Accountability in Higher Education: The Elephant in the Room

Portrait caricatureThere’s been a lot of discussion among academics of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago, 2011). Arum and Roksa present strong evidence that students are not learning the reasoning skills that colleges and universities claim to teach. Part of the problem, it appears, is that professors aren’t requiring enough of students. Half the students surveyed for the book, observed Sarah E. Igo in a review in Academe, “reported that they had not had a class in the last semester requiring more than twenty pages of writing in the entire course, and a third had not taken a class requiring more than forty pages of reading a week.”

Why aren’t professors requiring more of students? Is it because, as some have argued, tenured and tenure-track faculty are more concerned about their research than they are about teaching? Or because they’re just lazy and hence don’t want to exert themselves grading lots of assignments? The latter position has lots of proponents. Tenure makes it nearly impossible to fire a professor, so what incentive does he or she have to do any real work?

Leaving aside the issue of whether people are more effectively motivated by the carrot or the stick, there’s one huge reason for the decline in the expectations placed on students in higher education that has yet to be given sufficient attention–the increasing amount of university-level instruction that is being done by what academics refer to as “contingent faculty.” Contingent faculty–primarily adjuncts who are hired by the course–are paid so badly that they are forced to teach more courses per term than can be handled well.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty typically teach two courses per term. There’s no official limit, however, to how many courses an adjunct can teach. Adjunct pay is miserably low. My department at Drexel pays between $2,175-$3,000 per course. We’re on quarters, so an adjunct who teaches two courses per term for the standard academic year would have an annual salary of between $13,000-$18,000. Few people, especially people with student loan debt, can afford to live on so little, so most adjuncts teach more than two courses per term. In fact, many teach more than four.

“This class isn’t like the other critical reasoning classes,” one of my students commented recently. “My buddy took critical reasoning last term and he said it was easy. He said he never had to go and he still did well.” This student, my student, I mean, had added the class at the end of the second week of the term. When he went to add it, he’d found that mine was the only section he could get in. “All the others had 25 students,” he said, “but this one had only sixteen.”

“Yeah, I lost a lot of students,” I explained, “after they got their first essay back.” I’d originally had 25 (the official ceiling) in each of my sections, but no more than twenty actually showed up for the first class because I’d emailed them the syllabus, and I think that scared off a few. The syllabus lists the requirements for the course including the fact that there are quizzes every day on the readings and three in-class essays. That’s a lot of work for me, but it makes for a better class because the quizzes mean the students will do the readings and the essays mean they’ll learn to construct a persuasive argument.

I spend almost all my time during the terms when I’m teaching grading quizzes and essays and meeting with students to discuss them. I don’t mind doing the work because I know it’s important. I do mind having almost no free time, but there are breaks between terms and then the summer when I can do some real research. I can’t do much research while I’m teaching. There just isn’t time.

Here’s the kicker though. I’m tenured. I’m one of an increasingly tiny elite of tenured professors who have reasonable teaching loads and rock-solid job security. I teach two courses per term. Sounds pretty cushy, doesn’t it? It’s all I can handle though, if I want to do a good job.

I complained once to another critical reasoning instructor about the amount of time it took to grade essays.

“I don’t give essays,” he said, “I can’t, I’m teaching four other courses.”

He was an adjunct. He had to teach five classes, he explained, just to be able to pay his rent. Some adjuncts teach more than five classes. Not at Drexel. We don’t let them teach more than three for us. They go other places though. They have to just to be able to eat. Most of the sections of critical reasoning we offer in any given term are taught by contingent faculty. That’s why they’re “easy.” The instructors can’t give so many assignments as tenured or tenure-track faculty because they don’t have time to grade them.

Grading essays in enormously time consuming. I’ve spent as much as an hour on a single essay. They don’t usually take that long, but they sometimes do. First you have to figure out what someone is trying to say. You can’t give constructive feedback on how they might be more successful unless you know what they’re trying to say and figuring that out can require reading some essays over and over again. Figuring out what a student is trying to say is only the beginning of the task of grading. Once you’ve done that, you have to determine where they went wrong, precisely where and how they failed. That isn’t easy either. It’s easy enough to say “I can’t make heads or tails of this,” but that doesn’t help them. You’ve got to figure out why you can’t make heads or tails of it. After you’ve done that (“step two,” I call it) you have to figure out what you need to tell them that will be helpful. You can’t point out everything that went wrong. That’s demoralizing. They’ll just give up if you point out every problem. You’ve got to select from among the myriad things that could be improved, the ones that are absolutely crucial and then find a way to communicate them that doesn’t sound too harsh.

