Mapping Adjunct Pay

at Colleges and Universities across the U.S.

Richard Nisa

Assistant Professor of Geography at Fairleigh Dickinson University

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This is my first pass at a map exploring the relationships between adjunct instructor pay (taken from the most recent data submitted to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s The Adjunct Project) and state minimum wage data:

Zooming in reveals a different set of relationships between adjunct pay and the number of courses that they would have to teach in order to make the equivalent of one year's full time work at a minimum wage job. While some schools are beginning to pay their adjuncts better, the median number of courses needed to make minimum wage is 6.8 per year, or the equivalent of a full-time teaching load at many liberal arts colleges. At one school, an adjunct would need to teach as many as 50 courses per year to meet their state's minimum wage:

Above: New York City is on the left and Los Angeles is on the right

I’m very excited that this map has been viewed so many times, and if it can in any way assist part-time and contingent labor in their struggle for better pay, that would be amazing. It’d be wonderful (to me) if the map encourages people to debate what might be a ‘rightful share’ for teaching and intellectual labor in higher education. That said, I should also reiterate that I am very aware of this map’s limitations and methodological issues, and I thought I should explore some of them here:

1. I had hoped to use living wage data at the county scale instead of state minimum wages. However, the author of the most recent (outstanding) study of living wages asked me not to scrape her data, a request I respected. If I want to take this project further, then I will have to generate my own living wage data. That’s fine. As this was a five-week class where we first had to learn the basics of interactive mapping, the map represents only a quick sketch of an idea. The number of courses one would have to teach to reach a living wage would obviously be greater (and the information more geographically rich) than those necessary to reach the minimum wage, making this relationship between wages and teaching more dramatic. But…

2. There are indeed very real problems trying to compare hourly work to adjunct labor. How much work does an adjunct do outside of each 3-credit course in terms of prep and paperwork? How long does it take? It’s different for each worker in each field at each school. Part of my reasoning behind placing these two different types of work in relation to each other was to simply draw attention to the fact that there is a) an uneven geography of adjunct pay and b) that in many places, the level of exploitation of this type of work is absurd. The map makes these conditions visible, but does little more than add to an important ongoing conversation. But, comparing these variables is important if only to ask: Should we even be having this conversation at all when tuition across the country is so high (requiring students to take out massive loans), tenured and tenure-track faculty are being told to do ever-more with ever-less, and yet an ever-expanding army of administrators are pulling in six and seven figure salaries?

3. Another complication emerges if we consider whether or not the adjunct is teaching as their only source of income. But the point of putting these data in relation to each other was simply to wonder: does that even matter? And on that score I think I can say: no, it doesn’t. Low wage work is rarely framed as full time work. Businesses often point to that nugget when they argue that the wage floor shouldn’t increase or when they use scheduling software to assure that none of their employees work enough hours to earn benefits. Universities are no different, and they strategically hire adjuncts to improve course availability (improving student retention) for tuition-paying students on the cheap. At some schools (still trying to find more data on this), adjuncts make up more than 50% of the teachers. Universities with ballooning administrative rosters are in effect fundraising for their salaries on the backs of student debt and the devaluation of much of the labor that makes the university possible. And finally, we’ve all heard the phrase that students learning conditions are teachers working conditions. While trying not to be too hyperbolic, I think it should also be noted that classrooms across the country are turning into landscapes of violence and fear for students and teachers alike. In thinking about this aspect of the division of academic labor, universities are essentially placing massively underpaid (and job-insecure) adjuncts into classrooms where not only their livelihoods but their lives are on the line.

I was able to take this course because of the generous help of The Public Mind poll at Fairleigh Dickinson.