Derek Bowman on Adjuncting: “Why Working for Free Is Bad For Your Students”

I’ve previously mentioned the adjunct session we’re doing at the Felician Institute conference in a few weeks, with Michelle Ciurria and Derek Bowman presenting. Derek Bowman alerts me to the fact that he’s posted a two paragraph precis of his presentation on his website, which I’ve cut and pasted below the fold. I have a complex set of agreements and disagreements with Derek’s way of putting things, but I’ll reserve comment for later, and for now, simply invite comment from others. I’m hoping to invite presenters to the conference to post their papers on the Institute’s website. More on that when I hear back from them.

PS. You might also be interested in this paper of Derek’s on philosophy and practical engagement [PDF] (which happens to mention PoT’s own Michael Young in the acknowledgements). Derek’s paper provides an interesting contrast to this one by Bas Van Der Vossen, forthcoming in Philosophical Psychology.

Why Working for Free is Bad for Your Students (To be Presented at the Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs, April 2016)

In addition to the problems of job insecurity and substandard wages common to part-time and contract employees in other industries, adjunct faculty often face the distinctive challenge of balancing their professional obligations as educators against their own economic and personal needs. It is all too tempting for adjuncts to respond to this tension by investing themselves even more in their teaching. Some adjuncts and activists have responded to this problem by encouraging adjunct faculty to give up on the idea that teaching is a “vocation” and instead to think of it as just a job. While this represents sound practical advice, it makes no room for the genuine passion for inquiry and for teaching that lead so many intelligent and accomplished people into such precarious positions to begin with. For this reason many adjuncts will refuse to heed this advice, and those who follow it may find they can only do so by giving up on an important element of their own sense of self.

I argue that a far better response is to recognize that adjuncts are actually doing a disservice to their students and their disciplines by engaging in “adjunct heroics.” By going above and beyond in spite of the low pay and lack of commitment from their academic employers, adjuncts reward the cost-cutting administrators, department heads, board members, or politicians who drive the reliance on adjuncts, while simultaneously devaluing their own expertise. Every time someone provides students with a high quality education at a fraction of the cost of regular faculty at the same institution, they thereby validate the claim that hiring adjuncts is a more cost-effective way of providing the same level of service. And every time someone stands in front of the class for substandard wages, they are a living demonstration of how little their expertise, and thus their subject matter, is valued. For example, how can a philosopher expect her students to believe in the value of what they’re learning when the very expert teaching them isn’t considered important enough to be paid an adequate wage?

9 thoughts on “Derek Bowman on Adjuncting: “Why Working for Free Is Bad For Your Students”

  1. On the one hand, college tuition has over the past few decades risen to unsustainable levels, with most graduates entering the workforce with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. On the other hand, colleges are desperately trying to cut costs to keep the expenses down, and one way they have been able to do so is to reduce full-time faculty and hire contingent faculty at a fraction of the cost. What gives?

    1. Probably starting with the G.I. Bill after WWII, a notion gained traction that became all but unchallenged: that a 4-year college education is as much a necessity–and therefore a birthright–as a high-school education. We now have a candidate for president who’s pushing for the next logical step, a “free” (i.e., publicly financed) college education for all.

    2. College education is “higher education,” not in the simple sense that it simply builds on prior schooling, but in the sense that it is education for those who are: (a) intellectually capable of higher-order reasoning; and (b) motivated primarily by intellectual curiosity (rather than, for example, the desire for wealth or social pleasures). W.E. B. DuBois referred to such people as “the talented tenth,” but that slice of the population could be as high as 20%. That leaves 80% of the population as poor candidates for such education. Encouraging such people to attend college does more than dilute academic standards.

    3. Most of the ephebes attending college today, then, are neither capable of higher-order intellection nor even desirous of such activity. Thus, in addition to diluted academic standards (to avoid the embarrassment of flunking them all out), inducements must be added to college life to keep them interested and occupied. Thus, a huge percentage of a college’s budget must be devoted to very expensive non-academic goodies such as athletic programs, hotel-like dormitories, a blue-ribbon food service that rivals the food courts of mega-shopping malls, sophisticated medical services, continuous social entertainment, a professional buildings-and-grounds crew, and so on. To manage all these goodies, a vast staff of non-academic personnel, including a raft of vice-presidents, consultants, and other service providers must be paid big bucks.

