Adjuncting: Conversations Worth Having, and Not

BHL Moderator on Jason Brennan and blog policy:

Jason Brennan deleted Robert’s comments and banned them on his own. Per blog policy, he has the right to delete

Jason Brennan on BHL and blog policy:

There’s no official BHL policy.

Annotation by Matt Zwolinski, responding to a query of mine on blog policy:

How you leap from “I…think it is a good idea to publicly indicate when you have [revised a post]” to the conclusion that I approve of secretly deleting threads “simply so as to make the commenter look stupid while preserving the blogger’s illusion of infallibility” is beyond me.

Baffling, isn’t it? How could anyone “leap” to that crazy conclusion? The Moderator of a prominent blog is asked pointblank whether he approves of one of his bloggers’ deleting whole threads in the name of “revision.” He goes out of his way not to answer the question asked, but makes clear in what he says that it is permissible to delete whole threads so as to preserve the blogger’s illusion of infallibility. When he (or his blog) then comes out and ratifies the permissibility of thread-deletion via a “policy” that no one had ever heard of until he announced it, what are we to make of his previous bafflement at the very suggestion that such a policy might come into existence? Was it really a “leap,” or was it an inference to a conclusion that was obvious to anyone who’d bothered to connect a few dots–and that has now been made explicit by the very people who dismissed it as the ravings of an inconsequential troll?

Reading BHL on the adjunct controversy, I have trouble believing that I’m reading something written by reputable professional philosophers for public consumption. Could the profession be more thoroughly dragged into the mud than by an approach to discourse in which people start the conversation by insulting one another, change whatever claims they’ve made whenever they want, delete whole threads (and whole posts) whenever they want, and ban people in the middle of the conversation for any reason or none? How could anyone expect to be taken seriously on moral grounds after a performance like that?*

Not that the pro-adjunct side of the debate (especially the Twitter-based faction) has been all that elevated, either. Whoever had the brilliant idea of attacking Brennan-smiling-by-the-edge-of-a-lake etc etc. didn’t exactly do adjuncts any favors. What they managed to do instead was to divert attention away from the issues adjuncts actually face, and create the red herring of a class war/pissing contest between a guy who thinks that six months at GEICO gives him permanent credentials as a member of the proletariat, and people who think that a guy standing by a lake can be treated like a character out of a play by Brecht. But that’s the conversation we now have–along with the puerile tweeting about Brennan and Magness’s race, their facial characteristics, and their Mommy issues; the taunting of adjuncts as “losers,” the bad faith career advice, and the “barefoot-in-the-snow” Horatio Alger stories, etc. You’d think that educated people could do better than this.

Obviously, I’m not characterizing every contributor to the debate. But in many cases, the shoe fits.

I’ve been thinking of holding an event at Felician this coming fall on the adjunct issue, called something like “Adjuncting: Ethics, Politics, Economics.” I’m thinking it’ll be a panel discussion of some kind involving adjuncts, full timers, and maybe even some administrators (maybe), airing out issues of mutual concern. I’d like to think that we can discuss some of these issues in a more constructive way than we’ve so far seen. If an event like that is of interest to readers, and you’re in the New York/New Jersey area (or can get there) this fall, feel free to indicate your interest in the combox. If there is interest, I’ll look into the logistics of creating the event. No promises, but I think it’s a conversation worth having, and an event worth doing.

*All quotations current as of May 6, 2015 at 4:19 pm EST. But we’re talking BHL, so don’t expect to read the same post or thread twice.

Postscript, September 28, 2015: Here’s another illustration, from BHL, of the increasingly ludicrous contortions entailed by what for lack of a better term might be called its “editorial policies.” It’s from a post by Steve Horwitz, criticizing a post elsewhere by Sharon Presley. The original version of Presley’s post had cited Horwitz in a way that Horwitz evidently didn’t agree with. Horwitz complained out loud at BHL, prompting Presley to delete the offending sentence. Horwitz responds as follows:

[UPDATE:  Sharon has now edited her post to remove the reference to me and my work without providing any sort of explanatory note that an edit has been made. This is very bad academic and blogospheric manners.]

Yes, very bad.

Later, we get this explanation of one of Horwitz’s claims in the post:

[The first paragraph has been edited for clarity to indicate that Sharon’s piece is critical of EP and inappropriately enlists my work in her cause.]

Right, but that was what Presley was saying back in the day. So maybe the first paragraph should be re-edited for clarity to indicate that Presley’s piece doesn’t mention Horwitz at all. Got that? I’m just waiting for Matt Zwolinski to clarify everything by shrugging his shoulders and saying that he doesn’t see the problem.

Horwitz seems to have missed the fact that the very “bad academic and blogospheric manners” he criticizes here are par for the course at BHL, and have been for years–a fact alluded to four days ago in the BHL combox, but so far unacknowledged by him. At the end of the day, listening to BHL lectures on “bad manners” is like listening to a Donald Trump lecture on hairstyling. The difference is that Donald Trump has the sense to avoid the offending subject. They don’t.

21 thoughts on “Adjuncting: Conversations Worth Having, and Not

  1. Is Zwolinski’s idea something to the effect that while he may or may not approve of any particular poster’s reasons for revising a post or deleting a comment, he thinks the original poster should be permitted to do such things? That would be a rather libertarian view to take, wouldn’t it?

