Advertising Exploitative Positions

Advertising Exploitative Positions


Derek Bowman, a recent philosophy PhD who is currently employed as a part-time lecturer, writes in with a suggestion for addressing the increasingly prevalent practice of hiring part-time or adjunct faculty to meet teaching needs. I present it here for your consideration and discussion.


In recent years, the philosophy blogosphere has done an admirable job making important information about admissions and about the tenure-track hiring process available to all students and job-seekers, and concern with equal access to information has been a central issue in recent conversations about the future of departmental rankings in philosophy.

But even at their most successful, these efforts do nothing to address an employment system that is guaranteed to leave a large percentage of young philosophers disappointed, frustrated, and financially distressed. At best, they can provide fairness in access to information about how to best navigate an unfair system.  We can never achieve fairness in the philosophy job market as long as we routinely use part-time adjuncts and term-limited ‘visiting’ professors to fill predictable, long-term teaching needs.

But what can we do? Individual departments often have limited control over their instructional budgets, and underemployed ABDs and PhDs rarely have any power to negotiate for better terms.

The first step is for philosophers to make it clear that we do not regard these positions as normal and acceptable forms of professional employment. One concrete step in this direction is for the APA and the PhilPapers Foundation to disallow the posting of ads on PhilJobs for clearly exploitative positions. At a minimum, this should include most non-benefits-conferring, part-time work designed to fill regular teaching needs. But it might also plausibly include those term-limited post-docs and visiting positions that fail to provide time and resources for the professional development necessary to secure future positions.

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Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

Let me be clear from the start in response to this: I believe that a just wage is important, and I do not think that most adjuncts are paid a just wage. Having acknowledged that, some adjuncts do make a just wage, such as adjuncts at Occidental College, where they receive a nice salary and benefits package. As a practical matter, it would be difficult to know which adjunct positions were acceptable and which are intrinsically exploitative (just being an adjunct position will not settle the matter). I’m not sure how easy it would be to access the relevant information (perhaps you do and I’m just ignorant).

Also, faculty are increasingly powerless when it comes to how universities operate (including in decisions about what they teach, how they are evaluated, the terms of their own contracts, etc) and it is unclear how faculty are supposed to exert whatever power they do have to affect an issue such as this. I don’t think university administration cares much about what the APA thinks, and I doubt they even know what PhilJobs is.

You may simply have a problem with “material cooperation” with a system you see as unjust. Or that you would like philosophers to stand in solidarity with adjuncts, even if we acknowledge that the stand is only symbolic.

So, perhaps you could clarify what you mean when you say that philosophers can do something to address this problem? Are you suggesting these measures as effective means of attaining a goal, or is this simply a call for philosophers to publicly take a stand, even if it is largely symbolic?Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

Jennifer,

For what it’s worth, my thought is that this would be, at least initially, a primarily symbolic gesture. But if that symbolic gesture was the first step toward the profession not merely showing solidarity with adjuncts, but actually standing up to the casualisation of academic labor, then I think it can be the first step in leveraging whatever power professional philosophers have (no matter how great or small that may be) in a positive direction.

But if philosophers – even senior philosophers in (apparently) secure positions – really have no power to do anything about this, then it’s time to stop fiddling with rankings or fairness at the front end of graduate admissions and give up on the idea that universities are a friendly home for those who want to pursue philosophical inquiry.Report

anon
anon
7 years ago

Could you supply an example of an ad that you’d object to in this regard? (I can’t imagine it’s the case that all adjunct positions are inherently exploitative, or even all adjunct positions that don’t offer benefits; maybe, though, we just disagree on that part.)Report

grad
grad
Reply to  anon
7 years ago

My guess is that he has in mind the sorts of jobs that get posted more on higheredjobs. You see a lot of departments advertising for single-term positions or even just for pools of temporary workers.Report

B
B
Reply to  anon
7 years ago

This one from the summer seems apt. I don’t know about benefits, but it’s a 5-5 teaching load: http://philjobs.org/job/show/3122

They tend to show up in the spring after the TT and postdoc market is over and people are desperate for something, anything.Report

anon
anon
Reply to  B
7 years ago

That looks like a salaried position, though, just one with a high teaching load. Lecturer positions tend to have benefits, too, at least health care (sometimes retirement doesn’t kick in till second year).Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  anon
7 years ago

I’d rather not name particular institutions at this point, since this is an industry-wide problem and, for the reasons Jennifer Frey gives above, the particular faculty at those institutions may have very little say in their hiring policies. “grad” at 2:26 is right that these jobs show up more frequently on other sites, but they have been increasingly appearing on PhilJobs as well (though not yet in the current hiring season).

