18.9.13

GETTING THE INCENTIVES RIGHT.

Jonathan Marks of Minding the Campus comments on recent research on student performance at Northwestern University that appears, to commentators that haven't read the paper carefully, to reinforce the impression of a dual labor force in the academy in which the tenured research stars teach little, and poorly, while the freeway flyers teach a lot, and well, for very little money.

The reality is more subtle.
At Northwestern, especially in the college of arts and sciences, where over 80 percent of the classes take place, has career ladders with four ranks; these lecturers have long-term contracts and the same benefits as tenure-track faculty members. Many accounts in the news media have missed this point, despite our repeated statements throughout the paper, and are trying to generalize our findings to one-off and journeyman lecturers. Others are trying to generalize to upper-division courses without basis.
Mr Marks develops the point.
Northwestern's tenure system presumably favors research over teaching, so that would-be tenured professors have an incentive to limit the hours they spend preparing to teach. But other tenure systems, including the one in place at my college, weigh teaching more heavily than research. The results of the Northwestern study imply at most that at universities that value research more than instruction, tenured and tenure-track professors are on average slightly less effective teachers of introductory courses than full-time, long-term, non-tenured instructors, whose main work is teaching. Perhaps it doesn't take an all-star research team to draw that conclusion.

Some colleges and universities‒I would not count Northwestern among them‒have let the pursuit of research prestige get in the way of their educational missions. But the ongoing "disruption" Mead cheers on, which consists in replacing long-term tenured and tenure-track employees with part-timers at $3000 a pop, advances nobody's educational mission.
I'm not persuaded that making a university's profile more like Northwestern's is an error.  It is likely, though, that there is a critical mass of motivated students at Northwestern, such that a little work with like-minded friends and floor-mates can offset a lot of disengaged teaching by the Rising Star establishing a Nobel-worthy body of work.  In another reaction to the study, New APPS contributor Ed Kazarian notes,
I suspect what we might learn more conclusively if and when we get more robust data about the faculty involved in this one—is that it is probably a relatively better compensated, full time and long term 'teaching' faculty that is producing this result. Such a faculty would be on the high to very high end of the scale of how such faculty members may be valued and treated in the U.S. system.

So it's by no means clear that a better report wouldn't provide strong reason to think that treating 'teaching' faculty substantially better than most of today's 'adjuncts' wouldn't do good things for student learning. It's also not clear that such a report wouldn't show that any difference between the teaching effectiveness of such faculty and 'tenure-track' faculty has less to do with their length of tenure or job security than it does with how frequently they teach the courses in question and under what circumstances. There is, as I say above, a lot of information we don't have here which should be very pertinent to how one understands these results.
Indeed. Working conditions matter. At Minding the Campus, a retired professor notes that the responsibilities of a professor include a substantial dose of scut-work.
Loved the classroom, hated the claptrap and busy work that comes with academia. Now I'm an adjunct, (adjunct Emeritus?,) teaching two mornings a week and loving every minute of it. Many of my retired colleagues, realizing how much they missed the classroom are back as adjuncts. Free of the non-teaching effluvia that comes with full time teaching, perhaps we can now focus on the classroom to the exclusion of all else.
I'm not sure whether "effluvia" refers to producing Minimal Publishable Units, as opposed to meaningful research, or to the straining at gnats of committee meetings. I note only that faculty involvement in committee meetings is a necessary evil, in order to slow or preclude the administrative preemptions of what is properly the faculty's responsibility to uphold standards.

I also suggest that retired professors returning to the classroom as adjuncts are complicit in their university's efforts to starve the academic departments of resources.  There's something compelling about being able to walk away from it.

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