I had spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business when I began teaching journalism as an adjunct at a university near my home in 2008. Because of my relative ignorance about the academic world in those early days, I decided to keep my head down and my mouth shut about issues that occasionally inflamed my faculty colleagues.
One of the subjects that frequently came up was pay, or the slightness of it even for those faculty members with doctorates and tenure. That issue, I came to realize over the next few years, is terribly misunderstood and grossly misrepresented by members of the general public, many of whom believe that most professors earn generous salaries to teach a few classes a week while sitting in high places and thinking great thoughts. And then they take the summer off.
As I came to learn, however, the hours in academe are long and merciless and the pay is ridiculously low—by any standard. When I became a full-time instructor three years later—or "limited term instructor" in the parlance of my university—I wound up teaching five courses a semester, in part because I wanted to add a history course to my four journalism courses since my master’s is in military history. I joked with my wife that I was working three times as hard in retirement for less than half the money that I made in the newspaper business. She never laughed and never got the joke, because it wasn’t a joke. It was true.
Two recent events caused me to take a step back and reconsider my future in higher education and the pace I was keeping. The first was I had another birthday. As I sit here I can see 70 lurking out there in the dim but not-too-distant future and I am not too sure how much longer I could keep up the pace demanded even of full-time instructors.
Even though I did not have the academic credentials of my colleagues, I was expected to perform many of the same nonteaching duties as other members of the faculty. That included doing research, writing, publishing, serving on various committees, and performing other service obligations for the university, the department, and the community. It’s tough to do all that when you’re already working seven days a week just to keep up with classes and student demands. And the fact that I had co-authored and been the principal writer and researcher of five commercial books on military history was considered interesting but not academically relevant in the world of higher education because those books had not been peer-reviewed or published by an academic press.
So this year I decided to give up my position as a full-time instructor and go back to being an adjunct. This fall, instead of teaching five days a week I will be teaching just three. That, I hope, will give me the time I have been seeking to write and do more research.
The second incident that convinced me that I was doing the right thing by cutting back on my teaching—and that many educators at the college and university level are grossly underpaid—involved one of my students. I had recommended this student for an internship as a writer and editor at an internet security company. She is bright, funny, motivated, and has an incredible work ethic unlike any I had ever seen in a 22-year-old. Over the next few months her supervisors repeatedly told me with a great deal of enthusiasm: "Send us more Katies. We love her."
After graduating in May, Katie was offered a full-time position at this company. When she sent me the news, I learned that her starting pay will be $2,000 a year more than I made for three consecutive years as a full-time instructor with more than 40 years’ experience in my field. I am incredibly happy for her, and proud of her for moving so seamlessly from a world of academic achievement to the corporate world, where she will be solving real problems, not theoretical ones.
My intent here is not to point out the disparity in pay scales between the private sector and public colleges and universities. That is quite obvious to those who labor at public institutions and do so either because they love it, or because they feel ensnared by their doctorate to press on in academe regardless. Rather, if there is a grand purpose here, it is to let the world of academe know that by perpetuating that pay disparity, it will drive off potential adjuncts who have expertise that would be valuable to share with students but who aren’t desperate enough to teach for the piddling amount of money colleges offer for that skill.
Undoubtedly there are many people like myself who would enjoy working with young people more if the pay were better. There is nothing more energizing than to see a student finally understand a concept you are trying to explain, or get them to realize that there is a wider world out there beyond Facebook and Twitter and it’s rather interesting if they take the time to look into it.
I will miss the daily interaction with students at this university and the time we spent discussing news, newspapers, history, and life, and the opportunity I had to impart to them some real-world experiences from which they could learn.
But I will not miss the mind-numbing administrative duties that seem to multiply every year to ensure that we either are working to some subjective standard or, in some cases, that we are just working. The workload seemed beyond what was required of actual classroom time and the preparation and grading that goes with that. But the paycheck never kept pace. In the private sector that usually would entail a job change. In academe, however, there’s really no place else to run to if you want to teach college students.