Knowledge Reflection

When professors make less than janitors…

…one could be pessimistic.

PBS NewsHour did this story last night. Adjunct professors, many of them with doctorates, are struggling to make a living. A French literature professor uses food stamps. An English professor just up and quit.

This video got me thinking about the word “value.” The MacBook delivered this as the first definition:

the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.

I don’t know about you but I owe a lot of my success to teachers. So many of them, tenured or not, helped me–and at every level, from elementary school through electrophysiology fellowship. (And even now, many of my colleagues teach me–though I’m not sure they are aware of it.)

I was a lucky kid; I crossed paths with scores of adults who cared enough to engage me in the learning process.

There could be little that I am more sure of: educators are indeed something of great importance, worth and utility.

It shocks me to look out at America and see what we value.

If we can’t value teaching and mentoring, what then?


7 replies on “When professors make less than janitors…”

Hello Dr. John,
I think another good question here might be: why do people spend years in graduate school majoring in subjects – like French literature – that are virtually useless out in the Real World? My own brother changed his university major from journalism (“too job-oriented”) to philosophy, a field he liked so much that he just kept going and going after graduation. Then he found his true calling: graduate school. He REALLY loved the life of a grad student! He got a number of graduate degrees culminating in a PhD (in philosophy). But just as his four older sibs had been warning him for decades, there is no job market for philosophers.

I recently wrote about a Canadian whose PhD thesis in theology was on snowboarding, and a U.K. woman whose PhD thesis in English was in analyzing the content of text messages. Really. Seriously.

When such PhDs are unable to secure a well-paying tenure track position at university to teach what they know about snowboarding or texting, they will be dismayed and outraged. The rest of us will not be surprised.

Before young graduates commit to grad school, perhaps a good dose of reality could be prescribed.

The problem is if no one majors in these subjects that are “useless in the real world” then no one will learn to teach language, English literature, art history, theatre, visual arts, anthropology, etc. They may not have a “practical” purpose, but the world is a richer place with these things.

I agree with you, pgyx – just as long as those who pursue language, English literature, art history, theatre, visual arts, anthropology, etc know from the get go that earning a living wage by making the world a richer place currently remains a dim possibility for far too many PhDs. If grad students have the money, time and privilege to spend years in what’s essentially a self-indulgent passion, more power to them. Just don’t expect sympathy from those of us who’ve actually needed to focus on career choices that can support our families.

John, I see the growing impoverishment of a large segment of academics as yet another symptom of the larger movement in our world, toward the worship of money (as a proxy for power) and away from… well, everything else that previously held value. The continuous increase in “corporatization” of colleges and universities, hospitals and practices, even of the formerly-neighborhood retail store, has dealt a major blow to the ability of these institutions to deliver real value to people. That isn’t what they’re here for, anymore (they’re here to deliver shareholder value.), so that’s isn’t what they do.

Teaching isn’t valued at many (most?) research Universities, and hasn’t been for years. Academics are typically expected to split their time between teaching, research, and service. Research (measured by grants and contract $ brought in), is rewarded above all else. The quickest way to get more time for research is to buy out your teaching obligations by using grant money to pay an unemployed PhD to teach for you. Chances are that person earned a PhD because someone needed cheap labor to do research and/or teaching in the first place.

Overhead (the amount University administration takes from your grants and contracts before you get to spend a cent on actual research) easily approaches 50% in many cases.

As someone around here says, you tend to get more of what you incentivize.

It does make me chuckle when people in some fields starts justifying compensation based on how many years they spent in school. They never spent much time hanging around the humanities departments with the PhD students who routinely spend 5-8 years (after undergrad) becoming world class experts in their fields.

I was lucky enough to have mentors who gave me some great advice before graduate school. Don’t go unless you get a Research Assistant position that covers tuition and living expenses. First, you avoid crippling debt. Second, you’re in a field that has some marketable value, or else no one would be fronting the money for an RA position in the first place. You might not find yourself in your primary field of choice, but you will be in a field where you can build a career. RA’s are common in the hard sciences.

I have to agree with what I perceive as Dr. John’s intent in making this post namely that it is a downright shame that highly educated talented teachers are stuck being eternal “adjunct professors” with salary potential that is less than the janitor makes, and which requires food stamp assistance to get by. I “get” that subjects like French literature are “useless in the real world” in terms of actual money-making potential. But there IS value for education in liberal arts, without which LOTS will be lost from what really is of value in our society. Americans already are known world-wide for inability to speak other languages. Continued emphasis only only “money-making fields” will only aggravate this trend, as well as our woeful record in liberal arts.

Clearly there is some degree of exploitation – since the number of full-time, tenure-accruing faculty is continually decreasing in favor of far-lower paying adjunct positions with no job security. There should be at least opportunity for some new respected full-time positions with academic titles in liberal arts fields at major universities – rather than “farming these positions out” to PhDs without other choice but to take what they are given. Something is terribly wrong with the system (in my opinion) – but motivation to fix this fundamental problem of what should be valued in education is obviously lacking.

P.S. Teachers in general are disproportionately paid. Educating our children to read and write can hardly be deemed “useless in the real world” – yet low salaries, overcrowded classrooms, and job insecurity continue for all-too-many teachers in all-too-many phases of our educational system …

Our society is losing a lot with the loss of liberal arts. I majored in sociology with an english lit minor. I loved it. I loved the structure and the discipline of writing a well thought out essay. There is art and craft to writing. We’re losing that with the emphasis on degrees that will make us rich. Of course, I knew that my undergraduate choices guaranteed that I was going to grad school, and so I did, seeking out the most vocational major I could find – computers.

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