The Philosophy of Adjuncting: A Syllabus (Guest Post by Kevin Temple)

The Philosophy of Adjuncting: A Syllabus (Guest Post by Kevin Temple)


The following is a guest post* by Kevin Temple, a PhD candidate in philosophy at The New School for Social Research. It appears here courtesy of Adjunct Commuter Weekly, where it was first published. Adjunct Commuter Weekly is the first magazine to address the lifestyle needs and shared interests of a rapidly growing and increasingly influential demographic. Edited and published by Dushko Petrovich—who commutes from Brooklyn to teach at Yale, RISD, and Boston University—the inaugural issue of Adjunct Commuter Weekly was created entirely by current and former adjunct commuters. It features news, opinion, interviews, features, fashion shoot, photo essays, games, syllabi, poetry, fiction, personal memoirs and advertisements for products of interest to the adjunct commuter.


THE PHILOSOPHY OF ADJUNCTING
– SYLLABUS –

Instructor: Kevin Temple

Office hours: By text message

COURSE DESCRIPTION

There is no such thing as the Philosophy of Adjuncting; but rest assured, this course is authentic, for I am being deliriously underpaid to teach it. As the “instructor of record,” I have made the syllabus distinctly my own because that tiny gasp of freedom is to tenure what adjunct pay is to an actual salary. What have I put on it? Nothing of use. It is self-defeating, for that is what a philosophy of adjuncting must be.

I. THE STRUCTURAL PROBLEM

Week 1: Marx on alienation

My adjunct friend says, “The irony of adjuncting is being alienated labor while teaching future alienated laborers about Alienated Labor.” Read the Alienated Labor section of Marx’s “Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts.” Alienation happens in a bunch of ways; for example, when instead of doing something great on your own terms, an arbitrarily powerful person forces you to do it his way. He ruins what you do by breaking it down into a series of distinct tasks, automating whatever can be automated, measuring how long each remaining task takes, and then paying you as little as possible per task. That’s how administrators created adjuncting. It’s almost like they’ve read Marx.

Week 2: Adorno saw it coming

We discuss the “culture industry.” Universities as a whole have what Adorno called a “culture monopoly.” As such, he says, “They cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power if their sphere of activity in mass society … is not to undergo a series of purges.” Well, guess what? The purges happened anyway. This is why we commute.

II. THE PERSONAL PROBLEM

Week 3: Aristotle’s psychology

In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses akrasia (weakness of the will) as a problem of poorly developed virtues. But, he says, if you want to know why people suffer from akrasia, look to their socio-political circumstances. They are products of their social condition. Does this also explain the weakness of the adjunct’s will, whose reason tells her to quit and yet she does not? What is there in the social milieu of an adjunct that propagates this weakness? Anyway, don’t blame the victim (me).

Week 4: Augustine converts

How do we overcome weakness of the will? The big moment comes in Confessions, Bk. VIII. Here we study the structure and mechanism of conversion that allows Augustine to finally embrace Christianity. Like an adjunct, Augustine is wracked with despair, knowing fully that he must leave behind his self-destructive way of life but being unable to break the habit. Only after witnessing an acquaintance convert (for us, quit adjuncting) through a moment of self-transcendence does he find the guts to leave his old ways behind. Only, for Augustine, it was wanton Manichean sex he had to quit. You’d think it would be easier for adjuncts. Why is it not?

III. THE COSMIC PROBLEM

Week 5: Schelling gets evil

In Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, evil is the force that undermines and disrupts the system of all existence. And yet, it is the same power of disruption that gives rise to and constitutes the system that strives to know itself in the first place. The tension between disruption and creation is life. Does the necessity of evil mean that the destructive corporate administration of universities cannot be overcome? Is the inhumanity of traipsing from one campus to the next to teach unorthodox theodicies for less money than we can make begging an ineluctable thread in the fabric of existence?

