One more story of academic inside baseball — I’ve been following John Wilkins, a brilliant philosopher of science who just can’t get a job, and I’ve been sensing waves of resentment at the rotten state of academia. I will be the first to tell you that I’ve been exceptionally lucky and privileged to get a job at a university that does a lot of things right, and one reason I can criticize freely is that UMM actually handles academic positions well.
Elsewhere…not so great.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to get any kind of academic job at all, other than the miserable, harrowing, exploitive position sometimes called “adjunct”, or sometimes “lecturer” — temporary positions in which the instructor is hired on a per course basis. Bad jobs are driving out the good as university administrations cut corners, and somehow, it’s always the faculty who suffer the first painful snips.
This is the time of year when high school students come around to visit various universities and make decisions about where they want to go next year. Are you one of them? Or perhaps you’re a parent of a prospective student? You’ve got some power. Universities may be courting you, because they want your tuition dollars, or they see you have some skills that would bring honor to the school. Use your clout. Ask questions.
Here are some questions I wish more prospective students were knowledgeable enough to ask.
Ask, “Who teaches your introductory or service classes?” You may be thinking ahead to those lovely upper-level courses with the big names teaching them and the shiny lab equipment, but before you get there you’ll be expected to take courses outside your major — service courses in disciplines like math and English — that have big enrollments. At some universities, those will be taught by an ever-rotating set of temporary faculty called adjuncts. They are often treated like dirt, poorly paid, and given overloads. Often they’re so poorly paid they have to take adjunct positions at multiple colleges to make ends meet.
Those course are important. You’ll take a lot of them. You want them to be well-taught. And that’s precisely where many schools cut corners on the quality of the education.
Ask, “How many of the faculty in your department are temporary faculty?” There are a great many colleges, some of them quite prestigious, where the swarm of adjuncts outnumbers the tenure-track faculty. Tenured faculty are in a privileged position where they get more money and lighter teaching loads, while the adjuncts are being victimized. Do not go to those colleges. Tell them why.
Now adjuncts are often very good teachers — they have to be deeply committed to the profession to put up with the crap they have to take — but they are often spread thin and given frustratingly difficult workloads. My wife was an adjunct for a while, and she was commuting all over eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey to cover her scattered positions, on top of all the coursework. I think she was a marvelous professor, but the burdens compromised her ability to deliver to the students to the best of her ability.
Ask, “Can I talk to some of the other instructors?” I know the runaround. You’ll go to the university, they’ll have a lovely canned presentation of all the benefits, and you might get to sit in on a course or meet for half an hour with Professor So-and-So, who will show off their lab and talk about the great things about being in their profession. Ask to talk to any of the people who teach that first year course in your major; if you’re lucky, Professor So-and-So will say, “That’s me!” and you’re off to a good start. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll be led to a cramped office divided into cubicles with a group of temporary faculty crammed into it.
They’ll probably still say nice things about being at the university. Partly because they do love their job, but also partly because they’re in terror of losing it.
It would be very nice if more students and their parents paid attention to the growing inequity within academic ranks, and if the tuition-paying people would regard that as important, and that the voting citizens would recognize that their state legislators are all conspiring to strangle higher education. It would be especially nice if students refused to support universities that were happily screwing over their teachers.
But I’m a realist. I know what university PR departments do and emphasize and tell prospective students is important: will your education get you a job after graduation, and how is the football team doing? Those are great smokescreens to hide the decay behind the scenes.
I’ve had a few prospective students ask the really important questions: will I learn many great and interesting things in my years at this institution, will it make me a better and wiser person, is this school investing in improving the educational experience? Those are the students I really want to keep.
By the way, I can tell you to ask those questions because I know UMM will pass them with ease: almost all of our introductory and service courses are taught by tenure-track faculty, we have almost no temporary faculty (occasionally some, to cover faculty on sabbatical leave, for instance), and I can walk you right down the hall and introduce you to each of the professors who teach every one of our courses, and they’ll be right there in those same offices when you come back in the Fall.
(This has been an advertisement for the University of Minnesota Morris. An advertisement I enthusiastically endorse.)