Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

Adjunct Pay & the Labor Theory of Value: a thought experiment

One of the most common complaints from the adjuncting world essentially boils down to the Labor Theory of Value (LTOV), i.e. beleaguered adjuncts complain that they are not paid for the out-of-classroom obligations of their jobs such as preparing lectures, grading papers, answering student emails, and even commuting to work. If these tasks were included in adjunct pay – so the argument goes – adjuncts would be making wages somewhere close to a full time faculty member. The adjuncts do the labor, or so it is claimed, and should be paid for the time they commit to their work.

As I illustrated in my previous post on the “Myth of the Minimum Wage Adjunct,” the time required for most of these “uncompensated” tasks is either (a) vastly overstated or (b) a product of extremely poor time management by persons who should probably reevaluate their approaches to the classroom. That said, allow me to propose a thought experiment to test the underlying LTOV assumption of this logic:

Scenario 1: Yourself. Suppose you are an adjunct professor, teaching a standard intro section of American Literature 101. You’re a decent professor and time manager. You get above-average teaching evaluations and you’re a relatively efficient grader. You also know your lecture materials well and it requires minimal prep time for you to get ready for class. As a result, you spend about 6 hours a week outside of the classroom grading, answering emails, holding office hours, and reviewing your material. With 3 hours of classroom time, your total commitment for that class is 9 hours a week.

Scenario 2: Your Adjunct Colleague. You have another adjunct colleague who teaches the exact same course and has a similar number of students. He’s a decent teacher as well with above-average evaluations from his students, but he’s also a poor time manager. He grades very slowly, and feels that he needs to rehearse his lectures in full before delivery. He also uses his office hours inefficiently and spends hours each week surfing the internet while waiting for students visitors, which are infrequent. He also has a longer commute than you. In total, your inefficient colleague spends 15 hours outside of the classroom compared to 3 hours in, for a total of 18 hours (excluding his commute).

To summarize, you put in 9 hours of work per week on your class. Your inefficient colleague puts in 18 hours per week, and even more if you include his commute. Should your inefficient colleague therefore make twice as much as you? Should he make more than you by any amount?

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