I’m fortunate because my job is secure. I have time to give my students substantial reading and writing assignments and I don’t have to worry that they will trash me in their evaluations if I’m hard on their papers. I trust them to be fair with me if I am fair with them, and they usually are. Tell an adjunct that, though. They’re hired by the course. If their evaluations aren’t good, they know that they can be easily replaced with some other recent Ph.D. who’ll be more accommodating.

There’s a lot of talk about how the consumer model of higher education is destroying it. I think if it were employed properly, it could save it. Students should be getting more for their money than most adjuncts, through no fault of their own, are able to give them. It’s not that adjuncts are less well qualified than tenured, or tenure-track professors. They’re occasionally better qualified.  The problem is that they’re overworked. Most aren’t able to give students the kind of attention, or assignments, or feedback on their assignments that a tenured or tenure-track professor could give them. If I were paying what students are paying nowadays to go to school, I’d want more for my money than I could get from and adjunct.

There’s a lot of discussion among academics about the increasing use of adjunct labor, but nearly all of that discussion concerns how exploitative that practice is–of the adjuncts. You almost never hear anyone point out that it is also exploitative of the students, that it exploits their ignorance. Most students are simply relieved to find they’ve got an “easy” class, a class where the instructor requires very little of them. They’re still assuming they’re in school to get that piece of paper that will get them a job and the easier it is to get that piece of paper the better. Most of them don’t realize yet that that piece of paper is not going to get them a job. That if there is any hope of their ever getting, or at least keeping, a job it will be because of the stuff they’ve actually learned in college.

Academics complain almost constantly about the preoccupation of students with “that piece of paper,” yet the academy itself encourages this attitude by turning so much instruction over to people who don’t have time to do more than rubber stamp a student’s transcript.

The recent spate of blaming academics for the decline in the quality of higher education is just another symptom of what Richard Hofstadter, among others, identified as the anti-intellectualism of American culture. What is increasingly referred to as the crisis in higher education is sometimes characterized as a battle between two different models of education: the liberal-arts model and the vocational one. “[I]s college,” asks James M. Maslow, “an apprenticeship for informed public participation or a store selling competitive private credentials?” (“Losing Our Faculties,” Academe). That’s a red herring, though, because the sad truth is we are failing miserably even at the task of teaching practical skills. American culture is very anti-intellectual, so you won’t find too many people in the general population clambering to rescue the liberal-arts model of higher education. People would scream bloody murder, though, if they realized they were paying tens of thousands of dollars to institutions where students weren’t even learning practical skills.

I’m a big proponent of the liberal-arts model of education, but most of the energy I put into teaching is actually directed at helping my students acquire the practical skills of being able to construct and analyze arguments. That’s true even with upper-level courses in epistemology and metaphysics. Most of my students don’t know the difference between an argument and a bunch of unsupported assertions strung together with a lot of non-argumentative rhetoric. Many of them have difficulty even remembering the topics of papers that are assigned in class. I’ll give them the topic and explain the structure the paper should have and still, many will turn in rambling, unstructured musings on unrelated topics. It’s not because they don’t care about doing well. They care very much, but their minds are so completely untrained that even teaching them the most rudimentary of practical skills requires enormous chunks of time, more time than most adjuncts have to give to their students.

People are blaming academics for the crisis in higher education. The decision to turn over increasing amounts of instruction to beleaguered adjuncts is not coming from academics, however, it’s coming from administrators who’ve migrated to academia from the world of business where cutting costs is pursued as if it were a holy grail.

Academics, even adjuncts, care about teaching, but faculties are being squeezed by bloated administrations that need to cut costs to justify their own existence and one of the ways they have chosen to cut costs is to replace tenured faculty with adjuncts. Students need feedback on their work. They need more than just a grade on an assignment if they have any hope of doing well and for many of them grades are crucial to their receiving the financial aid they need to be able to remain in school. Most adjuncts don’t have time to give much feedback though, or to meet with students one-on-one to discuss how they might improve their work. Imagine how frustrated, how desperately frustrated, a student could become who sees his or her grades slipping but can’t get enough feedback from an instructor to halt that downward trend.

