Economists behaving badly—When Adjuncts aren’t Adjuncts and Good is Bad.



The pseudoacademic press has been all aflutter about a supposed study by a bunch of economists, one of whom happens to be the President of Northwestern University, claiming to show that adjuncts do a better job of teaching, measured by subsequent grades in future courses (I refuse to subscribe to the right wing “foundation” that archives the not published in a peer-reviewed journal paper). Wow, this must mean that professors suck and aren’t doing their job. So, we should eliminate tenure and then have these really awesome adjuncts teach all of the classes for $750 per course—like they do at Northwestern, right? Only, unlike untenured adjuncts at community colleges and minor state universities, the “adjuncts” at Northwestern (and any other top private) earn quite decent wages—comparable to what a tenure tracked person at a more humble PhD granting institution would earn—or even more. And, they often will make these jobs infinitely renewable if you are really awesome in the classroom and get along well with the “real” faculty. Throw in a little advising and departmental promotion, and you’re set for a life at the bottom of the top. What does that mean? Teaching 2-3 or so or even 2-2 for a salary that is comparable to tenure tracked associate professors at most state supported institutions. But, you gotta be good in the classroom to get that gig—REALLY GOOD. Indeed, even top tier state universities have started doing this, and one of my good friends staked his career in that direction. No shame in that. He’s at a top b-school teaching nothing but statistics. I’m sure if any of the tenure tracked b-school faculty tried to teach his courses, they would do worse.

The same is true for the vast majority of top-“adjuncts”—they are awesome teachers and that’s why they landed a lucrative multi-year/permanent teaching gig at a top university. I looked back over my old haunts at Vanderbilt a few times and saw that my former students Rosie Noble and Mary Karpos were both “adjuncts.” I’m sure both of them are awesome. Mary was one of maybe four students who I ever let grade my papers when she was my TA. Rosie was one of my undergrads who finished his BA in three years while playing football. He completed his PHD four or five years later. And, he’s a competitive body builder-male model type! What’s not to love! Who do you want to learn criminology from? A model who got his PhD with Gary Jensen and Walt Gove and played football in the SEC, or some sniveling egomaniac who just got its PhD and is totally freaking about about having to teach the horribly demanding students at Vanderbilt? Increasingly at top universities, that is your choice. Introductory courses are either taught by very experienced non tenure-tracked lecturers or by brand new baby PhD’s who may have never even taught a course in their lives, At top institutions, the top graduate students don’t tend to teach, and at private Universities, they never do. I never taught a course before walking into the classroom at Vanderbilt.

But, it’s the backstory I don’t agree with. The sniveling egomaniac who just got her PhD is not a comfortable top scholar in her field. Top scholars are almost uniformly excellent teachers.  But, top scholars tend not to teach intro, but instead teach grad classes or upper division classes. We need people like Rosie and Mary at top universities because we don’t have enough of the more highly paid tenured faculty who can teach those courses—and at top private universities they can’t use grad students, since that would impact empirical rankings. In my experience, most of the best teachers are also top scholars. Peggy Thoits, Jack Gibbs, Larry Griffin, Tom DiPrete, Burke Rochford, Tony Oberschall, Ken Land, Rob Benford….those are just people I know who I’ve worked with as a student or colleague.

The real motivation behind the Northwestern paper is to advocate for a two-tiered system—top scholars who do research and only teach graduate students, and “adjuncts” who teach the children. They are making the argument that this doesn’t harm the children, and they are wrong. They are making a case for not replacing expensive top scholars, and reducing the size of the tenure tracked faculty—while increasing the numbers of “teaching faculty.” But, If I’m a parent sending my kid to Northwestern for $60k a year, I’m wondering if my kid is gonna have a chance to take courses from top scholars. That is, after all, what gets you somewhere and justifies going to Northwestern instead of to Illinois Wesleyan….or SIU. Do you think you might learn something from Aldon Morris that you might not learn from Adjunct X? You think if maybe Morris wrote you a brief letter or rec it might mean something, perhaps something more than the same coming from Pat Doe Adjunct?

Obviously, the President of Northwestern is trying to marshal bullshit evidence in support of his plan to reduce TT faculty sizes so that he can turn Northwestern into something more of a finishing academy than a University. Just hire some people to teach the children. But, for $60k a year, those kids deserve better. They deserve top flight research faculty who are given the freedom and conditions where top scholars will say “hey, I think I’d like to teach intro next year.” Remember, we’re still reading Harrison White’s undergraduate notes…..


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