    As for the whole business about adjuncts, I haven’t followed it closely, but as often I think Brennan has some reasonable points but makes them in a needlessly polemical way. What I find curious is that he doesn’t seem to address the thought that the currently widespread practices of employing adjuncts are objectionable simply because the institutions can afford to treat their adjuncts better and ought to. Insofar as his point is that people who get PhDs ought to know that they’re taking a risk and that they might well lose, that nobody is compelled to take an adjunct position, and so on, I think he’s right on; the frequency with which unlucky academics talk as though they were owed a comfy tenure-track position baffles me. But so too does the suggestion that there can be no legitimate objection to any hiring practice provided that the employees are not coerced or deceived. But then again, one of the reasons I’m not a libertarian is that the notion that uncoerced consent is sufficient for justice seems to me to be beyond ridiculous and at best something like the moral equivalent of a skeptical problem — perhaps interesting to think about why it’s not true, but not a serious candidate for truth. So it’s no surprise that I’m underwhelmed by the argument.


    • I’m guessing that the answer to your first question is “yes.” But the answer to your second question is “no,” except in a (very) loose and metaphorical sense–what I would regard as an misleadingly loose and metaphorical sense. “Libertarianism” is supposed to name a specifically political doctrine about the proper use of force, no more and no less. It’s not supposed to name a broader moral doctrine, or have any particular implications for moral life. You can, supposedly, be an Aristotelian virtue ethicist libertarian, a Kantian deontological libertarian, a Gauthier-type contractarian libertarian, etc. etc.

      So being a libertarian should have no particular implications for the policies that govern a blog. If anything, you’d think that libertarianism presupposes some generalized account of respect for persons. But setting aside the contradiction of both having and not having a policy, and setting aside Zwolinski’s refusal to give me a straight answer about his view of Brennan’s approach to blogging, the idea that you can substantively revise a post or delete a post + thread in the middle of a discussion is as egregious an instance of disrespect as I can imagine. We’re not talking about editing out errors of grammar or punctuation, or editing for clarity, etc. We’re talking about cases in which you and I are having an argument.I assert that p; you rebut p; and my response is not to your rebuttal, but surreptitiously to change my assertion of p to p* so that it evades your rebuttal. Now suppose you complain, and I don’t like your tone, so I delete the whole post and the whole combox with it. What this suggests is that we were never having a conversation in the first place. I was simply functioning as a prop for your demonstration of your argumentative prowess, and when I ceased to do so, you deleted the conversation so that no one could see that it had happened. But in that case, I’d say that the whole idea of advertising yourself as a blog with a combox is false advertising, especially when there’s no written policy that says, “Bloggers have the right to…” Who knew that the best way to win an argument was to abolish the parts of it where you get rebutted? I guess now we know.

      I agree with what you say in your second paragraph, and that’s exactly what I regard as the conversation worth having. There is a long list of justified complaints that all sides, adjuncts and their FT/administrative overlords, can make of one another. Where institutions can treat adjuncts better, they’re morally obliged to. And “institutions” includes university administrations, academic departments, and unions. My experiences with the American Federation of Teachers as an adjunct at The College of New Jersey in the late 1990s and early 2000s were not nearly as happy as the current push for unionization would suggest. But that’s a post of its own.

      I also agree that no one is owed a comfy position, and that some adjuncts think this, but the Brennan-Magness line goes well beyond that commonsense point. Magness, in particular, postures as some kind of expert on the political economy of adjuncting, and Brennan has repeatedly cited Magness’s “work” as authoritative. The locus classicus is now Magness’s “Myth of the Minimum Wage Adjunct,” which as far as I’m concerned, is a bad joke masquerading as an analysis of the economic situation of full time adjuncts. For one thing, he makes autobiographical claims in the essay that prima facie make no sense, and contrary to his suggestions, have no relevance to the topic at hand, namely, long-term adjuncting. I’ve closely followed the debate online, and many people have ably shot down many of his particular claims, but what the article really deserves is a thorough fisking, in one place, of each and every claim, clause by clause. I don’t have the time for that right now, but I hope to make some soon.

      He writes with great seeming authority, giving the impression that he’s an accomplished academic who slogged his way through the adjunct grind and can explain it all to everyone else, but in fact, he’s an administrator at a private foundation who didn’t slog his way through the adjunct grind. He obviously lacks the personal experience to discuss what it’s like to be a long-term adjunct, and much of what he says reflects inexperience and downright ignorance, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so consistently seasoned by hubris. Some of his claims are mere handwaving. Some claims are true, but beside the point. Some claims are true, but not explanatory. Some are false. But his article is being bruited about as though it contained the Key to All Mysteries of the Plight of the Adjunct. It really doesn’t.

      At a deeper level, though, my point here is methodological. If the adjunct debate is going to become an exercise in autobiography, then those who choose to employ this method have to admit that they are opening their lives up to public scrutiny, and that they owe their readers transparency on questions of autobiographical detail that bear on the arguments. So you say that you worked at GEICO. How long? So you say that your only income source was full time adjuncting. Really? Could you explain the “only” part? So you say that you now have $90K in debt. How and when did you incur it? So you say you’re a minimum wage adjunct, and it’s a bad life. Does any part of the explanation for that have to do with your own bad decisions, or is your claim that you’re a pure victim and bear no responsibility whatsoever for any part of your situation? What I can’t stand is a situation in which autobiography becomes the name of the game, but in an opportunistic way that allows people to make the specific polemical point they want to make, while taking umbrage at the thought that if autobiography is part of an argument, it becomes a legitimate subject for inquiry by all parties to that argument. That is the debate we now have. The victims claim to be victimized. The winners claim to be winners. The issues fall between the cracks of everyone’s narrative.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Irfan:

    Regarding the posting stuff, you’ve got a good point. It comes from a disagreement between Matt and me. I think we should moderate comments. He thinks we should let everything fly. I took down the original posts because I couldn’t moderate and didn’t like the cesspool the comment section had become. Part of the problem is that I am too weak-willed not to respond to snark with snark. I wish I were better about this, but I’m not. So my best bet is to remove the temptation. Since then, we all voted and agreed that every BHL author may delete comments as he or she sees fit. It turned out the mod powers weren’t working properly, so some new mess started to develop before I finally had the ability to get rid of people like Baum or Kraft.


