Great teaching and the adjunct fallacy

10 Sep

I really didn’t have time to write anything today, but I just saw this article citing a new study that demonstrates college adjuncts and other non-tenure track faculty are more effective teachers than tenure-track professors, especially for students with weaker academic preparation. Let the misinterpretations of the data begin! Even from the title – “The Adjunct Advantage” – we can predict that the spin is going to be that adjuncts are a most cost-effective way to have better teaching in post-secondary education. But the causal attribution is all wrong, and that’s got to be cut off at the pass. Otherwise, cost-cutting colleges – and moreover, lawmakers looking for ways to justify cutting education budgets – are going to use this study as a rationale to link effective outcomes with job insecurity (not to mention union-busting).

The explanation is a simple case of occupational priorities determining effectiveness. Tenure-track professors, whether before or after tenure, are rewarded for research and publications, so their top priority is going to be succeeding in those areas. If they happen to be great teachers, it doesn’t hurt their portfolio, but their worth to the university – and their promotions – are going to be measured by their publications and research grants.

Non-tenure-track faculty are hired on temporary contracts and the primary measure of their effectiveness is teaching evaluation, followed by willingness to be a team player. I was non-tenure-track full-time faculty for five years, and my annual contract was contingent upon getting good evaluations from my students. So my top priority was going to be to make myself the best and most effective teacher I could. Finish an article for publication (and fall behind on my course prep and grading), or spend extra time helping a student understand the material better? Which one would be better for my job security? That’s an easy call.

If you tell people in Group B their continued employment depends upon good teacher evaluations, and you tell people in Group A their continued employment depends upon prestigious publications, books, and research grants, which group are going to become the “more effective” teachers? The fact that the former group are working with even less job security raises their stakes even more; teaching well becomes a matter of subsistence.

Where the real research needs to take place is how to turn the system of higher education into one that relies on positive reinforcement for good teaching and good research, since it is well-established that positive reinforcement is a more effective tool than the threat of negative reinforcement – and it makes for a better work and living environment for everyone. The idea that workers are more productive when living under the constant fear of termination is already a fallacy in itself, but it is especially untrue in the higher education industry, because the methods for active learning and experimentation there require the freedom to question, and the necessity to address shortcomings and failures without prejudice if students don’t get it perfect the first time.

I’m open to the idea of a two-track (not two-tiered) solution, if both tracks are well-compensated, have job security, and students are able to benefit equally from great teachers and great researchers. Why not let faculty decide what kinds of positions and job descriptions they would prefer, if the benefits and remuneration – and job security – were equal?

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