Social Justice

Either/Or (Vel aut Aut?)

Thesis: If the Adjunct Warriors I’ve been criticizing could get over their bad faith, they’d recognize that on my account, their choosing to stay and fight has a *higher* moral status than it does on their account.

I think the adjunct problem is philosophically interesting, because it’s more normatively complex than, say, the sweatshop issue.

One major trend I’ve seen among responses to my argument is that people treat two compatible options as if they were mutually exclusive. They’ve been pushing hard on saying its either A or B, but not both, when in every case it could be both A and B.

For instance, I’ve heard that there are two options:

  1. The system is corrupt and should not offer adjuncts such a bad deal. More money should be dedicated to teaching and less to administrative tasks. The tenure system should be reformed.
  2.  Most professional adjuncts living in poverty are victims of their own bad choices.

But as I’ve been saying all along, 1 and 2 are compatible. Both can be true at the same time. And there are compelling grounds to hold both are indeed true. With regard to 2:  Most professional adjuncts have high opportunity for exit, and most either did or should have known what the risks were. So, their situation is quite literally chosen–in the most rigorous  and agentful sense of “voluntarily”, they voluntarily chose to stay what they are calling an unfair and bad job rather than take what by their lights should be a better and more fair job. Calling themselves victims is bad faith.

Another false dichotomy:

  1. You (Brennan) can support the adjunct movement and help them reform the system.
  2. You (Brennan) can criticize adjuncts for their culpably bad choices.

Again, 1 and 2 are not mutually exclusive. I can and have done both.

One question I’ve been asked is why I’m not supportive of people who choose to stay, organize, and use their collective bargaining power to reform the system. This question is loaded and rests on a bunch of false assumptions. I don’t have a problem with adjuncts using their collective bargaining power to reform the system. Inevitably, this will mean that most professional adjuncts will get their least preferred outcome, but frankly that’s no skin off my back. Indeed, I’d rather have permanent non-TT teaching faculty around rather than a bunch of adjuncts.  My pointing out that the adjunct movement is anti-adjunct doesn’t imply that I’m anti-adjunct movement.

All I’m asking, though, is for the people who choose to stay and fight to stop portraying themselves as “victims”. To extend the analogy: If some customers at Bob’s Steak and Poopburgers decide enough is enough, that they will organize a sit in until Bob stops serving poopburgers and only serves steakburgers, more power to them. It’s just bad faith for them to complain about being forced to eat poopburgers, because they could instead leave and eat tasty pizza at Orso.

Frankly, I’m surprised the people I’m arguing with here don’t agree.  I see them as having bad faith and refusing to admit their agency. They see themselves as victims, and see me as victim-blaming. But, if my account is correct, instead of portraying themselves as victims, they could portray themselves as heroes who engage in supererogatory fights for justice. “Sure, we could easily quit and work for GEICO, but we choose to fight the good fight!” So, my account actually lets them portray themselves as higher status rather than lower status. A thoughtful social justice warrior working for adjuncts’ rights would recognize that my account is in that way more flattering than the standard account. When, say, Will Wilkinson (who is a TA, not an adjunct) chooses to stay and fight, he’s not like a mouse defending his last bit of cheese from the rats, but more like Luke trying to infiltrate the Death Star to take down the Empire.

Blogger Kevin Carson has been portraying this argument as a right versus left thing. In the end, that’s not correct. It’s not that Kevin is more left-wing than I am. It’s that I’m better at being left-wing than he is.

  • j r

    Frankly, I’m surprised the people I’m arguing with here don’t agree.

    I have a hard time believing this statement. To get Hansonian for a moment, this debate is as much about status maximizing among competing groups as it is about finding a sensible, working solution to the problem of too few academics chasing too few jobs.

    If you really cared more about the latter conversation than the former, it would be easy enough to crouch your arguments in ways that make them more palatable to people coming to this issue from the left. I’m not saying that you ought to do that, only that it would be relatively simple.

    At some point I have to wonder if you aren’t purposefully making yourself into this libertarian caricature for the primary purpose of playing the heel to the leftist, anti-adjunct crowd.

    • Jason Brennan

      Fair enough. I will revise the original post and tone it down.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        A procedural question: does BHL have a policy on revising original posts? Is it considered legitimate here to revise the content of an original post?