Lack of feedback isn’t the only problem associated with the increasing use of adjuncts. I’ve had students who have never been to a single class email me in week eight of a ten-week term with some sob story as to why they’ve never been to class and begging me to make up some special assignments for them so that they can “still pass.” Where, in God’s name, I’ve asked myself, are these kids getting the idea that any instructor would do such a thing? It took me a while to figure that one out. I’ll bet there are a few adjuncts out there who’ll do it. If the student is still officially enrolled in the course, he can still do an evaluation and the instructor may fear he’ll get a bad evaluation if he doesn’t find some way to help the student pass.

Students are being led to believe that they don’t have to do any real work in order to earn an advanced degree. So then, when they run into an instructor who actually requires something from them, they protest the instructor is being unfair. What isn’t fair, however, is blaming tenured and tenure-track faculty for the diminished expectations that are being placed on students when evidence suggests the problem stems from the gradual takeover of instruction by overworked adjuncts who don’t have the time or energy to require much of their students. What isn’t fair is taking money from people and claiming to be educating them when you’re not.

“From the professorial perspective,” writes Benjamin Ginsberg in The Fall of the Faculty : The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford, 2011), “the university exists to promote teaching by providing faculty members with classrooms, laboratories, libraries, computers, and other instructional resources. From the administrative perspective, however, the purpose of teaching is to bring fees-paying customers (sometimes known as students) into its dormitories and classrooms.”

That’s the elephant in the room, the thing nobody wants to acknowledge because it makes everybody, meaning every institution, look bad. That’s the dirty little secret behind the crisis in higher education. It’s not so much a battle between populist vocational training and old-guard intellectual elitism. It’s a battle between academics who want to give students something for their money and expanding armies of administrators who care less and less about what sort of product they are providing, so long as the money keeps coming in.

This piece originally appeared in CounterPunchMay 29, 2012

8 responses

  1. As part-time “adjunct” faculty member, teaching remedial composition, Comp. I, and Comp. II for the past decade at a large, Midwestern, 4-year, public university, I agree with your acknowledgement of the over-worked and underpaid plight of my adjunct brothers & sisters, especially those who labor alongside me in the basements of the oldest buildings on campus and with the oldest IT equipment (I have no internet access in my basement office, which is not even in the same building that houses the English Department), and under the poorest working conditions of _any_ adjuncts on campus.

    I do, however, take exception to the intimation that we adjuncts can’t or don’t invest the time & effort to hold our students to the high standards of critical thinking that you suggest only FTTT faculty can because we are over-worked and they are not. Excellent and poor teachers exist in both FTTT faculty and in the adjunct ranks. Some of us have high expectations, and some of us do not. Some of us require our students to read & write extensively and some do not. Some of us spend hours of our own time–outside of regularly scheduled class time–conferring with our students on their writing and thinking skills, and some of us do not. Some of us give extensive commentary on written assignments, and some do not. FTTT status does not necessarily equate with better teaching simply because a full-time faculty member is afforded more time in which to do his or her job; conversely, an adjunct does not do a poor job teaching simply because he or she may teach more classes than a FTTT faculty member does.

    Certainly there is a place in academia for all types of instructors & researchers, and adjuncts are necessary to most departments–especially “service learning” departments like English, math, speech, and others that provide the “core” courses required of all students who attend higher ed. institutions. What is ethically wrong is the way these workers are treated by most institutions: poverty-level wages, lack of benefits for full-time work, lack of representation by unions (the union that represents my husband, who is a FT, tenured professor will take my dues but won’t guarantee to represent me in wage negotiations or in litigation if I am sued by an irate student or family), too many courses to teach, too many students per section to teach well, substandard office space & overcrowded offices, outdated office furniture & equipment, lack of funding to attend professional development opportunities . . . the list seems endless, and it depresses me.

    But please don’t suggest that because I am an adjunct that I am not doing my job well. Those of us who have truly accepted teaching as a vocation are absolutely dedicated to providing our students with the best educational experience possible. Are some of my adjunct colleagues “taking it easy” on students and thus “taking it easy” on themselves? Sure. But I would argue that these teachers are a miniscule minority, and I would further argue that there are similar numbers of FTTT faculty who also “take it easy” on their students and on themselves. For the most part, however, the vast majority of teachers I know at my campus and at institutions across the nation give their best efforts to their students. If only we compensated all teachers more equitably and treated them as valuable members of the university for the work they do, all students would have a better educational experience.

