Weapons of the Weak Revisited: The Problem of Contingent Faculty and Everyday Forms of Philosophical Resistance. (With Follow-Up Discussion by Boethius and Z)


1. In 2014, there were roughly 140 philosophy departments with graduate philosophy programs in the USA and Canada. I would conservatively guess that on average, each such program has roughly 20-25 graduate students. So that’s roughly 3000 people, at least. Therefore, assuming that enrolment in philosophy graduate programs is relatively constant, then in North America, year after year, there are roughly at least 3000 people per year doing graduate-level work in philosophy.

Now most of these 3000 people are also teaching philosophy for their departments and their universities, for pathetically low wages, and with no benefits, year after year. Furthermore, even despite all that low-paid teaching, most of them will never get a PhD in philosophy.

And of those who do soldier on and get PhDs, most of them will never get a tenure track (TT) job in philosophy.

Instead they will either move on to other careers, or else endure lives of more or less quiet desperation as permanent philosophy instructors, lecturers, or adjunct faculty (i.e., people who are paid to teach on a course-by-course basis), again for pathetically low wages, and with no benefits.

Now let’s concentrate just on the USA, so, roughly 120 graduate programs, so roughly 2600 graduate students per year, at least. And think of all those philosophy graduate students, some of them becoming PhDs, and some of those becoming TT-liners, but most of them becoming permanent non-TT instructors, lecturers, and adjuncts, over a ten-year period, from 2005 to 2015. Now add to that total all the permanent non-TT instructors, lecturers, and adjuncts left over from the previous ten years, from 1995 to 2005.

That’s an awful lot of young philosophers, growing older, and being exploited by philosophy departments and universities, all over The Land of Liberty.

All such exploited and seemingly endlessly exploitable non-TT teachers of philosophy, including graduate teachers, instructors, lecturers, and adjunct faculty, are collectively known as contingent faculty.

As opposed to necessary faculty, the TT-liners. Isn’t it nice to be thought of as “contingent”? It evokes that lovely sense of being disposable, at will, like something people use up, then throw away.

But exploited and seemingly endlessly exploitable contingent faculty now account for more than half of all faculty appointments in the USA.

2. In a recent edgy essay, I also noted the scandalous fact that the majority of adjunct faculty now live below the poverty line, as The Atlantic Monthly reported a year ago. And I also referred to a recent UC Berkeley Labor Center study that was reported in the New York Times just a few weeks ago which showed that

[e]ven some of the nation’s best-educated workers have turned to taxpayers for support; a quarter of the families of part-time college faculty members are on public assistance, the Berkeley researchers found.

“I’m very proud of my doctorate, it was well-earned, but in terms of the work force, it’s a penalty,” said Wanda Brewer, who lives in Maywood, a Chicago suburb, and teaches at DeVry and Concordia colleges. She is paid $2,700 for each 15-week course she teaches. She and her 4-year-old daughter are both on Medicaid; they also receive $390 a month in food stamps and a child care subsidy.

She has applied for other jobs at chains like Walmart, Home Depot and Menard’s, but says she can’t even get a call back because such employers consider her overqualified.

“When I apply for anything outside education, they laugh at me,” Ms. Brewer said. “The term professor immediately commands respect. The assumption is you’re making a fair wage, a living wage, but that is not necessarily so.”

3. Now one possible social and political response to the serious plight of contingent philosophy faculty is for those graduate-student or PhD-holding philosophers to form unions, and collectively demand better working conditions, better pay, and more benefits.

And indeed there is now significant debate about the pros and cons of contingent faculty unionization, as reported in mid-May in the New York Times.

4. As a Canadian, I’m totally OK with unions. Sometimes they are genuine engines of equity, of resistance to economic and other forms of social oppression, and of moral community and solidarity.

For example, just watch Salt of the Earth, written and produced by blacklisted Hollywood people during the McCarthy era, which, although it was suppressed at the time, is now (finally!, 60 years later!, and why do most Americans fear and loathe unionization?) widely available for streaming on YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean.

But as morally and politically wonderful as contingent faculty unionization might seem, other things being equal, I have two big worries about it.

First, sadly, unions can be just as oppressive in their own way as the oppressors that unions are created to resist. Indeed, as one of the pro-union debaters in the New York Times article I mentioned just above, fairly ominously remarked:

Do all faculty unions achieve what is best for adjunct professors and their students? No. Problems of institutional culture that pervade higher education can be replicated within unions.

