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.

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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? 

The Adjunct Summit: An Update and Postponement

With the start (or imminent start) of the academic year, adjuncting is back in the news. Here’s a piece from Hyperallergic. From Toward Freedom. From The New Yorker (going back to May). A CFP and other materials from SEIU Faculty Forward. From Counterpunch. From Bleeding Heart Libertarians.*

Readers may remember the discussion about adjuncting that took place here this past spring, and my floating the idea of an “adjunct summit” at Felician under the auspices of the College’s Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough funding to hold a full-fledged adjunct summit this fall. The $3,000 we get has to cover two other events, namely, our fall symposium–which is on an unrelated topic–and our spring conference. That amount covers expenses for two events, but not three, and those two events were planned before I came up with the idea of the adjunct summit.

But there’s wiggle room here (there has to be, with our budget): what I’m thinking of doing is to have a special session at our spring conference dedicated to the ethics, economics, and politics of adjuncting. The spring conference is to take place at Felician’s Rutherford campus, on Saturday, April 23, 2016. I’ll announce details as I work through them. If that session goes well, perhaps we can hold a full-fledged “adjunct summit” as a follow-up in the fall of 2016. (Here, by the way, is the program for the 2015 FIEPA conference.)

Anyway, stay tuned.


*I can’t resist responding to one of the comments at the BHL discussion. Recall that as per Matt Zwolinski’s request in the April 2015 adjunct debate, I’m not supposed to comment there.

A commenter, apparently agreeing with Jason Brennan’s take on the issue, sarcastically comments: “First world problems.” Actually, the adjunct issue is not just a first world problem. Having spent the summer teaching in the West Bank, and having visited universities in Pakistan, I can say from first-hand experience that universities in the “Third World” face some of the same problems we face, including the problem of compensation for contingent faculty. In one form or another, it’s a worldwide problem.

It’s worth adding that even a first world problem is a fortiori a problem, and a problem is a state of affairs that demands a resolution. It’s not clear to me what meaningful claim is made when a manifestly first world person derides a problem as merely “first world,” except to suggest that real problems only exist in the Third World. Newsflash: they don’t.

Adjuncting: Conversations Worth Having, and Not

BHL Moderator on Jason Brennan and blog policy:

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

Jason Brennan on BHL and blog policy:

There’s no official BHL policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, very bad.

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

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

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

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

Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness: A Request for Disclosure

Considering the number of times Jason Brennan has alluded, in the context of public discussion, to his once having worked at GEICO, I think it’s only fair that he disclose the following for public consumption:

  1. When did he work at GEICO, and at what location?
  2. What was his title while working there?
  3. What was his salary?
  4. Did he work there through a temp agency, or was he hired directly by GEICO itself?

If the GEICO job is important enough to bring up that many times, it’s worth clarifying the details by way of answers to the preceding questions.

A similar query is in order for Phillip Magness, who’s also been very autobiographically assertive on the subject. The article linked-to in the preceding sentence alludes to 1.5 years spent as a full-time adjunct (I’m presuming that “1.5 years” refers to the period 2008-2010, corresponding to the position of Lecturer at American University on his CV), then invites us to do some “arithmetic” about the income he claims to have earned during that period, and how he managed to live on it while being otherwise productive.

That’s fine, but Magness’s CV indicates that he received three grants during roughly the same period (2007, 2009, 2011). I regard the 2007 and 2011 grants as potentially relevant even though they strictly speaking fall outside of the 2008-2010 period. To be blunt, a year and a half of adjunct work cushioned by three grants is not quite as impressive as the impression one might get by reading the unadorned version of Magness’s apologia pro vita sua.

Three questions for Magness, then:

  1. What was the cumulative monetary value of those three grants?
  2. Does his CV exhaustively list all of his income sources for the relevant years (meaning 2007-2011)?
  3. Did he, during those years (2007-2011), live in a household with someone earning an additional income?

All three questions strike me as relevant to evaluating the story Magness tells.

One problem with both sides in the adjunct debate is that the most assertive people in it seem more interested in parading selective recountings of their valor or misfortunes than in documenting their claims in a way that demonstrates the credibility of what they’re saying to neutral or skeptical readers. If people are going to start going autobiographical in the Great Adjunct Debate–whether they’re adjuncts recounting their minimum-wage woes, or academic stars recounting their Horatio Alger stories–I think they owe us fuller disclosures than any of them have been making about the stories they tell us. Brennan and Magness clearly think of themselves as exemplars for the rest of the profession. How about exemplifying some disclosure about those stories you’ve been telling?

Postscript, 11 pm: I’m satisfied with Brennan’s answer, but on second thought, I have to say I’m not just puzzled but mystified by the autobiographical claims Magness has made in his increasingly-famous essay, “The Myth of the Minimum Wage Adjunct.

As someone who spent the last ~1.5 years of grad school as a so-called “full time adjunct,” constituting my only real source of income at the time, I can state first hand that it will not make you wealthy.

So he was an adjunct for 1.5 years, during which time adjuncting was his “only real source of income.” I take it that the word “real” implies that there was some other, secondary source of income. I’m curious what it was.

Later he tells us,

I can also speak to this first hand as it is something I learned to do quickly during my own period as a full-time adjunct ca. 2008-2009. I was not anything close to well off during this period of my career, but with a little basic time management I not only met my teaching obligations but I (1) finished a dissertation, (2) wrote several peer reviewed articles, (3) composed a substantial part of an academic press monograph, and (4) found more permanent employment.

The problem is, his CV lists a Doctoral Research Grant from George Mason University for the year 2009. I can see how the grant might not literally have overlapped with the adjuncting: if he started adjuncting in January 2008, and continued through fall 2008 and then spring 2009, that would be 1.5 years of adjuncting; he could then have gotten the research grant for the latter half of 2009. But I’m speculating. I think we’re entitled to hear the explanation directly from him.

Literal overlap or not, he cannot, on this basis, claim to “speak to this first hand,” where “this” refers to the experience of the average full-time long-term adjunct–which is what the discussion at BHL was about. One and a half years of adjuncting sandwiched between two grants, along with some undisclosed secondary income source, is not long term adjuncting in any sense relevant to the ongoing controversy. And we don’t even know what he did during the summer of 2008, when he was a “so-called ‘full time adjunct’.” According to Magness, adjuncts don’t teach during the summer months (point 5 of his enumerated points), from which it seems to follow that he didn’t. So did he simply go without income during the summer, or is that when the non-real income source kicked in? If so, what was the source? The answer surely has some bearing on the relationship between his personal experiences and the predicament of the long-term adjunct.

Whatever the answers, we’re left with a mystery in Magness’s account that’s worth clearing up. He wants us to believe that he knows what it’s like to be a long-term adjunct, but the story he’s telling is consistent with saying this:

I was a so-called full time adjunct during 2008-9. Of course, I got a grant in 2007, then one in 2009, and I wasn’t an adjunct during the summer of 2008. During the summer, I got a real job–a real job, albeit with an unreal income. Meanwhile, I had established a relationship with the Institute for Humane Studies, which eventually gave me an administrative job as Academic Program Director, a job I cheerfully hold while suggesting all over Twitter that the university’s problems could be solved if only we eliminated all of those useless administrators on the payroll. I realize that very, very, very few long-term adjuncts could get such a job, precisely because it’s sui generis, and I am now the person who holds it. And yet, I won’t hesitate to lecture long-term adjuncts about what bad time managers they are.

Say it ain’t so, Phil.