getting past emotional truth

This post by Ann Larson discusses, briefly, the rise of the “rage of the adjunct” essay genre. I’m glad that it does, as it itself is indicative of my frustrated, conflicted relationship towards that genre. It’s profoundly necessary, and has finally generated some much-needed media attention for the plight of adjuncts, which is a moral stain on the contemporary university. But there are problems with the genre which are exemplified in Larson’s post.

First, there’s the tenuous grasp on the factual accuracy of the arguments involved. I’ve said, at length and repeatedly, that the general argument about the fundamental brokenness of the academic job market is entirely correct. I’ve also said that there is some distortion and looseness with the facts in these essays that merely makes it easier for those in power to ignore them. So look at Larson’s discussion of the rhetoric and composition job market, relative to the literature market. It happens that I frequently counsel people in my field that composition is by no means a safe haven, that a rhet/comp degree is not a guarantee of anything, that people can and do graduate into unemployment from these programs all the time. But this is insufficient for Larson, so in her piece she writes

Composition does not defy our rotten economic system; it exemplifies it.

The literature on contingency leaves no room for doubt. A 2011 special issue of College English directly addressed the issue of Composition exceptionalism. “[F]aculty teaching courses in composition,” wrote Mike Palmquist and Susan Doe, “have been affected most by [higher education’s] growing reliance on contingent faculty. Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.”

This is frustratingly uninformative. Clearly, what’s relevant is not merely what percentage of composition courses writ large are taught by adjuncts, but what percentage of rhet/comp PhDs get long-term contracts and TT jobs relative to literature. To ignore that question is misleading. As Larson well knows, the numbers she’s discussing here include the many, many literature PhDs who graduate without jobs. She’s lumping together groups that this discussion needs to keep distinct. How many composition PhDs are unemployed one or three or five years after graduation? I’m sure that it’s far too high. I’m also sure that it’s far lower than a similar share of literature PhDs, which anyone who is exposed to the labor market of English can tell you. That isn’t an argument that compositionists are safe– they aren’t. It isn’t an argument that the labor market is healthy– it’s the opposite. It doesn’t change the fact that far too many in both literature and composition will go on to exploitative labor situations. But it is very important context for thinking through these issues clearly, and I know some would dismiss Larson’s piece out of hand for not talking about it.

This is the problem with speaking the “emotional truth,” a common invocation for adjunct essayists and part of a lot of rhetorically counterproductive strategies that, I’m sorry to say, creep into this genre a lot. The emotional truth is invoked on the ground in the day-to-day discussions I have with adjuncts. People will make claims that I know to be factually inaccurate, or will advance ideas that I find politically misguided, and I will push back. When confronted, they will say something like “I am entitled to my anger,” leaping back and forth from a position of making a dispassionate economic analysis to a position of emotional truth that I am therefore, in their minds, obliged not to contradict. There are all sorts of ways bad arguments and misleading information get excused in these debates– “it’s agitprop! it’s not intended to be factual! it’s meant first to provoke!”– and I think each of these, while certainly understandable, are ultimately unproductive. And they have made this argumentative space one of bullying and rejection. I know young academics, including TT faculty, who would potentially be allies in this cause, but because these essays always gravitate towards anger over reconciliation, they decide instead to ignore the issue altogether. It’s simply too fraught to engage.

Most academics are people who think that facts matter, and so when you are loose with the facts, you make it harder to get their support. For example: the claim that 76% of college instructors are adjuncts. The actual figure is 41%, as Matt Bruenig has demonstrated. That’s far too high! Those people deserve steady paychecks, manageable teaching loads, long-term contracts, and benefits. 41% is the opposite of an acceptable condition. But  look: that’s the truth. Tell the truth. Not the “emotional truth.” The old-fashioned kind of truth.

In her essay, Larson contrasts the current order with a very common false history of the academy. This is a myth that permeates the study of literature: English was once the noble study of literature and the human ideals contained within, but has since been devalued and debased thanks to the teaching of composition. Literature was among the most prized of the liberal arts, as it helped students reach for the deeper, more meaningful values that make human life worth living, apart from their narrow economic interests. But now, thanks to the rise of the neoliberal university, English has been reduced to the study of the practical, service discipline of teaching writing, which is a betrayal of traditional values and the particular instrument for casualizing the English professoriate.

