There's something a little odd about engaging seriously Brennan and Magness's recent paper on the question of adjuncts. To take just two examples among the many times Brennan and Magness have dealt with this issue outside of their Journal of Business Ethics article, Magness has given satirical "tax tips" for adjuncts based on their most frequent complaints, and Brennan has argued that universities have a responsibility to fire adjuncts whose aggrieved responses to the article show those adjuncts lack basic reading skills.
So, to me, their claim that "[Their Journal of Business Ethics] paper takes no official stance on whether adjuncts are exploited or mistreated" (p. 2) fails to cancel the obvious implicatures of their contributions to the wider conversational context in which the paper was written.
Now, I certainly understand the undercurrent of indignation of their blog posts; Brennan was once turned into a meme (and is currently being memeified too; *sigh*), and Magness was subject to sustained criticisms on Twitter and elsewhere (I think?). It sucks to get attacked, and I guess I can see how it can feel good to call adjuncts cat ladies and make fun of them for being vegan or whatever. As such, I think the protestations by Brennan and Magness that adjuncts are not reacting rationally, but instead are being emotional in response to their paper to be in bad faith. That seems to be exactly what they wanted!
So, that's why I think it's a little odd to engage the paper in the "serious," "rational" way they want. But here we are (and there, Mr. Zero, and other commenters, are too).
First, some preliminaries. The first two are points about the conversation so far. The next two are about the presentation of Brennan and Magness's paper. The last point clarifies the sort of criticism this post is engaging in.
- Just as adjunct activism is not subject to the standards of peer-reviewed research, neither are blogposts or tweets or comments about peer-reviewed research. Different activities have different aims. Sometimes, those aims--in addition to venue of discussion--might justify a certain relaxing of epistemic standards. (There's a rapidly expanding literature on this topic in the philosophy of science.) So, I don't necessarily think the loosey-goosey, intuitive way in which these issues have been heretofore discussed in popular discourse represented a huge epistemic travesty (or attempt to pull the wool over people's eyes) requiring immediate rectification in the Journal of Business Ethics.
- Both Brennan and Magness have complained about the angry and emotional responses they have received. They want rational, not emotional engagement. This assumes it is important to separate these two sorts of engagement when approaching ethical questions and issues of justice. But, from a Care Ethics perspective, it's not obvious to me that "emotional" responses are out of bounds here. Perhaps part of the problem is that Brennan and Magness see the issue purely through an economic lens or abstract, principled social justice lens (nameless adjunct vessels of preference-satisfaction v. nameless student vessels of preference-satisfaction), ignoring the real-life, embodied people--some of whom might be their colleagues!--that these questions concern.
- I'll ignore typos and other errors in the Brennan and Magness paper. Charitably, we're all prone to errors; so some are bound to make it past the page proof stage. Typos, while evidence of some degree of sloppiness, should not detract from what might be otherwise well-argued points. Plus, I'm sure we can find many typos in this post! (For the curious, I've gathered some of the typos in the Brennan and Magness paper below my signature; the third of which seems possibly important, though maybe I'm missing something.) [EDIT, 3/28: Please see Brennan's comment about the "typos" here.]
- Unlike Reviewer #2, I won't be a hardass about the times they raise important questions or point to issues to which they "give no official answer" or "take no official stand" unless I have good reason otherwise. Often the raising of important questions and the refusal to give the outline of an answer are frowned upon by reviewers. (Note also that commenters on Mr. Zero's post have found literature that might be relevant to the paper, but is not cited. I'm not sure if this is true.)
- Helen Longino (1990) distinguishes types of criticisms. Among other things, evidential criticism "questions the degree to which a given hypothesis is supported by the evidence adduced for it...and questions their analysis and reporting" (72). Conceptual criticism, among other things, "questions the relevance of the evidence presented in support of a hypothesis" (72); this might involve "questioning the background beliefs or assumptions in light of which states of affairs become evidence" (73). In many ways, this post will be a form of conceptual, rather than evidential, criticism.
