November 2, 2019 2:54 pm

Norman Eng

Read chapter 9 for next week’s class.

Be prepared to discuss the handout tomorrow.

List 3 things you learned from this article and share on the discussion board.

A lot of professors assign readings like these; i.e., students read a piece of text, respond to it in some way and/or come prepared to discuss it in class. Yet over half of students don’t do the assigned readings, and often it’s because professors assign too much. (1, 2)  

Maybe it’s time we stop assigning readings. 

Perhaps we should instead start assigning tasks.

Picture this: You’re teaching about gender inequality. You want students to read a handout on this topic, but you're concerned they won’t read it or that they’ll only do so superficially. Instead of telling students, “Read this handout and write a one-page response,” you might assign the following task:

Research the pay gap between men and women in 3 different industries/jobs. Explain why you think these jobs pay unfair wages. 

Here’s a meaningful task students can focus on, rather than on some handout. But for students to report on unfair wages, they need to read up on the topic, right? That’s where you recommend certain sources:

To help, I’ve provided two handouts and a video. Refer to at least three ideas or supporting details from any of these sources in your write-up.  

See how the readings play a secondary, almost incidental, role? 

This is the case even if the reading comes from a textbook. Let’s say you teach Introduction to Biology, and this week you need to cover chapter 35, titled “Vascular Plant Structure, Growth, and Development.”

You could assign Chapter 35 and hope students read and digest all the terms covered. Or you could focus on one particular area—the structure of leaves and their functions—and turn it into a task/assignment:   

Collect 3-5 different kinds of leaves (yes, actual leaves!) and analyze them. Tape them onto a piece of paper and label as many parts as you can that are visible. The more you’re able to do so, the better. Chapter 35 will help you do this. Come prepared during class to discuss what each part does. 

While there are many (perhaps better) ways to ensure students understand plant structure, the lesson here is the same: don’t make reading the main thing, even though we know it’s a necessary part of the assignment. 

So, why might a task-based approach to reading motivate students more?

Essentially, it mirrors the way we read in real life. Aside from reading for pleasure, we read because we want to get better at something or know more about a topic. Books such as How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, The Self-Driven Child, and Raising Kids Who Read have provided me, for instance, with incredible insights into raising my twin infant girls. Yet I would never read such books if it didn’t support my larger parenting goals. 

Intentional reading also changes the way we read, turning us from a passive reader who “proceeds from the first word to the last word of a text at a rate predictable by the text’s structure, to one of a purposeful information-seeker who adapts the way they read to achieve that purpose.” (3) With my parenting books, I have selectively skipped paragraphs, sections, and even whole chapters that I considered less relevant. Why wouldn’t we expect students to be just as discerning?

A task-based approach can work even for literature classes or courses where students read fiction text. Compare two ways to approach Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man:

Old Way:

Read Chapter 1 and come prepared to discuss the roles that the narrator is forced to play during his class speech. [Here, the reading is the main focus.]

New Way:

Think about the last time you were forced to “play a role” you didn’t necessarily want to play. Post a short paragraph describing this role and why you felt this way. Make sure to include how it compares with and differs from the narrator’s experiences in Chapter 1. [Here, the reading serves the larger task/assignment.]

Of course, reading literature has a generally different purpose than reading nonfiction text; in fact, oftentimes reading here is the goal. Students in a literature circle (which is kind of like a book club for students) or a graduate research class, for example, are analyzing texts for their own sake. 

For most of us, however, readings serve as the “information transfer” phase of learning. 

The next time you plan readings, consider the larger goal you want students to reach, the task you want them to complete, or the skill you want them to develop. Then provide the resource(s) to help them get there. It might include not just readings, but also videos and other primary documents. 

Let’s break down a task-based approach to reading into four steps, each with an example: 

STEP 1: Decide the goal/task AND the readings (ideally, you want to make sure the reading is essential to doing well in the task). 

ObjectiveThis week, I want my education students to be able to teach adding and subtracting with math manipulatives.

ReadingThey will read Chapter 9, “Estimation and Computational Procedures for Whole Numbers.”

STEP 2: Frame the assignment in terms of the goal or task ONLY. Ignore the readings in this step (it will be incorporated in Step 3).

Your goal this week is to figure out the best way to teach addition and subtraction using base-ten blocks. (Add details if necessary.) 

STEP 3: Add the readings as a recommendation (to help students accomplish their task/goal).

Use the strategies from chapter 9 to decide which works best for you and write a 2-paragraph plan.

STEP 4: Tell students how the information will be used (and how they are held accountable).

Next week in class, you will share your plan and decide which ideas work best!

Put together, here is the fleshed-out assignment that students see, packaged around a hypothetical scenario: 

Meet Julissa.

