Phillip W. Magness

Historian – 19th century United States

An actual reader, but an underwhelming one

A couple of people have sent me links to something called the “Philosophy Smoker,” which blogged a response to our adjunct article. I’ll give them the credit that they at least read the article before commenting on it, which is no small accomplishment given the scholarly mean of the madjunct world.

That said, I found the line of argument they took to be very confused in the sense that its author struggles to separate his/her own deeply normative and ideological priors about “exploitation” and adjuncting from the author’s efforts to engage our arguments. Whenever we even slightly deviate from those ideological priors, the author treats it as evidence that we are “wrong” or, worse, acting with malice. These biases actually cause him/her to miss the main argument of the piece. Thus when we make a very plain and straightforward recognition of the reality that “adjunct justice” will result in some, perhaps many, current adjuncts losing their jobs due to the fiscal tradeoffs and labor market economics involved, he fails to even engage that argument beyond reading into it a malicious assumption about our motives in even raising the point of the tradeoffs at all.

The main thrust of the response also dwells upon an assertion that our observations about the fiscal tradeoff are “obvious,” which I openly concede them to be. Yet the author’s next step makes a very odd turn by suggesting that since they are “obvious,” they must also offer no value to the adjuncting debate. He/she attaches to this an imputation of a failing on our part to take a position on a “solution” to the obvious tradeoffs, though the tone of the piece betrays that its author would also only accept a “solution” that confirms his/her aforementioned ideological priors on how adjuncts should be funded. The problem with all of this, of course, is that our diagnosis of the “obvious” tradeoffs involved is in fact being aggressively disputed by a flurry of adjunct activists who do not find them “obvious” at all and openly deny the empirical reality of the existence of opportunity cost.

This leaves the “Philosophy Smoker’s” response in the very strange position of purporting to accept an argument that the madjuncts predicate their position upon adamantly denying. At the same time the pseudonymous author also affirms the validity of the madjunct position in spite of having accepted an argument contradicting a core belief behind that same position, all of which seems to be driven by an overarching ideological prior that the madjuncts are in the “right,” that they are being “exploited,” and anything that could be critically said about their cause is therefore in bad faith, or being “mean” to them or something.

Sorry, but that’s an exceedingly weak and non-salient basis for criticism, most of which amounts to personal bluster from deeply normative prior assumptions.


Another anonymous author on the same blog has weighed in with a secondary line of criticism in which he calls attention to “employer-employee justice” as a pertinent consideration that modifies the comparative ethical obligations to current adjuncts vis-a-vis prospective students. Such considerations would presumably extend not only to adjunct job-seekers, but current adjunct job-holders.

This criticism largely misses the mark because it makes a number of unsubstantiated assumptions about the adjunct market that stray toward a confusion of what that market ought to be with what it actually entails. The pertinent question seems to be a matter of time horizon, as the author hints that his ethical support for prescriptive relief hinges upon the “currently employed” status of qualifying adjuncts.

I’d simply note that adjuncts are employed at-will on term contracts. They know this going in to the job, and usually even sign a contract or letter of appointment that explicitly states as much. That contract usually contains no guarantee of a recurring reappointment in future terms, though in practice universities often do so for well-performing adjuncts as a courtesy. It still remains though that the university’s employment obligation to them begins and ends at the dates specified in those contracts, which usually correspond to the start and finish of a semester. Any assessment of “employer-employee justice” that concerns itself with what is owed to adjuncts under the current terms of the adjuncting arrangement should accordingly start with the existing mutually agreed-upon terms. After all, it would be unfair to oblige a university to meet terms of employment that it never offered in the first place and that were only appended post hoc, and unilaterally so, by one of the parties to the employer-employee relationship.

