How Philosophy Neglects Its Most Vulnerable Students

Part Two of a Three-part Series on Adjunct Teaching and Student Learning (Part 1)

by Alexandra Bradner

There are two academias, and our discipline is focused on the wrong one.

Contingent faculty, who teach up and down the academic food chain, see our field from a privileged standpoint. Sometimes I wish I could relay messages from one end of the chain to the other. To the largely clueless faculty at private R1 institutions, liberal arts colleges, and flagship state universities: you have no idea how needy most of the college students in this country are and how hard your other-world colleagues have to work in order to teach them effectively. To the overwhelmed and underpaid faculty at regional state institutions and community colleges: the education you’re providing pales in contrast to what’s on offer at wealthier institutions. You must know you’re not responding adequately to your students’ needs. You’re going to have to fix this, because, let me tell you, no one else cares.

Academics tend to focus their professional attention on the faculty and students at flagship state universities and Ivy League institutions. But only 9% of all students attend the former and only 0.4% attend the latter. The vast majority of students attend regional public institutions and community colleges, where good teaching can be the difference between a degree and a life of unrealized potential—one more unskilled worker our nation has to absorb.

Many of these institutions rely on full- and part-time adjunct faculty to teach their lower level courses: Introduction to Philosophy, Introductory Ethics, and Logic. Once an adjunct instructor takes on a full course load at any one institution, the institution has to pay a full-time salary and benefits, so most adjuncts are kept to a part-time load, earning, on average, $2,700 a course. In order to amass a living wage, part-timers at low-rung public institutions must stack courses on multiple campuses, which interferes with attentive teaching. A 2002 study by the AAUP’s Director of Research concludes that “over-reliance [on contingent faculty] particularly disadvantages the less-well-prepared entering and lower-division students in the non-elite institutions who most need more substantial faculty attention” (Benjamin 2002). In short, our field is failing our newest, our poorest, and our least prepared—our most vulnerable—students.

Good teaching requires time. To maintain your disciplinary expertise in multiple subfields, you need time to read. To remain engaging in class week after week, you need time to innovate, to thoughtfully fit the form of new teaching technologies to the function of your readings. Most importantly, to remain supportive and responsive to students’ individual needs, you need time to get to know your students as particular people.

According to recent research, faculty-student interaction enhances student development, persistence, educational aspirations, and career aspirations; leads to higher levels of achievement for African American, Latina/o students, and students with lower SAT scores; and develops students’ problem-solving, interpersonal, and critical thinking skills. Part-time adjunct teaching structures, which make such interactions nearly impossible, can lead to: diminished graduation and retention rates; decreased transfer from two- to four-year institutions; lower second semester retention rates; lower GPAs; and fewer attempted credit hours. But the real losses are harder to study.

Attentive and responsive teachers precipitate a special form of classroom magic, “aha” moments of understanding: when you draw a connection for your students between the course materials and their personal lives, or between the course materials and the larger world; when you light up the class with a new teaching technology: a YouTube video, a clicker poll, a jigsaw, or a small group activity; when you suddenly grasp how and why a student is confused and locate a better way to explain the puzzle; when you momentarily break the teacher-student power barrier with a personal anecdote; or when you successfully remediate a crucial skill that was holding a disaffected student back, building intellectual confidence in someone who needs it most.

An eight-year study conducted at Northwestern University suggests that when contingent faculty are adequately supported (“Importantly, a substantial majority of contingent faculty at Northwestern are full-time faculty members with long-term contracts and benefits”) they outperform tenure-track faculty in the classroom: “contingent faculty at Northwestern not only induce first-term students to take more classes in a given subject than do tenure line professors, but also lead the students to do better in subsequent course work than do their tenure track/tenured colleagues” (Figlio et al 2013). This is not surprising. Adjunct professors have more “on-the-ground” teaching experience; they work for the love of teaching philosophy (it couldn’t be the money); and the promise of a permanent position provides them with an incentive to do well.

Our elite scholars of philosophy might keep working on those esoteric journal papers. A very small percentage of those papers end up making profound differences in the way people outside of philosophy reason, for example, about cognitive biases, decision theory, epigenetics, and other fashions. An even smaller percentage of those papers are just intrinsically cool.

But the vast majority of us should turn our attention to a more glaring and persistent need: wealth differences among families, school districts, and states have a pronounced effect on students’ access to educational opportunities throughout their fourteen-year, pre-college careers. By the time students reach our undergraduate philosophy classrooms, there can be significant differences in the reading and writing skills of economically advantaged versus economically disadvantaged students. Many students are simply not prepared to succeed in a traditional philosophy course. They come from high schools where homework was never assigned; where written assignments were never longer than 2-3 pages; where failing students were offered last-minute extra-credit, instead of being held back; and where constant and mass behavioral disruptions prevented everyone from learning. They can generate pointed objections, once an argument is clearly explained. But they can’t read our books, they can’t take our exams, and they can’t write our papers.

Aggravating this underpreparedness is the fact that our students are trying to succeed in their college classes while working full-time, caring for dependents, and fighting back the general instability that stems from living in a lower economic class. At a liberal arts college, a single F on an early introductory philosophy exam triggers an emergency response operation coordinated by a team of surrogate parents: an advisor, the professor, and a well-staffed academic support office. But, at regional public institutions and community colleges, that same F can derail an entire college career.

