The Economcs of Adjuncting

This coming semester I’ll be teaching a class titled “Digital Storytelling” in the Computer Science department here at UMW. I haven’t taught through a classroom since the Summer of 2007, and I’m excited about the opportunity to integrate a lot of what I’ve been doing into a course that parallels many of my interests at the moment. And while I will be talking extensively about the design and logic behind this class on the bava, I wanted to take a moment to take a look at the economics behind adjuncting—a position I’ve held on and off for the last 12 years now.

When I received my contract letter for teaching this course, I remembered just why I had taken a break from adjuncting—the salary: $2976. At first it almost seems like a nice round number, but when you break it down, what does this figure really mean in terms of work? Well, I did some calculations with the DTLT crew today and we figured something like this. To design and teach a new course you probably need about 30-40 hours up front for reading, syllabus, general organization, etc. Add to that the time for teaching each week: 6 hours x 15 weeks = 90 hours. And add to that prep time each week: 6 hours x 15 weeks= 90 hours. Finally, add some office hours: 2 hours x 15= 30. Conservatively, you get something like the following in terms of hours spent working.

Pre-semester preparation: 35 hours
Teaching: 90 hours
Prep: 90 hours
Office hours: 30 hours

Total: 240 hours

So, what does the hourly wage work out to be for an adjunct professor at UMW? Well if you divide 2976 by 240 you get a whooping $12.14 an hour.

I know this might seem somewhat crass, and not inline with the “mission” of teaching for the love of passionately sharing and/or inspiring imaginations, but while I do love teaching and I’m rather passionate about the digital landscape right now, I’m also deeply troubled by the blatant inequalities within academia when it comes to part-time teaching labor, not to mention a grossly underpaid staff and facilities crew, which are in many ways keeping the machine running. And while I’m very much a part of that machine in my day job as an instructional technologist, I’m also aware of just how much I’m driven to “profess” by the cultural capital teaching a college-level class affords me. Not to mention the sacrosanct idea of the “mission” of the university—which often works to elide just how labor works within it.

So, why am I writing this? Well, because I don’t want to forget just how much of what we do in higher ed is premised on an economic and institutional stratification of roles and privilege that is all too often deflected by this larger sense of missionary work for the love of teaching and learning. And while a shared goal is not necessarily detrimental, it certainly seems problematic when any sense of negotiation, organization, and reflection on these realities at our institutions of higher learning is so seldomly attended to. For if we did take these issues seriously, and start to think more structurally around the deeper problems of educational institutions throughout the US, one of the conclusions we would soon come to is just how little value is placed on those that do the work, and how much is placed on those that oversee it. A reality which unearths so many of the underlying struggles and stratifications that have been, and continue to be, a fascinatingly hypocritical microcosm of the world education is supposed to save us from.

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15 Responses to The Economcs of Adjuncting

  1. Hello, Jim,

    It costs much less to have a class taught by adjunct instructors than by faculty in a tenured (or tenure track) position.

    Students pay the same amount of money for that course.

    For people who oversee the books at universities, the math on this is a no-brainer.

    The notion that “teaching is a noble profession” is the type of hogwash people use to excuse underpaying/exploiting teachers.



  2. Reverend says:


    Absolutely, and it kills me that so much of what education understands itself around is this kind of transcendent spirit of profession, and while I do think learning and great teaching can be transformative, I’m not so sure how we are cultivating this in institutions given the material conditions of higher ed these days. And therein lies the great conflict for me, because I do really enjoy teaching, and absolutely jump at the chance, but it is increasingly becoming financially prohibitive given the rampant devaluation of the profession more generally.

    I love it when we agree for once 😉

  3. djs says:

    Do you remember your post about “the glass bees”. Let me transcript some quotes:

    “it is over the struggle for the future of our culture that is assailed from all corners by the vultures of capital. Corporations are selling us back our ideas, innovations, and visions for an exorbitant price”

    “the voracious appetite of capital to co-opt and re-package the labor of others as its own, patented, insanely expensive, proprietary product?”

    “then capital can quickly recognize this fact and co-opt all the hard work”

    The same point: this measurement “out of joint”. Both posts talk about the same problem.


  4. Clay says:

    The new administration at UMW does not want anyone teaching without an advanced agree. Even though I had taught the same undergraduate class twice and received all positive reviews from my students on the course evaluations I had to co-teach with someone ‘qualified’ in order to have the privilege of teaching again.
    The person I was co-teaching with could not do any podium time because he was teaching another class at another institute of higher learning on the same night. He also did not want to do quiz/exam creation or grading because he was not in the classroom.
    My pay for the course was half what it had been the previous semesters, but I still had to put in well over 90% of the amount of time I previously put in, if not the same amount of time.
    My pay for that final full three credit course: about $1,300.
    Mastering the question, “Do you want the meal, or just the sandwich?” would have probably earned more pay, but would not have been nearly as satisfying.
    I keep asking myself why I’m going through a Masters now, spending many thousands of dollars, to be a qualified adjunct. My decision is not based on pay, but I’m sure many others have made the opposite decision that I have.
    Hey, it pays more than blogging.

