Coffee heat rising

Working Smarter: Applying a few insights

Okay, so one train of thought that’s been going on here at Funny about Money has to do with the dawning realization that I’m spending too many hours on work that doesn’t pay a living wage and too few hours on actual…well, living.

In a good month, FaM returns about two hundred bucks, and that’s fine, because it’s exactly the amount I need to get out of one section of freshman comp a year. Or, more to the point, to make up for an assigned section that doesn’t gel.

And I normally make $200 or $250 a month reading detective novels (!) for my favorite client, Poisoned Pen Press. This amount covers a second freshman comp section each year, and of course it’s pay for play.

So, between them these two piddling sources of income either give me the option of teaching two and two (i.e., two courses a semester)  instead of three and three or provide a safety net should one of three assigned sections not gather enough students to fly.

For both these income streams, pay per hour is beneath laughable. FaM earns about $6.67 a day, on average; spending two hours on a post and another hour on blog-related web-surfing yields a pay rate of $2.19 an hour. Earnings for editing the novels are somewhat better: $12 an hour.

Usually, those novels serve as bed-time reading, so the work I do on them doesn’t occupy productive daytime hours.

After a little experimentation, I’ve found that if I get up off my rear end in the morning and do some yardwork, housework, dog walking, or socializing before settling in to paying work, I can put off writing blog posts until the evening. It’s something that can be done, as it was in the beginning, from an overstuffed chair in front of the television. That strategy defuses the blogging work by moving it out of daytime hours that should be better paid or at least should provide some fun, exercise, or relaxation time.

Now. What about the teaching?

What, really, does it pay by the hour? And is there a way to manage time used in teaching to ensure a decent hourly wage?

Well, I did a little English-major math and made some interesting discoveries. First, I posited that a “decent” rate would be about $30 an hour, approximately what I was earning at GDU before the layoff. Second, I established that I should work no more than five days a week—I should get weekends off to sing in the choir, schmooze with my son, and do whatever I feel like doing. A community college course here in Maricopa County, Arizona, pays $2,400. With those as givens, let us ask…

How  many hours can you put into a community college course and still earn a decent wage?

Okay, so what we see here is that no matter how many weeks the course spans, the maximum number of hours you can work on the course to keep the pay rate at $30/hour or better is 80. Next area of inquiry: is that realistic?

To keep your rate at $30/hour, what is the maximum number of hours you could spend on a course working outside of class meeting time?

Well, if you add up the number of hours per period and multiply by the number of class meetings, you find that an eight-week course meets about 42 hours; a sixteen-week course meets 40 hours. Since the excessively long meeting time for the short-form course requires several breaks, you could (sort of) argue that class meeting time for the eight-week course is actually about 40 hours, too.

A fully online course, by definition, has no class meetings, but it requires a great deal more course preparation time.

To keep your pay rate at $30 an hour for an eight-week course, you could spend no more than five hours a week outside of class, giving you one hour a day of grading and interaction time.

With no face-to-face (F2F) time, an online course provides a full ten hours a week for grading and online interaction with students.

For a 16-week F2F course, you could spend no more than two and a half hours a week outside of class. That’s only a half an hour a day, five days a week.

On the face of it, this doesn’t look very practical; realistically, one spends many hours a week reading student papers and answering e-mails. However, it’s not as dire as the figures above suggest, because you can manipulate due dates so that some weeks pass with no incoming. So, let’s look at this from a slightly different perspective:

How many hours does it really take to grade student papers?

The community college district requires four papers for English 101 and three papers for English 102. A typical set of freshman comp papers takes four to six hours to grade.

Okay, an hour an a half is still not long enough to grade a set of papers. However, assuming one doesn’t have to grade a set of papers every single week, then what? In fact, with 40 hours of in-class time, you have another 40 hours, at $30/hour, available to read student papers. That provides plenty of leeway to perform 24 hours’ worth of grading!

This optimistic conclusion, alas, leaves out the untold numbers of hours one spends in course preparation.

How much time could you spend on course prep and still gross $30 an hour?

In reality, it takes about four or five full-time, eight-hour days to prep a composition course, especially in the semesters when a new edition of the overpriced textbook comes out.

