June 30, 2003

More on the Academic Galaxy

In an entry posted yesterday, I commented on a Boston Globe article that takes a rather critical view of the academic star system. Acknowledging that some of the academics discussed in the article really are stars (I cited the example of Niall Ferguson, whose publication record must surely be deemed exceptional by any measure), I nevertheless raised a couple of concerns about the trend, and was even bold enough to suggest that the celebrification of the academy was the flipside of its adjunctification.

The post prompted some comments (most notably by Department Chair and Vivian) on the qualifications (or lack thereof) of adjuncts, which comments seemed, at least implicity, to acknowledge that there might be a connection between the rise of the superstar phenomenon and the growing reliance on adjuncts. To expand on my suggestion that celebrification might be seen as the flipside of adjunctification (and it is little more than a suggestion, not a fully reasoned argument: I should have stated it more tentatively in the original post):

I have argued and continue to argue that the growing use of adjunct faculty represents a devaluation of academic teaching, that is, both of the teachers and of the disciplines in which they teach. And I begin to suspect that, far from representing an impressive increase in the status and prestige of the liberal arts in general (though it does quite obviously represent a very impressive increase in the status and prestige of a few leading lights who shine forth very brightly), the academic superstar phenonemon might actually point to a decline. That is, as the liberal arts sink lower and lower in public esteem (and sink lower and lower even in the eyes of some liberal arts professors themselves, who are prepared to argue that the teaching of the liberal arts is of so little value that it can be performed by an academic underclass), the cultural gatekeepers to the liberal arts respond to this degradation by seeking to inflate the value, as it were, of a select group of its professors. I doubt very much this is the result of market forces, though we have had so many discussions of markets here at this blog that I am no longer sure just what is meant by the term. I believe that while students and their tuition-paying parents (I am speaking here of elite superstar-recruiting institutions) are certainly paying for the prestige of star faculty, they have no idea of just how wide the gap has grown between the haves and have-nots and have very little conception of just how underpaid and unsupported are the part-timers who teach many of their classes. And if students and their parents were made fully aware of the sitution, I'm not convinced they would be willing to pay quite as much money as they currently do pay.

To clarify one other point: I have no problem with the idea that a school like Harvard will want to recruit and maintain star faculty. Nor do I deny that academics can be at least roughly ranged on a scale according to various measures of merit. Or, to put it another way, to argue on a weblog (as I do argue on this my weblog) that the teaching of a course in English or history or any academic discipline whatsoever should be worth significantly more than $2,500 is not to publish a Levellers' pamphlet advocating the abolition of private property and the elimination of all ranks and distinctions whatsoever. Moreover, I am sympathetic to Derek Bok's position, which is, namely, that while this kind of thing is inevitable and in some respects positive, it carrries the real risk of negative consquences and could potentially be carried too far (eg, the use of Hollywood-type agents). As with most things in life, it really is a matter of degree. At the same time, I have to say that I am not persuaded that the publications of at least some of the academic superstars cited in the Boston Globe article represent a solid and enduring contribution to the liberal arts that will last beyond the next generation. Which is really to open up (or to return to) a series of related questions concerning the values and purposes of the liberal arts: ie, what is it that we are doing? what is it that we should be doing, and so on?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 30, 2003 05:10 PM

Let me urge Larry Summers and others to pay Niall Ferguson heaps of cash, but not because (or not just because) of what he publishes (I thought his Rothschild stuff was unbelievably good, I was annoyed by his WWI stuff, I found _The Cash Nexus_ very insightful in a number of places, and I haven't read _Empire_ yet). '

A "star" is worth bidding for if they are friendly, gregarious, give off bright ideas like a sparkler, work like a dog, and make others feel like they are truly valued and appreciated scholars.* That complex of qualities may be correlated with academic (and popular) reputation, but it is a different and distinct animal.


*And everyone says that this is what Niall does.

Posted by: Brad DeLong at June 30, 2003 06:43 PM

IA: To the question about the value of the liberal arts, and what it is we, supposed practioners of the liberal arts, are doing when we are in the classroom, I can only say that I used to be able to answer these questions. That is to say, once upon a time in a land far, far away ... Now, when faced with the question(s), I find myself increasingly out of sorts because I do not have an answer. Indeed, when I am convinced that I would be better off having studied communications, or marketting, or law or what have you, how can I stand before a class and talk about Post-World War II Irish writing with a straight face?