    4. Thus, higher education has become “big business,” operating on a corporate business model, providing a four-year working holiday (Club [M]Ed) functioning as a transition from youth to adulthood. A corporate business needs a CEO and a Board to make big decisions and establish priorities. One priority is to keep the classroom seats filled. With the mushrooming development of colleges and universities following WWII along with the unchallenged notion that a college education is a necessity for all, many seats now need to be filled. Also, like Big Business, universities “compete” for the “best” administrators as well as the “best” scholars” (who provide prestige, the coin of the academic realm, and prestige’ll cost ya).

    5. The more college graduates cranked out, the more a portion of those graduates that want to continue their academic careers as faculty. But because of ##3 & 4, less of the budget is available for instruction, so contingent instructors become a larger and larger group. They are willing to accept this fate because they were never motivated by the acquisition of wealth but by intellectual curiosity. Like those who choose holy orders, they take a tacit vow of poverty. Unlike monks or nuns or priests, they take no vow of chastity, so they end up with families to support. Thus, they are unhappy.

    6. Thus, adjunct instructors see themselves as “losers,” and this attitude is communicated to their students, and thus the authority of those who are intellectually curious is undermined and they are implicitly mocked as “nerds.”

    The solution to the above situation is to provide alternatives to the present educational system. If 80% of the population has neither the talent for nor the interest in advanced intellectual work, they should be encouraged to look elsewhere to nurture their life’s work. Public-supported community colleges should have greater support, as should vocational institutes, apprenticeship programs, and the like. For the transition of ephebes to adults, a required system of national service would be most beneficial, not just military service but a host of other public service jobs, from infrastructure maintenance to social services to environmental protection and so on. This work, like the military, could have minimal financial compensation at public expense–a good deal for all, since the jobs are vital for the nation’s welfare. A heretical thought: a liberal education is not for everybody.

    I don’t think the plight of adjunct instructors can be meaningfully addressed without addressing these larger issues.


    • I agree with much of what you say here. David Potts and I had a related discussion in a recent exchange in a post on an unrelated topic. David and I were agreeing with Charles Murray (and you) that too many people are going to college, and that we should stop presuming that everyone must get a BA.

      That said, unless high school education is massively improved, there is something problematic about unleashing lots of uneducated people into technical fields and giving them the impression that they need never exercise their minds or learn anything again.

      An example may bring this home: I’m doing a program with the Bloomfield Police Department called the Citizens Police Academy, and each week’s session brings home to me the absolute necessity of a well-educated police force. Street smarts are necessary, but not sufficient for good police work. I see the seeds of future law enforcement problems in the intellectual lassitude of my own criminal justice students: You can’t enforce the law if you can’t read it, or if you lack the judgment to know how to apply it. (I’d like to think that the average police officer not only can, but has an interest in, reading the Justice Department’s report on events in Ferguson.) College could help there, if students had the right attitude toward it. Often they don’t. And what’s true of police work is, I think, true of many other fields.

      (I should also say that I’ve had very positive interactions with Bloomfield police officers and don’t know whether they were college educated or not. I really just mean that good cops–cops with moral sensitivity and practical intelligence in the broadest sense of that term–have a certain recognizable attitude or orientation that comes across in how they deal with people. And my point is that people with that orientation can benefit from college.)

      The one strong disagreement I have concerns your advocacy of compulsory national service. I don’t think compulsion is morally justified or constitutional (I think it violates the Thirteenth Amendment). I also don’t think it would be helpful. Students who merely feel compelled to be in college tend to be worthless students. But young people who were actually compelled to work on a public project would, I think, be worthless workers. I think workers should be encouraged to go where the paying jobs are, and then work for/ask for/demand a fair day’s pay for the fair day’s work they do. Meanwhile, I think the general public should be dissuaded from thinking that anyone’s labor is ever there for the taking, or can be gotten for free.

