National Edition

Adjuncts, lecturers and professors, oh my!: Who's best at teaching?

Published: Monday, Sept. 23 2013 11:15 a.m. MDT

Adjunct instructor Rebecca Bauman holds a pre-class conference with Alexander Esmail, a student in the writing class she teaches at Flagler College, St. Augustine, Fla.

Celia R. Baker

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Rebecca Bauman patches together a livable income by teaching persuasive writing courses at the University of Florida and at a small private college in St. Augustine, Fla. She holds degrees from esteemed universities and won an award for teaching excellence when she taught courses at Florida as a graduate student.

Bauman loves what she does. But she sometimes feels like a ghostly nomad, unnoticed by her colleagues on the tenure track as she comes and goes. While tenured professors pull down six-figure salaries for teaching the same classes, Bauman earns less than $20,000 per year, and she has neither job security nor a benefits package.

Bauman is a part-time adjunct instructor, a member of the fastest-growing group among the tenure-tracked professors, full-time lecturers and part-time instructors who teach in the U.S. higher education system. These part-time faculty comprise more than 40 percent of instructional staff at U.S. colleges and universities; full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty comprise about 22 percent.

For Bauman, the joy of teaching offsets the downsides of her situation for now, but she worries constantly about the future, she said. She has no guarantee her services will be wanted next semester.

Though she dreams of snagging a secure, full-time position at a good school, Bauman doesn’t think it will happen. Her time is eaten up with designing creative lesson plans, reading student papers, meeting with her students and driving from school to school. Carving out enough extra hours to write a book or publish academic papers seems impossible. And in Bauman’s experience, that’s how tenure-track professors get hired.

“I’ve seen a lot of tenure-track teachers not get the best feedback about their teaching, but, boy-howdy, if they just got a piece into (a magazine or journal) or a grant to do research, that ends up meaning more. Meanwhile, adjuncts are on the ground with the students.”

Who teaches?

The dilemma part-time teachers like Bauman face figures into a larger debate about whom colleges and universities hire for their teaching staffs and how those choices affect their budgets — and their students.

A new study from Northwestern University suggests that first-year college students have better future outcomes when taught by nontenured teachers than by tenured and tenure-track professors. The study sparked discussion about cutting higher education’s cost through innovative staffing that lets tenured professors concentrate on research while expert teachers instruct students.

The study’s findings are subject to important caveats, however, said co-author David Figlio, an education economist at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

To understand the study’s limitations, it's helpful to have a clear grasp of what tenure is and who gets it. In the United States, tenure refers to a senior professor’s right not to be fired without cause. Part of tenure’s purpose is to give academic freedom and job stability to professors whose research and writing could run against popular opinion. Tenure is often linked with an expectation that a professor will burnish her university’s reputation by publishing papers or attracting research grants.

Off the tenure track, various scenarios exist. At larger schools, it is increasingly common for doctorate-holding “lecturers” to win job security as full-time, benefited employees who specialize in teaching basic courses. Typically, lecturers possess proven teaching skills and subject-area expertise. Lecturers are usually compensated well, though not at the same level as their tenured peers.

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