Professors Making $10,000 a Year? Academia Becoming a Profession Only the Elite Can Afford
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It is 2011 and I'm sitting in the Palais des Congres in Montreal, watching anthropologists talk about structural inequality.
The American Anthropological Association meeting is held annually to showcase research from around the world, and like thousands of other anthropologists, I am paying to play: $650 for airfare, $400 for three nights in a "student" hotel, $70 for membership, and $94 for admission. The latter two fees are student rates. If I were an unemployed or underemployed scholar, the rates would double.
The theme of this year's meeting is "Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies." According to the explanation on the American Anthropological Association website, we live in a time when "the meaning and location of differences, both intellectually and morally, have been rearranged". As the conference progresses, I begin to see what they mean. I am listening to the speaker bemoan the exploitative practices of the neoliberal model when a friend of mine taps me on the shoulder.
"I spent almost my entire salary to be here," she says.
My friend is an adjunct. She has a PhD in anthropology and teaches at a university, where she is paid $2100 per course. While she is a professor, she is not a Professor. She is, like 67 per cent of American university faculty, a part-time employee on a contract that may or may not be renewed each semester. She receives no benefits or health care.
According to the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced website revealing adjunct wages - data which universities have long kept under wraps - her salary is about average. If she taught five classes a year, a typical full-time faculty course load, she would make $10,500, well below the poverty line. Some adjuncts make more. I have one friend who was offered $5000 per course, but he turned it down and requested less so that his children would still qualify for food stamps.
Why is my friend, a smart woman with no money, spending nearly $2000 to attend a conference she cannot afford? She is looking for a way out. In America, academic hiring is rigid and seasonal. Each discipline has a conference, usually held in the fall, where interviews take place. These interviews can be announced days or even hours in advance, so most people book beforehand, often to receive no interviews at all.
The American Anthropological Association tends to hold its meetings in America's most expensive cities, although they do have one stipulation: "AAA staff responsible for negotiating and administering annual meeting contracts shall show preference to locales with living wage ordinances." This rule does not apply, unfortunately, to those in attendance.
Below poverty line
In most professions, salaries below the poverty line would be cause for alarm. In academia, they are treated as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course - literally. Teaching is touted as a "calling", with compensation an afterthought. One American research university offers its PhD students a salary of $1000 per semester for the "opportunity" to design and teach a course for undergraduates, who are each paying about $50,000 in tuition. The university calls this position "Senior Teaching Assistant" because paying an instructor so far below minimum wage is probably illegal.
In addition to teaching, academics conduct research and publish, but they are not paid for this work either. Instead, all proceeds go to for-profit academic publishers, who block academic articles from the public through exorbitant download and subscription fees, making millions for themselves in the process. If authors want to make their research public, they have to pay the publisher an average of $3000 per article. Without an institutional affiliation, an academic cannot access scholarly research without paying, even for articles written by the scholar itself.