“We’re Not Privileged Enough!” Complain Selfish and Snobbish Adjuncts at Ithaca College

The Washington Post recently ran a photo essay “showing what it really means to be adjunct faculty”. The essay featured various adjunct faculty members at Ithaca College standing in front of chalkboards on which they’d written their grievances, many of which focused on their perceived low pay. In itself, this wouldn’t be worthy of note–complaints from adjuncts about their pay are nothing new.  But what was striking about the complaints voiced by the Ithaca College adjuncts was the selfishness, snobbery, and sense of entitlement that were, at times, nakedly on display.

Several of the adjuncts indignantly noted that they had to supplement their teaching pay by doing part-time manual labour on the side. But if it’s true that they earned more doing manual labour than teaching, shouldn’t this tell them that other people value their work as manual labourers more than they value them as teachers? If this is the case, then, if they truly wanted to serve others, shouldn’t they switch to the jobs where they would serve the needs and desires of others best, leaving teaching for (apparently) construction or agricultural work? That they don’t indicates that they’re not really focused on serving others, but are more focused on satisfying their vanity. And while I think that such a selfish decision is perfectly fine, they shouldn’t then complain that they should be paid more to do the jobs that they choose to do when other, better-paying, jobs are available to them.

But isn’t manual labor just below someone who has a PhD? Some of the adjuncts certainly seem to think so. Now, I’m not going to wax lyrical about the “nobility of labour”. (I perform manual labour almost every day. There’s nothing especially noble about mucking out hundreds of pounds of chicken shit, getting up at dawn in winter to dig out frozen-in coops, or dealing with birds afflicted by mudballs, sourcrop, or eggbinding–all of which are as gross as they sound.)  Yet holding that you’re too good to do the work that millions of people do every day to feed their families as you’ve had the luxury of spending several years getting up at the crack of noon to toil over poststructuralist texts is sheer snobbery.

Of course, the Ithaca adjuncts don’t see their cause in this way. They’re not really fighting to be subsidized to ply their chosen profession free from any concern about the needs and desires of others. No–they’re after “equal pay for equal work”. But, as has been said repeatedly by Philip Magness, Jason Brennan, and others, this is a red herring. Tenure-track faculty do MUCH more than just teach. They’re required to do service work, advise students, sit on committees, and publish, publish, publish. I suspect that the adjuncts are already receiving equal pay for their teaching, and just want pay that is, in Orwellian terms, “more equal” than that received by their more successful colleagues.

None of this is to deny that some adjuncts have legitimate grievances. Adjuncts hired to teach should only be expected to teach–not advise students, sit on committees, or work with administrators to satisfy accreditation requirements by doing unpaid service work. But the Ithaca College adjuncts aren’t complaining about such impositions. They’re just exhibiting some of the worst traits–selfishness, snobbery, entitlement, and a lack of awareness of how others less fortunate than them live–that the public attribute to the professoriate.

  • geoih

    Why is this the only libertarian forum where I read about this? So people want to be paid more money and do less work. Maybe next we can read about how people don’t want to be sick and want to be more healthy?

    • James Taylor

      I can’t speak for why others don’t cover the madjunct activism, but what I find interesting isn’t the fact that they want to be paid more for dong the same work, but that they appeal to “social justice” claims to support their position. The hollowness of these claims in these cases can then be used to underscore their hollowness is other, less obvious, cases, too–such as when they are offered on behalf of persons who are genuinely vulnerable.

      • Who are the genuinely vulnerable? Even workers in sweatshops earn scorn from many if they question their market outcomes. One can always imagine someone more vulnerable than the least paid worker by positing one who makes half as much. What squalid conditions worse than sweatshops might define the vulnerable?

      • Puppet’s Puppet

        Since when are adjuncts the only workers who invoke “social justice”? I certainly haven’t noticed fast food workers–to take a recent one among many, many examples over the years–scrupulously eschewing any kind of moral condemnation of their employers, or of any such suggestions. And the traditional libertarian response to them would certainly be, “Well, if you don’t like the conditions of employment, simply don’t work there.” And they’d blame any practical difficulty of being hired elsewhere on government barriers to entry or whatever. Left-libertarian modifications to this view (which may include such moves as viewing unions as legitimate tools of worker bargaining power) may or may not add the potential for assessment of inherent moral legitimacy for offering this or that wage under this or that circumstance. But it’s hard to see how you’ve made the case anywhere that anyone should view the adjuncts’ situation any differently from the fast food workers’. (I should also point out that I think few left-libertarians would deny the tactical legitimacy of picketing workers “shaming” employers with rhetoric of “unfair” wages and conditions, if that does the trick. And it’s important to note that, especially on university campuses nowadays, this is indeed the rhetoric that does the trick. I’m all for the system now universal in the Ivies, for instance, of high sticker tuition and near-universal financial aid in which half the kids in America would pay virtually nothing. But the protests on campus now, often to rather impressive effectiveness, are that the last few hundred dollars being charged to these latter kids by these expensive private institutions constitute a gravely oppressive social injustice–an attitude that would never have remotely occurred to us before their current generosity and which is manifestly preposterous. Where’s the article on that? But this is what works nowadays.)