Second, and even more importantly, I think that if contingent faculty take significant steps towards unionizing, then departmental and university administrations will radically reduce their contingent faculty complement by simply firing all or most contingent faculty, especially the union organizers, and then pick up the teaching slack by having TT faculty teach much larger courses, and by doing MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) or other online courses.

Correspondingly, one of the anti-union debaters in that same New York Times article, a university president, noted even more ominously that

when adjuncts and graduate-student instructors have called for unionization, some institutions have suggested increasing class sizes or using Massive Open On-line Courses, or MOOCs, to provide instruction at an even lower cost than having adjunct faculty on individual campuses.

While MOOCs have created excitement because of their promise of free college courses, that promise has not yet been scaled-up at enough colleges and universities to conclude that they will revolutionize higher education. And universities like mine, with many students who are the first in their families to go to college and are not comfortable taking too many courses online, are investing in more permanent faculty to handle instruction, conduct research and engage in public service that is part of our urban mission.

But adjuncts usually do not possess the requisite research credentials that would make them eligible for permanent status.

Because of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide health insurance for employees working more than 30 hours a week, the numbers of full-time adjunct faculty were reduced even further.

So the nonpermanent college instructors who try to unionize may face more problems than they realize.

Or as the NYT sidebar gloss put it: “Instructors can be replaced by computers. Full-time positions can be reduced to part-time jobs.”

5. Right: we get the picture. So I think that as fucked as contingent philosophy faculty already are, if they try to unionize, then they’ll really be fucked, that is, they’ll simply be cast into the void of unemployment clutching their copies of Plato’s Dialogues, and wishing someone would at least have the courtesy to give them hemlock like Socrates, and put them out of their collective misery.

And then departmental and university administrators will say: “See? Are we great or what? No more contingent faculty! So we solved ‘the problem of contingent philosophy faculty’! And by the way, here are your new big-ass lecture courses and MOOCs!”

6. In an earlier post, Y very compellingly argued that for all sorts of reasons, as real philosophers we should FOOC the MOOCs.

But leaving that specific issue aside for the time being, supposing now that I’m right that attempted unionization would be disastrous for contingent philosophy faculty, then what can be done?

Hard question! But anyhow, here is are two compatible lines of thinking.

  1. First, as I proposed in a recent edgy essay, the problem of contingent faculty in philosophy will not be solved until:

(i) there are as many TT-jobs as there are well-trained philosophers coming out of graduate programs,

(ii) the dissertation-based PhD is abolished and replaced by a 3 or 4 year degree program in philosophy (still call it a “PhD” if you’re hung up on the name) that qualifies graduate students to be teachers of real philosophy,

(iii) all and only those who are personally driven to do original philosophical research and publish, will do original philosophical research and publish,

(iii) all TT-lines across the college and university system will be fairly paid and have good benefits, with pay-raises based on years-in-post and the cost of living, and

(iv) being well-trained in real philosophy and a good or excellent teacher of real philosophy is necessary and sufficient for tenure.

All this, in turn, could be funded by sharply reducing the number of administrators and the remaining administrators’ salaries, cutting back on bullshit expensive/high profile sports programs, and cutting back on bullshit new unnecessary construction/toys for would-be undergraduates shopping for colleges and universities.

Indeed, as this recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times pointed out, with supporting data, many university presidents are scandalously overpaid. For example, Yale paid its former president, Richard Levin, “an additional retirement benefit” of $8.5 million after he retired in 2013, even though he was being paid $1 million per year during the last years of his contract, and also, presumably, had already received a big regular retirement package.

Fucking unbelievable.

And Levin is only one of many. As the Op-Ed writer rhetorically asks, “How do you defend the transfer of teaching responsibilities to low-paid, part-time adjuncts when the president is sitting so pretty?” Yo. You can’t. But instead, you could take all that money and create lots of new TT-lines.