    • I never said adjuncts “took it easy” on their students. My point is that most simply cannot give students the kind of attention tenured and tenure-track faculty can give students because they have many more students. The math is pretty straightforward. There are only so many hours in a day. An instructor with 100 students is not going to be able to give those students the same amount of attention as an instructor with 50 students. There is no way around that fact.

      Yes, there are some very dedicated teachers among adjuncts, and yes, there are some (though, in my experience, very few) slackers among tenured and tenure-track faculty, but neither point is directly relevant to the issue of the deleterious effect it has on the quality of higher education to shift the burden of teaching increasingly onto faculty who have, in many instances, over twice the teaching load that is standard for tenured and tenure-track faculty.

      There are lots of issues related to the problem of “contingent faculty.” There is the problem of low pay, low status, little access to essential pedagogical resources, etc., etc. I am focusing on one, one that I believe has received almost no attention and one that, were it given more attention might actually turn out to be effective in reversing this disturbing trend: the deleterious effect on the quality of education (i.e., on the students) of this trend of the increased use of adjuncts for college instruction. The math, as I pointed out in the first paragraph, is inescapable and seriously disturbing.

      • Thanks for your prompt response. I don’t argue with your arithmetic (although my husband, the algebraist, would take exception to your use of the term “math” in this sense . . .); what I meant to convey (but apparently didn’t) was that your original post doesn’t distinguish adequately between the educational experience provided by faculty who have a reasonable number of classes and students to teach and the experience provided by those who don’t. My argument is that FTTT or adjunct status doesn’t have much to do with the quality of students’ educational experience–what matters most is actually the number of classes and the number of students/class one teaches in a semester (in addition to other academic obligations such as research, advising, etc.).

        I fear such sweeping generalizations which argue that students receive a poorer educational experience when they are taught by adjuncts. Certainly student learning does suffer when their instructors have more to do than they can reasonably manage, but such a case can be as often found in over-worked FTTT faculty members’ classes as in the trenches of adjunct slave-labor camps. I would argue that reducing student/teacher ratios would add a huge benefit to student learning. To suggest that students do not receive quality education when taught by adjuncts (even through no fault of their own, as you acknowledge in your post) may indicate to the uninitiated–those unfamiliar with the system of higher education from an instructor’s side of the desk–a fallacious perception that FTTT=good; adjunct=bad, which, as I’m sure we both agree, is simply not the case. 🙂

        What I’d like to see discussed in more detail in this important discussion is the disturbing trend of increasing class sizes and the number of courses required to be considered full-time. Even between departments at my university, the numbers vary: in math, for instance, an adjunct is considered full-time when teaching 12 credit hours/semester, while in the English Department, a full-time load is 15 credit hours. In addition, no consideration is given to the amount of out-of-class time that composition instructors (for example) spend conferring with students and grading essays, as compared to the out-of-class time required by instructors in other disciplines. The inequities are staggering and generally acknowledged by my adjunct colleagues in other departments.

        Another problem facing adjunct instructors is what I call the “feast or famine” principle which ensures that most adjuncts (in the English Department at my university) teach 3, 4, and in most cases 5 classes in the fall, and then have no guarantee of even 1–but never more than 2!–classes in the spring. Perhaps the take-away message to students who want the most educational “bang” for their “buck” at my university is to only sign up for composition classes in the spring . . . !?! 🙂

        This problem, as you certainly point out, is not a simple one, and, as you mention, your post only discusses one aspect of it. However, as I’m sure you’d agree, as teachers of critical thinking, we must take care to clearly frame the problem and to as accurately as possible describe the participants. As I’m sure you’d agree that adjuncts aren’t the real problem in providing all students with a quality education . . . but they way universities treat them IS.

        Thank you for helping to illuminate for those of us in higher education (and for your readers who are not) this important issue. 🙂

  2. Yes, adjuncts aren’t the problem in that it isn’t the status as such that is the problem, but the fact that most adjuncts are WAY overworked. You are absolutely right that increasing class sized are also eroding the quality of higher education. There’s a limit though, to what tenured faculty can be made to do, so I think most universities take the easy way out and instead of increasing the size of classes to a point where tenured faculty would scream bloody murder, they just schedule more classes and throw them at adjuncts.

