Saturday, March 26, 2016

On Brennan and Magness on Adjuncts, Again

[For Mr. Zero's post on the topic, see here. My (Jaded's) criticisms begin below the numbered list of preliminaries.]

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.
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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.]
  4. 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.) 
  5. 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.
Okay. On to the criticisms (non-exhaustive; see below and the comment thread on Zero's post*).

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.

Thus, in adhering to the university-as-business framing, the appeal to social justice appears disingenuous. It's an argument that is decidedly not unique to the adjunct issue, but can even be marshaled against poor students who choose to buy education from universities (see this comment, here). It's the argumentative version of the nuclear option designed to blow up any argument in favor of doing something that does not maximize overall utility (or to piss off adjuncts who have criticized you in fair and unfair ways).**** [EDIT, 3/28: For more on why I don't think the appeal to social justice settles the case in favor of students, see here.]

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.

--Jaded, PhD

*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). 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

On Brennan and Magness on Adjuncts

Via Inside Higher Ed, we learn that Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness have an article in Journal of Business Ethics about how any plan to treat adjuncts fairly "faces unpleasant constraints and trade-offs. ...At most, universities can provide justice for a minority of adjuncts at the expense of the majority, as well as at the expense of poor students. Universities may indeed be exploiting adjuncts, but they cannot rectify this mistake without significant moral costs."

A couple of things stood out to me as I read the IHE article and the paper itself. One was how weird it is that people are still making these arguments. For a second I thought I was reading an article by the union-busters from In Dubious Battle instead of a serious piece of academic scholarship.

I mean, it is obvious that it would cost a lot of money to convert each adjunct position to a non-exploitative job with fair compensation. That's obvious. That's the whole point of relying on adjunct- and other non-tenure-track instructors. And it's just as obvious that budgetary constraints play an important role in this. The funds that would be used to give your adjuncts a hefty raise would have to be acquired or re-allocated. But as real as this budgetary situation is, at a certain level it is contingent. It is not the necessary state of things. It is a contingent fact that is the product of decisions made by human beings, and there are things that human beings could do that would largely reverse it.

For one, states could restore public funding for higher education to pre-recession levels (though I realize this by itself would not be sufficient). Or, institutions of higher learning could divert money from unprofitable athletic programs to their academic counterparts (though this wouldn't be sufficient, either). Or, we could fire some mid-level administrators and get faculty more involved with this administrative work. Of course, this is just a very sketchy, hand-wavy, incomplete, and inadequate set of suggestions. Finding the money to institute what Brennan and Magness call "adjunct justice" is a hard problem, and there's no single thing that would work. But this is all totally obvious. It's totally obvious that instituting adjunct justice will be expensive. It's totally obvious that it is not clear where the money would come from. It's totally obvious that doing so in an environment in which resources are limited will require hard decisions and unpleasant trade-offs. It's totally obvious that instituting adjunct justice is a costly, difficult, and complicated task. That's why it's so disappointing to see Brennan and Magness limiting themselves to stating these totally obvious things.

Their contribution to this discussion would have been much more interesting and worthwhile if they had gone beyond the obvious point that the promotion of adjunct justice represents a series of difficult and expensive problems, and had instead done the hard work of proposing and working out the details of potential solutions to these admittedly and obviously difficult problems. Or done at least a little of it. Or gestured toward vague suggestions. Or anything.

Here's the kind of thing I mean. They write:
To pay for such a massive increase in wages and benefits, colleges must either raise additional revenue or reallocate their revenue from elsewhere. We take no position as to whether this might entail raising tuition fees, requesting additional public support, fundraising from private sources, cutting other university functions, or some combination. We only note that each of these options has many obstacles as well as a number of potential downsides for the parties they involve.  (p. 8)
This is just, like, a total cop-out. Of course you would need more money to pay adjuncts more money. Of course that money would have to have a source. What's the point even mentioning it if you're not going to make a suggestion about what that source could be, how we might access it, or even take a stand on whether we should?

(One might wonder whether their reluctance/refusal to take a stand on the issues of whether there is anything wrong with the way adjuncts are being treated, and whether anything should be done about it, and if so what, is a craven attempt to conceal the fact that they don't think there is anything wrong with it and don't think anything should be done. After all, one might suspect that if they did think there was something wrong with it they'd be willing to say so, and they might also be interested in trying to figure out what to do.)

