faculty

NLRB Will Review Adjunct Union Bid at Pacific Lutheran

The National Labor Relations Board has agreed to review Pacific Lutheran University's request to that it reconsider a regional board official's recent decision to allow the university's adjunct faculty to vote on forming a union. Pacific Lutheran objected on a number of grounds, including its religious nature. The national NRLB issued a brief statement that said: "The employer’s request for review of the regional director’s decision and direction of election raises substantial issues warranting review solely with respect to the assertion of jurisdiction over the employer and the determination that certain faculty members are not managerial employees." The local Service Employees International Union, with which the adjunct faculty union is affiliated, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 

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Academic Minute: Microbes and Termite Digestion

In today’s Academic Minute, Kenneth Noll of the University of Connecticut reveals why termites would not be a threat to your home without the help of microbes. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Catholic College Bars Talk by Advocate of Gay Marriage

Providence College administrators have called off a lecture organized by several academic departments by a philosophy professor at Wayne State University who is an advocate of same-sex marriage rights, The New York Times reported. Hugh F. Lena, the provost and senior vice president at Providence, sent out an e-mail announcing that the lecture by John Corvino could not take place. In his e-mail, Lena cited a document created by American Roman Catholic bishops in 2004, "Catholics in Political Life," which questioned the appropriateness of honoring political leaders who take positions that disagree with church teachings. Lena also said that the college requires that "both sides of a controversial issue are to be presented fairly and equally."

On his blog, Corvino questioned the provost's statement. Corvino noted that he was not being given some award but was invited by academic departments to give an academic talk. Further, he noted that the organizers had invited a theology professor at the college to speak immediately after him, explaining the church's views on marriage, and that the professor had accepted the offer. So, Corvino wrote, his appearance complied with the various rules in place. "The provost seems to want to have it both ways: the appearance of a commitment to vigorous academic dialogue, combined with an isolationist approach to disfavored views; in other words, a Catholic identity defined primarily by what it excludes rather than what it includes," Corvino wrote. "Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s new leader, has been justly celebrated for his welcoming tone toward gays and lesbians. Notwithstanding my abrupt dis-invitation, I remain hopeful that Providence College may soon better reflect that tone."

 

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Essay on the start of the academic year, following the end of summer

About this time of year one invariably reads fulsome, even orgiastic essays by academics professing the exhilaration and sense of joy they feel on the first day of class each August or September. In so doing, they often blather on about limitless possibilities and rituals of renewal, etc., and wax on about frisson A and epiphany B on the quad.

I must admit that my experience is quite different. Whereas for many professors the  beginning of the academic year is a time of excitement and anticipation, for me it is —  indeed, has been for the 30-plus years I’ve been teaching at the university level — a time of melancholy, even  gloom. Indeed, late August/early September marks the peak period of my annual bout of SAD. To most clinicians, SAD denotes "seasonal affective disorder," a condition in which normally well-adjusted people experience a range of depressive symptoms, but for me SAD means "student affective disorder." Same symptoms, different etiology.

Around the beginning of August -- even earlier now -- I begin to suffer the symptoms: heightened anxiety; enervation; difficulty concentrating; social withdrawal; increased irritability; nausea. Over time, I’ve found that the reason for the onset of such conditions is the looming return of STUDENTS into my life.

It is not August, but the end of the exam period in May that elicits in me a sense of joy and limitless possibilities. Only when my grades are turned in, the seniors graduated, and the dorms emptied out do I begin to feel a sense of excitement and anticipation and the possibility for renewal. For it is only then that I can focus on research and writing without the threat of being interrupted by tedious office hours, middle-of-the night phone calls, and "urgent" e-mails ("Can I get an extension on my book review?"), not to mention lectures, seminars, grading, meetings, committee work, etc., etc.

Rather, with May comes "summer break" and the tantalizing possibility of finally honoring long overdue writing commitments, of making headway on a scholarly monograph, and of thinking deeply about new projects down the line. If sufficiently lucky, it might mean a trip or two to an archive to immerse oneself in source materials one has waited months, if not years to dive into. And it might even give one a chance to attend a conference, present a paper, and get some useful feedback from experts in one’s field. Talk about renewal!

But, alas, before one knows it, August comes around. David M. Shribman recently wrote a beautiful essay in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Whatever Happened to August?," an elegiac piece lamenting that August, once the Platonic ideal of summer, has been turned into a "month of work, school and calendars run amok." Nowhere is this more  true than at universities. At colleges and universities across the land, the ecological system in town begins to become student-centric earlier and earlier each year, with suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, eager-beaver fresh-faced frosh transforming the placid summer landscape on campus into a crowded cacophonous mob scene.

Even worse, by then the seemingly “limitless possibilities” for summer, the best-laid plans, the hopes and dreams have all been dashed. Some of the overdue commitments are still outstanding. Progress has been made on the unfinished monograph, but it still sucks. The trips to the archives brought disappointing results. The professional meetings were as boring as ever. And now the students are back. Any wonder that I get depressed?

