And Another One Gone: Another Adjunct Bites the Dust

Here’s a contribution to the adjunct debate from the Chronicle of Higher Education by an adjunct who has more or less been forced out of the field for financial and logistical reasons. Read it if you feel so inclined, but there’s a quiz afterwards.

And here’s your quiz–multiple choice, with the option of a short answer in the combox. Which of the following is, morally speaking, the fitting and appropriate response to this essay?

(A) Gratification that one more deluded, incompetent, and unqualified adjunct is leaving the field. (Jason Brennan: “This person took my advice. She got another job that pays better, rather than trying to pursue a job for which she lacks the minimal qualifications. Good for her.”)

(B) Mortification at how badly adjuncts are treated by the field, and head-shaking regret at how bad things are out there for deserving people.

The case for (A) focuses on in the fact that the author holds an M.Ed degree (rather than an MA or a PhD), wants to teach at the college level, but can’t find a full-time job. The argument suggests that all college-level teaching requires that the would-be instructor possess a terminal degree, presumably a Ph.D. or at least an Ed.D. Since the author lacks both, her complaints should summarily be dismissed as whining. She should be happy to have left the field, and we should be glad that she’s gone.

The case for (B) presupposes that the article accurately recounts the author’s experiences as an adjunct, and assumes ex hypothesi that she is a good teacher. The presumption is justified by the fact that people in the author’s predicament do exist; even if the author herself turns out to be misrepresenting her experiences, what she says can stand in for those whose experiences are correctly described by her essay.

Assuming all that, the case for (B) focuses on the fact that she’s ill-paid and ill-treated. It’s not clear that anyone in particular is to blame for her being ill-paid, but it’s lamentable that she is, and (B) laments that. It is clear that particular individuals are to blame for her being ill-treated, which is what motivates the “mortification” to which (B) alludes.

As you’ve probably guessed, I regard (B) as the correct answer. Like this author, I’ve taught at community colleges (Mercer, Middlesex, and Western Monmouth Community Colleges, all in central Jersey). I’ve also worked closely, for more than a decade, with writing instructors who have credentials comparable to hers. I don’t see any legitimate pedagogical or academic reasons against hiring an exceptional (or just plain motivated and competent) person with an M.Ed on a full-time basis to teach intro-level literature courses, or to teach English composition on a full-time basis (if that’s done within the English Department). Granted, the author says she doesn’t like teaching English composition, but I’m a full-timer and there are classes in our curriculum that I don’t like teaching, either (Intro Philosophy, Philosophy of Education). You can’t always get the schedule you want. If English composition is all there was, English composition would have to do.

Faculty positions aside, I also don’t see any good reason against hiring an M.Ed to teach on a full-time basis as a tutor (or some equivalent) in a college or university Writing Center. Once hired, of course, I assume she’d get a full-time salary and benefits package. People tend to forget what a thankless job it is to teach writing at that level–and how crucially necessary. Thankless: It’s like teaching ESL, but to native English speakers. Necessary: it’s like teaching ESL, but to native English speakers. It’s also a job that most faculty regard as beneath them, even as they freak out about their students’ illiteracy and wonder why the idiots can’t write. “Go to the Writing Center!” mutters the harried Associate Professor at the hapless illiterate in his office, longing to get back to that paper he’s writing for Phil Review. Yeah, I get it, superstar. Just pray that someone is there. And while you’re at it, pray that someone put a line in the budget to pay whoever’s there.

The truth is, the average faculty member neither knows where the Writing Center is, nor knows who staffs it–nor cares. The Writing Center is, to paraphrase Mike Rowe, a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Somehow it seems to come as a surprise to the “real faculty” that those someones ought also to get paid. Granted, maybe the money isn’t there to hire such people where the author lives or has sought work. In that case, our author is back at square 1: she’s got to find other employment. Option (B) acknowledges that possibility–without treating it as something to celebrate.

If you think the right answer is (A), I’d love to hear why.  But if your academic career consists of going from one R1 school to another, and you’ve never taught at a community college, and you’ve never taught students at a lower-tier institution, and you’ve never done sustained work with M.Ed’s in a Writing Center, then I’m not sure why anyone who’s spent the last decade doing that (as I have) should take your advice at face value. But I’m always open to persuasion.

Are ya happy? Are ya satisfied? How long can ya stand the heat? 

33 thoughts on “And Another One Gone: Another Adjunct Bites the Dust

  1. Irfan,

    I think the indignation that people are having at anything I’ve said is absurd, and illustrates a moral defect in them, not in me. Yes, of course, I’d think that. But then, yes, of course the other side is going to think the opposite, so the “yes of course you’d think that” line of argument tells us little.

    What I’ve noticed is that the madjunct crowd seems to subscribe to a set of strange, even absurd beliefs. The other day on Facebook I made a list, which I’ll recount here, hopefully for your enlightenment, but most likely to your moral horror and further indignation. These are written from the perspective of the madjunct, and each item is something I’ve seen people like Lee Kottner, Robert Baum, Tiffany Kraft, Kevin Carson, and others say in one way or another multiple times.

    1. The labor theory of value, rejected by all economists since 1873, is true. This means that the value of their teaching and work is not determined by the value of their output, but by the amount of time they put in.

    2. It is completely unreasonable, elitist, and arrogant to suggest that before someone dedicates 5-10 years of his or her life pursuing a Ph.D. in some field, that this person first look into what the job prospects are, or what it takes to get a good job with that degree, or that this person tries to do things while getting a Ph.D. that make her more likely to get a good job.

    3. It is completely unreasonable, elitist, and arrogant to suggest to a terminal M.A.-holder that perhaps the reason she lacks a tenure-track job in academia is that she lacks the minimal requirements, i.e., a Ph.D.

    4. It is completely unreasonable, elitist, and arrogant to suggest that a Ph.D. from an unaccredited university is of any less value than a Ph.D. from Harvard.

    5. It is completely unreasonable, elitist, and arrogant to suggest that publishing in top-tier peer-reviewed outlets is of any more value than self-publishing in vanity presses or fourth-tier publication venues.

    6. When a person says, “Yes, administrators are mismanaging academia and mistreating adjuncts, but most professional adjuncts are still making obviously imprudent choices,” the proper and charitable reading of that is, “IT’S ALL ADJUNCTS’ FAULT.” (You, Irfan, are guilty of this mistake here.)

    7. It’s perfectly fine to make fun of tenure-track faculty through memes or Storify stories, to swear at them, to write blogposts in which you fantasize about gangs beating them up, or to post threatening pictures as you stalk them on their campus, but tenure-track faculty should in turn treat madjuncts with the utmost respect, and never tease them in any way back.

    8. Everyone should get paid not just for her time at work, but also for his commute to work.

    9. Supply, demand, and marginalism tell us nothing about the economics of the academic labor market. Because Marx.

    10. It’s reasonable to spend 6 hours outside of class for every hour in.

    11. There are no diminishing returns to hours spent prepping classes.

    12. It’s really arrogant and demeaning to suggest someone who is complaining, in public, about how lousy her job is look for professional employment elsewhere, especially at a place like GEICO, because, you know, GEICO is beneath us. We are too good to work at GEICO. It was arrogant for you to mention GEICO.

    13. Everyone who gets a Ph.D., i.e., who writes a dissertation on some esoteric topic that only 3 people in the world care about, is entitled to a life-time job, funded by taxpayers, that provides at least $90,000 a year, so that the Ph.D.-holder can continue to study the things she cares about.

    14. Anyone who disputes #13 is clearly a selfish asshole trying to protect his wallet.

    15. It’s reasonable to dismiss libertarians as ideological hacks. After all, Marx and Zizek would agree! You know, Marx and Zizek, the economically illiterate hatemongers? After we dismiss libertarains with a tirade of insults and profanity, the libertarians in question should respond politely to us.

    16. No successful person ever deserves his or her success; it’s just privilege. But every unsuccessful person who has a made a series of imprudent choices does deserve success.

    17. When a person chooses to be profiled in a national newspaper, and in that newspaper talks about how unfortunate she is, it is unreasonable and a horrific invasion of privacy to then examine whether or not that person made a series of obviously poor and imprudent choices which explain why she has failed to achieve her goals.

    18. It’s unreasonable to expect job candidates to do things that make them seem impressive to search committees. Search committees should just see applicants’ hidden brilliance.

