Contingency

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.

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15 thoughts on “Contingency”

  1. Ah, but in the minds of some people the destruction of academic programs isn’t a bug, it’s a feature! A university with just a handful of large programs (preferably from fields other than humanities or social science, since those faculty question the assumptions of society) would be a more stream-lined place to operate.

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    1. At state colleges and universities in Illinois, any program with below a certain number of majors is going to be labelled underperforming and reported to the state government. It’s not just in the minds of some people, it’s the law!

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    1. Ah, it’s because the class I have been preparing has to do with the Spanish Present Subjunctive.

      It saddens me, too, that the Subjunctive in English is dying out. When I tell students that Subjunctive also exists in English and offer examples, they correct me because they don’t recognize it. That’s just sad.

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  2. I agree with you, Clarissa. I wish people in this country valued education and educators more than they do these days, and realized that good education requires money.

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  3. When I have a class of 100 students or more, I find that I cannot do such intensive grading of homework. I still grade tests myself, but I have to get a grader for the homework. This is not a really satisfactory approach, but it is better than not taking up homework at all.

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  4. As a former grader, I think having a grader is fine. They can be more enthusiastic and also more objective and as long as they aren’t grading *all* the work and you’re conferring with them on how the assignment went, it’s fine.

    This is a v. good post and should go viral.

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    1. Of course, hiring a grad student, for example, or an advanced undergrad as a grader would make sense. Especially, for grading the basic grammar assignments.

      This could all be figured out but the practice of spawning these hopeless adjunct positions is wrong, wrong, wrong. Everybody suffers! There should be a movement against it. We should make the administrators accountable for every act of transforming a TT position into an instructorship.

      “This is a v. good post and should go viral.”

      – Thank you. I think it’s an important topic.

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  5. Thank you for this, Clarissa.

    I managed to take classes within my majors with only tenure or tenure-track faculty. I didn’t set out to do this–I was just extremely lucky my first couple of years. I formed relationships with my professors, and when I clicked with a professor? I took more of their classes. I was able to engage more, learn more, and connect more both with my studies, but also my university.

    You’re so right about tenured faculty enhancing the whole university–because they are invested in making the university better. WKU offers domestic partnership benefits now because students and faculty worked together, partly through student government and faculty senate, but also independently of those bodies. That will attract more distinguished scholars to the university, and benefits faculty already there. But you know? Students and faculty, while working for that, forged a strong bond, too. I wouldn’t have gotten to know some amazing people, faculty and students, if we hadn’t done it. Present and future, it made WKU better. And it wouldn’t have been possible at all if WKU had a majority-adjunct/instructor faculty.

    On the flip side, I took two semesters of Japanese. Each semester there was only one section offered, and both were taught by an adjunct. He had another job–a translator for a company in town. He was a great teacher, but he couldn’t give us his all, and after two semesters, I don’t have a good grasp of the language at all. I regret that, because I love the language, I loved the classes, and I loved my instructor.

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  6. In my ideal world, adjuncts would only be used for 2 reasons:
    1) To respond to fluctuations in enrollment. Note that “fluctuations” are different from “permanent increases.” It makes no sense to hire people into long-term positions if you have an unexpected bump in enrollment in a discipline. It does make sense to hire into long-term positions if you have reason to believe that the growth will be sustained.
    2) To bring in people with established careers outside of academia, so that students can get some some of their instruction from a person with a different perspective. These people would probably NOT be teaching freshman courses, but rather specialty courses in their discipline, for advanced students considering that field or career path. So, in Brittany-Ann’s example, the guy with a job translating would not teach Intro to Japanese, but rather a specialty course on Japanese for business purposes (or medical, or whatever it is that he translates for).

    In my ideal world, adjuncts hired to handle enrollment fluctuations would fit into one of two categories:
    1) People who have a long-term relationship with the university, teach at least one course per term most terms, and teach more when enrollment bumps up. You might say that I’m contradicting myself when I say that they should only be hired for enrollment fluctuations and then say that they should teach every term. However, I think that enrollment fluctuations should be handled by quality, experienced people whose performance is known. The way to do that is to maintain the relationship and then give them more work when need goes up.