None of that is true. The equivalence of English with the study of literature is a historical curio, almost entirely a 20th century phenomenon. The kind of close examination of texts for their symbolic and aesthetic value that we now think of as the study of literature was traditionally undertaken in the study of classics and religion, neither of which was typically undertaken in the vulgate. The study of rhetoric and argumentation goes back to the very foundation of the modern research university, and is discussed as an essential aspect of liberal education by John Locke, Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, John Milton, among others.  Meanwhile, the study of great texts was directly and uncontroversially undertaken with the explicit purpose of inculcating traditional values. The association between the liberal arts and humanities and the postmodern rejection of normativity is a very new phenomenon. For most of their history, the humanities and liberal arts have been based on the exact opposite philosophy than their current non-normative assumptions. They were intended to pass on values– aristocratic values, Christian values, hegemonic values. That was their purpose.

This made sense, given the historical purpose of the university, and this is the most important point: the university of the past– the one which Larson thinks was once alive and is now dead– never existed. Larson contrasts the present with a dead past, but it’s a figment of her imagination. It’s remarkable to me how often intelligent people who have historical chops repeat this false notion of a prelapsarian American university where knowledge was pursued for its own sake. When Larson says that the university is dead, I want to ask: when was her version of the university alive? It’s easy to find people lamenting the decline of knowledge for its own sake, but harder to find documented evidence from the past that shows that the university was ever involved in its production To whatever degree that was once true, it was true because of the initial purpose of the American university: to train and perpetuate an elite aristocracy. If colleges were places where practicality never entered into the equation, it was because their students had nothing to fear from the job market. They were already wealthy and destined for more wealth.

Now if this is a discussion of “pure research,” then of course I’m in favor of it, and like most humanists I believe that human inquiry has ended if all of it must be connected to immediate material or pecuniary gain. At the same time, I am perpetually confused by the notion that it’s a failure if humanistic knowledge is also demonstrated to have practical value. I think that the study of literature is a noble and necessary pursuit, one that does indeed have the potential to access deeper values and more expansive human good. At the same time, I think there’s lots of practicality in that study too, and I don’t see why anyone who is interested in the teaching of literature would want to deny that. Our pedagogy and our research can and must be both about generating knowledge for its own sake and for the practical good of students and humankind. That always seemed straightforward to me.

Finally, arguing that the study of composition is the wedge cudgel through which administrators have rendered English a discipline of adjuncts seems strange, given the relative (only relative) health of the rhet/comp job market. Rhetoric and composition, at some places, functions as a defender of literature because the programs help secure the funding necessary to keep literature programs viable. I don’t mistake that for a sustainable solution, nor do I doubt that there are rhet/comp scholars and faculty who are partially to blame for the current labor market. (I don’t excuse faculty in general, although I do insist on pointing out that the greater part of the blame lies with administrators and state legislators.) But I also think it’s relevant that, in demonstrating the ways that English is important for the (yes) practical needs of students, rhetoric and composition can help English departments and literature scholars. There’s nothing dishonest about using the university’s focus on capitalist goods to support and sustain humanistic research and careers. On the contrary, it strikes me as just sensible.

Worst of all is Larson’s advice, such as it is. She writes, “As public institutions are dismantled around us, those who identify as Compositionists should take the radical step of refusing to apply our knowledge and expertise in the corrupt institutions as they are.”

As I’ve said in the past: this is Underpants Gnome theory. Refuse… and then what? I’ll tell you what: if the good people who care about adjunct labor, cultural studies, and the political economy of the university drop out, then the university will simply replace them with people who don’t care about those things. It would be a great victory for conservative academics and those who really are collaborators, but not much use for current adjuncts. Larson mentions the UIC protests, one of the most invigorating developments in the university in the last several years, for me any way. But if they took her advice and refused to participate in their jobs, there would have been no one in those corrupt institutions to fight back. Does Larson think we can really escape those institutions entirely? Does she think we can escape those institutions entirely, rebuild a new university system? I find that deeply unpersuasive. We need to do our best to reform the current institutions, precisely because that is where our adjuncts are working and need the help.

There are times when I feel genuine hope about these issues. The UIC strike is only a small beginning, but it demonstrates the ways in which permanent faculty and contingent labor can work together. And in making the essential argument that labor conditions and undergraduate education quality are intimately linked, the strikers and their supporters are taking up the necessary argument to create change. When Rebecca Schuman makes her brilliant suggestion to reflect adjunct labor in the US News and World Report rankings, or JD Hoff points out that the deck is stacked against adjuncts doing quality teaching, I feel energized. The universities care about the opinion of parents, they care about what potential students care about, so if we can use journalism and cultural commentary to demonstrate the ways in which adjunct labor hurts students, we can make real headway. But when I read posts like Larson, or when I engage with people who insist that I am a collaborator if I refuse to engage in useless emoting, I feel real despair.

