Thursday, September 12, 2013

My personal saga through the adjunct-tenure track lens

I wish that Joseph Heller were still alive and somehow found his way to write about Higher Education. Barring that, I wish that somehow Heller's satirical voice could find its way into my head so that I could marshal it just once, for this post.  I'm at an odd place in my own thinking and teaching, almost certainly closer in spirit to Jane Tompkins than to Heller, confused about what I should want, yet still idealistic that something better is within reach.

Let me begin with labels.  Are former faculty who have retired but now teach part time adjuncts?  Or are they yet a different category?

There was a thread yesterday that I participated in about a piece from a few days ago, The Adjunct Advantage, that appeared in Inside Higher Ed.  The piece was about a study done at Northwestern that compared the learning gains of students, some taking their courses from adjuncts, the rest taking their courses from tenure track faculty.  The finding was that the students learned more from the adjuncts.

My mind flashed to when I was a doctoral student at Northwestern, about 35 years ago, and whether had the study been done then if it would have showed pretty much the same thing.  I was a TA my second year at NU, 1977-78.  TAs taught in the introductory courses in Economics: macro, micro, and stats.  At the time, Robert Eisner was on the faculty and he was one of the leading Keynesians nationally, approximately the same age as my father.  He gave the intro to macro lectures.  If possible, students should have the experience of learning at the feet of the Oracle and in that spirit many universities then embraced the idea that star faculty should teach the in intro course, if they were willing to do so.  Eisner was.

It was a different situation with micro.  The stars in the department taught graduate courses only.  The first quarter I TA'd it was in micro it was for Assaf Razin, a first class economist but a visitor to the department.  I was his only TA.  I had either two or three sections; I can't remember which.  What I do remember is that Razin was headed back to Israel before the quarter really ended, so he had me submit the grades on his behalf.

The second quarter I TA'd for Mary Alice Shulman, who taught a larger lecture of micro.  Shulman was an adjunct.  She supervised several TAs.   Again my memory is hazy on this, but she may have wanted us to attend her lectures.  I didn't do that.  I was pretty full of myself at the time about my knowledge of economics, micro in particular.  I thought I knew more than she did and I believe I TA'd that way as well, more or less crafting myself what I'd present to the students rather than following strictly what I was told to cover.  I don't believe there was any real tension about this.  The students liked the course and the other TAs and I interacted perfectly well with Shulman about exams, etc.

Now let me provide one datum that speaks (at least to me) on the adjunct-tenure track issue.  It is looking at Mary Alice Shulman's course through the eyes of one of her former students, Daniel Pink, the well known writer and public speaker.

Economists would have said people being paid to do this would have done a better job. In some ways almost theoretically impossible. Took my first economics course in 1983 with a professor at Northwestern, Mary Alice Shulman. Terrific teacher. If I went to her and said: Bunch of people who don't know each other get together, agree to do something for free, would triumph over corporation: she would say No. Like going to a physics professor and saying I'm going to throw a ball out of a second story window and it will float into the air.

I know it isn't fair to blame the teacher for a student's misunderstanding of what the discipline says on the matter, especially when it is more than 25 years later from having taken the course.  (Pink had Shulman as a prof five years after I TA'd for her and that quote is from a few years ago.)  But I don't think Pink has the story right and since I wrote about that some time ago and entirely outside the context of the adjunct-tenure track issue, I think it worthwhile to juxtapose that he liked Shulman as a teacher very much but gets what economics has to say on the issue quite wrong, whether that is Shulman's responsibility or not.  This is not quite Catch-22, but it's getting close. 

Now let me add a different spin on this.  My last year or two at Northwestern, there was a visiting assistant professor whom I befriended and who eventually would be hired full time by NU.  He originally started at Illinois.  He was a theory guy, like me, and though very nice was also somewhat reserved and quite cerebral.  I don't think he taught the intro course but he did teach intermediate micro and it was a struggle for him.  He was uncomfortable doing it.  Though I had been quite popular as a TA, well received by the students, I struggled just like my friend did when I first taught intermediate at Illinois.  Content-wise, the course was completely correct.  Intellectual accessibility-wise, it was over their heads.  Had the Onion been running its contest about the worst teacher on campus, I would have been a leading contender.

So in making a comparison in the effectiveness of the teaching between Mary Alice Shulman and either me or my friend, attitude-wise it would have been no contest.  Shulman would have won hands down.  Learning-wise maybe it would be a little closer, but still Shulman would have been the clear winner.

That is not the full picture, however.  At the time intermediate was taught by several different instructors.  Two I knew about were Mike Scherer and Leon Moses, both very experienced and well known economists, closer to the Eisner mold than to me and my friend.  The year after I was a TA I ended up as a grader for Moses and from that we ended up writing a couple of papers together on inventory investment.  I have no direct evidence about how Scherer and Moses were perceived as teachers by the students nor do I know how much the students learned in those courses.  (I have no recollection whatsoever of the quality of the homework that I graded.)   But it is certainly within the realm of possibility that those were very well taught courses and that no adjunct would have done as well because Scherer and Moses had rich experiences that they could bring to their teaching, while an adjunct could not.

* * * * *

I want to now consider the issue from a more analytic perspective, taking on three dimensions of the question at the same question.  The first is on the time devoted to teaching.  For a tenure-track faculty member who is spending at least 50% of the time on research, teaching can be perceived as tax on the person's time, particularly the sort of teaching that has no positive feedback effect on the research.  (Doctoral level teaching is more apt to provide such positive feedback than undergraduate teaching.)  In this conception, the instructor might find undergraduate teaching mildly annoying and on the margin will engage in (time) tax avoidance.

