Friday, July 27, 2012

Who make the best teachers?

Laura McKenna, guest posting for Megan, writes:

The bad news is that a growing number of faculty at state or public colleges are adjunct instructors. Adjuncts are temporary faculty members who teach classes for low pay, no benefits. They do not have the protections of tenure. They are often not unionized. 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges are adjuncts. The number of adjunct faculty has increased dramatically over time. LinkedIn reports that it is the fastest growing job description.

Doing some back of the envelope computations using data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, I found some depressing news about my alma mater and other public colleges. At SUNY Binghamton, of the 812 faculty, 383 are adjuncts. That's 47 percent of their total faculty. At Penn State, of their 3,187 full time faculty, 1,428 are not tenured or on tenure track positions. In other words, 49 percent of their faculty do not have job security, equal pay, or benefits. If you attend University of Tennessee at Knoxville, you are highly likely to be taught by a graduate assistant. Of, their 4,235 teachers, only 1,295 are tenured or tenure-track professor. 2,062 of their teachers are graduate assistants.

In a report released last year, 56 percent of all classes at community colleges in Pennsylvania were taught by adjunct or non-tenure track professors. They receive $2,500 per class. If the adjuncts taught a staggering five classes per semester, their salary would be $25,000 per year. They often receive no benefits.

All these adjuncts are bad news for undergraduates at the public colleges. Many adjuncts are excellent teachers, but their temporary status and their exclusion from faculty meetings means that students can't rely on them for advice on course selection. It's difficult to develop relationships with faculty that may not have their own offices or might teach at multiple schools. It's also hard to be an excellent professor when you're poor and your career is unstable.

There are several overlapping themes here.  One is the age-old conflict of interest between undergraduate and graduate student priorities.

The undergraduate experience is 90% platform instruction, and thus the kind of instructor they want is one with the ability to be engaging, to be sufficiently interested in the fundamentals to have a firm idea of how they are best apprehended.

The graduate experience, especially at the Ph.D. level, is mostly research.  Their most significant faculty interaction will be with their advisor, and secondarily with their other committee members.  What they want, first, is someone capable of directing them towards and managing them through a properly scaled, feasible, and dissertation-worthy research topic.  Second, they want money.  Which preferably means sponsorship for the research, and if not that, then a teaching assistantship.

The skill sets involved are only accidentally related.  A professor skilled at managing a productive (and well-funded) research program does not for that reason have any ability at delivering a disciplined lecture; a good and enthusiastic lecturer of the basics only developed that ability because he wasn’t interested managing research.

The institutional incentives are even worse.  With a few exceptions (Rose-Hulman, the Service Academies), most public universities reward successful research programs, not teaching.  While at some schools it is theoretically possible to win tenure on the strength of academic instruction (which usually includes higher-order activities like course development and textbook writing), in practice most tenure-track faculty don’t take this route.  So little effort is put into teaching.  And the need to get money to their graduate students often puts those grad students in front of undergraduate classrooms.

I experienced these conflicts from both sides.  As an undergraduate, I suffered hatefully through any number of professors, famous for their research programs, droning indifferently in barely intelligible English at the head of 200-seat lecture halls.  As a graduate student, those same professors (figuratively speaking) became vital to my research success.

What to do?

I think the Armed Services get the solution exactly right:  separate institutions – e.g. USAFA and AFIT – separate budgets, separate faculty.  Thus, no opportunity to treat undergraduates like cannon-fodder for the research programs.

Alternatively, one school I knew specifically created something of a career track for lecturers, and paid them salaries a lot higher than the adjunct numbers quoted above, though not as high as professors whose research programs brought money directly to the university.

But I want to push back against McKenna’s suggestion that the solution is to put more tenured faculty in front of undergraduates.  In my experience, these professors were not obviously better, and sometimes a lot worse, than a TA or adjunct.

I also submit that the poor pay for adjunct lecturers probably reflects the supply and demand.  Last year, I myself applied for a handful of those poorly-paid adjunct positions on the strength of a Ph.D. and prior college instruction experience.  I was unsuccessful, so I can only assume that the successful candidate was more qualified than me.  Which made them pretty qualified, if you don’t mind me saying.  So, yeah, more money for lecturers would be nice, but I can hardly blame the schools if they can get qualified people to do the work for less.

4 comments:

LDiracDelta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LDiracDelta said...

One way to hack the system is to avoid the bad lecturers during coursework. www.RateMyProfessors.com has presumably saved my bacon on a number of occasions. Within the constraints of your coursework plan you can take courses depending on the public rating of the professor when you have multiple classes that will advance your academic progress. This public feedback system is stronger than mere student-to-student chatter, because it is so accessible. I'm not certain, but I'd bet that the lack of students in the poor lecturers' classes is becoming more pronounced these days.

samsonsjawbone said...

The bad news is that a growing number of faculty at state or public colleges are adjunct instructors. Adjuncts are temporary faculty members who teach classes for low pay, no benefits. They do not have the protections of tenure. They are often not unionized. 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges are adjuncts. The number of adjunct faculty has increased dramatically over time. LinkedIn reports that it is the fastest growing job description.

Present's company's needs notwithstanding, it's hard not to be happy about this.

heresolong said...

I'd also be interested in some empirical evidence to back up her statement that "these adjuncts are bad news for undergraduates". Are the students learning less from these teachers? That is the main reason you are there, after all.