Week 6: Nietzsche and the university as tragedy

Or perhaps it is better to see the administrators as the power of imposed order. Then we adjuncts can play the destabilizing force. Nietzsche pits Apollonian, orderly structure against the Dionysian music of disruption in his Birth of Tragedy. In the perfect work of art—the Attic tragedy—these two forces are combined. Today, the university is the tragedy, and the students are the Greeks who witness the sublime coincidence of the semblance of rational order and its shattering by barbaric desires. In that case, we adjuncts have to play our part. We must stoke the titanic ecstasy of our students to resist administrative order and redeem the world! But the pay still sucks.

IV. SOLUTIONS

Week 7: Plato’s fever pitch

What makes a just university? We follow Socrates in Plato’s Republic as he tracks the birth of a simple city with a basic division of labor and no luxury. We watch as it becomes the feverish city, dripping in luxury and requiring constant military protection. Modern universities are like the ancient polis. The feverish city is like a university overrun by corporate administrators. They must be brought under control of the philosopher-guardians. The only way to do this, Socrates argues, is if we adjuncts take away the administrators’ children at birth and raise them ourselves.

Week 8: Galileo’s gift o’ gab

Forget about the Copernican system. Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems models the rhetorical genius we now need. In the dialogue, Simplicio (an authority on the Catholic reading of Aristotle) cannot grasp the idea that the earth goes around the sun. Salviati patiently but relentlessly presents empirical evidence and well-reasoned argument to show that it does. Is convincing university administrators to make more tenure stream hires (or at least pay adjuncts a living wage) not exactly like convincing a seventeenth-century Catholic authority that the earth goes around the sun? Galileo’s Dialogue is the playbook. All we need is patience and an Italian villa.

Week 9: Fanon by analogy

Adjuncts do not suffer anything like colonial violence, but is there not a structural analogy between the Wretched of the Earth and the wretched of the university? Are neo-liberal administrators not colonizing higher education? This helps explain the paucity of help adjuncts receive from tenured faculty. For the tenured professor is like the urban proletariat of a colonized country: they are anti-colonial but do not rise up because they have everything to lose. The adjuncts, in this analogy, are not the proletariat, but rather the country peasants with everything to gain. We rural masses are naturally rebellious and prepared for insurrection. The power of the adjunct lies in her independence from the neo-liberal ideology. She is ready to act.

Week 10: Arendt on living the active life

What does it mean to act? Arendt launches The Human Condition by distinguishing the contemplative life that aims at eternal thoughts from the active life of striving to achieve immortality through one’s deeds. Is this why adjuncts are so screwed? Did we choose the vita contemplativa because we did not want to act in the world, subsuming all our action under in our eternal thoughts? Maybe it’s time to reverse the subsumption. Even an adjunct can live forever.

Weeks 11-15:

For the last five weeks of the course, class will not meet. Instead, students are required to spend, for each week, eight hours travelling between home and various college campuses. You must write the term paper during these hours while loitering in fast-food chains and uncomfortable public spaces. Bonus points if you can figure out how to connect to the various on- and off-campus wireless networks you encounter. Please email me your grade if/when you do.

blackboard skyline

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Jean
Jean
5 years ago

This is brilliant!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

The lack of action by we, the tenured, to help adjuncts is shocking. As good as we are at being righteously outraged about unfairness and exploitation, somehow our own privilege gets little attention.Report

Commentator
Commentator
5 years ago

It is absolutely reprehensible the way adjunct faculty are treated in the USA. There needs to be strikes and walkouts. Then the university can see what their professors are really worth.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

I agree that there need to be strikes and walkouts. The status quo is such that administrators do not care if they do not have to care.

There is obviously no guarantee of strikes and walkouts being effective (particularly the latter as I’m not sure admins would really be concerned about one day of class being canceled), but they are probably the best course of action for adjuncts themselves. If the tenured do not engage politically, then the adjuncts have none other than themselves to speak for them and their only audible voice is that of the strike.

Perhaps a small example we can look to is the TA strike at Oregon. It is my very primitive understanding that the graduate students went on strike in order to attain paid sick/parental leave and, while their demands were not met absolutely, I seem to remember there being some significant progress made. Is there perhaps something to be taken away from this example for adjuncts?