The second dimension is on the financing of the instructor.  I believe it to be an indisputable truth that compared to when I started at Illinois, tuition now covers a much greater share of the cost of the student's education.  At Northwestern, annual tuition for undergraduates (full freight) is around $45,000.   I used to think there was a rough equivalence between the price of a new automobile and annual tuition at a good private university.  I drive a Civic Hybrid.  With that, the rough equivalence ceases to exist.  You need to consider, instead, a low to middle end BMW.  Ask what you get in the BMW that is not in the Civic, besides the status.  The same sort of question should be asked about undergraduate instruction at private universities.  What instructor backgrounds enhance the quality of instruction?  (Let's pose this in a way orthogonal to the issue of instructor time commitment.)  Does being a researcher raise the quality of the course by how the instructor goes about addressing the subject matter?  Alternatively, does lots of experience in industry matter?  Or does someone who investigates how students learn the subject offer an advantage?

The third dimension is to consider intelligence of the instructor in relationship to the intelligence of the students.  Is it better for these to be similar, so the instructor has greater empathy for the issues students have with learning the subject.  Or is it better for the instructor to be somebody who, as Sir Ken Robinson presents humorously in this Ted Talk, lives in his head while most of the students, instead, live in the real world.  Put differently, undergraduates developmentally are in transition from a black and white world where there are right answers to a different world where subtlety of understanding matters and providing an answer to a serious question is more like peeling an onion and then creating different perspectives, each of which suggests its own answer.  And on this one, does it matter whether we are talking about a course that is a distribution requirement versus a course taught in the major?

My view on this for some time has been that as the undergraduate tuition has risen in real terms tenure-track faculty would, of necessity, have to focus more on undergraduate instruction, that new hires would be considered more carefully by how well they teach as much as for their research, and that particularly in disciplines that don't generate a lot of grant-supported research this sort of rebalancing constitutes a common sense adjustment to the financial realities. 

The Inside Higher Ed piece about the Northwestern study challenges this view, suggesting a two-track alternative instead.  But it doesn't address the following.  If tuition is funding adjuncts who do the bulk of the undergraduate teaching, what is funding the researchers?  If the answer to that is tuition as well, how can that sustain?

My view is buttressed by my own experience teaching the last several years.  As my friend Ed has pointed out to me, I may err seriously by trying to generalize from my own experience.  Having retired and teaching part time, I am time abundant and therefore can devote more time to my teaching if I so choose.  I've done that.  Much of it has been experiments with method and approach, which is how I'm like Jane Tompkins.  My conclusions about positive benefits from this are more on the student attitudes front.  A good number came to like the blogging and based on what the cohort last year said, more than half "had their eyes opened" as to how economics speaks to ordinary experiences they were already having, getting to understand the issues from a richer perspective.  If trying to measure understanding via exam performance, which stressed the math modeling part of the class, the results are far less satisfying.  A good number of students showed they weren't getting it this way or, rather, that their prior math preparation was inadequate for them to get much out of my class.  Already after my first homework submission this semester, I've gotten some comments that are similar this time around.  One student wrote:

I've never done an assignment like this before, it was interesting. The questions were of medium difficulty, I may need an Intermediate Microeconomics refresher, as math is not my strongest subject, but I was still able to calculate the answers. I greatly appreciated the ability to find out on the spot whether or not my answers were correct or not.

The student is referring to this interactive Excel Homework which the reader is welcome to try (but please don't submit your answer key afterward).  If you do try it, you'll want to first look at this Tutorial (watch it full screen) so you'll understand what is expected of the student in giving an answer to a question.

That homework is supposed to be review of intermediate micro.  I learned from some of the other comments that for many students it was not review.  So I did a chalk lecture in class last week on the Edgeworth Box, something I hadn't planned to do previously.  This sort of on-the-spot remediation requires knowing the discipline, not just the course being taught. 

I have never taught to the textbook, perhaps a difference between tenure-track faculty and adjuncts that doesn't get discussed, and in this course I frequently feel a need to go beyond what is in the book.  We are beginning to venture into new topics, that the students would not have seen before.  One of those is transfer pricing.  There is a worksheet on it in the second homework.  A few students have completed it already.  One wrote that she hoped we'd go over it again in class because while she was able to get correct answers to the questions, she wasn't sure whether she understood the underlying concepts.

Transfer pricing is a form of administrative pricing internal to an organization, where an upstream division sells some good or service to a downstream division.  Having been an administrator in the campus IT organization for some time and watching how it seemed to "over engineer" its services, as perceived by the various college IT administrators,  there was an economic puzzle as to whether this was a normal thing to expect in a transfer pricing setting.  So I extended the economic model that the book provided to allow for an additional variable - quality of service - and showed that the upstream division preferred higher quality than was optimal (because it meant more surplus accruing to that division) while the downstream division preferred lower quality of service, for similar reasons.  This is where the economics is really beautiful.  It gives a coherent explanation for the reality I've observed and some insight into the causal factors.  Teaching to the book would never have brought the issue to light.  My administrative experience dictated the need.

There is, of course, the question whether the students can learn the lesson.  That remains to be seen.  There is the related question if they learn it in isolation only or as an exemplar of a larger lesson to peel the onion and try to explain with the economics what is in front of their nose.  At this point, one can only hope.

* * * * *

Let me circle back and close.  The ideal I depict based on my own teaching may be so far removed from the norm as to not be useful to guide thinking on the issue, though it is clearly close to the norm  given in the promotional videos of the university that are shown on TV at the halftime of the football games. 

It seems to me that if you're paying for a BMW you should be pretty idealistic about what is happening under the hood, even if your knowledge of auto mechanics is nil.  Given that, we providers in Higher Ed shouldn't be putting the innards of a Civic inside a BMW shell.  At the least, we should debate the issue before jumping on the bandwagon of the Northwestern study.

No comments: