Friday, February 25, 2011

Is there an upside to contingent teaching?

Thomas H. Benton has a column here at The Chronicle on the state of higher education, and why it's so bad. He points to several factors, among them the increasing reliance on "contingent faculty."

Perhaps the most damaging change in higher education in the last few generations has been the wholesale shift in the composition of the teaching staff. Formerly, full-time, tenured faculty members with terminal degrees and long-term ties to the institution did most of the teaching. Such faculty members not only were free to grade honestly and teach with conviction but also had a deep understanding of the curriculum, their colleagues, and the institutional mission. Now undergraduate teaching relies primarily on graduate students and transient, part-time instructors on short-term contracts who teach at multiple institutions and whose performance is judged almost entirely by student-satisfaction surveys... Contingent faculty members, who are paid so little, routinely teach course loads that are impossible to sustain without cutting a lot of corners.

I'm of two minds (or maybe more) on this. One mind is in total agreement. As an undergrad, I attended a tiny SLAC where seminars might have had two or three students, and we were always taught by full-time professors, who were almost always available to students outside of class. As a grad student at a research university, I was a TA where, with no training whatsoever, I was grading papers and exams for a class of over 100 students. My first teaching job was an adjunct position at a SLAC. I was hired at the last minute, and had no prep time -- I pretty much had to prepare each lecture the night before class, since I was simultaneously taking classes and working as a TA. That was not me as the best teacher I could be. It was me as the best teacher I could be under extremely difficult circumstances.

The other mind knows that adjuncts, non-TTs, and VAPs are exploited as cheap, abundant labor, and Benton is right that as contingent workers, we can be worked to death and pressured to please students. As part-timers and temps, we have little connection to the institutions and departments we work for. The kind of personal interaction and sense of place and tradition that I benefited from as an undergrad isn't available to the students of adjuncts.

The other mind thinks adjunct teaching should be an important part of graduate education, since many philosophy grads do aspire to an academic career. But with so few permanent TT jobs available now, a substantial number of contingent faculty will never get TT jobs, so they are, in essence, being strung along in the vain hope that there's a permanent job out there for them. But the numbers are against them. (Granted, some adjuncts may not want TT jobs.) Eliminate most adjuncts and non-TT positions and there are fewer philosophy jobs to go around. But maybe that's better, both for students, and for the exploited workers.

Except that I gained a lot of valuable experience as a teacher while working as an adjunct, and that experience has made me a better teacher. Take away all that experience, and I'd be an inexperienced teacher if I was lucky enough to land a TT job.

How's this for a solution? Grad students who aspire to teach ought to be mentored in teaching, and instructed in teaching, just like education students are. Make teaching instruction part of the graduate curriculum. Give grad students real experience teaching classes in grad school. Then the argument that the exploitation of adjuncts can be justified because valuable teaching experience is gained evaporates.

The downside (or upside): more of us can figure out sooner that there aren't really enough jobs in philosophy to go around.



Anonymous said...

is there any reason to think that the instruction at education schools makes people better teachers? my limited exposure to theoretical education workshops makes me think most of that curriculum is complete garbage.

Anonymous said...

If you teach as an adjunct and eventually get a TT job, you soon find out that many of your colleagues have never had the experience of teaching part time. This gap in experience leads to lots of misunderstandings and unjustified elitism from TT faculty who think that being a part-timer means you're a failed teacher-scholar. It would be nice if everyone were required to work as a part-timer for 3 years post PhD before going on the TT job market. Oddly enough the elitism is worst from women and minorities who secure TT jobs when they are ABD or immediately after securing their PhD. Boy how the tables have turned!

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:25, a sense of entitlement is a terrible thing to waste. Especially when you can turn your good fortune into evidence of your natural superiority.

Anonymous said...

> Oddly enough the elitism is worst from women and minorities who secure TT jobs when they are ABD or immediately after securing their PhD. Boy how the tables have turned!

Yeah, they're so uppity. I mean, it's fine with me if they have jobs (I guess), but they don't have to act like they deserve them.

Xenophon said...