    19. Colleges are too expensive, because of administrative bloat. But rather than reduce the number of administrators and then reduce the cost of college, and thus making college more affordable to all, we should instead reduce the number of administrators and then redistribute all that cash to adjuncts. Because social justice.

    20. One of the injustices adjuncts face is a lack of academic freedom, because their jobs are insecure. Also, if a tenure-track faculty member criticizes us in any way, we will harass his administration, communications office, and any affiliates he might have, with the hopes of getting him fired or in trouble. Because academic freedom doesn’t include the freedom to assert that many professional adjuncts have made imprudent choices.

    21. Blocking an adjunct counts as harassment from Twitter, but harassing a tenure-track faculty member does not count as harassment.

    22. We madjuncts are victims of white privilege (even though 90% of us are white and from upper-middle-class families).

    23. We have no time to produce scholarship. However, we do have plenty of time to engage in activism and to write stories about how oppressed we are.


    • The very first line of your comment is a case of poisoning the well. The rest of it is a straw man, or series of them. I said I was open to persuasion. What you’ve produced is a series of fallacies. So I’m not persuaded.

      I’m sure some of that comment is a great response to someone. The problem is, the someone isn’t me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just to be totally explicit, I realize that point (6) makes reference to me in a way that the others don’t, but two responses to it: (a) I honestly do not see how it applies to anything I’ve actually said; (b) I regard the distinction between “most professional adjuncts are still obviously making imprudent choices” and “it’s all adjuncts’ fault” to be a red herring.

      I’ve read virtually everything you (Brennan) have written on this subject, and I don’t see that you’ve provided any convincing evidence that most professional adjuncts are still obviously making imprudent choices. How do you know how many are? Even if they were, it wouldn’t follow that they don’t have legitimate grievances that require resolution. Suppose that it’s partly but not entirely adjuncts’ fault that they’re in the predicament they’re in. It doesn’t follow, and isn’t true, that they have to pay the entirety of the price for errors and malfeasances that have multiple sources. If the other sources are more culpable, arguably they have more to answer for than adjuncts. Many adjuncts could plausibly be thought to have been punished by the natural consequences of the predicament itself.

      I have more than a nodding acquaintance with the literature on desert and punishment, and I don’t know of anything in it that provides a precise answer to the casuistic questions under discussion here (at least of the sort you need)–i.e., do imprudent adjuncts deserve their predicament to such an extent as to forfeit the right to complain about low pay, disrespect, and ill-treatment? If you know of something worth reading that gets us to that conclusion, feel free to tell me, or make the argument yourself. But for now, I don’t see it.


      • Irfan – I still think you are doing some injustice to Brennan’s position. Your opening post contained a series of questions and comments pertaining to (1) the departure of unsuccessful adjuncts from the academy, (2) the suitability of certain non-terminal degree holders for certain types of academic employment, and (3) whether and to what degree adjuncts are presently mistreated by the academy. Jason’s list, though mostly directed at the aforementioned madjuncts, does engage each of these topics, as have my own comments which are admittedly close to Jason’s position.

        More importantly though, we’re both emphasizing points that are largely overlooked in the adjuncting dialogue:

        1. You pose some thoughts about the departure of adjuncts after failing to attain success. We’re noting that it appears to be the case that a large percentage of these adjuncts are simply not qualified for the jobs they seek (e.g. they don’t have terminal degrees, don’t publish or otherwise signal their abilities, research obscure topics in oversaturated fields). Any action to address the adjuncting phenomenon, whatever that action may be, should accordingly remain mindful that a sizable portion of the adjuncting pool is in fact responsible for its own lack of success at attaining a more permanent position.

        2. You raise the issue of ability in teaching intro courses (which I do not dispute at least in the sense that someone with a non-terminal degree is perfectly capable of teaching those courses). I am arguing though (and I believe Jason would agree on this point) that “ability to teach composition 101” or “history 102” etc. is a very different criterion than “suitability for full time academic employment.” The two do not automatically convert to each other, and while it *might* be the case that universities under-invest in part time teachers of 101 level classes, it also does not follow that some sort of full time position or even a pay hike for adjuncts is necessarily the best way to address that problem.

        (An aside on ways to address the problem: Why not, for example, create more full time teaching-heavy positions at a rank and payscale that falls between adjunct and assistant professor? This would seem to alleviate both the PhD glut at the top of the job market for TT positions and allow some upward mobility for the best and most qualified adjuncts. Yet strangely, much of the adjunct activist movement appears to be hostile to a solution of this type since it would add more “contingent” full time faculty, which they see as a problem rather than a blessing)

        3. You raise the issue of mistreatment of adjuncts. We’re noting that while mistreatment of adjuncts may indeed exist, it is also widely varying in its nature and highly subjective in its diagnosis. Furthermore, a number of claimed examples of what constitutes “mistreatment” of adjuncts actually appear to be symptoms of the aforementioned problem: a large subset of the adjunct population is seeking and expecting a full time appointment for which it lacks minimal qualifications.

        Note that this does not absolve academia of all problems related to adjuncting (nor have I ever suggested as much). But it does suggest that something often presented as one endemic system-wide “Big Problem” may actually be (A) exaggerated in scale and (B) a motley assortment of several isolated smaller problems, few of which would find meaningful mitigation in any of the solutions presently being advanced.


    • #4 is pretty strange. Are there really that many faculty, adjunct or otherwise, who hold Ph.D.s from unaccredited universities? Are those the people engaged in adjunct activism? If they are, that would really be quite a surprise.

      Think about what that term “unaccredited” actually means. . . . generally, not accredited by any of the five main regional accreditation bodies (i.e. Middle State, SACS, etc.) — and not accredited (for overseas institutions) by any other accrediting body. There are a few schools that have lost accreditation over the years, but I don’t know if any of those were granting Ph.D.s (except perhaps in rather new disciplines like “educational leadership”).

      I suspect that pretty much all of the adjuncts out there you’re going to run into that possess Ph.D.s actually do possess those degrees granted by accredited institutions.


      • Well, as far as I’m concerned, the whole list is strange, partly because it makes no contact with what I was saying, and partly because it irrelevantly belabors the obvious. Is it unreasonable to suggest that a PhD from an unaccredited university is of less value than a PhD from Harvard? Ooooh, tough call. No, if you really insist on an answer to such a pointless question. But as you (Greg) say, the answer to that question is not relevant to the issue under discussion, i.e., whether most long-term adjuncts with PhDs from accredited institutions are obviously culpable for not having tenure track positions so that they’ve forfeited the right to complain about their conditions of employment? I haven’t even defended unionization. I’ve just defended the idea that adjuncts have legitimate reason to complain and to expect full-timers to respond to those complaints. How does that position saddle me with an inability to distinguish Harvard’s graduate program from that of a degree mill?

        In fairness to Brennan, you could re-formulate (4) to say that there are a lot of long-term ABDs out there making complaints about working conditions, but that all of those complaints should be ignored in deference to the published PhDs who aren’t long-term adjuncts and are poring through Jobs for Philosophers and about to apply for jobs. The former group culpably did it all wrong; the latter group is doing it right. So we should ignore the first set of losers and valorize the winners that emerge from the latter group after n-iterations (where n is a relatively small number). What he needs but lacks is an argument that shows us that being a “loser” in the preceding sense tracks moral culpability. It may, but it need not, and I haven’t seen any serious argument to suggest that it does.

        What’s missing from the anti-adjunct side of the discussion is any appreciation of the fact that prestige is a proxy variable, not an infallible indicator of merit. There are, after all, old school British philosophers who never got PhDs–Alasdair MacIntyre, Colin McGinn, Bernard Williams, Quentin Skinner, etc. Would anyone insist that a Harvard PhD necessarily makes you a better philosopher of mind than, say, McGinn promised to be at the outset of his career? Or a better ethicist/classisist/historian than MacIntyre or Williams promised to be at the outset of theirs?

        Those facts suggest that things can’t be as simple as Brennan’s view suggests. The contingent structure of the profession favored one kind of philosopher in Britain in the 1950s, and favors of another kind in the US in the 2010s. The current structure of the American profession doesn’t necessarily track moral merit, and the fact that someone loses out in the current system is not a strict liability moral offense that entails that she’s forfeited the right to complain about conditions where she ends up. Though it’s lost in the fog of their snark, what Brennan et al really believe is that the losers in the job competition are by and large moral losers who, via their immoral (“culpable”) actions, have forfeited the right to complain about their work conditions.

