Thursday, March 3, 2016

1987 to 2016: How Much Has Changed?

In “The Wyoming Conference Resolution Opposing Unfair Salaries and Working Conditions for Post-Secondary Teachers of Writing,” authors Linda R. Robertson, Sharon Crowley and Frank Lentricchia write: “From the stories we tell one another, it is clear that many of us regard ourselves as victims by our institutions, relegated to marginal positions and tenuous employment with no benefits” (275).

When I first read this, I was thinking that we do receive benefits from teaching but when I saw that this article was from 1987, I realized that perhaps we really have made some progress in English departments. However, these stories that the authors are referring to are ones that we still hear during “water cooler” conversations. Graduate students grumble about whether or not we can afford to get that extra order of hashbrowns at IHop considering our annual stipend. Contract faculty often take on heavy teaching loads although many of them do receive partial or full benefits from the school, at least at Ball State. My point is that while graduate students do receive stipends and contract faculty or adjuncts are more likely to get benefits compared to 1987, some of the suggestions for minimum salary truly are minimum. The MLA’s suggestions for minimum salary for “full-time appointments at the entry level should be at least $34,000 to $37,000 for those at the rank of instructor and at least $43,000 to $46,000 for those at the rank of beginning assistant professor.” Perhaps this sounds like a decent amount but considering we’ve been in school for a significant number of years and many of us have work experience from teaching, this hardly encourages people to enter the profession. Many graduates today leave college with higher amounts of debt. I don’t mean to complain about the pay because I chose this career course because I love it and not because I want to get rich. My concern is that as cohorts of graduates continue to face student debt and the competition for these jobs increases, we continue to face similar concerns as those who expressed frustration in 1987.

Many English departments recognize these frustrations and do their best to meet the needs of instructors. I know that Ball State has increased the stipend for graduate students and decreased the teaching load to help students. But there’s only so much that can be done on a limited budget. This is where WPAs and other administrators might step in and advocate for better pay or working conditions to upper-administration in the university. This is no easy task and I’m sure other departments across campus feel similar frustrations. I’m interested to hear more about how these changes could realistically be made.


  1. I've got some thoughts about Alyssa's post, this week's readings, the job market, and my life choices...

    Alyssa's comment that "we've been in school for a significant number of years" by the time we go on the market, struggling to get a position that might pay $50k if we're lucky, is important. It doesn't just worry me to be making such low wages as a GA right now; it's the fact that I'll have been living off of a GA stipend for at least 6 years of my adult life by the time I finish this degree. Most grad students postpone the chance to earn a full time salary, simultaneously accruing student loan debt, so that they can continue their education and eventually be able to do the thing they want to do. Wouldn't it be nice if the people who pay us for our GA labor would take that into consideration?

    The documents we read provided guidelines for the minimum amount that GAs and contract faculty should be paid for their work in English departments. They also stipulated how many classes those workers should be allowed to take on--for the sake of their students. Ball State tells grad students in their GA contracts that they shouldn't be working more than 20 hrs/wk, but if they only pay us something like $15/yr and that's not enough to adequately live on, it would make sense that a grad student would look for additional (sometimes secret) employment opportunities. Their students and their own studies might suffer for this, but having food on their table in the evening and a roof over their head probably wins the argument.

    My point is simply that the numbers aren't adding up. I knew what I was getting into with this career path, but when I stop and think about labor issues it's pretty depressing and it really does make me wonder if I haven't made a mistake. I'm happy with my work and the work I hope to end up doing post-PhD. I also think it's important work, and I treat it as such, even though salaries would indicate otherwise. How can we get others, from administrators to society-at-large, to literally "buy into" our work?

    I was recently reading more about the University of Oregon's grad student protest from late 2014. I think this PhD candidate, who was involved in the protest, makes some really good points about the reasons universities should treat their grad student workers with more respect and dignity: She argues that better working conditions/wages for grad students means a better educational experience for undergrads, and it has benefits for the university, as well.

  2. There are a few things that we have to consider when we talk about increasing stipends and the pay that we receive when we graduate. What are the possible outcomes if we get the higher pay? As I see it, there won’t be a change in pay until there is a change in budget and there won’t be a change in budget until there is some way to overhaul the way that the university works. There was recently an image floating around social media that showed how much money goes to various administrators, faculty, and staff in the university. In the graphic, the football coach’s salary vastly outweighs the salary of anyone else on the university payroll, including the president. And as, I think, Morgan pointed out one day, 40% of the tuition at BSU goes to athletics. Now, some of that may go toward scholarships for students, which is good, but until teaching and education become the main focus of the university then the funds aren’t going to come our way.
    So we can push for better pay, but in reality the only way to get that would be to decrease the number of graduate students that get assistantships. That means that some of us wouldn’t even have the opportunity to spend “a significant amount of years” studying at the graduate level. And those of us that do would have to pick up the slack left by the decreased number of teaching assistants, which means a larger teaching load.
    I am in no way trying to justify the way that the system currently works. I just think that we need to work toward plausible solutions if we want to do something and asking WPAs to advocate for teaching assistants is not unreasonable, but I don’t really feel like there is much they can do to change the situation. I don’t personally know much about unions, but I think it would be interesting to see what the differences are like when it comes to pay, number of assistantships, benefits, teaching loads, and the quality of the experience between schools that have graduate student unions and those that don’t. Perhaps that might be a more plausible option.