    I’ve tried to be clear about this, but it’s not coming across. I don’t think that universities should rely heavily on adjunct labor or just pay adjuncts such a low wage. I think it’s better to use a system like the one Georgetown has, if anything, and I think more money should be used on faculty and less on administrators. However, I don’t think the adjuncts themselves are being wronged, for the most part. I’d say that university administrators have duties owed to students and others, with respect to adjuncts, to stop using so many adjuncts and to pay them so little, but they don’t owe this duty to the adjuncts themselves. I haven’t articulated why I think the first part of this, though.


    • Jason: I think I’ve said enough on the subject of posting simply to acknowledge reading your explanation, say that I disagree with the whole approach (including the approach to issues you’ve left unaddressed), and more or less leave it at that. I do find it pretty typical that Zwolinski should feel the need to play dumb with me for public consumption, professing to have no idea what I was talking about when I made my complaint, and then internally have to call a vote on the very thing at issue. But it’s his blog, and I intend to keep my promise about not going back. So how he runs it is of no concern to me at this point.

      On the adjunct issue: I don’t see why any party to this dispute should think that there is one best system that should fit all or even the majority of institutions out there. That tendency to over-generalize is a problem I see on both sides of this debate. One side thinks that unionization is ipso facto the answer to all ills. The other side, your side, seems to think that adjuncts are self-victimized losers who basically deserve the ill treatment they’re getting (because it’s not ill-treatment at all).

      Well, in answer to Precaricorps et al: unionization doesn’t always benefit everyone, and if and when it doesn’t, I don’t see the reason to swallow my objections and back the push for unionization out of conformity for the politics of deference. (I’ve linked to an article by Avery Kolers that explicitly makes the case that in any dispute between unions and non-unions, justice demands supporting the union side even if you have no idea what the dispute is about. Kolers give a picture-perfect articulation of the reasoning implicit in the pro-unionization camp. I reject it, not because I’m anti-union, but because I’m against the reasoning.)

      In answer to you: if an institution could pay adjuncts more, or give them better working conditions, and just isn’t doing so through short-sightedness or the sense that it can afford to get away with shoddy treatment of a lowly group of presumptive losers, that seems a paradigmatic case of injustice–and it happens all the time. I don’t see that you or Magness have dealt with that, and it’s at the core of what the adjunct movement is (justifiably) saying. I think there are legitimate objections to be made about unionization as a response to adjunct complaints, but if we just dismiss adjunct complaints as unworthy of consideration, we can’t really complain when they do demand unionization, considering what they put up with on a daily basis. Even if I agreed with you that long-term adjuncts lost a gamble they knew they might lose, they still don’t deserve to be mistreated. But they are. If you don’t realize that, you’re not listening carefully enough to your opponents.

      Money aside, a very common case of mistreatment of adjuncts arises in scheduling. I was a dept chair for three years and had hiring responsibilities re adjuncts (when we had money to hire them, which we often didn’t). I can’t count the number of times when I’d schedule an adjunct for a slot, and then come under pressure to ditch the adjunct for a full timer who (belatedly) decided that he wanted that spot. The standard rationalization was: “full timers take precedence over adjuncts in scheduling.” It sounds innocuous and axiomatic, but that one sentence contains a universe of possibilities for abuse. Even as a full timer, I resented the attitude, and I can only imagine what adjuncts might think of it.

      Imagine creating reliance on someone in this way, confirming that they’re teaching ethics (!) on M/W at 9:30, and then, at the last minute saying, “Sorry, one of our FTs wanted that slot, and they trump your sorry ass, so we have to bump you out of the schedule. See ya next term when ya come back begging for more mistreatment!” That attitude is so ingrained among FT faculty that the very idea of questioning it seems like some sort of heresy. But it strikes me as expressing a pathological sense of entitlement common among FT faculty. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg of those pathologies of entitlement. Even if many adjuncts have made bad choices that have left them long-term adjuncts, isn’t a person treated that way victimized? And that’s not an outlying or uncommon occurrence.

      I was an adjunct myself for between seven and eleven years (depending on how you count)–at institutions ranging from Princeton to Mercer County Community College–and a dept chair with hiring responsibilities for three years here at Felician. That’s about a decade of direct experience with the adjunct market in three states (NY, NJ, IN). It isn’t hard to come up with examples of mistreatment from that sample. And the profiles of the adjuncts I knew (and know) don’t match up well with what you or Magness have been saying about what they’re like or what it’s like to be one. You say you don’t think adjuncts have been wronged “for the most part.” Are you really in a position to generalize about that “most part”?

      I also think there’s far too much handwaving on both sides of this debate about “administrative/staff bloat” and how firing administrators/non-academic staff will solve the problems of the academy. People seem to forget that a lot of those administrators are there because there are federal mandates in place that demand that they be there. And some are there because we need them. It’s all well and good to deride “bloat” but the fact is that remedial education people and mental health workers are non-academic staff positions (with FT salaries and benefits) that cannot simply be wished away by rhetoric about “bloat.” Most university counseling centers exist to deal with eating disorders. Is anyone on either side suggesting that we abolish counseling centers, fire the counselors and their staff, ignore eating disorders, let the anorexics drop dead, and plow that money back into TT lines? Even if you believed that, it couldn’t be done. Same with the Residence Life staff that deal with the sexual assault problem ubiquitous on college campuses. Can you imagine faculty handling sexual assault issues? These are the people who refuse to leave their offices for dept meetings. Can anyone imagine them abandoning their latest galley proofs from Mind or Nous to rush to student dorms to deal with the latest allegation of assault? Not happening.

