Good Research Not About Adjunct Faculty

There’s a new study out that examines the teaching performance of tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty: Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?. Briefly, the study finds that non-tenure track faculty teach better than tenure-track faculty at Northwestern University. The study’s been written up all over the interwebs, from Inside Higher Ed, to OrgTheory. Both IHE and OrgTheory use the term “adjunct” in their post titles – e.g. “Should we be happy or unhappy that adjuncts teach well?” These pieces are, I think, a bit misleading for reasons pointed to by John at Memoirs of a SLACer. What exactly is an adjunct in this study? Does that correspond to what we are mostly talking about when we talk about the turn to adjunct faculty in higher ed?

Digging into the study details, and with a few helpful insights from NU insiders like Jeremy Freese, we can see why framing this study in terms of “adjuncts” might be misleading. As the Figlio et al. note on page 9 of their paper:

Almost all classes taught by non-tenure track faculty at Northwestern are taught by those with a longer-term relationship with the university.

Jeremy adds at OrgTheory:

most non-tenure track teaching at Northwestern is not done by “adjuncts” but by what we call Continuing Lecturer Faculty, who are on multi-year renewable contracts for which the pay is less than tenure-line but substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at Northwestern, which is in turn substantially more than what adjuncts get paid at other places in the area that have used our students as adjuncts. Also, at least in sociology and neighboring disciplines, CLF are expected to teach 6 courses a year, but we are on quarters, which means that the actual number of hours a CLF spends standing in front of a classroom is roughly the same the standard load for a tenure-line faculty member teaching 4 courses at, say, Wisconsin.

The faculty in the Figlio et al. study, then, are (reasonably) well-paid, not overly burdened, teaching specialists with a modicum of job security. They are not adjuncts struggling to find single courses at multiple universities and colleges, making only a few thousand dollars per course, and lacking benefits. I don’t know the stats offhand, and I know there is a paucity of data adjunct pay and working conditions, but I don’t think full-time lecturers with 2-2-2 teaching loads are what we worry about when we worry about the turn to non-tenure track faculty for teaching.

Inside Higher Ed rightly notes the problems with generalizing a single university study to an entire field, but I think goes about the analysis all wrong. IHE writes, citing the original paper:

The authors acknowledge that Northwestern is not a typical college. It has highly competitive admissions and more resources to hire faculty members (tenure-track or not) than is the case for many other colleges. However, they add that “our findings that the benefits of taking courses with non-tenure track faculty appear to be stronger for the relatively marginal students at Northwestern indicate that our findings may be relevant to a considerably wider range of institutions.”

The Atlantic is similar, worrying that NU’s eliteness might make the results not generalize.

That the most marginal students at Northwestern benefit from non-tenure track faculty the most is interesting, and does suggest that such faculty might do well with student bodies less selective than Northwestern’s. But that might not be the biggest issue for generalizing the study’s finding. Rather than asking (just) about comparability of students, or even the capacity to attract elite non-tenure track faculty, we have to ask, where do non-tenure track positions look like the ones at Northwestern? For example, here at Michigan, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO) has successfully fought to unionize non-tenure track faculty, securing multi-year contracts for more senior instructors, along with benefits, and etc. So we can imagine these findings mapping reasonably well onto Michigan.* But could we say the same for Eastern Michigan? For Washtenaw Community College? For the (seemingly) typical adjunct making less than $3,000 per course with no benefits?

Weissmann at The Atlantic argues that questions about the effectiveness of non-tenure track faculty are important because,

the defining trend among college faculties during the past 20 years or so (40, if you really want to stretch back) has been the rise of the adjuncts. More than ever, colleges today rely on part-time, non-tenure track instructors to teach their students. And we should know what the effects of this switch add up to.


I agree that the rise of part-time non-tenure track faculty is perhaps the defining trend for college education right now (and the evidence from figures like the one above is persuasive), and I agree that studies of the effectiveness of such instructors are important. But this study says nothing about those teachers. Rather, Figlio et al. carefully state in their conclusion:

Our results provide evidence that the rise of full-time designated teachers at U.S. colleges and universities may be less of a cause for alarm than some people think, and indeed, may actually be educationally beneficial. Perhaps the growing practice of hiring a combination of research-intensive tenure track faculty members and teaching-intensive lecturers may be an efficient and educationally positive solution to a research university’s multi-tasking problem.

Note again the emphasis on full-time designated teachers. Full-time non-tenure track faculty are up from 10% to 15% since 1975 – a modest increase. Part-time non-tenure track faculty are up from under 25% to over 40%. Adjunctification is not about lecturers.

Figlio et al.’s study looks to my not especially expert eyes like an excellent evaluation of the efficacy of NU’s non-tenure track lecturers, with obvious relevance to the potential for such full-time faculty at other reasonably selective universities. But it’s just not a study about part-time adjuncts and says nothing about such instructors. So, let’s stop framing it that way.

* And, anecdotally, I can say that as a Michigan undergraduate, many of my best courses were taught by lecturers, and many (though certainly not all) of the instructors known across campus as excellent were lecturers.

Next Post
%d bloggers like this: