I have spent the entire day today grading my students’ lab assignments that I had created on my own and planned strategically to enhance the learning. Then, I graded written homework assignments which I have students prepare for every single day of class. Students grumble that this is a lot of work but, at the end of the semester, they always tell me that these written exercises and fun lab assignments made all the difference in their learning. After finishing grading, I prepared a series of original activities for next week’s classes because I don’t like teaching to the textbook. Even when I use the textbook in class, I still transform the exercises to make them fun for the students.
What you have to understand is that I am not obligated to do any of this work. Nobody will know if I don’t and my career will in no way suffer if I stop doing these things from now on. I do them because I’m planning to spend a long time working at this university and it matters to me that students do well in language courses. If I don’t work as hard as I can teaching them the Spanish language, I will find it more problematic to teach them literature and to direct their Senior Projects. The prestige of our department and, ultimately, my entire university will suffer if I graduate students who are not very good. And since I’m affiliated with this university, it matters to me a lot that our diploma mean something positive.
Our contingent faculty members don’t do any of extra things I do in the courses they teach. For lab, they make students spend a certain number of minutes in the physical building of the lab, giving them grades irrespective of whether students spend those minutes playing online poker or updating their Facebook status. They very rarely make the effort to speak only Spanish in class because that’s a lot of work and you need to break down a lot of resistance to do that.
I, of course, could never blame the contingent faculty for not doing as much for the students as I do. They are paid a pittance for teaching a much greater load than I do. I have a lot of free time that allows me to grade more and invest more time into class prep. An instructor who has to run from one temporary teaching gig to another has to spend so much more time to make at least half of what I do that nobody can reasonably expect her to practice the leisurely approach to teaching that a tenure-track faculty member has. The contingent faculty don’t experience any feelings of allegiance to the university and don’t see any continuity in what they do because they never know if their contracts will be renewed next year.
Things are quite good at my department in terms of the tenured / tenure-track professors versus contingent faculty ratio. We keep hiring people into tenure-line positions and are even transforming an instructorship into a tenure-line job right now. This is pretty good given that most colleges in this country are doing the opposite. My university at large mostly follows the same trend. The number of contingent part-time faculty doesn’t grow nearly as fast as the tenure-line faculty*.
Other schools, however, are falling all over themselves in their rush to close down tenure lines and hire adjuncts and instructors to do the teaching that used to be done by professors. Some schools hand over the teaching of all lower-level courses to contingent faculty and only have tenured faculty teach higher-level and graduate courses. This is a disastrous practice.
I know a university that adopted this strategy and, within just a few years, lost almost all of its students majoring in Spanish. The department had endless meetings trying to figure out why the students had left the program. A few conversations with the students, however, made it clear to me that they saw no continuity in the program and didn’t want to wait for years to have some contact with permanent faculty members. The quality of instruction at the lower level was also abysmally low because you can’t expect anything better from grievously overworked and underpaid people who have no reason to care about the results of their labor. Even when the number of Spanish Majors at this, formerly legendary department, dropped to 3, the administration did nothing to stop the erosion of tenure by the creeping adjunctification.
Substituting tenure-line positions with contingent teaching faculty is a very stupid and unproductive idea. It looks like it saves some money in the short-term perspective. However, it does huge damage to the university long-term. College teaching should be done by people who have time and energy to explore the most recent teaching methodologies, who do good, up-to-date research in their disciplines, who have enough leisure to come up with new and inventive ways of delivering the material. This is why the concept of tenure was first invented: it is practical, it ensures the best quality of teaching, it is what’s best not only for educators but also for students.
You have no idea how often during our departmental meetings we run into a wall because the only solution to a department-wide problem that really hampers our work is the fact that we have contingent faculty teaching some of the courses.
Making contingent labor force grow in academia is a huge huge mistake. If anything will bring down the entire system of higher education in the US, it will be this single excruciatingly stupid practice of saving small, insignificant amounts of money by closing down tenure-track positions. At most universities, getting rid of a small percentage of needless administrators or letting go of an athletics program that costs millions would allow to transform instructorships back into tenure lines. And that would immediately boost the academic, scholarly and, ultimately, financial productivity of a university that would adopt this intelligent strategy.
* I will explain in a separate post why this happens and how it’s working out for my university.