An adjunct instructor at my institution who teaches five courses, earns an annual total of $17,700 ($3,540 per course). If she teaches 15 hours per week for fourteen weeks, and preps and grades 30 hours per week, this means she earns about $28 per hour. That's not bad from a purely wage-based point of view, especially compared to the $7.40 minimum in my state. For that matter, our college is quite generous; other schools may offer half or a third of what she earns here, so she's doing a lot better than many contingent instructors nationwide.
The thing is, she doesn't spend her days surrounded by fast food workers or adjuncts at other schools. Instead, her comparison group is people with tenured or tenure-track positions, who do almost the same job she does for far more remuneration. For example, the average associate professor at my institution earned a base pay of $62,300 in 2012, a number that does not include significant additional benefits in the form of retirement and insurance contributions. This kind of salary is perhaps not all that impressive for people with terminal degrees, but compared to our nearest neighbors, it's a pretty good living. According to this source, the median income in our town is only about $26,000, so we can't really complain. (It's even better when considering the fact that, even though I do work during the summer, there are a couple of months a year in which I don't have to set my alarm clock and can work in my jammies.)
In exchange for salary and benefits, we are required to teach six courses per year. At the rate at which adjuncts are paid, this accounts for $21,240, or only about one-third of the average associate professor's base pay. Ostensibly, then, the other $41,060 (plus benefits) that the school spends is for other work the average associate does: Advising students, sitting on committees and completing research and writing projects. This is where, were I in the shoes of my adjunct colleague, I might start to get bitter. Does the average tenured professor really spend two-thirds of her work time doing more than $40,000 worth of advising, committee work and research? This question is enough to make me squirm, and I am at the low end of my institution's faculty pay scale; did our college's highest-paid professor really do enough advising, service and research in 2012 to warrant his reported base pay of $109,163?
No one knows exactly how to address the exploitation of adjunct labor, but it certainly must begin with a more honest valuation of what it is we professors do with our time and energy. If our teaching truly accounts for less than half of what we are worth to our institutions, then perhaps the current state of things is entirely appropriate. But if the truth is something else -- that teaching is in fact where we earn the lion's share of our salaries, especially at small undergraduate colleges -- then how can we possibly justify paying adjuncts so much less for doing the same job? To do so, we must admit one of two things: Either that teaching is worth a lot, but higher education has sold out its noblest democratic values in favor of corporate ones; or that teaching isn't worth all that much, and we smug tenureds really are the lazy pigs everyone seems to think we are.