        This so-called “condescension” and “snobbishness” that you charge the spoiled adjuncts with is also hardly limited to them. They are skilled workers. Skilled workers are proud of their skills. They get angry, and consequently indignant, when they are forced to make a living outside of their skill set, or under such conditions that they don’t seem to have gotten any real benefit out of it. Say what you will against that attitude, but don’t say it’s in any way particular to those snooty Derrida parsers. See what cops say, or factory workers, or whatever, when their hours are cut or wages are frozen so that they have to resort to taking a shift at Wal-Mart (or, if heaven forbid, they can start comparing their own salaries to what they’d make at Wal-Mart). You’ll never see such disgust in your life! I certainly wouldn’t want to be a guy building a life around a Wal-Mart job sitting at the next barstool as they go off on one of their rants!

        An interesting post is waiting to be written about the above issues, about the propriety of various moral attitudes toward “unfair” wages in general, and so forth, from the left-libertarian perspective. But this was not that article. It was a diatribe against the workers your department hires to do their shit work. (It may surprise you to know that I am not really “on their side” either, btw.; I’m just discussing the merits of this article.) In the end, oddly enough, it seems to be you who is guilty of treating these genteel, scholarly workers arbitrarily differently from their blue-collar counterparts, with a bit of condescension toward the latter.

        • James Taylor

          Thank you for taking the time to write this! I don’t think that the adjuncts’ case is any different from that of other workers who claim that “social justice” requires that they be paid more than market rate. (Indeed, I explicitly make the point that my claims apply to all workers–including those who are in less privileged positions than the adjuncts.) My comments also clearly apply to ALL skilled workers who complain that unskilled work is beneath them.

          There is, admittedly, a significant difference between adjuncts and many other skilled workers. Adjuncts are middle-class people who entered a profession that they should have known has terrible job prospects. (I don’t have much patience for the claim that they were misled by their academic advisers.) These are people who are supposed to be able to do independent research–two minutes on Google would have told them plenty about their job prospects. By contrast, cops and factory workers have much less information available to them concerning their job prospects in five to ten years after entering their trade schools or police academy. I’m much MORE sympathetic to them than to adjuncts, who, I repeat, SHOULD HAVE KNOWN WHAT THEY WERE GETTING THEMSELVES INTO.

          And, no, it wasn’t a diatribe against all adjuncts. It was specifically directed at those at Ithaca College who (variously) sneer at manual labor, live off hand-outs from their parents, and invoke specious “social justice” claims to justify demands for subsidization.

          Given these points, I’m not sure what exactly your criticisms are?

          • Puppet’s Puppet

            Thank you for responding, and for clarifying!

            First, I don’t see how wage increases won through negotiations, even under the pressure tactic of “shaming” to the public (whose ethical views of capitalism are all kinds of delusional and incoherent so why not manipulate them since all sides do it) about your “unfair” wages, are “subsidies.” They are wages, however they are won, so long as they are won without a gun. Subsidies are what minimum-wage workers get, at the rest of our expense, through the magic of government force. Once again, crowing publicly about being “exploited,” however specious the moral claims that are the content of said crowing, are also a negotiation tactic. We can debate the morality of that tactic (though it probably wouldn’t be particularly enlightening to the discussion at hand); but what is certain is that it uses neither force nor slander, and thus whatever we think of it does not magically turn wages into “subsidies.”

