Friday, April 8, 2016

Replies to Brennan and Magness (Or, Don’t Read This Thing I Shouldn’t Of Wrote) [Updated]

Against my better judgment, I am going to reply to some stuff Brennan & Magness have said in response to discussion of their article here and elsewhere. I probably shouldn’t do this, but whatever. I’m supposed to be grading.

First, at Leiter Reports, Brian Leiter favorably quotes a snippet from a message Brennan sent him:
The philosophy blogosphere has quite a few people, writing anonymously, who write nasty, angry, and dishonest invective against others, but then faint and cry if anyone says anything back to them in response, even if the responses are moderate.
This is dumb. I, personally, advanced several substantive criticisms to the arguments of their paper. I suppose I was indignant, maybe angry, but I don’t think I was dishonest or nasty. (I guess I did say it was horseshit. Maybe that was nasty. But I wasn’t dishonest; it is horseshit.) (Some of the comments were a little nasty. There’s one, in particular, that I kind of regret publishing. My bad.) Just so the record is clear, the criticisms I raised were:

1. Brennan and Magness argue that adjuncts chose to become adjuncts, even under such unfavorable conditions, which means that they prefer adjuncting under these unfavorable conditions to the alternative, which means that it is better for the adjuncts themselves, on the whole, for them to be employed under these unfavorable conditions, in spite of their unfavorableness.

I pointed out that the fact that an adjunct voluntarily took the job is compatible with the fact that she is being exploited, and I think it’s clear that when a person is being exploited it’s not good for her. I specifically recognized the possibility that, if the situation were remedied, the adjunct might loser her job rather than get a raise, and I accept that. In comments, Brennan acknowledged that I was right about this. But, from what I could tell, he did not retract or revise the argument.

2. I also pointed out that people have been making basically this same argument for like a hundred years whenever workers try to obtain better conditions for themselves, and it’s never that great of an argument. When the better conditions are acquired, it’s better. Maybe not for everyone, but on the whole.

3. I also pointed out, as did various others in comments, that their argument that pits adjuncts against disadvantaged students is based on a false choice. We can, and should, improve conditions for both groups.

Elsewhere, Magness responds to some objections to their paper, including some of the things Jaded and I said (boldface in the original, used to identify the claims he is responding to):
“But the adjuncts are being exploited!”
That’s certainly an interesting normative claim. It does not however challenge or alter what was, at its core, a positive argument to demonstrate the existence of tradeoffs in attempting to deliver higher pay to adjuncts as a class.
It may not challenge what they regard as their “core” argument, but it does challenge one of their arguments. I can’t see where they have responded to this challenge. Magness goes on:
Alternatively, I might challenge elements of your exploitation framework. I might argue, for example, that adjuncts tend to be highly educated people who have an abundance of exit options to comfortable and well-paying jobs outside of academia. While this may not necessarily obviate all exploitative characteristics you ascribe to adjuncting, it probably reduces the resonance of their “plight” and the urgency of prioritizing their claimed exploitation over other problems.
This is to make the same old error they seem to always make about exploitation. The fact that a certain adjunct has exit options that she doesn’t take doesn’t mean she’s not being exploited; indeed, to quote Brennan, “indeed, paradigmatically, that’s the case.” (Even when they acknowledge the error, they still seem to make it.) (And if the typical adjunct has an abundance of satisfactory exit-options, that would go some distance to answering their suggestion that it’s no good to eliminate an exploitative job if that job isn’t replaced by a better one.)
Or I might answer that what you describe as “exploitation” is actually a misdiagnosis of a situation in which some adjuncts are making highly unreasonable salary demands relative to the work they perform and the qualifications of they possess.
The fact that some adjuncts make unreasonable salary demands—and I agree that the $15,000 per class demand is pretty excessive—is not evidence that their actual compensation is fair or that they’re not being exploited.
A 4-4 teaching load covering about 30 weeks of the year with minimal or no research and departmental obligations is a far cry from a full-time job, especially compared to the 50 work week 9am-to-5pm norm. It also entails significantly fewer work obligations than the typical junior level full time faculty position.
This is based on a misunderstanding of the conditions adjuncts are exposed to. For one, all of the 4-year universities I am familiar with would regard a 4-4 load as full-time; part-timers max out at 3 courses per semester. For another, part-time pay is significantly less, per credit-hour, than it is at the full-time, non-tenure-track level. I don’t see adjuncts demanding to be paid for work they don’t do; I see them demanding fair pay and better conditions for the work they do.

