Teaching Between (In)Justice and Care

Part One of a Three-part Series on Adjunct Teaching and Student Learning

by Alexandra Bradner

Take your job. Teach your usual course load and maintain your research program. Add three courses at another institution (or two) to that load; increase your enrollments to 34 students per section; and plan to do all of your own grading. You can eliminate your departmental service and water-cooler chat time, because no one is curious about how the intro courses are going, how your students are doing, or how you think the department’s curriculum might be improved. You can subtract your faculty governance work, because your interests and ideas are not represented at any level of the university system or, for that matter, at any level of the profession. Now, for the real kicker: cut your salary by at least half.

Just to review, every semester you’re teaching a total of more than 200 students in six classes of four courses across three campuses for $16,200, with no TAs, no research funding, and no sabbaticals (ever, aside from anxious stints of unemployment). Each week, you spend approximately 18 hours in class, 24 hours on prep, six hours or so in appointments with individual students, and at least two hours every night answering a blizzard of student e-mail. Now you just have to find time to squeeze in the 500 papers and exams you need to grade every semester (a number that increases with logic).

Are you feeling lazy yet? No? Your job is also very demanding? How about eliminating your health insurance, your retirement account, your childcare, your cleaning service, your lawn service, and adding in a seemingly insurmountable level of debt, part of which stems from the fact that you must maintain a functional automobile (for an office) and fund all of your own tech needs and conference travel? To make some of that up, figure spending one day each week on top of your university schedule substituting in the local k-12 schools for $84/day. Forget about respites from the madness, like vacations, farm-to-table dinners, and fancy coffees. (Whatever your problems, you won’t be able to solve them with money.) Last, gird yourself against a number of lesser bogosities: working for free until your first paycheck arrives one month into the term, difficult mid-day parking, last-minute course cancellations, and near constant applications for future teaching gigs (another part-time job). As one of my favorite adjunct colleagues says, “We have special epistemic access to a virtue that most professional philosophers will never master … humility.”

I must be some kind of superhero. I fly in to logic and improve upon my textbook’s presentation of the material conditional, while reminding students about the crucial difference between syntax and semantics, also underexplored in our text. Next, I ask my Intro students, many of who have deep connections to the coal industry, whether there’s anything elitist about the concept of Marxist false consciousness. I drive an hour to my second campus, circle around for thirty minutes looking for parking, and clarify Rawls’s difference principle for a population of disenfranchised Ethics students, who had no idea—before taking my class—that many families pay $30,000 a year to educate their seven-year-olds. Later in the week, I will help those same students understand their own nascent political leanings by pitting Mill’s “web of corroborative association” against Locke’s labor theory of property and Nozick’s critique of Rawls. Now these students know what it really means to be liberal and conservative. Carrying my office on my back, I head over to philosophy of science, where I teach a room full of science majors how to think in an entirely different way about physics, psychology, and biochemistry, preparing them to lead and innovate in their fields, instead of simply producing more of the same. Evidence cannot serve as “evidence” unless it’s theory-laden?

And that’s just my Tuesday.

 At 400 students each year, in a mere decade, a “part-timer” like me will have transformed many thousands of people, making them closer readers and clearer writers, for sure, but, more importantly: more creative scientists, more thoughtful voters, and more confident people—citizens of heightened understanding.

‘It’s time to change careers,’ you’re thinking (… along with my mom). ‘No one should work under those conditions, especially with young people. Would you underpay, ill-equip, and stress out your babysitter? Your nurse?’

‘You’re just not talented enough,’ is what you’re really thinking. ‘There are good reasons why some people rise to the top of academia’s meritocracy and some people don’t.’

This could be true. Perhaps I have been unjustly treated, but injustice anywhere isn’t a threat to justice everywhere, and we all can just ignore the adjunct problem. Or perhaps there’s a reason why I deserve my low salary: either I’m 75% worse than all of you at the same job or no one should cry for any academic—folks who leverage their early social privilege into careers that satisfy some personal predilection, instead of responding unselfishly to one of our nation’s more genuine needs, like welding.

There is a clear labor issue here, one that could use more attention from philosophers with power and the APA. But I’m not crying for myself any more. My particular abilities, my situation, and my desert really don’t matter. After years of teaching as an adjunct instructor at public institutions in one of our nation’s most invisible regions, I’m crying for my students.

The relevant fact is that I am now the professorate. According to multiple sources, more than 75% of faculty serve in precarious roles, with more than 40% of those serving, like me, in part-time positions on multiple campuses. The problem is most pronounced in the humanities (versus other disciplines), in intro classes (versus advanced classes), and at regional state institutions and community colleges (versus private institutions, which, in my experience, often treat their adjunct faculty quite well).

I’m frequently impressed with myself—my energy, my mad skills, my philosophical breadth, and my hard-earned pedagogical wisdom (dissonance theory’s induced-compliance effect, no doubt). But I’m not sure my students see things the same way. They’re probably wondering why their philosophy instructor isn’t required to hold office hours or why, if she does hold them, students’ grades and personal challenges are aired (illegally) in the presence of three office mates. They’re probably wondering why they have exams, instead of papers; why their teacher won’t remediate writing and close reading, when both are secret prerequisites for passing the course; why she so frequently loses her train of thought in the middle of lecture; why it takes so long to get papers back; why she’s not teaching in her area of expertise; why she can’t remember her students’ names; why she doesn’t know anything about the other philosophy teachers, the other philosophy courses, or the university’s Gen Ed requirements; why she lectures most days, with few of the bells and whistles they’ve heard about from their friends at wealthier schools, like experiential learning, small group activities, and Skype sessions with remote experts, to name a few; and why, as soon as finals have ended, she vanishes, unavailable for advice, rec letters, and subsequent courses.

The efforts of part-time contingent faculty members at public institutions are supererogatory, given the working conditions, but unjust and unresponsive, given the desperate needs of the student population. For committed teachers, it is an agonizing space to occupy: I’m working at max capacity. But, at the end of each day, I feel like I’ve failed at our nation’s most important work.

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Next: When the overreliance on adjuncts can hurt (and help) our most vulnerable students.

 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 “Teaching Between (In)Justice and Care

  1. Having been an adjunct for 12 years before getting a tenure-track job at an institution which, in my opinion, exploited adjuncts by consistently low pay (in 2010 adjuncts were being paid less than I was paid as an adjunct in 1987), I have to agree with all that professor Bradner says. The excuses administration gives (my final school being clear on these), we need flexibility, we have to be fiscally responsible, they know the contract before signing, etc… are all smoke and mirrors that boil down to “we wanna be able to fire or dismiss anyone whenever we feel like it.”

    On the other hand, two institutions I was an adjunct for, Harper College in Illinois and Loyola U in Chicago, tried to support adjuncts in ways I don’t see now, from free printing and xeroxing privileges to “adjunct professor” status that included benefits, and the aforementioned salaries that exceeded those at my final institution by quite a bit. Things seem to have gone backwards at many institutions as “the business model” trumps fairness and common decency. I surely hope that there are other institutions that treat adjuncts not as pieces in the business model, but as valued professionals.

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