Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Lecturer Quits

Courtesy of Historiann (whose post has generated some good discussion), here's an account by Kelly J. Baker of why she quit her lecturer job.  The part that resonated most for me was this:  
Something broke, and it seemed irreparable.This was compounded by my increasing frustration with my job as a lecturer. I liked my students, I enjoyed teaching, and I despised the undervaluing of teaching by my department head. I disliked the hierarchy of talents, in which tenure track and tenured faculty were valued more than those of us who just taught. Being a lecturer meant that my publications could be brushed aside, and that my experience and opinions mattered less. Frustrating doesn’t quite cover it.

The undervaluing of teaching (in word, deed, job structure, and salary), and of faculty who are primarily teachers, really bothers me, too. In my case, it's not so much a question of people ignoring my research, such as it is (it's nowhere near as impressive as Baker's), as not being able to do service, and so have a full voice in curricular and other departmental matters.    At the same time, I realize why more research-oriented faculty, especially in the humanities, feel embattled, too, and why they may resist calls to dedicate more of their energies to teaching (which often amount to suggesting that they teach two or three times as many students per course, effectively doubling or tripling their teaching load without any concomitant reduction in other responsibilities).

Still, teaching is, if not the only core mission of the university, at least a core mission of the university. However, everyone seems to want us to do it on the cheap: parents, politicians, and pundits because college has gotten too expensive, and administrators (and some more privileged faculty members) because they want to conserve funds for activities that build the university's research reputation (some of which involve actual research, and some of which don't).

Ugh.  How do we go about recognizing the value of teaching, while still resisting the idea that any research that doesn't bring in money (and/or have potentially profit-making results) is worthless?   For that matter, what can we learn about the conditions under which productive scholarship is possible from contingent faculty who, like Baker, maintain active writing and research agendas despite heavy teaching loads?  Is it possible, as some people (including me) have suggested in the comments over at Historiann's, that the increased service load created by overuse of contingent faculty offsets the value of reduced teaching loads for tenure-track faculty?  Might we all be better off with a move toward slightly higher teaching loads, if it were accompanied by an increase in tenure-track positions (or at least full-time positions that incorporate reasonable proportions of teaching, research, and service)?

Can we all just get along? Or is it too late, the gap between TT and contingent faculty too broad, the resources too limited, the outside pressures too great?  Are we going to spend our time overstating the value of our own contributions to the common enterprise (and the extent to which higher ed is a meritocracy), and denigrating those of others, while faculty governance withers and administrators become ever more numerous and powerful?  Or is there hope -- somehow, somewhere?  


  1. Tangent 1: I like how you wrote "< i >a< / i >" instead of "a". An important italicization of a single letter can be so easily overlooked.

    Tangent 2: I like seeing your avatar grooving like it's on an old iPod commercial.

    1. Reply to Tangent 1: oops; I forgot that I was composing in the composing window, not in html. This is what happens when I am in a truly Cassandra-like state (fonts all awry are presumably the 21st-century equivalent of loosened hair). Fixed; thanks!

      Reply to Tangent 2: I've never seen an iPod commercial, old or new (this is what happens when somebody drags her TV out of storage to watch the first Obama inauguration, decides she should get a bigger flat-screen rather than a digital set-top box, and never follows up. I finally threw the old TV out this summer; still haven't bought a new one. I used the bookshelf space to pile books in instead. It's already full).

    2. The < em > tag (emphasis) is what you want for italics these days, Cassandra.

  2. Is there hope?

    Magic 8-Ball: "My sources say no"

  3. My school wants to be big in research. To do that, we need asses in the seats, year after year. To do that, we need faculty who can teach and not scare away the students.

    The upshot is that good teaching is necessary to reach the goal of more research. Since research is the goal and teaching is a means of achieving that goal, research is treated as valuable while teaching is shit upon.

  4. Even at schools like mine (community college) where research is a non-issue- good teaching is not valued. In fact, it seems like good teachings and rigorous standards just get in the way- students don't want it, the student's (customer's) parents to don't want the admins don't want it because it leads to unhappy "customers" who pester them with complaints. We talk a good talk around here, but I suspect that my value would actually increase if my quality of teaching actually decreased.