        What I find interesting about this view is that it obviously has general application beyond the adjunct market. Shouldn’t it apply to almost anyone who, through some form of culpability (or what appears like it), ends up in a crappy job? Does no one of that description have the right to complain about sub-standard pay or working conditions? Shouldn’t the Brennanite advice be, across-the-board: “Well, you ended up there by your own culpable actions, so you don’t have a right to complain; shut up, pull up stakes, and get a job at GEICO.” If that’s “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism,” I’m hard-pressed to distinguish it from the garden variety Dickensianism that’s stalked the earth for the last couple of centuries.


      • I believe #4 is a specific reference to the situation represented by Robert Baum, one of the more vocal adjunct movement activists/organizers. Baum claims to hold a PhD from an unaccredited school in Switzerland and became quite incensed when both Jason and I pointed out that it was entirely unreasonable for him to expect a stable academic job with that “credential.”


        • I read the Baum-Brennan exchange when it happened. I haven’t commented on it, and wasn’t commenting on it here. Brennan’s listing a complaint that he has with Baum is exactly what I mean by a strawman argument. I’m not Robert Baum. I wasn’t defending Robert Baum. No part of what I’ve said turns on anything Baum has said. I’m not a spokesperson for madjuncts or anyone else. I don’t fully agree with madjuncts or any other party to the adjunct dispute. I have my own views, and have defended my own views. Is it really so hard to respond to them rather than to conflate me with madjuncts (or the Marxist members of madjuncts, or them plus Kevin Carson, etc.)? “The situation represented by Robert Baum” has literally no bearing on what I’ve been saying.

          I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat it–if I “represent” anything, it’s a view that’s intermediate between that of the madjunct activists (and SEIU, and some others) and the view that you and Brennan share. Here’s one example of it, from Derek Bok’s Higher Education in America:

          The evidence to date strongly suggests that the familiar complaints about the prevailing system of campus governance are exaggerated. Relations between faculty and administration do not appear to be nearly as subject to acrimonious breakdowns and protracted delays as critics often charge. …Indeed, Americans can take satisfaction from the fact that most of the changes in Europe have served to bring their systems closer to ours.

          To be sure, not all issues of governance have been settled satisfactorily. For example, the role of faculty members who are not on the tenure track is far from being resolved on many campuses, leaving a vacuum that is increasingly troublesome now that part-time adjuncts and term-limited instructors constitute a large majority of the teaching staff on most colleges and universities. Still, important as they are, issues of this kind are likely to be dealt with in time through discussions between faculty representatives and the administration, or failing that, by unionization and collective bargaining (p. 69, my emphasis).

          I agree with that. What Bok says is fully compatible with making complaints, in aggregate, about adjuncts. As a statistical matter, it is quite possible that over-reliance on adjuncts leads to lower retention, that it causes grade inflation, and/or that on the whole adjuncts spend less time in class prep than full timers (Bok, Higher Education, p.115n, 187n).

          But it doesn’t follow from those possibilities, and isn’t true, that adjuncts shouldn’t be seeking better conditions or better pay. I take the “faculty representatives” in the Bok passage to include adjuncts, or at least people with adjuncts’ interests at heart. To paraphrase Bok, I would say that adjunct grievances have to be dealt with in time through good faith discussions with them. I draw the line at unionization and collective bargaining, and would regard that as a failure. But the good faith discussion that has to take place cannot take place in the atmosphere of recrimination that both madjuncts and you have created. And it can’t take place if every airing of adjunct grievances gets conflated with the worst of madjuncts.

          My post was a response to the Marlana Eck piece in CHE. Some of Eck’s expectations are unrealistic, but on the whole, what she’s saying needs to be dealt with. And the unrealistic demands or expectations can be handled, notionally, by giving her a sort of counter-offer of the following sort:

          Sorry, an M.Ed is not a terminal degree, and you can’t expect the sky with it. But if you’re willing to lower your sights, you can expect something else with it. The something else is an academic position, and if you have the persistence, you can use the free time it gives you to do some research–maybe not research comparable to someone at an R1 school, but still, something. So people like you don’t necessarily have to leave academia altogether. There’s positions X, Y, and Z. If we do some budgetary manuevering, we should be able to make positions X, Y, and Z more attractive than they currently are. Maybe that requires questioning the priorities that put our NCAA Division 2 status ahead of adjunct salaries. If so, let’s reconsider our priorities.

          Not exactly Marxism. Half of the madjunct crowd would just call it clever union busting. But whatever–that’s the price of taking a middle-of-the-road position. The point is, it’s not the position that Brennan is attacking.


      • Irfan –

        “whether most long-term adjuncts with PhDs from accredited institutions are obviously culpable for not having tenure track positions so that they’ve forfeited the right to complain about their conditions of employment”

        This does strike me as a strawman portrayal of the argument being made on the following counts:

        1. A significantly greater % of the adjuncts in question actually seem to lack PhDs (or equivalent terminal degrees). This statistic is clearly attested in multiple surveys of the adjunct population over the last decade. Is it unfair to state that an applicant who only possesses an MA is culpable for his/her rejection for a full time academic job when the other applicants all have PhDs in hand?

        2. Many of the PhD-holding adjuncts seem to have weak CVs in terms of publications and other research output. This is admittedly harder to quantify, though it does appear to be a recurring theme of news articles that profile specific adjuncts. Is it unfair to state that an applicant with a PhD but no publications is culpable for his/her rejection from a full time academic job when the other applicants have stronger CVs with multiple publications?

        IOW, I would be more inclined to agree that a candidate who (1) has a finished PhD and (2) has a CV with multiple peer reviewed articles, books, book chapters etc. is less subject to the culpability argument, if at all. But what if a majority of the adjuncting movement lacks either of these things, as more than a few data points suggest to be the case? Are they not culpable for that?


        • I actually don’t think that the questions you’re asking make sense. That isn’t meant as derision; I mean it literally. All of your questions misuse the concept of “culpability.”

          First, just to clarify, I think there’s a typo in this:

          This does strike me as a strawman portrayal of the argument being made on the following counts:

          I’m taking you to mean that Brennan’s response to me involved no strawman portrayal.

          Now, take point (1):

          1. A significantly greater % of the adjuncts in question actually seem to lack PhDs (or equivalent terminal degrees). This statistic is clearly attested in multiple surveys of the adjunct population over the last decade. Is it unfair to state that an applicant who only possesses an MA is culpable for his/her rejection for a full time academic job when the other applicants all have PhDs in hand?

          I’m not disagreeing with the first two sentences. But the question makes no sense. Take an applicant for a job who’s ABD. Suppose he applies for a job explicitly advertised as allowing application by ABDs (“qualified ABDs considered”). Suppose that he is rejected for the job because the other applicants had PhDs. Where does the applicant’s culpability enter the scenario? Is he culpable for being an ABD? Is he culpable for applying for a job that allowed application by ABDs? Is he culpable for being rejected for the job? The answer is “no” three times over. None of these things involve “culpability.” They just happened to lead, in his case, to an unfortunate outcome. So yes, it would be unfair to ascribe “culpability” here. The applicant has done nothing morally wrong. Neither, for that matter, has the hiring committee.

          It is certainly possible that all of the PhDs were more qualified than this ABD. But it is also possible that a given ABD is a better bet than all of the PhDs. It depends. You just have to read the dossier and make a judgment. No algorithm will tell you whether candidate X is a better fit for your department than candidate Y. Having a PhD versus not will tell you something, but not necessarily exactly what you need to know. There are ABDs and there are ABDs. Some are self-starters. Some fall flat. Some newly minted PhDs are self-starters. Some are a worse bet than the average ABD. Ideally, a given search is structured so as to figure these things out. There’s no real room for judgments of “culpability” here. I would only insist that if your department advertises a job, and the ad says that ABDs will be considered, then ABDs have to be considered. At that point, if ABDs apply for your job, and you throw the ABD dossiers in the garbage without reading them–on the premise that candidates with PhD in hand are all obviously superior to all the ABDs–that is culpable. Actually, it’s fraud. But it happens.

          Putting things the other way around, if adjuncts start insisting on a quota system whereby senior adjuncts who are ABD get jobs simply on grounds of seniority, trumping PhDs, and bypassing national searches, I’d say that’s wrong and often culpably motivated. That happens, too.