      A book I’ve found extremely helpful in thinking about all this is John Cross and Edie Goldenberg’s Off Track Profs: Non Tenured Professors in Higher Education (2009). I won’t try to summarize it, but I think they do an excellent job at explaining why adjuncts get hired, why they get paid so little, and what trade-offs might be involved in improving their situation. It’s ironic that a recent paper on the topic of trade-offs is being hailed as though it broke new ground in describing the fact that trade offs have to be made. Cross and Goldenberg made that point seven years ago, and made it better. But in a world where show business values have become ubquitous, and hubris is a way of life, that point is apt to be lost in the cross-chatter.


      • Irfan, I think your April 2 reply to djr has excellent practical advice. Combining adjunct in with temping, exploring non-teaching positions within academia, Foreign Service work, etc. are all viable options for PhDs whose tenure-track ambitions are frustrated. I personally chose private secondary school teaching, then full-time administration (not my bag), then a FT generalist position at Centenary College, which was at the time struggling to redefine itself.
        It’s the System that concerns me, however. While making practical personal decisions within the system we have is necessary, we also need to address the system’s weaknesses.
        A cop’s sense of decency and moral responsibility doesn’t come from having been exposed to the Great Books or courses in moral philosophy, but from living in a humane society and a nurturing culture. Training at the police academy does the rest. Weed out the bad ones. The instructors at the academy will have B.A.s and M.A.s, for they are teachers.
        A 2-year stint of national service required of all high school graduates hardly violates the “involuntary servitude” clause of the 13th Amendment, any more than does the Selective Service Act. The community has supported you through 12 years of “free” schooling, so now you give back to that nurturing community. As with military service, you will be modestly compensated; and you will have choices: social work in Appalachia, Peace Corps, Americorps, infrastructure construction, environmental protection, etc. Opportunities to learn while contributing to the national wealth and health. A couple years to grow up, contribute, think. Then you are better positioned to resume schooling at a higher level. 20% go off to liberal arts colleges; others go to vocational schools; others to apprenticeships and internships, etc.
        Working at a think tank to make such proposals and offer them to politicians is another job opportunity. In general, we need people who have learned to discipline their minds to apply themselves to solving the manifold problems of social life.


        • John–

          Just a very quick response:

          I agree that the systemic issues are what really need addressing. It’s a big topic, so for now I’ll reserve comment. I’m actually at work on a second adjunct-related event at Felician in the fall. Hope to announce it soon.

          On cops: I don’t just mean that they need a sense of decency. I mean that they need to know how to read, write, and think effectively. A huge amount of police work is paperwork. There is a large, observable, practically significant difference between a well-written and an ill-written police report. There’s also the same difference between a literate and a functionally illiterate police officer.

          Ordinary paperwork aside, police officers have to read and comprehend the law–not necessarily at the level of an attorney, but at least at the level of a paralegal. But an enormous number of the budding police officers I teach at Felician (and taught at John Jay) are astounded at the idea that law enforcement requires a knowledge of the law, that a knowledge of the law requires intensive reading, and that enforcement of the law requires a sense of extra-legal judgment that cannot be acquired by a stint at the Police Academy.

          Relatedly, police cadets need to acquire a certain sense of critical distance on the version of “the law” they are taught at the Police Academy. Some fraction of police officers should be able, at least instinctively, to grasp the tension between the “war on drugs” and the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. But the catechism they get at the Academy is all mindlessly pro-war-on-drugs. A sense of history would also be nice. Compare the eagerness with which the average small town police department greets the acquisition of SWAT teams and SWAT equipment with their knowledge of the damage that SWAT teams have done in recent history. Now ask how many police chiefs know anything about what happened at Waco or with MOVE in Philadelphia. Lesson: history matters, if only the history of law enforcement.

          I don’t mean to suggest that a college degree is the only way to get these skills, but it is in principle a good way.

          On national service: national service requires forcing people to labor on projects they wouldn’t otherwise labor on. That’s the essence of forced labor or involuntary servitude. (I’d say the same thing about Selective Service. What makes Selective Service particularly objectionable is that we have it while our leaders brag that “we ended the draft.”) Paying people for their labor doesn’t change the fact that it was forced: Frederick Douglass was paid for his labor, but he remained a slave.

