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My perception, though obviously I have no idea if it is true here, is that the vast majority of academics more than exceed any moral or legal requirements there might be on us when it comes to research, teaching and service. There is no moral or legal requirement to do the best you can with research, teaching or anything else you might do in your job.


Having gotten tenure, I very much work to my contract, which in my case includes taking seriously the fact that I have a 9-month contract. I put an "out of office" auto response to my university email from June through August, do not respond to administrative contracts, attend "retreats", etc. Before doing this, I had not realized how much of my summer time was spent on university matters that I was not getting paid for.

So I'm all for reducing your work in any way that does not violate your contract. If you can put in 90% (or 80%, 70%, etc) effort and still fulfill the requirements of your contract, then I see absolutely no moral problem with what you are doing. But I would say this regardless of whether your wages were keeping up with inflation or not.


Is the pay reduction related to the pandemic? For instance, did a budget crisis prompt giving 10 people a 10% reduction to avoid laying off one of the ten?


Empirically, the situation isn’t surprising since OP sees themself in terms of a professional and their students clients. Luckily, we live on a world where college students have something called Rate My Professor and they have more options of choosing their professors (professionals).

If you downgrade, you might lose potential clients, which can be bad for the profession as enrollment might shrink. Why would students take a philosophy class with a bad professor? Humanities are being cut and good teaching is one of the things they have going for them to attract students.

If you’re bad at teaching combined with the dominate view that philosophy isn’t as valuable as the stem fields, then you’re probably contributing to downfall of philosophy and hence your own career and the future careers of other philosophers. Conversely, if you’re a good or excellent professor, your students may remember you for a long time and may donate to your department even if they do not pursue philosophy later on.

I have great gratitude for many of my elementary and high school teachers who put in a lot of effort despite low pay. Even the ones who volunteered for after school services for us. And if I were wealthy I would immediately donate or gift them things that would benefit them. Perhaps give their own children or grandchildren some funding for their college education or contribute to their retirement fund or fund the whole school.

It might be true that you get what you pay for. But it’s also true that you get what you give. The latter is the ethical part since it involves gratitude and acts of gratitude. Such acts of gratitude aren’t owed to all professionals since most of these relations are just a business transaction. I can appreciate them of course, but I don’t feel compelled to give them anything beyond that business transaction via gratitude. Also, how would this affect letters of recommendation?

These issues are all entangled and so it’s something to think about.


Act your wage, comrade!

Grad student

I don’t think there’s any moral responsibility involved here. If you are meeting the terms of your contract, you’re earning your agreed upon wage. Feeling morally obligated to work hard is a neat trick pulled by the capitalist overlords. Good on them.


OP here. Thanks everyone for their thoughts. Some clarifications, and comments, in response to comments.

1. My 90% exceeds both the requirements of my contract and what many of the faculty do when they teach (regardless of what % they're giving). So there's no legal issue here.

2. The pay increase is not due entirely to the pandemic. Even if I had received a COL raise during the pandemic, my pay would have still decreased (4+ years on the job).

3. I view my students as customers only in sense that they're paying (lots of) money for something (the opportunity to earn a degree). But not much can be drawn from this. For instance, it definitely doesn't follow that I'm bad at teaching when I give 90%. And the general connotation of 'treating students as customers' doesn't apply. For example, I am fine failing students who paid and I never adjust my teaching *just* to make people happy or to keep enrollment high.

4. It's false, at least when it comes to compensation, that one gets what they give. That's part of the American ideology and there are bountiful counterexamples.

5. The idea of 'giving one's best' is something that resonates with me, but I don't think we should overstate it as an ideal. For example, I could be an even better teacher if I spent an additional two hours a day on teaching. But this would take up my life and so I don't think I owe any employer my best in the literal sense, even when pay is constant (or increasing). One way to think of my point in this discuss is that there is another limit on how much I give, in addition to the limit on letting work dominate my life: $.

6. I like the way you, Marcus, put the issue in terms of value. Too often we hear from deans, etc. that they really value what we're doing, but then nothing else is attached to it. Employers, qua employers, do not value their employees in terms of the pro-attitudes of individuals towards employees. Rather, they value their employees only in tangible ways, where compensation is the most obvious such way.