            I’m also not fully comfortable with your characterization of adjuncts as “middle-class people,” and the contrast with salt-of-the-earth sorts who we are naturally to expect less informed or intelligent decisions from. It sounds like an awful lot of difference in expectations for adults to be taking care of themselves that you are hanging on their childhood backgrounds. (And remember that, say, a suburban cop or union factory worker is quite solidly middle-class in economic terms, certainly not comparing too poorly with even the median full-time-employed college instructor across all institutions!) And I don’t know much about these particular adjuncts, but are they really living off Mom and Dad? I am accepting of the conventional wisdom that academia is typically an occupation for folks who are “second generation” as both middle-class and professional. It’s probably true that most firstgens are inclined toward something more practical. But so what? Do you really want to hang your attitude toward them on what they roughly tend to be as a class? What if the ones that are complaining the loudest are those who have the least resources (I have always assumed it was them myself)? Or what if leadership doesn’t happen to be them, but is making the demands on their behalf? Is that so bad? Isn’t it what they are supposed to? (Yes, I’m aware of the potential for self-service here. It is indeed an old trick. There’s a small housing project on the Upper East Side, and I think the neighbors would be horrified to lose it; every demand they make for their neighborhood is made very nobly on the project residents’ behalf for the sake of social justice.)

            Manufacturing has been in decline in this country since 1943. Nineteen forty-three! State and local governments have periodic budget crunches that often make the news. Sectors like construction and energy are quite volatile. There was plenty to tell these people before they got into it that things might not always be pretty. And yet when these workers have trouble putting food on the table, their fight for “social justice”–their taking advantage of the fact that Americans distribute their moral attitudes according to the tenets of a mythological capitalism instead of the real one–doesn’t limit itself to a PR campaign against their employers. They invoke the force of the state to take money from consumers, poor people in foreign lands, young people, and so forth. And as for workers dependent on minimum-wage jobs for the long term, they have often made very poor choices in their lives. If anything, education was seriously overemphasized during my own late GenX childhood. Too many people were told to “aim high, follow your dream, sky’s the limit with an education,” and so forth. In a society with better planning or less distorted education markets, most people who currently go to four-year-college shouldn’t–something we are just now at the very beginning of coming to terms with (the information is much better, and skepticism to the traditional myths is rampant). But back then, there was an earnest attempt to turn the traditional bachelor’s degree into a mass education strategy for society. Humanities degrees weren’t even discouraged; it was insane! There was no direction. We still don’t know where we’re going, but at least few question that where we’re headed is not right.

            Do I make excuses for the adjuncts’ decisions? Hell no. But I don’t see them as much less sympathetic than the minimum-wage careerists who somehow, in the midst of all that “aim high” propaganda, managed to educate themselves less than they should. Or the cops who invoke the sacred nobility and service of their not-in-the-slightest-bit-particularly-dangerous, high-paying job that enables them to throw their weight around like medieval samurai wherever they go. Or the worker who took a job in an industry that has been dying since cavalry units used horses and wants to be paid “an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work, what I deserve for my sweat,” and wants me to pay for keeping his middle-class job alive in the form of bailout tax dollars and expensive consumer goods. And a lot of these folks even have the nerve to criticize others for taking “government handouts.”

            I actually, truth be told, have a pretty positive attitude toward all these groups. I don’t cross picket lines, and I favor redistributive cash transfers to pursue social-welfare desiderata. And, as i said, I’m not sure where I stand on the great adjunct debate. But I do believe in calling bullshit where there is bullshit. And it looks like you are being a lot more arbitrarily “understanding” to the blue-collar folks who can’t be expected to know or do better than you are to the Ethical Fieldston-bred critical-theory hipsters. (Are literature, ethnic studies, and so forth the only departments that use adjuncts, btw? Why do you choose to stereotype them with fields whose full professors make no legitimate contributions to academia?)

            It is a bit hard to reply to your thesis head-on, to raise objections that look like they’re directly confronting claims that you make in the post. Because it really does look like your core thesis, what the ultimate issue of your post is when all is said and assessed, is what manner of negative personality traits (“snobbish,” etc.) one is justified in ascribing to the Ithaca adjuncts for their salary demands.

    • I suspect that if the authors of this blog worked in an office building, as I do, then they’d be writing about the guys around the office who complain that the, say, database developer contractors get paid higher salaries than permanent employees, but then don’t put in the same number of hours contractors do.

      Or, perhaps they’d be writing about how professional employees always want a raise, but that management consistently has to put in more hours and thus deserve the higher salaries they are given.

      And yet, to the author’s point, I don’t ever recall hearing about these kinds of issues when I was working on a construction crew. Complaining about lazy, entitled people around the office is the luxury and snobbishness of those of us who do office work.

  • Kevin G

    This is a wonderful angle on the whole issue. Thanks so much.