  5. This prompted me to google "Jobs that pay $50,000" to see what other jobs I could be doing for the amount of money I earn. Surely, there are jobs where I'm not working lawyer hours for student pay.

  6. You are conflating two things: valuing research+teaching vs. valuing teaching and the fact that having a say on departmental matters depends on the job title.

    So, in math: nobody gets a PhD for love of teaching, but with the goal (one might say "calling") of advancing the field, though we all realize for most people some teaching will be involved. So, right there at the outset, there is a fundamental asymmetry. Pretty soon that bumps up against the reality of jobs, and relatively few get stable positions that expect/reward research. And the vast majority of the others, talented as they may be, stop trying for good (and I don't blame them, I would stop too if I didn't think it would be rewarded in some way).

    Now, the people who do manage to start research careers can do more things: with few exceptions, they can not only teach undergraduates, but also teach advanced material/direct dissertations for grad students. There are fewer of these people, so it is not surprising that they get paid more.

    As Wylod pointed out recently, the "profile" of non-TT faculty is not uniform: in my dept we have a few senior lecturers with PhDs whose research fizzled early, and who wanted to stay in the area. More recently, faculty spouses with PhDs (in math) who continue to publish. Or former grad students in the dept. who stopped working on a doctorate, but stayed on.

    I rarely see the non-TT people (but then, I rarely see anyone). A small number of them comes to faculty meetings, or seminars, or colloquia. I have no say on their salary or teaching assignments. I think those that continue to do research should be rewarded in some way (and I'm sure their positions are more stable). We can absolutely get along, since we hardly interact at all.

    In the university? Ideally, at a place like mine, there should be no faculty members who "just teach". As I've said before, most of the teaching we do is at a very elementary level, and there is nothing "hard" about doing that; it's just time-consuming. The kind of teaching "educating new generations of mathematically competent scientists", which would be fun for the research people, we're mostly not allowed to do (not enough majors/minors). In the intro courses, if we don't stay pretty close to the mass-produced texts (which are all a parody of mathematics), the whole system groans, from the students to the provost. So I'm happy to outsource this activity to whoever wants/is told to do it. It's not math.

    Your view of committee activity strikes me as somewhat romanticized. I would gladly be excused from any committee service whatsoever, and I'm sure my colleagues would, too. Most of us think of the job as "research, plus as much advanced teaching as you can get away with". I've been on the graduate committee a number of years: all we talk about is petitions from graduate students asking for exceptions to the rules. Curriculum development? The curriculum is stable, the student population is stable, nobody wants to open this can of contentious busywork which is known to have negligible practical impact. I'm on the undergraduate committee now, and from the looks of it it's the same thing: trivial changes to the course listing, research groups proposing new courses that will be offered but may never run (I think I'll ask for evidence of student interest.) This committee does have non-TT instructors.

    By the way, I don't think it is unreasonable to set things up so that the people with a say in the future development of the discipline (through curricula, for instance) are those with research experience--regardless of their job title.

  7. Recently I interviewed for a lecturer position at my R1 (or whatever it's called now) University. I almost got the gig, but I am kind of glad I did not. The pay was fine, the department head supportive, but as a lecturer you have NO say in anything in the department. You can state your opinion, but you can not vote. And what if a new department head comes in slashes away the "lecturer" budget?

    CC I agree with you 100%. I think it is shameful that teaching is not equally valued in a place of research, when teaching at the University is kind of important. Bah!! Yes I realize I will not be bringing in a million dollars in grants, but damn it I am helping the overall cause!!!

    1. TT assistant professors have minimal say in what goes on (and generally keep their mouths shut, if they have any sense). Associate professors have slightly more say (they take part in tenure votes). Full professors have mainly, in addition, the right to vote on who becomes a full professor.

      The only vote I'm aware of that draws any interest is "in which area are we going to hire next?" That's a research issue (balance among areas), immaterial to our teaching mission. And in any case where I work all faculty votes are "advisory" to the dept head, who can overrule them.

      So as far as "say on what goes on in the department", that's what you're missing.

    2. I understand what you are saying Peter, but it is the idea that (depending on the department) lecturers are lesser than the TT and Tenured folks. Sure the TT and Tenured do bring in money, especially in the hard sciences, but the work of a lecturer is no less important.