In my opinion, any part-time non-benefits-conferring position is prima facie suspect as exploitative. And it’s pretty easily confirmed if you see, e.g. that the department has vastly more part-timers than full-timers, and that many of the part-timers are rehired year after year. That is a department that recognizes its part-timers are sufficiently qualified to teach their students yet refuses to offer full-time wages or benefits.

But ultimately what I think matters much less than what the rest of the profession thinks. Do philosophers really think that most adjunct positions aren’t exploitative? Do they really think these positions represent worthy employment for qualified teachers who have completed graduate training in philosophy?Report

Adam Shriver
Adam Shriver
7 years ago

One thing that could make a big difference is if tenured faculty made more of a concerted effort to help with the unionization efforts of adjuncts.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
Reply to  Adam Shriver
7 years ago

This strikes me as just right. I was once told (I hope it is true) that at Rutgers the grad students are in the same union as the tenured faculty. At my institution this is not the case. I don’t believe the adjuncts have a union. It seems to me, though, that the professor’s unions at all of these schools should be expanded to include all higher education teachers— grad students, adjuncts, the tenured and the tenure-track.

If the new reality is that we have far more teaching than the tenured can perform, and non-tenure faculty (grad students or adjuncts) are needed, then we should realize this as a profession rather than dumping off the extra work on exploited grad students and adjuncts. Collective action through a shared union goes one step of the way towards discharging our shared, professional responsibilities. Maybe that is all that is morally required, since that is quite a bit (for professors to throw their careers behind the demands of grad students and adjuncts would be a big step in the right direction). Ideally, the tenured would also take on some of the extra work of this “new reality”, but I can see resistance to that (I know I wouldn’t want my 2-2 tenured gig to turn into a 3-3).Report

A. NONY
A. NONY
7 years ago

mixed feelings. x-ploit pos are a way in for many who dont get anything else. rack up teaching x-per. hope for a better showing nxt yr. (or is that just the american dream thing?) on the other hand, they can (always do?) turn into dead-ends.
now lets tie-in to the PGR wars (not a hack! all is connected in this business). if as protevi & co would like, we eliminate public information, then jobs go back to being traded in dark back rooms. only those in know (w/ ‘right’ advisor) get TTs and the rest fall back on x-ploit pos. PGR tells u what elite american phil faculty think, their professional prejudices. better plan moves w/ that knowledge. or else the demographics of the x-ploit pos become really regressive.Report

anon adjunct
anon adjunct
7 years ago

It just seems to me that this is a false dilemma. Imagine that adjuncts should get benefits, which therefore raises the costs of their employment. All else equal, it means fewer adjuncts are going to get hired, or their class sizes are going to go up, or their teaching loads are going to increase, or something else that we don’t want. So, is it a good thing that these people get paid little? Well, it depends. On the one hand, it means there’s widespread employment opportunities for philosophers, which might otherwise not exist. On the other, we can hope for more, but where’s it going to come from? [Insert long story about presidents’ salaries, athletics complexes, new dorms, etc., none of which is likely to change any time soon.] I just worry that initiatives like this are more likely to crash the adjunct market than to improve it, thus taking away opportunities for people who need them. Or else get humanities programs consolidated together, again to save the (increased) costs. Sure, maybe the world shouldn’t work this way, but it does. Start making adjuncts more expensive and there are just going to be fewer opportunities; this is one thing I think unions often under-appreciate such that their efforts are actually counterproductive.Report

Avi
Avi
7 years ago

The exploitation of adjuncts, unfortunately, is not a problem limited to Philosophy departments. Addressing that problem cannot be limited to either Philosophy departments or advertising venues. Perhaps the situation won’t change until students (and their parents) become more aware of how little many teachers are paid. (Then, again, with Philosophy and other “low-status” humanities disciplines, this may mean little to students or parents other than to serve as a warning about the foolishness of majoring in such subjects!) That said, the problem could be addressed at the level of faculty senates or other faculty governance units, if enough tenured faculty were willing to vote upon and present recommendations (or tougher instruments) to administrators demanding that adjunct positions be replaced with consolidated non-tenure track, full-time positions. The argument is that there are logistical, branding, and marketing advantages for a university to consolidate adjunct positions in a way that projects an image of “high quality” relative to competing institutions that rely upon contract labour to staff courses.Report

Brian Weatherson
7 years ago

I don’t see why there is so much emphasis here on benefits. Pre Obamacare, it is true that a job without benefits meant paying an extraordinarily large amount on the private insurance market. But that’s not true any more. University provided health insurance may be a little cheaper, and in some cases better, but it’s comparable. It’s easy to imagine that one job without benefits would pay so much more than one with that the first job would leave more left over after buying health insurance. (And would mean greater choice of health insurance.)

