One professor at Oxford called the work of teaching women’s studies a “labor of love”—a sentiment echoed by Swift. “[It’s] the sense of doing good service,” she said. “It's not something that brings one extra time, but in that respect, it’s a bit like contributing to outreach. It seems … part of one's mission, in a way. There's inevitable pro-bono.”
But such work comes with consequences. As passionate as our professors were, my cohort at Oxford didn’t feel all that inspired in seminars. Some students, such as Julienne Orcullo, a 24-year-old from Sydney, did say she appreciated Oxford’s lax, hands-off approach to women’s studies. But most of my other peers expressed disappointment. “I think when you get into a university which has such a prestigious reputation internationally, as Oxford does, you expect a certain level of support and engagement,” Laing reflected. “I felt quite let down by Oxford.”
Once, a professor confessed she hadn’t done the assigned reading herself. I seethed in class, feeling self-righteous because I did all the reading and even highlighted a few passages, too. At the time, I didn’t realize she was essentially volunteering her nonexistent free time to teach us and that my anger toward her lacking preparation for class was misplaced. I should have been furious with my school for its blatant labor exploitation and for failing to support certain forms of academic pursuit.
In response to a public-records request, the University of Oxford shared documents revealing how the women’s-studies master’s-degree program was funded between the 2011 and 2016 academic years. The funding varied wildly from year to year—in the 2011-12 school year, the program received a grand total of £111,790. The following school year, it received just £44,965.01—less than half of the previous year’s funding. By the 2015 to 2016 school year, the funding was up to £89,304.35. The biggest costs involved infrastructure (libraries and IT support, for example), while administrative expenses also ate a large chunk. But spending on teaching was comparably low: At its peak, it was £8,842.95 (compared to £43,410 for infrastructure and £17,261.23 for administration), and at its base, it was £5,725 (compared to £15,100 and £7,354). (The University of Oxford declined a public-records request for funding statistics from other interdisciplinary master’s-degree programs, citing excessive costs.)
Spending, according to the document, varied largely according to the number of students in the course. That means that, in my year of 15 students, for all the weekly lectures and seminars we attended—and all the papers we wrote—teaching each of us only cost the university about £456 per student over the course of 10 months.
These wages are comparative to those of adjunct professors in the United States— akin to “freelance” instructors with low pay and no job security. The standard pay per course for U.S. adjunct professors is $2,700 or so—or about $270 for grading, administrating, and teaching a student over the course of a term, assuming the adjunct is teaching a 10-person seminar. And while the burden of being a full-time instructor in women’s studies comes with benefits— publicly funded health care and full-time salaries, for example—teaching women’s-studies students ultimately come with a significant loss of time and, often, money. “Whether our programs are well funded or not, for most of us, it is an intellectual and political passion,” Abu-Lughod said. “That involves seeking funding, seeking respect, helping each other, institutionalizing, et cetera.”