    You make a number of good points that deserve a more detailed response. Unfortunately, I have an appointment now. I will respond to them later today though. I think we are basically on the same page.

      • First, again you’re right about the real issue being the number of students one instructor has to handle. The problem though is that, as I said, rather than increasing class size, universities can just add more sections of a given course an assign them to adjuncts. I’d argue, actually, that disparities in what counts as part-time/full-time across different programs and departments aren’t actually much of an issue because most universities simply won’t allow adjuncts to teach enough classes that they would technically be considered full-time because then they would have to give them benefits.

        Money is the real issue. If adjuncts were paid better then they wouldn’t have to teach so many classes. The problem is that there’s a glut of Ph.D.s on the market so universities can basically pay whatever they want for adjunct labor. There will always be SOMEONE who’ll be willing to work for the wages, no matter how low they are. I once put a post up on the philosophy club facebook page advising students not to take classes with adjuncts, but the director of the philosophy program took it down. I don’t blame him for that. I don’t think he understood what I was trying to do though. I figured if students began to refuse to take courses taught by adjuncts, then the university would HAVE to turn many, if not all, of its adjunct positions into tenure-track ones.

        The sad fact is that there is an hysteria rampant in academe, cutting costs has become one of the main priorities and one of the way of cutting costs is replacing FTTT labor with adjunct labor. FTTT faculty protesting has done nothing to improve the situation. Adjuncts protesting has done to improve the situation. The only way I can see it improving is if students (or their parents) begin to protest that they are not getting their money’s worth if they are being taught by people who are chronically overworked. If I were paying $50K to go to school, I think I’d want a damn personal tutor for every one of my courses and even then I think I’d doubt whether it was worth the money. But these kids aren’t getting personal tutors, they are getting overworked adjuncts, passionate young people who are being exploited by a system that is basically exploiting everyone (e.g., students and their parents as well) just to make a buck. I’m hoping that if we shift our focus to how the STUDENTS are being exploited, THAT might actually get some results that would help everyone, not just the students but the people who are teaching them.

  3. Having gone through four years of academia at a “prestigious” university, I have to admit that what you’re saying is painfully true. Students no longer have the same kind of care or dedication to their studies as before. But to be fair, is it their fault? In a class of 1,400 taking Gen Chem, taught by 2 professors and 30 uninterested graduate students, where do we find the inspiration and energy to really dive into the subject matter? Particularly if 100% of our grades come from 2 midterms and 1 final? Particularly if our every single lecture is dominated by f*cking powerpoint slides, recycled from 10 years ago and not of particularly high quality? Particularly when we have to fight to be assistants in laboratories. Even then we deal with bored/uninterested post-docs and not the elusive P.I.’s, who unfortunately are more worried about lab funding than either the results or the ambitions of their wards.

    Do I miss the “good old days” when the faculty to student ratio is 1:20? Where professors invite their students to their homes for dinner and talk for hours about literature? Where professors actually knew the first and last names of their students? No, I don’t miss those times. Why? Because I never experienced them!

    To the author: we both openly acknowledge the declining quality of higher education from 2 different perspectives and as you have pointed out administration is being taken over by business-oriented. My question to you, dear tenured professor, is why are we paying increasingly higher tuition for adjuncts who are barely paid over the poverty line? Where’s the money? What’s it going to? Is it too many students enjoying the academia pie and so everybody gets a little smaller slice or is it stuffing the coffers of pension plans for the legions of administrative staff? Or is it something else altogether?

    • A lot of the money students pay in tuition is going to an increasing number of administrators. Check out Benjmin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty and the Rise of the All Administrative University. Some of the money is also going to PR, online course platform providers (see my post on that) and what are called “combined service providers” who do both PR and provide online course platforms, among other things (According to an article in Inside Higher Education, the fees CSPs charge universities sometimes add up to approximately half of the cost of tuition). Someone figured out that higher education, through the agency of federally guaranteed student loans, was basically a license to print money and companies sprang up out of nowhere and went after that money with a vengance. The student loan bubble is about to burste though. My only hope is that we do the right thing and bail out the students who have mortgaged their souls and not the banks to whom they have mortgaged them.

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