Much ado has been made about a study comparing student evaluations of non-tenure line teaching faculty with tenure-track faculty at Northwestern University. The rub? The non-tenure line faculty whose sole responsibility is to teach—and to teach well—received better teaching evaluations than those university faculty who have or are seeking academic tenure. In effect, the full-time faculty members who have or desire the brass ring of lifetime employment don’t appear to teach as well as adjunct or contingent colleagues.

As you might guess, this study has created quite a stir in academe. One camp claims this as an “ah-ha!” moment: “We knew those professors with cushy jobs weren’t working as hard as adjuncts, who are paid substantially less, have no benefits, and who have no assurances of on-going employment.” The other camp, which is comprised of tenured faculty and some administrators are shocked (shocked!!!), crying foul and presuming malice aforethought on the part of the study’s authors (if not shabby research methods and analyses and a plan to overthrow the status quo!).

As is usually the case, the truth will out—in this case, one of the study authors, Dr. David Figlio, pointed out in the November 17th Letters page of The New York Times that many folks in both camps did not read the study carefully. The devil is (really) in the (research) details. First, many of the “teaching faculty” in the Northwestern sample—while not on the tenure track—are “long-term, full-time instructors with benefits, career ladders, and job security” (p. 2, NYT Sunday Review). In other words, they enjoy distinctly different circumstances than most contingent or adjunct faculty. Second, these particular colleagues are recruited, vetted, and retained precisely because of their teaching skills; that’s virtually all they do, so they should—and do—teach very, perhaps exceptionally, well.

But what about their tenure-line colleagues? Are they lotus-eaters or loads on the system? They are neither. What is overlooked, forgotten, or ignored is that the mission of a university like Northwestern is primarily the generation and dissemination of original research and scholarship. The tenure-line faculty need to be good teachers, yes, and it would be nice if they were great or wonderful, but they have other fish to fry besides teaching undergrads (this is not a value judgment or indictment, but a simple stating of the reality of life in a big university): they must publish books and peer-reviewed articles, give professional talks, head national organizations, teach graduate students, write external grants, and become known leaders (ideally pretty famous ones) in their increasingly niche fields. They are different than the full-time teaching faculty. So, as Dr. Figlio noted in the Times, “It’s not surprising to find that designated full-time teachers excel at teaching” (p. 2). They should and happily do! Nor should it be surprising that by comparison their tenure-line counterparts don’t get the same high ratings as they have many other things to do, things they were specifically recruited, vetted, and retained to do.

Now, this is not the place to debate the merits or problems associated with the modern research university and its drift away from teaching as its primary mission (there are countless books on this topic, many worth reading—head to the library. Stat!). Rather, the point is that one of the wonders of American higher education (like it or not) is the variety of different types of colleges, universities, and two-year institutions. One size does not fit all, just as one label or complaint cannot characterize the whole. Higher education is more complicated than ever (sigh—boy, is it ever), which means that we need to carefully consider the situation before we cast aspersions at anyone. Is there a national problem concerning how adjunct faculty are treated—yes, there is. Is there one solution that will address the problem? No, probably not. Should it be addressed? Yes—and speedily in our days, please.

Many members of the wider public remain unaware of the differences among colleges and universities in the U.S., let alone the plight of adjuncts They look to rankings and fame rather than who is doing the lion’s share of the teaching. If you want to attend a school where faculty only teach, which is a fine choice, then you will be searching for a very different animal than a household name Ivy League or large public research university. If you want to attend a school where faculty members do cutting-edge (an admittedly overused, if apt, term) research but focus less intensively on teaching, you can—but there may be a cost in terms of your satisfaction as a student (but maybe not—tenure-line faculty still need to be decent or good teachers). If you want to attend a school where faculty focus on teaching primarily but also do research—perhaps involving students in it—then you are looking for a selective liberal arts college or a small university, perhaps one focusing exclusively on undergraduate education or more on master’s degrees than the granting of PhDs. And so on.

In short, as usual in our country, caveat emptor. Students and their families need to be diligent about their college searches. Institutions, in turn, need to be candid, honest even, about who is teaching and what other activities the faculty may (or may not) be doing. And readers and would-be pundits and critics need to read research studies on evaluating teaching carefully, thoroughly, and thoughtfully before issuing argumentative assessments. The pedagogical devil is indeed in the details.

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