  • King Goat

    “But if it’s true that they earned more doing manual labour than teaching, shouldn’t this tell them that other people value their work as manual labourers more than they value them as teachers?”

    James, of course they don’t share this rather libertarian premise that what pay society offers someone is entirely a function of the value they bring. Come on.

    • russnelson

      Exactly. Why bring filthy lucre into an honest and worthy profession like teaching?

  • russnelson

    “But if it’s true that they earned more doing manual labour than teaching, shouldn’t this tell them that other people value their work as manual labourers more than they value them as teachers? ”

    Nope. You’re equating pay with value. Teaching is valuable in and of itself. It is above any economic value. These adjuncts would be, should be, will be teaching regardless of how much they get paid. It’s just that making a living interferes with the important things in life. It would be better if everybody got a stipend from the government, so that nobody had to work.

    • King Goat

      Kudos, you beat the living hell out of that straw man.

      • russnelson

        Thanks. I like to beat strawmen to death. That way they don’t get up and start eating you again.

    • James Taylor

      “Teaching is valuable in and of itself. It is above any economic value.” I’m not sure if you intend this seriously, or not?

      • russnelson

        Is there something wrong with your web browser that it doesn’t show you the sarcasm tag?

  • Rob Gressis

    When people complain that star athletes’ salaries are too high, what they might mean is that society has the wrong priorities: given the value that athletes bring to our lives, we shouldn’t pay them so much. Couldn’t the adjuncts be making the same point in reverse? Given the value that adjuncts bring to students’ lives, we should pay them more. Now, I agree that there’s plenty to be skeptical about regarding how much of a difference teaching makes, but I also think it’s complicated too. It’s possible the adjuncts are right!

  • ph

    I agree with you on most (and probably on the most important) points. However, I have a couple caveats. (Full disclosure: I am, by choice, somewhere in-between adjunct and tenured positions, on an open-ended teaching-only contract that provides significant protection against firing without cause. I have chosen this arrangement for some reasons you highlight, in particular loathing for most administrative tasks, and a wish to remain as free as possible in my research (free, for example, to reorient and not publish much for a while). All this is premised on privilege, which probably makes me more sensitive to your arguments than most adjuncts who have, as it seems to them, had little choice in their fate.)

    First, most universities I know try to have their cake and eat it too. You mention that some adjuncts shoulder administrative tasks. I think the double-think is even more obvious when it comes to research. In most places, research creates *essential* positive externalities on teaching — essential in the sense that adjucnts would not have been hired without them. More egregiously perhaps, universities do not shy away from touting research done by their adjuncts, who suddenly count as part of their faculty. Now, unversities provide some help to adjunct research, in the form of facilities and journal subscriptions, for example. But I doubt these can be regarded as adequate compensation for the benefits universities derive from adjunct research. Unversities get away with this because of relative supply and demand, which is maybe all right, but they often try to obscure it, which is not.

    Second, we have to understand where the snobbery, however objectionable, comes from.

    Universities themselves foster this kind of aristocratic sentiment around doctoral degrees. I remember administrators where I was affiliated appealing to such sentiments when, some years ago, adjuncts protested against the termination of those without PhDs. Administrators in disbelief would not understand how people who held PhDs (especially from prestigious places) could ally themselves with the rabble. I guanrantee you I am not exagerating.

    I think a lot of what goes on in PhD programs goes a long way towards explaining graduate entitlement and selfishness. The refusal to consider any other kind of work is, I believe, often an upshot of faculty and peer pressure. Formerly sane candidates become obsessed with securing a tenure-track position because they have been manipulated into placing this outcome at the center of their system of value. It may sound ridiculous to speak of manipulation, but I have witnessed a number of my friends and acquaintances accept the kind of jobs over which, a few years back, they claimed to prefer exit from the discipline. The change typically occurs in the pressure cooker of the job market and preparation for it. A lot of the pressure is driven by placement records, and perhaps also by the narrow worldview of most faculty members. Observing this has made me a lot more indulgent in criticizing how adjuncts think of themselves and their choices.

  • Jachin Rupe

    Through a conversation with a friend about this, I have a new perspective, yeah, on one level there’s “the worst traits–selfishness, snobbery, entitlement, and a lack of awareness” in what the Ithaca adjuncts are saying. However it’s also worth pointing out that the information they are sharing might be an important market signal that will help guide prospective college professors into a different careers.

    You have to assume some of these adjuncts, while they should know better, are trapped with their sunk costs and what they’re doing to get the word out about how unhappy they are might help others avoid their fate.