On a less serious note, the syllabus is (painfully) hilarious.Report

Derek Michaud
Derek Michaud
5 years ago

The silence of full-time faculty on the struggles of adjuncts is an outrage.Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
Reply to  Derek Michaud
5 years ago

I agree, but there are full-time faculty who do fight and defend adjuncts. Having been an adjunct for 12 years, then a full professor, I took stands but to little avail. The administration’s needs and monetary considerations always seemed to outweigh fairness. To cite the unfairness: when I was an adjunct in 1987 at two schools, I was paid $2100 and $1970 a course; at the school where I was a full-time professor the adjuncts in 2010 were paid about $1550 a course. Did I fight that? Yes.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

Just a quick word on strikes or walkouts. It’s a great idea if it can be done, but in many if not most situations, even where there is union representation, walking out is grounds for termination. Since we feed our families and pay our rents with those meager dollars, we can’t afford to lose any of our positions. Asking an adjunct to walk off the job is sometimes tantamount to asking him or her to fall on a sword.

There are alternatives, though. During the National Adjunct Walkout Day last year, many of us wore red to make ourselves visible, and incorporated information about the status of contingent academic labour into our teaching. This latter was for me very effective; most of my students had no inkling of what the situation looks like.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
5 years ago

I thought about that after I posted, Will. A key disanalogy in the TA/adjunct strike scenarios is what is at stake for the respective parties. The grad students may be ostracized in an already abysmal job market (though I would hope most people on hiring committees these days would have enough sense not to do so) but the adjuncts could be fired on the spot – AND possibly ostracized in the job market.

I suppose it boils down to strength in numbers: the administration can’t fire and replace all the adjuncts if they all walk out.Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

This thread may not be where we should start this discussion, but I’m genuinely curious how much some of you think is an appropriate salary is for a person to teach a one-off university course (and usually a lower-level course).Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

Chris,

I think it depends on a lot of factors, e.g. cost of living in the area and the amount of tuition brought in by the course. But I think the immorality of using adjuncts on a massive scale depends on a lot more than just how much they’re paid for an individual course, though that does play a role.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

How about this for a start: the same (pro-rated) as anyone else qualified to teach that class. (Though recent grad is right that pay-rate is not the only issue).Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

Also, why is it relevant that it’s a lower-level course?

Lower-level courses can be much harder to teach well, since you have to teach students not only the content of the course, but the basic methods and presuppositions of philosophy, and at least something of the rationale behind those. And of course lower-level courses often have larger enrollment and so are likely to involve more time grading, meeting with students, and/or responding to student emails. Also, lower-level courses can be much more important because they’re many students’ first (and sometimes only) exposure to philosophy. So was your implications that qualified instructors should be paid more for lower-level courses?Report

Chris Surprenant
Chris Surprenant
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

On average, lower-level courses require (or should require) significantly less work because of the reduced course prep needed. They may or may not be more difficult to execute (or execute well) for the reasons that you suggest, but that would just be an additional reason to pay people who are better at it more money than someone who just meets whatever the minimal qualifications are.

I think there are a lot of strong moral arguments for why the current situation is problematic, but none of those arguments relate to the per course salary that adjuncts receive. It is not at all obvious to me that adjuncts are underpaid given what they are being asked to do. But the non-salary issues (how non-permanent faculty are treated by their colleagues and university administrators, why it may be a bad thing that we have the academic equivalent of mercenaries teaching courses, etc.) strike me as being far more important to the overall health of the university. If folks focused on these issues, you’d have a lot more tenured faculty members and administrators willing to take part in this discussion publicly.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

“On average, lower-level courses require (or should require) significantly less work because of the reduced course prep needed. ”

This is based on the assumption that the primary determinant of prep time is how difficult the material is for an instructor who is an expert in her field. But teaching an intro class well means preparing to teach things in ways that make them accessible to those who haven’t already been trained to read and engage with philosophy. Peruse some of the suggestions in this recent thread to see how time consuming prep for intro classes with unprepared or unmotivated students can be. http://dailynous.com/2015/10/28/why-students-arent-reading-ought-experiment/

But certainly if you think that adjunct wages are adequate for the work they’re doing, I hope you will encourage your employer to adjust your compensation accordingly, to make sure you’re not being overpaid for the part of your job that involves teaching intro classes. But whatever you’re getting, as a fraction of your wages, for teaching an intro class is a pretty fair amount for an adjunct who’s genuinely qualified to teach that class and do a good job. And if they’re not – if the ‘minimal qualification’ for adjunct work doesn’t equate to having the skills needed to effectively teach your students, then you’re setting the bar too low.