      Forget mere staff; maybe the real problem lies with all those VPs, right? But which ones? The VP for Academic Affairs? Well, no. The VP for Assessment? Then who’s going to coordinate assessment? The VP for Student Life? Well, you can’t be competitive without a vibrant extracurricular life. Etc. Is it really obvious that we can so easily fire all those VPs–or enough of them to make a difference? At some point I’d like someone to give me some specifics about what part of the bloat they want to puncture rather than assuming that once we get rid of the evil administrators and staff (the latter tend to get left out), we’re home free. Cutting university programs is about as easy as cutting government programs. It’s only easy until you actually have to do it.


    • Jason,

      I said I was going to let the posting topic go, but I can’t help bringing this up. So you’ve deleted Tiffany Kraft’s posts in this thread. Presumably that’s because they were well-poisoning and racist, suggesting that white people all think alike. Fine. But then shouldn’t this comment go, too?

      Phil Magness Guest • 9 hours ago
      Gotta hand it to the cat lady brigade – they make an art form out of being consistently unpleasant and boorish personalities.
      • Reply•Share ›

      The “cat lady brigade”? Leaving a comment like that up sends the message that it’s unacceptable to attack white males for being white males, but single women with cats are fair game. “Cat lady” gets its sting as an insult from the suggestion that a single woman of a certain age–who lacks a partner and therefore needs cats for companionship–is a loser, and can be dismissed because she has deep-seated neuroses (that explain the solitude and the preference for cats). Is it any wonder that the counter-insult has been that BHL is a “frat boy” establishment? Of course, “frat boy” talk is of a piece with “cat lady” talk and with “you only think that because you’re white” talk.

      What Magness seems not to realize is that the accusation he makes of Kraft only serves to highlight his own “artistic talent.”

      Of course, the whole thing is just a predictable consequence of relying on Twitter as a medium of intellectual exchange. What we’re getting now is the Twitterization of blogs.


      • It’s a well known pop culture reference, Irfan.

        And in this case it is directed at a boorish agitator who has made a habit of posting a number of crass, combative, personally abusive, and arguably threatening posts all over BHL and twitter. Jason was entirely correct to ban her in light of her behavior. And my comment should be read as an intentionally mocking postscript, directly reflecting the way that she conducted herself in several prior days worth of the antics described.


        • Yes, “crazy cat lady” is a well known pop culture reference. It’s so well known that, incredibly, even Wikipedia has heard of it:

          Women who have cats have long been associated with the concept of spinsterhood. In more recent decades, the concept of a cat lady has been associated with “romance-challenged (often career-oriented) women”.[1] …

          Recent research indicates a link between the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which sexually reproduces exclusively in cats, and numerous psychiatric conditions, including OCD.[7] The compulsive hoarding of cats, a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), has long been associated with “crazy cat ladies”.[8] Mass media has drawn on this stereotype to coin the term Crazy Cat Lady Syndrome to refer to the association between T. gondii and psychiatric conditions.[7]

          That’s why it’s a well-known reference.

          While we’re on the subject of crass, combative, personally abusive and boorish agitation, I’m wondering if you could tell me whether this reference to me on your Facebook timeline is also a well known pop culture reference. If so, I’m wondering: what show does it come from?

          Here’s an even crazier unemployable crazy man, ranting about me.

          This one thinks I’m conspiring to “hide” my income ca. 2008-2010 because he doesn’t believe I could have possibly gotten by on an adjunct’s wages. His primary piece of “evidence” is that my CV lists two grants I received from GMU in that period…which totaled $500 each (one paid to send me to a conference in Indiana, the other bought a data set I needed for my diss. research)

          I’ll address your response to my query later; as I said on the blog, I’m traveling a lot this weekend. But I found the preceding tidbit worth sharing with the blog’s readers. The misuse of psychiatric categories is a recurring topic of conversation at PoT–and if your psycho-economic-diagnoses-at-a-distance aren’t “grist for the mill,” I don’t know what is.


          • Another Facebook gem from “Dr Phil.”

            This Khawaja character seems to have some deep-seated “issues,” particularly for someone who 1) I’ve never met, 2) introduced himself to me by strongly insinuating that I had obscured sources of income from my biography, and 3) became bizarrely irritated with me on a personal level out of his apparent disagreement with an innocuous blog post about adjunct wages. Now he leaves the following dropping on one of the crackpot madjunct blogs:

            ” I’m surprised that no one seems to be asking the most obvious questions about Brennan’s or Magness’s CVs, or about their autobiographical claims.


            I also don’t think it’s productive to comment on Brennan et al at BHL. Does it really make sense to have an argument with someone who reserves the right to edit his own responses in the middle of the argument and delete yours at will? We’re dealing with a conception of discourse so debased that it deserves to be boycotted, not fed.

            Tact iCal advice from a fellow traveler: attack them from your own turf, not on theirs”

            Whatever his beef is, I think it is fair to say that he is not interested in an honest conversation on this issue.