In general, the less renumeration someone gets, the more exploitative the position is. But now that health insurance exchanges exist, I don’t see why focussing on whether that renumeration is in cash or in kind really helps. It’s good if the university contributes 10% to a retirement fund. It’s just as good – perhaps better! – if they pay it in cash.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
7 years ago

To be clear, I see lack of benefits as *evidence* that a position is exploitative. For the reasons you give, I’d be just as happy to see adequate cash-only compensation. But at many schools adjuncts are capped at part-time employment *precisely* to ensure that they don’t become benefits-eligible, and that practice has only increased as the Affordable Care Act’s rules for employers have gone into effect.

Perhaps Justin can provide a thread for advertising all the departments that pay their part-timers more per-class than their full-time employees because of the money they’re saving by not offering benefits, but those aren’t the practices at any of the schools I’m familiar with.Report

Brian Weatherson
7 years ago

But it might not even be good evidence. Trader Joe’s recently cut benefits for part timers in part so they would be eligible for Federal subsidies. This will save both the company and the workers money (at some cost to the taxpayer). Walmart is doing the same thing, though it is less plausible they are acting from the goodness of their heart. The ACA really complicates the relationship between benefits and job quality, in all sorts of ways.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Brian Weatherson
7 years ago

Until we have some reason to believe that there are (rather than that there might be) employers of part-time adjuncts who followed the lead of Trader Joe’s and Walmart, we have every reason to believe that the failure to provide benefits is part of a continued pattern of under compensating those workers. That it’s not good evidence in other industries does not mean that it’s not good evidence in higher ed.

But more than that, I hope that most philosophers will think that the fact that Trader Joe’s and Walmart are our point of comparison shows how bad these positions are, even on this optimistic scenario. Would your department be happy to advertise on its website that graduates of your program can expect to be treated at least as well as retail employees in their first academic posts?

But really, if that’s not a good test, pick a better one. Do you really think the kinds of adjunct jobs that are typically offered represent adequate forms of professional employment? Is there anything you – or other senior philosophers – can do to improve the job market, not positionally for particular departments or candidates, but for job candidates overall?Report

Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

Derek, I definitely hear your complaints and I understand your frustration. But I do think that you are overestimating the power of senior philosophers on these sorts of issues. In many universities, Humanities in general are on the defensive, and philosophy is hardly leading the charge in terms of enrollment and other measures that administrators use to test their value. And in many (if not most) universities, the faculty have lost a great deal of power over how the university is run, and they are outnumbered by administrators who make the majority of the decisions you take issue with.
This explains why the faculty themselves are contemplating unionizing at many universities, in order to negotiate better terms for themselves. UIC is a recent and instructive case of how this gets played out.

I doubt very much that most philosophers are happy with the plight of most adjuncts, or happy that their departments make use of this kind of exploited labor. But I also think that any reasonable conversation about what TT faculty might do that has a chance of being effective must take place within the wider context of the cluster of problems that plague higher ed, and the fact that universities are being run like for profit corporations rather than in line with their stated missions. It is against that background that we have to discuss whether this “first step” makes sense.

I am not suggesting that nothing be done. I am suggesting that it’s not at all obvious that this particular proposal would work.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Jennifer Frey
7 years ago

It has been well-said that everybody complains about the weather but nobody does anything about it. I’m just trying to get senior philosophers to complain – loudly, publicly, and often – about the exploitative conditions of academic labor.

But I think you overestimate the power of senior philosophers if you think anything can be done to address the larger issues plaguing humanities education without simultaneously addressing the adjunct issue. Whatever differences senior philosophers may seem between themselves and the underpaid colleagues, those distinctions are largely invisible to students, parents, boards of regents, corporate presidents, and state legislatures. When you prove semester after semester that the job of teaching students can be done for adjunct wages, how secure does that make your job?

More importantly, if the philosophy instructors teaching your general ed classes barely make a living wage, how can they convince anyone that humanities education offers a path to a brighter future, or that what we teach is considered valuable in our society? If tenure-track philosophers can’t avoid exploiting their own colleagues and students, or setting their students up for exploitation by others, how can we maintain that humanities education offers insight into how to live well?

