Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guest Post: A Broken System

If I had time, I'd actually teach you something!
A guest post by *Kate Kohler

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?
(http://chronicle.com/article/Outsourced-Grading-With/64954/)
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.

6 comments:

WorstProfEver said...

Like this plan; I've often thought that there should be semester-by-semester switchoff between teaching and research because I honestly don't think you can do a great job at both, at least if you want any sort of life.

I feel for both the t-t prof and the student. T-t demands a ridiculous amount of work (usually 80-100 hrs/wk by my estimation) and I think it's only reasonable to fight back in some way. But the student (or their parents) is rightly p-o'd about paying tuition for 'spot-checking'. Yup, it's broken, and something needs to change.

Anonymous said...

"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."

This is a gross oversimplification and generally incorrect. It also proves that quality teaching requires quality scholarship. Positions focused almost entirely on teaching would necessarily remove instructors from scholarship (or at least the ultimate compulsion for scholarship, tenure). The result? Often repeated statement like the above that do not benefit from, oh, let's say, the past 30 years of scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Higher Education, the University system, is a cash cow for the few. The few being the tenured, the deans, the presidents, the football coaches. The University, in my estimation, has done more financial damage to my generation than just about anything else we've encountered. We were promised in high school that if we go to college and get a degree then we would be more competitive, we'd be able to have a career in a well paying job, have a family and be happier, richer, and more successful than our parents had been. As far as I've been able to surmise, it's merely a lie propagated by the few to the benefit of the few.

I used to entertain the possibility that the system isn't broken, that it is performing it's intended function perfectly. Then I read the history about the beast, and I realize that it's problems are more likely by accident than by design... and that's encouraging; even if it doesn't make the reality of it less painful.

Anonymous said...

"This is a gross oversimplification and generally incorrect. It also proves that quality teaching requires quality scholarship. Positions focused almost entirely on teaching would necessarily remove instructors from scholarship (or at least the ultimate compulsion for scholarship, tenure). The result? Often repeated statement like the above that do not benefit from, oh, let's say, the past 30 years of scholarship."
--- Anonymous of January 29, 2012

I shall refer to the author above as 012912, or for a simpler handle: 01.

Using the aforementioned critical thinking to analyze your statements. "A gross oversimplification and generally incorrect." You didn't cite your source 01. There is logical fallacy in this rhetoric: most statements made generally are incorrect on some level. I notice that you also didn't provide evidence supporting that this statement was false. Presuming that you, 01, are likely to be tenured faculty yourself, seeing that your statement would be left baseless and with little to no credibility if you were not tenured. One must ask oneself if this lack of a tendency to make statements without supporting your sources provides evidence to the effect that tenured faculty may not represent the highest beacon of scholarship themselves?

"It also proves that quality teaching requires quality scholarship." Again, support this thesis, 01, I cannot determine that this actually proves anything.

"Positions focused almost entirely on teaching would necessarily remove instructors from scholarship (or at least the ultimate compulsion for scholarship, tenure). The result? Often repeated statements like the above that do not benefit from, oh, let's say, the past 30 years of scholarship."

Spending all of this time working for a PhD and trying to find a permanent position in the academy without finding anything tends to breed frustration. Feeling a need to vent, Dr. Kohler suggests the idea that the tenured are a kind of social elite, and here you are implying that this provides evidence that Dr. Kohler is somehow unfit for the benefits of scholarship (tenure)? If this is, in fact, correct... then all that I can say is, way to rub salt into the wound 01! If only everyone in academia were as classy a scholar as you...

Dr. Kohler, all that I can say is that I empathize with your frustration, I hope that you find what you are looking for. I enjoyed your article.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry 01. I know that there was more heat than light in my comments from yesterday. It's nothing personal against you.

Your comment reminded me of other offhanded comments that tenured faculty I've known have made. There is a certain attitude of privilege and arrogance associated with it. Towards those who do not have degrees, there is an attitude that perceives them as the unwashed, uneducated masses.

Towards those who do have PhDs, and are seeking tenure, it is often implied covertly or sometimes overtly that the PhD's who do not have tenure are the lesser intellectuals, or scholars. This attitude would be correct if the world were much simpler and if the system was truly a meritocracy. It is not, however. Let us remember that during Einstein's miracle year in 1905, he did not have tenure. He wasn't even in academia at that time, he was a patent clerk!

I wasn't reacting to your comment in particular, 01. I was lashing out against all of the comments I had heard which imply that intelligent people I know are lesser scholars for many trite and unexamined reasons. The internal politics of the academy sometimes remind me of conflicts on an elementary school playground, just as immature and fundamentally unenlightened. It frustrates me. I'm sorry that you became the focus of my frustration, you were merely a case study.

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