        This is the only blog I’ve encountered where the following is considered permissible: the author writes the post a certain way; people comment on it that way; then the author decides that the commenters had a point, and re-writes the post so that the criticisms no longer apply. The comments are then left responding to claims that no longer exist.

        The whole thing just strikes me as an Orwellian subversion of the point of a blog–or of philosophical discourse as such. No one thinks that if you submit a conference paper and get comments that rebut the paper as written (even in part), you can present a re-written version of the paper at the conference that make the comments irrelevant. No one thinks–or few people think–that if you submit a Discussion Note to a journal and it’s rebutted, you can re-write the Note so that the rebuttals no longer apply. You might as well let Meletus and Anytus re-write the Apology so that things work out for their PR advantage.

        Somehow, none of the usual norms seem to apply here. On the one hand, we get these blathering sermons from the Big Names about the demands and obligations of professionalism. On the other hand, in practice, we get all-out assaults on what any sane person would regard as a fundamental norm of procedure in the profession. We’re somehow supposed to take the discrepancy with a straight face. I mean, everyone here is an Arizona PhD, so everything they do must be kosher.

        So is BHL the place where the usual norms are suspended, and the Big Name Professionals get to let off steam in an unprofessional environment? Or is it supposed to be the paradigm of professionalism that its bloggers are always claiming to represent? It seems to me that Someone In Charge needs to clarify which option BHL wants to take, unless it wants to become the discursive successor to the Leiter Report. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

        • Jason Brennan

          Irfan, I don’t accept your views of what blogs are supposed to do. I don’t think there’s any obligation that once you press “submit,” one must keep the blog as is for ever. I think anyone can revise anything as they see fit. I revise things because I change my mind, or I notice a misprint, or I realize there’s a better way to communicate what I’m trying to communicate. I don’t know if there is such a thing as “usual norms,” but if there is, I reject them and don’t feel guilty about it.

          The conference analog is inapt, because it puts the respondent on the spot. She goes second and looks weird because she’s responding to a paper that never existed.

          Instead, I see it as this: If I write a comment on your blog that causes you to revise your blog, you thereby signal your respect for my comment.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            The conference analogy is perfectly apt because the commenters here are analogous to conference respondents, and their comments are rendered useless by ex post facto changes to the original post.

            I appreciate your candor, though. In fact, I’d like to see it made explicit here so that people know what they’re getting into when they comment. In other words, any post at BHL is a moving target. What you comment on at t1 could change at t2 so that your comments are rendered irrelevant, unintelligible, or just plain false. As for the signal of respect for the comment, that can be accomplished by writing a new post rather than revising the original one. That way, other readers can see exactly what the commenter got right and give credit where it’s due.

            Anyway, put that explicitly, I think the message should be clear: Don’t comment at BHL. The norms by which they operate involve such reflexive disrespect for commenters that commenting there is the discursive equivalent of eating at Poopburgers. In short, if you don’t want to eat shit, you shouldn’t comment.

          • Jason Brennan

            There’s no official BHL policy.

          • If the message you, Irfan, are getting is “don’t comment at BHL,” please feel free to abide by it.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            For the record, what’s your position on Brennan’s approach to blogging as described above? Do you regard it as acceptable?

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Just a bit of inducement: if you really do regard Brennan’s approach to blogging as acceptable, I really won’t come back, I promise. But you need to be explicit about your agreement with him, and you need to leave the claims of agreement up for at least a few days before you decide to delete it or whatever. At a minimum, I’m entitled to a screen shot as a souvenir of the wonderful times I’ve had here at BHL, conversing with some of the most wonderful philosophers in the profession–maximal exemplars of discursive virtue, all of you. I’ll really miss you guys. I’ve learned so much from dealing with you.

          • I don’t see anything wrong with revising a post in response to feedback. Quite the contrary. If a commenter points out that you’ve made a factual or logical error or a post, or that your rhetoric is unduly harsh, and you believe that the point has merit, then you *ought* to revise your post accordingly.

