Grading Stukel

Recently, in an op-ed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor implored us to exercise our “critical-thinking skills.” As someone who taught those skills as an adjunct for several years, I thought it would be appropriate if I took her up on her offer, critiquing her argument the same way that I might a student in one of my classes.

Catherine,

In the interests of developing your skills with argumentation, I thought that I might point out a few areas where I felt your writing could be improved:

“I cannot comprehend why any adjunct professor complains with such entitlement about their inability to get a full-time teaching position; but then again, we do live in a new world where every child is special, everyone gets a trophy, and everyone thinks they are privileged.”

Here you have committed the fallacy of hasty generalization. In the future, try to avoid making blanket statements without sufficient evidence to prove your claim. Be wary of words such as “every” and “everyone,” as even one exception renders your argument logically invalid, while a number of exceptions makes even an informal argument appear weak. Also, the “everyone gets a trophy” trope constitutes a thought-terminating cliché, appealing as it does to a widely-held but difficult-to-prove bit of folk wisdom about “kids today.” Finally, one could construe your inability to “comprehend” as being an argument from ignorance: because you do not understand why someone would complain, you make the assumption that there is no reason to do so.

“It’s bad enough that society has raised a bunch of entitled young adults who claim to be victimized when they can’t find a full-time job. Now our adjunct professors are spinning such garbage with such drama. No wonder our new generation of graduates is filled with pipe dreams and no work ethic.”

Loaded language – “entitled,” “garbage,” “pipe dreams” – has a tendency to prejudice the reader against your argument, therefore it is best avoided. You also appear to be guilty of committing a false cause fallacy, attributing graduates’ lack of work ethic (which in itself is a hasty generalization) to their adjunct professors’ claims of victimization, when any link between the two, even if the dubious validity of your premise is taken for granted, has yet to be demonstrated. Because the thesis of your argument – so-called “whining adjuncts” exert a negative influence on students – rests on this causal link, this error in logic is particularly glaring.

“Why should I have to tell you that life is about compromise? As a career- and technical-education professor, I tell my students all the time that they may not land their dream job, but that they still have to work. I also tell them to get as much skill as they can, and acquire different talents, to have a variety of opportunities professionally. So when I read an article left in my box by an adjunct-teachers’ union about a dying, broken-hearted 83-year-old adjunct professor, I thought to myself, ‘Is that the kind of person we want teaching our young?’ Do we want the person who was not able to be self-sufficient, pay their electric bill, or put food on their table? As one of my friends might say, ‘Time to put on your big-girl panties!’”

The first question of your paragraph is a loaded one, in that it assumes that your hypothetical opponent is unwilling to compromise in his or her goals, and that this quality has hindered him or her in attaining a steady source of income. Also, in noting that your advice to students is that, while “they may not land their dream job… they still have to work,” you have committed the straw man fallacy, implying that the counter-argument for “whining adjuncts” is that adjuncts do not wish to work unless and until they get a particular job, while a better representation of the argument that adjuncts present is that they are, in fact, working and only wish to make their jobs better, a desire that they seek to fulfill by vocalizing the ways in which adjuncting could be improved, or “whining,” as you put it. In addition, when you refer to college-age students as “our young,” you are employing a fallacious appeal to emotion, a variation on the common thought-terminating cliché “think of the children.” Lastly, your criticism of Margaret Mary Vojtko is a rather ghoulish example of ad hominem argumentation, resting as it does on the unproven assumption that one’s inability to generate enough income to avoid financial deprivation is an indicator of inferior pedagogical skill.

“Perhaps the position is filled, or the tumblers in the universe just didn’t fall into the right place for you. Or maybe you aren’t aware that you are annoying your colleagues with your opinions about everything, at every meeting, and at every event. Perhaps your full-time colleagues wouldn’t select you for full-time work because you are not likable. Perhaps you have a reputation for mediocrity, or you don’t fully engage your students. Did you ever think of another profession? Would you advise your own students to work part time with no benefits when there are plenty of full-time opportunities in this world just waiting for them?”

Although your reasoning for why an adjunct may not be able to attain the position that he or she seeks is initially vague, alluding to a bizarre conception of reality that you refer to as “the tumblers of the universe,” it quickly runs afoul of something akin to the furtive fallacy, ascribing negative qualities to adjuncts (that they are annoying, unlikable, mediocre, or disengaged) without any evidence to sustain such inflammatory statements. You have also produced a false dilemma, supposing that, for adjuncts, it is a simple choice between part-time and full-time opportunities, when the reality is far more complex.

“Maybe this poor adjunct professor was happy? Maybe she didn’t have a family? If that is the case I commend her for her values and for her happiness. Sometimes we fail to achieve happiness no matter what our line of work or income is. Maybe she found inner peace? Maybe she liked the balance.”

Here, your logic becomes inconsistent. Is this poor adjunct to be commended for her “values” and her “happiness,” or should she not be given the opportunity to teach due to her inability to secure gainful employment?

“What if she wasn’t happy? Why couldn’t she have worked for a non-for-profit? Or worked in administration? She certainly could have still taught part time, right? Perhaps she didn’t have enough drive to seek employment elsewhere? Perhaps she had poor executive function or planning skills? Although I doubt it; one doesn’t earn a doctorate without a reasonable amount of planning and executive function.”

Many of these questions appear to be rooted in confirmation bias: working from the assumption that anyone who does not have full-time employment must be deficient in some way, you cast about for potential answers – inflexibility in job searches, an amotivational attitude, “poor executive function or planning skills” – in an attempt to prove your hypothesis without any concrete evidence to justify your accusations.

“I can only say that I have had full-time employment with benefits both inside and outside working in academia for over 30 years. I made choices. Life is a series of compromises. If you need to earn a livable wage with benefits and can’t do so in one profession—then choose to explore your options. Don’t spend a lifetime sacrificing for something and then complain about it. Become a role model to your own children, family, and friends. Be happy that you were given many gifts—and most of all use those critical-thinking skills.”

The crux of your argument here – that your success is simply the result of good choices – rests on an appeal to authority, which is erroneous because it presumes that the mere fact of your success qualifies you as an expert on making good decisions, when it could be attributed to luck, or “the tumblers of the universe” falling into place, as you would put it. Without knowing the specifics of your situation, I could not venture to guess how much of your success you owe to your own decision-making abilities and how much you owe to chance, though you clearly have no qualms about speculating on the reasons for the lack of success in others.

Judging the paper as a whole, I would have to say that your argument is not deserving of a passing grade. While your thesis may be valid – that adjuncts who complain are less effective teachers than those who do not – your argument, relying as it does on a host of logical fallacies, loaded language, and wild speculation, is not convincing. Next time, please research your topic more thoroughly and remember that, when addressing an academic audience, the content of your writing is subject to the critical review of your peers. I do hope that you do not take the failing grade that I have given you as a reflection of personal bias, but rather, as an attempt to strengthen your work in the future. As scholars, our first duty is to knowledge, and peer review, flawed as it may be, is the best means we have to ensure that scholarly work is as rigorous and exacting as possible. And while I realize that my status as “only” an adjunct – or now, as an “independent scholar,” if we want to be charitable – does not afford me the institutional privilege of being recognized as your peer, I hope that you will see that, in the unmediated realm of pure ideas, we are all working towards the same goals, the pursuit, refinement, and transmission of wisdom, and you will understand that I bear you no malice, only a desire to bring us all closer to the Truth, as quixotic of a quest as that may be.

Final Grade: F (Needs Improvement)

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