            I think, Magness, that it’s time to lay off the psychiatric insinuations, and maybe consider handing up the shovel while you’re at it–as in “stop digging.” You’re the Program Director at IHS. The more desperately you try to brand your critics as mentally ill, the more doubt you cast on your fitness to function as an administrator at IHS, and the more you jeopardize IHS’s reputation. IHS’s reputation depends on the supposition that its program administrators can engage in public argument without constant recourse to pseudo-psychiatric insinuations. If you can’t do that, questions naturally arise about your fitness to do your job. No bona fide university administrator would attack someone in a public debate by calling her a crazy cat lady, or suggest that someone who asks you difficult questions about issues you brought up in an essay you wrote, is mentally ill. An institution that would have such a person as an administrator raises questions about its institutional bona fides. If that’s your aim, keep it up. You’re doing a great job.

            If you didn’t want queries into your finances, you shouldn’t have brought them up in your essay. If you can’t take the heat of questions about your finances, you shouldn’t have started by dishing it out. If you really thought that a person with 7-11 years of adjuncting experience would be awed by your grant-funded year and a half as an adjunct, you need to get your head out of your ass. For a person who likes to lecture adjuncts about how their victimization is self-incurred, you seem to have a lot of trouble seeing that your polemical “wounds” here are all a predictable consequence of things you yourself have said. Feel free to double down on any of that, but don’t think that private snark- fests on Facebook are going to help you. When your Facebook friends are disgusted enough with you to leak your timeline to my blog, the game is over.


      • Aside from the pseudo-psychologizing, it might also be worth pointing out that Magness’ description of Irfan’s complaint isn’t even accurate. “This one thinks I’m conspiring to “hide” my income ca. 2008-2010 because he doesn’t believe I could have possibly gotten by on an adjunct’s wages,” he writes. I don’t see any accusation of conspiring to hide the information, just a claim that it hadn’t been mentioned and was conceivably quite relevant; that spells “conspiracy” only if we suppose that nobody could fail to see its relevance and so neglect to mention it for that reason (and even Magness’ own account of the grant money suggests that he does fail to see its relevance; funding for research and travel is hardly trivial, as I can attest after having held a position that gave me none and now holding one that gives me plenty; I take the point that the sums were not great, but they do seem to have made a valuable, if small, difference to his career). More importantly, though, I see no suggestion whatsoever that nobody could get by on an adjunct’s wages. We all know that people can get by on those wages, and that many people in fact get by on less to do less interesting and intrinsically rewarding work. Whatever any so-called “crackpot madjuncts” are saying, I can’t find any instance of Irfan claiming that adjuncts aren’t paid enough to get by. I don’t have any interest in adding to the snark-fest here, but it seems worth pointing out that however unwarrantedly aggressive Irfan’s initial post may have been, it doesn’t fit the description Magness gave it. I frankly don’t see how any further accusations of insanity or incivility will contribute to shedding any light on the issue of whether adjuncts are mistreated.


  3. Irfan: My “libertarian” jibe was in part intended as a joke; I take your point that libertarianism is not supposed to be a comprehensive moral view, but I’ve encountered enough libertarians now who make the extension you rightly complain about that it’s almost comical.

    Jason: I’m not sure whether you were sufficiently clear on the point elsewhere or not; as I said, I haven’t followed the stuff closely, having only read two of your posts about it, so it may be that you just weren’t addressing that particular point in those posts. I’d be interested to hear more about why we shouldn’t think adjuncts aren’t themselves being wronged or why the university administrations don’t owe it to the adjuncts not to underpay them. Granted that nobody owes it to me to give me a job, and that I can be criticized for taking one that pays so little if I have better opportunities, it seems at least plausible to think that if someone offers me a job but underpays me, they are wronging me. If your resistance to that thought comes from the fact that I voluntarily choose to accept the job despite its abysmal pay, then I won’t be persuaded until I’m offered a sensible defense of the claim that consent is sufficient for justice — and, to put it lightly, I haven’t seen anything remotely approaching such a thing. Both intuitively and as a matter of substantive moral theory, it seems clear to me that I can be guilty of exploiting someone and treating her unfairly even if she knowingly consents to be treated that way. I don’t mean to say that the adjuncting case is certainly like that (I don’t have enough information to hold a very strong view about it), but rebutting the claim that it is seems to me to require more than pointing out that adjuncts aren’t being coerced and have other options. I sympathize with your inclination to respond to snark with snark, but I do hope you don’t take anything I’ve said as snark.


    • David,

      He wasn’t taking your comments as snark; he was referring to the attacks on him at BHL and on Twitter, some of which went beyond snark into downright idiocy and abuse. Incidentally, that’s not the aspect of BHL’s posting policy I was opposing. I myself reserve the right to delete abuse here at PoT. What I’m particularly opposed to (among other things) is changing one’s own post in response to a comment that rebuts it.


  4. Yes, of course. I just wanted to be clear that I was not also being snarky. After a long period of polemical excess in my youth, I now find it generally tiresome to read or engage in, but I sympathize with Brennan’s impulse to reciprocity; I’d probably have erupted in a flaming torrent of verbal abuse had somebody put up a Twitter post about me like the one about Brennan. But I also know from experience that I sometimes seem snarky when I don’t intend to be, hence my qualification.


  5. Great post and an even better dialogue. Thanks Dr Khawaja.

    It was both enlightening and pity-inducing. Don’t you guys have community colleges on the east coast? You can get a job fresh out of graduate school (with a PhD) as a community college instructor in California with a starting salary (including benefits) in the $80-90k range. Granted, on the west coast that’s chump change (yes, I’ve surfed and skied on the same day before, thanks for asking), but still, that’s a lot of money. My professors at the community college I attended had PhDs from places like Washington U in St Louis, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago. and the usual UC suspects. They had to give up any notion of producing research, of course, and they have to spend their lives in a sleepy college beach town, and – to top it all off – they have to deal with half-literate morons who are only “going to college” because they have no idea what they want to do with their lives (like me!), but it sounds better than adjuncting on the east coast for a decade. Is there an attitude in academia that sort of looks down upon community colleges?

