Thursday, December 02, 2010


Ask the Administrator: Partial Pay for Small Sections

An occasional correspondent writes:

I have been offered a course at a reduced rate because the enrollment is not 100%. My objections to this go beyond mere self interest (I think). Here are some potential issues:

#1: Instructors have little control over enrollment, but do have some. For example how many students pass a 100 level course has a direct impact on how many students move on to a 200 level course we might teach. If our rate is based on warm bodies might not an instructor be tempted to pass students just to increase enrollment in a higher level course?

#2: Advising, in either an official or unofficial capacity can only be affected by an instructors financial interest in the outcome of what classes a student signs up for.

#3: Is it really less work to teach a smaller class? Same commute, same lecture, same lesson prep, etc. At best there's some reduction in the amount of grading. I like to think we'd all give 100% for 50% pay, but there's some risk there. There's a message being sent by the college if they know it or not.

Obviously I can just turn down the class, but then I'm the guy that turns down classes... they will find someone to take the class and maybe that someone will get the next class at the full rate.

It’s a great question, since there are arguments on both sides.

Point three, above, gets details right on both sides. Yes, all else being equal, the grading for a small class is less work than the grading for a large class. (That’s why we cap sections for English Composition lower than for, say, Intro to Psych. Grading all those papers takes serious time.) But most of the other time and work is still there. The preparation is substantially similar, the class time doesn’t change, and so on.

Points one and two strike me as applicable mostly in smaller schools. They don’t apply very often here, though they could in some settings.

From an administrative perspective, small sections raise an obvious concern and a less obvious concern. The obvious concern is cost. If you only get three or four students in a class but you pay full freight anyway, you bleed money. If that class uses a classroom that otherwise would have held a much larger section, the opportunity cost is significant. (Yes, even last-minute sections can fill when the demand is high enough. It happens every semester.)

The less obvious concern is precedent. Every department or program has favorite courses (or favorite instructors) that it would love to run with low numbers. If I say yes to the history department’s pet project, then I have a hell of a time saying no to the psychology department’s pet project. Multiply that by departments across campus, and the logic behind bright-line minima starts to make sense.

The argument for pro-rating pay in low-enrolled sections is that it gets around the ‘precedent’ problem. If you’re willing to accept half of your usual salary to teach a smaller section, then I have an answer for the next department asking for the same thing. Assuming that there’s some sort of minimum beneath which people just won’t teach, this lets the market decide.

Of course, it still fails to address the opportunity cost problem -- itself a deal-breaker on my crowded campus -- and the plausibility of expecting the same level of effort at a pittance.

My college doesn’t pro-rate; either the class runs or it doesn’t. That necessarily means that certain classes simply don’t run, or at least not very often. Every semester we have multiple ‘triage’ meetings in which we try to guess which sections will hit the magic number that time.
This is a necessary and unavoidable side effect of endorsing the full-pay strategy. If your program is chock-full of required classes but doesn’t have enough students to run them, then your program either changes or dies. We can have full pay, or we can have lots of tiny sections, but we can’t have both. We’ve chosen the former.

Whether it makes sense to say ‘yes’ in your case depends on any number of things. I don’t know how staffing decisions are made at your college. It may be that turning down a class would be held against you, or it may not. I’d pay more attention to whether this class makes sense for you. If it’s something you’ve taught before, and the timing works with whatever else you’re doing, and you enjoy it, then I’d say go for it. If it’s a new prep, or an awkward time, or otherwise unpleasant, and if you can afford to, I’d turn it down. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Good luck. It’s an unpleasant situation, though I can see how it happened.

Wise and worldly readers, what’s your take on partial pay for small classes?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Our college pro-rates for low enrollment. I think the policy sucks, especially since the decisions is made either the day before or the day the class begins. Therefore the instructor doesn't have the chance to switch to another class. So he/she either teaches the same class for less pay, or has to take an increased load the following semester (this latter is for full-time instructors). Finally, this morale buster generates remarkably little savings, since the money "saved" is almost always a pittance (like 10% of what the class would have cost).

Obviously, a chair's scheduling plays a role as well. A good schedule can manage some of the situations that would result in partial pay for small sections. Unfortunately, as the OP pointed out, there are all sorts of intangibles that impact enrollments. I wish enrollment management could be placed on a more scientific footing - at least at my institution!
My CC has different minimum enrollment requirements for adjuncts and full-timers. So if a class is only going to attract 8 students but still needs to run, they'll swap a full timer's class with an adjunct's so that 8-student class can still run.

Which is basically exactly the same as paying partial pay for a partially-full class, except that all the adjuncts get the same shitty pay whether they teach 8 students or 120.
My institution started doing this with summer courses a few years ago, and the way it's implemented is really crappy. Enough said on that.

Another issue I see with these policies is that they effectively penalize professors who regularly teach classes that are full to the brim. If Colleague A meets the enrollment minimum for 100% pay, and Colleague B meets the enrollment minimum for 100% pay plus 5 students, then why isn't Colleague B getting a pro-rated salary increase for those 5 extra students? How is it that five students below are seen as demonstrably less work whereas five students more are not counted at all?