The people I know who have adjuncted have had experiences similar to anon 4:06. They taught 3-3 loads at two different institutions, for a combined total 6-6 load that, in total, payed substantially less than a 4-4 full-time non-TT position would have at either school. Teaching six courses per semester and dividing one’s time between two schools was a struggle. The 30-week work-year was also a significant hardship, for what I can’t help but feel should be obvious reasons.

I mean, Brennan and Magness themselves point out that if an employer agrees to hire an employee, then the employer has a responsibility to provide a living wage. I don’t disagree. I just can’t understand how this point fits into the rest of their thinking about the issue.

[Edit (4-13-16): I thank this commenter for convincing me that I was wrong to attribute this view to B&M. They consider that idea without endorsing it, and then propose an argument for why it wouldn't apply to the case of adjuncts with an existing employment relationship with the institution. The reason I couldn't understand how that idea fits in with the rest of their thinking is that it doesn't. In my defense, this argument is extremely flimsy and does not come close to showing that the obligation does not exist, or that it wouldn't apply to new hires with no existing relationship with the institution. For example, their argument would not tell against a solution that fazes out adjunct contracts slowly by retaining people in existing adjunct positions until they voluntarily separate, and then hiring new hires to teaching-only full-time non-tenure track positions. I think that's a good idea. It would allow institutions to increase their payroll budgetary allocation slowly, and it would give current adjuncts an opportunity to apply for the new full-time jobs, and it would give the adjuncts who aren't going to make the jump to full-time for whatever reason plenty of time to figure out the next step. What's wrong with that idea?]
Obviously there’s an oversupply of qualified applicants. But it’s much better to respond to that oversupply by creating and filling whatever number of minimally decent, non-exploitative jobs than it is to create a bunch of crummy unstable low-paying subsistence-level dead-end exploitative jobs, even if the the exploitation plan would put a lot more people into some level of academic employment. I suppose it’s possible that I’m wrong, but I honestly find it bizarre that this would be controversial.
“It would take something much higher than the basic living wage that adjuncts desire to induce the job gentrification effects you describe.”
I don’t know who made this argument, and I don’t have an informed, worked-out view about what it would take to induce the job gentrification effects they describe. I think you would need to know something about economics in order to evaluate that claim, and I’m certain I don’t know enough. I would appreciate hearing from someone with actual training in economics who is up on the current thinking about job gentrification.

But anyways, suppose that institutions treated their adjuncts roughly on a par with how they treat their full-time non-tenure-track faculty with regard to various things, including pay per credit-hour, employment stability and contract length, access to facilities (such as an office, a computer, etc), and benefits including options for a retirement plan and health insurance. My untutored opinion is that this would be basically fair and I can’t see why that would have any gentrification-related effects that we don’t see with regard to those same full-time non-tenure-track jobs.

But maybe I’m wrong, and if so I hope someone with the relevant background in economics will set me straight.
“You’re just anti-union, and you don’t want adjuncts to be able to organize.”
I don’t know if he’s talking about me or not. I did make a crack about Steinbeck-era union-busters in my post. But if he’s talking about me, he misunderstood my point. My point was not about unions in particular, but was the more general criticism spelled out in point (2) above. I realize I didn’t express the thought especially clearly.
“Everything you state about the tradeoffs of university budgeting is already obvious.”
Yeah. Everything they said about trade-offs is obvious. What’s not obvious is that the existence of trade-offs represents a reason not to do it. I mean, if the argument is just that the money it would take to treat adjuncts fairly would have to come from somewhere, then that’s obvious and is nothing more than an argument in favor of getting the money from somewhere. If, on the other hand, the argument is that in order to treat adjuncts fairly you’d have to fuck over poor kids, then that’s nothing more than sophistry of the lowest order. Pure horseshit.

I mean, I'm sure Brennan and Magness make money. Is Georgetown fucking over poor students by paying Brennan as well as it does? That money has to come from somewhere. Paying money to Jason Brennan inherently involves tradeoffs. Why not reduce tuition instead?
When I note that there seem to be no immediate pots of gold in the university budget to meet the level of “adjunct justice” you desire, you insist otherwise but do not bother to explain where it may be found.
Yeah, I mean, it’s obviously a lot of money, and that money would obviously need to come from somewhere. It would obviously require the reversal of a bunch of relatively recent trends in higher education dealing with funding and allocation. It would obviously require a substantial increase in funding for, and reinvestment in, higher ed at the state and federal levels. It will obviously be hard to accomplish this.