    I seem to remember whining about the Atlanticist character of IHS here in the recent past. Maybe, given the lack of maturity of your sparring partner, I was just confusing regional peculiarities with a penchant for circle-jerking, but life sounds seriously rough back east. At any rate, it’s nice to have my intuitions bolstered from time to time.

    I wouldn’t be able to make it to your proposed event, but I’d be interested in hearing about it in one form or another. In general I think Dr Brennan’s argument (minus the posturing) is spot on, but I couldn’t be sure unless dialogues like the one you proposed happen. At the very least, I could gain some insights and would be grateful for them. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s a format that Leftists would be comfortable with (this is just my intuition again).

    PS: My mom – who doesn’t generally like animals – took in a stray cat a few years back. She only had her for a couple of years, but the “crazy cat lady” taunts started from Day 1 and didn’t let up until my mom moved and gave (?) Kitty to a family friend. Happy Mother’s Day!


    • We do have community colleges on the East Coast. I’ve taught at two in New Jersey (Mercer and Monmouth), and my institution has close relations with a third (Bergen), where my own Associate Dean taught for awhile. A colleague of mine, Richard Brown, has made a substantial career at La Guardia Community College in New York, and has a full research program. (Although it’s interesting to note that to promote his research agenda, he’s had to branch out to other institutions in NYC.) So they’re active and part of the conversation.

      That said, I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine and PoT lurker, David Potts, who teaches philosophy at City College of San Francisco (a two-year college). I can’t reconstruct the whole conversation, but my impression from it was that community colleges play a different role in California than they do in New Jersey, are better integrated with the state university system, and are better funded than they are out here. That’s just an initial impression from a single “shop talk” conversation, however; it would need to be confirmed. But if it’s right, it would go some way toward explaining why it’s more rewarding to teach in the community college system there than here.

      It’s also worth noting that there just aren’t that many positions on offer. Here’s the job listing for Mercer County Community College, where I’ve taught: 32 staff positions, 7 adjunct positions, 4 full time positions (none in philosophy). Not exactly a hiring bonanza.

      But in part, I think you’ve answered your own question in the latter half of your first paragraph. Community college positions are less preferable to four-year colleges because the teaching loads are heavy, you can’t have a research agenda, and many students are there for remedial purposes–they lack the skills to go to a four year college, and are at CC to develop them. When I taught logic at MCCC, it was as much a logic course as an ESL course, and as much either of those as a group therapy session. I could repeat the experience if I had to, but it’s not the career I’d want for myself.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence on the proposed “adjunct summit.” I’m inclined to think if the event happens, much of the audience will consist of pro-union adjuncts of a left-wing orientation.

      PS. I’ve only been to California a handful of times, and to the West Coast a few times more than that, but from everything I’ve heard and experienced, life is more pleasant there than here.


      • Many of the community colleges that I’ve been around don’t have much to offer in the humanities in general, but especially not in philosophy. And if you’re a classicist like me, it’s even worse. Austin Community College did offer a year of Latin and maybe a class in mythology, but I think I’d rather teach in a decent high school Latin program than just teach first-year stuff to kids who are mostly just in it to knock off a requirement. I’ve also never heard of anybody getting paid $80,000 / year to teach at community college before. I have friends who teach in private and charter high schools in Colorado and Ohio and they don’t make half that. No wonder California has a budget crisis!


    • Brandon,

      Since you said that you found Brennan’s argument plausible, let me just walk you through one set of implausibilities common to both Brennan’s and Magness’s approach to the issue. Consider the issue of prep time. Here is Magness’s original claim, from “The Myth of the Minimum Wage Adjunct“:

      1. Exceptions exist, but as a rule adjuncts are usually hired to teach intro level “general ed” courses in their fields. They should not be spending multiple hours on end preparing for lectures in “American Government 101″ that any competent political scientist should be able to give off the cuff.
      2. As a rule, lower level courses should also require less complex assignments and thus easier grading. Instructors who find that grading eats up too much of their time should also be looking to tweaking their assignments to make this process more efficient.

      Here is Brennan’s gloss on the same claim:

      You clearly didn’t read Magness’s breakdown. In order for her to be making less than minimum wage, she must be spending about 310 hours prepping/grading for 45 hours of classroom contact. That is an absurd amount of time to spend outside the classroom on one class.

      If you need to spent 310 hours prepping/grading/meeting with students to teach an intro class, you are either 1) so tremendously inefficient at this line of work that it isn’t for you, or 2) working far past the point of diminishing marginal returns. A person who spends 310 hours prepping for an intro class (or any class, actually) is incompetent and shouldn’t have a job. I don’t deserve to be a professional baseball player, much as I’d like to, and if she’s really working so many hours as to make minimum wage, then she’s not competent to be a TT faculty member.

      A person with a Ph.D. should be able to teach intro classes in her subfield with *no* or *minimal* prep, and should be able to teach intro classes not in her subfield with *minimal* prep. I could do an intro moral phil, intro econ, or intro poli phil class for 45 hours without consulting notes.

