Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In my dual role as a graduate student and employee

I was catching up on the internets today since I finally have service at my apartment [which, is also serving as my "office"] and was reading an interesting series of posts from Female Science Professor. FSP is a fascinating blog by a woman employed at as a full professor at a Research I university in the physical sciences and often has interesting tidbits about the life of academics and the particular life that women face in science departments in the country.

In this series of posts, FSP is reacting to the NYT article on Harvard's task-force report that teaching should be institutionally emphasized (available here). The task-force's summary of Guiding Principle (p.5) is:

To renew its commitment to excellence, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences must motivate and empower committed teachers as well as distinguished researchers, and actively encourage intelligent pedagogy as well as pathbreaking research. Devoted teachers abound at Harvard, yet their individual efforts are often not perceived as central to institutional priorities.

and, among the major principles that should be addressed:

Tenured faculty should lead by example, requiring of themselves the same commitment to teaching that they ask of junior colleagues and graduate students who are at earlier stages of developing their capacities as scholars and teachers.

That this is garnering attention because it is Harvard disturbs me a little bit; but, on the other hand, the fact that it is garnering attention is a distinct positive. The Harvard interim president acknowledges, “If we don’t do it ourselves,” President Bok said of the government pressure, “they’re going to make us do it their way.” And to see "their" way, look at the crumbling school infrastructure and massive privatization under No Child Left Behind.

Following the initial commentary, FSP took on two issues that were brought up in the comments of the initial post: first, she commented on the teaching/research/service requirements while teaching at a research university; then she discussed the issue of "buying-out teaching requirements. The first post is an interesting read for those interested in tenure and a discussion of promotions in academia [although, as an interesting side note, I find it interesting that neither FSP nor her commenters found that teaching and research were related activities], but it is actually the second that I found more interesting.

The question revolves around the practice of "buying out" teaching requirements. This is a practice where one would write into a grant proposal a certain amount of money that would be used to pay the professor's department a set fee in order that the professor does not have to teach the class that semester. Often, the department will then hire an adjunct or, if it is a required graduate course, strong-arm a less-prominent researcher to teach the course [or, simply not teach the course].

As I posted there, I have two major concers about this practice.

  1. In my role as a student, I have found the course offerings in graduate level courses to be strinkingly sparse. While graduate education is certainly not built on a foundation of taking classes in the same way that an undergraduate course of study is, graduate-level elective classes are often the time where students are exposed to the background literature in their field or sub-field or where new literatures can be discovered. By curtailing these offerings, my department has made it more difficult for me to obtain my degree in a timely manner (another, apparent pet-peeve of most universities).

  2. Second is the prospect of my future employment in the field of academia. As Dr. K points out in the comments, the adjuncts that are hired to teach these "bought-out" semesters are paid far less than the tenured or tenure-track professors who bought out their commitment. Adjuncts have no job security, and what security they have depends on their evaluations from their students which, logically, leads to grade inflation. They have severe curtailments on their academic freedom as they are at best short-term contract employees and, at worst, at-will employees.

I find it interesting in the debates surrounding academic freedom and adjunct parity often overlook at the entire context of institutions of higher education. When I have brought up the issue of graduate education in debates about adjunct parity, I am often met by either a) open hostility telling me that adjuncts could never instruct me the way that tenured or tenure-track professors could or b) outright confusion. I seem to get the response, "What the hell does this have to do with anything?" The same could be said about debates I have had regarding academic freedom - we (rightly) concentrate on Horowitz's big legislative agenda, but often forget the day-to-day, quotidian (thanks wobblie) experiences that threaten academic freedom on campus.

I know that there must be dozens of other banal rules, regulations and policies that threaten the very ideals of a free and fair academy such as this one. While we target the large-scale n'er-do-gooders such as Horowitz and ACTA and fight with (or as) the adjuncts and contingent employees that deserve fair treatment with legislation and national campaigns, short term goals should include targeting policies such as these to make them more fair, equitable and just. I believe that research should provide an instrument to help teach and that teaching should provide the energy and ideas to supply creative research. At times, one needs more resources to commit to research; I just hope that Harvard and other instutions take seriously the recommendations of the task-force to value teaching the same way they value research.


Post a Comment