The other day, my wife forwarded me an ad for a non tenure-track teaching position at a Texas community college. As is now increasingly common, the pay for the position is calculated based on the instructor’s “contact hours” with students. Under the contact-hour system, instructors earn an hourly rate only for the time they spend actually teaching or holding office hours. That hourly rate is comparatively high ($38-$40/per hour) to compensate for whatever additional time instructors spend planning, prepping, grading and offering written feedback. (For a typical course this works out to around $3,000/semester.) The stated reasoning behind this system is that it eliminates the gap in pay between instructors who prep quickly and those who take longer. But the contact-hour system also explicitly incentivizes instructors to minimize the time they spend planning, prepping and evaluating student work, and to take on as many courses as they can each semester. In other words, it moves college teaching quite a bit further into the realm of the gig economy.
In other sectors of the so-called “access economy,” there is a clear and coldly rational calculus to the monetary relationship between corporate market makers and contract employees. Uber, for example, doesn’t particularly care if its drivers make money on any given fare. The company’s business model externalizes most of the costs of the driver’s time, equipment and fuel, and takes the same 20% cut of every fare regardless. As long as its drivers accept as many fares as possible, Uber’s interests are served. In exchange for being squeezed to maximize their version of “contact hours,” Uber drivers get the flexibility to work when they want, and to contract with competing ride-sharing companies simultaneously. Good service often gets tipped. And while drivers collectively shoulder most of the rideshare industry’s inherent risks and uncertainties, at least there’s no ambiguity about who they are working for: themselves.
But unlike vehicles for hire, education is not a simple service or commodity. There’s obviously no tipping and far less flexibility. Yes, adjuncts are paid to give lectures and grade a couple of exams per course. But they are expected to help students learn—to facilitate active, personalized and memorable experiences of discovery. You won't find it spelled out on any adjunct job ad, but that is what their employers actually expect of them. That is what their students expect of them. And that is how a real teacher measures her competence—not by how little time she can spend on a course while still getting passable teaching evals. There’s simply no way to accomplish all of this without engaging deeply with students’ work, which takes up a lot of time outside the classroom. The contact hour model turns that time into a burdensome operating expense-functionally equivalent to waiting for an Uber fare. But when it comes to teaching, only frauds work solely for themselves.
In some ways, the contact hour model of compensation merely clarifies the warped incentive structure that already exists for adjuncts. But pegging an adjunct’s effective hourly rate directly to her “efficiency” explicitly devalues the things a teacher has to do outside the classroom in order to be able to deliver anything of worth inside it. The contact hour model cynically rationalizes the labor inequities now endemic to American colleges and universities, and emphasizes the extent to which the interests of adjuncts and their students have been artificially forced into direct competition. I can’t think of a more expedient way to exacerbate higher education’s ongoing labor crisis, or to undermine it as a value proposition.
It would be nice to think that the community college I mentioned would find it difficult to fill their position under such terms, but they won't. I know that because for all of the similarities between adjuncting and driving for Uber (contingent contracts, no benefits, no professional development) there is at least one big difference: nobody drives for Uber hoping for a shot at tenure.