One point that has received sustained attention in this discussion concerns the framing of the adjunct issue in terms of social justice. From the perspective of social justice, Brennan and Magness argue that universities might face more pressing issues, e.g., helping impoverished students get into school with scholarships or by lowering tuition, than improving the working conditions of adjuncts. They say: "It is not clear why universities should focus on helping adjuncts rather than reducing their costs or otherwise helping poor students" (p. 12).
However, it seems to me that the generic perspective of social justice isn't a proper way to frame the issue. Earlier, in the context of making another point, they say:
Universities are not under any obligation to employ as many people as possible, to maximize welfare for people who want academic jobs or to provide aspiring academics with good jobs. Instead, their duties are conditional: If they decide to hire someone, they owe that person a minimally good job, a job that meets certain independent standards of employer–employee justice, whatever those standards might be (p. 10, emphasis added).Here, Brennan and Magness seem to give a reason "why universities should focus on helping adjuncts": The universities have decided to hire adjuncts. Thus, from the point of view of "employer-employee justice" those adjuncts who are in fact employed by universities are owed a minimally good job according to whatever those standards might be. To me, it seems the adjunct justice movement concerns those people who have been hired; it is not about maximizing welfare for those who simply want jobs; it's for those who have jobs.
Moreover, building off the blockquote above, one can run a similar argument for why universities are not under any obligations to help out or maximize opportunities for potential students who might get into their school, but have yet to be admitted. Adopting the university-as-business framing Brennan and Magness endorse (pp. 1 - 2; cf. the first sentence of the blockquote above), those students might be potential customers, and it might be in universities' self-interest to help those potential customers out. But duties to potential customers are also conditional: If they decide to admit students, the owe those students [x]. This might give us one reason to prefer, say, improving the conditions of adjuncts over, e.g., the "[creation of] mentoring programs to ensure first generation college students" (p. 9).**
The case, of course, is different with admitted students--actual customers--and hired adjuncts since the university owes obligations to both. But, staying within the university-as-business framing, businesses clearly owe obligations to make working conditions good for employees/adjuncts (which might also improve student outcomes***), but no clear or straightforward or prima facie moral obligation I'm aware of to lower costs for customers/students who freely choose, aware of the costs, to attend after receiving letters of acceptance (universities might have good prudential reasons to lower costs). It would seem that universities-as-businesses clearly owe obligations to their employees that can trump obligations(?) to, say, lower costs for customers who freely choose to buy their product.
Relatedly, I think this short discussion reveals a tension between the university-as-business framing adopted by Brennan and Magness and their argument that, from the general perspective of social justice, there are more pressing issues than adjunct justice. That might be true from the perspective of social justice. Yet, I thought, "Whether we like it or not, colleges and universities are a business. They sell education to customers" (p. 1). And, further, from this perspective, it seems clear that "If [universities] decide to hire someone, they owe that person a minimally good job, a job that meets certain independent standards of employer–employee justice, whatever those standards might be" (p. 10).
Thus, one might very well think that the perspective of social justice is not the relevant perspective here, especially in the context of the university-as-business framing. The appropriate perspective seems that of "employer-employee justice," which appears to clearly require that employers provide employees some minimally good job.
So, which is it? Are--like it or not--universities businesses? Or, are they institutions of social justice seeking to maximize welfare? Apples or oranges? Brennan and Magness should take a definitive stance on this, since, as I understand it, the adjunct justice argument isn't that adjunct justice is the most just thing that universities can be working towards from the perspective of social justice. Instead, the argument is that it is the most just thing they can do given that they have already taken on certain obligations by hiring adjuncts.
That is, the point of adjunct justice isn't that this is simply a pressing social justice issue, but that it is a pressing workplace justice issue. The argument, then, is that, so long as universities choose to employ adjuncts, they have a responsibility to treat those adjuncts well. But, if this is right, then Brennan and Magness might need to actually take a stance on whether or not adjuncts are exploited or mistreated from the perspective of employer-employee justice. But, of course, they explicitly forgo taking any such stance.
Now, Brennan and Magness can reject the university-as-business framing in favor of a universities-as-social-justice-institution framing. Such institutions wouldn't just sell education to customers, but would seek to maximize welfare. Were universities committed to social justice in addition to selling education to customers, then maybe the Brennan and Magness argument from social justice would hold. But, given that the like-it-or-not-university-as-business framing appears on the first two pages of their article, they appear committed to it.