From the standpoint of my students, I feel fairly confident that what I'm doing is providing them with the means to get the jokes in a Stoppard play, and beyond that to function as new and articulate participants in the on-going cocktail party that is our multi-culti present.

There you have it.

Posted by: Chris at June 30, 2003 07:35 PM

And since President Summers is a regular reader of www.invisibleadjunct.com, I know he will hear your plea (though I can't vouch for his acting upon it).

I haven't yet read Empire, but when did that ever stop me? (actually, I have read reviews and essays and commentary). I'm open to his thesis -- ie, that, on balance, the British empire promoted economic growth and progressive social policies. But it makes me nervous. I can't help worrying about the uses to which it could be put by a certain other and more recent would-be empire.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 30, 2003 07:39 PM

I'm really not so sure there is as much of a connection between the growth of academic stars on the one hand and adjunctification on the other. I am guessing that these super-bid-upon stars by and large are only an issue at top-tier universities. But such universities -- like Harvard -- don't on average make nearly the same amount of use of adjuncts as lower-tier state schools. The Harvard philosophy department, for example, typically uses visiting assistant professors, and for that matter visiting full professors, to fill out its teaching needs. Even at Rutgers, which has a star-studded philosophy faculty (my understanding is that one particular member of that faculty is the highest-paid member of the arts and sciences faculty, but that may be a myth), adjuncts are not used to a very large degree at all. There is a significant amount of graduate student teaching, and any other teaching is usually filled with visiting assistant professors. (There are usually 2-3 adjuncts in any given year, too, but that doesn't seem to count as adjunctification for a faculty of over 20 philosophers.)

Basically, my conjecture is that the schools that can afford to bid on stars by and large can afford, and are willing to pay, for the $28K+/year VAP instead of the $2.5K/course adjunct. But I must acknowledge that these institutions may be an exception, or perhaps philosophy in general is an exception here.

As for the issue of prestige in the humanities as correlated with disdain for undergraduate teaching -- well, I just don't think that the issue is one of disdain for _undergraduate_ teaching per se, but rather a disdain for teaching large lecture courses full of undergraduates who don't want to be there & aren't willing to do any work. The vast majority of faculty I know get great pleasure out of teaching their upper-division undergraduate courses, or teaching honors-level intro courses. But, frankly, it sucks to lecture to 90 kids who are just trying to pick up three credits to fulfill some distribution requirement, and have a substantial (and substantiated) expectation that they can get at least a C, or even a B, without hardly doing any of the reading at all. And that describes all too many of the students in typical 100-level courses -- the courses most often thrown over to adjuncts and/or grad students. (My standard advice to students with half a brain is to skip the 100-level courses altogether.)

This connects up with the 'what the heck are we doing?' question. I must confess that I feel very confident in my answer for that question with regard to my better students, and my upper-level students: I am transmitting the philosophical tradition, inculcating habits of careful thought & rigorous argument, and demonstrating to them the delight of confronting head-on the puzzles & paradoxes that plague human thought. But with my intro-level students, I don't know whether that answer can work, because so many of them are just fundamentally ill-prepared to function at an academic level where one can really start doing philosophy at all.

Posted by: JW at June 30, 2003 11:14 PM

Top-tier universities don't rely on contingent faculty? This is simply not so, though their adjuncts are invisible and you won't find them in the course catalogs. Granted, their reliance on adjuncts is less than that of lower-tier schools, but it is still far greater than many people (including the tuition-paying parents) realize. But perhaps philosophy is an exception (and if so, more power to philosophy!)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 30, 2003 11:32 PM

Well, as I said, I'm only going off of my own experience here, which is basically with one field & three universities. But they are three fairly different schools, in different parts of the country, and in each one, the philosophy department uses adjuncts only fairly sparingly. I know there are other philosophers who read IA; what are your own idiosyncratic impressions about the state of adjunctification in philosophy? (As opposed to grad student teaching and VAPs, of which there is a fair amount.)