    Ideally, they’d be paid enough so that when they teach a full load they earn something comparable to full-time faculty. If you want quality people to stay in a long-term relationship with the university and remain on call, you need to compensate them.

    2) Promising graduate students who are near completion, or newly-minted PhDs who show promise. The reason to hire them is to develop and groom the next generation of teachers. Adjunct work should be a first job for most of them, not a permanent rut that they get stuck in.

    So, basically, a university should cultivate a mix of quality long-term people who can be called on as needed, a “farm team” of promising new teachers, and some people in non-academic jobs who teach part time to bring their unique perspective. All of these people should be compensated well and used for the long-term benefit of the students, not just as a source of cheap labor.

    Sorry for the long tirade.

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    1. “To bring in people with established careers outside of academia, so that students can get some some of their instruction from a person with a different perspective.”

      – This is what Visiting professorships used to be about before the entire concept transformed into yet another way of delaying a new PhD’s entrance into a tenure-line.

      I think you suggestions are brilliant. They make sense, while the current practice of eroding tenure and creating dozens of these adjunct positions makes no sense. Even just from a purely business perspective, it’s bad business. It’s like a restaurant that decides to save money by firing the Michelin chef and getting two sous-chefs (who can only come by for two hours because they have 3 other jobs) to cook instead. Yes, that will save the Michelin chef’s salary but how soon will the customers realize what’s happening, get disappointed and leave? How soon will the restaurant lose its reputation and become yet another greasy spoon?

      And then when the Michelin chef retires, there will be no one to take their place because the sou-chefs never got the chance to train to become Michelin chefs in their own right.

      Is this so hard for our administrators to comprehend? Bad academic decision, bad business, bad teaching practice. Adjunctification is bad on all counts.

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  7. Another factor that could help here is the standards applied by accreditation outfits. They need to consider who does the teaching as a significant factor, not just the cirricula. If I recall correctly, University of Phoenix has only two tenured faculty members. All the teaching is done by part timers. This cannot lead to a satisfactory education. The mainline not for profit universities must not be allowed to fall into this trap, and the accreditation organizations have significant power here.

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    1. ” If I recall correctly, University of Phoenix has only two tenured faculty members. All the teaching is done by part timers.’

      – Words fail me. On what planet can this possibly make sense?

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  8. I think it depends a lot on the field. I’m a law student in Denmark (Danish universities are very different from the US ones, ex. all students enrol on specific courses like biology, medicine, English, German, law etc. and then only follow that course until they get a bachelors degree and then typically go on to get a masters in the same field(called candidate/kandidat) before they can get a job in the field).
    At my law programme we have lectures (three per course per semester) teached by professors or senior faculty members and then weekly seminars with outside teachers, typically lawyers, judges, D.As and other people specialized in the field.
    The teaching jobs seems to be prestigious to our teachers and all of them advertise widely on their company websites or public profiles that they are doing them/have done them, even though they have absolutely no intention of working in academia/research.
    I would guess the pay is lousy too, so it’s really a matter of wanting to do the teaching.
    Of course only the top 10% of students each year go on to get the good jobs as lawyers, judges etc. so it’s still bright minds teaching us.
    Since it’s people working with the material we have to learn they bring outside perspectives to the textbooks (and lots of funny anecdotes!) which I think is good, because it is easy to get to caught up in theory and forget that in the “real world” most people have no idea what the laws governing them are about and find it confusing, boring and somewhat scary to deal with.
    Of course, sometimes it would be nice to see more to the professors, just this semester our class heard we where going to have a really distinguished professor in our human rights class but on the first day of class we found out that he for some reason couldn’t do it so we got some young lawyer instead (and he will be replaced by a PHD student in a month), I admit I was a bit disappointed 😉

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