We Need All Kinds of Us at a University

August 25, 2014

Oh, god, I'm going to quote Mr. Spock, from the episode "Is There in Truth No Beauty?"

Dr. Miranda Jones: The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.

Spock: And the way our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.

How "Big Bang Theory" is that? Yet my purpose is not to appear to be a big ol' nerd; rather, I'd like to take this exchange as a comment on what teaching should look like at a large research university.

A recent study of students at Northwestern, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has brought to the fore, again, an issue that will probably always be with us: the two tiered-nature of teaching at most research universities, ladder-rank faculty on one side and adjunct faculty (including lecturers and adjunct professors) on the other.  (To be fair to the study, it does not use "adjunct," but "non-tenured," but in the discussions, "adjunct" becomes the word.)

Here is the concluding sentence of the abstract: "We find consistent evidence that students learn relatively more from non-tenure line professors in their introductory courses. These differences are present across a wide variety of subject areas, and are particularly pronounced for Northwestern’s average students and less-qualified students."

I have nothing to say about the study, per se, but about the kinds of reactions it engenders.  From lecturers (and I am one), the line is "See. We've been trying to tell you that for years."  But from some ladder-rank faculty I have heard something like the following: "The critical thinking we want from our students is best taught by those deeply involved in research."  And sometimes the response is not that specific: I do think there is a widespread--often unspoken--notion that students do not get as much out of classes taught by adjuncts as they would if taught by ladder-rank faculty. This attitude is not new, of course: in Raphael's "The School of Athens," you can see Socrates clearly turning his back on a bearded long-term lecturer.

It is an article of faith that good teaching and good research inform each other, and some studies support this notion  (Wei, Cheng, Zhao 2007) But other studies refute it. In their conclusion, March and Hattie (2002) say, "In contrast to the apparent academic myth that research productivity and teaching effectiveness are complementary constructs, results of the present investigation—coupled with the findings of the Hattie and Marsh (1996) meta-analysis—provide strong support for the typical finding that the teaching-research relation is close to zero." Ramsden and Moses (1992) offer similar claims. 

Having been involved in the Berkeley's campus's Distinguished Teaching Award for many years, I know that many of our Distinguished Teachers are world-renowned researchers. And I know there are many other professors on this campus who are damned good at both teaching and research.

But I also I know my share of tenured faculty who never got beyond associate professor because their research stalled, although they were wonderful teachers. I have met stars in their field who were such horrible teachers that their students could only resort to profanity to describe them in course evaluations. Or those among the most creative thinkers in their fields who try mightily, but can't transfer that kind of thinking to their students--in part (in my estimation) because their thinking is of a different order than most of ours and their strength is not in the interaction it takes to be an outstanding teacher.

Since lecturers (I can't speak for other kinds of adjunct faculty here) are evaluated solely on their teaching, we can assume that there are few of them who do it poorly.  Having looked at dozens of lecturer's merit cases, I can report that most lecturers on this campus are not only good teachers, but are involved in all kinds of academic and creative work, often research, often cutting edge.  It's just that they don't get paid for it and aren't evaluated on it.  In fact, I know few, if any, lecturers who "only" teach.  (God, even saying "only" is laden.  It's like referring to "course relief," which denigrates teaching of course). 

I have heard it said that adjunct faculty are not as good as ladder-rank faculty in teaching students to think for themselves. While I don't believe this is a widely held notion, I do think it's one of those pernicious attitudes that serves the university poorly.  I would hate to have students or parents see a statement like that and then start trying to determine who among their instructors are tenured and who are not. I know of students who pick courses by checking to see who has received the Distinguished Teaching Award: does this mean those students should avoid the dozen non-tenured faculty who have received that award, just to be on the safe side?

Some of these attitudes stem from a misunderstanding of how people become adjunct faculty.  Many of us--I won't say all--did not try to become ladder-rank faculty and did not have to "settle" for a lecturer position.  We chose this career because we like it.  I know adjunct professors who were offered ladder-rank positions but didn't want the pressure or the politics.  They are not failed academics. Lecturers are not failed academics. They are academics. We write, we publish articles, and textbooks, and everything else.  Then there is a whole separate category of adjuncts in some schools that are hired because they have specific expertise in an area that research faculty do not.

I've tried carefully here to not paint with a broad brush, to not say "tenure track faculty think this way" because those I know and cherish on this campus have high regard for their adjunct colleagues. But others don't see us a colleagues.  They see us as the embodiment of the dictionary definition of "adjunct": "Something added as supplementary rather than essential." There's my ego-boost for the day. I guess I've been non-essential for 40 years here. On the other hand, for the son of a Lutheran minister, "ladder rank" conjures up the Blake painting of the angels ascending and descending Jacob's Ladder to heaven. 

I have now worked myself into a stylistic corner, having started with Star Trek and ended with the Bible. Ok, I'll choose Spock (sorry, Dad). We need all kinds of us at a university.  That's why it works.


Figlio, David N., Schapiro, Morton O., and Soter, Kevin B., "Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?" NBER Working Paper No. 19406 Issued in September 2013

Wei, Hong, Cheng, Xuezhu, and Zhao, Ke, "On the relationship between research productivity and teaching effectiveness at research universities." Front. Educ. China 2007, 2(2): 298–306 DOI 10.1007/s11516-007-0025-8© Higher Education Press and Springer-Verlag  2007

Marsh, Herbert W. and Hattie, John, "The Relation Between Research Productivity and Teaching Effectiveness: Complementary, Antagonistic, or Independent Constructs?" The Journal of Higher Education, Volume 73, Number 5, September/October 2002, pp. 603-641 (Article) Published by The Ohio State University Press

Ramsden, Paul and Moses, Ingrid, "Associations between research and teaching in Australian higher education." Higher Education 23: 273-295, 1992. Copyright 1992, Kluwer Academic Publishers.