offered per-course wages of $6,800 or more. I didn’t add—but I will now—that the vast majority of surveyed departments offered per-course wages somewhere between $2,500 and $6,800. And a good number of institutions paid less than $2,500.
“Wait a second,” you say. “What do you mean, ‘somewhere between $2,500 and $6,800’? That’s quite a range, isn’t it?” Yes it is. On the high end, up around $5,000 – $6,500, it’s almost like making a decent living. On the low end, it’s basically Ramenland. So we’re working on refining and updating and disaggregating the data, which is one of the many things David Laurence does as Director of Research.
Let’s combine forces and establish which schools are doing good work, and which are doing bad. Fill in as much information as you feel comfortable doing, and be sure to tweet this document and share it via Facebook, email, listserv, or anywhere else you can think of.
At the summit, we discussed the idea of creating a “Hall of Fame” of the best universities to work for. I would like to see hundreds of schools get added to this list. Eventually, faculty treatment might even become a standard in the accreditation process. This is a good start. If you have current information on the compensation practices for a school, check out the document and add it to the list.
So, what Josh and Tedra said: let’s combine forces. Please spread the word far and wide among the academic blogs, if you haven’t already.
For our part, the MLA will be following Josh’s survey with great interest; we have been working on our own data-gathering model for thousands of institutions, which connects to our work on the Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey project. As I type, we’re gathering current, institution-level data about per-course salaries and selected benefits—which is one of the several data-collection projects carried out by the MLA’s Office of Research and the IT department. (Just for those of you who think the MLA is basically an annual convention, or perhaps a citation style.) I’ll be sure to let everyone know when ours is ready to roll out. In the meantime, thanks to Josh Boldt for taking the initiative on this.
** Only one of these improbable things is true.