Second, in James C. Scott’s seminal book from the mid-80s, Weapons of the Weak, he discloses and brilliantly analyzes a powerful social-political phenomenon he calls “everyday forms of resistance,” with special reference to Malay agrarian peasants in the 60s and 70s. But the phenomenon generalizes. Everyday forms of resistance make up

the prosaic but constant struggle between the peasantry and those who seek to extract labor, food, taxes, rents, and interest from them. Most of the forms this struggle takes stop well short of collective outright defiance. Here I have in mind the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth. These Brechtian forms of class struggle have certain features in common. They require little or no coordination or planning; they often represent a form of individual self-help; and they typically avoid any direct symbolic confrontation with authority or with elite norms…. Everyday forms of resistance make no headlines. Just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so thousands of individual acts of insubordination and evasion create a political or economic barrier reef of their own. There is rarely any dramatic confrontation, any moment that is particularly newsworthy. And whenever, to pursue the simile, the ship of state runs aground on such a reef, attention is typically directed to the shipwreck itself and not to the vast aggregation of petty acts that made it possible. (pp. 29 and 36)

What I am proposing, then, is that contingent philosophy faculty and fellow-traveller TT philosophy faculty who are in solidarity with them engage in everyday forms of philosophical resistance, as follows:

1. Always find excuses for not teaching MOOCs and other online courses, while also pretending that you think they’re just great.

2. Always find excuses for teaching small classes, while also pretending you think that big classes are just great.

3. Never become an administrator yourself, or confide anything to a departmental colleague who has become an adminstrator.

4. Don’t form unions. Instead, form secret subversive contingent philosophy faculty organizations online, using your gmail accounts and googlegroups, which administrators can’t spy on.

Most importantly, create blog sites with anonymous e-mail addresses, and then bombard administrators with demands for better wages, better working conditions, conversion of all non-TT lines to TT lines, etc. Ditto the local newspaper(s).

At night, or on the weekend, when no one is watching, put up amusing posters with cartoons of administrators, and repeat your demands.

5. Meet secretly off campus and discuss real philosophy together. Then afterwards, when you’re chatting and sipping coffees or beers or whatever, discuss more ways to subvert the administrators and agitate for better wages, better working conditions, conversion of all non-TT lines to TT lines, etc.

6. Make your students love real philosophy by teaching only texts and material that you already love, and think is really really deep and important. Don’t let the administrators tell you what to teach, especially if it’s either sententious right-wing drivel or sententious politically correct left-wing drivel. Your students will then love you and love real philosophy too, and give you high course evaluations, so it will be very hard to fire you.

5. Always give high grades across the board, and be completely forgiving when students screw up, but pretend that you’re really rigorous, so that in fact your students will do the best work they’re capable of doing. Your students will then love you and give you high teaching evaluations, so it will be very hard to fire you.

6. Never report plagiarizers. Merely tell them that next time you’ll penalize them, so they should re-do the paper and you’ll re-grade it as if the other paper had never existed. Your students will then love you and give you high teaching evaluations, so it will be very hard to fire you.

7. If the administrators ever make a move to fire any of your contingent faculty comrades, pretend you’re really sick, start cancelling classes, and hold onto student papers for as long as humanly possible before you return them. Everyone do this at once. Don’t confront administrators: just do it, coordinate over gmail, and let them know WHY you’re doing this, by bombarding them with emails from your anonymous blog-site address.

8. Secretly read Against Professional Philosophy, and contribute articles and posts pseudonymously in which you explicitly point out anything you regard as administrative bullshit or injustice, or more broadly professional philosophical bullshit or injustice.

9. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the coercive, hegemonic administrative ship of state runs aground on the contingent faculty coral reef, and things finally start to improve. About bloody time, too.


APP Editors’ Note:
Boethius is a 40-something male tenured associate professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America.

Boethius: I wanted to add three things from my end about contingent faculty. I agree with most everything the [recent APP] essays say about their plight—I’ve partly lived it myself—and I would be happy to see the two types of philosophy position you suggest (“teacher” and “researcher”).

1. I’m in particular agreement with the point that contingent faculty are in a special bind in asking for the creation of TT lines instead of having adjuncts. In my own case …., I was hired originally as a trailing spouse, with three courses at XXX University my first semester, and two my second semester with one at the community college across the highway. The XXX University course paid $900. Then I had a sort of “instructor” position with a 4-4 sort-of guaranteed, which I had until 2006 when I got the TT slot. There’s luck there, but I also did as much as I could to get into position to be a strong candidate when something opened up. Among other things, that meant taking on and acquiring some kind of expertise in business ethics. I was fortunate.

Now about that special bind: First, in my case the “instructor” position would have been eliminated if I hadn’t gotten the TT position. What if I hadn’t gotten it? That might have been it. I’m not sure even now if I was their top candidate (we had three slots hired that year). So even for qualified adjuncts with PhD’s from good places, you have to be careful what you wish for. Even if the slot opens, there aren’t any guarantees. This is especially true for adjuncts who have struck out on the job search for quite some time. There’s maybe more reason to be hopeful as an internal candidate, but maybe not much more hopeful.

