Recently, the UCLA Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry posted a job listing for an adjunct position teaching classes. Recruiting short-term faculty to teach classes a la carte with no hope of tenure is now routine at universities. But this particular job listing attracted opprobrium, first on academic Twitter and then in Inside Higher Ed, the New York Times, and other periodicals, because it specified the position would be “without salary” and offer “no compensation.”
The most straightforward and the most popular interpretation is that such positions are an extension of adjunct faculty generally being paid less than one would expect given their level of education. At the University of California, full-time lecturers make the same salary as tenure-track faculty. What that conceals, though, is that a) most lecturers are not full-time and b) most tenure-track faculty are “off scale,” meaning that tenure-track faculty make more, sometimes much more, than the university minimum. The University of California lecturers’ union reports that part-time faculty make a median of just under $20,000 at the UC, though in most cases, this is not their only source of income, with additional income from teaching at other schools (often on the other side of town) or from a noneducational line of work.
The often low wages for adjunct faculty (and low compensation along other margins, such as poor job security) are predictable given the basic dynamics of the Ph.D. glut. There are far more Ph.D.s than there are traditional tenure-track jobs in academia. Some Ph.D.s do great work in industry, government, think tanks, etc., but many stay in academia even as the desirable jobs are filled. It is economics 101 that when supply goes up, prices go down. In the case of labor markets, that means if lots of workers are competing for few jobs, many of them will get low wages — and that lemma of the dismal science holds even when the workers in question have impressive degrees.
Still, it seems qualitatively different for someone to accept low wages than for them to accept zero wages. So, what is going on here?
One way to understand why lecturers might accept zero dollars is that it’s effectively a foot-in-the-door strategy to get more regular work in the future. This may sound far-fetched, but it does happen, and I personally experienced it. When I was in charge of UCLA’s undergraduate program in sociology, a lecturer (who I had already hired to teach one class with pay) asked me if they could teach extra classes, unpaid. I turned it down, as I considered it unethical for someone who is paid by the unit for teaching to teach extra units without compensation. I never asked this person why they wanted to teach extra courses, but I had the strong impression that they were trying to build a relationship with my department so as to be our first choice in teaching other classes for pay. That is, this lecturer was implicitly offering my department a volume discount below the university’s minimum.
In other cases, the monetary compensation someone gets from teaching a course is almost incidental compared to the prestige. One aspect of “development” (that is, courting large-dollar donors) can be the potential donor teaching or co-teaching a course as a sort of academia fantasy camp. Obviously, someone considering giving a million dollars to a university unit isn’t concerned with making a few grand for teaching a course. It’s possible that the chemistry department created the position to please such a potential donor, but HR told them that they have to list the “job” openly.
There are also much-less-wealthy people who might be unconcerned with teaching income. It may be true that you can’t eat prestige, but what you can eat is the premium you can charge for one gig based on the prestige you derived from another. Rock musicians who break even on records but make a living touring, models who do Vogue photo shoots for practically nothing so they can eventually get a perfume campaign, and escorts who shoot the occasional porn scene are all examples of workers who do low-paid work in order to make much more money in the long run. Similarly, there is an entire class of professionals who teach the occasional token class for peanuts so they can charge a premium at their real job. A client might pay a lot more to a consultant who can describe himself as a professor at the local university even if academic insiders would note that the consultant is not a tenure-track professor carefully selected by the entire faculty for his or her research, but rather an adjunct professor casually hired by department leadership based on a CV and a sample syllabus.
These edge cases in which someone teaches classes either for their expressive value or to open other opportunities notwithstanding, it really is the case that academia has developed a class structure of adjunct Morlocks and tenure-track Eloi, and the former are characterized by low wages and even lower job security. This makes it especially ironic that younger members of the privileged class within academia, the tenure-track faculty, increasingly lament that we do all sorts of unpaid labor.
An increasingly common trope on academic Twitter is to insist that we should be paid, for instance, for doing peer review reports for scholarly journals. The structure of traditional tenure-track academic jobs is we get paid a full-time salary for part-time enumerated duties but are expected to fill what would otherwise be opulent leisure with self-motivated vocation, like a Victorian parson who was required to spend Sundays preaching but expected to spend the rest of the week visiting local pious, old ladies and then writing treatises on political economy, discovering a new species of beetle, or otherwise acting the part of an erudite gentleman of leisure. For instance, as a tenured professor, all I really have to do is teach four classes a year. My course load takes me about 20-30 hours a week for 22 weeks. If I just were to watch TV the other 10-20 hours a week and 30 weeks a year, I would never get another promotion, but I also couldn’t be fired. But as it happens, I generally work at least 50 hours a week, which is, of course, the expectation that is implicit in the university paying me an upper-middle-class salary.
This salary is premised on the understanding that us tenure-track faculty will choose to fish in the morning, hunt in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and philosophize after dinner. And yet, the same kind of younger tenure-track academics who will complain about the commodification of life under capitalism one day will the next lament that they didn’t get $20 for writing a student’s letter of recommendation. It’s one thing to say the grass is always greener and another to say that while standing on a putting green and looking across the way at an irradiated hellscape.
Gabriel Rossman is an associate professor of sociology at UCLA.