Currently, I’m taking a class in higher ed administration. Part of the class requires me to read articles and watch videos then respond to them. Last week, we covered faculty in the university and various issues arose from technology in the classroom and academic freedom to contingent faculty. Most notably, these are the issues that stuck out to me and resonated the most due to my own personal experiences and pedagogical practices. Today, I want to share my thoughts and reflections on these issues. The first half, before the break, is a response to the videos in the course. The second is in response to Amanda Ochoa’s article “Contingent Faculty: Helping or Harming Students?”
Note: This is what I posted in response, so it is, somewhat, rambling. As well, it is longer than my normal posts.
Response to Videos
After listening to the videos about faculty, a few issues stuck out. For one, I was intrigued to find a discussion about technology and its implementation in the classroom in this section. Within this context, various individuals mentioned the ways that the role of faculty in the classroom has changed from the conveyors of knowledge to facilitators in learning. One individual noted that we have not seen a drastic shift from conveyors to facilitators, and I tend to agree with this assessment. In the classroom, I am a firm proponent in active learning. Having students engage with the material, then present that material, is a way for them to understand it on a deeper level. While I do lecture some, students working together to produce information has proven more beneficial because I can teach, in English, various things as students work. For example, I have students break into groups and answer specific questions based on readings while using quotes from texts to support their arguments. They then write these answers on the boards and we discuss them in class. This exercise allows them to work with writing, a skill they need not only in my class but in their future careers, and with the material they read for that day and the material they have been working with.
When I think of technology, I partly think of this type of activity where faculty use the space to its advantages. My institution’s commitment to active learning classrooms, with non-traditional set ups and technology, in the new active learning classrooms, is a move towards what the videos discuss. The ability for me to have students work simultaneously on glass boards, share their computer screens, and other activities has made active learning easier in my classes. As well, it has strengthened my role as both a conveyor of knowledge and a facilitator. Rather than becoming mere receptacles for the knowledge I share, these spaces make it easier for me to have students engage with the material in a more thought provoking manner. Thus, they become active participants and members in the creation of shared knowledge.
One concern I have has to do with the move towards contingent faculty. On a budgetary and demand level, I understand this movement. However, as a PhD who has worked as an adjunct, has looked for Tenure Track positions (close to 400 plus apps over four years), and does not have job stability past annual contracts, the move towards contingent faculty is a real fear and concern. The inability to crawl out from student loan debt and other financial debt due to sacrifices of achieving a terminal degree is a detrimental aspect of more reliance on contingent faculty. While individuals like myself enjoy teaching and see it as a calling, the stress of this position hurts individuals and ultimately students as well.
There has been research on the effects that contingent faculty have on students in the classroom. Being overworked and having to struggle to even make ends meet causes this faculty to possibly falter some in the classroom. In my experience, most contingent faculty teach core courses, and if contingent faculty are saddled with exorbitant loads at numerous schools, then the students will suffer. If the students suffer in this manner during their first or second years, retention rates may go down, thus affecting graduation rates and budgets. The opposite could happen as well. Being overworked, contingent faculty could lead to more grade inflation, another problem. I know these border on logical fallacy of the slippery slope, but when students are affected by classroom instruction then there are institutional repercussions.
This is a multi-faceted issue that needs addressing, and it has been addressed by various organizations such as NCTE in English. Thinking institutionally, there need to be more programs for graduate students, especially PhD, to help them navigate non-academic or administrative roles. Within some disciplines, the overabundance of PhDs has led to more of a reliance on contingent faculty, and the sooner students know how to look outside of academia for employment, the better off they will be. I have struggled for four years, since I graduated with my PhD, to find a TT or permanent position. My inability to do so, with my CV, speaks to larger issues within academia that, while differing some from institution to institution, needs addressing.
Response to Ochoa
Most of what Ochoa covers in her piece are the same aspects I wrote about in my post about faculty. There are a couple of issues, though, that I want to expand upon here. I recall during my first university position, as an instructor of English with an MA, debates within the department where I worked about having tenured or tenure track faculty teach core classes such as freshman composition or literature surveys. The consensus, among TT faculty was that they did not want to do that. So, the department used instructors, Gas, and adjuncts. I have seen this same dynamic play out at various places where I have worked, this exacerbates some of the issues Ochoa covers. Specifically, the research that shows that students in core classes do better when taught by full time or TT faculty.
Another item that jumped out to me was Ochoa’s reference to Thompson’s article on academic freedom for contingent faculty. Ochoa states, “Security, or lack thereof, can also threaten the contingent faculty’s academic freedom. One who is beholden to a term or yearly contract is not as free to speak their mind in the classroom.” This makes me consider the comments from Dr. Andrew Hugine of Alabama A&M University who stated that the lifeblood of the university and faculty is their ability to pursue academic freedom and search for the truth, even if that truth may be unpopular to the general public, in their research. When one “is beholden to term or yearly contract” the ability to seek this “unfavorable” truth becomes problematic. It’s easier to not renew someone’s contract, especially with the plethora of applicants for every position, than to deal with the dust up that may occur from a contingent faculty member using their academic freedom to challenge students or the public.
At the end of the “Empirical Research” section she mentions a study done by Ehrenberg and Zhang in 2004. They found that one of the reasons for an increase in non-tenure track faculty is to open up space for tenure track and tenured faculty to conduct more research. Their results, as Ochoa states, “indicate that institutions hiring part-time faculty for classroom teaching so that the tenure stream faculty can be more productive in research may be misguided, especially since the authors’ earlier finding indicated that an institution increasing its part-time faculty lowered graduation rates.” Here, I want to chime in from personal experience. As an adjunct (6-4 load at two universities), I remained productive in research (publications and conferences) while teaching and searching for a more stable position. As an instructor (4-4 load), I have maintained a high research output (close to fifteen publications over the past four years, a Fulbright scholarship, conferences, and other awards) while also teaching and serving. All the while, though, I struggle with finances and the uncertainty of stable employment. I have a passion for the academy, but the struggle of overcoming some of these obstacles that have a myriad of causes is daunting and exhausting.
If, as the research that Ochoa shows, contingent faculty cause lower retention, graduation, and even student satisfaction rates, why do we rely so much on it? If the funds for the TT lines that go away get reallocated, making it impossible to reopen that line, how does that affect the department and students? If universities are producing more PhDs for positions that are non-existent, what are we doing for these students to help them navigate the non-academic market? What are we doing for students who come from lower-tier universities (like myself) who will experience an even harder uphill battle while searching for those coveted TT positions? These are questions that I think about, and that Ochoa touches on some. Moving forward, what do we do? Budgets are important, but if the job of the university is to instruct and move knowledge forward, we need to think about the harm we are enacting upon these aspects of universities’ missions with the continued increase in a reliance on contingent faculty.