Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Connecting the dots...thoughts about working in academia

[warning: lengthier post than usual] Before I left for December my mini vacation I had a holiday themed catch-up with a number of friends and colleagues on campus. With the semester winding down, and with the holidays as an excuse it was a good opportunity for people to get together and share some news about what had transpired over the past semester, share notes, best practices, and so on. One of my colleagues inquired how things are going in the office as far as admissions go. There seems to be some doom and gloom over falling admission on campus, but that's a topic for another day. Things are going well in my department (knock on wood), so much so that we are not able to admit all qualified applicants since we don't have enough people to teach for us.

My colleague's solution (my colleague is a full time instructional designer, for what it's worth) was that we need to "change the model," instead of relying on tenure stream professors to teach our courses, we could have subject matter experts design the online courses and hire and army of adjuncts to teach for us, thus the tenured professors would have a final say on the content and the adjunct, who costs less would teach to that content. This, after all, seems to be the model that other schools employ, especially those with online programs, so the message seemed to be that we need to get with the program and move from an outdated model.  Now tenure may have its issues but I think that swinging the pendulum mostly the other direction is the wrong solution. My bullshit alarm (for lack of a better term) starts to go off when I hear about some of these "new models" in the same ways by BS alarm went off when I was hearing about sub-prime mortgages and derivatives when I was an MBA student (you remember those?).

I don't know how I found myself in higher education administration, but I did end up here. As a matter of fact I am coming up to three years in my current job (closing in on that 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about!) The thing that became abundantly clear to me is that there is a compartmentalization of information, know-how, and most importantly understanding of what needs to happen in a large organization, such as a university, so simplistic solutions, such as "changing" the model become the norm in thinking. This is quite detrimental, in my opinion, to the overall longevity of programs. These simplistic solutions may come from the best of intentions, but when one doesn't have the entire information at their disposal it's easy to come to bad solutions.

First, we have an assumption that we don't have an overall curriculum, thus bringing the point of "master courses" that any ol' adjunct can teach. The fact is that we do have extensive program level outcomes in our program, and somewhat set curriculum.  At the broad level it is set, but at the day to day level there is flexibility for subject matter expertise.  I don't want to get into the issue of academic freedom, I find that this term gets abused to mean (almost) anything that faculty members want it to mean. However, in this case I do want to draw upon it to illustrate the point that at the day-to-day level of class, so long as faculty are meeting the learning objectives of the course, the readings that they choose as substitutes to the agreed-upon curriculum of the course (especially if more than 2 people are in charge of teaching the same course) is are not put under the microscope, and faculty aren't prevented from exercising their professional license.

Secondly, and most importantly, simplistic (and often cheap for the institution) solutions to expand capacity treat all adjuncts as the same an interchangeable. This is patently wrong on so many levels. The way I see is there are two types of adjuncts (those of you who study higher education administration may have more - please feel free to comment). The first type are the people who the adjunct system was "built" for.  Those are people like me: people who have a day-job somewhere, they enjoy what they do, and they share their practice with those who are training to enter our profession. Our day-job essentially pays our wages and what we do we do as service to the profession and for the love of teaching. This way the (usually) small payment per course can be really seen as an honorarium rather than as payment for services rendered.  The second type of adjunct is the person who is doing it as their day-job and they thus need to teach many courses (perhaps at multiple institutions) to make ends meet.  This second type of adjunct is probably what is most prevalent in academia today, at least from what I read.  Regardless of whether they are of type 1 or type 2, Adjuncts who teach, both for our institution and elsewhere, are professionals who have earned their PhDs, in many cases conduct research, and are active in their fields in one way or another; but most of all they are human beings. By coming to the table with the mentality that they are interchangeable, just give them a pre-made course shell and let them run with it, you are not only undermining their humanity but also their expertise in the field - after all someone you crank up and let them run doesn't necessarily have a voice to help your department improve their course offerings and their programs. You are shutting them out.

Now, at the moment, as a case study, let's take my program.  I would estimate that depending on the semester anywhere from 75%-90% of the online courses are taught by adjuncts.  In the summers (optional semesters) the ratio is actually the inverse. By hiring more adjucts, in order to matriculate more students, the tenure to non-tenure ratio gets more skewed. This, to me, is problematic.  A degree program isn't just about the 10 courses you take in order to complete you degree.  A degree program is about more than this, and tenure stream faculty (i.e. permanent faculty) are vital to the health of degree programs and to the success of learners in that degree program. Adjuncts, as seasonal employees are only hired to teach the courses that they are hired to teach, and nothing else. This represents a big issue for programs. Here is my list of six issues with over-reliance on adjunct labor