          Now, point (2):

          2. Many of the PhD-holding adjuncts seem to have weak CVs in terms of publications and other research output. This is admittedly harder to quantify, though it does appear to be a recurring theme of news articles that profile specific adjuncts. Is it unfair to state that an applicant with a PhD but no publications is culpable for his/her rejection from a full time academic job when the other applicants have stronger CVs with multiple publications?

          In this case, I disagree both with the factual premise and with the coherence of the question.

          Anyway, assume for now that the factual claim is correct. In that case, I still don’t understand the question. A person who’s rejected for a position for lack of appropriate credentials is underqualified for the position, not culpable either for applying or for being rejected. Being underqualified is neither equivalent to nor entails culpability. Some underqualified people are culpable, but many are not. There’s no general connection between the one thing and the other.

          But I would dispute the factual premise. You say many PhD-holding adjuncts “seem to have weak CVs in terms of publications and other research output.” You then qualify that by saying that the claim is hard to quantify. That understates the point.

          First, there is a lot of dispute about the criteria that make for strength and weakness in a CV. There are many, many reasonable disagreements to be had about what “strength” and “weakness” amount to. Most of them turn on trade-offs between quality and quantity. Some people publish a lot, but say the same thing over and over. Some people publish very little, but when they say something, it’s brilliant. In philosophy, Sidney Morgenbesser and Alan Code are famous for publishing next to nothing. Gettier published almost nothing. But only an ignoramus or a bigot would hold that against them.

          Second, there is no general rule that says that publication and research output are definitory of strong CVs. The strength or weakness of a CV is relative to the purposes to which it’s put. In job application contexts, strength or weakness is relative to the nature of the job for which the applicant is applying. It makes no sense to say that high research output is required in an applicant applying for a job at a teaching institution. Some research output is required, but not what you would want in an applicant to an R1 institution. A budding research superstar with publications flowing off of her CV shouldn’t expect that credential to land her a job at a school that values teaching simply because research is somehow intrinsically superior to anything else that might be on a CV. A CV can legitimately include teaching and service credentials, and depending on the job, those can have higher or lower weight than research.

          Arguments of this kind remind me of the people I grew up with, who would argue that because “sweep picking” was the most rigorous electric guitar technique, the best guitarists were the best-at-sweep-picking. Sweep picking became the hallmark of a strong guitar CV, because after all, if you can sweep pick like Marty Friedman, you can “fuckin play anything, man.”

          Well. The unfortunate result of this view was ZZ Top cover bands that sounded like Megadeth. After you’ve heard La Grange played in the style of Holy Wars, you become permanently immune to the idea that there is one monolithic standard of excellence in a complex endeavor–be it academia or rock and roll.

          Bottom line: I don’t see culpability here. But I might be mistaken.


        • Having written all that, it occurs to me that the whole discussion deserves a postscript: your entire discussion of culpability narrows the focus to a topic that’s much narrower than the topic I was discussing in the original post. I was talking about the sub-standard nature of the conditions under which adjuncts work (as adjuncts). You’re talking about adjunct grievances about the job market involving TT or FT jobs. They’re not the same topic.


      • Irfan – I’m not certain where you got the impression that Brennan was specifically addressing you, as opposed to arguments he had encountered from the pro-adjunct movement. In fact, he made the source he was addressing very clear by noting “each item is something I’ve seen people like Lee Kottner, Robert Baum, Tiffany Kraft, Kevin Carson, and others say in one way or another multiple times” and only addressing you specifically with one point on the list, #6.


        • I didn’t get the impression Brennan was specifically addressing me. I got the impression he specifically wasn’t addressing me. That’s the whole problem. I realize that I have idiosyncratic ideas about blogging, but I like to think that when I post something on my blog, the comments on the post are a response to the content of the post. That actually turns out to be Rule 1 of my Comments policy:

          1. Keep your comment on topic. Respond to what the person posting has actually written, not whatever you’d like to be discussing right now, regardless of the content of what you’re commenting on.

          How does this respond to what I wrote?

          What I’ve noticed is that the madjunct crowd seems to subscribe to a set of strange, even absurd beliefs. The other day on Facebook I made a list, which I’ll recount here, hopefully for your enlightenment, but most likely to your moral horror and further indignation. These are written from the perspective of the madjunct, and each item is something I’ve seen people like Lee Kottner, Robert Baum, Tiffany Kraft, Kevin Carson, and others say in one way or another multiple times.

          What I’ve noticed is that I’m not Lee Kottner, Robert Baum, Tiffany Kraft, or Kevin Carson. My views aren’t reducible to theirs, and the absurdity-or-not of their views is not necessarily a reflection on mine.

          Imagine that I went to the combox of Brennan’s latest BHL post, plugging his Markets without Limits book, and filled it with random horror-file quotations from Rothbard, Walter Block, Ron Paul, and some random, half-educated lunatic from SFL. I then conclude that I’ve rebutted his book.

          The form of the argument seems to be: these people are lunatics and defending markets; you’re defending markets; hence you must be a lunatic just like them. Substitute “adjuncts” for “markets” and the preceding point applies to Brennan’s comment. I’m not certain where anyone got the impression that that’s a valid argument form.


  2. Great dialogue Dr Khawaja, thanks.

    For what it’s worth, I think you two are talking past each other. Here, I think, is your main point (please correct me if I’m wrong):

    In that case, our author is back at square 1: she’s got to find other employment. Option (B) acknowledges that possibility–without treating it as something to celebrate.

    Or, in other words, the Option (A) people are being dickheads when they don’t have to be and they are not contributing to efforts at fixing this Very Big problem. In fact, they’re making it worse. Is this a good summary, or am I way off base?

    The dickishness is uncalled for. Option (A) people shouldn’t have gone that route. However, as an outside observer, I think that the inability to remain professional pales in comparison to what the other side of the debate has been doing and saying. Option (A) people shouldn’t have taken the bait. Alas.

    It looks as if the more vocal antagonists on both sides of this debate are trying to make this about ideology rather than practicality. The communists are screaming for unionization and denouncing privilege while the liberals are pointing to failures and denouncing hare-brained schemes. Brennan wants to bury socialism while you’re trying to help fix a problem. The same dynamic is at work on the Left.


    • Yes, your summary is basically correct. Brennan writes here as though I were a generic member of the “madjunct” crowd, and as though anyone who disagrees with him on the adjunct issue is a generically mindless pro-adjunct zombie. That’s the assumption that licenses his regurgitating a long list of anti-madjunct slogans here as though they somehow made contact with what I said. Well, they don’t. Do I really have to preface everything I write about the adjunct issue with the proviso that I’m not a generically mindless pro-adjunct zombie?

      As I’ve said before, some of the pro-adjunct rhetoric is really, really idiotic. The link you provide, of the guy attacking Phillip Magness, is a case in point. The guy calling for Magness to be muzzled seems to be engaged in a public act of projection: he ought to be muzzling himself.

      What I insist on is that all participants in this debate acknowledge the complexity of the issues, and also acknowledge that no one person has the knowledge or experience to make large-scale generalizations or offer sweeping prescriptions for the whole “adjunct issue.” For that reason, this is a grossly inadequate way of discussing the issue. But so is the madjunct call for unionization-across-the-board. Brennan is not in a position to know that adjuncts are by and large the victims of their own culpable choices. I’ve read almost every word that he and Magness have produced on this subject, and so far–in months of reading–I haven’t seen anything, individually or jointly, that bears out Brennan’s claims.

      Meanwhile, the louder and more strident madjunct activists are failing to acknowledge the fact that higher education is operating under financial and logistical constraints that make life difficult for a lot of people, including but not limited to adjuncts. There are problems out there–structural and local–that need resolution, but a sympathetic desire to deal with those problems is fully compatible with a rejection of unionization and/or demands for quotas (i.e., full time positions reserved for senior adjuncts that bypass a dept’s desire to conduct a national search for a given position), and/or demands for the logistical or financial equivalent of magic. I hear people on the left demanding those things, and I don’t buy it.

      My worry is that a perfectly reasonable intermediate position has been crowded out by Brennan-Magness at one end, and madjuncts on the other. It’s that many adjuncts are highly capable and fully deserving people who, for one reason or another, find themselves as adjuncts rather than full timers. Meanwhile, for better or worse, many institutions do rely and will have to rely on adjuncts to cover their course loads, given the push for higher enrollments. That means that adjunct labor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Nor should it. There’s nothing wrong with having an adjunct market, and nothing inherently wrong with having a market populated by long-term adjuncts.

