The Economics of Culpability

I’m on day 3 now of my attempt to write 750 words a day for my blog for the month of September. I’m not sure South Mississippi can handle 30 days of heartfelt honesty from me. Probably in a day or two I’ll go back to talking about celery sticks and balsamic vinegar, but I’m not quite done pondering the working life of the Southern two-year college teacher. Once I started writing about what was on my mind, it turned out there were some things in there.

What I want to do today is to examine how it happens that people tolerate teaching 24 credit hours in a single semester. Really, you would think they wouldn’t do that to themselves, but they do, and I believe I understand why.

It makes no sense mathematically. An instructor could go to a small regional university and teach four classes per semester with limits of 20 or 25 people in a class. That might pay…hmmm…anywhere from 45,000 a year to 55,000 a year. That same instructor, though, stays in a job teaching eight classes at a time with much higher enrollment caps for maybe 65,000 a year. Those extra four classes, then, are hardly paying the water bill, but they are creating a greatly reduced quality of life for the instructor.

Yet in the instructor’s mind, changing jobs isn’t affordable. Even cutting back at the same job isn’t affordable. And this is how it has happened.

At my job, we haven’t had a decent raise since before Katrina, and that is how we measure life here–before and after Katrina. We haven’t even gotten any incremental cost of living adjustments since before Katrina. The cost of living, however, shot up in our area after Katrina. It shot up again when the recession hit. Thus, teaching eight classes now is just an effort to stay somewhere in the ballpark of the income level you had six years ago when you were only teaching six classes at a time. And that is exactly how it has happened. People just kept taking on extra work because it seemed to be the only way they could keep up.

The first time I taught more than six classes in one semester was the year of Katrina. I remember telling people at the time, “Seven classes is the point that makes you insane. Seven is the point that gives you nervous breakdowns. Seven is the point that compromises your health. I hope I never teach seven classes again.”

Yet I have. I’ve taught seven. I’ve taught eight. And my health has been compromised the entire time I’ve been doing it. I have been in one long continuous asthma and arthritis flareup for the past four years.

Yet I’ve continued to agree to take on that much work.

I’ve done it for two reasons. One, I’ve thought I really needed the money. Two, I’ve thought the school really needed my help. We were short on teachers. We were especially short on online teachers. I thought I had to pitch in and do my part.

This semester, I was scared that I would have eight classes again, and I was scared that I wouldn’t. The pay cut we had in the spring threw me off balance, and I couldn’t seem to get my footing again. I wasn’t sure what I would do if I didn’t have eight classes, and I wasn’t sure how I would cope if I did.

This is the situation we’re all looking at.

Yet this is what someone said to me recently, “We’re all complicit in the fact that we’re so short on teachers because we have let them keep giving the extra classes to us instead of drawing the line on what we could reasonably handle.”

That’s true, but at the same time we’ve also been afraid that if we did turn down the extra classes, the school would just pile even more people into one section, and we’d still be teaching all of the extra people without any of the extra pay. Add to that a true feeling of loyalty to the school. If you’re needed, you’re needed, aren’t you?

And there’s the basic psychology of how people allow themselves to be worked to the point of physical and mental abuse.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an answer to this. We don’t just need one new English teacher to give people normal working conditions. We need fifteen new English teachers. The money just isn’t ever going to show up for that to happen.

To be perfectly straightforward about it, though, I do believe that my department and other academic departments have been unfairly stripped of funding that should have been there all along but hasn’t been because it’s been channeled to other purposes. But at this point, we’re talking about ten years worth of decisions to cut and cut and cut that can’t possibly be made up for during the midst of an economic crisis.

I don’t even know how we begin to step toward a solution to the situation we find ourselves in now. It would be insane to keep loading teachers down with this many classes, but at the same time, everyone is going to be reluctant to give those extras up because they are all effectively making less money than they made six years ago.

And that, my friends, is my 750 words for today that somehow once again turned into 850 words.

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