She’s eight years old and in third grade. But she has trouble multiplying two-digit numbers. Conceptually, she knows that multiplying has something to do with groups. Yet the traditional algorithmic way to multiply is too abstract for her. 

How would YOU teach Julissa? Your goal is to figure out the best way to teach multiplication using base-ten blocks. Consider the strategies from chapter 9 and decide which resonates most with you—and which you think would actually help Julissa.

Write a 2-paragraph plan explaining/justifying your instructional choice. Next week in class, you will share your plan and come to a group consensus.

See how I embed the reading without explicitly assigning it? This task would be impossible to do without reading the chapter. No quizzes, “gotcha” questions in class, or reading responses are necessary to compel students to read. 

Just make sure you hold students accountable for doing the assignment. In some cases, the simple act of having them share their thoughts in class is enough. Other times you may decide that the task is worth a certain number of points and/or that students have to post their responses on the online discussion board.  

As you can imagine, it’s not always necessary to use a task-based approach. Some readings, such as an article on how to land a job interview or a chapter about the impact of social media, are inherently purposeful and motivating for students. Using task-based approaches depends on you and your goal. 

Perhaps the real promise of task-based approaches to reading comes when we can stop dictating the sources. Students would be the ones who must figure out what texts to read and what videos to watch. All we have to do is come up with the goals or tasks. That’s when students become true self-directed learners. 

For now, let’s start by positioning reading where it should be—in service to the goals and tasks we assign. This would be a significant step to helping students see reading as useful, rather than as simply something they must do. 

Let me know if this approach to reading helps - leave a comment or question below!



(1) Hoeft, Mary E. (2012) "Why University Students Don't Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance," International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 6: No. 2, Article 12. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol6/iss2/12/

(2) Cynthia S. Deale & Seung Hyun (Jenna) Lee (2021) To Read or Not to Read? Exploring the Reading Habits of Hospitality Management Students, Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education, DOI: 10.1080/10963758.2020.1868317

(3) Durik, A. M., Britt, M. A., Rouet, J. (2017). Literacy beyond text comprehension: A theory of purposeful reading. United States: Taylor & Francis.

I’m supposed to say that teaching is rewarding.

Or that the life of a professor—where you study the thing you love as a career (and get paid for it!)—is a dream.

But the better description is toiling. I spent all my time doing the hard work that’s expected of an adjunct, or any non-tenured, professor to get ahead.

You know, writing research articles and books. Conducting studies. Refereeing journal articles. Getting on panels and committees. Presenting papers. Conducting workshops.

They’re supposed to help, right? But I wasn’t feeling it. Everything was taking so damn long. Here’s what I mean.

Working in Academia

Let’s start with publishing. The first book I wrote was a textbook update. As an “acknowledged author,” I was naturally paid less than the two main authors who wrote the earlier editions. I was thrilled just to get in.

The painstaking process to update each chapter, send back to the editor, and make additional edits took a year and a half. This was, after all, a 350-page textbook. By the time the seventh edition came out, it was two years later. For one book.

It isn’t much different with journal articles. Not counting the actual planning and writing, submitted articles took months to peer review. Up to a year before seeing it in print. That’s a lifetime in the age of the internet.

Same with grant and conference proposals. For the annual American Education Research Association (AERA) conference, I started planning and writing my workshop proposal last May, submitted it in July, waited for confirmation in October (which I got), prepare the workshop speech the next few months, and then actually present the following April in 2020. So, the whole process takes 12 months.

Just to add one line to my CV.

When I multiplied that by other conference submissions, it made me question the process. Is the traditional model for academia success—i.e., the one where I spend years researching, publishing, and teaching to get tenure—still relevant?

Stop complaining! I told myself. That’s what you signed up for. That’s how academia works. That’s how the best scholars succeed!

But skepticism countered those thoughts. The tenure-track model may have worked back when my father came of age as an economics professor in the 1970s and 80s. He did everything he was supposed to—presented at conferences, researched, wrote books and articles, created new academic initiatives, and chaired the department. And he’s lead a comfortable life.

Is it different now?

My 78-year-old mentor once told me, “Norman, when I got my PhD, I had five job offers in my back pocket.” Now, it’s not unusual to have up to 450 applicants for one position. So basically I’m not just competing with locals in New York City but also the hundreds of others attracted to building a career here.

The imperative to publish merely adds to the pressure. Fewer than one percent of submitted manuscripts are published (1). High-impact journals, according to publishing giant Elsevier, accept less than 10 percent of the articles submitted (although the acceptance ratio for special issues or special topic sections is higher).

No wonder productivity anxiety is a “thing” among academics.

And then there are the other professional obligations, like serving on committees and writing recommendations. “It’s SO hard to be effective in the classroom when your time is increasingly being directed toward support for special initiatives/programs rather than toward class preparation,” one professor plainly told me.

