top of page

Contingency and Compensation: A Practical Classroom Exercise in Workplace Literacy and Visual Essay Interpretation and Design

Ask students to come to class with definitions of the word “contingency” and with a basic understanding about what constitutes compensation for work (generally involves both salary and benefits).  Define what is usually included among benefits.

Review terms such as full-time/part-time employment, the Affordable Care Act and how hours worked affected eligibility, Social Security, FLSA overtime rules, unemployment, and pension funds.

Assign reading of basic information about the so-called Skills Gap and its relevance to hiring. See for instance Peter Capelli’s article from TIME magazine (Capelli, Peter. “The skills gap myth: Why companies can’t find good people.” June 4, 2012.  Time Magazine: Business and Money.)

Ask what is meant by flex-time and job sharing and contrast these notions which were originally meant to offer humane options for work and work-life balance with recent ideas about “flex-work.”

Examine the web site devoted to the San Precario, Italy’s patron saint of precarious workers, and discuss whether issues and concerns exist in the U.S. and other countries.

Discuss the implications of having a high salary but few benefits or good benefits but low salary.

Ask students to analyze two visual essays--one on contingent employment in higher education from the Center for the Study of Academic Labor at Colorado State University ( pages 1-5 especially) and the other a visual essay about the decline in pension plans from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Discuss the issues of contingency and ask students to consider the implications of contingency for their own future.  What might be some solutions? Should higher education play a role in offering solutions?

Using the graphical depiction of student debt offered by Mother Jones, ask students what role student debt may play in their experience of contingency and reductions to benefits.

EXTENSION QUESTION: Ask students to design a visual essay depicting a better future in terms of contingent employment, benefits packages, and student debt.

Classroom Projects

Thank you to Natalie Barnes and Sue Doe from Colorado State University

Create a “living diorama” with a long board/plank and a foldable sawhorse. Place a small bag of “money” on one end and label it with the average pay of a non tenure-track faculty member at your institution. On the other end, put a large bag of “money” and label it with the pay of the average tenured professor or administrator. (Consider the advantages/disadvantage of citing administrator pay versus tenure-track faculty pay. Who is your argument with and whom are you interested in developing as an ally?)

Invite students to participate alongside you in the free speech area. They recite their likely student debt at the end of four years of college. Alongside them, you recite your own student debt as well as data about how much you’re making and how long it will take you to pay off your loans.

Calculate the number of pages of reading you do when grading student papers during a semester and create a visual that shows how high the stack of papers goes.  Then create a stack of paper representing your compensation—one sheet of paper per dollar earned each semester—and place it alongside the first stack to show that your pay is not adequately compensatory.

Using the Poll Everywhere app or another easy web-based survey mechanism, organize a group of teachers to ask students, all at the same moment across campus, to answer a series of questions relating to their understanding of non tenure-track faculty.  Use student responses to formulate a plan for addressing the education of students on these matters and the education of administrators on the implications of student understanding.

Simple Guerilla Theatre Actions for Classrooms or Public Free Speech Areas

Distribute small bags of peanuts with signs on them that say “Adjuncts work for peanuts” and attach a fact sheet that draws attention to recent employment data from your Institutional Research site. No doubt the number of contingent faculty is growing faster than the number of tenure-track faculty. No doubt faculty employment is failing to keep pace with burgeoning administrator, student services, and development office employment.

Chalking Lesson on Academic Freedom

in the Age of  Contingent Academic Employment

Photos by Natalie Barnes

Although this assignment was specific for this Arts & Humanities and English class, it could easily be adapted to many disciplines – just consider how the ideals of the university, and the idea of academic freedom comes into play with your content. It would be hard to find a subject taught at the university level where the idea of academic freedom isn’t paramount.


Adapt the Power Point presentation (available from Natalie) accordingly and use statistics from your institution. Our College of Liberal Arts Associate Dean who was in place when this was first introduced was highly supportive of this idea – perhaps because it addresses issues of contingency that affect STUDENTS, and their education. I’ve done it successfully numerous times.

Questions or requests for detailed lesson plans? Please contact


To see other photos of chalking on the plaza look at the top row of photos labeled ART100 Campus Equity Week (various dates); to see photos of the indoor “pre-chalking” and responses to chalking look at the bottom row of photos labeled Indoor Chalking and Response to Chalking at:


This was a ollaborative assignment between students in E465, Workplace Literacies (a capstone course) and ART100, Introduction to the Visual Arts (a university Arts & Humanities core course) done in conjunction with Campus Equity Week at Colorado State University and tied directly to course content in both classes.

  • PART I Students in the Art class put themselves in the role of the artist in addressing the idea of academic freedom (and its integral connection to concerns of contingent faculty).

  • PART II Students in the English class are encouraged to polish critical writing skills as they build, construct, offer critical resistance, and/or debate issues represented by students in the Art class.

Students in both classes learned facts about contingent (adjunct) faculty issues as part of the contextual instruction for the activity.

bottom of page