God Save English Professors From Teaching Undergrads

On the bright side, I'm unlikely to read anything more stupid and insulting today than this Inside Higher Ed article arguing that it would be wrong to shrink graduate programs in English, because the higher education market is Special:

When you shrink graduate student enrollments (the supply side), you inevitably also shrink the size of graduate programs, which means, willy-nilly, that you decrease tenured faculty lines (the demand side) because they are the folks teaching in grad programs. Administrators would be happy to shrink our programs and eliminate some tenured lines through attrition and retirement because new, cheaper temp hires can easily fill in to teach the few undergraduate lower-division classes that some tenured faculty teach.

Seriously, that's it. We can't reduce the number of grad school slots in English, because that would reduce the need for graduate teaching, and you don't expect tenured faculty at universities to teach undergrads, do you? Heaven forfend!

There are arguments to be had about whether or not restricting graduate school slots is a real solution to the endlessly discussed problems of the academic job market. This, however, is not what you might call a shining example of the critical thinking skills arts and literature faculty so often proclaim that they teach. In fact, it's not an argument that should ever be offered again, anywhere. Certainly not within Internet distance of people who teach undergraduates for a living.


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which means, willy-nilly, that you decrease tenured faculty lines

I don't know what color the sky is on the planet where the author of that article lives (and I've had enough stupidity for today, so I'm not going to follow the link), but here on Earth, universities are already shrinking tenured faculty lines "willy-nilly", as that d00d puts it. Why does he think his employer has been hiring adjunct faculty to teach undergraduate courses?

OK, I get that teaching undergraduate courses, especially service courses, is less fun than teaching graduate level courses. Grad students are at least motivated, which is not always true for undergrads (particularly in departments like English, which frequently become default majors for students who don't really know what they want to do with their lives). But as it is, many undergrads end up on the five (or even six) year plan merely because they cannot enroll in courses required by their major. At some state universities this is a pervasive problem; here, it is so far confined to English majors. Any step which would make more resources available to cover those undergraduate classes would be good news for the affected students.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Jan 2014 #permalink

I am utterly unsurprised at the attitude espoused in that article.

I'm also deeply unimpressed by the notion of "unethically precarious working conditions." The rest of us call that, "not having tenure," and somehow manage to get on with our lives.

By John Novak (not verified) on 28 Jan 2014 #permalink

Teach English? Social activism educates us that imposing historic patriarchal European oppression upon Peoples of Colour begins with literacy - specifically spoken language. It is the right of every indigenous people (and gloriously migrated illegals) to jabber their unmolested patois. That is empowerment!

English must be banned from the United States. It is only fair. We must compensate for Europeans having confiscated all lands bearing infrastructure, utilities, and transportation corridors (beginning in 1492 CE).

I don't get it, this post is about complaining that tenured faculty won't consider the notion of teaching undergraduates, but reading the quoted excerpt my impression is not that the author doesn't want to teach undergrads but that the reduction in graduate programs won't be compensated for by filling undergrad teaching positions because those will be cheaper to offer to temp staff.

Neither in the quoted paragraph, nor in the essay as a whole, does it appear that the author's attitude is: "[Y]ou don’t expect tenured faculty at universities to teach undergrads, do you? Heaven forfend!" On the contrary, the author expresses concern over the fact that grad courses are taught by full-time tenure-track faculty while intro courses are taught by adjuncts often earning sub-minimum wages. However, if that is the "business model" that the university or its board of trustees is pushing, then it is probably a simple fact that a department that significantly reduced its graduate student numbers and classes would be expected not to lay off adjuncts and have the graduate faculty teach more undergrads, but to keep the cheap, powerless adjuncts and lay off as many tenure-track faculty as possible.

The author's argument is, however, unappetizingly self-serving. It may save faculty jobs to keep enrolling students now, but it is morally questionable to encourage students to enter graduate programs that are more likely than not to lead them to a lifetime of debt service and contingent labor at poverty wages.

