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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! 😀

5 thoughts on “Working Smarter: Applying a few insights”

  1. No, not with district funds. I’ve been known to hire a smart, well-trained grad student out of pocket, though. Some years ago, while I was teaching at West, I learned that faculty members at another college were doing so. West had cut off our funding for TAs, and our workload was staggering. I tried it and discovered it really doesn’t cost much to hire someone to score exercises. At ten bucks an hour, a smart grad student can get through a set of homework assignment in two or three hours at a cost of just a few dollars; the saving in boredom and aggravation is worth it.

    It’s easy to number student papers so that no name is associated with them, thereby securing student privacy. Simply download, save as Student1Exercise1.doc, check Word’s “preferences” function to be sure no name appears in the document’s attributes, and forward to the TA. When the TA returns it to you, check to be sure nothing bizarre has been done to it, rename it AdamsExercise1.doc, enter the grade in BlackBoard, and return to student Jane Adams. You need to take care that exercises have been scored fairly according to the rubrics you establish, and of course you must protect your students’ anonymity; but nevertheless this saves a great wad of time.

    I’ve heard of people grading papers in conference, but that would require you to have a place to meet students. There’s no meeting room or private space for adjunct faculty; besides, it would take hours, wouldn’t it? Assuming you could get through a paper and justify your grade in the face of whatever argument the student comes up with in an hour, that would be 25 hours per assignment. Even if it only took half an hour per paper, you’d be jawing at them for 12.5 hours. I can get through a set of essays in six hours; my TA can do a set of exercises in two or three hours.

    What happens when they don’t show up for these conferences? Last time I tried meeting with students one-on-one to discuss a major, grade-heavy paper, about half didn’t show. If you’re grading their papers in person, are you then expected to make new appointments and sit around even longer?

    I’ve also heard of people doing audio assessments. When this idea first came up, people were requiring students to go out and get a tape recorder and to bring in minicassettes for the purpose of receiving the instructor’s comments on tape. This, on top of $150 for the $30 paperback that is the textbook?

    You can, in theory, use BlackBoard’s Podcast function, but in the course of experimenting with those, I’ve learned the length needs to be limited to about five minutes. How can you comment on a ten-page paper in five minutes? “Janie: Nice effort. I loved the mosaic plagiarism from the Websites you cited (incorrectly) in your Works Cited but was puzzled about the source of the two other segments whose phrasing appears word-for-word online at and Paragraphs three, four, and six are unfocused. The Journal of Postmodern Absurdity, whose February 2010 issue you quote with precision, has not been published since 1993. The four non sequiturs and two sparklingly witty dangling modifiers made my day, they were so hilarious. The six unclear antecedents left my head reeling. In summary, the subject of this paper has nothing to do with the assignment, but I’m sure it got a fine grade in the Sociology 101 class for which it appears to have been written. C+.”

    Try to imagine your next discussion, which will be with the chair or dean. 😀

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