Crisis necessitates that we respond carefully and intelligently. We cannot emote our way out of this problem. We can make real and substantial progress, but we need to tell the truth, and we need to gather what allies we have, not eject them because they haven’t ritualistically quit their jobs in a way that would only make things worse for everyone. Save the emotional truth for your diary. We need to organize, we need to unionize, and we need to strike.


  1. I think it’s fair to say that “John Locke, Francis Bacon, Adam Smith, and John Milton” were each in their own way enemies of “aristocratic values.” They were no postmodernists, but were revolutionary heretics in various ways. Why does the ruling class sometimes produce original, radical thinkers who are not ideologues (at least not all the way down)? I don’t know, but I’m glad it did.

  2. This is great. But let’s tease this passage apart a bit more:

    “At the same time, I am perpetually confused by the notion that it’s a failure if humanistic knowledge is also demonstrated to have practical value…Our pedagogy and our research can and must be both about generating knowledge for its own sake and for the practical good of students and humankind. That always seemed straightforward to me.”

    To be a bit pedantic…consider a quadrant. The horizontal axis is practical application of various types of research (from less to more directly useful). So string theory would be on the left while biomedical research that is close to a viable product, e.g., is to the right. Much research lies in both camps. But there is a difference, and at some point you leave one type and end up in another.

    The vertical axis is the type of research various academics want to be doing. Some academics want to their work to be practical and and some don’t. I personally know many researchers who don’t want their work to have practical value. And as I’ve told you before my experience is among STEM folks. I know physicists who would be annoyed if their work would lead to a useful gadget in the near future.

    So when you say that “our” pedagogy should be both useful and generate knowledge, you’re really saying: “I, Fredrik Deboer, with my own wholly subjective beliefs about what type of research is worthwhile, believe that our pedagogy…”

    You’ve written a lot about pluralism and the need to accept that people have different visions of the good life. I think some of your own writing on the academy needs to internalize that philosophy, recognize the vertical dimension of this quadrant, and that some of these discussions boil down to genuine disagreements about what type of research should predominate.

    Many people in the academy are in the lower left quadrant: They want to be doing research that doesn’t have practical value. Even if they’re wrong about how the university existed in the past, they want to push it in that direction.

    I realize this wasn’t entirely the point of your post. I also realize I harped on just a couple sentences. But thought I’d bring it up anyway.

  3. Kind of incidental to your general point, but in addition to the 76% figure for all teaching positions, she also references a fairly high composition specific figure which is more germane to her article as a whole: “‘Nearly 70 percent of all composition courses . . . are now taught by faculty in contingent positions.’” from College English (which appears to found in this issue It’s behind a paywall, but the abstract indicates that it was a survey done by the authors, so perhaps it doesn’t share the flawed pedigree of the 76% figure.

    1. It’s also worth noting, as someone pointed out in the comment stream on Bruenig’s post, that while the “76% of faculty are adjuncts” claim is, at the very least, confused/confusing (mostly, I’d argue, because different people mean different things by “adjunct”), the mirror claim, that only approximately 25% of higher ed faculty are now tenured or tenure track, is well-supported by the evidence. When you’re talking about the future of the higher ed employment market, and what an academic career is likely to look like for any recent Ph.D., that’s the key figure. It’s the 25% figure that threatens the future of both tenure and meaningful faculty governance, and the sort of position I hold — full-time with benefits and a salary lower than my tenure-track colleagues, but much higher than the wages of my part-time contingent/adjunct colleagues — may actually be a greater threat than part-time contingent ones. Since full-time contingent positions look good in magazine rankings and accreditation statistics (since they’re full-time, and the faculty holding them are often Ph.D.s), there’s very little incentive not increase their use. But because faculty in such positions are on limited-term contracts, and often don’t do service (in part because they/we hold down much heavier teaching loads), it’s hard for us to participate in any meaningful way in curriculum planning, or other forms of governance. While no one can predict the future, I strongly suspect that the rhet & comp market is simply lagging behind other lit/language/writing job markets, and that rhet/comp Ph.D.s will increasingly find themselves getting these non-tenure-track jobs (which means that people considering entering a rhet/comp Ph.D. program should ask themselves if they would be satisfied spending their careers in such a job, and, if not, choose some other path before, rather than after, pursuing the Ph.D.) If rhet/comp scholars believe in the inherent interest and/or utility of studying their subject at the graduate level (and there’s certainly strong argument for that), they might want to think less along the lines of creating Ph.D. programs (which are really mostly useful for people who intend to seek academic jobs), and more along the lines of Creative Writing programs that offer certificates and/or individual classes aimed at the needs and/or interests of post-B.A. students who don’t intend to go into higher ed. teaching. That’s a form of saying no to perpetuating the cycle of exploitation in Ph.D. programs that still recognizes the value of the discipline.

