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SPECULATIVE DICTION

Teaching shouldn’t be a ‘problem’ for universities

By MELONIE FULLICK | October 20, 2015

A few of weeks ago, an article about Canadian universities’ hiring of teaching-intensive faculty positions was published by the Globe and Mail. The article by Simona Chiose focused on universities’ use of these positions as a means of handling the ever-expanding amount of teaching that needs to be done, without increasing the number of regular tenure-stream faculty hires. If that sounds familiar, it’s because in Canada and other countries around the world, the same problem has so far been solved by the hiring of short-term or contract faculty (CAF) of various kinds. Long-term, teaching-intensive faculty hires are a more recent development.

As you might guess, I had some problems with how this was framed in the article, and I’m going to outline a few of them here.

One issue is that the categories of faculty under discussion aren’t explained clearly enough. Teaching-intensive faculty are presented as a sort of longer-term version of CAF, the latter having taken on a larger proportion of university teaching over the past several decades. Part of the reason for this confusion is that in all Chiose’s examples, “teaching instructors lack the iron-clad job guarantees and academic freedom that come with tenure.” But is this always the case? At York University, for example, there are teaching-track faculty positions that lead to tenure; the same at the University of Victoria. Several other examples came up when I raised this question on Twitter. The differences between CAF positions, tenure-stream positions, and teaching-intensive hires need to be clarified, with more exploration of the various ways that universities are implementing the latter (the article cites, but doesn’t link to, a more in-depth HEQCO report on this issue).

The problem of definition is important because there are different professional implications for members of the different categories of faculty. The increase to teaching-intensive faculty hires, like the reliance on CAF, is part of a broader trend towards “horizontal and vertical fragmentation” of academic work in Canada, as discussed by Glen Jones among others. But the division of academic labour doesn’t happen along neutral lines; academic work is not merely fragmented, it’s also stratified. Some kinds of work are treated as more valuable than others, and some kinds of people are taking on more of the less-valuable work.

This is crucial to understanding why and how teaching work is a “problem” for universities: the question at the heart of these issues—one that was not addressed in this article—is about value and hierarchy in academic work, not just the scarcity of tenure-track positions and the need for universities to cut costs while maintaining quality. If teaching is a part of the university’s mission, why is it still treated as “less than” research work in the academic prestige hierarchy? Like the elephant in the room, the issue of prestige and the low value of teaching simply isn’t discussed, though it’s a problem that underpins much of what’s being said.

Chiose states that the increase to numbers of teaching-focused faculty “will challenge what separates universities from any other type of education.” Yet there’s no need to worry about research-as-mission being somehow marginalized from the practices of any university: its prestige value is the marker of distinction in the competitive realm of academic reputation (both for individuals and institutions), which is tied to the ability to generate tangible rewards. Even teaching-intensive faculty are engaging in research (as described in the article).

What should concern us is how, when teaching too is a core part of the university’s mission, we find it being “outsourced” for a low price or in some cases “loaded” onto a few long-term faculty whose salaries are still lower, whose work is less respected and whose academic careers may be permanently circumscribed because of it. Surely it’s also a “threat” to the university’s mission that teaching is so often presented as cheap work, something that can be “unbundled,” standardized, downloaded and outsourced—or even treated as a liability?

This is a deeply-rooted institutional cognitive dissonance: if research and teaching are so intrinsically connected, why are they not valued equally in academic culture and practice? Why have universities had no problem with hiring increasing numbers of contract faculty in the past four decades or so, even as we hear lip-service paid to the need for stable academic employment and the value of the research-teaching connection? If professors are supposed to be disseminating knowledge while teaching, what’s been going on? In the article, there’s also no mention of the systemic differentiation that’s already happened, for example in B.C. (and which has been pushed in Ontario). If there are already teaching-focused universities or campuses, does this mean the education they offer is inherently sub-standard?

A last point is that the data collection method here has its limits. If you have to ask politely to get information from universities, how is it possible to be directly critical about their practices—lest they should refuse to co-operate next time around? Ultimately, this isn’t how we’re going to get the information we need. There’s an interesting study done by Jamie Brownlee, who recently sent FIPPA requests to Ontario universities asking for 10 years’ worth of data on faculty hiring in social sciences and humanities disciplines. Universities had indeed increased their CAF hiring in these areas, but there were also significant problems with the data (or lack of it) that were made visible by the request process. What Brownlee discovered by forcing a response speaks directly to the problem with relying on institutional goodwill when it comes to important PSE data.

I’m glad that teaching work and its place in universities is getting some attention—but to me this article itself reflected too clearly how the difficulties with such work are discussed and managed in universities: through focusing on visible and practical aspects, but never pointing directly to the uncomfortable, long-term underlying contradictions that give rise to them. This situation can’t really change until we openly address not the “problem” of teaching, but why teaching is treated as a “problem” in the first place.

ABOUT MELONIE FULLICK
Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Curtis Means / October 21, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    It seems very clear to me “why teaching is treated as a ‘problem’ in the first place.”

    The main reason–and this is not the only reason–is money. Or, rather, funding. One cannot introduce “pedagogical efficiencies”–to use a term I’ve heard from a former administrator at my university–as easily as one can other sorts of efficiencies except via increasing class sizes, automating or mechanizing “instruction (online classes, in other words), outsourcing to private instruction (an increasing trend on Canadian campuses) and offloading that increased expense to students, or, as in the case of CAF, wage suppression.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath for improvement in either teaching or the culture around teaching until someone starts funding universities well. Yes, various efforts to improve teaching are wonderful, but they will always be bandaids on a big wound.

  2. David Fernandez / October 21, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Since you link to Alexander Coward’s open letter, which has recently gone viral, as an example of “teaching viewed as a liability”, I thought I’d just share the following couple of Quora questions (and the corresponding answers) to show the other side of the story:
    https://www.quora.com/What-do-other-professors-and-academics-think-of-Alexander-Cowards-dismissal-from-UC-Berkeley-and-his-response-to-it
    https://www.quora.com/What-is-Alexander-Coward-like-as-a-math-teacher-at-UC-Berkeley

    • David Fernandez / October 23, 2015 at 10:12 am

      The Quora answers for the first question that I mentioned have exploded since I first visited that page! There’s now a number of answers, of different levels of quality, but I wanted to particularly point out Adam Merberg’s and Nils Braakmann’s answers as particularly nuanced ones (the former from someone who is quite close to the relevant facts, the latter from a much more abstract and theoretical viewpoint). The answer that is currently on top, however, is not particularly good –in fact, it shows very explicitly some of the systemic problems that this blog has been addressing for some time!

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