I wonder if there are any good sources of hard data out there that anyone knows of, as to just how many course in which areas and which sorts of schools are being taught by which sorts of faculty.

Posted by: JW at July 1, 2003 01:46 AM

Dear IA,

I pretty much agree with you about the Anointed. A few years ago, I wrote a little Ardono-esque piece about the structure of the academy as an attempt to decathect from my abusive relationship with it. I don't have it up anymore because it made people think I was more unhinged than I really was. You've said the same thing anyway. (Don't mean to say that you seem unhinged, doing this site is probably a good sign. Don't forget to quit, though.)

Anyway, putting a structural, theoretical spin on this, I'd say that someone has to do the dirty work so the Chosen Few can have the time and energy to make their "brilliant" observations. (I always thought that 99% of Them were full of shit 99% of the time -- which is probably why I never even got close to becoming one of Them.) Anyway, the price They pay is marginality/irrelevance. No one reads academic books. I don't think the culture suffers for that. They're not even meant to be read.

Things don't have to be like this. There are professions where the net effect of agents for stars has probably been to raise the pay level of all, including the scrubs. I'm thinking of pro sports. Of course, there a number of other Very Large Factors at work here, such as the level of worker organisation, the industry's ability to extort public funds, and the general direction of the industry. With academics you have a politically weak industry in decline with a work force that couldn't organise its way out of a wet paper bag. I'd be surprised if the rates of McSploitation weren't where they're at, i.e., below the level of worker reproduction.



Posted by: che at July 1, 2003 05:01 AM

I could be mistaken, but I'm willing to venture that one of the reasons Phil. depts. utilize adjunctification less than some other depts. is that Phil. depts. tend to be smaller in size in comparison to, say, History and English. They're not required to run multiple sections (required) of Freshman Writing each semester, or sections of World History I and II. This isn't true for all schools, though; some do require their students to take Intro. Philosophy, and at those schools, I believe there is a mix of adjuncts and grad. T.A.'s teaching those intro classes.

At Bentley College in Waltham, MA., which is a business college, an ethics oriented intro Phil course is required of all students. At Villanova Univ., Intro Phil. is required, along with a year-long, two-part course they call "Core Humanities." The Phil. courses are taught by grad. students, while the "CH" courses are staffed almost entirely by adjuncts drawn from Theology, Philosophy, Classics, Art History, Comparative Lit., and History. Part I of the course is typically staffed by thologians and classicists, while the second part (Enlightenment to the Present) is filled by all the rest.

The larger issue here, I think, concerns the basic service role that various humantities and liberal arts disciplines are increasingly asked to fulfill. On their own, the LA's seem to be perceived by adminsistrations as a luxury. The result has been that many departments have been compelled to re-define themselves in line with the increasingly vocational orientation of the contemporary university. Future members of the professional class need to be able to write clearly and without blemish -- hence, the boom in freshman writing. Similarly, in an increasingly globalized economic community, these same future professionals need to have some working knowledge of world cultures and history -- hence World Civ. I and II. Philosophy has been drawn into this vocational orbit as well via the burgeoning fields of bio-medical ethics and environmental ethics. In fact, I know an individual who long ago said goodbye to the philosophy dept. proper and opted to spend the bulk of his career in a medical school teaching Medical Ethics. He's rich, very rich.

Posted by: Chris at July 1, 2003 09:49 AM

A few lightly sour remarks about philosophy to counter the upbeat comments from philosophers on this weblog.The upbeat comemnts say how well philosophy is travelling in these dark times.

My experience of teaching in a philosophy department in Australia is that the transmission of a tradition is disconnected from the critical thinking and argumentation. The latter takes place within the former (eg., the analytic tradition) but the tradition itself is not put into question.

So the education becomes a case of tweaking the axioms (see my post at http://www.sauer-thompson.com/philosophy)and being dogmatic about other traditions (eg, the continental one or the Nietzschean oen of philosophy as a way of life. And it gets abusive when it comes to postmodernism and the challenges to the Enlightenment tradition. Rarely are the texts ever read.But the judgements come think and fast.

It is all rather sad for a philosophical tradition that supposedly represents, and speaks for, the ethos of the scientific Enlightenment.

