Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blog XLI (41): In the Name of Kant

An editorial entitled "Learning" that appeared in The Charleston Gazette of Charleston, West Virginia on January 25, 2009 notes with sorrow current trends in higher education. It raises important questions about the quality of the education that students receive. It argues that students suffer from the use of adjuncts just as much as the part time instructors. Here is the editorial:
There is profound satisfaction in knowledge, in learning just for the joy of understanding humanity and science to develop an intelligent worldview. "Dare to know, the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote--strive to be a lifelong seeker of better information, deeper wisdom.

Higher education once focused strongly on this goal. But a gloomy new book,
The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, claims that wisdom is being pushed aside by modern schools rushing to train young people while operating on skimpy budgets.

Only one-third of college faculties now are tenured professors or tenure-track teachers, the book says. Most classes are taught by part-time adjunct instructors paid much less than real scholars.

Cash-strapped universities don't "hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers," author Frank Donoghue, in the English department at Ohio State University, writes. Today, new hires include three adjuncts for every full timer.

Humanities topics such as history, literature, philosophy and the like are crowded out by career-track courses--vocationalism," he calls it.

In a New York Times essay about the book, Stanley Fish says the saddest example is the new for profit university that serves only "to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment... The mode of delivery--a disc, a computer screen, a video hookup--doesn't matter so long as delivery occurs. He quotes the fonder of online Phoenix University: "Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for 'expand their minds.'"

College-going has boomed enormously as America's plunges into the Information Age, which requires high-tech training. Processing millions of students is an industry that must be done with industrial efficiency. Author Donoghue says academia never can return to the era of full-time scholars carefully instilling generalized wisdom in small clusters of young thinkers. This is sad. But perhaps many of today's graduates will discover, later on, that it's deeply reward to study, purely on their own, pursuing the life of the mind.


  1. " Most classes are taught by part-time adjunct instructors paid much less than real scholars."

    "Cash-strapped universities don't "hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers," author Frank Donoghue, in the English department at Ohio State University, writes. "

    These statements give the impression, wrong, from what little I know about the subject, that adjunct faculty are less than qualified instructors who offer themselves chaeply and drive "real scholars" out of the market by some sort of underbidding.
    My impression, largely from reading this blog, is tha tthe difference between many adjunct and many tenured instrcotrs is opportunity and experience. I'm not asserting that there aren't differences in capability, but tenured professors and adjunct faculty have all started at the same place. The fact that there are so many adjunct is more afunction of university hiring decisions, not their own career choices.

    Am I off base?

    Phil Ridderhof

  2. The kind of blanket statements about the inferiority of adjuncts made by people like Donoghue are baseless and misrepresentative - they typify the snobbery many faculty have towards adjuncts. Adjuncts are "real" scholars no less than tenured faculty. They are merely at different stages in their careers.

    My experience is that the quality of adjuncts will vary tremendously depending on several factors, including the dept's attitude toward adjuncts, the number of doctoral candidates in the dept and whether adjunct work is considered part of their degree, and the availability of other adjuncts.

    Where I did my PhD degree, for instance, there is an unwritten rule that all candidates who want work will get the chance to teach a course. But that is all the work one will get as there are so many who all want work. Another school I attended has the opposite approach - they give the work to their most senior adjuncts and allocate remaining work to their students, of which there are comparatively few.

    The quality of teaching is significantly different in these two places. The latter school noted has some excellent teachers who have built up skills and experience in the classroom; the other college has a reputation for having very poor adjuncts since all of them are first-timers who don't get chances to improve.

    Donoghue shoudl check out ratemyprof. Some of the best ratings I have seen are for adjuncts.

  3. I don't believe the argument is meant to bash the intellect or skills of adjunct professors. Rather he is pointing out that an adjunct trying to stay afloat by teaching at three different colleges a week is much less able or likely to take the time to truly stimulate critical thinking. How can an adjunct running from place to place have the time, dedication, and office hours to meet with students and help foster their learning. It is for these reasons that the trend away from tenured track professors is truly hurting the academic world.

    -Ryan Riley

  4. To me, the real problem with the declining quality of instruction in the humanities is not the adjunct system but the obsessive focus on research and publishing. No doubt there are some excellent teaching profs out there - but so long as TT faculty have such heavy research and publishing expectations they too will have no time for (or interest in) instructional development.

    My experience with adjuncts, on the other hand, is that they endure incredible hardships just to have the chance to teach. Unfortunately, this ultimately works against adjuncts' larger goal of a TT position since their research profile inevitably suffers once they are perpetually occupied with piecemeal teaching obligations. Why is it that the longer one does adjunct work, they more sullied they become in the eyes of many faculty?

  5. In as much as one doesn't really know how to teach a subject until one's tried, the most critical difference between adjunct teachers and experienced faculty, I'd say, is that the latter have familiarity with the material. Not ability in the classroom--one of the most brilliant teachers I know is only just out of their Ph. D.--but experience about what transmits well, what's worth including, what can or may as well be left out... Unless an adjunct is on station with the same course for several years, they can't reach this position.

    As to this: "Why is it that the longer one does adjunct work, they more sullied they become in the eyes of many faculty?", I think it's because the fact that the adjunct hasn't got employment elsewhere is construed as an insult to the faculty's placement ability.