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(This) Adjunct is Dead

January 16, 2014

Daniel Fincke’s story about being an adjunct professor isn’t unique -- at least not the first part. He spent 11 years teaching at and countless hours commuting to and from various institutions in and around New York City, for low pay and no job security. Years on the tenure-track market yielded no offers. And, like so many others in the same position, he wanted out.  

But here's where Fincke's story diverges from the common narrative: Saying he can’t stay in a labor system he doesn’t believe in, and that he’s eager for new challenges, he’s publicly announced that he’s leaving academe -- but not for a steady gig in another sector. Instead, he plans to expand his online, interactive philosophy course offerings and philosophical advising business. It’s a leap of faith of sorts for the ethicist and Nietzsche specialist, but he said it was simply time to move on.

“I have had semesters where I have woken at 4:30 a.m. to commute from my Manhattan apartment to Connecticut, only to commute four hours at midday to either Long Island or New Jersey for an evening class, and not arrive home until as late as 11:30 p.m.,” Fincke wrote in a post on his popular philosophy blog announcing his decision. “I have worked 6 day weeks. And in the spring of 2013, ran a 7 day a week schedule after I added to my 8 university classes 4 self-run online, interactive classes held through video conferencing. I have done all of this teaching while either researching and writing a doctoral dissertation and/or churning out thousands of philosophical words a month on this blog.”

He continues: “For all these efforts, I have been paid between merely $2,500-$4,200 per section of philosophy, with no health insurance or retirement benefits or any other such alternate forms of compensation (while each class I taught generated $35,000-$105,000 in revenue to the universities). And I’m done now. I’m moving on to the next phase of my life. This past semester was my last one teaching at a brick and mortar university as an adjunct professor.”

Fincke says in his post that he’d wanted to be a professor since he was 17 years old. But recently, after earning his Ph.D. and spending three years on the full-time academic job market with no breaks, he’d mentally prepared himself for being someone who “used” to teach college. He loved the work, but teaching seven to nine courses per semester – enough to make a decent living – ultimately wasn’t sustainable.

He also says that he was enabling what he calls higher education’s exploitative labor system, and that it affected him deeply. "I also realize that by continuing to allow universities to take advantage of my labor at a discounted rate, I was helping to perpetuate a pernicious system that was harming my peers and me,” he wrote.

In an interview, Fincke said adjuncts feel pressure not complain about the job they may love, even if their working conditions merit legitimate complaint. “There's an insidious temptation to feel like you can't be angry and happy at the same time so you have to choose,” he said. “Because if you say you love what you're doing, then people might think you've waived your right to complain.”

He added: “Adjuncts have the right to love what they're doing and say it's worth it even as is and say they're being treated unconscionably.”

Still, Finke wrote that he’s “remarkably, almost eerily (and maybe deludedly), at peace” about his choice to leave teaching. “I have taught so many hours on end and worked with a deeply fulfilling career’s worth of bright university students that I feel satisfied that I have truly lived out the dream and have no anxieties that I have missed out on anything great that is involved in being a college professor.”

Finke said he made $18,000 from his online courses in 2013, even as he taught 11 courses as an adjunct. He’ll need to at least triple his number of students – to about 75 – this year to make a living, he said, but he’s confident that he can do with extra advertising and canvassing of online philosophy networks (his current marketing is confined mostly to social media and his blog). He’s got name recognition among online atheists, he said – his blog, Camels with Hammers, commonly features discussions about philosophy and atheism – and a former student from an online course, a businessman, has offered him entrepreneurial advice.

So far, Fincke has offered standalone courses. But he’ll soon start offering sessions that meet repeatedly over a series of weeks and months, on variations of the same topic, including Nietzsche, ethics, and introductory philosophy. Class sessions average about $16 per hour, per student. Most classes have few students and involve lots of dialogue with Fincke. MOOCs and other static content “can’t touch that,” he said. (Fincke is also considering ways to develop additional, static content for those who want his courses on-demand, however.)

Fincke also has been certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association to be a philosophical counselor. That business is slower-growing, he said, but he believes there’s an untapped market for reasoned advice that is neither spiritual nor psychological. He’s previously published numerous philosophical advice columns on Camels with Hammers, including those for a bisexual activist who wanted to discuss his sexuality with his potentially homophobic housemate without feeling apologetic. Another includes advice about caring for a bad mother with medical needs.

