Tenured Faculty Tie Shoes; Crowd Cheers Wildly

September 10, 2013, 10:35 am

good-job-not-done-anything-stupid-in-five-minutes-funny-retro-posterDo you ever wonder how anyone graduates from college if tenured and tenure-track faculty are as hapless, incompetent and unmotivated as we are said to be?

The latest argument for reducing all faculty to positions to piece work performed by casual laborers is this study out of Northwestern University claiming, according to the title given to it by The Atlantic, that “Tenured Professors Make Worse Teachers.”

Oh No-o-o-o-o-oes!

As Jordan Weissman writes, “Turns out, tenured and tenure-track professors underperformed on both the inspiration and preparation fronts. Controlling for certain student characteristics, freshmen were actually about 7 percent more likely to take a second course in a given field if their first class was taught by an adjunct or non-tenure professor. They also tended to get higher grades in those future courses. Taking an intro class with a non-tenure track instructor increased a student’s mark in their second class by between .06* and .12 grade points, depending on controls. The freshmen who got the biggest boost tended to be less academically qualified students, judged by SAT scores and such, in the hardest subjects.”

Seven percent more likely? .06 -.12 grade points higher? This is a study that allows us to draw a sweeping conclusion that tenured and tenure-track faculty fail to develop their teaching skills as they devote their time to non-teaching tasks like grant writing and scholarship?


Why can’t we acknowledge that contingent faculty are often great teachers without trashing tenure-stream faculty? They are often great teachers, for many reasons, none of which have to do with the low status, long hours and meager pay that go along with being off the tenure track. For these reasons, it is also likely that some contingent faculty will be worse teachers, more inexperienced teachers, less well-prepared teachers and angrier teachers. Most of them will not have office hours, be advising capstone work, serve as academic advisors, or write letters of recommendation for students.

What I really object to, however, is The Atlantic putting a reporter on this story who clearly doesn’t even know the right questions to ask.

As the authors note, this paper only looks at freshmen. Tenured professors might very well might do better in advanced junior and senior-level courses where they can incorporate their own research and special expertise into their curriculum and have a chance to work with students who’ve accumulated a bit more specialized knowledge. Also: Northwestern is a tony private university that attracts highly qualified faculty to work as adjuncts and non-tenured instructors. Who knows if these results would hold up at a typical state university.

“Beyond that,” Weissman writes, “I would have liked to see these results broken down a little further. Do tenure track professors, who are struggling to publish as much as possible to impress their colleagues, fare better or worse than faculty who are already set with tenure? And are adjuncts really just as good full-time, non-tenured faculty? It’s not clear.”

Here’s the news Jordan: those contingent faculty are not ladies and gentlemen of leisure either. They are trying to publish, finishing dissertations, raising children, and/or teaching heavy loads at multiple campuses. What you might have wanted to say is: it’s a stupid study. It establishes an arbitrary methodology for what constitutes “learning” and produced results that are at best a draw. It is yet another version of the politicized social science that seems to grow on the trees in Chicago and is aimed at recasting every form of employment to a neoliberal model in which laborers who have to compete must be doing better.

Finally, need we point out that although 7% of those surveyed supposedly learned better with contingent faculty, an unacceptably large number of students thought that they were worse teachers than tenure-stream faculty. I would also be interested to know what classes were being taught and what kind of contingent workers Taught them. Were they teaching seminar-style classes? Sections of a larger course? Were they being supervised by tenure-stream faculty? Were they Ph.D.’s in full time or post-doctoral positions — or long-term adjuncts teaching on a per course basis? I would also be interested to know when, and if, the students knew that they were being taught by contingent faculty. In my experience, students generally do not know the difference, and assume we are all alike.


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