      1. By why have compositionists found it so necessary to create their PhD programs? Because literature professors have done everything in their power to minimize the professional stature and value of composition scholarship. Here at Purdue, I’m at the department that was in many ways ground zero for the beginning of rhet/comp as a researched discipline. And the reason why programs like ours were created is because literature faculty valued composition teaching and composition scholarship, quite often, literally at zero. As in, don’t bother putting that article about composition pedagogy in your tenure review file. Compositionists care about student writing. I care about student writing. Literature doesn’t and never has, and has engaged in the most destructive and ugly elitism about the student writing that actually funds English departments. To this day, even with their job market cratering around them, lit people by and large look down their noses at compositionists. I can’t tell you how often I’m condescended to by literature specialists. So of course we created our own programs. It was the only way to get our subjects and our scholars taken seriously. And if the result of that is literature being increasingly unable to count on the composition funding that keeps the lights on in English departments, they should probably consider changing those attitudes.

        As for the kind of jobs people will accept, I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. I applied to jobs outside of the academy for two years before I went back to school. The tiny handful of offers I got didn’t pay much better than my stipend now, and didn’t have health benefits, which is as major concern for me. I make no bets about my own future. I will figure out the next stage as it comes. As far as long-term, salaried jobs like the ones you’re talking about, I understand what you’re saying about them becoming a wedge with which to end English as a researched discipline. But they are much, much better than the conditions of per-course instructors. I think we can advocate for more tenured lines and get more per-course jobs turned into long-term positions with benefits at the same time, although of course it will not be easy.

  4. Hello Fredrik,

    Thank you for this sober response to Larson’s essay, where I also left comment. As a philosopher I appreciate your emphasis on fact-based, dispassionate reasoning/discussion/argumentation – though also recognize it is sensible to not ignore the emotional element, where and when appropriate.

    I note that you find Larson’s advice to withhold our expertise from institutional employers counterproductive, if not irrational and irresponsible. I also note that you are a union man: “We need to organize, we need to unionize, we need to strike.”

    I wonder if the approach I work on might not thread a middle way (though perhaps radical way) between the two. The idea is to organize our labour in an entrepreneurial fashion that allows us to refuse (or offer) HEIs our expertise, while avoiding the limited union response to the crisis in HE, which reaches well beyond adjuncts to students and society-at-large on a global scale.

    I suggest we organize as a formal profession with accompanying social contract for the provision of higher education and research through independent, private academic practices – as attorneys, accountants, physicians, and dentists have traditionally offered their expertise. This does not mean we shun or abolish HEIs, since the two – private practice and institutional facilitation – can form symbiotic relationships. It does mean, however, that unions might very well be gone.

    But with their demise the institutional employment bottle-neck is smashed and any academic who wants to can provide their services to the public, not merely those that can be accommodated by limited institutional facilitation, would be free to do so under professional protection and direction. I estimate that such a practice in philosophy (or nearly any subject) can operate on the advertised price of tuition alone – a 50-75% reduction in the total cost of face-to-face higher education. See here:

    I recommend this doc as initiation to the professional model:

    I might also suggest this one (along with it cousin forthcoming piece on

    I my view what is needed is fundamental change, not more of the same old approach to the same old model.

    I hope you find the time to review these ideas. I ask for nothing, as I do this work out of professional and civil duty.

    Shawn Warren PhD

  5. I think the resolution to your (rhetorical?) confusion:

    At the same time, I am perpetually confused by the notion that it’s a failure if humanistic knowledge is also demonstrated to have practical value.

    lies in the realization that the “initial purpose of the American university [was] to train and perpetuate an elite aristocracy.”