Thus, to make this work, prep time would have to be cut to no more than sixteen to twenty-two hours. All scutwork—that is, all checking and scoring of in-class exercises, drafts, and homework—would have to be foisted on a teaching assistant, so that all the instructor had to read would be the required, final full-length papers. Assuming about 15 or 16 hours of scutwork, I could afford to pay a T.A. $10 an hour and still be left with enough to buy groceries.

If all one read were the required papers and a T.A. scored the other student activities, how many hours would you spend on a course and what would you earn per hour?

It works out. Of course, about fifteen of those hours would actually earn only $20/hour, but the $10/hour wage for one’s T.A. would be tax-deductible.

In its strange way, this perspective starts to make things look a little better. First, what we see is that teaching, even adjunct, is my best and steadiest source of income. And on inspection, we see that I’m actually grossing approximately what I earned, per hour, at GDU. It explains why I seem to have plenty of cash during the nine months of the school year, and it suggests that even one course over the summer would chase away the summertime budgetary doldrums.

What can be done to bring course preparation time under control?

There, too, I have a plan.

The base content (such as it is) of freshman composition has not changed since I started teaching the subject about 40 years ago. There are only so many ways you can explain what an essay is, what a research paper is, and how to write them. This means that every newly adopted textbook and every new edition of an existing textbook is just another rehash of the same material.

So, prep time could be cut by creating fungible modules that can be plugged in to each new semester’s sections to fit time available. We might call such modules “learning module templates.” These would key reading assignments to subject matter, and writing assignments to specific patterns of development, not to chapters in the current textbook. Thus if in a given week you want to teach students a specific mode of discourse, you simply take whatever textbook you’re handed and look for the chapters or passages that discuss that.

To avoid having to create new assignments for each new textbook edition, you would have to be sure never to key a writing assignment to a reading selection (i.e., a sample essay) printed in the text, since these tend to change as new editions are churned out. You could require students to use the book’s selections as source material for their essay citations; this wouldn’t stop plagiarism, but at least students would feel they were using the textbooks more fully.

Each module could contain the following

The module’s learning goals
Subject matter that should be addressed in reading
Homework, related to this subject matter but independent of specific reading matter
In-class lectures, discussions, and activities
Writing assignment, if any (depending on the number of weeks/course)

If you made the modules generic enough, it would be very easy to pick and choose to fit your timeframe, and quick to plug in new reading material and resources to make the broad choices specific.

It would take some time to create these things, but once they were in place, each semester’s prep time would drop to a few hours.

So what does it all mean for Working Smarter?

In the first place, sideline enterprises that earn less than a living wage should be relegated to the status of hobbies. They should not be permitted to consume time that could be spent more profitably, nor should they be allowed to morph into work.

Blogging, for example, should be as entertaining as reading detective novels. It should never be treated as a job. In other words, I should not be trudging in to my office every morning, there dutifully to crank out another post. I should not be checking e-mail every few hours to screen out spam and accept comments from real humans—instead, do this at the end of the day. Adsense? Alexis? Google Analytics? Awstats? Is there some point in tracking data whose significance is negligible, except as gratification for a hobby? Obviously not. These should be ignored; certainly never checked more than once a week.

In the second place, the number of hours put into decently paying work should be tightly controlled so that the per-hour wage never drops below a minimum threshold.

With teaching, it appears this is eminently possible. Medicare keeps overhead down so that, given enough sections, $30 an hour amounts to a middle-class wage. The only drawback to focusing solely on teaching as the “real” source of income is that it doesn’t pay enough to add to savings. However, next year I should be able to get some summer courses, and in that case, any editing and blogging income can be rolled into savings. That would fund my Roth each year, as long as I can dodder into a classroom or sit in front of computer to teach an online course.

And there really is no third place. It’s pretty simple.

Move the hobby income out of the center of one’s field of vision.
Focus on the endeavor that earns the most money.
Control time spent on that endeavor to maximize per-hour income.

And…get a life! 😀

Surprise! Money happens again

Yesterday while I was laboring through a client’s large project, in comes an e-mail from the dean of academic affairs at the college where I’m teaching adjunct for handsful of pennies and no benefits. She reminds me that I’m supposed to make an appointment for web development coaching with one of their online curriculum staff to discuss the feature writing course I’m supposed to teach online in the second eight weeks of fall semester (done that—great experience! This place has the most incredible staff!). In the boilerplate list she’s sent is a mention that I’m supposed to be paid for the course during the development phase, half upfront and half when development is done.