He said he’s gotten lots of support from readers of his blog, student and fellow adjuncts – some of whom have made similar choices.

Deb Werrlein, a former adjunct professor of English who moderates the blog Professor Never, and who has written a manuscript of the same name, wished Fincke success after reading about his decision.

Werrlein left academe in 2006 to work as a tutor, making “more money for less time,” she said via email. While supporting herself has been easy, staying intellectually engaged outside the academy has been more difficult.

Still, she added, “I would absolutely make the same choice today. Leaving was incredibly painful, and I still consider it a loss, but staying and working under the exploitative conditions of the adjunct wasn't an option for me. I didn't want to subject myself to that treatment, and with kids, I couldn't afford it.”

Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjuncts, said via email that Fincke’s blog post about his decision was an “honest and thoughtful reflection on the kind of dilemma that almost all adjuncts have to confront at some point: how to balance the need to care for oneself and one's family with the need to fulfill one's obligations to the community and to education conceived as a common good.” She said she found most poignant Fincke's thoughts on the "pernicious system" that adjunct labor helps perpetuate.

Fellow philosophers, even those with tenure-track jobs, also have said they relate to his struggle. Nolen Gertz, an assistant professor of philosophy at Delta College in Michigan, worked (like Fincke) as an adjunct professor of philosophy across the New York City area while earning his Ph.D., from the New School of Social Research. "I can certainly appreciate the idea of academia not being everything we we go into it imagining it'll be, and the idea of being disappointed and frustrated," following those experiences, he said -- particularly in New York, where the market is saturated with Ph.D.s who want to live there for the unparalleled cultural opportunities but largely can't afford to participate in them.

Of course, Gertz was lucky enough to find a tenure-track job upon graduation -- making him one of two among all his graduate school friends to do so, he said -- but that was only after sending out 90 applications to institutions across the country. The philosophy job market is difficult, he said. Gertz didn't know how much kinder the market for online, noncredit philosophy courses would be, but called Fincke's venture "exciting." And there are contemporary examples of philosophical successes outside academe, noting writer and philosopher Alain de Botton's philosophy school concept and popular podcasts.

Ultimately, Gertz said Fincke's success may come down to two things: talent, and "what it has been for academics for centuries for centuries -- whether or not you can get the right patronage."

Fincke discusses the possibility of failure on his blog. He wants to remain a teacher, he said, but even “if that can’t happen, I know I can always teach through writing.” He'll try for the scholarly journals he never had time to write for before, but, he remains committed primarily to his blog. The discipline would do well not to “sniff” at his and other philosophers’ attempts to make it more accessible to the general public, he added. Naming Nietzsche, Kant and a host of other non-academic but well-known philosophers, Fincke said there's a long legacy of the discipline's best work being done outside the academy.

“We are not like other disciplines where one has to go out and do a sophisticated empirical research program and then come back to report on findings,” he said. “This is a dialectical endeavor. I feel like it should be a vigorous daily interaction using modern internet technology wherein philosophers immediately can float their ideas to each other and get immediate professional feedback in an ongoing, informal process in the blogosphere or something akin to it.”

Amy Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, said she couldn't comment specifically on potential market for Fincke's courses or the organization's position on philosophical counseling. But, she added via email: "The discipline and the profession benefit from increased public engagement with and exposure to philosophy; if courses like Fincke's can create more opportunities for that kind of engagement, that's a good thing." (Recent job posting and other hiring-related figures for tenure-track philosophy jobs were not immediately available from the association. Ferrer said the philosophy job market has "long been a challenging one," made worse by the recession.)

But he said he’ll also try for the scholarly journals he never had time to write for before, and maybe even write a book.

Eventually, Fincke said, he’d love to be able to hire other philosophy teachers, and engage in new kinds of philosophical consulting and speaking, such as in business ethics. He's also just launched a new ethics blog, called Empowerment Ethics.

“I see the skies as the limit. I just want to keep trying everything and whatever works, I run with, and whatever doesn't, ultimately doesn't matter,” he said.

 

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