The Increased Teaching Load for Composition Instructors at Arizona State Provides a Disturbing Glimpse into the Future for Other Faculty

Inside Higher Ed recently ran an article on a 25% increase in the teaching loads for full-time non-tenure-eligible writing faculty at Arizona State University. The article, written by Colleen Flaherty is titled “One course without Pay,” and the full article is available at:

The writing instructors, none of whom were willing to be identified by name in the article out of fear of retaliation, have created a website called ASUAgainst55 [], which includes a petition that I would encourage everyone to sign [].

The logo on the webpage for the group reads: “English: Start Broke, End Broken.”

It is a damning statement, but not just about this particular situation. It is a damning statement about the current state of the profession, of which the exploitation of these English instructors is simply one pointed illustration.

Consider these facts:

The English instructors now teach four composition courses per semester.

Those courses used to have an enrollment cap of 20 students.

The enrollment cap per course was, however, raised some time ago to 25 students per class.

The Modern Language Association’s guidelines for writing programs suggest that student learning decreases when any writing instructor teaches more than three sections of composition or 60 students per semester.

So, even without the proposed increase of a fifth composition course per semester, the writing faculty at Arizona State are already teaching one composition course and 40 composition students per semester above what the MLA had defined as a pedagogically sound ceiling.

With the proposed increase, the writing faculty at Arizona State will be teaching two composition courses and 65 students per semester above the MLA recommendations. That means that they will be teaching more than twice the number of composition students per semester than what is recommended by the MLA.

Indeed, the actual workload for composition instructors at Arizona State is actually even more onerous because many of the students at the university are native speakers of Spanish, whose English skills, even after they have taken ESL or developmental writing courses, require extra instructional attention.

Writing instructors at Arizona State have a starting salary of $32,000 per year, or $16,000 per semester, or currently $4,000 per course. The increase to a 5-5 teaching load will reduce their salary per course from $4,000 to $3,200. That is $700 per course above the national average of what an adjunct faculty member is paid per course.

In effect, the exploitation of adjunct faculty members is putting such downward pressure on compensation that their pay per course is coming closer to becoming the new norm, the new baseline for how the compensation of full-time faculty is being calculated.

Full-time employment means very little if the wages are exploitative and the benefits minimal. It simply means that the institutions are stabilizing their instructional workforce at a cost not much higher than what a completely “temp” workforce would cost.

Many, and perhaps most, of the composition instructors at Arizona State are graduates of the university’s own graduate programs in English. It may seem that, it in a very tight labor market for college and university faculty, it is a good thing that an institution hires its own graduates, providing them an opportunity to gain further teaching experience and to earn a decent salary while continuing their searches for tenure-track positions.

But teaching a 5-5 load will make pursuing any sort of scholarly research next to impossible. In fact, it will make scheduling more than even one or two job interviews next to impossible.

So what the university is, in fact doing is creating its own indentured workforce. The graduate program produces graduates who may initially be grateful for the instructor positions, because they have been supporting themselves with teaching fellowships that have now ended or because they have accumulated considerable debt, or both. But it is probably not very long before they recognize that the teaching load makes the instructorship at ASU something of a professional trap. And the increased teaching load will make it only a more difficult trap to escape into a better academic position. In effect, it can quickly and easily become a dead-end in their careers.

The composition instructors at ASU were apparently responsible for doing much of the departmental and college service, which had been calculated as 20% of their responsibilities. I am guessing that such service actually consumed much more than 20% of their time, but that it gave them a sense of professional engagement that teaching a fifth composition per semester will not provide.

That service is now being shifted entirely to the tenure-track faculty, who will either experience a substantial increase in their workloads—albeit one that is much more difficult to quantify than an increase in teaching load—or much of the service simply will not get done.

In any case, the shift in the responsibility for service is being used by the administration as a rationale for the increased teaching load for the composition instructors: in effect, they are arguing that it is not an increase in overall workload but simply a shift in the responsibilities that constitute the workload.

Perhaps, but the shift is clearly exploitative that such a rationale sounds like complete bullshit.

The basic arithmetic of this exploitative increase in teaching load is very revealing.

There are 60 writing instructors whose workload will increase. That means that the university will need save $800 per course per instructor or $3,000 per instructor by implementing the new 5-5 teaching load. Since new instructors are paid $32,000 per year, the university would have to hire 15 new instructors to cover the same number of courses at the current 4-4 teaching load–120 additional courses per year divided by eight courses per instructor.

The total cost of the salaries of 15 new instructors would be $480,000.

That sounds like a great deal of money, but since Arizona State is very comparable in size to Ohio State and I know what the administrative salaries are at Ohio State, I am guessing that it the equivalent of what the compensation of three  administrators within one of the colleges within the university (depending on the disciplines housed in the college) or to two mid-level administrators with university-level positions. In fact, if one adds in the salaries of administrative support staff, the $480,000 might simply cover the budget of a single, average-sized, university-level administrative “office.”

To borrow a catchphrase from Barbara Ehrenreich that seems ever more apropos to higher education, the instructional side continues to be nickel and dimed while the savings, along with any increases in revenues, are shifted to the administrative side to meet “essential institutional needs.”


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