Now within the existing arrangement, I would fully agree that universities have certain obligations to adjuncts for the duration of their contracts. It is also likely that some of these obligations are not being met in some places. For example, adjuncts are owed a timely paycheck for work performed under their contract. A case could also be made that they are owed office space (which may include shared space) and classroom support by their departments. It may involve a means of, or support for, something like parking on campus during teaching hours. And it almost certainly involves access to general university services such as libraries, printing centers, email servers, website listings etc. I suspect that some of the grievances along these lines are overstated from time to time, but I have no reason to doubt that they exist in some places and would consider them a failing of employer-employee justice. They are also, fortunately, failings that are comparatively inexpensive to rectify and uncontroversial to address.

It seems unlikely though that these are the only things our author envisions as being a part of “employer-employee justice,” given a number of comments intimating something more is owed including obligations that extend the time horizon beyond the contracted term. In his mind this likely includes a presumption that contract renewal, which again is extended as a courtesy beyond the clearly specified and agreed upon term appointment, is in fact an obligation of “justice.” It might also include an assumption of “seniority” or a prioritization of current adjunct applicants when hiring for a full time position. And perhaps these conditions ought to be the case from a perspective of justice, but here again we’ve arrived at an argument premised on “oughts” that our writer seems to take as an obvious given.

Except they aren’t all that obvious. Let’s consider the implications of an adjunct arrangement with a longer term time horizon built in to its terms. There is certainly a case to be made that we “ought” to be doing so, and for the moment I’ll take no position on whether that case is strong. Instead I’ll simply note that the “ought” of its presumed extension is not at all obvious. There may be upsides but there may also be underexamined downsides, and they too should be considered before we impute this proposition with a presumption of its “justice.”

One likely upside is stability and teaching consistency for the university combined with stability for the adjunct’s future employment expectations. These are no small matters and they may commend modifications to the current practice of term contracts that include a presumption of renewal, barring poor performance, misconduct etc. One likely downside that must be considered is the institutionalization of a seniority system within the adjunct ranks. Our writer actually seems to think that a seniority-based claim to adjuncting work is ethically warranted. I’m much more skeptical, and would note that seniority systems also create entry barriers to the adjunct market that explicitly penalize younger faculty such as PhD students and recent PhD grads through no fault of their own, and simply as a product of the year in which they were born. Many PhD students and new PhD grads do adjunct work to obtain a paycheck while finishing a dissertation or going on the job market. Adjunct work also provides them with teaching experience, which hiring committees often desire from new applicants and which might be one of the margins that helps them to get a full time job. If adjunct hiring is bound to defer to a seniority system in which “length of service” trumps applicant qualifications and ability, the adjunct hiring process itself may well begin to privilege less-qualified “career adjuncts” with weaker credentials simply because they’ve been around the longest. Plausible scenarios then emerge where an unproductive and underperforming adjunct with an MFA from 1993 is nonetheless given preferential hiring over a newly minted PhD with a promising, published research agenda simply because the former has been adjuncting for longer. As the adjunct market itself is currently somewhat saturated (or at least adjuncts routinely complain of being underemployed and unable to find enough classes tot teach), a built-in seniority assumption actually has the potential to be grossly distortive and grossly unjust to younger applicants through no fault of their own. So there you have it – there are indeed legitimate reasons of justice to abstain from taking a commonly asserted “ought” about employer-employee hiring obligations as a given.

So where does this leave us? For starters, it adds a number of complications that need to be considered and hashed out before we extend our preferences and desires, our “oughts,” about the employer-employee justice of adjuncting beyond the existing time horizon of a contracted term (and note there still may be perfectly good reasons for extending that horizon – we just can’t take them as a given, as some would have us do). In that case, it is also unclear that ethical obligations to an adjunct under the existing and constrained time horizon (generally one semester or term) exceed ethical obligations to students on a longer time horizon (generally four years), or even prospective students who are considering making a commitment to attend a university that will similarly entail a four year time horizon.

In other words, we might readily admit that prospective students enter a university through free choice, fully aware of the costs, and with full expectations of the four year time horizon involved. And yet we might still find that our ethical obligations to those prospective students take priority over certain claimed longer-term obligations to adjuncts who also sign a one semester employment contract, fully aware of the pay, and with full disclosure that it only extends for the present term, beyond which any further employment is an at-will performance-based courtesy.

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