I'll tell you why: this prorating is not about the work that professors do. It's about cost-cutting. Period.
Do they plan increase the rate for classes which exceed the caps, or only decrease the rate?
Anon at 7:41 AM hits it.

Cutting adjunct stipends because of low enrollments is purely wrong. It the course is important enough to run with a low enrollment, then it's important enough to pay the instructor whatever the going one-class rate is. Period.
I have a moral dilemma with this very issue right now. At my institution, we only get paid full rate when we hit a "magic number" which is the same across the board, regardless of the cap for the class (in otherwords, it is not a percentage of the cap just an arbitrary number). I have prospective students email to ask how challenging the class is, workload, etc. The class is on the border of the magic number. Each student who adds my class results in approximately $300 more for the semester. Do I tell them honestly that the class is very demanding and possibly scare them off? Or lie and get the pay. It's hard to do the right thing for the student when it completely works against me.
There's also the point that many faculty determine how much writing they will assign based on the size of a class.
I think this is all appalling, and the administrators who have come up with this policy should be truly ashamed of themselves.

I think the correspondent should turn the class down an adjust lie about the reason if s/he is afraid of not getting a call-back.

Imagine the uproar among academics if a clerk at Wal-Mart were offered x rate of hourly pay, but only if s/he served y customers, and the hourly wage were reduced for every n (customers) below an hourly average who did not appear.

I have often wondered how low the profession could go, but this really takes the cake.
My R1 runs classes on a go/no-go basis. Don't hit the magic number, then the class is canceled. It makes no sense to me to do otherwise unless piece-work wages (which is what this is parallel to) become the norm for everyone. If the administration refuses to replace open faculty lines, then their wages should go down--fewer people to manage means less work, right?
I'm a full-timer, so probably shouldn't comment on the situation of an adjunct.

If my department sprung this on me on the first day of classes, I'd refuse to teach the class, and let the college deal with the disruption and unhappiness of the students whose class got cancelled. And I'd be very unhappy. As a full-timer, it wouldn't generate much loyalty if a college played games like this with me more than once.

In my department, we're all full-timers, so there's no question of partial pay for partial classes. Instead, we get a certain number of teaching credits per class, based upon enrollment. It's a step function: as long as the class is large enough to not be cancelled, we get a certain number of teaching credits; additional students cause a slight increase in teaching credits. We have to meet a certain number of teaching credits per year. This seems more reasonable to me, as it doesn't mess with people's salaries and doesn't trigger the same morale problems. But I realize it probably wouldn't work for adjuncts.
My university pro-rates for summer classes. Several years ago, one of my colleagues had a student add a course after the first day of class, and the university did not bump up his pay. He was paid for the six student who were in class on day one, but taught seven students (or whatever the numbers were.)

I, personally, would have walked out. And frankly, the reason my colleague didn't is that he cares about the students, and didn't want to leave seven students high-and-dry without a summer course they needed to get on with their degrees.

This is about as clear-cut a case of administration taking advantage of a soft-hearted professor as I can remember.
As a long-time adjunct, I've learned how the old bromide about a "bird in the hand" applies. If you're offered a class, take it because you never know what may happen next semester. I would probably take the class, and more importantly, the money, but I would adjust the level of effort I would port forth in terms of the number and length of assignments and all out-of-class work to the pay rate.
anonymous 4:44--your approach is perhaps unwise (and I'm both qualifying and ratcheting down my adjective's intensity, lest dd feel I'm flaming.) The course is the course. It shouldn't be taught better or worse depending on instructor pay--because the students are paying the same, whatever the instructor earns, but wouldn't be getting the same under the anon4:44 scheme and because your 'solution' lets administration off the hook for its failures.

Take the course if you want it, leave it if you don't think management is being fair--but give it and your students and your subject your best if you're in the classroom.
There are a lot of things that should and shouldn't be the case. But as they say, you get what you pay for in a capitalist economy. And so, if the college is going to pay X% of the going rate, then X% is what they'll get for their money. Simple. And if you want to raise the issue of the instructor's ethical obligation to the students, that begs a question about why the administration gets a free pass on the very same obligation. Yours is a very pro-management position.
Heavens, anon5:47--surely you're not accusing me of being pro-management! I think the management which has put dd's occasional correspondent in this pickle are complete shits. But I don't think the students ought to pay for management mistakes. I'd prefer that the correspondent was protected by a strong union that told management where to head in. Barring that, one's obligation to one's own self-respect and professional pride requires one to give the student not some percentage of your best based on a resentful look at your paycheck--but your best.

I work with people who resent management and take it on out on the students, saying, as you do, that you get what you pay for. No, that's bad.
I would love to do more for my students, I really would, but teaching seven classes per semester requires adjustments. I do what I can. Put better, I do the best that I can. But I'm acutely aware that my best at seven classes per semester is less than my best were I able to teach just four, or even five. The problem is I would go bankrupt very quickly were I to scale back my course-load per term. Such is the brave new world of Adjunt U.
Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u
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