            I do, however, think that it’s good policy to publicly indicate when you have done this. The usual method I’ve seen others use for doing so is to add a “UPDATE” note to the end of the post, describing the nature of the change.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Just to be clear, given Brennan’s formulation (or at least given the formulation as it now appears), “revising” includes deleting whole threads without announcement, revising without an “update” note, and revising in response to objections that successfully rebut your original claims, simply so as to render the objections irrelevant or false, and simply so as to make the commenter look stupid while preserving the blogger’s illusion of infallibility. In other words: on his view, there is nothing wrong with revising a post so that the comments responding to the original post are now left responding to a non-existent post, and nothing wrong with leaving readers in the dark as to what’s happened. It’s all fair game in the Brennan Universe.

            All of the preceding is what “I think anyone can revise anything as they see fit” actually entails, and all of it describes Jason Brennan’s actual practices here. “Anyone,” “anything” and “as they see fit” leaves a lot of room for a lot of horseshit, and I’m glad to see that you, Matt, have managed to sign on to every last bit of it. Recall that my question was whether you approve of Brennan’s approach to blogging. I’m going to infer from what you’ve said in answer to that question that you do approve. I am taking “I don’t see anything wrong” as a failure to see anything wrong with the anyone/anything/as they see fit formulation of Brennan’s I just quoted. In other words, you’ve just publicly signed the blankest of blank checks imaginable. But hey, it’s your account, not mine.

            I can’t stop you from revising what you’ve just said, but I think it’d be a service to BHL’s readers if you just left the whole exchange as it is. They should infer, as I have, that on your view, the obligation to announce an “update” when you revise a post is merely supererogatory, and that you see nothing wrong with, e.g., going back to a post a year (or two or three) after it was put up, and secretly changing it so that none of the objections made to the original version any longer apply. Nothing in Brennan’s formulation (or his “usual” practice) commits him to announcing an update or to any form of transparency. And read carefully, nothing in your formulation does, either. You may find all that furtive, unannounced revising permissible, but I regard it as incompatible with honest discussion.

            Anyway, thanks for your most recent response. You’ve proven to me that it’s not worth commenting here: dishonest discussion isn’t discussion worth having. So as per my promise, I won’t comment again after this one.

          • How you leap from “I…think it is a good idea to publicly indicate when you have [revised a post]” to the conclusion that I approve of secretly deleting threads “simply so as to make the commenter look stupid while preserving the
            blogger’s illusion of infallibility” is beyond me. Read what I actually said. That’s what I actually meant. I didn’t say I approve of everything Jason has done. And I don’t. I think that revising a post in light of commenter feedback can sometimes be appropriate, but that it ought to be done in a transparent way. That’s my position.

            But please, don’t let that stop you from going away.

          • Sean II

            “If I write a comment on your blog that causes you to revise your blog, you thereby signal your respect for my comment.”

            Oh, so it was an act of respect when you “revised” two whole threads out of existence, after the first great adjunct debate.

            Why didn’t I see it before?

          • Jason Brennan

            No, that was in response to all the harassment I got for it.

          • Sean II

            I read every post in those threads, and probably wrote about a quarter of them.

            No one harassed you.

            But even if they had, so what? There was some good content in that discussion, for and against your position. To delete all of it was quite unnecessary.

          • Jason Brennan

            I was getting a ton of hate email.

          • Sean II

            Okay, but that argues for e-mail filtering, not blog thread deletion.

            I’m pretty sure none of that hate mail was coming from, say, Jameson Graber. He agreed with you. And yet his comments were vaporized along with everyone else’s.

        • Steven Horwitz

          Wow, I just got a free PhD in Philosophy from Arizona! Lucky me. And Skwire. And Levy. And Chartier. And Shapiro. And Munger. And…. ah, never mind.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Gee Steve, whatever are you talking about?

            See, I just deleted the relevant text from my post as per Brennan’s rules. Do you see the problem now?

  • zic

    So you gonna explain to your landlord and health insurer that you can’t make this month’s payments because you’re being a hero? How’s that work?

    • Jason Brennan

      Watch the Dark Knight Rises!

      But, yes, this “heroism” depends in part on whether they’re meeting their other obligations and on what costs they impose on others.

      • Jason Brennan

        N1, are you guys pushing for a kind of zero-sum egalitarianism, in which what happens is that most of the TT faculty just end up getting much lower pay so that a few of you can get a bit more? I hope not, because I’ll be tenured at the end of this academic year. That comes with a salary bump, and I don’t want your movement to prevent me from buying myself a BMW 335 for my birthday.