Sam Duncan

I think we'd need to hear a lot more detail to judge whether the OP's conduct is justified. For one thing, just what was the initial salary and where does he live? These vary *wildly* for tenure track jobs. If he was already underpaid (say something like $35,000) before inflation started to erode his wage I'd be much more sympathetic than if he had a starting salary of $65,000. I'd also like to know why salary hasn't kept up. Does the school simply not have the money? Or do they have it and are choosing to spend it on dumb stuff like climbing walls or hiring more assistant vice presidents of blah blah blah? If they don't have the money then why not? Bad choices or factors outside their control like flat state funding or even funding cuts from the state? Is it only faculty who aren't getting raises or are admin's salaries also flat? Only in the case where they have the money and are choosing not to spend it raises for faculty or where choices about who bears the pain are made unfairly-- say faculty salaries are flat but admin is giving itself raises-- can we say that the institution itself is conveying a message that they don't value your work as much as they once did. I'd also like to know what 100% looks like. Is 100% phenomenal, dedicated teaching? 10% above the bare minimum you need to do not to get fired? Something in between?
Now granted I don't know the whole situation and my reaction might change if I did, but my first reaction to the OP's proposed behavior is that it it seems entitled and bratty. I completely understand adjuncts doing the bare minimum. It's regrettable but I certainly don't blame them and I think the MBA types who want to replace us all with adjuncts need to reckon with the basic psychological facts Marcus describes. But if you're a tenure track professor you have a very privileged position in academia. If you like Marxist categories (and I don't) you are not, as some of the other posters imply, the repressed proletariat. You are clearly the bourgeoisie, though maybe not as high up in that class as you'd like. And consider who will suffer if you do put less effort in your teaching. It will be your students and I'm betting those students are not primarily upper class. If so, then by giving them a substandard education you'd be exacerbating some already terrible problems of inequality. Moreover, I'd doubt many of them had options to go to schools that pay their faculty better, so that excuse probably doesn't wash. Think about how you'd react if someone in another important profession proposed this. What would you say to an intensive care nurse who thought she hadn't gotten the raises she deserved during the pandemic (which she'd almost certainly be right about) who said she was considering deliberately doing her job less well as a reprisal? What about firemen or police officers who said something similar? Now granted these are life and death jobs and teaching isn't so maybe teaching isn't as important. But I'd still say teaching is very important. And if your response is that it's okay to do a shabby job because your job isn't important at all well then you're hardly giving anyone a reason to think you've been unfairly treated by not getting raises.


OP: Thank you for clarifying. If you could give less effort while still be a great teacher, then that is amazing. In fact, in Chinese philosophy it’s called Wu Wei (effortless action), which is an extremely rare ability. Most people don’t have it. In fact, Bill Gates hires some lazy people because he knows they tend to find the most easiest and efficient way to do things. Most people have to put in a lot of effort to be a great teacher. For many or most people, quality of teaching correlates with effort and so giving less effort means giving low quality teaching.

Students deserve good quality teaching and professors deserve a stress free life. For those who don’t possess “Wu Wei,” their incremental decrease in effort may result in poor quality teaching for students, which could be unfair to them since the students may pay lots of money already. We should be careful not to see this situation simply as a two-place relation here.

For example, I used to pay $30,000/year for tuition. That’s a lot of money towards my university. Some of my professors were adjuncts and put in little effort, which resulted in poor quality teaching e.g. no feedback on work, lack of instructions. I was confused the whole time about each assignment. When I got a “C” once with no justification and I felt bad. I wanted to know where I went wrong. Most of the students were confused like me.

On the one hand, I paid a lot of money and yet didn’t quite see a good return on my investment in that class. On the other hand, adjuncts get paid less and may justify giving less effort which can cause poor quality teaching. It seems in this situation, both the students and the professor are equally justified in demanding something better.

Business transactions at a university is not a two place relation. If you were a private tutor or instructor or some freelance teacher, then your incremental decrease in effort would be more justified. But since professors are involved in a three place relation when it comes to money, they should be cautious not to *significantly* downgrade the quality or effort teaching because their students may pay a lot of money to go to that school in the first place.

This is a grey area situation that we should keep in mind.



