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The Teaching Track

I have some (strong) thoughts on an idea that is making the rounds. 

June 3, 2015

A few weeks ago (ok, almost three months now – HOW IS IT ALREADY JUNE), Michael Bérubé wrote “A New Model of Tenure” here at IHE, calling for a “teacher track” for more teaching-intensive positions. It sparked quite a discussion, and he and the co-author of an upcoming book on the same topic, Jennifer Ruth, published a kind of response over at CHE.

Unsurprisingly, I have some very strong thoughts. I haven't read the book yet, but based on these two essays, I want to offer my preliminary reactions. 

Having been in a “teaching-only” position at a teaching-intensive institution, I feel like I can offer some insight about the reality of how these kinds of positions will be implemented. Because they have been. Poorly in many cases. Which of course, Bérubé and Ruth are not calling for, but they either ignore or wish away the very real structural and cultural barriers that stand in the way of their admittedly utopic plan to work. I’m not saying we shouldn’t aspire to make things better – we do, in fact, need to do something – but creating tenure-stream teaching appointments don’t simply make inequities and long-standing hierarchical structures within the institution magically disappear.

Now, my former situation wasn’t a tenure-track position, nor was I called a “professor” (I was an instructor), however, I don’t think that the way I and my colleagues were treated will magically change just because our title changes from instructor to professor. Teaching-only positions, even at a teaching-intensive institution, where professor taught a 4/4 course load, were looked down on. That was reflected most explicitly in how little we were paid (although admittedly it was more than an adjunct). We have very strong feelings about what kinds of work should be compensated and at what level in academia, with teaching coming last. I was as full-time as my tenure-track and tenured colleagues, and yet, I was worth 10-15K less (and it is worse at other places). And when these new teaching track positions are majority-filled with women and people of color, as the adjunct ranks are currently, will this systemic imbalance be glossed over in the same way, justified with the catch-all, but you’re only expected to teach?

I also take issue with the assertion that creating these tenure-line teaching positions will somehow introduce fairness into the hiring process. Really? REALLY? Because the search for traditional tenure-track faculty is so fair and transparent to begin with? Ask someone with an out-of-date PhD how fair the process is. I cannot believe that the bias against long-time adjuncts will simply dissipate with the creation of a teacher-track. But it isn’t just long-time adjuncts and “old PhDs” – ask mothers or people of color or people with visible disabilities if the current tenure-track hiring process is fair and transparent. To say that nepotism doesn’t exist in a nation-wide search for tenure-track faculty versus the idiosyncratic nature of appointing adjuncts is ludicrous.  Just today, it was highlighted that aspiring faculty need a sponsor, someone who will speak up for them in these exact situations. How is a national search for teaching-track faculty going to suddenly fix these structural issues that already exist within the system of searching nationally for faculty?

I have less hope that this will happen, given who will probably be making up these hiring committees: the same traditional faculty who already make the hiring decisions. Changing the qualifications of the job does not change the people making the decision, particularly because we have senior faculty like this guy and this guy and this guy. Evaluating candidates on “teaching excellence” is so fraught and subjective, and is largely based on departmental culture. Working in a Teaching and Learning Center has taught me that just because research has shown us what “best practices” are for teaching excellence doesn’t mean that that knowledge has been accepted or adopted by faculty. Having been told to not share my teaching approach with the senior faculty in my old department because they would have put a stop to it and hearing similar stories consulting with junior faculty does not inspire confidence that “teaching excellence” will indeed be the standard that hiring committees (and eventual teaching tenure committees) hold candidates and colleagues to.

My final issue around these recommendations is that teaching-track positions be reserved only for those holding terminal degrees. I know that Bérubé likes going back to the number stating that the majority of adjuncts don’t have a PhD. My question has always been, how many of them are ABD, having completed the majority of a PhD but never finished the dissertation? And not because they couldn’t “cut it” but because of poor supervision, lack of support, or just simply that life happened. And after a while, as an adjunct, when you are told that you don’t need a PhD to do your job, then why finish? This is a bait-and-switch of epic proportions. We can argue that a PhD helps you be a better professor (although, really, look at what those Full-Prof PhDs wrote that I linked above and tell me that PhD = better professor), but it negates the damage we have done to a generation of adjuncts whom we have told that it isn’t necessary for them to complete their PhDs both explicitly and implicitly. I think of my colleagues who have done excellent work teaching for years with “only” an MA, who are sensitive to the particular populations of students they work with, and who adapt and adopt their teaching, staying current, and embodying the “teaching excellence” that the authors espouse.

If we are to say, PhD for university teaching-track positions or nothing, then we need to put into place a humane transition for those who were told for years that they didn’t need one to do their job. Help them finish. Pay for them to complete a PhD. Give them options, rather than casting them out for PhDs with little experience and little knowledge of the student populations they teach. Create PhDs that actually are relevant for these new positions. Create meaningful ways for their years of experience and service to “count” towards a PhD.

Creating a new position does not simply erase years of systemic inequalities, and in a lot of ways can actually work to reinforce them. I value teaching so much, I had to leave the classroom in order to find a place within the academy. Our students deserve better. I want to see a plan that takes these concerns seriously.



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