The Current Undervaluation of Teaching

The sad (to me) truth is that teaching is at best a secondary priority at many of our public and private universities.* Don’t get me wrong, it is a high priority for many university teachers, particularly those early in their career. It’s what lures many people to graduate school in the first place, especially in the non-STEM fields. But along the way it becomes very clear that good teaching is systematically undervalued by the academic system.

This should be clear to anyone who notes the way in which universities pay their professors. For those not versed in the ins-and-outs of the academy, there are really two main classes of instructors: tenure-track and adjunct. The relative requirements and rewards for each reveal a great deal about the lost value of teaching in our universities.


The Tenure Track

Tenure-track professors have the possibility, after 7 years or so, of securing a lifetime appointment. In the meantime, they are paid a wage intended to keep them tethered to one institution for the long-haul. Teaching is part of their responsibilities, but the real incentive is for them to find ways to earn sabbaticals and course releases so they can focus on their own research. The key to securing the lifetime appointment, you see, is publishing. Publish or perish, as the saying goes.

The benefits of publication as a measure for job advancement is two-fold. First, it’s easier to evaluate than teaching. Peers can read each others’ work and evaluate it directly whereas it would be extremely rare for them to witness each other teach. Second, it brings a directly discernible prestige to the university. An institution can easily promote the publications of its faculty in ways that are will be recognizable to outsiders in ways that don’t apply to teaching. To say that Prof. So-and-so has published a book with Oxford Press lends a degree of respectability easily conveyed to both outsiders within the discipline and the general public. But Prof. Such-and-such’s award for outstanding teaching may just mean that he/she is the best among a pool of mediocre teachers. Or that the university gives out to many teaching awards, with too-low standards. Or that she/he is just good at gaining the enthusiasm of students.

Regardless of the reasons (and there are others), publication has become the main determinant of tenure decisions. To get hired on the tenure track, a potential professor needs to demonstrate not that they are a great teacher but that they are likely to keep up a rigorous pace of publication. Once hired, a countdown clock immediately begins ticking toward an up-or-out decision. When the time comes, no amount of teaching expertise will keep them in a job if they haven’t met the critical publishing quota for their institution. Ultimately, though it includes many passionate and dedicated teachers, the tenure system rewards non-teaching over teaching. Any teaching-oriented professors are swimming against the institutional grain.


Adjunct Faculty

Increasingly, the real weight of the teaching load is being farmed out to adjunct faculty. There are short-term (usually semester by semester) faculty paid on a per-class basis. Paid poorly, I might add. The typical adjunct would need to teach more than 6 classes/semester to make what a starting tenure-track professor might make. The teaching load of the tenure-track professor would be about half that. And usually that adjunct pay doesn’t include any benefits, unlike those paid to tenure-track professors.

Beyond pay, adjunct faculty also face a significantly different hiring process and set of core incentives. Unlike tenure-track professors, adjunct faculty are hired strictly to teach a specific course on a temporary basis. Research and professional service make little difference to those making the hiring decision because the faculty member is not expected to stick around for the long term. While universities boast of their tenure-track faculty, they prefer not to talk about their adjunct faculty, whose job is analogous to piecework.

Because adjunct faculty need to take on so many courses to make ends meet (and usually these are the large, low level courses that other faculty might avoid), they rarely have time to really do their teaching well. Instead of effectiveness, the incentives point toward efficiency. I worry that this is meeting the current push for online education in a dangerous combination: adjunct faculty being paid not so much to teach as to move as many students as possible through a course that will have as little impact on the time of either students or instructor as possible.


The Growing Divide

I should state here clearly that almost all the adjunct faculty I know show every sign of being dedicated and conscientious teachers. But with the institutional pressures they face now they can’t help but make significant trade-offs between effectiveness and efficiency. Just as many of the tenure-track professors I know would be more dedicated teachers but for the pressures of their profession to prioritize research and publication. And some do insistently prioritize teaching, to the point of sacrificing professional advancement.

But the institutional norm is increasing division: Tenure-track professors are pushed to spend increasing time on research and publication (as opposed to teaching) while adjunct faculty are hired only to teach (with little time to devote to doing it well). The core mission of the university, teaching students, suffers in the division. In the following post(s) in this series I’ll offer some suggestions for re-emphasizing teaching while lowering costs. [Hint: The tenure-track professors are the expensive ones. But there’s more to it than that.]




* I’ve excluded community colleges from the above discussion. There, from what I gather, teaching is still the primary focus and valued activity. There’s simply too much of it to be done for the schools to devote substantial resources toward non-teaching centered activities. But with something like a 5 course/semester teaching load, the instructors are still forced to make substantial trade-offs in the quality of their teaching. In that regard, all community college faculty are similar to the adjunct model, though a tenure/non-tenure division exists there as well, mostly reflected in pay scales and permanence.


This is the second of a series of posts on keeping education costs down. It is the first part of a discussion of re-emphasizing teaching at the post-secondary level. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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