Her advice couldn’t change my poor working conditions, but it was helpful. For the first time, I considered the possibility that my lecture notes might hold value beyond the walls of my classroom.
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Her advice couldn’t change my poor working conditions, but it was helpful. For the first time, I considered the possibility that my lecture notes might hold value beyond the walls of my classroom. How much value? I wondered. Nearly two decades later, the ed-tech company Chegg has answered my question — $80.
In early March, Chegg launched a marketing campaign to convince educators to sell their teaching materials to the company’s recently launched Uversity platform. Chegg describes Uversity as a “collaborative learning library,” though many educators may disagree with that characterization. The message I received was addressed to “Hello Professor LinkedIn Member” and informed me that professors who have already shared their teaching materials with Chegg are earning $9,500 on average.
The message went on to break down Chegg’s assessed valuation of different types of curricular materials, with a caveat that the listed price reflects the company’s current 50-percent bonus — a limited-time offer. Apparently, if I rushed to take advantage of this promotion, I could cash in to the tune of $375 per practice exam (limit 4), $375 per study guide (limit 4), $120 for lecture notes (limit 15), $75 per practice quiz (limit 5), $120 per case study (limit 5), and $120 for lab notes (limit 10).
Chegg isn’t turning junk into gold. By devaluing academics’ intellectual property, it’s turning gold into junk.
Chegg’s alleged goal is to provide “reliable study materials to college students authored by dedicated professionals” while compensating professionals like myself for “previous hard work.” But does $80 or even $120 per lecture (if I took advantage of Chegg’s limited-time bonus) represent market-rate compensation?
To assess Chegg’s per-word rate, I ran a quick calculation using the notes I prepared for a lecture on Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s essay “The Culture Industry.” The lecture is 4,960 words, though earlier in my career it was nearly twice as long — I relied more heavily on notes back then. How much was all this research, writing, revising, and adapting worth to Chegg? Very little.
The Editorial Freelancers Association suggests charging 16 to 20 cents per word for most types of nonfiction writing-for-hire. Chegg’s rate is closer to 1 cent per word.
If you consider Chegg’s rate on an hourly basis, the numbers are even more dismal. As anyone who has written a lecture knows, one hour in the classroom typically requires at least three hours of prep and often much more. And lectures are rarely a one-and-done deal. They tend to be updated annually. My lecture on “The Culture Industry,” which I’ve been developing for over a decade, is likely the result of at least 20 hours of work. At $80 per lecture, that’s $4 an hour.
To add insult to injury, there is no guarantee that every educator who wants to cash in on Uversity can. All educators are first subjected to a verification process to confirm that they’re the real deal (at least by Chegg’s standards). Since Chegg states that approved educators who upload content “may be eligible to receive a payment,” there also seems to be no guarantee that every lecture note, exam, quiz, case study, lab note, or study guide will automatically convert to cash.
For those who do get paid, the terms are troubling. Educators who contribute to Uversity grant Chegg rights to their educational content for three years. During this time, the company can copy, adapt, modify, or distribute the content as it sees fit. After the three-year period ends, Chegg remains free to continue using any “derivative works” it created during the initial license period.
In short, Chegg is paying minuscule rates for your lecture notes and insisting that it can do virtually anything it likes with them.
The company soon expanded to include several adjacent areas, including a highly controversial tutoring service known as Chegg Study. For many years, Chegg Study has been a one-stop shop for answers to homework and test problems in STEM fields. Fueled by the collective brainpower of more than 70,000 Indian freelancers, most holding advanced degrees in math, science, technology, or engineering, Chegg offers around-the-clock tutoring services to students anywhere in the world at a reasonable ($14.95 a month) subscription rate.
Not surprisingly, Chegg’s subscriber numbers surged when academic life went online early in the pandemic. For a while, so did its stock. But its fortunes took a downward turn in 2021; the company lost three-quarters of its value between February and November.
This rapid loss in value led to a shareholder-initiated class-action lawsuit alleging that Chegg’s pandemic-era growth was “largely due to the facilitation of cheating,” which investors memorably described as “an unstable business proposition.” That lawsuit came on the heels of another: In September, the textbook publisher and former Chegg business partner Pearson had sued the company for copyright infringement.
Still, depending on your perspective, Chegg’s Uversity may appear to be a reasonable idea. Why not extract value from curricular materials that otherwise sit dormant on professors’ desktops? Chegg’s offer might even seem generous, like someone strolling by your house and saying, “Hey, I’ll give you a few bucks for all that junk in your garage.” But there’s an important difference. With Uversity, Chegg isn’t turning junk into gold. By devaluing academics’ intellectual property, it’s turning gold into junk.
That there’s a market for Chegg’s predatory practices at all reflects the grim reality of higher education in the 2020s. As stories about the New Faculty Majority reveal, a critical mass of faculty members don’t make enough money to support themselves and their families. As a result, side gigging is already a norm in higher education. The most privileged among our ranks sell patents and take on lucrative speaking gigs — the type of work you can also display in a bio or highlight in a promotional file. Many more scholars engage in work that may be loosely related to their academic roles but that is less lucrative, valued, and visible. This work includes tutoring children, helping wealthy teenagers game the college-admissions system, writing practice exams for test-prep companies, and editing articles and books for more-privileged colleagues. Making an honest buck for intellectual labor you’ve already completed may simply seem like a more efficient way to side gig.
So I don’t judge colleagues who have made a bit of extra cash via Chegg (or who are considering doing so). What’s happening on Uversity is shocking and inequitable, but it’s not unique. Even if most academics don’t want to talk about it — either because they are embarrassed to admit they are doing this work or because they are in denial about how bad labor conditions have become in our profession — thousands of trained scholars are already working as tutors, instructional designers, editors, and ghostwriters. Since much of this work is facilitated by online work platforms like Upwork and Wyzant, which skim off 20 to 25 percent of a user’s earnings, academics are also already accustomed to being under-compensated by tech companies.
Tech platforms like Chegg are to blame for this situation, but they are not the only culprits. For years, higher-ed leaders have placed an abysmally low dollar value on academic labor (in some instances, posting teaching positions with no compensation). There is nothing now to stop tech companies from doing the same.