          If “the community” regards itself as underpaid for having supported its young people, it should demand a higher wage in the form of higher taxes. But I don’t see how an underfunded public school in New Jersey can make up for its funding shortfall by (e.g.) having its graduates work for free in Appalachia (or even in New Jersey). I don’t think there are any free-floating debts or obligations here to “the community,” much less debts that require compulsory service in the way of repayment. Where people incur debts, they should learn to pay them to the creditor, not to someone else–or to no one else in particular (“the community”). If our schools are unfunded, we should fund them. If parents are under-appreciated, they deserve more gratitude. If we enjoy a cleaner environment, people should learn to associate that with a big fat budget for the EPA. In all of these cases, the debt can be traced back to a specific creditor, and that’s who should get payment–99% of the time in the form of tax revenue.

          I agree that some people should go to vocational schools, apprenticeships, professional internships, and so on. But the object should be to make themselves self-supporting. National service just seems a distraction from that. What they need to learn, they can learn on the job. Many of them profess to be narrowly focused on getting a job (which is why they complain about general education requirements “unrelated to what I want to do as a career”). They should be held to that professed aspiration. They should in effect be told: “You want to bypass general education and start your career? Then we won’t put obstacles in your way. Go to it. Just learn to pay for the resources you use up. And if you keep demanding low taxes and boutique services from the government, don’t be surprised when the math doesn’t add up and neither thing materializes.” That lesson would go a long, long way.


  2. As someone who is very likely going to be entering the ranks of underpaid adjuncts later this year, my reaction is: yeah, I agree, but what am I supposed to do about it? I am not being offered a higher paying job teaching, but teaching is what I want to do; my only alternatives here are to abandon my teaching career, and that’s something I would very strongly prefer not to do. Furthermore, whatever other jobs I could get probably wouldn’t pay much better, because teaching is what I am trained to do. Yes, I am also trained to do scholarship in ancient Greek literature and philosophy, but that is not a set of skills that will attract a whole lot of employers eager to pay me enough to make up for abandoning the career I want; in virtually any field I will be paid entry level wages even if I can get the job, which is made more difficult by having spent the last sixteen years of my life in academia.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that I or anyone in far more pressing adjunct circumstances than I’m likely to be in soon should be seen as helpless victims. At the end of the day, not everybody gets to do what they want for a living, and most of us are actually incredibly privileged to have been able to do it at all. Even if there is injustice here, it’s sensible to propose that we just walk away from it. But when teaching is what we want to do and the available alternatives are less intrinsically rewarding and not much more financially rewarding, the suggestion that we just walk away is not very satisfying. At best it might seem to give us some sort of feeling of integrity, as though we’re not giving up or abandoning our aspirations for financial security, but refusing to be used and to degrade the profession. That might be better than nothing, but it’s not much of a solution to the problem.

    Then again, if Bowman could offer a satisfactory solution to the problem in two paragraphs, it probably would have been solved already.


    • Well, first of all, I think it sucks that someone as talented as you is having trouble finding a FT TT position. That said, I think your first paragraph is overly pessimistic about the job market for PhDs. I’m putting aside questions of intrinsic reward and just focusing on the pure availability of jobs that pay decently-to-well.

      Long-term adjuncting is certainly a losing proposition, financially speaking. But if you can combine adjuncting with temping, it becomes less of one. And temping opens up the possibilities of going permanent if it comes to that. I adjuncted and temped for nine years at five schools and three firms. Every one of the firms made me offers of permanent employment with good salary/benefit packages. The reason was obvious (they told me as much): an ABD has better reading, writing, and analytic skills than the average bear, even if the ABD spends his days reading or thinking about foundationalism. I know people (often exiles from academia) who make a living just writing or grading items for ETS exams.

