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Accountability in Higher Education

There’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, universities care more about research than about teaching? Or because professors are 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 is 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 give them a lot of work, or 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 will, in all likelihood, not be enough to get them a job. That if there is any hope of they’re 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 professors 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).

But that’s a red herring, because the sad truth is we’re 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 professors for the crisis in higher education. The decision to turn over increasing amounts of instruction to beleaguered adjuncts is not coming from professors, 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.

Professors, 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 professors 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.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu 

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