Should college professors teach more? Specifically, should professors at public research universities devote more time to teaching undergraduates, and less to research?
In two states this, um, academic question has become a political controversy, one likely to crop up elsewhere. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican presidential candidate, has proposed a tuition freeze and budget cuts that would reduce the University of Wisconsin’s revenues by 13%. “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work,” he said when discussing how the university could function with less money.
In North Carolina, state senator Tom McInnis, also a Republican, has introduced legislation that would require all professors in the University of North Carolina system to teach eight courses per academic year. (Tenured professors currently teach an average of five, according to the Daily Tarheel.) In a statement criticizing the reliance on graduate student teaching assistants, McInnis said, “There is no substitute for a professor in the classroom to bring out the best in our students.”
Genuine Ignorance or Spite?
Predictably, educators are livid. Walker’s proposed cuts “will absolutely savage” UW’s “infrastructure and quality of teaching and research,” one Madison history professor said. A UNC Charlotte physicist, Greg Gbur, argued the “charitable” explanation was that McInnis is motivated by “genuine ignorance” about the amount and value of professors’ work. (Another possible explanation is that he’s motivated by spite and ideology.) Slate’s Rebecca Schuman adds that mandating an eight-course teaching load would “accomplish nothing less than the wholesale obliteration of the public research institution.”
These heated reactions suggest the weakness—political, financial, and logical—of the status quo. In an open letter to McInnis, for example, Gbur goes through a detailed explanation of the time needed to teach an undergraduate course: preparation, delivery, testing, grading, office hours. His conclusion? Teaching four courses a semester would be impossible without … working 40 hours a week.
The calculation omits some details, however. For one thing, the arduous 40-hour workweek unfolds, for professors, over a less arduous 36-week work year. Throw in the lifetime employment guarantee of tenure, and most civilians paying taxes and tuition to support public universities are going to find professors’ terms of employment enviable, not exploitive.
What about ‘Adjunctification?’
Furthermore, teaching four courses a semester is not unusual in institutions primarily devoted to undergraduate education rather than research. In particular, American colleges of all types have come to assign more and more of their teaching to untenured adjunct professors hired, on a course-by-course basis, from the vast reserve army of underemployed Ph.D.’s.
Many adjuncts teach four or more courses per semester, sometimes at more than one institution, and even then struggle to pay the rent. Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State University-Pueblo historian wrote, in response to the McInnis proposal, “As long as we [tenured and tenure-track professors] accept the idea that it’s OK for our adjunct colleagues to toil away with four or more courses and no living wage, we don’t have a leg to stand upon when they inevitably try to do this to the rest of us.”
Gbur’s threat—the eight-course teaching load will force many UNC professors to “pull up roots and look for employment elsewhere”—is not credible. The existing professoriate is complicit not only in what Schuman calls the “adjunctification” of college teaching, but in the perpetuation of redundant graduate programs, which turn out doctoral recipients who have little hope of ever landing tenure-track professorships.
As a result, there is not a single faculty opening, no matter how remote the location or obscure the institution, that does not draw dozens of highly qualified applicants. (Schuman has written that 150 Ph.D.’s apply for every opening in her field, German literature.) Professors and administrators can choose to either close down or maintain unnecessary graduate programs … but they can’t go on producing an excess supply of scholars and insist that the rest of the world treat this abundant resource as if it were a scarce one.
Tuition Supports Light Loads
What about the “flagship” public research universities, like UW Madison and UNC Chapel Hill? Won’t heavier teaching loads render untenable the model created by Daniel Coit Gilman, who turned Johns Hopkins into America’s first research university almost 140 years ago by insisting that teachers make the best researchers, and researchers the best teachers? Schuman points out that the McInnis bill applies to “all” UNC professors. As a result, she says, it will compromise the work of researchers finding cures for cancer, new treatments for burn victims, or doing cutting-edge work in molecular biology and engineering.
Her parade of horribles is selective, though. There’s not a single mention of the scholarly work undertaken by professors in social science and humanities departments. This omission reveals a vulnerability: if McInnis were to change his “all” to “some,” scholars in fields where the research does not yield clear or even comprehensible benefits would struggle to demonstrate why the flourishing of life in America requires the unabated flow of tax and tuition dollars to spare professors from teaching undergraduates 40 hours a week.
Most voters, in other words, have no trouble making a distinction between curing cancer and publishing an article in the Journal for the Study of Peruvian Folk-Dancing. Even if Gilman’s research university model is crucial for the former, we are not compelled to revere the way it sustains the latter. As Megan McArdle has argued, original scholarship in many hyper-specialized liberal arts fields is valuable only to a handful of other scholars in the same field. “Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.”
If that sideline business were a roaring success, there would be an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it argument against requiring liberal arts professors at public institutions to teach more and research less. But the business is far from successful. A survey of 400 employers conducted last year for the Association of American Colleges & Universities found that only 27% considered recent college graduates “well prepared” in the area of written communication. Similar proportions, between 24 and 29%, were impressed with graduates’ ability to analyze and solve complex problems; locate, organize, and evaluate information; think critically; and work with numbers and statistics.
On the bright side, the survey also found that solid majorities of college students about to graduate rated themselves very highly on every one of the qualities the employers found lacking. It appears that when young Americans spend several years in the presence of our professors, they end up with very little in the way of useful knowledge and skills, but a robust, unwarranted sense of entitlement. That’s a funny coincidence, one some professor should investigate during a sabbatical.