Another instructor confided that she couldn’t write student recommendations anymore. Not because she didn’t want to help, but because they took too much time to do properly. The effort put in is little short of pure altruism, as one professor wrote in Chronicle Vitae. I totally get it. Don’t hate me because I’ve resorted to having certain students draft their own recommendations during a particularly busy grading period.

Teaching and “professoring” was more exhausting than my previous 9-5 office job. At least as a marketing executive my weekends were my own. There were clear boundaries.

Getting Paid in Academia

No one goes into academia for the money. Executives over time make a lot more; I traded $100 Kobe steaks for school cafeteria sandwiches. So it’s not about the money per se. But still, the lack of compensation for all that work felt . . . off.

When I got my first book contract as a contributing textbook author, I was fine earning less. There is, after all, a difference between updating a textbook (as I did) and starting it from scratch. So the 1.9 percent royalty rate wasn’t a surprise (albeit ridiculous). But why did my veteran co-authors earn only 5.6 and 7.5 percent, respectively? A combined fifteen percent rate meant for every textbook dollar earned, Author #1 would get about nickel and Author #2 would get 7.5 cents. I’d get two pennies.

To put it in context, I recently received a royalty check for $190 (gross) covering sales for the first half of 2019.

For two years’ worth of work (2). Hundreds of hours.

As I continued digging into the time and effort spent on other similar endeavors—like refereeing articles, running workshops, and giving professional advice—I grew more disheartened.

Hugh Gusterson’s story in the Chronicle of Higher Education probably illustrated my frustration best. As an MIT professor, he once set up a meeting with a woman who contacted him for grad school advice. Having spoken with him for 45 minutes, she ended by asking, “How much do I owe you?”

As a therapist, she was shocked that academics don’t generally bill for their expertise. It was a light bulb moment for Dr. Gusterson:

When I look at the work I do as an academic social scientist and the remuneration I receive, I see a pattern that makes little sense. This is especially the case with regard to publishing. If I review a book for a newspaper or evaluate a book for a university press, I get paid, but if I referee an article for a journal, I do not … But I get paid nothing directly for the most difficult, time-consuming writing I do: peer-reviewed academic articles. In fact a journal that owned the copyright to one of my articles made me pay $400 for permission to reprint my own writing in a book of my essays.

When I became an academic, those inconsistencies made a sort of sense: Academic journals, especially in the social sciences, were published by struggling, nonprofit university presses that could ill afford to pay for content, refereeing, or editing. It was expected that, in the vast consortium that our university system constitutes, our own university would pay our salary, and we would donate our writing and critical-reading skills to the system in return.

Yet these for-profit publishing behemoths, like Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley-Blackwell were making huge sums of money. Let’s put it this way: in 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of $900 million+ on over $2 billion in revenue, which places it higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon’s margins that same year.

And all of the work on the backs of volunteer peer-reviewers.

As I read Dr. Gusterson’s experience, I started to realize my experiences weren’t unique. For one, I found that the industry average royalty rate was abysmal—anywhere from 5 to 15 percent.

That’s just the way it is, I told myself. In the book industry and in academia. Everyone is in the same boat.

Yet I kept wondering about this status quo. Should I simply accept the way things were? I kept thinking about how established systems like academia perpetuated a “toiling” mentality: you do the work, and over a period of time, you will be rewarded. In some cases, six to ten years for tenure.

At that point in 2016—four years into my middling higher ed career (and fourteen years in education in general)—a light-bulb moment struck.

From “Waiting to be Chosen” to “Choosing Myself”

Gatekeepers in the academic world have all the power. Journal editors decide the aims and scope of articles. My scholar peers decide whether my journal article is approved. Grant committees decide if my proposals merit funding. Publishing houses decide if my book idea will float. Hiring committees decide if I get that job.

So much depends on being chosen.

This led to more questions—about life and professional success in general.

Like, what happens to the hundreds of well-deserving student applicants who don’t get into Ivy League colleges? What about authors with great book ideas who don’t get publishing contracts? Or job candidates who made the final cut for interviews but didn’t get the position?

The answers confirmed what I kind of knew but didn’t want to think about: It’s all a game, like Blackjack. You have some control, sure. But make no mistake, the house makes the rules.  

And their exclusivity only makes us want to play their game—for a chance to “win.” Harvard’s only got 2,000 spots for incoming freshman. And much, much less for tenure-track positions. Same with publishing houses and manuscripts. For most of us, we’re left to fight for scraps.

How can a professional with an advanced degree have so few choices—at least when it comes to the traditional ones? Shouldn’t my doctoral degree open up more opportunities? Yes, it would if I didn’t accept the conventional path. If I didn’t put all my faith in institutions; but instead, if I put more of it on me.