But if you really agree that “there are a lot of strong moral arguments for why the current situation is problematic,” I don’t understand why *you* were the one emphasizing per-class pay. That certainly wasn’t the primary focus of Kevin Temple’s rather wide-ranging satirical piece.Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

These comments could not be more well stated. If we start rating pay on how much time it takes to prep, then after a couple years of teaching the same course the pay should drop precipitously, right? I mean, maybe you modify an exam or two, choose a new book, but… The “level of the course argument” is a red herring.Report

Richard
Richard
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

Your language telegraphs your conclusions: “significantly less work”; tenured faculty “who are better at it”; adjuncts as those “who just meets whatever the minimal qualifications are”; “the academic equivalent of mercenaries”. Translation — minimally qualified workers supplanting actually qualified workers in a cutthroat industry. Every man or woman for him or herself in academia. Let God assist the weak and non-tenured, everyone else scrambles to hoard the most marbles.Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
Reply to  Chris Surprenant
5 years ago

How about a formula? If the lowest paid full-timer teaches three classes a semester and makes, say $35,000, then that means 6 classes a year: about 6,000 a course. But let’s deduct committee work, department meetings (oh my, how much to deduct for these wastes of time???): say 40% of the salary, or 14,000. Now we have $21,000 for 6 classes, thus $3, 500 or so per class. How about that?? OK, what’s the difference between an adjunct with a PhD and a tenure tracker with a PhD? One got hired, the other didn’t. So factor in a bit of a reduction and I’d say $3,000 per class is minimum, and a bargain for the college and administration given no benefits to pay. Geez, forgot to factor in about $20,000 a year in benefits, didn’t I?Report

Doc F Emeritus
Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

Having been an adjunct for 12 years at three schools before getting a visiting professorship and then full time status at a fifth school, I applaud the syllabus, its comments and solutions. Times have changed since I was an adjunct from 1975-87. No one questioned administrations then, but I was fortunate enough to be an adjunct at two schools which treated me as a human being, even (eventually) provided benefits, and had deans or chairs who complimented my teaching. The praise and recognition went a long way to create respect for these schools. After that, when I was a full-timer and eventually professor, I saw the administration at my college downgrade adjuncts, fail to provide either benefits or praise, and essentially treat them as disposable labor. I tried to effect change, but even as AAUP president on campus, could not budge the school to increase pay, benefits or other considerations. The capitalist model won out — “flexibility” was the key word for keeping adjuncts. This merely meant, “we can fire them when we want, therefore they can’t demand anything from us. And this saves us from hiring them as full-time with good pay and benefits.” More power to adjuncts today who can organize and fight the system. Marx would be proud!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Doc F Emeritus
5 years ago

Absolutely, though it is not enough for adjuncts alone to organize and fight the system. The tenured class must stand up for what is right and take action. We can’t leave the fight to the most vulnerable.Report

Richard
Richard
5 years ago

I’ve been an adjunct on and off since 2000 in Florida. The language here is very optimistic: fighting the system; the tenured class standing up for what is right; more power to adjuncts.

Words, words, words. I’m paid less now per class than I was in 2000. The class I taught in the year 2000 for $2,000 is worth $2,700 now but I still make $2,000. The purchasing power has dropped by almost a third. No organized movement to restore that purchasing power, nothing beyond the occasional Facebook page and the random string of statements on websites such as this one.

The conversation is worth pursuing but nothing has happened over the last 15 years of talking, talking, talking so I imagine nothing will happen over the next decade and a half. Who is going to jeopardize their own hard-to-get job for adjuncts who have no real standing in the academic community?Report