What I don't get is the number of 1-year FT positions that I've seen in recent years. These make sense if they're sabbatical replacements, but if they're there because deans don't want to commit to a TT line, they should at least approve 2 or 3-year appointments. If you spend a lot of time developing new syllabi for a course, it's to the advantage of the college to keep you around for a couple more years.

I also don't get these SLACs that expect 3-4 preps per semester. I know they don't have a lot of multiple sections, unlike bigger schools, but if they're going to rely on VAPs they should at least find a way to have that person teach all the sections of PHIL 101.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be an important distinction between offering classes to graduate students (and recent grads) to prepare for their TT future, whether or not they ever get there, and replacing tenure-taught classes by cheap expendable labour that please the students with easy grades hoping to extend their contract for another year.

I can imagine its difficult to come up with some kind of criteria to determine which is which in any particular case. But if we have doubts, or feel we can't trust the university to do the right thing, perhaps we could just put the brakes on the potential HR savings-orgy.

Here's a suggestion, off the cuff: no single course be taught by non-tenured staff for more than two years in a row.

If a uni's offering a course for the third year in row, it can hire someone permanent to teach it, no?

Word Verification: goright

Anonymous said...

From Xenophon:
"I also don't get these SLACs that expect 3-4 preps per semester. I know they don't have a lot of multiple sections, unlike bigger schools, but if they're going to rely on VAPs they should at least find a way to have that person teach all the sections of PHIL 101."

My view on this is pretty much the polar opposite. Lots of different preps = a hell of a year, yes, but also experience teaching a bunch of different (and presumably not 100-level) courses. That kind of experience is invaluable, *especially* if you're aiming at a SLAC-type job. Sure, a bunch of sections of 101 leaves you more time for research, but then it's not clear to me how you're capitalizing on the opportunity that being at the SLAC for a year offers.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 10:57. My first job (4 years) was spent teaching the same courses my entire duration. There were people there before me filling these teaching requirements and people still there doing the same thing. There's was never any uncertainty as to whether there would be a permanent need to have someone or other to teach the courses, just a decision to fill that permanent need with people willing to teach 4-4 for 32K per year.

wv: upars. As in, "Although the powers that be said that they were committed to Marxist principles, when the workers asked for anything they told us we could stick that request upars".

zombie said...

All of my adjunct jobs have been at schools that did not have grad programs in philosophy, so it is pretty obvious they were not using adjunct labor as a way of teaching grad students. That's one way to distinguish between having grad students teach so they can gain classroom experience, and exploiting cheap labor. (For the record, I really loved one of the schools where I taught, the adjuncts had a decent union, we got benefits, and the dept chair was a great guy who told me when he hired me that he thought the reliance on adjunct labor was bad for the profession.)

Schools with grad programs CAN have a legitimate reason for assigning adjuncts to teach lower level classes. But of course, they also use adjuncts because it's cheap.

Xenophon said...

I wasn't proposing that umpteen sections of 101 would leave more time for research. I don't see how anyone can competently teach a 4-4 load with 3-4 preps per semester. You either spend all your time getting lecture notes together, or you teach stuff you know well rather than stuff students need. It's better to teach a couple of courses and do the prep properly -- plus have time to assign papers you actually read.

But then I believe that course design is more than coming up with a list of readings, and spending class "discussing" them. I know a lot of people disagree with me on that.

Anonymous said...

"That kind of experience is invaluable, *especially* if you're aiming at a SLAC-type job."

I agree, but is this a realistic approach to the market? While it likely does make someone a better teacher, does it make someone more appealing as a hire? Do SLACs consider such things things when hiring? Has anyone gone through the past few years to see what SLACs really want, based on what they hire? From where I sit, what makes someone an appealing is not the same as what makes someone a good teacher.

Anonymous said...

7:25 is right, we have an Hispanic lady, a new TT hire, and she calls the part-timers, mainly white, wet-backs. It's definitely a two-tiered system, though some of the adjuncts have better qualifications and more teaching experience than the TT faculty. Also the students usually prefer taking courses from adjuncts. So I wonder if the elitism is justified. Do faculty, TT or adjunct, really deserve their jobs or did some get lucky and others not?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that should read: "From where I sit, what makes someone an appealing hire is not the same as what makes someone a good teacher."