2. Sometime around 2007 I think, XXX University created a “lecturer” position. That’s not TT, but it is “slotted” in the sense that it comes with full benefits, decent pay, and the dept. gets to keep the position if the person in the slot leaves. (This is probably what I would have wound up with later if I’d have struck out in the other search.) Here I wouldn’t call a lecturer “contingent faculty,” for the position really does seem to me to come with the remuneration that I think you would call the “teaching” grade of faculty. No tenure for lecturers (whatever the strength/benefit of tenure really is), but you can pretty much stay as long as you like if you’re respectable in the classroom. There aren’t technically any service or research requirements. In my view, they seem to me to have more job security than untenured TT faculty—there’s less oversight of their performance and they cost less to have. Is there an objection to this kind of faculty slot?

3. One thing I didn’t notice in the essays was anything about whether there are too many graduate programs in philosophy. I see that as part of the reason for the problems and suffering of contingent faculty. They may have gone to programs that didn’t prepare them very well philosophically or as effective teachers, and it shows in their application dossiers when they’re applying for both TT positions and for mere “lecturer” positions like we have here. Now, the fault and explanation lies in at least three places: (1) in the institutions that create and continue having such graduate programs (with them perhaps existing so that institution’s reputation is enhanced by having graduate program); (2) in those who advised students to pursue graduate work in philosophy at those programs; and (3) those who apply to, attend, and complete those programs and are left with a subpar credential. I should add “and didn’t do sterling work at that program either” somewhere here. It’s of course possible to excel at a less-well-known program and show excellence and potential in ways beyond the credential. It’s possible to be mediocre at a good program and have poor results on the job market. But a mediocre candidate from a mediocre PhD program has almost no chance on the market. Fewer programs would help minimize the chances of there being candidates like this. So are there too many programs? If so, what do to about that?

Z: In reply to your first question, whether there’s any objection to a permanent “lecturer” position for which re-appointment is based on good teaching, that’s also decently-paid and has benefits? —

Hmm. I don’t think so, provided that the departmental and university administration adequately sustain First Amendment-based academic freedom to think, speak, and write for oneself, and don’t arbitrarily change the ground-rules—say, requiring original research and publications, after someone has already been in the position for 10 years. I mean, what if the lecturer started shouting “Fuck the Second Amendment!” in class, as part of a teaching strategy designed to get students to think hard about the morality of the use and possession of guns, and then some student anonymously reported this to the administration? And then the administration decided to change the ground rules and fire the lecturer? Would the lecturer be substantially more open to this sort of “at-will” termination than someone with tenure? If so, then the lecturer ought to be tenured….

And in reply to your second question, are there too many graduate programs? —

Hmm again. Actually I don’t think that the problem is that there are too many graduate programs. Let a hundred (and twenty) graduate programs bloom!, I say. The problem is that there aren’t at least as many TT-line jobs as there are well-trained graduates from these programs. And that’s the fault of administrations, who spend the money they could use for lots more TT-lines on needlessly high administrators’ salaries and bullshit that no one who’s seriously interested in higher education actually needs.

Boethius: In reply to your first reply, even though I say our administrators are “pretty good” on free speech, they haven’t been tested much. They haven’t been tested with complaints about fucking the second amendment. For a lecturer, I’m guessing that would draw some conversations with the dean for sure. If our dean likes you, you might be ok, but the recommendation would be that you knock off that kind of talk because of the complaints. If a tenured person continued the teaching strategy, I don’t know what would happen. Would a lecturer be fired because of it? Given cases of other kinds I know of here, the culture seems to be that tenure provides more protection. So our lecturer position isn’t yet what we need.

In reply to your second reply, I figured that would be the reply. I agree we need more philosophers on the payrolls of universities (and everywhere else). We need smaller classes and less load, for the latter even if we’re only of the “teaching professor” type. We need more good philosophers, and more good philosophy teachers in particular. But from the faculty searches I’ve been on, I’ve always come away with a terrible feeling of something like pity for most of the candidates. It’s an awful feeling. There seems to be a terrible glut of underqualified people in the pool. One might argue about the details of what makes a candidate underqualified, even with fairly-recent PhD in hand, teaching experience, and some scholarship. But if there is such a glut, there’s something more going on than just the shrinking of available jobs. Wouldn’t part of the problem be that there are too many programs accepting too many applicants and granting too many degrees? OK, there are three parts there in that question, but they do seem to fit together.

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.