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Pay-per-student policy forces Binghamton University adjuncts to get creative

Solvejg Wastvedt
Canan Tanir's class, Sex, Body and Pop Culture, is an online course. She assigns readings and grades students' posts in a discussion forum.

Summer is a lean time for adjunct professors. They teach part-time, and in the summer there are often fewer courses available for them. At Binghamton University, things get even tighter.

That’s because of an unusual payment system that has adjuncts like Canan Tanir competing for students’ attention.

Tanir has one course at Binghamton this summer. She’s finishing her PhD and teaching to support herself.

During the year, she gets paid a flat rate for each class she teaches. In the summer, though, it’s different: Tanir gets paid by the student.

Six students is the course minimum – that gets you $1,600 in her department. If you max out at 41 students, you make more than double that.

For an adjunct trying to make a living in the summer, this is tricky.

“You basically have to sell your class to get paid a fair amount,” Tanir said.

Not to worry, though, Tanir has a pretty good strategy. A couple years ago she offered a class with the title Sociology of the Body. Low sign-ups. It didn’t even make the minimum it needed to run.

This year, she has the same class, but, she says, “The title is Sex, Body and Pop Culture.”

The change worked. Class enrollment is breaking records. Tanir says normally a summer class gets 10 or 20 students. Her's has 35.

The extra money that brings in is key for Tanir. Her husband James Parisot is also an adjunct at Binghamton University, and they don’t have any other income.

Parisot has his own strategies for boosting his summer paycheck.

“I was teaching a class called Video Games and Global Capitalism, where we looked at the sociology of video games,” Parisot explains.

That’s not Parisot’s usual subject matter. He says he wishes he could offer something more substantial, like what he teaches during the year: American history classes about the destruction of Native American communities.

Those issues aren’t financially viable in the summer system.

“If I tried to teach a very depressing, serious topic, probably no one would sign up for it,” Parisot said.

Summers are known for lighter fare. But this payment system is pretty unique to Binghamton University. Most other SUNY colleges don’t use it.

Binghamton says it is key because the summer term is self-supporting. Its budget comes only from student tuition, so classes need to bring in enough to cover their costs.

James Pitarresi oversees the summer program. He says if professors got paid flat rates, a class would need 15 or 16 students to break even.

“My guess is that if we went to a flat rate system, we would be offering fewer courses,” Pitarresi says.

He admits the system isn’t perfect.

“But at least it allows that course to be offered, if the instructor wants to,” Pitarresi said. “They can opt out and say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’”

Tanir and her husband still have to pay the bills, though, even in the summer.

"We’ve been getting by, barely saving up anything,” she says. “Actually, we don’t save up anything. There’s nothing left at the end of the month.”

Tanir is looking forward to the fall, when she doesn’t get paid per student. Apparently the title of her class still matters though. 

“I first named it Modernity and Gender, and then it was changed to Modernity, Gender, Sexuality,” Tanir said.

Registration is almost full.

Solvejg Wastvedt grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Over the summer, she served in Los Angeles as an intern on NPR's National Desk. Plus, before coming to Upstate New York, Solvejg worked at the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. When she isn't reporting the news, Solvejg enjoys running and exploring hiking trails.