Why are you equating 90% effort with effortlessness, especially when you're not aware of what 90% amounts to in this case? I put roughly an hour into prep for lectures I've taught recently, and roughly four hours per lecture for new lectures (not counting reading and picking readings). I also grade three papers per student per term (with extensive comments) and 1-2 short writing assignments a week (again with comments). This is all on a 4/4. I also run the philosophy club and teach roughly 2x as many preps in a given year as the person in my department with the second-most preps. 90% of this is not the same as effortlessness.

Likewise, it's true that incremental decreases in teaching may result in poor quality teaching. But this strikes me as a truism, since isn't it true of everything that it's possible to do poorly that incremental decreases in quality will lead to poor quality overall? The question is whether a 10% decrease in *this* case will result in poorer teaching. I grant I might be overestimating my teaching abilities, but if I'm not overestimating them by a lot, a 10% decrease in effort isn't likely to drag me into the range of poor quality teaching.


I live in one of the two most expensive cities in the U.S. and if I had a kid, I'd qualify for assistance. If I lived in Richmond, a city near you apparently, I'd be making ~40k/year. Above the federal poverty line, yes, but I'm not sure I'd describe my job as firmly in the realm of the bourgeoise, scheduling benefits aside. It terms of finances, it seems to be lower middle-class.

As for my particular institution, during the pandemic alone (a period in which the endowment went up), we have created roughly half a dozen new administrative positions (we are a small institution) and have initiated at least three new construction projects (totally in cost, at the absolute bare minimum, 10% of the endowment). I don't want to make this post about only my situation, as opposed to a more general problem that other faculty might face as well, so I'll stop focusing on the specifics of my situation after this.

As for the nurse analogy, I think it's importantly different. 90% effort for most nurses likely brings them below their job requirements. This is probably because job requirements for nurses are already assume high levels of effort.

I do take your point about my students. They're a mix--some quite well off--but many are first-generation and probably didn't have many options. I don't want to contribute to any sort of exploitation of them. (But I do think they likely had more than just my school, for reasons specific to my situation, not as a general rule.) But it seems that thinking like this is exactly what my administration would love for me to do. Not that that is a reason not to think like that--even administrations can be right some of the time--but it does strike me as a likely recipe for more under-compensation. After all, why pay faculty more when their moral compasses can incentivize the same level of work?

Thanks to everyone for their thoughts.


OP: If you read carefully, I said *if* you could. I assumed that you could since you wrote:

“For example, if my employer is only paying me 90% of what it used to, for the same work, then I can give 90% of the effort I used to (the 90% is more than sufficient to cover the job requirements).”

This is a logical claim here. Suppose your employer paid you 30% what it used to, then by your claim, you could give 30% of the effort so long as those 30% effort somehow is able cover the job requirement. It’s not illogical, but is it practical? If you can, I’d be very impressed and would like to know how you do it.

Wu Wei does not literally entail effortless action. It’s a figurative language I’m using here meant to capture the idea that one can do something effective while not being so unnecessarily forceful on oneself.

To answer your question: A 10% decrease would not necessarily decrease overall teaching quality. Whether or not incremental decreases in effort negatively effects the quality of teaching depends on *what* you’re excluding. Nor would I think it’s necessarily immoral since it is vague as you pointed out.

Personally, I wouldn’t even frame this issue in terms of effort. Instead, I would frame it in terms of the *content* of teaching. Do you need students to do presentations? Probably not in philosophy. Do you need discussions? In philosophy probably yes; it depends because I had a philosophy class that was mostly lecture. Do you need feedback? Yes it’s absolutely necessary. Do you need to teach them basic logic and/or how to identify logical fallacies? Yes, since it’s philosophy.

There are many resources you can provide students that they can refer to that would save you so much energy and time. In fact, I’ve written before on this blog that reference is part of teaching (though indirect).

Experienced and seasoned teachers use reference and point-to high quality and accessible resources for their students to study on their own time because they know they need the extra class time and time in general to focus on discussion and giving good feedback. A good teacher provides them tools they could use on their own time. Hence Wu Wei (effortless action).

Instead of asking “Is it moral to decrease my teaching effort?” ask, “Is it moral to exclude X,Y,Z teaching method?” The latter question is more concrete and not so abstract.

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