|If I had time, I'd actually teach you something!|
A student I mentor confided in me recently that one of her tenured professors this term (FYI: I am an adjunct) told a class that she would be “spot grading” their papers. She was simply “too busy” and had “too many students” to grade all her students’ work. (The professor is teaching 2 classes with a total of 79 students – I checked.)
My student was rightly dismayed and, despite the fact that she is an above-average and conscientious student, felt unmotivated to excel in the course if her work was not to be taken seriously, or even read. A series of scenarios went through my head: Perhaps the professor should outsource the papers to India to be graded?
Perhaps the professor should assign less writing? (http://chronicle.com/article/Writing-Assignments-Are-Scarce/125984/?inl). Perhaps the university should hire me full-time with salary and benefits since I make the time to carefully evaluate the work I assign students as an important part of my job?(http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/01/20/study_documents_pay_gap_faced_by_adjuncts)
I quickly realized I was once again stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: not only did I need to advise my student with politic discourse (god forbid an adjunct trash a tenured professor) but I had to explain to myself at least why the university system is so broken that a tenured professor, who not only is under less pressure to publish but gets time off from teaching to do her research and writing, can assign undergraduates course work with no firm promise of mentorship or evaluation.
The reasons why the system is broken are myriad. They involve change through time (also known as history), as well as current economic and cultural realities. As a doctor of philosophy in history I find I can appreciate the change through time ironies quite well. I earned my PhD in the wrong time and place. Born in 1971, a decade that saw the beginning of the end of the post-war boom, I earned my doctorate in 2009 amidst reports of the crises in the universities and economic woes world-wide. My hope to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a professor in terms of job placement, salary, and prestige had become an anachronism.
Here is how I see the problems and a solution. Higher education has historically been a privilege of certain groups – early on clergy who had the time and institutional support to live a life of scholarship followed by social elites who again, had the time and financial support to devote at least a few years to academic pursuits. (Keep in mind one definition of academic is: “hypothetical or theoretical and not expected to produce an immediate or practical result,” which works for both social elites and the scholary in that order). This set the
tone for higher education.
The opening of higher education to a broader community in the twentieth century had myriad benefits for society: first by allowing minority and working-class folk into the hallowed halls where many of them used the education they gained for both practical and scholarly purposes, allowing a necessary breath of fresh air in tired academic power-structures and trends. Second, the opening of the universities also allowed a wider population to gain the kind of “critical thinking” skills so lauded – rightly so – by the powers-that-be as beneficial to economics, politics, and society.
Critical thinking allows just what it promises – “careful evaluation and judgment” of past, present, and future choices by cultures and societies. Problems arose however – critical thinking requires time and money -- to support a growing population of students and professors. It also created an educational bubble that is now untenable. Higher education became focused on raising revenue and maintaining prestige (which equals money) rather than academics and critical thinking skills. In terms of teaching this often meant that faculty were put between that rock and a hard place I mentioned – focusing on their traditional role as scholars and sometimes mentors or acting as excellent teachers of a broader student population.
The truth is that in the opening of the universities a larger population of students came ill-prepared for self-direction in academic studies or simply lacked the motivation and skills necessary to succeed in academic pursuits. This is not a slam on minority groups or students in general. Everyone should have the opportunity for higher education but we, as a global community, need to decide what higher education should entail, how to prepare students for that education, and how we can provide it given the “publish or perish” culture of tenure-track positions in U.S. universities.
I could write a long-winded dissertation on the ins-and-outs of higher ed (in fact, I did) but I want to get back to my main concern here: if tenure-track professors don’t have time to teach (and part of teaching is evaluating student work and helping students reach new levels of scholarship), what can we do? As an adjunct who had planned on becoming tenure track but has since swallowed the bitter pill of reality and is now quite content with a part-time adjunct position (my husband works full-time with great benefits) at a branch of a well-known state school, I have given solutions a bit of the critical thinking I was taught to apply to problems.
Here are my two-cents: At present about 70% of teaching faculty in the United States is made up of adjuncts who work part-time, piece-meal, and most often with low pay and no benefit. This creates a culture of “fast-food work” in college teachers and courses, although many adjuncts are both excellent scholars and teachers. Adjuncts are typically either trained professionals in a specific field or hold a PhD in their teaching
subject. The other 30% of faculty are tenured – which today usually means they have published enough peer-reviewed scholarly work in their field to be considered senior scholars. Aside from the problems inherent in scholarly publishing (http://chronicle.com/article/We-Must-Stop-the-Avalanche-of/65890/) and(http://chronicle.com/article/Pricey-Cost-per-Page-Hurts/48257/), research is important in keeping academics active and relevant to each new generation as well as creating more -- and often more advanced – knowledge.
It is not a surprise that many professors who are working toward tenure or prefer a life of research don’t feel they have the time and energy it takes to be a great teacher. Teaching, however, is one of the most important goals of higher education. One of my favorite quotations by G. M. Trevelyan sums this up: "Since history has no properly scientific value, its only purpose is educative. And if historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is valueless except in so far as it educates themselves." You can fill in your discipline, but the message holds true: what good is advanced or new knowledge if it is not applied to and shared with society at large? That is the role of a good teacher – to know and understand the scholarship and be willing and able to share it with a broader audience – an audience who does not have the time or skill set to decipher disciplinary trends and jargon. A good teacher will also teach students to find the time and create the skill-set of life long critical thinking.
Here is my proposal. Keep 70/30 split, hire professor-teachers (aka most adjuncts) with a contract and benefits, and keep the 30% of researchers to push academic fields ahead. Renew these positions with professionals and scholars but allow them to choose which track they enter and, if necessary, to switch tracks. In order to keep both professor-teachers and professor- researchers in touch with each other as well as the communities they serve, university-wide scholarly conferences could be held on each campus or system in which teachers and researchers would meet to share knowledge and pedagogy. Researchers could potentially work with graduate students as well to train them in the rigors and details of research and publishing.
Of course this plan has kinks, and economic woes would slow its development for now. I think my campus is moving toward this solution, however, and suspect many other will as well as adjuncts demand their due, students demand teachers, and scholarly publishing opportunities continue to dwindle. As a recent piece argued, however, universities should offer both practical and academic resources and strive toward both as goals. (http://chronicle.com/blogs/worldwise/saturday-night-live-floor-wax-and-the-life-of-the-mind/27745?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en)
*Kate Kohler (a pseudonym to protect the innocent and the adjunct) teaches history at a major state university branch campus. She loves teaching history that is useful, fun, and interesting to those who hated high school history classes.