I didn’t want to wait to be chosen anymore. To leave my life to these gatekeepers.

It was time to choose myself.

What if I could leverage my advanced degree and my expertise to help people directly? Bypass the gatekeepers and do it the way I thought was best?

That’s when I decided to publish my next book on my own. And I’ve never looked back.

Read Part 2 of 2 now: How Self-Publishing Freed Me from the Bonds of Academia (and Why YOU Should Consider It Too)

Do you ever feel like you toil endlessly in academia? Or feel frustrated that your success is in the hands of others? Leave a comment below.

(1) This rate goes up significantly if you make it to full manuscript stage

(2) To be fair, I’ve earned up to $3,500 in previous half-years when the book launched. Time for a new edition!

  • very timely post! a lot resonated with me – esp about the articles and the recommendations. I’m looking forward to part 2 and how self publishing helped you. I need inspiration–and perhaps this will give me the push!!

  • I woke up this morning to your missive and boy it really hit home! I am one of the few PhDs who doesn’t have job insecurity and gets paid on the higher end (I am at a top 50 business school) but the feelings you described are nonetheless all the same for me and have been since I was a doc student 10 years ago. After 15 years in business, I thought this job would be a rewarding way to cap off my working years but it has been so disappointing that every day I think what do I have to do to quit this.

    • My friend, stay tuned. Next post I’ll talk about one way you can leverage your expertise (in whatever discipline you’re in) to make your PhD work for you, rather than the other way. Glad to hear from you!

  • Dear Norman,
    This is an eye-opening article about what you do to become a full-time faculty member. You are very clever to write books and ebooks.
    I was asked the other day what I wanted as a professor and I said to continue as an adjunct.

    • I hear you! I get why some plan to remain as an adjunct; some do it to focus on the teaching; others (like me) hope to use it as a stepping stone to tenure. Many adjuncts I know are supplementing their work with a book nowadays.

  • Wow, I knew academia was hard work, but it’s sad to read about the horrible royalties. As a part-time university lecturer with a master’s teaching as my second act after retirement, I am happy just teaching. No advising, publishing or meetings! I’m all about self-publishing, too, Norman, and putting the finishing touches on a fitness book I hope to launch soon! I’m pleased to see your earnings and I’m sure you will continue to be successful.

  • You have your finger on the pulse right now. A colleague and I have been discussing this for a few weeks because my school publishes dissertations immediately for all to access and forces us as candidates to sign over our intellectual property. We spend years crafting a dissertation and then an institution gets to distribute it in a database that is not free for non-academics (which is a commercial sale technically) and we do not see anything from It, besides our name. ProQuest takes 90% of every sale if you publish with them so it brings me to a crossroad. I said why should I not self-publish my work. It’s mine and I have the right. This way I avoid, in principle, an institution stealing my intellectual property in the guise of promoting me.

    • Lynn, this really can get hairy. I’m certainly no expert in this matter, but one could argue that universities have an interest in maintaining a partnership with ProQuest (which gives institutions exposure) and that doctoral candidates benefit from university and government resources (instruction, guidance, research, funding, etc.) that therefore make the dissertation a product of multiple parties (particularly if the study is funded). I do agree with the overall right to question convention where publishers/institutions appear to overly benefit from the scholars’ work. I wonder, is it possible to do both? Allow Proquest to publish the dissertation and then still self-publish on a different, yet related topic?

  • Norman as usual you nailed it! You eloquently put into words what took me a long time to realize, “don’t rely on others to have your best interests at heart.” I know most of us don’t do what we do ‘just’ for compensation, but it’s become shamefully obvious that many institutions we serve are taking advantage of that fact.
    Bottom line: I think every academic needs a passive income side hustle…or two; because you never know when you may come to work and find, “your services are appreciated, but no longer needed.”

    • You’re in for a treat, Eugene! Will reveal soon how I used self-publishing to leverage passive income into a side business! Thanks for writing.

  • I am a new person transitioning into academia. It is great to see and read the varying degree of insight behind the curtain. I appreciate the candor and options to explore it keeps one from getting stuck in the process.

  • Thank you for your story. I believe most professionals have experienced the same in different way. I transitioned from an on staff job at my church to allow God to use all that He has invested in my nursing career and ministry calling. There are gatekeepers everywhere, but like you said , I say it in a different way. Since God choose me, I had to start choosing myself and allow only Him to validate my calling and how He desires to use all my gifts. I have been writing my first manuscript for years and now see part of my problem with moving forward was looking to gatekeepers for approval.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • I recall a book by Pierre van den Berghe. Academic Gamesmanship: how to malt your PhD pay. This was one of the first book that I read before graduating. If you want to play, understand the game rules.

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