Of course, a small handful of our homebound undergrads are just as sharp and ambitious as Ivy Leaguers. They are separated from their more privileged peers by only the lack of familial wealth. Without national credentials and cosmopolitan sophistication, these students need us to bring the outside in, as much as their less prepared classmates need remediation.

Philosophers who aren’t working to narrow this gap–by concentrating on their teaching, tailoring their classes to this new reality, and supporting colleagues who are teaching in the trenches–are working to maintain it, perhaps even contributing to our nation’s social instability in the process.

There’s a scolding here for all of us: the quiet and/or ignorant research-focused scholars who’ve done nothing to improve either labor conditions for contingent faculty or learning for their students; the sympathetic department chairs, who, in order to compensate for the labor injustice, require little, in terms of teaching effectiveness, from their contingent faculty; and the contingent faculty themselves, who are not fulfilling their students’ needs.

But there’s a carrot here for us as well. By concentrating on our classes and building our majors, by thinking as hard about how we might serve our students as we do about our favorite philosophical puzzles, by treating teaching as an area of effort and expertise instead of something at which all philosophers naturally excel, we just might save our discipline from the troubling reports of its growing irrelevance.

It’s not going to be a brilliant J Phil paper that gets the nation to see the value of philosophy. It’s going to be a legion of engaged, talented, and well-supported philosophy teachers who succeed in developing a legion of intellectually bitten, highly skilled students—students who will leave our classrooms and enter the Republic saying things like:

  • “It wasn’t until I took philosophy of biology that I really understood Darwin’s theory of evolution.”
  • “Reading the Meditations pushed me to think creatively about alternative possibilities.”
  • “Studying evidentiary gaps in the proofs for God’s existence left me with a clearer account of faith.”
  • “My philosophy teacher taught me how to write” and so much more.

Philosophy teachers specialize in preserving the intellectual foundations that support democratic societies: the ability to define and distinguish concepts, to criticize one’s own views, to fit explanations to particular audiences, to invent counterfactuals, to generate relevant objections, to write clearly and persuasively, and to expose irrationality with confidence instead of hesitation. When buildings are burning, you need fire fighters to save the structures before you need architects to dream up new designs.

Next: What institutions, departments and individuals can do to help adjuncts and improve student learning.

Alexandra Bradner has served as an adjunct instructor at Northwestern University, University of Michigan, Marshall University, Denison University, University of Kentucky, Kenyon College, Bluegrass Community and Technical College, the Fayette County Public Schools (k-12), and Eastern Kentucky University. She currently chairs the APA Committee on the Teaching of Philosophy.

2 thoughts on “How Philosophy Neglects Its Most Vulnerable Students

  1. Alexandra (if I may)–

    This post is not just required reading for APA members in the usual colloquial sense–a reading of it should be a verified part of obtaining membership to the APA. You’ve hit the nail on the head of so many crucial issues–to the profession, to the role of higher ed in current society, and the problematic direction of American society itself–that I cannot comment blow-by-blow to argue that you have indeed seen the problem nails to strike, and not just arbitrary issues that look like nails to your hammer.

    I’m lucky (as I’ve said elsewhere). I’ve had a long–35 year–career at a regional state transfer institution that provided me rank, benefits, and a respectable pension for teaching a 4/4 load. But APA members had better look hard at the present state political environments surrounding public education–I highly doubt I will be replaced with a face-to-face TT position. As my colleagues at UW-Madison can attest, although satellite UW campuses have long seen some hardships from diminished state support, even they now understand that tenure has been successfully attacked and diluted for them as well as everyone else in UW System. Perhaps they, like colleagues at North Carolina, Louisiana, etc., can now see that what happens to the “least” of us can happen to anybody, unless there is broad-based political will to support public higher ed.

    But I did want to plug one main point in the post: the need to focus on the importance of introductory courses to the profession. Most students who flow through the intros–101 or ethics–will never take another philosophy course. What that means is that our greatest opportunity to have a positive effect on students is probably one course. Therefore considerable focus and resources should be on how introductory courses are taught. It is at once a point of pride and shame for our profession that so many of these are taught by eager adjuncts who do pour themselves into their teaching as well as their lives allow–and receive abjectly poor compensation for that devotion and passion, and very little professional recognition.

    I’ve long thought that particularly the R1s and R2s should apportion TT positions by focus on teaching versus research. That is, post searches as primarily grad-research- versus undergrad-teaching-oriented, but make no overt or tacit discrimination about their relative importance–hire, tenure, and promote both tracks equally based on relevant criteria.

    Anyway Alexandra, hat’s off for telling the truth–the biggest compliment to any philosopher.

  2. Thanks for this fantastic post, Alexandra.

    One angle that you don’t address is the dilemma faced by the contingent faculty – especially the part-time adjuncts – that teach these classes: a dilemma between working to meet the needs of our students and caring for our own personal and professional needs.

    As I argued in a recent presentation, adjunct faculty do not serve our students well by trying to go above and beyond what we’re paid to do. When we put in the extra, uncompensated work necessary to serve our students well, we merely support the system that – as a whole – fails to serve them. And, in so doing, we locally validate the judgment of the cost-cutting administrator, board of education, or legislature that thought they could provide their students a quality education at a cut rate price. (See here for more: )

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