I agree that these are all difficult and intertwined issues. But honestly, I don’t see any evidence that the profession as a whole is doing anything about them. Maybe that’s because they can’t. Or maybe it’s because it’s too easy to start with a list of what it seems like you can do and shrug your shoulders, instead of making a public commitment about what you should do if you can, then collectively searching for ways to do it. Maybe this idea’s a bad one, though I’ve so far I can’t tell that you’ve given any reason to think so (are there any serious downsides, even if it is just a symbolic gesture?). But if there’s any point to trying to preserve academic philosophy, somebody better have a good one.Report

Anonymous Adjunct
Anonymous Adjunct
7 years ago

On the topic of exploitation of adjuncts, some may be interested in a proposed National Adjunct Walkout Day planned for Feb. 25, 2015: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2014/10/06/national-adjunct-walkout-day-plannedReport

Michael Dickson
7 years ago

This is an issue I’ve thought a lot about (forced to by circumstances). I’m a senior philosopher, and I do complain, though not publicly because I don’t estimate the odds of my public complaint having any effect to be very high. I wouldn’t really even know where to complain (publicly and effectively). I complain where I think it might, eventually, make a difference — to those within my institution who could make a difference. And at my institution, some difference has been made, though certainly not enough.

In any case, the issue is very complicated (which does not mean that it should not be addressed), and, as someone said, not at all unique to philosophy — in fact, philosophy is very far from the worst offender. (Language departments tend to be very big offenders. So do biology departments. There are complicated reasons in both cases.)

In my department, we have three kinds of non tenure-track job. Instructors are full-time employees with 4-4 loads (occasionally less), full benefits, opportunity for promotion, and decent (though by no means luxuriant) salaries. Though I’d like to see their salaries be higher, I do not take these jobs to be exploitative. Then we make temporary hires of people to teach 1 or 2 classes (sometimes more) on a semesterly basis. The people who take this work are typically not looking for a full-time job, and they are under no illusions about the nature of the work.

The real problem lies with the third type of job (which is rare for us, but it does happen), a one-year position designed to cover unexpected teaching needs (normally due to an unexpected faculty departure). And the significant problem here lies in hiring people who aspire to a full-time career in philosophy. I believe it is the responsibility of those of us doing the hiring to make it very clear to those people what the nature of the job is, and in particular that it is NOT a stepping-stone to a long-term career. (For a very few it can be, but this fact should, frankly, be simply ignored, and certainly never stated to a candidate.) Failing to be open about this point (or worse, being deceptive about it) *is* exploitative. But that, at least, is a sin that is easy for philosophers to avoid without complaining to anybody. We (well, those of us who do the hiring) just have to be honest and open with those who have applied for the job. Perhaps this sort of honesty happens less than it should.

A couple of other points: (1) the advertisements are often late in the game because the needs are known only very late in the game. It is unfortunate, of course, that the lateness of the ads coincides with the desperation of the candidates, and I’d love to become aware of a creative solution to that problem (apart from the openness that I mentioned above), but it’s a tough nut to crack. (2) Once an adjunct works more than 20 hours per week per week (I might not have the number exactly right but it’s close), they are guaranteed to get at least health insurance benefits. I believe that’s the law nationwide, but in any case it is certainly true at my institution.

Anyway, it’s an important and complicated problem.Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Michael Dickson
7 years ago

Thanks for your reply, Michael. This is exactly the sort of thing I would like to hear more of from senior philosophers.

Two quick general points: First, it’s not just candidates for adjunct positions who mistakenly believe they may be stepping stones to better positions. Some advisors and hiring departments share this illusion, in part because they don’t realize how much worse the tenure-track job market is post-2008. Second, I think philosophy is better positioned than many other disciplines to take a stand on exploitative hiring. Unlike in many of the MLA disciplines, even at prestigious R1s senior philosophers routinely teach introductory gen-ed classes, so there’s no internal need for a two-teir division of instructors within a given department.

Finally, let me offer two possible advantages to making your complaints public:
1. It helps to send the signal widely to potential adjuncts, to their advisors, and to those who would hire them that these positions are not stepping stones to better positions. At best they are stumbling blocks on the way to something better, and more often they are dead ends.

2. It offers you and other faculty the opportunity to commiserate and to compare strategies across institutions. I bet the existence (and predominance) of the full-time, promotable NTT positions in your department did not happen without some effort on your part, or on the part of other concerned faculty. How can other departments, who are forced to rely primarily on NTT positions of your third type, try to replicate your successes in that regard? What forms of support or advice might other departments be able to offer you for making further improvements?

I would love to see you, or someone else in a similar position, post a guest thread here or write a paid article for a venue like the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing such strategies. Departments and department heads that are doing something about these problems need praise and support, and those that aren’t need encouragement and strategies for doing better.Report