To make things even worse, it seems more and more as though “summer break” is over just after the 4th of July. That’s when the first, vague symptoms of SAD begin to appear. They accelerate through July and peak about the third week of August when classes begin, at which time I feel like I’m about to embark on the academic equivalent of a death march.

Funny, though, every year the symptoms recede. Gradually, I adapt to the new ecology and again find my niche. By mid-to-late September — usually a few weeks after Labor Day — the symptoms are gone and I begin to feel like myself. The "new" landscape has been naturalized. I  again begin to appreciate students — the putative causes of my seasonal plague — suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, fresh-faced frosh all.

 

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Michigan grad students object to details of new housing unit

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Graduate students at the University of Michigan object to details -- including the rent -- of a new residence hall funded by billionaire alum.

Some professors outraged as engineering education magazine publishes anti-gay letter

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Some faculty members are outraged that science education magazine published letter of anti-gay rhetoric.

Wright State, Adjunct Union Reach Contract Agreement

Adjuncts at Wright State University reached their first union agreement with the institution last week. The 180-member union of full-time adjuncts is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors.

In an e-mail, Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the AAUP and professor of economics at Wright State, said the contract was notable for its tenure-like job protections, including assurances of due process and continuous employment. It also includes a 2 percent raise and professional development funds, among other benefits. A separate agreement signed alongside the contract guarantees workloads of seven to eight courses annually for full-time adjuncts, depending on their rank.

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Academic Minute: The Source of Phantom Limb Pain

In today’s Academic Minute, Tamar Makin of the University of Oxford explains how the brain creates pain in phantom limbs. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Transgender Professor May Lose Job at Azusa Pacific

Adam Ackley says he is in danger of losing his job as a professor of systematic theology at Azusa Pacific University for identifying himself as a man, and telling administrators that he is transgender, ABC 7 News reported. The Christian university had known him as a woman for the 15 years he has taught there. The university released this statement to ABC 7: "University leadership is engaged in thoughtful conversations with our faculty member in order to honor the contribution and treat all parties with dignity and respect while upholding the values of the university. It is an ongoing conversation, and therefore, a confidential matter."

Students have organized a petition that says the treatment of Ackley has raised concerns for many others. "Adam Ackley, a beloved theology professor of 15 years, was 'asked to step down' from his position as a professor at Azusa Pacific University due to his recent openness about his identity as a transgender man," the petition says. "This event has sparked fear and anger within the LGBTQ and Ally community of APU. We stand in solidarity with Adam, and strive to create a safer environment for students and faculty who have been marginalized by APU's conservative policies, as well as those who have been victims of spiritual violence on campus."

 

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Essay on report comparing student learning from instructors on and off the tenure track

The National Bureau of Economic Research this month issued a working paper containing a preliminary report on a study of the learning outcomes of students in courses taken during their first term at Northwestern University. The study considers an impressively large sample, "15,662 students taking 56,599 first-quarter classes" and, its authors claim, offers clear statistical evidence that the students learned more in courses taught by non-tenure-track faculty members than in courses taught by tenured and tenure-track professors.

Not surprisingly, the study received extensive coverage in higher education publications like Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as attention from the mainstream media. Unfortunately, that coverage tended to misrepresent the study’s findings by claiming it shows either that "adjuncts are better teachers" or that "tenured faculty are worse." A close look at the working paper yields no evidence that the study demonstrates these things in a broadly generalizable way.

What thereby shifts into the background — though it does not go unmentioned — may, in fact, be the most important finding reported in the paper, that this successful cohort of "non-tenure-track faculty" were not short-term temps, but rather long-term employees. Admittedly, it was also downplayed by the study's authors. They remind their readers that Northwestern is an elite institution, and that "its ability to attract first-class non-tenure-track faculty may be different from that of most institutions." But the only details they give about these faculty appear in a footnote, which tells us only that "[a]lmost all classes taught by non-tenure-track faculty at Northwestern are taught by those with a longer-term relationship with the university."

Why is this so significant? In the first place, because the paper strongly hints that the study may call into question the applicability of a number of previous studies showing that the widespread use of adjunct faculty negatively impacts students at many types of institutions. The authors are careful to say that their work bears only upon research institutions, where tenured and tenure-track faculty members have significant research duties, but rhetorically this qualification merely serves to reinforce the suggestion that tenured and tenure-track research faculty are inferior teachers.

On the other hand, if we recognize that the contrast being drawn actually involves two groups composed principally of long-term employees, it becomes considerably more difficult to account for the differences between them on the basis of "tenure."

But there is another feature of the "non-tenure-track" cohort that the paper only alludes to in passing: they are full-time employees. When queried by my colleague at NewAPPS, Eric Schliesser, the paper’s lead author, David Figlio, made this explicit: “we are comparing long-term full-time lecturers versus tenure-track professors.” Moreover, "these lecturers have long-term contracts and the same benefits as tenure-track faculty."