So what are the humanities doing?(Philosophy is a part of the humanities for all its 20th century pretensions to become a science) Teaching technical trade skills, resignation to what is, and a n experience of slowly dying inside.

Defending the tradition thats the main thing.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 2, 2003 03:04 AM

Not on topic, but I have gathered, organized, and excerpted a bunch of links, at least 80% from this site, presenting the negative point of view on grad school (posted at my URL), while Naomi at Baraita has posted a more positive point of view on the question.


Somewhat more on topic -- a friend of mine who was a Zen monk reports that there's a similiar dynamic there. A certain proposrtion of monks don't quite "make it" and spent the rest of their semi-enlightened lives as kitchen help and houseservants.

Posted by: zizka at July 2, 2003 02:49 PM

Take a look at Jill Carroll's adjunct/part-timer column in the latest Chronicle of Higher Ed. She talks about the myth of adjuncts being less qualified, when so many of us have decent PhD's and the market and teaching load are themselves contributors as to why we fall behind if not among the immediately anointed.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at July 2, 2003 04:02 PM

very well done; thanks.

"Not on topic, but I have gathered, organized, and excerpted a bunch of links, at least 80% from this site, presenting the negative point of view on grad school . . . ."

Posted by: vlorbik at July 2, 2003 09:18 PM

"a connection between the rise of the superstar phenomenon and the growing reliance on adjuncts."

Of course. Do the math. Hire a superstar for $250,000 hold the department budget constant. OK drop 3 $75,000 tenured associate profs or do not promote 3 untenured assitants. Now Star teaches one course a year, a graduate seminar, and the three associates would have taught 12 courses. Simple replace them with adjucnts teaching courses at $2,500 for a total of $27,500, no benefits no office space, no secretaries. You are actually ahead.

"And if students and their parents were made fully aware of the sitution, I'm not convinced they would be willing to pay quite as much money as they currently do pay."

As the tuition paying father of 2 college students, I assure you that I am well aware of this problem. But, I do not see that I have any choice in the matter. If someone proposes a legislative solution to the problem, I will write my congressman.

"the teaching of a course in English or history or any academic discipline whatsoever should be worth significantly more than $2,500"

Yes and No. The pay sucks. I taught a course as an adjunct 20 years ago and was paid $1,500. It was not enough money to make a living at teaching that way, and it has not kept up with inflation.

OTOH, in a market economy you are paid what you are worth and if it is not enough money quit and do something more remunerative. The fact that they have takers at $2,500 means that supply far exceeds demand, and that is all.

Doesn't Niall Ferguson remind you of Hugh Grant?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 2, 2003 10:09 PM

"Of course. Do the math. Hire a superstar for $250,000 hold the department budget constant. OK drop 3 $75,000 tenured associate profs or do not promote 3 untenured assitants. Now Star teaches one course a year, a graduate seminar, and the three associates would have taught 12 courses. Simple replace them with adjucnts teaching courses at $2,500 for a total of $27,500, no benefits no office space, no secretaries. You are actually ahead."

Well, look, if it's that simple, why bother hiring the superstar in the first place? You'd save oodles more money by doing all the other things you suggest here ... and then hiring another adjunct instead of the superstar.

The fact that the numbers _can_ work out like that is not evidence that they are being played that way in the departments in question. For example, by and large, the departments that hire superstars tend also to have lots of other top-end faculty in those departments. That superstar may well want the prestige of being the big cheese in a department of other big-but-not-quite-as-big cheeses, as opposed to a big cheese in a department of pre-wrapped slices.

I'm not saying that there's definitely _not_ a connection, but I do think there's some reason to suspect that these two phenomena (superstars & adjunctification) might be less directly connected than such back-of-the-envelope calculations might indicate.

Posted by: JW at July 3, 2003 02:43 AM

I think I find Robert Schwartz's argument more persuasive than JW does. I'm finishing my degree (philosophy) at a large state university that, like so many other large state universities, has ambitions to climb the rankings. The name faculty this requires are both pricey and adverse to teaching. At the same time, the university has switched to 'enrollment-based budgeting:' if we pack the rooms, we get more money. This creates pressure for cheap labor. We don't adjunct it out, but we take on a lot of graduate students, and the attrition rate is--let's put it politely--high.

