Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts

Last week, Dan Berrett published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed entitled "Adjuncts Are Better Teachers Than Tenured Professors, Study Finds."  All the rest of the week on social media, this article was trotted out as an example of what is wrong with higher education in America today:  1.  There is an ever-larger segment of the workforce that exists in the space without benefits, protection, and stability, and 2. Tenure is an evil system which keeps lazy professors who no longer care about their craft in the top jobs sucking up all the money.  I can see, at first glance, why the title was so very appealing to many in the Education Mercenary Army, but on closer inspection this article contains some worrisome ideas.

Firstly, the study that Berrett reports on was conducted mainly at Northwestern, which has a selective admissions process and its treatment of adjuncts is above the norm for most:

     But an untenured faculty member at Northwestern may not look much like the stereotype of a part-   
     time instructor cobbling together teaching gigs on multiple campuses.  Northwestern's were 
     generally well compensated and enjoyed longstanding relationships with the university, said Mr. 
     Figlio [conductor of the original study].

     He added that 99.4 percent of the untenured faculty members in the study had taught at 
     Northwestern for at least six quarters.

     "This is not someone we're hiring once to fill a gap and then getting rid of," he said.

An arrangement such as this is one that I experienced at the school where I have taught the longest, up until this year.  I did feel a certain amount of loyalty and had plenty of time to truly work at the craft of teaching.  Whether or not I was made to feel welcome at department functions (this varied on what they might be and who might be in charge of those) mattered little.  I was welcomed by many colleagues and groups on campus.  I had a good salary, benefits, and a great office space for students to drop in when needing help.  I knew all the years that I was there this was an anomaly in the adjunct world, but it worked for me and my family. Until now.  Now I'm learning how the other more-than-half lives.

I do still have my office space at that school, but my hours are fewer and my loyalty is gone.  At my second school, I share a communal office space where I can rarely use one of the two computers during my off times.  Any student dropping in for a writing conversation could not be guaranteed confidentiality due to the other adjuncts from various fields sharing the space.  I carry all sorts of supplies in two large bags that makes my commute and elevator use interesting, to say the least.  All that aside, it's a very good school and I'm fortunate to have gotten a position there.  I've been treated enthusiastically by department heads and other workers.  I don't feel the "adjunct stigma" as much there as at the place I'd called home for so long.  I'm welcome at teaching groups, workshops, and events, though my commuting distance makes some of those impossible.  But I digress.

Secondly, what about these super adjunct teachers? 

Figlio's study shows that students who took economics to an untenured faculty were "7.3 percentage points" more likely to take another economics class as opposed to the students who took political science to a tenured or tenure-track faculty member.  I'm sorry if I don't find this earth-shattering--maybe it's my lack of math skills--but the study doesn't seem inclusive of many fields and it is at only one school that has a non-standard practice of treating adjuncts well.  However, I must admit that when I saw the headline pop up that first day, I thought, "Well DUH! Of course we teach better!"  I've seen the hard work adjuncts and teaching associates pour into their classes. Generally, if I want to know the latest tech use in class that works, I'll ask another adjunct.  We're willing to try it and also able to admit when something is junk.  We dig through publications, each other's brains, and draw on our own pasts as students to make the best classes that we can.  At least, most of the people that I know do, and we have some very good reasons to work so hard.

Often our jobs are dependent on the numbers generated by student assessments and/or peer evaluations of our courses.  We stand to lose a great deal by being lazy or having uninteresting classes.  Additionally, many of us are still on the job market, hoping to land a position that raises us out of the mire of adjunct-land.  To do so requires proof of teaching ability, whether it be copies of those evals or fat teaching packets of syllabi, assignments, objectives, and lesson plans.  I work diligently on my classes planning, tweaking, researching, amending, and championing whatever I've been assigned to teach.  Above all, I try to remember that even if this is my 124th Composition I class, it is likely the student's first and only one, and I owe it to that person to make it worth their time and useful.  To be honest, I cannot imagine myself ever becoming so complacent that I stop learning and trying new things.  So while I'd like to get all self-congratulatory over this article, it functions more like a Sword of Damocles despite the imbedded positivity conferred by the statistics.

Any administration that wants to continue justifying cuts to adjuncts' salary, hours, and benefits could point to it as evidence contingent labour does not harm students as unions and education organizations claim.  It could be used to abolish tenure as a useless relic, allowing for a large-scale house cleaning of highly paid professors who will be replaced by an all-adjunct team.  Surely, the tenured may say, no educators will stand for this!  In solidarity we'll all stop work.

Don't be too sure about that.  Look at the bad deals many adjuncts have already accepted to keep bellies full and lights on.  When the tenure track forgot to include us in their vision of social justice, when universities turned to the Wal-Mart template for exploiting workers, few took a vocal stand for adjuncts.  Expecting us to stand up now for tenure may be unrealistic.  It's starting to feel like perhaps we adjuncts are the ones inside the horse and it's being slowly rolled up to the ivory tower.  The question is if anyone is willing to take the working conditions and the educational mission of higher education seriously anymore, or if folks are still concerned with only themselves and hanging on to what is already theirs?  

And my once-homey office space?  It now feels rented and I'm just the current tenant.  

Trojan horse

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