    The key is that the cultural values of the elite aristocracy considered the practical to be vulgar. Thinking about the “deeper, more meaningful values that make human life worth living” is a pastime of the elite aristocracy. I suspect that an aversion to the practical permeated the entire curriculum of the early 19th century college. When, in the late 19th century, there was a great proliferation of colleges and universities throughout the nation, the people who had gone to college and who were available to teach in and administer these new colleges had all been inculcated in the values of the cultural elite. They in turn passed these values in turn to their students, and remnants of this attitude persist to this day. I think it’s behind the reason that, as Praj suggests, (the totally unpractical) string theory has more prestige than, say, materials engineering. Or why engineering itself is usually an entirely separate entity from the “arts and sciences,” and completely absent from the elite liberal arts schools. And so forth.

  6. Freddie,

    I wrote nothing about “the noble study of literature and the human ideals” or about literature being a “most prized” human art. And I do not believe that “English has been reduced to the study of the practical, service discipline of teaching writing.” Since I have nothing to say about any of those topics in my essay, I suppose that is why you did not quote me in the paragraph you wrote that addresses those supposed transgressions.

    I welcome responses to my article. But I hope that respondents engage the actual content of my argument.

    I wrote a brief historical account (based in the literature of the field – in which I hold a PhD – and on my own interpretation of that literature) about how professional Composition scholars used popular anger against labor exploitation in the academy in the service of advancing a campaign of non-discrimination that ultimately benefited themselves, not the large numbers of people who teach writing classes and who continue to teach most writing classes. And I argue that, looking back, we can see how this strategy failed as a politics of social and institutional change. We can learn from that failure, and we ought to do so.

    Certainly my account is not exhaustive, and I agree that more work needs to be done to clarify and theorize what refusal might look like in practice in different locations. I look forward to participating in that conversation.

    Furthermore, I have no problem with the thesis that there was never a “prelapsarian university” engaged in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Perhaps, then, the title of my essay should have been “Rhetoric and Composition Never Existed.” Fine with me.

    1. I find your history compelling in parts and not in others. I think there are places where you assert a causal relationship between efforts to achieve disciplinarity and the rise of adjuncts that you don’t really prove. We’ll just have to disagree, there. But it’s your eagerness to get to a statement that is as inflammatory as “Rhetoric and Composition Is Dead” that interests me here. And it gets to what I’m talking about when I talk about emotional truth. To be an ally in the movement for adjuncts, but to maintain criticism of the political and analytical choices some in that movement make, is to constantly be accused of bad faith. I’m constantly told that I only question some aspects of these arguments because I think I’ll get a job, or that I’m just being defensive about my discipline or my peers. People who have TT jobs are accused of just being paid off, only resisting because the system rewarded them.

      In other words, defense of the system, to whatever degree, are represented as simply the product of the position of the defenders within the system. But there’s a clear rebuttal, or really extension– one could claim that those criticizing the system are only doing so because they themselves failed to get employment within that system. It doesn’t help that most of the people who write these essays only started caring about the labor market after they didn’t get a job and only started caring about adjuncts when they became one. But people aren’t going to make this counter, because they’d be called ugly and unfair and cruel and whatever else. In general, in this debate, we’re dealing with an assymetry in the kind of arguments people are allowed to make.

      Now I don’t particularly care what the motives or impulses are of the people involved. I think that people writing essays like yours are more or less correct about the brokenness of the academic job market, correct about the terrible plight of adjuncts, and correct to militate for better pay and working conditions. On the substance, I’m 90% with you and Rebecca Schuman and others. But I think that 10% matters, and I think this asymmetry in communication makes it much harder than it should be to sort that part out. I think that your history is distorted by a desire to find something nefarious and illegitimate, and I think you should consider whether your current relationship with the academy leads you to seek out certain conclusions. You said in the comments that this stuff sometimes seems personal, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that only people pushing back against you are taking it personally. I think it is already personal for you, and that is reflected in your history. Which is fine. I just wish I could point it out without being accused of supporting the system or being unfair.

      1. I do not assert a strictly causal relationship. The fact that you want me to be doing that doesn’t make it so. I argue that a non-discrimination campaign led by professional Compositionists corresponded historically with the rise of the contingent professoriate along with an “administrative imperative” that came to dominate the field. I read the relationship of those phenomena in a particular way and try to understand what we can learn from the outcome.

        I never said that people working in the academy in full-time positions are the enemy. I do not feel that way. Nor do I think personal experience – on either side of the contingent divide – is irrelevant to structural critique.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *