Adjuncts and STEM education

I am now employed, almost full time. I have been for about a year and a half now. The job is great, the pay is OK, and the location is wonderful. This has been a huge relief to me, finding full time employment. For about 2 years prior to this I worked as an adjunct faculty, pulling in a cool $22,000 a year with no benefits or job security while I taught 9 classes at 4 different institutions. The plight of the adjunct is something that is finally starting to get some of the attention it deserves, and I’ll be writing my own views on the job later. It is a tough job with few benefits, but the weird thing is that I didn’t actually hate it. The pay and lack of security sucked, and I hated that, but I absolutely loved the teaching. Always have. I think I’m pretty good at it as well, I seem to get very positive reviews and feedback, both from students and from other classroom observers. Truth is, if someone would pay me a reasonable salary I’d gladly spend my days teaching introductory geology at as many schools as I could. I enjoy the students, the classrooms, and work, damn near everything except the occasional case of plagiarism, and to be honest, teaching about soils, that blows.

My first adjunct position was to supplement my post-doc income at a large, private research institution. Tuition at this school approaches $50,000 a year, and I was in charge of a ~300 student lecture, basically me on a stage in a movie theater with a microphone. I still enjoyed it, although working without chalkboards and relying entirely on multiple choice exams blows. At this school, a 300 student class is responsible for somewhere around $1.8 million dollars in tuition revenue. My salary was about 0.6% of that income, without benefits of course. Even with smaller classes, the fraction of tuition that actually goes to instruction is astoundingly low, perhaps 2-4%. At the large public research university I now work at, the cost of my teaching accounts for about 3.5% of the total tuition the students spend on the class, assuming they are all in-state, which I know isn’t true. Now, I know that tuition money has to pay for a lot of other things, building upkeep, utilities, staff salaries, copiers, etc…, but the reality is that the amount actually spent on instruction is vanishingly small. In fact, in all of the large classes I’ve taught, the large lecture could be broken into multiple smaller classes, each with a poorly-paid instructor, and you’d still be spending only a percent or two of the total tuition revenue on instruction. I’ll also admit that some people don’t pay full tuition, but any uncertainty in the numbers still has us in the 90% realm for tuition dollars not spent on instruction. In many cases, the students spend more on their overpriced books and dumb-ass clickers (which promote active learning by combining multiple guess quizzes and remote controls) than they do on the instructor. As a matter of fact, if a student brings a latte to class every day, over the semester they will pay more for coffee than they will for instruction.

Now, I point this out for a few reasons:

  1. The more instructors you hire, the better chance I had at getting a job, and more of my friends have jobs. Knowing that my university could pay me a full years salary with benefits and still keep 97.5% of their tuition money seems to argue in favor of hiring me. OK fine, this is self-serving, but still a good reason for anyone without a permanent job.
  2. Because I care about the quality of geoscience education. Let me explain. Adjunct faculty are often good at their job. They tend to be young and energetic, and are often trying their best to get re-hired, or at least build their teaching portfolio with glowing reviews and great ideas. But being a good instructor and fostering geoscience education involves a lot more than just teaching great introductory courses. It means developing new classes, exercises, activities, and ideas, mentoring and advising students, and of course teaching advanced classes and seminars. These things all require job security and appropriate salaries, something that adjuncts, now a solid 76% of the academic instructor workforce, do not have.

I don’t want to pretend that tenured or tenure track faculty aren’t great teachers. On the contrary, many of my graduate school colleagues who are in those positions are superb at all aspects of their jobs, and there are some that are truly exceptional educators. The problem is that they only account for a small fraction of the total amount of instruction that students receive. This wouldn’t be an issue if adjuncts were rare, but that is simply not the case, current estimates are  that about 76% of all college courses are taught by adjuncts. Incidentally, considering these tend to be large introductory courses, so my bet is that the percent of students taught by adjuncts is even higher.

I’ve always been interested in conversations about how to improve STEM education. There are numerous great ideas out there, new teaching methods and training for instructors, excellent materials and activities, etc. There are also some terrible ideas, ideas so dumb and obviously flawed that you at first think people much be joking, and are appalled when you realize that people, adult human people with enough brain power to feed themselves and not drown in moderate rainstorms, suggest them. I am of course talking about MOOC’s, probably one of the best ways ever devised to encourage student ignorance and funnel money to skill-less anti-thought businesspeople. When I’ve heard people talk positively about MOOC’s I get the same wave of uncomfort and disbelief as when the dude on the bus starts explaining about the face on Mars, the faked moon landing, or some stupid idea that the 1984-85 Bears weren’t the best team in NFL history.

At large schools (public and private), the most obvious, simple, and straightforward way to improve STEM education would be to reduce class size, hire good teachers, and offer adjunct instructors long term renewable contracts and respectable salaries and benefits. BOOM! Problem solved! Well, at least 90% of the problem, the rest can then be addressed, but the heavy lifting will be done. This is rarely brought up as an idea of course, because when people ask, “How can we improve STEM education” what they really want to know is, “How can we improve STEM education without changing anything.”

Now there might be a time and place for large classes, or even online ones. But that doesn’t include topics that require critical thinking, or where class discussions are critical. Anyone who has ever led a class discussion knows the importance of class size. You need to be able to read the room, look at facial expressions, listen to tone, encourage the shy and quiet, temper the loud and aggressive, and redirect when off topic. You can do this with 20, 30, and maybe 40 if you are good. But not 100, and not online. The misconception many seem to make is that STEM education is simply about transferring more knowledge to students, instead of teaching students to think like a scientist. This is the same philosophy that has led to the rise of high-stakes standardized tests, which belong to the same idiotic and erosive family as MOOC’s and clickers.

I am by no means a luddite when it comes to teaching, but I am astounded at how misdirected and narrow most efforts to improve education are. We simply can’t pretend that the Wal-Mart-ization of higher education and our concerns about STEM education are not connected.

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