“Why Working for Free is Bad for Your Students” (Presented at the Felician Institute for Ethics and Public Affairs, April 2016)
In addition to the problems of job insecurity and substandard wages common to part-time and contract employees in other industries, adjunct faculty often face the distinctive challenge of balancing their professional obligations as educators against their own economic and personal needs. It is all too tempting for adjuncts to respond to this tension by investing themselves even more in their teaching. Some adjuncts and activists have responded to this problem by encouraging adjunct faculty to give up on the idea that teaching is a “vocation” and instead to think of it as just a job. While this represents sound practical advice, it makes no room for the genuine passion for inquiry and for teaching that lead so many intelligent and accomplished people into such precarious positions to begin with. For this reason many adjuncts will refuse to heed this advice, and those who follow it may find they can only do so by giving up on an important element of their own sense of self.
I argue that a far better response is to recognize that adjuncts are actually doing a disservice to their students and their disciplines by engaging in “adjunct heroics.” By going above and beyond in spite of the low pay and lack of commitment from their academic employers, adjuncts reward the cost-cutting administrators, department heads, board members, or politicians who drive the reliance on adjuncts, while simultaneously devaluing their own expertise. Every time someone provides students with a high quality education at a fraction of the cost of regular faculty at the same institution, they thereby validate the claim that hiring adjuncts is a more cost-effective way of providing the same level of service. And every time someone stands in front of the class for substandard wages, they are a living demonstration of how little their expertise, and thus their subject matter, is valued. For example, how can a philosopher expect her students to believe in the value of what they’re learning when the very expert teaching them isn’t considered important enough to be paid an adequate wage?
“That sounds great in theory, but it will never work in practice.” This charge is often made in response to specific political proposals, such as the universal provision of health insurance, or a plan to avoid financial crisis by relying on self-regulation in the banking industry. It’s obvious why, if true, this would be a problem for such policies, since working in practice is their central purpose. However, the same charge is also frequently used as an objection to theories of justice that come across as too utopian. But why should we think that philosophical theories have to meet any practical standard at all?
In this talk, I address this question through an examination of Western philosophy’s most famous utopia: the ideal city of Plato’s Republic. Plato’s city includes such wildly utopian arrangements as the (then unprecedented) equality of women, the abolition of the traditional family, and the absolute rule of philosopher-kings. And yet, he insists that this utopia must be shown to be not only desirable, but also possible. Examining Plato’s arguments reveals a conception of political possibility that allows us to better understand the relation between theory and practice even in the philosophy and politics of today.
When confronted with the uncomfortable parts of our nation’s history we are often warned not to judge the past by our present day moral standards. Yet appeals to the past have always played an important role in politics, as sources of inspiration, warning, and justification. Political philosophers typically evaluate such appeals by invoking moral principles that are said to be timeless and universal. In so doing, some critics argue, such ‘political moralists’ fail to take history seriously. In this talk, I rebut these critics, using the tale of Mark Twain’s time-travelling Connecticut Yankee to explain how moral judgments about the past are an essential part of taking history seriously.