Rhetoric and Composition: Academic Capitalism and Cheap Teachers

Ann Larson:

WWhen I enrolled in the PhD Program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center to study Composition and Rhetoric, I was idealistic about the future of the discipline and my own place in it. I believed that Comp and Rhet (as I came to call it) was asking crucial questions that were central to the mission of higher education in America. I still believe that. But, after working in the field in a number of full-time and part-time positions over several years, my idealism has turned to despair at what I now regard as Composition’s great shame. It has left me to doubt that there is a place in the field for me and for many others like me.

As anyone who teaches college writing is probably aware, the majority of such courses are taught by contingent faculty, including adjuncts and graduate students. These workers usually receive low wages and few benefits. (Some long-term CUNY adjuncts receive health care, but even this small benefit has recently come under attack.) This is not just a local problem. Recent data shows that adjuncts now earn a national average salary of just $2,758 per course, which means teaching eight to ten courses per year results in a salary of $22,064 and $27,500. These are poverty and near-poverty wages. More recently, Josh Boldt, who compiles information on the pay rates and overall treatment of adjunct faculty on his Adjunct Project blog, has confirmed in chilling fashion what we already know: many adjuncts have no access to benefits, no role in university governance, and are rarely told if they will have classes to teach from one semester to the next.