Well, being a veteran of GDU, I figure that means they’re not going to pay the usual $2,400 for the three-credit course. This looks a great deal to me like a reason to cut the pay for teaching online: if you don’t have to show up in the classroom, why should you be paid the $50 an hour one gets for entertaining students on the campus?

I need that $2,400. This fall I’ll only be teaching two sections, and the full pay for both will not be enough for me to get by on comfortably. Any less, and I’ll be in deep trouble.

The main reason I dropped back from three to two sections next fall was that teaching six sections this year plus freelancing and blogging will put me over the Social Security earnings limit. The way I understand what two Social Security factotums have said is that to extract the 50% tax on income that exceeds the limit, the government withholds an entire SS check. From that, the amount they figure you owe is extracted. You get the rest back…but not until the following January!

Well, I can’t do without a Social Security check for a month, much less for several months. That’s a pretty stiff penalty for daring to earn a living.

However, what I’ll earn from teaching two sections will barely keep beans on the table. There’ll be no more frolics at J. Jill for the rest of the year…or even at Goodwill. And one unplanned expense, even a minor one, will dig into the emergency fund.

So, it’s going to be a difficult balancing act. I can’t do without full pay for one of the two three-credit courses I’m slated to teach. This news from the dean promised to knock me off the highwire.

Forthwith, I e-mailed to inquire: Soooo… How much less are they going to pay for the course?

They’re not going to pay less at all. What she was saying is that the community college district pays adjunct faculty for their time time to develop a course! And they pay the entire amount of the contract stipend for teaching the course—not instead of but on top of the pay for teaching. In other words, I will earn twice as much for teaching the online course as I would have for teaching an ordinary face-to-face course.

Holy mackerel! When we say “money happens,” we’re not kidding. This summer, instead of having no income except Social Security, I’ll have enough extra to carry me through the months when utility bills hover in the stratosphere. It’s far from what I’ve been earning teaching three sections, but it’s just about the amount extra that I figured I’d need to get through the summer without diving into the emergency fund.

And averaged out over the whole year, it in fact does provide annual pay equivalent to teaching six sections.

You realize how unheard-of this is. GDU would never in a million years pay anyone, especially not adjunct faculty, a stipend for “developing” a course. That’s course prep—it’s part of the job. It’s why I try to get each semester’s prep done before the previous semester ends. When I built the West campus’s first online course in “writing for the professions” (read: “freshman comp for juniors and seniors”), I spent the entire summer working for no pay. Three months of eight-hour days for zero dollah. And zero appreciation, too. Not so much as a f***-you-very-much. That was one of many events and conditions that led to my deep disaffection for My Beloved Former Employer.

I’d figured to spend two weeks slapping the course together and then table it. In fact, since the course doesn’t start until October—it’s an eight-week session—I planned to put off working on it until the fall and use this summer for building FaM and writing a book. This development changes that: if the district is really going to pay me (!) to prepare this course, I suppose I’m going to have to do a decent job of it. That means (gasp) actually work.

Of course, it also means I’m going to crash through the earnings limitation.

Upon reflection, I wonder why I’m worrying about that. Who cares if Social Security withholds a munificent $900? Over $16,000 is sitting in my emergency fund.

On the one hand, I don’t want to diddle away that money on living expenses. The budget is so tight that one good-sized house repair or car repair bill will gouge a hole out of that emergency fund. That stash is there to cover a major emergency that puts me in a position where I can’t work: a car accident, a heart attack, a stroke, cancer…all highly likely at this time and in this place. It is, in effect, a year’s worth of disability insurance.

On the other hand, the emergency fund has grown by almost $2000 since the first of the year, because I’m not spending all my income. I can afford to forego a month’s Social Security “benefit.” (Some of us would call that a “paycheck,” it being a payback of earned wages confiscated over a lifetime in the salt mines.) Most of the money will be returned in January, anyway. Even if it’s not returned, it won’t make much difference.

Money happens. And it’s happening at a good time—when I need it.