Anonymous said...

What is unconscionable is administrations hiring an adjunct to teach 3 or 4 courses per semester for $2500 per course and no benefits instead of creating a VAP line to cover those courses. That said, teaching one or two sections to supplement a fellowship and get some teaching experience is perfectly reasonable. For the record, I graduated from a Ph.D. program where pretty much all of the students were required to teach two courses of their own each semester. We also met regularly as a group with a senior professor to discuss our teaching methods and difficulties, etc. I learned a lot about teaching from that experience. As for the arrogance of T-T faculty who were hired straight out of their programs, that makes sense given the arrogance of grad students. Teach part-time and search for jobs for a few years, and one is more likely to gain a sense of reality and the humility that attends that sense.

Anonymous said...

"Grad students who aspire to teach ought to be mentored in teaching, and instructed in teaching, just like education students are. Make teaching instruction part of the graduate curriculum."

Just like education students are? This has got to be the words of someone who has never met an education student, or seen what their instruction looks like. One of the more ignorant suggestions I've read on this blog!

Mr. Zero said...

1. What are some of the problems with the curriculum education students?

2. It so happens that one of my closest friends from college has a master's degree in education. I haven't discussed the curriculum in detail with him, but he has indicated to me that the experience was valuable and that he learned useful stuff. (He had been teaching junior high for several years before he went back for the master's. He's also not a dummy.) He did not say that it was all bullshit. (This is compatible with it's being somewhat bullshit. My point is that it was not worthless.)

3. It seems to me that the main idea behind that sentence is that people whose principle professional duties include teaching ought to be instructed in teaching. That's not a crazy idea.

Philosophy Husband said...

I'm not Anon 5:37, but I'll stick up for the content, if not the tone, of what s/he said.

It certainly depends on what part of the country you are in, but in many areas, teacher training largely involves memorizing a series of increasingly complex student learning objectives and rules that may entail some idea of what to do in the classroom, but no actual help with dealing with problem students or difficult parents.

I believe I got more training in teaching in my seminar on how to be a teaching assistant than my wife did in 2 years of teacher training in one of the best programs in the country.

But then again, she sure knows State Code 5.3.c as it pertains to ESL students with learning disability X better than I do. How that applies in real life to such a student, no one knows.

Mr. Zero said...

boy, that sure was a crappy sentence #1. You get the idea, though.

zombie said...

"Grad students who aspire to teach ought to be mentored in teaching, and instructed in teaching, just like education students are. Make teaching instruction part of the graduate curriculum."

I should think it would be obvious that future college professors not receive an education identical to the education that a kindergarten or junior high teacher would receive. But I guess it wasn't obvious.

My point was not that future philosophy professors receive the SAME education that education majors do. It was that they receive SOME education in pedagogy. The skills that we acquire as philosophers in grad school do not necessarily make us good professors.

Since I have a kid who had an inexperienced first time teacher in first grade, I know that an education degree does not automatically make one a great teacher IRL. Experience makes a huge difference for elementary school teachers. There's no substitute for years of experience. I've also seen plenty of barely literate writing come home from elementary school teachers. And a teacher who spelled words wrong on a spelling test. (And yeah, I sent that test back to school corrected.)

I've also taught education majors in philosophy classes, and I know that some of them are quite bright, and very serious about being good teachers. Anyone who wants to claim that all education majors are alike is either uninformed or bigoted.

Anonymous said...

5:37 here:

Certainly I have had some bright education majors in my courses as well. No one is claiming that they are *all* unintelligent -- just that overall they are weaker than most other majors. We can settle this question not by talking about people we've met, but by looking at the relevant test scores, with the results grouped by major.

Here's a more unscientific finding to report, though: when I type in "education major" to google, the third result that the magic google memory thingy fills in for me is "are stupid." Interesting!

Frank O'File said...

,when I type in "education major" to google, the third result that the magic google memory thingy fills in for me is "are stupid."

That's a fantastic research tool you've discovered there. I propose that all outstanding intellectual debates be resolved, where possible by means of Google auto-complete

google said...

Frank O'File are stupid.

Anonymous said...

