ASU Writing Instructors Balk Over Pay Cuts

Protestors calling for fair pay for low-wage workers in April.
Protestors calling for fair pay for low-wage workers in April.
Elizabeth Stuart

More than half of Arizona State University’s writing instruction staff signed a letter this week pledging to fight the school over what they say are unfair employment contracts.

The teachers have been testy since December, when university officials announced that writing instructors would be required to teach five classes each semester instead of four. Then, when the university passed salary details this month, many of the department’s more experienced teachers also were asked to take a pay cut. 

“Students and parents are paying really high tuition and we can’t pay our bills,” said Paulette Stevenson, 33, who has been teaching freshman writing composition at ASU since 2007. “The public should be asking: If teachers aren’t getting the money I’m paying for tuition, where is it going?” 

ASU spokesman Mark Johnson told New Times that after reviewing teacher compensation in comparison to market benchmarks, the university is increasing pay to instructors, not just in the English department, but university-wide.

"Arizona State University recognizes the hard work and dedication of all of our faculty, including entry-level instructors," Johnson said. 

During the 2014-2015 school year, a first-year instructor teaching four classes made $30,000. If the instructor voluntarily took on an extra class, pay was bumped $6,000. Because teachers will be required to teach five classes starting this fall, ASU officials raised the base pay for new hires to $36,000.

However, in the two-page letter addressed to university leaders, 32 instructors argued that only newer teachers making less than $36,000 were given a raise. Many teachers who taught five courses last year actually will be paid $6,000 less for the same amount of work.  

One teacher who has been working for ASU for 12 years, for example, was offered $37,500, Stevenson said. Last year, she brought home close to $42,000. 

The letter called on ASU to compensate all instructors for the increased workload and allow them to retain merit raises. 

Already, ASU pays instructors, a job that requires a master’s degree or a PhD, close to $9,000 less per year than the national average for public four-year universities, according to data compiled by the Chronicle for Higher Education. By comparison, the school pays tenured professors, who make an average of $133,470, about $26,000 more than its national peers.

“No other faculty rank devotes as much time to their courses as instructors do,” the teachers wrote in their letter to officials. “It is incumbent upon the department to explain why the department has chosen not to regard instructors for the enormous amount of work they do, but to burden them alone with financial shortfalls they did not generate.”

In the letter, instructors also expressed concern that poor working conditions will negatively affect students. With the increased pressure of taking on an extra class, which will require them to grade a at least 1,000 extra pages each year, teachers will no longer have time to oversee extracurricular writing programs or pursue professional development.

“Our ability to teach is suffering — and it’s not because we’re busy hanging out in our ivory tower,” Stevenson said. “We don’t have time and we can’t pay our bills.”

Writing composition classes are capped at 25, so the teachers are among the only faculty to build a relationship with students, whose other classes often have between 100 and 300 students, said Sam Ruckman, 40, who has worked at ASU seven years. A lot of her students speak English as a second language and are the first in their families to attend college.

The situation “is not fair to me,” she said, “but it’s really not fair to them.”

“I’m not just a teacher; I’m also a counselor,” Ruckman said. “I’ve got students sitting in my office crying. They need a coach, someone to say, ‘Go team! Go!’”

In order to pay down the six-figure student loan she took out for her Ph.D., Ruckman said she has had to supplement her $33,400 income by taking adjunct writing positions at community colleges. At one point, she was working on three different campuses.

“You wake up at six and grade as much as you can before you jump in the shower,” she said. “You eat a yogurt while you’re driving and you tell your students, ‘I can’t meet with you after class because I have to be 45 minutes away at Paradise Valley Community College.’ You eat your lunch in the parking lot while you reply to emails from students and try to get some more grading in. You eat a frozen dinner, you grade some more, and then you go to bed.”

It’s a “disaster,” she said.

“I never would have gotten my Ph.D. if I had known this is what my life was going to be like,” she said. “I would have stopped after I earned my MFA, waited tables at a fancy restaurant, and written a book.”

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