This isn't directly about adjuncting, of course, because we don't really do that, but the basic issue is the same. All of this is made worse by the increasingly common institutional ambitions of State Us to be in the top 20, 10, whatever, which further dilutes the star pool.

Posted by: Fontana Labs at July 3, 2003 02:21 PM

A devil's advocate speaks on the upbeat view of

"No philosophy written before Darwin or Adam Smith can tell us anything about human nature, except by coincidence or empiricism or by being Aristotle"

"No philosophy written after Darwin or Adam Smith can tell us as much about human nature as E.O. Wilson, along with a little game theory"

Posted by: Gavin at July 3, 2003 06:07 PM

Gavin...the proposition "No philosophy written after Darwin or Adam Smith can tell us as much about human nature as E.O. Wilson, along with a little game theory" seems a bit reductionistic...somewhat along the lines of:

"No book on operating systems can tell us as much about computers as a good book on semiconductor physics."

Posted by: David Foster at July 3, 2003 06:50 PM


The kind of course-packing approach to graduate admissions described in your email is, simply, unconscionable.


Posted by: JW at July 3, 2003 11:41 PM

"The kind of course-packing approach to graduate admissions described in your email is, simply, unconscionable."

Yes. And this has been going on in other humanities disciplines for at least a decade now. In the early 1990s, I think many people honestly believed the very optimistic (and, as it turned out, very wrong) employment predictions of the famous (or infamous) Bowen report: ie, that a spate of faculty retirements from the mid- to late 90s would open up so many tenure-track positions that there would actually be a shortage of PhDs to fill them. But this alibi no longer holds. English literature is probably the worst offender (after all, somebody has to teach the labor-intensive freshman comp. classes). Hence their job market is a Malthusian catastrophe.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 4, 2003 08:29 AM

Is this what Fontana is describing:

In 1997 I taught two sections of Neil Levine's course, "Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Architecture," at Harvard. I was paid $3,200 per section; there were about 18 sections with 20 students in each. In 1995 I taught one section of Sacvan Bercovitch's "Myth of America" course, also at Harvard, for $3,000. There were about 12 sections. The TAs tried to do their jobs conscientiously, but it was far from an ideal arrangement. Needless to say, most of the TAs from these courses have not found work on the tenure-track. Some are STILL in grad school.

Cash cows? Sacrificial lambs? Lots of barnyard metaphors in play here.

Posted by: William Pannapacker at July 5, 2003 10:22 AM


I'm sure you get this a lot, but imagine how someone from UC-Riverside or Nebraska feels when reading your complaint.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 5, 2003 01:57 PM


I'm not exactly complaining; I'm trying to present what the circumstances are at a so-called "elite" school. Even the grad students there are disillusioned, financially stressed, and unemployable in many cases. No doubt about it, circumstances can be much worse at less affluent places. (If that is your point, I agree completely). I feel sorry for those who are working under less favorable conditions, and I am looking for ways to help them. Still, I've always felt that grad students at the Ivies shouldn't regard themselves as a caste apart--and shouldn't be regarded by others as such--because their chances for employment are not much better than those of the graduates of the regional universities.

Posted by: William Pannapacker at July 5, 2003 02:09 PM


I would amend your second statement: "no philosophy written after Darwin... tells us much less about human nature than E.O. Wilson and a little game theory." Sociobiology has, by and large, been a dead end of crude functional analysis (as even Wilson has mostly come to admit, see _The Naturalist_). Game theory gives us fascinating models of behavior under restrictive choice assumptions, but the connection between those models and the 'real world' is frequently tenuous at best.

Oh, yeah.. on the thread. What about "star adjuncts"? Policy schools, such as the ones in DC, frequently hire adjuncts to teach courses in their programs that require practical experience. The names of these adjuncts graces their glossy brochures for prospective students. Of course, the pay for adjuncts, unsurprisingly, is also better than I have seen in most other areas.

Posted by: dhn at July 8, 2003 10:25 AM

Great reading information.


Posted by: at January 28, 2004 03:57 AM


Posted by: Meban at February 20, 2004 08:13 AM