But so what? Just saying, “oh yeah, where will you get the money?” is not an argument that the employment conditions of adjuncts are fair, or that their working conditions shouldn’t be improved. It just means that, as a practical matter, it is going to be hard for adjuncts and their allies to achieve their goals. As I have said, my view is that the best way for public institutions to source the funds would be funding increases from the government. Of course, you'll need to convince those governments to do it, and a lot of state governments in particular are total dicks when it comes to funding higher ed. But none of this comes close to representing a cogent argument against doing it. (It might represent a cogent argument for the conclusion that it will never happen. But that’s something else.)
“You’re wrong about the tradeoffs favoring stakeholder group X. Here’s a reason why adjuncts have a stronger social justice claim than they do.”
I’m not sure who made this type of argument, if anyone. I haven’t exhaustively kept track of all the responses to B&M, but the responses I’m aware of to the “X vs Y” argument that pits adjuncts against e.g. disadvantaged students claim that it’s a false choice, not that adjuncts have a stronger claim to social justice than disadvantaged students. I’m not aware of anyone who thinks tuition should remain high, or that poor kids should be priced out of their educational opportunities in order to fund raises for adjuncts. It seems that both groups have strong claims, and that justice would be best served by addressing both.

And if disadvantaged students have a stronger justice-based claim to financial relief than adjuncts do, I don’t agree that this supports providing relief to disadvantaged students instead of adjuncts. It still supports providing relief to both groups. By itself, it doesn’t even support helping the disadvantaged students first--maybe we should do both at the same time, even though one is more important. Or, maybe we should still do adjunct justice first. Perhaps adjunct justice would be less costly and simpler to institute than to do whatever you’d need to do make higher education generally affordable for disadvantaged students nationwide (I don’t know what all you’d have to do, but it sounds complicated and expensive), and maybe adjuncts shouldn’t have to wait until that project is complete.

(I also think it would be generally pretty scummy to favor one group at the expense of the other. That is, it would be scummy to make college affordable for low-income students by making college teacher into an unstable, low-paying, shitty job; and it would be scummy to improve conditions for teachers by raising tuition for low-income students. There are a lot of problems in higher education, and addressing them all properly is going to require a lot of work, a lot of changes, and a lot of money. None of which represents a cogent argument in favor of not fixing the problems.)
“Your motives for writing this article are hateful/concealed/ulterior/evil, and you’re inexplicably angry at adjuncts.”
A) I don’t know if their ulterior motive is hateful or evil, but I sure don’t think it’s concealed. When they’re not writing for a journal, they’re pretty openly contemptuous and disdainful of adjuncts. Especially Magness.

B) The discussion of motivation is relevant. It goes to the question of whether the article is a good-faith attempt to grapple with the costs and benefits of adjunct justice, or if it’s a bad-faith, barely-disguised attempt to cause trouble for people who are less successful than them, and for whom they have undisguised disdain. I thought this person put it well.

Just as an example, Magness expresses this contempt for adjuncts in this exact section where he’s responding to this claim disputing the purity of his motives:
But the one thing they don’t do is glaringly obvious: the madjuncts don’t actually do research. They don’t produce meaningful scholarly work and they don’t publish anything of substance in academic venues. Melissa Click has a more robust CV than the activist madjunct archetype, and she writes utterly silly articles about Foucauldian power dialectics in the Twilight series. Or something. The madjunct activists don’t even reach that low level of pseudo-scholarship, be it in their own respective fields or in their claimed knowledge of the adjunct problem. And though they profess to be full time “activists” for a largely counterproductive strain of the adjunct cause, that complete absence of scholarship effectively makes them non-players in the intellectual dialogue about U.S. higher education.
I mean, really. Some adjuncts don’t have any interest in scholarship. Some are interested in it, but don’t have the time or institutional support to produce quality work. Some just don’t have what it takes to be a good researcher. Probably some manage to produce high-quality scholarship, but not of the quality or quantity that they would be capable of in better conditions and with greater levels of support.

But none of that is relevant to the question of whether adjuncts’ compensation and working conditions, in what is fundamentally a teaching job with no research-related duties or expectations, are fair, reasonable, and non-exploitative. So I’m not sure what the point of shitting on adjuncts for being lousy researchers is, when their jobs don’t require it and their institutions don’t expect it and won’t provide the resources necessary to do it well.