      But it’s wrong to treat adjuncts as badly as many of them are treated, and it compounds that injustice to rationalize the ill-treatment with the sweeping declaration that they’re all victims of their own culpable errors, so they lack standing to complain. The ill-treatment doesn’t necessarily justify unionization, certainly not unionization-across-the-board. Unionization has its own problems that madjuncts would rather not discuss. But that adjuncts, deans, and dept chairs face serious problem in need of resolution is obvious. It’s likewise obvious that the resolution of those problems requires a change in attitudes toward adjuncts from overtly disrespectful to something more respectful. And it requires a reshuffling of budgetary priorities at a lot of institutions, where the details will depend on the institution. But “they’re culpable” and “let’s unionize” are mindless nostrums, not constructive solutions. I was an adjunct for long enough to know the difference.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Irfan –

    I’d like to pose a question for you in good faith out of the hope that it might shed some light on the issues at play here. Far from being a straw man, Jason’s observation about the pervasiveness of the Labor Theory of Value in most adjunct activist arguments strikes me as an accurate characterization of most of the public commentary on this issue. We actually see LTOV arguments almost daily (e.g. the common contention that adjuncts deserve to have their compensation determined by the amount of time they put into a class outside of the classroom). Quite a few of these arguments also append their own calculations in which they purport to put a number value to various “uncompensated” aspects of their work for comparison against a full time salary. They similarly tend to reject an alternative proposition that identifies adjunct compensation as a function of (a) the number of adjunct job seekers and (b) the number of available adjunct jobs. Indeed scarcity seldom ever plays into these discussions, which instead focus upon claims about numbers of hours worked outside of the classroom and a desired salary based upon comparisons to what full time faculty make.

    Noting that rejection of the Labor Theory of Value is very much a mainstream position in economics, I’m left to wonder the following:

    Is it possible to make a convincing pro-adjunct case in favor of a higher “appropriate” level of compensation that does not depend, explicitly or implicitly, upon the Labor Theory of Value? That does not treat it as a given when making hourly wage conversions and prognostications? If so, what would this argument look like and how would it determine and justify its proposed compensation level?


    • That’s a more responsive answer than Brennan’s, but it’s a response to one circumscribed claim (that adjuncts are ill-paid), not to the overall claim of the post. It doesn’t come to grips or even acknowledge the issue of ill-treatment of adjuncts, it doesn’t deal with what I regard as the underdetermined nature of Brennan’s claims about culpability, and it doesn’t deal with the handwaving nature of his claims about what kind of degree is appropriate for what kind of position. You say that “scarcity seldom ever plays into these discussions,” but don’t acknowledge that I explicitly mention scarcity in the post.

      Granted, maybe the money isn’t there to hire such people where the author lives or has sought work. In that case, our author is back at square 1: she’s got to find other employment.

      At any rate, you don’t need to invoke The Labor Theory of Value to offer a defensible argument for someone’s deserving a raise. In the case of adjuncts, there are many ways of making an argument, but here is one of several legitimate options.

      Suppose I’m a hiring manager responsible for hiring adjuncts. Suppose that it’s early enough in the year that negotiations and haggling over the divisional (or institution-wide) budget is well in the future. I sit down and consider what it is we (our institution) is paying our adjuncts. Let’s say that it’s $700 per credit hour, or $2100 per 3 credit course. I now do a role-reversal and look at the world from the perspective of the ideal adjunct in the logistically average situation in my market. The ideal adjunct is simply a deserving, competent, well-motivated, hard-working instructor of adjunct-level material (whatever that happens to be in your case). I then ask whether, all-things-considered, an ideal adjunct could plausibly be–or would likely be–motivated to do a good job and be content at the compensation package we’re offering. (“All things considered” includes a complex, non-denumerable list of items, including what our competitors are paying and how that affects what we should be paying. It also includes a definitional specification of “competitor.” Etc. etc. This is where practical reason in the Aristotelian sense makes its appearance.)

      Suppose the answer is “no,” i.e., we’re not paying enough. I then look at (say) the divisional or institutional budget with a skeptical eye. I look for slack in it–budgetary line items that could be diverted toward the adjunct salary budget but are not being diverted, and that ethically and institutionally represent misplacements of priorities relative to the “salary” increase that prima facie ought to be going to adjuncts. I go after misplacements of priorities in the budget in proportion to the respect in which they are misplacements of priorities–aggressively after clear ones, less aggressively after the less clear cases.

      Suppose I find some budgetary slack. I make a case for eliminating it and redistributing the resources to our adjuncts. After n iterations, the strategy works, they get a raise, and we see incremental progress toward a living wage. We also eliminate the potential for dealing with resentful adjuncts in an adversarial fashion, and dampen the motivation for unionization.

      In some cases, where there is no slack, a hypothetical manager would have to go through a similar procedure and realize that it’s better to pay each adjunct a better wage at the expense of the number of aggregate positions that are being offered than to offer a lower wage while offering a greater number of positions. The elimination of an adjunct slot means that one’s full timers will somehow have to find a way to cover that slot rather than farming it out to an adjunct. A good dept chair would make the case in a departmental meeting that sometimes moral philosophers have to be put their money where their mouths are, and work harder for less in the name of justice.

      The underlying principle here is that, ceteris paribus, when you interact with someone you want to interact with him/her at his/her best, and ceteris paribus, people are motivated to do a better job for you if they (correctly) get the sense that you sincerely have their best interests at heart. Part of having their best interests at heart is paying them a wage that’s sufficient to live well enough to do a good job for you. No part of that reasoning presupposes The Labor Theory of Value in the Marxist or Thomist sense that’s regarded as archaic by mainstream economics. No one thinks that you need to invoke the LTV to ask for a raise or decide that a particularly good waitress deserves a higher-than-average tip.

      I think that answers all three of your questions.

      Question 1: It is possible.
      Question 2: What I’ve said doesn’t depend explicitly on The Labor Theory of Value, and if I’ve somehow implicitly smuggled it in, my critics will have to make the case.
      Question 3: The “argument” is really just a description of the requirements of applying the “underlying principle” I just mentioned. The principle itself is not the kind of thing I can defend from scratch in a combox, but philosophical principles never are.

      “The Labor Theory of Value” is in any case a very ambiguous concept, which is why I’ve capitalized it so far. In sense (1), it refers to the doctrine that economic value is determined by the amount of labor required to produce something. In another sense, sense (2), it refers to what A.J. Simmons calls the “widespread or enduring intuition…that labor in creating or improving a thing gives one special claim to it” (A.J. Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights, p. 223).

      Labor is not, of course, the only ground of private property allowed by Locke. it is the sole ground of original exclusive property rights, the way in which something previously unowned can become owned (Lockean Theory, pp. 224-25).

      This latter “labor theory of value” is the basis for the equally widespread intuition that a fair day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. I guess there’s a further intuition that that principle applies to adjuncts. “Fairness” here need not presuppose LTV in sense (1).

      Almost no one disputes that mainstream economics is incompatible with The Labor Theory of Value in sense (1). But if mainstream economics is incompatible with the ltv in sense (2), mainstream economics seems incompatible with the fundamental motivation behind a broadly libertarian (or even plain old liberal) theory of private property rights. If that incompatibility arose, we’d face a fundamental choice between the claims of mainstream economics and those of a broadly Lockean conception of private property. It’s not obvious to me that faced with that choice, we’d be obliged to accept the claims of mainstream economics.

      That said, we really don’t need to resolve any deep theoretical issue to see that adjuncts are ill-paid, or to see that ill-payment is one of a series of issues in need of resolution.


      • Hi Irfan –

        Thank you for your careful reply. I’ll offer a few quick thoughts:

        1. It strikes me that the Labor Theory of Value arguments most frequently offered in adjunct advocacy pieces are of the type #1 you describe above – the economic variety. They usually make a *specific* observation about the amount of uncompensated labor tied to their adjuncting and make a *specific* claim to additional compensation that is allegedly predicated upon that labor. A few of them also append an additional calculation that purports to establish an adjunct’s “value” by multiplying the number of students per class by tuition, then noting that adjunct compensation per class is far below this number. Both of these arguments strike me as being directly susceptible to the economic repudiation of the Labor Theory of Value.