In his e-mail, Professor Figlio congratulates Eric and me for "picking up on" this. He is being far too generous. From the working paper alone, I found it impossible to determine with any confidence the conditions under which these faculty members were working. Having clarified this, it becomes evident how wrong much of the initial reporting on the study has been. Far from showing that they are better teachers, it provides no evidence whatsoever about the effectiveness of “adjunct” faculty in the more common sense of part-time employees hired to teach on a course-by-course basis. Nor can this be easily blamed on lazy reporters.

By describing the "non-tenure track" cohort in vague terms, and by making multiple references to studies of “adjuncts” in its introduction, the rhetoric of the working paper does a great deal to sow confusion on this point, especially among those unfamiliar with the nuances of academic hiring terminology.  

So what does the study establish? Broadly, it shows that full-time, relatively stable and (presumably) well-compensated non-tenure-track faculty do well in the classroom.

Specifically, the paper outlines evidence for two conclusions: 1) that students "learn" better during their first term at Northwestern in classes led by non-tenure-track faculty, and 2) that students taking classes with non-tenure-track faculty are more likely to take another course in the same discipline.

"Learning" is operationalized here in terms of grades earned by students in a subsequent course taken in the same discipline. This, it is suggested, offers a good way to measure whether "instructional quality has a lasting impact" or "deep learning."

The most precise comparison listed shows the difference between the two groups of faculty to be less than a 0.1 grade point (gp) improvement, with slight variations for classes within and outside a student's intended major. Relaxing the statistical controls makes the effect appear to grow to around 0.2 gp.

So there is a consistent, though modest, improvement relative to faculty on tenure lines. This is a genuinely interesting result, and it would obviously be valuable to understand how it was achieved. But we cannot do so without knowing more about the working conditions of those being compared.

How many courses per semester are those in each group expected to teach? How many times have they taught the courses being studied? How recently and how often do they do so? How large are their classes? Do they differ materially in format? And, of course, what other responsibilities are they expected to balance?

All of these factors, were they found to consistently vary between the two groups, could plausibly be seen to contribute to the improvements in student learning the study identifies. Indeed, it is far more likely that they should be doing so than the bare fact of not being on a tenure line — especially with regard to full time faculty who are long-term employees.

Sadly, while it goes into considerable detail regarding differences among various groups of students, the working paper provides no information about these matters bearing upon faculty. Worse, it does not appear that the authors have even conducted much analysis of these factors. When asked about the effect of variations in class size, in particular, Professor Figlio acknowledged to Professor Schliesser that he and his co-authors had not yet looked into this factor.

All of which leads one to wonder why the authors have chosen to circulate a vaguely framed paper based on such incomplete results. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is a rhetorical exercise. But if so, what do these authors intend to suggest?

As usual in these instances, it is helpful to look at their conclusion, the final two sentences of which read as follows: "Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multitasking problem.”

Especially read in the context of what preceded them, these statements involve a remarkable amount of equivocation and deliberate obscurity.

In the first place, while people are very much alarmed at the growth in the ranks of adjuncts, there is less concern about full time, long-term teaching faculty. And where questions do arise, they tend to have more to do with the welfare of these faculty or the institutional devaluation of research than with their educational effectiveness. In which case, a study showing that such faculty are effective teachers answers a question that virtually no one is asking.

Why, then, make such a big deal of answering it? Because, as the media and everyone else recognized, the answer suggests questions about the pedagogical effectiveness of tenured faculty.

Indeed, it does so despite the paper’s careful qualifications on this precise point: "the evidence that non-tenure-track faculty produce better outcomes may not apply to more advanced courses.”

It may not, but no matter. The seed of doubt has been planted. This leads us to the last sentence, which is an equivocal tour de force. At the end of a report on a study contrasting non-tenure-track to tenured and tenure-track faculty, we are told that hiring "teaching-intensive lecturers" in addition to "research intensive tenure-track faculty" is an "efficient" solution to the problems facing administrators at research institutions.

Notice how the operative distinction has shifted to one between teaching and research-intensive faculty — but without quite disconnecting it from the issue of tenure.

Given this shift, the claim may be true. But there is nothing about teaching-intensive faculty that is incompatible with their being eligible for tenure — especially if one fully intends to build long-term relationships with them and keep them around.

Why, one is led to ask, can we not have "efficiency" and tenure? The answer, if there is one, must have to do with other ways in which non-tenured faculty differ from those with tenure. The authors mention academic freedom — an important consideration.

But they otherwise ignore the degree to which non-tenured faculty lack a secure position from which to question, criticize, or oppose the actions of university administrators.

And here, indeed, is another sense of "efficiency" that administrators at many institutions might well wish to cultivate, allowing them to enjoy a pedagogically effective, but largely vulnerable, and therefore easily controlled faculty.

Edward Kazarian teaches philosophy at Rowan University and is a contributor to NewAPPS.

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