      Ignore the minimum wage red herring. Both of these authors pull numbers out of thin air, as though their “experience” with adjuncting sufficed to dispose of the whole issue and was representative of every rational person’s. Note also the huge claims about competence and incompetence implied by these assertions. If you don’t measure up to the Magness-Brennan Criterion, you are incompetent. You don’t deserve to remain in the profession. Etc. You would expect people making such sweeping claims to have some first-hand knowledge of how the adjunct market actually works. Neither of them does. Meanwhile, they dismiss people with 5, 10, 15 years of experience in that market as incompetents. Note that “incompetent” is Brennan’s word, not mine–as are claims of “culpability” and lack of “desert.” Magness has cried many tears on his Facebook page about the cruelty of being judged by someone who doesn’t know him (moi), but it doesn’t bother him at all that he’s signed on to claims that judge thousands of people he’s never met as unworthy of staying in the profession.

      Consider what they’re ignoring. Suppose you’re in the adjunct market in northern New Jersey. You apply to the Philosophy Dept at Bergen County Community College. I am not saying that the following is in fact BCCC’s policy; I’m using it for convenience because they have a large CC dept in a densely populated area staffed by adjuncts. My point is that it’s a very plausible example, not that it’s what BCCC’s dept actually does. I know the members of that dept, and they’re very decent people. So this is a thought-experiment involving a thought-experimental BCCC.

      They call you in for an interview and show you their class listing. The classes in philosophy span PHR 100 to PHR 203. Contrary to B-M’s confident claims about what adjuncts teach and don’t teach, you could in principle be asked to teach anything on that list. If you have the expertise, and BCCC has the demand, but they lack a FT person to meet it, you’re their adjunct.

      Suppose that you are asked to teach Intermediate Logic. What does Philip Magness know about the prep time for Intermediate Logic? Nothing.

      What does Jason Brennan’s comment have to do with teaching Intermediate Logic? Nothing. Would he want to insist that a person with a PhD can teach Intermediate Logic without prep time? I’ve linked to the syllabus. His claim about prep time is absurd on its face, and in this case, the syllabus hasn’t even been standardized. He claims that if you spend too much time prepping, you’re working past the point of diminishing returns. Diminishing returns to whom? Suppose that you’re working past the point of diminishing returns to yourself because your supervisor insists that it brings actual returns to the dept? At that point, it will be futile to object that following your supervisor’s advice brings you diminishing returns. No kidding! What compels him to care?

      Now suppose your interviewer asks how you intend to teach the course. Could you truthfully tell him, “Well, I obviously don’t intend to prep for it. I mean, I have a PhD.” The interviewer wants some evidence that you will prep for it. He wants evidence that you’re taking this gig seriously, not like all the other half-assed adjuncts out there who come in, wing it, and leave. Why would he hire you if he knew you’d just waltz in and wing it? So the Magness-Brennan candidate would at this point either have to lie, or tell the truth and not get the job. Let’s hope he’s not teaching ethics. You can’t make it past the interview by candidly telling the interviewer that you’re following their advice.

      Anyway, suppose you’re hired. Likewise ignored in their discussion is the sheer bureaucratic detail that an adjunct would have to face if hired (the pedagogical detail, not the HR detail). Suppose the dept saddles you with their favorite book(s), which you haven’t read. (My dept has done this.) Suppose they do this one week before the term begins. Suppose they expect you to generate a syllabus, but to do so according to their favorite bureaucratic strictures (“learning outcomes”), so that you have to convert your existing syllabi to their stipulations? Suppose that you’re supposed to describe your learning outcomes in the vocabulary of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which you’ve never heard of before. Well, then, you’d better learn it, or else your syllabi will get handed back for revision and compliance. Suppose they just hand you a syllabus of their own, and say, “Teach this.” It could well be your “subfield” and yet require considerable preparation because you’ve never taught this material to this audience. None of these facts figure into “prep time” in Magness-Brennan’s universe. But such facts are par for the course for adjuncts across the land. Evidently, Brennan has managed to avoid such hassles because he’s taught at Georgetown and Brown (if he’s encountered them, he gives no indication of having done so). Magness is an administrator with two and a half years’ experience on one end of things.

      They also write as though adjuncts teach without supervision. In fact, an adjunct who followed their advice and was observed following it by an dept observer, would be fired at any of the institutions I’ve ever worked at–TCNJ, MCCC, Felician, Princeton, Montclair State U, or John Jay. (The only institution that didn’t observe my adjunct teaching or keep close tabs on me was Rutgers/Camden, because I taught at a satellite campus too far away from the main one.) Magness writes as though adjuncts got to pick their own assignments. Sometimes they do, often they don’t. Brennan doesn’t seem to have grasped that there are institutions where his approach to teaching would get him fired.

      Grading doesn’t seem to have figured into this universe, either. One of the most common grading complaints is: “The professor gave me a B-, but didn’t give me enough feedback.” Student complaints are a sure-fire way of getting terminated. How to avoid them? Give lots of feedback. But doing that takes time. What is B-M’s advice here? Give feedback “off the cuff”? According to Magness, instructors spending too much time grading should be tweaking “their” assignments so that they spend less. It doesn’t seem to have sunk in that if you’re an adjunct, it’s not necessarily your assignment to tweak in the first place! It’s not your class. You don’t have ownership over anything–not a chair, not a desk, not a piece of chalk, much less how the class should be run, what assignments should be given, etc. As far as the dept is concerned, officially speaking, you’re a non-entity, and anything goes. Not to have grasped this is not to have understood the ABCs of the controversy. It’s to fail to have understood what Precaricorps is complaining about.

      Yes, there are cases where adjuncts are given autonomy over their classes, but then, if we’re talking about long term senior adjuncts, there are adjuncts who are no longer relegated to teaching lower level classes, either. Yes, some depts treat their adjuncts better than others. But in that case, why the opposition to codifying best practices for dealing with adjuncts?

