Academia’s Two Tracks: A dialogue

This is a fascinating discussion of one of academia’s big problems: the use of provisional faculty to teach general education students.  You can read the full discussion here.

To the Editor:

A recent study of Northwestern University indicating that non-tenure-track faculty are better teachers than tenure-track faculty (“Study Sees Benefit in Courses With Nontenured Instructors”) has been met with disbelief and derision — by tenure-track faculty and the American Association of University Professors.

It calls into question the myth that the two-track system in academe is an equal opportunity merit system. It is not; it is in fact a caste system with the tenured faculty occupying the upper caste and the off-track faculty serving as the “untouchables.”

This is not the first study to indicate that adjuncts and other “contingent faculty” are the best teachers. In the book “Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education,” John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg studied student evaluations at 10 elite research universities, including Northwestern, from 1989 to 2001.

They concluded that non-tenure-track instructors “usually (but not always) obtain higher scores than other types of instructors.” They added, “This is not surprising since non-tenure-track faculty are hired as teachers and are evaluated with teaching performance in mind.”

Following the adage “publish or perish,” tenured faculty, by contrast, may view teaching as an ancillary function to their research. I would add that the scarcity of tenure-track positions has led to the hiring of adjuncts with excellent credentials, who, lacking any job security, must stay at the top of their game.

While the tenure-track faculty have comparatively high wages, great benefits and lifetime job security in the form of tenure, one million contingent professors have none of these things, often teaching for decades for poverty-level wages, and wondering whether they will even have a job next quarter. Last year The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article called “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

Seattle, Nov. 11, 2013

The writer is the editor of the forthcoming book “Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System.”


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