As an adjunct at a state uni in a poverty stricken state, I feel some authority to comment here. I am paid much less than the $2500 per course stated above, I have no benefits, no guarantee of work from one semester to another (in fact I usually get told the first day of class which sections I'm teaching) and no respect from others in my department. It stinks for me, and it's bad for the students because I know that I don't put in the effort that I would do if I felt that my work was in any way valued.

This is the thing - the question of whether you would do your job for free (because you love it so much) neglects to take account of the very real psychological impact of an institution failing to illustrate its appreciation of your work by paying you a living wage.

This is a comment that has been made on this blog before, I think, but bears repeating. It is not a 'good thing' to offer your (considerable) services for nothing. Not good for you, not good for education in general, and not good for students. If you give it away, people don't value it.

Xenophon said...

Anon 9:05,I take it your adjuncting is your main source of income. In which case, let me ask: why do you continue doing it? If you've got a PhD in philosophy, you can get a better job in a better part of the country.

I'll also add that the argument do it because you love it only works if you don't need to do it for subsistence. Let's say you worked in banking, or were an editor at Hackett, or, well, etc. and you had the offer to teach a course every semester for <<$2,500. Would you do it then, for love of the discipline and/or because you love teaching? You might. There are circumstances were money isn't the only mark of subjective value: we can get value from respect, pleasure, etc. Unfortunately, it sounds like your current job doesn't allow any of these, which sucks, and I'll agree with you that in that circumstance, decent money would go a long way to bringing the others in tow.

(BTW, I name Hackett because I think it would be a cool press for philosophers to work at, not for any other reason.)

Anonymous said...

"If you've got a PhD in philosophy, you can get a better job in a better part of the country."

Really? My impression is that PhD in philosophy is pretty worthless outside of academia. There are also issues with perceived overqualification.

Xenophon said...

Well, you might have to start at the bottom if you go into another field and pay your dues again. I'm not saying someone will just hand you a job at $100k. My point is that if you can get a PhD in philosophy (have the smarts, etc), you can succeed in other things. I didn't mean that the degree was sufficient qualification to land jobs in other fields.

philosorapters said...

Hey everyone,
I'm investigating professional aspects philosophy, particularly how to prepare as a student for the job market. I'm posting my results on a blog:

Thanks for having this blog its a great resource for students.

I was hoping you could clear up some terminology for me:
SLAC = selective liberal arts college?
VAP - Visiting assistant professor?

What is FT?

Thanks again for all this info.

I found an article about mentoring grad students which was interesting here:

Anonymous said...

If you're underpaid, why don't you just move to another part of the country and get a higher paying job? What an odd question. Have you adjuncted before?

(1) You can genuinely love philosophy and teaching and therefore NOT want to switch careers.

(2) If your job sucks, you're not likely to simply pack up and move to a different part of the country on the off chance that you might be able to land a better job. For one thing, not PT job is likely to pay you enough to cover your moving expenses, and moving to another place without secure employment isn't always an obviously bright idea. Especially if you're living check to check, like many adjuncts.

(3) Where are the magical places where you could move to be sure you'll get a well-paid adjuncting job? Sure, some schools are great; others not so much. I'm in NYC, which mostly sucks all around as far as adjuncting goes (because you have to teach a 4/4 load to live in anything slightly above poverty; if you want health insurance, you might have to teach 5/5, which is hard to score in terms of schedules.)

(4) My personal view is that the sorts of exploitative PT teaching scheme that exists today should not be legal. Sure, some schools might then not be able to stay open, or at least to offer the same number of classes. So what? That's like saying that sweatshops are great because some companies wouldn't be able to make as much profit if not for sweatshops. Adjunct labor is exploitative, pure and simple, and administrations that rely on it--which, at this point, is most administrations--should be forced to stop.

(5) Are there upsides to PT teaching? Yup. Are there upsides to being exploited? Nope. So if you can offer PT teaching with proper guidance in a non-exploitative way, great! If not, maybe you shouldn't be running the sort of school you're running, and screw your budget problems.

(6) Fewer PT jobs translates into more FT jobs.

WV: equings
TT in a can gives you equings!