        2. Type 2, the Lockean-tinged Labor Theory of Value, is indeed a more complex subject. I ultimately reject it as well for a number of reasons (and in fact have argued that Lockean acquisition is little more than a Labor Theory of Value for land). Others may conclude differently, both within and outside of libertarian circles. Even if we grant that Type 2 LTV arguments for adjuncting could be made (if one accepts those premises), they also seem to be very rare in adjunct activism. It is uncommon to see an adjunct building his/her argument upon a “special claim” of improvement over his/her course or teaching output, whereas the Type 1 compensation-staked economic claims are ubiquitous in such discussions.

        3. Far from being a strawman, Jason’s original charge about the Labor Theory of Value – and specifically its economic iteration – does in fact seem to be an accurate portrayal of *most* pro-adjunct arguments about compensation. I also suspect this may be a reason why he listed it first among his critiques – it is probably the most pervasive of the faulty arguments offered.

        4. You note other potential arguments exist for increased adjunct compensation, and I would even agree with some of them to a degree. For example, I’ve called openly for the trimming of certain aspects of administrative bloat (e.g. a number of universities now have “Vice Presidents of Green Sustainability” and the sort, which consume sizable budgets in pursuit of what are mostly ideological pet political causes of academia at large) and would consider it unobjectionable to reallocate some of that to performance-linked adjunct bonuses. There is also a high degree of subjectivity in arguments of this type though, as distinct from an LTV-predicated claim that an adjunct works X hours outside of the classroom and is therefore owed Y in compensation for those hours on account of the labor product.

        5. In asserting that some adjuncts might deserve more than $2100 in compensation (using your hypothetical figure, though really any would do) we should be prepared to concede that it could also be true that some adjuncts actually deserve less than $2100 for their work.

        6. You note in the original post, and again hint here, that a PhD may not be necessary to effectively teach intro composition (or a similar intro level course). I agree, but would also note that “qualification to teach class X” is a very different standard than “qualification for a full time academic job in subject X.” This seems to be where culpability exerts more of a determining role than your argument concedes. Insofar as most adjunct activists claim they desire a full time academic job, it becomes pertinent to ask whether they possess the minimum qualifications that are presently expected for an entry level full time academic job – i.e. a PhD in hand. If more than 50% of adjuncts lack a terminal degree in their fields (and survey after survey after survey seems to confirm as much), then yes – they are culpable for lacking the minimum qualification for the job for which they are seeking and expecting, even if they might be able to plausibly teach an intro level class in that field.

        7. In the sense that a finished PhD is a basic minimum for a tenure track job in most fields, an adjunct who lacks a terminal degree but desires a full time academic position is actually more akin to a nurse who complains when his/her repeated applications for the post of surgeon are bypassed on account of a lack of degree (or complaining that they are paid a fifth of the surgeon’s salary). Most people would consider the nurse who applies for surgeon’s jobs to be culpable for his/her repeated rejection on account of failing to meet the minimum criterion and failing to take the necessary steps to gain that credential, would they not? So how is an adjunct who only possesses an MA but desires a TT job any different?


  4. If a person is demanding a job for which he does not possess the minimal qualifications, and he declines to obtain those qualifications while also continuing to seek that same job and no other, is he not in some way culpable for the state of underemployment that follows?

    That is the culpability referred to in most arguments that fault a portion of the adjunct population for its own position. One needn’t resort to a tendentious rendering of what constitutes culpability to understand why this may be the case either, as it is difficult to argue that an adjunct with no terminal degree and a mediocre CV should warrant a full time position on teaching evaluations alone. Such a person would be unlikely to even make it into the top 100 applicants for a typical tenure track position in the humanities given the nature of the academic market, and through absolutely no “injustice” of the system. He simply isn’t qualified by the minimal standards of the field (or if he’s a hidden genius who could conceivably warrant an appointment without a PhD, he still hasn’t produced anything to demonstrate to the search committee why he is that rare and exceptional candidate – see Jason’s point #18 above).

    Perhaps the first time through could be chalked up to ignorance of the academic job market. But it would seem to be the case that people who have been adjuncting for 10 or 15 years, lack a PhD, don’t publish, refuse to consider alternative areas of employment, and still expect a full time appointment to be handed to them are directly responsible for their resulting income levels and lack of upward job mobility.


    • Who’s being tendentious here?

      The original example was simply of an MA applying for an academic position. I turned the MA into an ABD, which I think is fair, since “MA” covers too broad a range–from newly minted MAs to people who are about to finish a dissertation.

      You’ve somehow managed to turn our ABD into someone “demanding” a job. Where did “demanding” come from? Is applying for a job demanding one? Do you mean his cover letter begins, “Dear Madam or Sir: I demand the job you’ve advertised…” Well, at any rate, demanding wasn’t what I was talking about.

      You’ve also stipulated that the applicant doesn’t possess “minimal qualifications” for the job. Where did that come from? I specifically distinguished lack of qualification from culpability; it’s a stretch to regard making that distinction as a defense of being unqualified. Again, I wasn’t defending the applicant with “minimal qualifications.” Obviously, if a job advertisement says that qualified ABDs will be considered, possession of a PhD isn’t a minimal requirement of the job.

      Finally, where did the “pursue that job and no other” stipulation come from? All I said was that we’re talking about an ABD applying for a job. I didn’t say he was applying for one and only one job, and I had no idea that’s what you meant. I didn’t even specify what job we were talking about. So again, you’ve saddled me with your strawmen.

      I don’t see why these stipulations have to be packed into the example. From the claim that a significantly large percentage of “the adjuncts in question lack PhDs” you’ve now managed to specify that those very adjuncts demand jobs, lack “minimal qualifications,” and characteristically engage in job searches by seeking one job at a time. So what data are we talking about, again?

      That a candidate described this tendentiously couldn’t make it into the top 100 applications “for a typical tenure track position” really tells us nothing, and has nothing to do with anything. I wasn’t describing a candidate of that nature, and so far you’ve offered no evidence to show that candidates of that nature are the norm among long-term adjuncts. Yes, if a transparently bad candidate demands a high level job knowing that he’s not qualified, then throws a tantrum when he doesn’t get it, he’s culpable. I’ve given you the conditional. Feel free to give me data to support the antecedent.

      While we’re on this subject, could you tell me what you regard as “a typical tenure track position in the humanities”? You seem to have missed the point (and ignored) everything I said about the indeterminacy of “strength” and “weakness” when it comes to judging academic promise via CVs. Actually, I was understating my case. Forty percent of all undergraduate enrollments in the United States take place at community colleges. Only 200 of the 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States are research universities. The remainder are so-called comprehensive/metropolitan universities, four year liberal arts colleges, specialized institutions (e.g., culinary schools, music colleges, etc.), for-profits, and institutions between those categories. That’s a gigantic diversity of institutions with a wide range of institutional needs, demanding different skill-sets. Given that diversity, you can’t devise an algorithm that gets you from the publications list on a CV to suitability for a particular job. The “standards of the field” do not dictate that you hire the guy with the longest publication list, or the one with the longest weighted publication list, or even the guy with the best publications. The guy with the best publications could be the worst guy for the job, depending on what the job is, where it is, and what it involves.

      To put the point neutrally: Is there culpability involved in a qualified ABD’s persistently going on the job market while he spends what time he has improving his dossier? No. Suppose he does it for ten years? No. Fifteen? No. Whether he gives up or not depends on his motivations, his capacity for endurance, and his luck. It’s just a piece of mythology to claim that the person’s probability of getting a job remains the same across all of those years. If he uses his time well, and makes the right moves, he can affect his own odds. Yes, the odds of getting a plum job go down. But the Rolling Stones taught us how to deal with that eventuality. As I said in discussing Marlana Eck, I’m not disputing the need for realism. My candidate might well end up like this guy, teaching at a mere community college. He might even end up like David Potts, a guy who blogs here and also teaches at a community college. But that isn’t necessarily the end of the world.

      But it would seem to be the case that people who have been adjuncting for 10 or 15 years, lack a PhD, don’t publish, refuse to consider alternative areas of employment, and still expect a full time appointment to be handed to them are directly responsible for their resulting income levels and lack of upward job mobility.

      What if they’ve been adjuncting for 10 or 15 years, are close to getting their PhD, will have something worth publishing when it’s done, have considered alternative areas of employment, don’t expect or demand handouts but apply for full time appointment, get such an appointment somewhere on the condition they’ll defend their dissertation within x period of time, do so, and then…ask for a raise?

      If you want to play the blame game, you’re going to have to do better than you so far have.