Issue 1: Advising

I must admit my own experience with advising, throughout my entire learner experience has been spotty at best.  Some students don't take advantage of advising, we think we know better and we know all the answers.  Some advisors treat advising as a period to get students signed up for courses.  Both attitudes are wrong.  Advising is about relationships. It's about getting to know the student, their goals, their intents, and their weaknesses and working with them to address those issues. At the end of a student's studies, the advising that occurred during the student's period of study should help them get to the next leg of where they are going to be, on their own.  Through this type of relationship building advisors get to know their advisees and can even provide references for them if they decide to move on to the next level of study, or if they require a reference for work. Even if one compensated adjuncts for advising, how do you quantify the pay?  Do you do it in terms of hours? That's kind of hard to do.  Even if you derived at a fair and equitable pay for the work, adjunct hiring is subject to volatility, you don't make a long term commitment to them, and they don't necessarily make it to you! (see issue 3).  This is no way to build an advising relationship.

Issue 2: committee work

This second issue brings us back to those master courses that my colleague talked about.  These things are decided by committee on the grand scheme since curriculum needs to make sense - it's not a hodgepodge of a little-bit-of-this and a little-bit-of-that. Faculty are not hourly employees, but adjuncts are sort of treated as hourly employees if we decide to compensate them for this type of work. It may work, but it might require punching a card.  For people who are basically paid honoraria do you really want to nickel and dime them? Sometimes committees meet for their usual x-hours per month and things are done fairly quickly, and other times committees meet many hours in preparation for accreditation, just as an example. This, of course, assumes that adjunct faculty members can do committee work for some additional pay (which usually isn't a lot). What if they can't? What if they have other priorities? If this is the case all of the work falls upon the few tenure-stream people in the department. This has the effect of both keeping adjuncts away from critical decisions and implementations made by the department, and it dumps more on the full time people in the department. Adding more adjuncts to the payroll would most likely serve to amplify this, and to add to the factory model of producing academic products.


Issue 3: department stability: vis-à-vis perpetual hiring

When you hire a full-time staff member chances are high that they will be around for a while if they are worth their salt. If you hire a faculty member, on the tenure stream, chances are that this is a career move and that this person won't be leaving any time soon.  This provides the department with stability in many ways.  It providers a core group of people to shepherd the department, its curriculum, and most importantly the students.  With adjuncts, given their semester to semester nature (i.e. no long term contract with the institution) it makes sense that these individuals will most likely be working elsewhere and have other commitments; or they might just be looking for a full time gig. In which case your institution or department will come second.  This isn't good, and if adjunct instructors leave your department you need to look for replacement. This adds to the workload of the few full-time faculty who need to start a search, review CVs, and go through and interview people.  This isn't a job for one person, but rather a job for a committee of at least 3 members to vet and verify what's on CVs and conduct the interviews.

Once the hiring is complete there is some mentoring that goes on to make sure that they are successful, and even then you aren't guaranteed that these new hires will work out. I'd say that you need at least 2, of not 3, semester to be able to get an accurate idea of how well these new hires teach, work, and fit in with your institutional culture. If things work out, great! Then you pray that they won't leave you in the lurch when something better comes along.  If it doesn't work out not only do you have to start the search again (which is time and energy consuming), you may have issues with your learners; it may have been the case that these new hires were awful and as such did a major disservice to your learners. This is something that needs mending, both from a content perspective and a human relations perspective.  Again, this takes time and effort.  Yes, I hear some of you say that this is also the case with tenure stream faculty.  This is true! It's true for all new hires. There is a period of  trial-and-error, acclimation, and kicking the tires that happens, both by the new hire's side and the department's side. However, once a new hire passes their 4th year review and they are reasonably certain of tenure, that's basically it, you don't generally need to worry that you are going to lose them and you need to start your search all over again. Not so the case with adjuncts. Commitment is a two-way street.

Issue 4: quality of adjuncts

The issue of quality of adjuncts cuts in a number of ways.  If luck out and find someone good in your search, you'll know within a semester or two if they pass the muster (and they will know if they are a good fit for your department). It is risky having any new hire, especially one with so much power over the learning of a group of students, as I mentioned above.  There are, however, other dimensions of quality. One of my considerations for quality is how current are people in their fields?  I generally do not like people who myopically focus on their own research as the cutting edge of what's out there in the field, but this is one of the legitimate ways of keeping current.

Many departments that I've been in contact with use one measurement for adjunct quality: course evaluations.  I am the first to say that I am not an expert in this arena since I have not studied it, but I think this is complete bunk.  As I like to say, you can have an instructor who is Mr. or Ms. Congeniality and basically bamboozle students into thinking that they have learned something relevant and worthwhile. Thus the students are more apt to give good reviews to bad instructors. Those people are then hired to continue teaching to the detriment of future learners. As an aside, I just read a story on NPR on course evaluations. Pretty interesting read - course evaluation apparently are bad measurement instruments.