      So it really isn’t true that because you’ve been trained to teach X, where X is an arcane academic subject, you’re not a good candidate for hire outside of academia. Nor is it true–as a stereotype holds (not that you’re saying this)–that either you get a FT TT job, or you must live in misery on a minimum wage job, eating cat food and living in a homeless shelter. I’m emphatically not saying that adjuncting is a good gig (or that current conditions are just), but too much of current pro-adjunct discourse focuses on extreme, atypical cases of misery (including avoidable misery), ignoring both the more typical cases as well as the enormous complexity involved. But given what you do say, I question the assumption that a person with your training couldn’t get a good job outside of academia. That’s not been my experience, and not been the experience of people I know. Nor was it the experience of the entire Indian Civil Service, which was staffed for a hundred years by experts in Greco-Roman classics. (Foreign Service Officer Test, anyone?)

      If you stay within academia (but can’t get a TT job and don’t want an adjunct job), there are at least two directions in which to go. One is administration, the other is a staff-level teaching position (as opposed to a faculty teaching position, whether TT or adjunct). Here is the HigherEd job list for admin jobs. What I find demoralizing about it is not the “administrative bloat,” but the way the various categories of jobs are distributed. What is disturbing is not that there are 200 openings in assessment and compliance, but that there are 564 openings in athletics. And I’m curious as hell about the growth field known as “Other Admin,” which is apparently where the action is. (A huge amount of reform has to come at the level of offering proper compensation to staff-level instructors as well as increasing the aggregate funding that goes to this branch of instruction. Incidentally, what I’m calling “staff-level” teaching positions often fall between the cracks on sites like HigherEdJobs, and are more easily located on HR/job listing sites for individual institutions.)

      There are possibilities here for someone who can’t get a TT teaching/research job. My ex-wife’s friend Betsy Barre was trained to be a Rawlsian political philosopher. She taught for awhile in the Philosophy Dept at Marymount Manhattan College. Now she helps run the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice. I don’t know if that’s an “Admin” position or a “Staff” position, but it doesn’t matter: it’s a good position, and there are others like it. (I’m not advising you to engineer a hostile take-over of her job, by the way.) Mike Loux conceived the idea of Primary Ousia when he was an administrator at Notre Dame. Who knew that behind those blank faces at administrative meetings was a mind churning away at Metaphysics Z-H? But stranger things have happened.

      If those seem like extravagant plum jobs, the fact remains that there are dozens of non-faculty/non-admin teaching positions out there, not to mention jobs at all levels in admin. And you don’t have to be “trained” for them. No one “trains” to become a university compliance officer. You just figure the job out and become one if you have to (to give you an idea: I got a job offer once for a job as a regulatory compliance/quality assurance officer for an agricultural research firm…in New Jersey. This comes from a guy who cannot be trusted with indoor plants). I hate admin, but I’d rather have an admin job than leave academia altogether.

      Suppose you leave higher ed and go into K-12 education (whether in the schools or in the educational bureaucracy). A career like this one may be the exception to the rule, but it is possible. And it’s well known that compensation for K-12 teaching tends to be better than compensation for higher ed. Do I want to teach The Catcher in the Rye at the local high school? No. Would I make a better salary doing it? Yes. Do I want to run a school district? No. Would I make a better salary doing it? I’m inclined to think so.

      On this:

      Even if there is injustice here, it’s sensible to propose that we just walk away from it.

      It depends who “we” are. There is injustice here. If adjuncts decide to walk away from it, that’s understandable and unobjectionable. But if those of us in the system should walk away from it, it’s unconscionable (however typical).

      As I see it, the first step is to clear normative space between two unacceptable extremes–the glib (and actually remarkably uninformed) complacency being peddled by the likes of Brennan-Magness, and the pie-in-the-sky table-pounding stance taken by SEIU. There is a reasonable middle ground between the extremes, and people of good will can move toward it and make a real difference. It’s a matter of framing the issues properly, which I why I planned the Felician event in the first place.


      • Well, no doubt it’d be possible for me and others in similar circumstances to get other work. I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking, though, and what I’ve seen hasn’t inspired much confidence. Nor do the salaries seem much higher. The difference, I think, is that adjuncting is likely to lead nowhere, with barely any salary increase, whereas starting out in some other field might not pay much more to begin with, but would likely leave more room for advancement.

