Free Academic Labor and Easy Outrage
On doing nothing instead of doing something
Yesterday, a job posting from the UCLA chemistry department began making the social media rounds, accompanied by predictable outrage that the department appears to be soliciting applications for unpaid employment (essentially, volunteer teaching).
At least one faculty from the department was quick to explain in at least one academic-focused FaceBook group that the post was for classes that are taught by postdoctoral fellows (who are compensated) and teaching a class is a part of their fellowship duties. My guess is that there is some state law that requires them to post the classes publicly as “jobs” even though the classes are for a specific group of already-compensated and selected postdoctoral fellows, for whom teaching a class, one of the advertised classes, is a part of their compensation scheme. I think, in this case, the most unfortunate part of this incident is that UCLA has not found a way to more clearly convey the population that these classes are available to and what compensation scheme that they are a part of. Instead, it looks like the chemistry department as UCLA is looking to exploit a population of increasingly desperate PhDs scrambling to hold onto academic careers in a higher education system where opportunities are increasingly scarce, and the opportunities that do exist are increasingly demanding.
It is easy to be outraged at this “job” ad. But, since the classes that it is advertising are part of the (compensated) job responsibilities for a certain group of scholars it is, not, I think, worth the apoplectic rage that I am seeing from many of my colleagues. And while UCLA chemistry can perhaps look for a solution to more clearly communicate what these positions are to insulate them from public outrage (if that is something they think is worth their time and effort), that is an internal problem and has an internal solution. And it is internally generated solutions that are going to have a much greater impact on a very hard, confusing, and often cruel academic job market. The social media outrage generated by UCLA’s ad is a lesson in where we are finding outlets to express our collective frustration at the state of higher ed employment without actually adding to our own (extensive) workloads or risking any political capital in our own workplaces.
It is so very easy to respond with outrage to a problem external to your organization. Especially when that problem seems to prove the worst image of a system (in this case, that academia will increase its exploitation of PhDs until we are begging to work for free). It is much harder to turn our desires for fair compensation inward and examine the systems that we are a part of and might be able to effect. I assure you that there are exploitative jobs masquerading as “opportunities” in all of our departments and we all have likely felt as though we have benefitted in some way from them. For example, at one institution where I taught, it is common for librarians, who are already paid only about half of what even early-career faculty earned a year at this institution, to teach classes in the departments of their subject area of expertise (as many of these librarians had PhDs as well as Masters in Library/Information Sciences). They are not paid to teach these classes. They do not get to substitute teaching time for any of their library work time. They are, effectively, volunteer instructors. They do this because once they retire, having a history of teaching classes that departments can not cover (due to chronic understaffing, even though this is a private, elite college with an enormous endowment) can help them secure an adjunct position with the department and provide some retirement income. I was and am appalled at this system that both exploits these librarians for a chance at extra income in retirement while also allowing departments to continue in a state of chronic understaffing since there are literally free instructors available to them. In my personal experience, everyone shook their heads at the situation and let it continue. No one was willing to go up against the administration and their rule that no full-time faculty could be compensated in excess of their full-time salary, even if they are doing more work. The librarians likely do not want to rock the boat and be barred from teaching classes that allow them to both teach in their areas of expertise and also give them a chip that they might be able to cash in once they retire from their library position.
My next example is bit more vague for the sake of not getting anyone in trouble or betraying anyone’s trust. This sort of rule, cited above, about not compensating certain kinds of employees past certain levels exists in many many many institutions. Maybe a department wants a graduate student to teach a class in her area, and maybe she wants to teach it, but they are prohibited by the university from paying her for that work because she is not allowed to earn more than she already does for her regular teaching/research responsibilities. But rather than not teach the class (because maybe it is a very relevant to her expertise or she thinks one more CV line might give her an edge in a job market that is akin to a lottery system), the graduate student agrees to creative work-arounds in compensation. Maybe there is a fund that is more flexible in how it can be spent and the department chair can use it to compensate the graduate student in a different way for teaching the class, such as providing that graduate student guaranteed extra travel funds or research funds.
And you might think that a sort of compensation-in-kind seems fair, but I’ll point out that if I have to use the money to go to a conference because that is the only situation for which a payout will be approved, then I cannot use that money to pay for rent or food or anything else that I might reasonably need to live. Workers should receive compensation for their work that they are free to spend as they need and wish. I never see anyone objecting to these arrangements because they are a means for graduate students or adjuncts to have teaching opportunities that they might not normally have while also helping departments cover classes that they do not have enough or the type of faculty for. This sort of arrangement is a hornet’s nest of individual interests and motivations so critiquing any instance of it risks turning the entire hive against oneself.
We keep our mouths shut about many sorts of workarounds that deprive workers of fair compensation because we want these opportunities (partly because the market is so thin on opportunities that any edge is scrambled for), but they are also the places where we should be turning our attention and directing our desire for fair treatment from higher ed employers. Doing so would be far more effective than clutching our collective pearls about UCLA’s poorly communicated advertisement of what amounts to internal, and compensated, teaching positions. Rather than settling for easy outrage, identify the limits on compensation and opportunities in your own department and work towards changing them so that graduate students, librarians, and any other instructors who bring special expertise to a department can both get fair paychecks and use those paychecks however they need in their individual lives. A fairer and less opaque system of compensation would also more clearly show where a department’s needs are, who is meeting those needs, and also encourage universities to more honestly acknowledge, and hopefully address, their employment needs.
Being outraged at UCLA’s poor communication will accomplish nothing beyond providing a sense of personal satisfaction that it turns out you were right about the exploitative system of academia that is grinding your spirit to dust in its inhuman gears; the proof is right there in that job ad! And look, you are outraged on social media, so perhaps you are doing something about the situation! But the reality of the situation makes all of this outrage just a tool for directing a desire for change away from the locations where academics could actually make some change and do some good. Resist the easy outrage. Look for the exploitation that I promise is present in the system that you are a part of, that you have participated in, and that you might actually be able to do something about.
Update: The Facebook group where I saw the explanation from the UCLA faculty is The Professor is Out, which is a private group and I would be violating the terms of the group to share the explanation without permission. But I am going to ask for permission and will update as I can. However, I can post that this teacher-scholar program is the program associated with the UCLA job ads.