Finally, just to wrap this section up, another issue I've seen is course-creep.  Someone is hired specifically to teach one course, CRS 100 for example, and then due to many, and varying reasons, they are given courses CRS 150, 200, 350, 400, 420, and 450.  The person may not really be a subject expert in these fields, and may not even have enough time to catch up on the latest developments for their own sake and the sake of their learners, but due to inadequate quality measurement instruments those people get to teach more and more courses in their respective programs.  As a side note, it seems as though accreditors might be taking notice of the increased reliance on adjunct faculty.

Issue 5:  disproportionate representation of faculty by teaching more courses, and issues of diversity

So, we've come to a point in our discussion (with my instructional design colleague) where the suggestion is to just create additional sections for the instructors that have proven themselves over the years.  First this assumes that the people we hire can teach additional courses for us. This, generally speaking, is not usually the case.  The people who teach for us have day-jobs. They are professors at their own institutions and they have responsibilities to their own home departments.  Adding more courses to their teaching roster simply isn't feasible from a logistics point of view.   Even if it were possible, departments don't grow by simply hiring more of the same.  The way organizations grow is through diversification. New faculty hires would be able, surely, to teach some intro level courses in our program, however they would bring in their own expertise.  This expertise would allow the department to create additional tracks of study, offer different electives, provide seminar series for diverse interests to current students and alumni.  The more of the same approach may work short term, however it's not a great long term strategy.

Still, some departments do expand someone's course-load to include more courses.  As we saw in issue #4, this is an issue of quality.  It is also an issue of lack of diversity and disproportionate representation of one faculty member.  I would feel very odd if I were teaching and students were doing 1/4, or /3, or 1/2 of their courses with me because it was compulsory.  If students really opted to take more courses with me, then more power to them, they've made an informed decision.  However, if courses are required and students only have 1 faculty member to choose from, then that is bad for them in the long run because they don't get a diversity of views, opinions, expertise, and diverse know-how from the field (if the adjuncts are from a more practical background).

Issue 6: research of Tenure stream faculty

Now, as I wrote above, I really don't like it when faculty drone on and on about their research, and their research agenda, and look for ways to get out of teaching. Being a faculty member is often compared to being a three-legged stool: teaching, research, and service. You can't extend one leg, shorten another and expect to have balance.  If you wish to be a researcher then by all means, quit your academia job and go find a research-only job.  That said, research, and being up-to-date, is important.  For me it connects with a measurement of quality. Adjuncts are only hired, and paid for, teaching.  Since there is no research requirement in their jobs research and continuous quality improvement may not be something that they undertake. This is bad not only for the students, but also for the department.  One of the ways that we are able to attract students to our respective programs is through name-brand recognition.  In a recent open house my department had published books by our faculty.  Several students commented on the fact that we had that Donaldo Macedo who worked with the Paulo Freire in our department. Yes, we have that Charles Meyer, who's a pioneer in corpus linguistics. These are just two examples, but it gets people to pay attention to you.  Even with my own studies, one of the reasons I chose Athabasca was the fact that I had read work by Fahy, Anderson, Dron, Ally, and Siemens. I was familiar with the CoI framework and the work done on that, and I am a reader of IRRODL.  The fact that AU is the place where all these things are happening was a catalyst for me to apply and attend. All of this stuff comes directly from the research work and public outreach of the full time faculty of this institution. Adding more adjuncts to the payroll doesn't get you this in the long term. Again, you invest in your faculty and your get paid back with dividends!


Conclusion

To wrap this up, in this big organization that we all work in, we all have many different jobs, little communication, and no one has a big picture. I consider myself lucky. Having worked as a media technician, a library systems person, a library reference and training person, an instructional designer, as an adjunct faculty member, and now a program manager, I've seen all of the different levels of what's going on in academia.  I have a more complete picture, much more so than any of my colleagues who are in the same job/career path. The upper administration is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I guess I still have room to grow. I am grateful that friends and colleagues want to help out with growing our program, but without having all of the information, I am afraid that "changing the model" is simply code for do it quicker and cheaper and churn out more students.  Students need mentors, advisors, and role models. The adjuncts we've had teaching for us for the past 3 years (or more) are great and do, unofficially, provide that out our learners. However, you can't grow a program on adjuncts. What it comes down, for me, is recognizing the humanity of adjuncts, compensating them well, getting them into the fold as valuable contributors to the department, and investing long-term in programs.  Figure out what you need tenure stream people for, what you need Lecturers for (adjuncts with long-term contracts) and work strategically. Semester-to-semester, and adjunct majority, is not the way forward.


Your thoughts?
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