  5. Since when are we locked in to your narrowly defined hypothetical applicant? You may disagree, but I submit that the characteristics I described (1. lacks a terminal degree, 2. weak CV with limited or no publications, 3. unrealistic expectations of getting an academic job and/or unwillingness to seek non-academic employment) are far more representative of the mean applicant from the adjuncting movement than an ABD who simply loses out to a finished PhD and has to adjunct for a year until he too has a degree in hand and the next job cycle begins.

    We are talking about the representative experience of an adjunct on the academic job market, are we not?

    But let’s take up your “neutral” hypothetical anyway, since you assert that there is no culpability for a person who spends 10-15 years in an unsuccessful search as an ABD. I would argue on the contrary. Unless he’s amassing a publication-heavy CV with multiple articles by the time he finally defends, that person is actually signalling an inability to finish his degree in the normal 4-7 years it takes for most full time PhDs – something that is almost entirely within his control, and for which he is very much culpable. Almost any job committee will look at such a candidate and immediately ask “Why did it take you atypically long to finish your degree?” because they also want to know if the same person is going to have difficulty finishing and delivering on other research as a faculty member and future tenure applicant.


  6. First, Irfan, I would like to complain about some of the ridiculous things people say about teaching writing to freshmen. They’re really ridiculous. Oh, but that wasn’t what your post was about…Whoops.

    More seriously, here is an honest question about something that confuses me. Leaving aside the fact that you can find somebody somewhere who will say anything about the adjunct situation, I thought the basic issue was supposed to be that adjuncts are poorly compensated and poorly treated on the whole and that by relying on them more and more colleges and universities are in some sense exploiting adjuncts. I can imagine plenty of things one might say for or against those claims, but what I don’t understand is why so much of the discussion here focuses instead on people who don’t have jobs and complain about it. I’m inclined to say very different things about people who can’t get academic employment and people who have it but are underpaid, overworked, not offered benefits, and treated as second- or third-class members of the intellectual community. Am I missing something here, or are two rather different sets of issues getting conflated?

    As for the supposed prominence of arguments relying on the “labor theory of value,” I’m not sure why Brennan, Magness, et al. think that simply because someone maintains that people in class P deserve to be paid more because they have to work hard to do what they’re hired to do, the proponent of such a view must adhere to some form of the labor theory of value. Unless I’m mistaken, economic theories of value aren’t theories about what people deserve, or how we ought to treat each other; they’re allegedly empirical, value-neutral theories that purport to explain exchange value. No doubt rival theories might also disagree about what they’re trying to explain, about the constraints on an acceptable theory, and about the role of value judgments in an acceptable theory. But with due allowance for the fact that you can find someone somewhere who will say anything about the adjunct issue, it strikes me that most people who would answer B on Irfan’s quiz are making moral claims, not strictly economic ones, and that even if they’re confused and think they’re making economic claims, they could make virtually the same moral claims even if they reject the labor theory of value. And of course Irfan is not invoking the labor theory of value, so it remains entirely beside the point to gripe about it in response to his post. But it seems to me to be a red herring even in the broader context of the debate.


    • In response to your comment, David, I would like to talk about the problem of Syrian migrants to Hungary. How will all those migrants get jobs? Won’t they add to Europe’s unemployment rate? I’m sure you see the connection to the adjunct issue. Both are about employment prospects.

      In short, yeah. I know it’s very Ayn Randian of me to quote myself, but let me quote myself:

      Having written all that, it occurs to me that the whole discussion deserves a postscript: your entire discussion of culpability narrows the focus to a topic that’s much narrower than the topic I was discussing in the original post. I was talking about the sub-standard nature of the conditions under which adjuncts work (as adjuncts). You’re talking about adjunct grievances about the job market involving TT or FT jobs. They’re not the same topic.

      Emphasis added. I know it’s kind of grotesque to add emphasis to my own words on my own blog, but what else am I supposed to do when I’m not being read for what I actually say?

      Magness insists that the issue we must discuss is: “What if an adjunct lacks a PhD, knows that, demands a TT job, doesn’t get one, and complains about injustice?” A: Yes, what if? I feel like I’m back at Ben Gurion Airport, answering the same security question over and over, just to make sure that I’ve got my story straight. Well, in that case, she doesn’t deserve the job and is acting inappropriately. But PS, that wasn’t what my post was about. It was about on the job conditions regarding pay and treatment. “Yes, but surely you know that many adjuncts lack PhDs. Aren’t you saying that they should get jobs anyway?” A: It depends on the job. Credentials are relative to job descriptions. “Yes, but isn’t lack of success the same as culpability?” A: No. “But isn’t it?” A: No. “But doesn’t it just have to be?” A: No. “If I now turn my assertions into rhetorical questions, won’t that give greater plausibility to my already irrelevant, dogmatic claims?” A: Believe it or not, no.

      I have a long work day ahead of me, so I’ll have to get back to this debate later, but let me just repeat for the nth time that my post was not about the further job prospects of adjunct ABDs but about the on-the-job working conditions of adjuncts. The latter topic bears no intrinsic connection to the former. That said, I don’t mean to be conceding that Magness has the job prospects issue right, either. But later.


      • I think you’re failing to see that the problem with the Syrian migrants is that they don’t have PhDs but are demanding jobs. You keep complaining that people here are not addressing the subject you are talking about, but the real issue is that you are ignoring the really crucial subject. Germany says it’s going to allow up to 500,000 refugees a year. My sources suggest that < 1% of those refugees have PhDs. Once those refugees are in Germany, they will almost certainly begin to demand permanent academic employment. Because the Germans are guilt-ridden socialists who can't say no to anyone who isn't Greek, the influx of these refugees will inevitably compromise the quality of German higher education. But these refugees should have known that if you flee you country to escape violence, you should at least finish the PhD first. Why you continue to fail to see the relevance of this crisis to the topic under discussion is beyond me.


      • Irfan – A few thoughts on your postscript, since you seem to believe it is important:

        “Having written all that, it occurs to me that the whole discussion deserves a postscript: your entire discussion of culpability narrows the focus to a topic that’s much narrower than the topic I was discussing in the original post. I was talking about the sub-standard nature of the conditions under which adjuncts work (as adjuncts). You’re talking about adjunct grievances about the job market involving TT or FT jobs. They’re not the same topic.”

        1. Your original post was framed as a response to an argument made by Brennan that I have supported, and your subsequent discussion specifically identified me by name as well as my arguments in a similar vein as the ones you find objectionable from Jason. I find it extremely odd that you are now insinuating that I have somehow “narrowed” or otherwise altered the topic by simply elaborating upon the very same position you purported to respond to in your original comments.

        2. If you have a different point to make than the one I have been making all along about the employment issues surrounding adjuncting, that is fine. But you should not direct it at me if it is not something I have contested in the first place, especially when you frame your own arguments as if they were a response to other statements we have made.

        3. I fully recognize that you are not obliged to engage the arguments I have made on the state of adjunct employment. But don’t evade and sidestep them for several days, only to claim in a postscript to have conceded them from the outset when you plainly did not and still – at most – consider them peripheral to the adjuncting discussion for reasons that you seem reluctant to elaborate upon.

        4. If your intended purpose is to take up “the sub-standard nature of the conditions under which adjuncts work,” you should at least be willing acknowledge that this is a far more subjective and ill-defined subject matter than the state of the adjunct employment market (which – again – was the focus of my original posts on the subject that you purported to respond to several times above). For example, how does one even define what makes a “living wage”? What specifically constitutes “disrespect” or “ill-treatment” and how might we identify the existence of either? It is no more clear right now what exactly you mean by these terms or how you intend to address them beyond repeating that they exist (or that adjuncts are “disrespected” and “ill-treated”) than it was in your initial comment on the subject, and that despite ample opportunity for elaboration. This leaves your argument, whatever it may be, in the precarious position of resting upon a set of gratuitous claims that you never bothered to elaborate upon or demonstrate and see no need to defend outside of repetition. They may therefore be gratuitously dismissed in kind.

        5. An additional tension seems to exist between your practice of insisting upon rigid adherence to highly specific, narrowly defined, inflexible, and – yes – tendentious hypothetical situations about a relatively rare ABD candidate on the adjunct market, and your habit of ducking broader empirical inquiries about the present state of the adjuncting market with a vague “it depends.”

