Two salaries that tell a story

Last weekend, the salaries of two different jobs caught my eye.

A salary was $40,000. The other was a range, $52,000 – $58,500.

The $40,000 salary was for the position of associate editor at the venerable Harper’s Magazine. This is a full-time gig in New York City and includes benefits and health insurance. The tweet from Harper’s announcing the post specifically labeled organizations for black, female and disabled journalists, seemingly signaling their openness to an inclusive and diverse workplace.

The announcement was not well received in replies to the tweet, with many noting that $40,000 doesn’t go very far in New York and that if they were really interested in a diverse workplace, they might try to pay a living wage. While the cultural and industrial prestige of Harper’s has some value that can pay off in future opportunities, only those who are already wealthy enough to work for unsustainable wages can afford to start down this path.

Last year, in an article, I noted the commonalities between the editors of the New Yorker who engaged in a work stoppage following a collective bargaining demand for a wage floor of $45,000 a year, and casual professors working for adjunct wages in hopes that years of unsustainable wages may one day lead to something safer.

Both systems have grown accustomed to a structure that works primarily through lower-level workers in order to preserve the relative privilege of those above, and perhaps most importantly to allow the institution to continue functioning. The promise of a dream, to do “significant” knowledge work among other like-minded people, is enough to fuel enough people to keep feeding the system.

(Or at least it has been so far.)

By and large, institutional leaders seem to have become familiar with this system, settling into what I call “institutional fear” (derived from Fobazi Ettarh’s “professional fear”, where there is no individual sacrifice too great to preserve the status quo of the functioning of the institution. That these sacrifices disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations is simply the (one assumes regrettable) price of doing business.

Harper’s posting a job offer with an unsustainable salary and specifically labeling occupational groups for workers who constitute a minority of the profession seems to me a very bad case of institutional fear. At the same time, I have no doubt that it is the salary that Harper’s Magazine believes it can “afford” within the current status quo.

A New York Time profile by the magazine’s Ben Smith and its editor, John R. MacArthur, tells the story of a magazine seemingly run by the whims of the wealthy. The magazine is funded by the MacArthur Family Foundation (same holding as the “Genius Grants”), and John R. MacArthur earns only $20,000 a year as the magazine’s publisher.

After years of resisting collective bargaining demands, MacArthur broke up an employee union in 2015. The profile ends with the story of the only black editorial staff leaving for a fact-checking job at the New Yorker. After telling MacArthur his new salary[1], he remarked, “Well, that’s too bad. You know we can’t pay anyone here.

the Time reports that MacArthur invests $4 million in the magazine on an annual basis. The MacArthur Foundation has assets of over $8 billion.

Harper’s Magazine will have no trouble filling the position.

Pretty much everywhere I’ve taught in higher education, someone has apologized to me about my salary, usually something like “I wish it was more, but it’s really the best we can do”.

I accepted each of these offers, feeling perhaps as sheepish as the people who apologized. I guess we both thought there was nothing we could do about it, probably because we couldn’t.

Having reached a maximum salary of $35,000 per year as a full-time instructor, I sometimes imagined what kind of salary it would take to make me feel secure enough to continue teaching. I also imagined what it might be like to teach loads of students in line with recommended disciplinary practices.

I didn’t want to be greedy on the amount of salary. The figure I had in mind was $50,000 a year.

This salary range of $52,000 to $58,500 is between Jobs for teaching assistant and teaching associate professor openings in the University of Denver writing program teaching first-year writing. For those not in the field, the UD writing program is considered a model for how writing programs should be run.

The faculty teaches 0/3/3 loads on a quarter system with 16 student caps on each section.[2] In an additional humanitarian gesture, the initial request for application documents is limited to a CV and a cover letter.

In a vacuum, objectively, there should be nothing special about this salary[3] and a student load in line with what we know to be best practice in teaching quality. However, while I am aware of these requirements that exist in addition to the University of Denver, they are very exceptional when it comes to dedicated resources for non-tenured first-year writing instructors.

Honestly, I found the job ad quite exciting in that it demonstrated that it is in fact possible to establish the conditions that would allow people to do the job they are hired for.

At the same time, what do we say about this work that these conditions are so rare? When institutions claim to consider general education important, why should we believe them? When politicians claim that providing educational opportunities is a priority, why should we believe them?

At such times I always think of all the people I have worked alongside over the years who have had to bridge the gaps between available resources and the mission and the fact that the vast majority of us are not teach more, even though many of us really loved it.[4]

Higher education is no different from many sectors of American employment in this way, not just scholarly cultural journals, but elementary school, health care, newspapers, etc.

I know there’s enough money somewhere to pay for these things, but I’ve never seen it.

I wonder if I ever will.


[1] She was earning $37,000 a year at Harper’s.

[2] I have never had a cap below 20 in my entire career.

[3] The position requires a terminal degree and three years of teaching experience.

[4] The attraction is eternal. When I read the job posting, I called my wife from my home office to let her know how she felt about moving to Denver. I didn’t really mean it, except a part of me did.

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