        As for where the salary comes from, it’s whatever the standard mix of endowment vs salary funding is. However, before *you* get high and mighty, good news: Georgetown’s business school doesn’t have any professional adjuncts–the few adjuncts we use are business professionals with salaries from elsewhere who want to teach, and we pay them handsomely. Instead, we have a model in which we have both teaching and research faculty. The teaching faculty get paid less, but still get paid much more than the TT faculty in the college of arts and sciences. They have full benefits and have long-term contracts. Many of them have been with us for 20 years. The research faculty are TT and get paid more, but they have an up or out risk. Also, the business school turns a profit, which is distributed to subsidize the other schools.

        So, in my special case, no, I’m not enjoying my high salary as as form of “wage theft”. (That said, my recommendation to you people is to stop using Marxist terms. As you should know, Marxism is bogus pseudo economics. You should instead switch to analyzing this stuff with actual social science. The term you’re looking for is “rent”.)

        • niav

          Interesting. When I read “wage theft” I automatically thought of taxes.

          There’s no such thing as zero-sum egalitarianism. As history shows, any attempt to produce egalitarianism is (strongly) negatively sum-gamed, and it doesn’t produce egalitarianism in the end, but a mass of very poor people who are very unequal, politically and economically, to their leaders.

        • Jason Brennan

          Lots of stuff here, but here’s a question: Why assume that adjuncts who work 40 hours a week should get paid what my FT colleagues and I get paid to work 40 hours a week? Do you think it’s unjust for, say, economist professors to make more money than English professors?

        • Jason Brennan

          Also, I’m not sure how you think compensation goes, but I am not given specific money for prep, in-class time, or assessment. Rather, I get paid a flat salary. Aside from required time in the classroom and the occasional meeting, how I spend my time is up to me. In the end, I get assessed on output, not on hours worked.

  • Charles J Gervasi

    This topic is difficult to understand outside the world of academia. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like education is bureaucratic and expensive, in a world that favors moving fast and breaking things. Education is ripe for disruption.

  • Jennifer Baker

    Thanks, really interesting, trying to keep up. Why would adjuncts care about how to think of themselves in a negotiation? Wouldn’t that shift strategically, and be as complex as our self-identities are? Negotiating with an employer is just normal every day business, isn’t it? And I thought you were saying adjuncts who negotiate for more pay are hurting other adjuncts who really “want” the job as it is, paying as little as it does– anyway– am I missing how you address that here? I thought by your logic, these adjuncts negotiating for better pay are harming other adjuncts? Really trying to understand. It looks like you won’t be pushing the idea that adjuncts are losers in a game and that they just need to admit it, that is, if you are OK with them negotiating together? Have you changed your mind on that? I’m so curious about what people think is communicated by pay (you are not worth more?, etc.), and so if anyone has any answers I’d appreciate it.

  • stevenjohnson2

    I still believe the OP’s premise that adjuncts really have so many alternatives is extremely dubious. It’s not as if any further evidence has been presented. Left to rely on my own general knowledge, biotech really does offer wide opportunities to those who might otherwise be adjuncts. And as a result there doesn’t appear to be very many adjuncts in that field. The presumption that adjuncts have widespread alternatives is essential to the OP’s argument, which therefore fails.

    It is not immediately obvious that acting against the culpability of adjuncts isn’t acting for the perpetuation of the system as is. The logical possibility that the two positions can both be true is irrelevant to the choice of action, where the question is which is the most causal. In context, i think the implicit assumption has always been that the primary problem is the culpability of adjuncts, and the flaws of the system need not even be discussed. Really, the remedy prescribed is that fewer students take higher degrees. I suppose the logic, if any, is that the TT faculty can handle the smaller teaching load if that happens?

    • Jason Brennan

      Yes, there are two big presumptions in my argument:
      1. It would be easy for a person considering grad school, doing due diligence, to learn that the chances of getting a TT-job are low, and that to get one one must publish a lot in the best journals, go to the best grad schools, and/or know the right people.
      2. The opportunity for exit is very high.

      Either claim might be false, but I doubt they are.

  • Benjamin

    It’s interesting to see a blog with the heading “Free Markets & Social Justice” mocking “social justice warriors.”

    (Perhaps that line will get edited, making this comment mysterious. Or maybe Brennan will do the thing where he just deletes the whole post again.)