This is not to say there are not the trade-offs Brennan and Magness point out; there obviously must be trade-offs when obligations to hired adjuncts and admitted students bump up against one another. But, I'd like to see more of an argument detailing how they bump up against one another other than: "Money is scarce" (see this comment in the Zero post). I'd also like to see a discussion of how to balance the trade-offs between obligations to employees and obligations to customers if they adhere to the university-as-business framing.
A few more minor points:
- The paper doesn't touch on all the ways in which adjunct life can be improved that don't (apparently) cost money: Invitations to department functions, a voice on the faculty senate, voting rights in the department, etc.
- Their section on job gentrification also misunderstands the adjunct demands, and seems to me to overestimate the possibility of gentrification. Often (anecdotally), adjuncts have been working in a certain department for years on end (in part because of costs associated with searches). We might think they have earned, then, a prima facie claim--grounded in seniority-- on any converted jobs (or, at the very least, an interview for the improved jobs). If this is right, departments can raise pay, hold job security fixed, and not engage in national or competitive searches. Indeed, why, given the costs associated with searches that Brennan and Magness point out, and perhaps a desire for continuity within teachers in the department, would departments go searching beyond adjuncts they already employ? (There might be institutional factors in place, but changing those doesn't cost money.)
- Their point about adjunct justice and those professionals who are adjuncts on the side assume we must adopt an across-the-board approach to adjunct employment. But certainly we can distinguish the high-powered attorney from the person teaching four sections of composition. In fact, I bet institutions already do that in a way that's reflected in differing pay scales. But, this is just a hunch; I have no evidence on hand.
*For criticisms focusing on the false dilemma Brennan and Magness present to the adjuncts about their rational preferences, see this and this and this and this comment in Mr. Zero's thread. Another reason not mentioned for why adjuncts might stay in their jobs (other than that they are stupid or irrational or can't rank their preferences in the right way): Adjuncts care about the education of their students to whom they might have grown close in the classroom. Or, they care about attracting majors to their discipline to which they have devoted many years of their lives. Many people who, e.g., work in the non-profit sector, often forgo extensive benefits, workplace comfort, and higher pay to work for an institution whose mission they believe in despite being able to make more money elsewhere. That doesn't mean they can't complain or work towards improving their working conditions.
**Honestly, such a program sounds great. It'd also be nice to ensure those first generation college students have professors who are treated well, and that they can count on to be in the classroom semester-to-semester.
***It seems the evidence is equivocal on this point. Anecdotally: I can't answer students when they ask me, a full-time contingent faculty member in a small major, what I'll be teaching next year and when the department will be offering a class in my unique speciality. I also can't tell them if the letter they want two years down the line will mean anything if I'm not affiliated with the department. These sorts of things might very well hurt student outcomes in the long-term.
****Bernard Williams discussed related issues throughout his career.
Typos [EDIT, 3/28: Please see Brennan's comment about the "typos" here.]:
- Missing or misplaced commas in numbers (pp. 6 - 7 and elsewhere, e.g., they seem to have cut and pasted "1578,336" which appears a few times throughout the paper).
- "mewhere" instead of "somewhere" (p. 7)
- They reference a figure that seems to me unrelated to the point they are making. They say, "Imagine, contrary to the US Department of Higher Education numbers, that 76 % of all US faculty really are professional adjuncts teaching eight courses a year for $21,600. If so, that makes it even more expensive to give them all minimally good jobs (Fig. 1)" (p. 6). When one looks at Fig.1, it is about the ratio of students to full-time faculty rather than about the expenses of giving hypothetical full-time adjuncts a minimally good job. Note that later in the paper, Brennan and Magness discuss the unchanging ratio of students to full-time faculty without a reference to the figure (p. 12).
- "In contrast, poor students have done nothing imprudent; they just have the misfortune of being born to poor wealthy [?] parents" (p. 9; emphasis added).
- Missing closed parentheses (p. 11).