        6. As a final comment – and I’ll leave you to your little sandbox of a blog at this point, noting only that I have approached you far more charitably in this latest attempt to engage you than you have afforded me in return – you might consider the possibility that your own personal outlook on the adjuncting phenomenon is far from synchronous with the larger public discussion that myself and others have been engaged in of late, meaning the probability is high that such discussions will turn to observations that may not resonate with you personally or your own position, but are nevertheless accurate and pertinent to getting at the “truth” of what we’re seeing in the adjunct market at the present.


        • Just a quick response to (3) for now:

          I didn’t respond yet because unlike you, I don’t have the luxury of writing long blog comments in the middle of the workday, and I tend to have long workdays. I also didn’t respond because I asked you for the sources of the data you were discussing. Thanks for providing them, but I hadn’t finished reading them all.

          I find this comment of yours telling and illustrative of the misinferences you’ve made about adjuncts: someone doesn’t live up to your expectations about when something should happen, and your immediate inference is an ascription of culpability before the facts are in, and in lieu of thinking of the more obvious explanation for the “delay.” As far as you’re concerned, the explanation for the delay cannot be that I’m waiting until I have time to write. After all, if Phil Magness has the time to write long blog comments during the workday, everybody does. Nor can the explanation be that I’m reading the reports I asked you to send me, and that takes time, especially during the work week. Apparently, I’m supposed to comment on reports I haven’t read (or haven’t read recently in the case of the CAW one), or else I’m obliged to become a speed reader in order to live up to Phil Magness’s expectations of me.

          No, the only conceivable explanation is that I’m evading and sidestepping your comments for “several days.” That leap of logic doesn’t stop you from whining about my lack of “charity” for you. That Jason Brennan has posted one hit-and-run comment and then gone silent for “several days” doesn’t elicit any comparable accusation of evasion or side-stepping on your part. Meanwhile, you insist that claims about self-respect and ill-treatment are too subjective to count as empirical, except, I guess, when they take the form of your own complaints about other people’s treatment of you. Finally, the demands for charity come in a comment in which you describe my blog as a “sandbox,” not quite realizing that the collateral damage of that comment is to insult people associated with the blog but uninvolved in the conversation.

          That’s the level of incoherence that I detected in one point of a six-point comment of yours. The density of your prose–the mass of incoherence per clause of writing–makes responding to you a time-consuming task. I’m afraid you’re going to have to learn to live with the consequences.


  7. As re.: “I wasn’t describing a candidate of that nature, and so far you’ve offered no evidence to show that candidates of that nature are the norm among long-term adjuncts.”

    Actually, Irfan, I have. Or at least I’ve shown that one of the main disqualifying characteristics of the hypothetical I described – the lack of a terminal degree – is in fact the norm. The percentage of adjuncts who possess a PhD consistently hovers somewhere in the neighborhood of only 30% (and additional ABDs are in the single digits). This recurring characteristic has been confirmed over and over and over again in studies of adjuncting by the AAUP, CAW, and even the aggressively pro-adjunct SEIU. We did an internal survey at my own university that confirmed our numbers matched the national trend as well.

    If you believe otherwise and have reason to think that most adjuncts do in fact possess PhDs (or are at least ABD) I’d love to see it, while also noting that it is still at odds with patterns shown elsewhere. Absent that though, it’s probably safe to say that the lack of a terminal degree is the single biggest obstacle that most adjuncts have to getting a more permanent academic job.


    • I have never denied that most long-term adjuncts (or adjuncts as such) tend to lack PhDs. If you can show me exactly where I denied that, I’d be much obliged to you. What I’m denying are your further inferences from this fact, and that the topic you’re raising is the topic I discussed in the original post.

      Meanwhile, that said, I’d like to know the exact source of the data you’re relying on. By “CAW,” I’m assuming that you mean their 2012 Report, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” but if that’s what you mean, please tell me explicitly. For the others, I’d like specific citations. To repeat: I’m not denying that most adjuncts lack PhDs. But I’d still like to know what data we’re discussing.


      • I don’t believe I’ve ever accused you of denying the non-terminal degree status of most adjuncts, Irfan, so I’d appreciate it if you would abstain from assuming or implying that I did, let alone requesting proof of something that I did not allege.

        It is accurate to say though that the lack of terminal degrees among adjuncts is largely absent from your analysis of the subject of adjuncting, even though it is probably the single most pronounced barrier to upward job mobility that the majority of them face. Seeing as (1) I have been pointing this out in my blogging on adjuncts from the outset and (2) you styled your post above as something of a retort to that commentary, along with Jason Brennan’s similar observations, noting this trend would seem to be both topical to your thread and of central importance to the larger issues of the adjuncting phenomenon.

        CAW is the Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey in 2012, which showed a rate of only 30% with PhDs among its respondents. MAs make up 40%, and other categories push the total of non-terminal degrees to well over 50%.

        Identical trends may be found in other similar surveys and studies. This patterns also seems to hold up for at least a decade.

        The American Federation of teachers did a survey in 2010, finding only 26% of respondents had a PhD

        the AAUP analyzed US Dept of Ed data from 2004 and found only 27% of adjuncts hold a PhD

        The Community College Survey of Student Engagement found in 2014 that the trend is even more pronounced in community colleges, where only 11% of adjuncts have a PhD.


    • (A) Magness writes: “I’ve shown that one of the main disqualifying characteristics of the hypothetical I described – the lack of a terminal degree – is in fact the norm…If you believe otherwise and have reason to think that most adjuncts do in fact possess PhDs (or are at least ABD) I’d love to see it, while also noting that it is still at odds with patterns shown elsewhere.”

      (B) Irfan responds: “I have never denied that most long-term adjuncts (or adjuncts as such) tend to lack PhDs. If you can show me exactly where I denied that, I’d be much obliged to you. What I’m denying are your further inferences from this fact, and that the topic you’re raising is the topic I discussed in the original post.”

      (C) Magness responds: “I don’t believe I’ve ever accused you of denying the non-terminal degree status of most adjuncts, Irfan, so I’d appreciate it if you would abstain from assuming or implying that I did, let alone requesting proof of something that I did not allege.”

      I know I’m not trained to interpret texts or anything, but let me see if I can work this out. Magness challenges Irfan to show that most adjuncts have PhDs; Irfan points out that he hasn’t denied that they don’t, challenges Magness to show otherwise, and observes that this isn’t the point in dispute; Magness then defensively complains that Irfan is accusing him of something he didn’t do. But if Magness’ claim in A is not reasonably interpreted as implying that Irfan was claiming that most adjuncts have PhDs, then by the same standard of interpretation Irfan’s claim in B is not reasonably interpreted as accusing Magness of anything. I admit that I initially read A as insinuating that Irfan was making an empirically false claim, though I’d happily concede that it doesn’t quite say so. I also admit that I initially read B as implying that Magness had insinuated that Irfan was making an empirically false claim, though I’d happily concede that it doesn’t quite say so.

      So far so good. The only problem is: why does Magness demand that Irfan interpret his remarks in the spirit of strict literalism that leaves no room for implicit suggestion or indirect insinuation, and yet refuse to interpret Irfan’s remarks in the same way? I could speculate about the explanation for this, but since this blog is just a “sandbox,” I don’t want to get it dirty. Then it wouldn’t be any fun to play in anymore.

      I am, however, grateful for the links to the data, since I’m too lazy to look for them myself. They mostly line up with my experience. But I have no idea how they’re supposed to be relevant to the original blog post, which claimed not that people who can’t get jobs because they don’t have terminal degrees are being treated unfairly, but that there are important jobs to be done in the university for which at least some non-terminal degree-holders might be highly qualified, and that once they’re hired they shouldn’t be poorly compensated, badly treated, and run out of the field. I can see why these issues get conflated with issues of getting hired and/or moving up to higher-rank positions, but they’re really quite distinct issues. I thought the issue was whether, given that we’re going to hire people to do some jobs, we should pay them and treat them in ways that are fair, respectful, and enable them to live comfortably while doing their jobs well. So far the only thing close to an argument against those claims is that things like respect and ill-treatment can’t be quantified, and so are “subjective,” which is pretty much a non-argument as far as I’m concerned.

      So, while I take no position on whether Irfan is a charitable, friendly guy or not, I can’t quite get past the impression that much of what Magness has said here is tangential and tendentious. The fact that this could be so even if most of what he has said is true doesn’t help to dispel the impression.

      Now, back to playing in the sand.


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