The problem I have with this is that the idea that you need graduate classes to save faculty jobs is predicated on the notion that graduate teaching is the proper role for tenured faculty. That teaching of undergrads is something that they only do a little of, to be pushed off on adjuncts.

But it's perfectly possible to keep tenured positions around and reduce the number of graduate school slots by having tenured faculty teach undergrads. As, in fact, they do at the many fine institutions without graduate programs. Such as the one where I work, where I have many extremely smart, dedicated, and tenured colleagues in English who never teach a graduate class. The notion that you need huge pools of graduate students to preserve real faculty jobs is an insult to those of us who are-- by choice-- dedicated to teaching undergraduate students.

The author's concern about intro courses being taught by adjuncts rings hollow when his only concrete proposal is that we have to keep the inflated grad classes that are the whole source of the problem in the first place. (Well, half of the source, the other half being the attitude that undergrad teaching is a lesser activity that the big brains among the faculty shouldn't have to do. If faculty aren't willing to teach undergrads, and undergrad courses need to be taught, those courses are going to have to be picked up by somebody, and when you have a vast oversupply of people with graduate degrees, well...)

That attitude may be annoying as hell, but it is not expressed in the article. And "inflated" graduate classes did NOT cause the adjunct labor crisis--a reduction in tenure-line hiring did that. I agree with Jane that the argument is self serving. But the article's point is not that graduate teaching is "the proper role" for faculty. It is that it is, at research universities, one of the necessary tasks that administrators count when doling out the tenure lines.

My personal opinion is that _only_ tenured faculty should teach undergraduates, particularly freshman classes. These are the classes that need the most teaching expierience and care.

By contrast, graduate level course can be taught in an almost seminar format, by graduate students/postdocs if neccessary. The students at this level are good enough to cope with a lot of ther matierial themselves. Not so for undergraduate classes.

Undergraduates should be primarily taight by senior faculty. It's not simply a question of material level.

I love teaching undergraduate courses (and graduate ones). We are teachers (some anyway). Educators. We have to love teaching or we are posers and disingenuous, as are many institutions as well these days. Many adjuncts know and recognize the symptoms of disenchanted and ultimately destructive, "full-timers" and the institutions that package both privilege and diminution together as normality. It is not education! it is not potentiating!

Math and English suffer the most because it is foundational and required and the departments are empowered to abuse more than educate. No slight to standards or rigor. Those are moot.. I am talking power abuses and pedagogical insensitivity.

Where else do you get to take ready and willing minds? Often voracious and excited to explore new ideas and be encouraged to be creative and invite tthem to take new intellectual risks of understanding and advancement? These are foundational and critical to culture and civilization? Unfortunately, all to often framed by stale presentations and praxis leading to discouragement of all scales. Education un-teaching [sic].

The joy is to encourage exploration and uniqueness in thought and praxis and is the classic and necessary privilege and goal of liberal arts and humanities and this is likely another attack against this essential tool to a free society and world and massive global literacy.

Dolts that made these points are anti-intellectual, education destroying non-teachers, even if the pose as them. Clearly misguided or deliberately attacking aspiring mentality.

I am working on an all adjunct university.

Much is part of my dissertation work.

Screw the ivory tower of selective discouragement.

Charles Alexander Zorn
Adjunct Slave.

By Charles Alexan… (not verified) on 29 Jan 2014 #permalink

... and most importantly, take risks in expression or be muted to impotence.

By Charles Alexan… (not verified) on 29 Jan 2014 #permalink

Back in the stone age, my freshman English class was taught by the Department Chair. My English Literature course was taught by a full professor. Both courses were enjoyable both for the instructor and the students.

At my university, when I was there, all freshman English was taught by graduate students. Same was true of Introductory Algebra. Two areas where higher education most often fails is in teaching English and Math. Correlation at least.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 04 Feb 2014 #permalink