        You’re certainly right that the options aren’t limited to minimum-wage jobs and the like, but from my point of view the problem really emerges from the combination of the limited prospects for more gainful employment and the ambition to stay involved in teaching. I’d probably end up teaching high school before I’d opt for an office job.

        Ultimately, though, I don’t want to put too much stress on the personal challenges that I or any other individuals face. The deeper question is not so much, “what am I supposed to do about my problems?” but “what am I supposed to do to alleviate the adjuncting problem?” Perhaps if everyone refused to work for these wages, that’d help; but that won’t happen.


        • There’s very little that people in your position can do to alleviate the adjunct problem. Both the power and the responsibility for resolving the problem lie with people with full time faculty and administrative positions.

          There’s a lot to say, but for now I’ll just leave it at the bare bones: We need to begin by admitting that there’s a problem that needs resolution. We need to get all sides to recognize that the problem has been a long time in coming, and that we’re now in a path dependent situation where it’s not easy to change course. We need to decentralize the problem, i.e., stop thinking that there is one “Adjunct Problem” that requires a single-sized solution (but of course not decentralize to the point where decisions are entirely uncoordinated within one and the same institution). The corollary of decentralization is that once we find the right level of analysis–whether regional or institutional–we need to identify what can be done and develop a strategy for doing it. Some of that will require rethinking and re-organization, but not a whole lot of money. Some of it will require questioning and re-prioritizing budgets at the institutional level. Some of it will require budgeting decisions in state legislatures.

          Once we start moving down the right road, we’ll incrementally come to see how little we know about what’s practically and normatively relevant to making the right decisions: contrary what anyone on either side of the debate is saying, we don’t know what we really need to know. So we’ll need to improve our methods of data collection. Finally, we need to delegitimize those who say “nothing’s wrong, it’s the market at work, we can’t judge the market” as well as those who regard a wage demand of $15,000/course as a legitimate “aspirational” negotiating technique. Creating a real-live political constituency of reasonable people between those extremes and willing to negotiate is not as easy as* it sounds.

          Modest as it is, that’s enough to keep any full-timer’s hands full for quite awhile. Practically speaking, it’s only likely to purchase marginal improvement: a little more respect for adjuncts, slightly better facilities, a slight upward nudge in pay, better treatment generally, better communication. I can’t even promise that; that’s my aspirational goal. It won’t be easy, but under the right conditions, I think it can be delivered.

          I don’t dispute that the higher ed market exhibits a series of structural injustices, in the form of institutionalized misdirections of resources, but as with the reform of government, it’s hard to know where to begin in dealing with them. That said, I think anyone who pays attention to institutional budgeting will be able to find misallocations of resources that, if reversed, could redound to the benefit of adjuncts. Institutional inertia may prevent them from being reversed, but that doesn’t prevent anyone from pointing out that they should be. I think it’s obvious that many institutions spend more money on athletics and on marketing than is necessary for any legitimate purpose. Sometimes the solution is as “simple” as moving a few figures from one side of the Excel spreadsheet to the other.

          There also has to be some recognition of the fact that the market for PhDs is flooded, that only a fraction of those PhDs are going to get FT TT positions, and that some sizable portion of the remainder will have to leave the field defined as “getting a FT TT position in your AOS.” The trick will be to re-define the field a bit. But that will require a lot of people’s redefining their career ambitions, too. If I go through the effort of negotiating a new line with benefits in the Tutoring Center, and offer that job to an adjunct who currently has a low salary and no benefits, the last thing I would want to hear is the complaint that “I didn’t go to grad school to work in a Tutoring Center.” Well. I didn’t “go to grad school” to teach a 5:5 load without tenure, either.

          Another thing I’d say is that I don’t really see it as my basic responsibility to “solve the adjunct problem” as such. My basic responsibility to do right by the adjuncts who work at my institution. Ceteris paribus, faced with a choice between improving job security, salary, and benefits for an existing adjunct versus maximizing the total number of adjunct jobs we offer, I’d unhesitatingly choose the former. The adjunct who’s working for us (or has worked for us and is still needed) has reason for complaint. The one who’s-never-been-hired-by-us does not.

          *Corrected: I had originally written “easier than.”

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: The Future of PoT | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s