(Also, to the best of my knowledge, Melissa Click is not an adjunct; she is the former assistant professor at U. Missouri who was fired earlier this year after she did this. I could be wrong, but I couldn’t find anything that said she had anything to do with adjunct activism. I’m not sure what the point of mentioning her was.)

To conclude: I still think that the arguments advanced by B&M are pure BM*, and it is really too bad that they have gotten any attention at all, including this attention I am giving them right now. Shiiiiiiiiiiit.

--Mr. Zero

*Actually, that’s not true. There’s the part where they say that the employer has a responsibility to provide a living wage for the employees it agrees to employ. They’re right about that. [Edit (4-13-16): Sadly, I was wrong. It is true: they are all pure BM. See previous edit.]

Saturday, April 2, 2016

What do the distinctions and numbers mean in the adjunct piece?

Since the Brennan/Magness adjunct piece keeps getting press, I have one or two more things to say about it.

I grant that the piece has done a good job distinguishing between part-time adjuncts and full-time adjuncts, professional adjuncts and adjuncts who are professionals, and adjuncts who teach at 2 or 4 year, public or private, for-profit or non-profit universities. It also has done a good job of telling us how the 70% contingent/adjunct figure tossed around so casually might actually break down. (As I mention here, I think the piece also implicitly makes a good case for a Solomonic/intersectional approach to adjunct justice.)

Unfortunately, all those teased-apart distinctions then get lumped back together by Brennan and Magness in favor of the implausible assumption that in order to improve the working conditions of adjuncts we must treat all those distinct classes of adjuncts the exact same. This seems an assumption of their calculation of the costs of adjunct justice and also an assumption of the point they make in the section on teaching quality. (FWIW, it seems to me the "adjunct justice" movement focuses on full- or near-full-time professional adjuncts with little to no job security.)

Further, it's a bit eye-popping to see what "adjunct justice" will cost: $15 - 49 billion!

Unfortunately, I don't think that dollar range tells us very much. It seems to me that the calculations elide over all the distinctions that Brennan and Magness want us to make with regard to adjuncts, and also the universities that employ them, since it appears their method is to just take the raw number of total adjuncts and do some multiplication according to various salary proposals (yeah; it's probably slightly more complicated than that, but compare their numbers used with this table).

Further, they then compare the $15 - 49 billion dollar range that elides over all the distinctions mentioned above to the total dollar amount all American universities, excluding for-profits (I don't think they excluded the adjuncts at for-profits in their calculations, though), spend on faculty salary, wages, etc: $100 billion. (Note: It's hard to know where this number comes from. Their citation doesn't actually send you to the proper table in the US Dept. of Education's statistics detailing university budgets; their citation sends you to a table about total number of faculty, rather than this table or, what appears their actual source, this page.)

Now, this doesn't really tell us the actual costs to actual universities until we know the actual distribution of adjuncts (paying attention to distinctions between adjuncts) across the 4,724 Title IV universities, and until we know about those universities' actual budgets, endowments, etc. Who's actually going to feel the crunch and how much will they feel that crunch?

This isn't to say there will be no crunch, just that it'd be interesting to see a more informative breakdown that takes into account the distinctions drawn between types of adjuncts and types of universities.

Finally, Brennan has said that he's interested in this topic because a lot of university professors seem committed to social justice, but sometimes they end up only supporting justice movements that would just so happen to benefit them, e.g., the adjunct justice movement. As I point out in this comment, the appeal to social justice to ask why we wouldn't prefer poor students over adjuncts presumes a Singerian conception of what social justice consists in (doing the most good possible and doing so impartially) that is by no means obvious or shared among people interested in justice. Perhaps, as I mention in my first post, the relevant perspective is workplace/employer-employee justice, rather than the Singerian conception implicitly endorsed by Brennan and Magness (the perspective I emphasize would be more in line with the university-as-business-selling-education-to-customers framing they adopt at the beginning of their paper).

Relatedly, as I also mention in this and this comment, they appeal to the choice/circumstance distinction as a possible reason to prefer helping students over adjuncts. But, aside from it's obvious rhetorical force, it's not clear (1) that this argument amounts to much without looking at actual student demographics, and (related) (2) that the point about the choice/circumstance distinction might apply equally well to students, who also choose their universities from among a range of options.

-- Jaded, PhD