Additionally, Brennan and Magness devote space to blaming adjuncts for their own exploitation:
Adjuncts might have unjust or unfair working conditions, but, nevertheless, they choose these working conditions over their other available alternatives. They prefer being adjuncts, with all the attendant awfulness, over being unemployed, getting training elsewhere, teaching high school, working in private industry, or whatnot. (p. 9)
Here Brennan and Magness point out that adjuncts have chosen to work in these unfavorable conditions, which means, as rational agents, they must prefer doing so to the alternatives that are available to them.
Beleaguered adjuncts have greater responsibility for their own condition than poor students who cannot afford college or who must take on massive debt to attend college. If an adjunct has a master's degree or a PhD, the adjunct is probably quite intelligent and thus most likely could have chosen to invest his or her skills in a more lucrative field with better chances of success. ...In contrast, poor students have done nothing imprudent... (p. 9)
Here Brennan and Magness use the language of responsibility and imprudence to characterize adjuncts' relationship with their situation.

Brennan also has a snarky (public) FB status about this issue:
Brennan and Magness: "We're assuming adjuncts are rational. If so, then adjuncting is their best option, and taking away that option harms them by delivering them a less preferred option." 
Adjuncts: "Don't say it's our best option! That's mean to us." 
Brennan and Magness: "You realize that the only way to deny that conclusion is to hold that adjuncts are stupid, irrational, or misinformed, right?"  (March 18 at 3:45pm)
Brennan and Magness seem not to understand exploitation. One of the most interesting things about exploitation is that it can be rational for a person to voluntarily agree to the exploitative arrangement. That's why it's exploitation instead of just really bad negotiating or whatever. The fact that the adjunct agreed to serve as an adjunct is compatible with the facts that the arrangement is exploitative and that she is being exploited and that the exploitation is morally wrong.

Here's one way to get a person to voluntarily agree to an unfairly exploitative employment arrangement. Get an application from a job candidate who has a strong desire to be employed in a certain industry, but who has a very weak negotiating position. Maybe that's because non-exploitative entry-level jobs are scarce, and competition even for the exploitative jobs is intense. Then, exploit this weak negotiating position in order to force the person to accept employment on very unfavorable terms. Maybe whisper sweet nothings like, "this is how you get your foot in the door," and "if something opens up, you'll be first in line," and "if you publish, you'll be able to get something better," and "persistence pays off," and "this is just how it is now, and if we were forced to pay people like you a fair wage then we might have to fire you, which would destroy your career, which you have worked very hard for."

If she didn't have any better offers, I think it would make perfect sense for that candidate to take that job in that situation--even if the job was exploitative and even if she knew it. But that doesn't mean that she's to blame for her own exploitation, or that she has done anything imprudent or wrong. Indeed, the fact that, given the background situation, taking the job was the rational and prudent thing to do is exactly what her employer has exploited in order to get her to accept the exploitative job.

I find this whole thing very disappointing. I think this is an extremely important topic, and I agree that it is important to be clear about what the costs of adjunct justice would be, and how difficult it will be to find sources of funding to pay them. These are hard problems and it will be hard to solve them. But it would be nice successful, influential scholars like Brennan and Magness would use their position of success and influence to help do this hard work, and help end this system of exploitation.

Instead, they choose to publish this kind of disingenuously counter-productive horseshit, in which they feign neutrality while they highlight a bunch of obstacles that stand in the way of treating adjuncts fairly, make no proposals as to how these obstacles might be overcome, highlight only downsides of those proposals they do mention, suggest that adjuncts can find justice only at the expense of economically disadvantaged students (pp. 8 - 9), and refuse to affirm or even acknowledge that the way adjuncts are treated is wrong. The net effect of this is the suggestion that the obstacles are insurmountable, which in turn suggests that the problem is insurmountable, but, they suggest, it doesn't really matter because the adjuncts are responsible for their own predicament and their predicament might not even be wrong or bad.

I just don't get this. Why would someone want to spend his time this way?

--Mr. Zero