What About Higher Ed?: A Response to Claudia Dreifus’ Interview
I’ve been meaning to respond to this for a while, only now do I find time to do so. One of the arguments that Claudia is stating is that institutions are giving their undergraduate students the short end of the stick because they are charging an insane amount of money to get an education in a superior institution and the institution, in many cases, use adjuncts, teaching assistants, and assistant professors instead of full professors or named chairs to teach undergraduate courses. She says that “if you think you are going to be spending time with the great minds of your generation you have a surprise coming for you”. She then talks about how adjunct professors are paid up to 1/6th of what a full professor is paid, graduate students “teaching with no preparation whatsoever”, non-tenured professors, and visiting professors. She has an obviously condescending tone towards non-tenured professors, and to say that she looks down on them would not be an understatement. There are some myths, however, that I would like to dissolve. I’ll start with visiting professors.
The positions of visiting lecturer and visiting professor are not positions that are easily attainable. In order for one to become a visiting professor, an appointment that can last from one to three years, the scholar must have already achieved tenure in another institution. There are some exceptions, but this is usually the case. The visiting scholar takes leave from his home institution in order to visit another for research or teaching purposes. This happens when the inviting institution does not have an established scholar on whatever field they want to offer a course on. For example, Harvard might do well to invite Dr. William Arce, professor of Mexican-American studies at UTA, if they wanted someone to teach a course on the Mexican-American war or start a Latino Studies program. Likewise, any institution that would want to start a Caribbean linguistics and creolistics program would have to invite Dr. Marvin Alleyne and Dr. Nick Faraclas from UPR. Given that these are all authorities in their fields, I doubt that students would not be getting their money’s worth.
I guess that the comment that irked me the most from this person is how she claimed that some classes are “graduate students with no preparation whatsoever”. I don’t know what the case might be in Columbia University, where Claudia teaches, but in every institution I have been in every new instructor, regardless of rank or experience, receives a very thorough training on teaching applied to the particular demographic of the institution before they begin teaching. Then, of course, is the fact that graduate students who receive teaching appointments are usually doctoral students. This means that their “lack of training” includes a master’s degree in the discipline and, quite often, experience either in the field or in teaching. In this case it is almost certain that their record of publications is less than impressive – once again with few exceptions – but to say that they are bad teachers is outright wrong. It has been my experience that graduate students with teaching appointments are the most innovative, forward-thinking instructors out of the bunch. Because they are trying so hard to impress their tenured supervisors in hopes of landing a position somewhere after they graduate, they, like adjuncts and other non-tenured professors, often take teaching far beyond what tenured faculty care to do so.
The situation with adjunct professors is a bit of a tricky one. Adjuncts can have any level of education ranging from a master’s degree to a doctoral degree. Although it is hard to find an adjunct with an equal academic standing to Northrop Frye or Stephen Hawkings, to say that taking classes with someone who trained under Frye or Hawkings is nothing short of a travesty. Universities do thorough screening for their adjuncts – many of them not accepting people without Ph.D.s. In order to secure a position as an adjunct one must have valid credentials and either published or presented research. I will concede that they are underpaid. An adjunct teaching 5 courses might earn half, or even less, of what a tenured professor makes for teaching 2 classes, and this is indeed a low wage for someone who holds a doctoral degree. However, it has been my experience that an adjunct who teaches 5 courses will earn up to $3,500.00 per month – hardly starvation wages. What strains adjuncts the most is not that they earn less than tenured professors – that is to be expected. Tenured professors work up to 10 years on the tenure track for their permanent, high-paying, research-intensive positions. What hurts adjuncts the most is the uncertainty of not knowing if they will be re-hired next term. For this, some universities are implementing a teaching-intensive tenure-track, which I wholly support. As Claudia states, teaching in universities is not a very reputable activity – research supercedes it – but while research professors might make a name for themselves on the academic stage, students prefer a fun teacher who engages them with the material than a professor who spends all the time lecturing to the point that they ask each other who the “good” professors are, good meaning someone who makes the material interesting, regardless of how much they publish.
This brings us to full professors. Full professors are, indeed, the best and brightest that an institution has to offer. They make up to 6 times as much as an adjunct and usually teach only 2 courses per term. Because they are usually the best qualified to teach graduate students, they teach two graduate courses. The exception is when they need to engage in some kind of research and use undergraduate courses to collect data, or unless the love to teach a specific course.
Does education need an overhaul? I think so. However, this overhaul does not involve having full only professors teach or making everyone a full professor so they can teach. I think the teaching-intensive tenure track is a start. This would make adjuncts feel safer and give them a sense of belonging to an institution – something from which both students and faculty would benefit. Another step in the higher-education reform would be to make it so that every institution has a new faculty training program as solid as UTA does. Indeed, I have taught at places where I have been thrown into a classroom with no knowledge of the students or the course content (indeed! No syllabus!) and it is quite a counter-intuitive move that takes motivation away from faculty. Those are just two steps we can take towards making higher-ed better for faculty. As for students, I’ve never heard anyone complain from smaller classes that focus on engaging with the course content and the material relevant to it. A student will get more out of a class of 15 students than from a lecture hall with 300 students. A student will learn more if they can “do math” guided by the instructor than from listening to the instructor pontificate about some theoretical value of a matrix. Students will benefit from having computers with internet access easily accessible, and even more if these computers have access to journal databases and online texts.
As for myself, I am quite content where I am currently teaching. All of the faculty I have met so far are excellent, well-published scholars who are, at the same time, excellent teachers. I have excellent students who participate and actively engage with the content. I have institutional support to present my research and overwhelming library support when I need specific texts. Even the administration – which in many universities is seen as “the enemies of the faculty” by the faculty itself – has been amazing. I’m sure that the first step into making Columbia a better institution is to have it look towards UTA for inspiration. This is not to say that UTA is the perfect university. I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure it has some flaws somewhere, and that it could learn something or another from Columbia or Harvard, but I know that at least the departments of whose faculty I interacted with (English, linguistics, tesol, and education) are beyond exemplary.