  5. Mike Bogle says:

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for taking the time to write this. It’s is exceptionally timely given I’m grappling with the notion of identifying with the perspectives of the teaching staff in the faculty I’ve just moved to. I’m not sure how similar the inequities are between what we would call “sessional staff” or adjunct teachers and tenured professors in Australia, but at least at a basic level I’m hearing some similarities in what you’re describing.

    So really, when the topic of exploration of educational technology, or harnessing of social media comes up and people say they don’t have the time or interest in this sort of thing, I’ll have a much better idea of the sorts of challenges some of them maybe facing.

    Economics indeed :S

  6. Keith W. says:

    Hi Jim,

    I’m just finishing an introductory edtech course as a sessional. As a full time administrative staff member I get a special (lower) pay rate for teaching than other sessionals. Interestingly I could never get sessional work in my MA field (PhDs only) but can teach technology because its what I do (and love) for my day job.

  7. David says:

    I taught a class as an adjunct about a year and a half ago and the pay was incredibly low. The school administrator said, “Well, we hope you get something out of teaching beyond just the money.” I might as well go and canvass for the environment! Needless to say, I’ve moved on and now I work for a fast food chain and have health benefits, paid vacation and a decent hourly wage.

  8. You left out marking…

  9. Luke says:

    I also might add that you seem to underbudget time for prep. I rarely have prepped less than twice my in-class time.

    This is by no means an indictment of your teaching this class as an adjunct — I have in the past hope to do so again in the near future. Ultimately, though, we perpetuate the system by participating in it. At CUNY, adjuncts allow the university to function; graduate students and underemployed PhDs allow themselves to be exploited and the system to refresh itself by adjuncting to build a teaching portfolio or, somehow, “for the money.” Part of me is sympathetic with their plight; but only part of me.

    I’m all for asking tough questions of our institutions, and think those questions should primarily seek to speak truth to power. But maybe there’s also space for tough questions to be directed towards those who adjunct… especially those who do so over and over and over again. Many of these folks are unable or unwilling to read the writing on the wall: they will never get TT positions in higher education, and by continuing to take these jobs they are doing nobody a service, all while inflating the supply of labor. Their adjuncting is often self-serving: they think by continuing to build their teaching portfolio, eventually The Job will come. This argument goes hand in hand with the argument that standards for admission to grad school should be higher, and PhDs granted should be fewer.

    All grad students think they’ll be the next star in their field. I’d argue it’s past time for some reality checks across the system (I’m working through my own right now). If you teach because you love to teach, go teach primary school. They need you more. And if our universities really cared about quality of instruction, they’d put a limit on the number of courses non-FT faculty are allowed to teach. Ha.

    Of course, all of this is easy for me to say… I seem to have found another path that keeps me in academia and intellectually engaged, and my family fed. But maybe that’s also part of the point.

  10. Tom says:

    I seem to keep having to say that systems built on martyrdom are not going to work out. Pretty much all things education are based on the people doing the work getting paid as little as possible.

    • Reverend says:

      We talked about this on the way back from NYC, and I think there is a really interesting and challenging presentation/post/flickr image/video or however you role these days in the Martyr frame. I entirely agree with you, and it gives you a lot of material to play with to illustrate your point. It could be fun.

  11. Thanks for your intersting post Jim. I’ve been thinking about adjunct teaching in universities in the last week or so, not so much from an equity point of view, although I agree with your points, but from an edtech adoption point of view.

    In your case you are familar with the institution that you are teaching in and you are extremeley familiar with edtech delivery options to acompany your f2f activities. Most adjunct staff are not all that familiar with the institution they teach in, they are not familiar with edtech and they are not familiar with the specific edtech environment of the institution. Furthermore, they are not paid to attend professional development training and they probably don’t want to either. All of this makes it very difficult to mainstream the adoption of key edtech across the institution. At my university approaching 50% of teaching is delivered by part time, sessional staff. In some cases this includes the course coordinator or subject leader, call them what you will.

    I wrote a short post about this here ( I would really like to know your thoughts on this.



  12. Jaimie says:

    Great post here. Timely for me as I approach my one year anniversary of being an adjunct (previously I worked full time in Student Affairs and taught one class). It’s SO MUCH WORK and the pay doesn’t reach what I made in student affairs – even with teaching FIVES classes. I have a few questions: what did you set out to do when you entered higher Ed? What do you think you’ll do in the future? Have you heard of many instructional designers who get tenure track positions later in their careers? Just some things I’m pondering.

    • Reverend says:

      I actually started as a Ph.D. student in American literature. I taught as an adjunct at CUNY as part of my time there, but with a much as two to three classes a semester, it became full time. The plan was to get a job in edtech to pay the bills while I finished the dissertation, the rest is bava history. I came to UMW, got really into edtech, and gave up my pursuits of a Ph.D. a couple of years later. The choice is one I don;t regret, and I’ve taught fairly regularly at UMW which came me connected to that world. As for instructional designers, I’m not sure because I don’t really know that field—I consider it distinct from instructional technology. That might be a whole ‘nother post though. Folks who get tenure track usually have their Ph.D., which is not my case. I imagine some might hit edtech and then return to teaching fulltime, but I don’t have any examples to share.

      get a job w

  13. Jaimie says:

    Very interesting story… Edtech sounds way me interesting than American Literature but that’s just me. Lol.Thanks for sharing. I did mean Instructional Technologist not designer.

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