      Best of all: imagine you do everything that the dept asks you to do. You invest initial prep time to get the specs right. The class starts in a few days. Now, all of a sudden you get a call. You’re told you can’t do the class. Why? Well, the dept found someone else. Could they do this? Yes. Do they do it? Yes. What happens to you? Nothing. No one cares.

      Could a dept back out of an employment situation after you’d signed a contract with them? Why not? Doing so would be breach of contract on their part, but who would enforce the contract, and how? The truth is that an adjunct in this situation has no real legal recourse. (Of course, in the reverse situation, neither does a dept.) The idea of an adjunct filing a claim against a university for breach of contract in local civil court is ridiculous. In fact, such a person would just have to pick up the pieces and move on. What about wrongful termination? Same thing. Could you get fired simply because some student decided to make a random spurious complaint that wrecked your career? In the case I just linked to, the accused wasn’t ultimately fired, but it was close enough.*

      What both Brennan and Magness have done is to give their readers the false impression that their knowledge of the adjunct market is so good that whenever they open their mouth to utter a generalization about adjuncting, that generalization just must be true. If you come up with a counter-example to their “generalizations” based on your mere experience, that’s not good enough, because your counter-example is a single idiosyncratic anecdote that can’t falsify their “generalizations.” The whole argument presupposes that their generalizations are valid.

      That’s why I’ve been so insistent about attacking them as I have. We’ve never been given any reason to believe that the highly moralized “generalizations” these people have offered were good ones to begin with. What data or experience are these generalizations based on? In Magness’s case, that’s settled: generalizations based on three semesters of experience in one discipline at one institution with three grants involved, summer income and activity so far undisclosed, and a full time administrative job waiting at the other end. Sorry. Not credible. Brennan’s experience is unclear, but at this point many perfectly credible people have taken issue with his generalizations about adjuncting. He has experience as a researcher at an R1 institution, not as a long-term adjunct. He can feel free to tell us what it’s like to be the former, but I see no reason to think he knows a great deal about the latter.

      If you want to read them critically, ask yourself what entitles them to the generalizations they’ve made about adjuncting. My answer is: very little.

      One of the strangest features of the whole libertarian debate on adjuncting is that all of the usual Hayekian dogmas about “local knowledge” are being flouted by people who insist on pronouncing on the subject while lacking precisely that. And I’m only scratching the surface here.

      *This might put the story into some context. This too.


      • All good points, Dr Khawaja. To my mind, though, these examples are part of the “posturing” segment of his general argument. The general argument, which can be found in the nasty meme, is what I can’t find fault with.

        Academia is a rough market. The issues you list are just a few reasons why. Dr Brennan’s general argument (the quote in the meme) is spot on. In a sick and twisted way, the harshness of academia, the medieval-ness of it all, is what attracts me to it. There is a challenge there that few people can meet.

        But I am under no illusions as to what awaits me. I am preparing myself accordingly. What did current adjuncts think academia was all about when they entered graduate school?


        • A few responses:

          “What did current adjuncts think academia was all about when they entered graduate school?” Current adjuncts who started in the 1990s were told dramatically different things than what’s being said to people now entering graduate school. I vividly remember being told in the early 1990s (along with my cohort of grad students) that the job market would open up because an older cohort was about to die off or retire. I didn’t take it very seriously, because I really had no idea what to make of it or how to assess it, but it was asserted very confidently as the consensus-wisdom of the time. I became a grad student at just the time (1991) when academia began to change to a different model, so I saw the transition in action.

          There’s a somewhat analogous situation here with medical interns in the 1980s. Back in the day, medical interns were routinely asked to work 80+ workweeks and 40 hours at a stretch. They were also routinely exploited–given unwanted scut work under the guise of “education.” A med student entering internship/residence in 1980 would have known that, and would have had exit options. But that wouldn’t have justified the practice, and it wouldn’t have made medical interns culpable for having grievances about it.

          Brennan’s principle, applied to medical interns, implies that medical interns had no grounds for complaint because they knew what they were getting into and had exit options. That suggests to me that the principle is practically rigged to blame the victim. Adjuncts may be less victimized and in some cases more culpable than medical interns, but the analogy still basically holds. In particular, it’s arguably the case that the regulatory/unionization framework that emerged to deal with the abuses of medical interns were a bad idea–as I think, in many cases, unionization of adjuncts is also a bad idea. But the grievances were or are legitimate in both cases. Brennan seems to me to have gotten things exactly wrong. He thinks that adjunct grievances are illegitimate, but that unionization is a good idea. That seems to me the exact reverse of the truth.

          I’d recommend reading the Leiter Report discussion of Brennan’s views. If you add up the criticisms that his most astute critics make, I don’t think there’s much left of Brennan’s position.

          By the way, this is where he started out, in February.

          Adjuncts are rarely victims of circumstances, but are instead overwhelmingly people who are suffering the consequences of their bad choices

          Nonetheless, according to Brennan, they should unionize to get a bigger “piece of the pie” so that, despite being what he regards as culpable failures, they should have the entire apparatus of the Wagner Act and National Labor Relations Board behind them to force concessions from financially strapped private institutions via collective bargaining. In other words, what he regards as the culpable losers of the world should be given coercive power over the financially weakest institutions in the market, to wrest concessions from them, whether they can afford those concessions or not. The idea that adjunct-reliant institutions might just pro-actively admit that working conditions need improvement, and work steadily to improve them, seems too much for either Brennan or his opponents to process.


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