    • Jason Brennan

      I don’t see why people who care about social justice wouldn’t make fun of social justice warriors.

  • Benjamin

    Also, Brennan acts as if “you have the ability to leave” just obviously entails “you are in no way a victim.”

    This move is left unexplained, and it’s transparently false. If I get an apartment in Town A, knowing that I could afford one in Town B, I am not thereby unable to be a victim of my landlord’s bizarre demands or failures to follow through with his end of the agreement. Especially if there is realistically no other option in Town A specifically because he’s been given an effective monopoly on apartments in Town A. I know what I’m getting into by moving to Town A, and I could easily move to Town B, but I am still a victim of my landlord.

    • Kevin_Carson

      Whenever you’re forced to accept a lower utility because your choices have been artificially constrained by state power, then you are a victim.

      • Jason Brennan

        You can still be blameworthy for choosing to become a victim. If the government puts a minefield test site on a clearly marked, fenced in beach, it lowers your utility, because you can’t surf there anymore. So you’re a victim in the Kevin_Carson sense. But if you then ignore the clear signs, climb over the fence, and get your leg blown off, you’re a fool. I can say that even though I genuinely believe governments ought not have minefield testing sites at all.

    • Jason Brennan

      Benjamin, you’re changing the situation. The adjuncts have easy exit options, and you’re giving me a case with high cost and hard exist options.

  • I know very little about the position of adjuncts within academia, so I will refrain from commenting on that. However I was interested in the idea of “working at GEICO” as an alternative, especially since I’m a GEICO customer and recently dealt with an accident claim (I filed against the other driver’s insurance company and they accepted liability). So I thought I’d check out the GEICO career site.

    Right now GEICO is advertising 362 open positions. About 20% of these are “auto damage trainee/auto damage adjuster trainee” positions and another 20% are “management development program” positions; they are the two largest categories. The former require only a high school diploma (though bachelors degree is preferred) and have starting salaries in the $35-40K range, with increases into the $40-50K range after a year or so once trained. The latter typically require a bachelors degree with 3.0 GPA and some business courses (although you can also take these after hiring on, with tuition reimbursed); starting salaries seem to be in the $45-50K range. Some quick googling indicates a typical adjunct makes $20-30K a year, so working at GEICO would indeed be significantly more lucrative.

    However I can sympathize with the desire of adjuncts to do something they like doing even if it doesn’t pay that much, and to try to negotiate individually or collectively for better pay. I was lucky enough to find a career that I both enjoy and that pays well; I’m not sure what choice I would have made if I had to pick one or the other.

  • Geoff

    Why is it important to you to establish that adjuncts are not victims? I haven’t encountered that self-conception among adjunct activists. People feel that they are underpaid for the work that they do, that they are treated unfairly in various respects, that they are not given enough autonomy, and that they have no job security. They can leave, of course, everybody knows that, or they can try to improve their working conditions. None of this requires, nor in my experience tends to involve, an attitude of victimization.

    It’s true that adjunct activists appeal to the wide disparity between the “haves” (ie TT faculty) and the “have nots” as part of their argument that their conditions should be improved. Is this what you think constitutes “portraying themselves as victims”?

    • Jason Brennan

      The CHE articles I linked to months ago interviewed people saying they were victims, and most of the activists I’ve seen say the same.

  • Pingback: Adjuncting: Conversations Worth Having, and Not | Policy of Truth()

  • Under no circumstances have adjuncts, their strongest allies, or their FT and administrator support played the victim card. Offering analyses, narratives, and other insights into a crises we ALL agree exist — dysfunctions of the 21st century university — is merely an attempt to bring critique to dogma, debate to monologue, and intelligence to self-congratulatory blogs and articles. It seems that Professor Brennan, you very much enjoy dancing on the backs of the bruised, adding snark and insult to injuries that go back decades. Why not be part of the solution? Step one is revisiting false assumptions and offering analyses that take into account the specious contracts, in-kind expectations, and lack of economic, professional, and academic support securities that YOU expect in your tenure track precarious state that you describe over and over and over as “given.” Not now. Not ever.

    • //he university was founded on the principle that serious and sustained
      discourse among people of different faiths, cultures, and beliefs
      promotes intellectual, ethical and spiritual understanding.// Georgetown Mission

      Just a reminder.