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Contingent faculty survey

February 8, 2013

This blog has taken a rather extended holiday, but I’d like to start it up again. How to start? Maybe with the definition of good writing I heard yesterday from the writer George Saunders, during a wonderful interview on Michael Krasny’s radio show Forum:

Good writing is when I read one sentence, and then I feel like reading the next one.

That’s actually a very high standard, so I hope you won’t apply it too strictly here. But before you stop reading, how about this sentence:

Today is the last day for department chairs in my College to complete an online survey on contingent faculty working conditions. I prepared the survey with our Faculty Council, which I chaired last fall. I also got suggestions from some of the part-time faculty in my department. Some of the questions are specific to our campus, but most are similar to other recent surveys on contingent faculty, as discussed in this story on “Questions to Ask on Adjuncts.” The idea is to collect information and promote discussion, and if we find that some departments are doing certain things better than others, then maybe simply publicizing the best practices can lead to easy improvements. (More difficult improvements are another matter.) I’ll prepare a short report based on the surveys, but I’m not sure what will happen after that. I’ll keep you posted.

Aside from that, I’ve been busy redesigning and now teaching my courses on Current Political Thought and Democratic Theory and Practice, the latter in both undergraduate and graduate versions. And I’ve got a couple of trips coming up:

Next weekend I’ll be attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston. I’m scheduled to present a paper on an exciting panel: “Role of Science in the American Democracy: Roots, Tensions, and Paths Forward.” The panel was organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, as part of their recently started Center for Science and Democracy.

The week after that I’ll be giving a talk on “Political Advocacy and Discussion in the Classroom” at the annual CSU Teaching Symposium. I’ll be drawing on my blog posts from last fall on classroom politics. The conference program looks promising, and it’s not often that I get to sit around all day and talk with other teachers about teaching.


Stealth advocacy in the classroom

October 13, 2012

Commentators have been accusing California faculty of breaking state law and indoctrinating students by advocating for Prop. 30 in their classrooms. It seems that most charges of indoctrination and law breaking are either false or exaggerated, and it’s important for faculty and administrators to avoid overreacting by stifling legitimate classroom discussion. Anticipatory self-censorship isn’t pretty.

Depending on the course topic, trying to keep political discussion out of the classroom may also reinforce a real threat to university education, which is what political scientist Roger Pielke calls “stealth issue advocacy“: pretending to stick to one’s area of expertise while implicitly advocating a political position.

A friend pointed me to a recent example in a Los Angeles Times report on a Cal State Fresno professor who gave the following assignment to a class on California state and local politics:

Argue for virtues of Proposition 30 by referring to relevant parts of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy (Note: You will not earn any credit at all just by saying what Prop 30 is all about. Your goal is to demonstrate that you can use J.J. Rousseau’s ideas and concepts to explain the rationale for Prop. 30.)

With an apparently boundless confidence in the virtues of dialog, the professor tried to defend the assignment on a conservative talk radio show. He barely got a word in, and the hosts kept yelling at him, but the professor managed to explain that his class actually discussed arguments for and against Prop. 30, and that his goal was for students to apply philosophical concepts to a current political issue.

One of the hosts objected: “Their writing this essay exam could influence their thinking on voting yes, something that Cal State Fresno would directly benefit from, so it’s a clear conflict of interest, and it’s a violation of the law.”

The professor said, “They are all adults. Having been able to articulate virtues, I’m sure they’ll be able to argue for cons, that is, opposition to [Prop. 30].”

On the question of influencing students, I agree with the professor. It’s silly to think that an essay assignment is going to change how students vote. It’s also probably misleading to view this assignment out of context, and it doesn’t sound like the professor meant to address the issue in a biased way.

But taken by itself, this assignment looks like stealth advocacy: it asks students to articulate one side of a political debate in the guise of a neutral academic exercise.

Stealth advocacy is rampant in everyday politics, and it probably happens a lot in the classroom as well, often without the stealth advocates even knowing they’re doing it.

According to the AAUP report on “Freedom in the Classroom,”

It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline. It is not indoctrination for an economist to say to his students that in his view the creation of markets is the most effective means for promoting growth in underdeveloped nations, or for a biologist to assert her belief that evolution occurs through punctuated equilibriums rather than through continuous processes.

It’s true that these instructors aren’t indoctrinating their students, but it also looks like the economist may be doing some stealthy advocacy work. The biologist speaks to a dispute that is largely confined to evolutionary biologists, but the economist addresses a topic that is controversial in both the discipline of economics and everyday politics. The topic involves both expert disagreement and political controversy.

Faculty can avoid stealth advocacy on such topics in at least two ways:

1) Avoid the stealth: openly advocate a political position and, when in the classroom, do everything possible to ensure that other positions receive equal treatment; a classroom that includes advocates from all sides of an issue is often more “fair and impartial,” and probably more educational, than one that doesn’t include any.

2) Avoid the advocacy: present as much of the expert knowledge on the topic as possible, including claims typically emphasized by each side of the dispute, highlight uncertainties and disagreements within the field, and make clear that expert claims do not by themselves justify any particular political position.

Students aren’t sheep, and stealth advocacy isn’t going to indoctrinate them. But it undermines faculty credibility and public trust.


Questions for Chancellor White

October 10, 2012

It’s been a week, and most of us still know almost nothing about the new CSU chancellor, Timothy White — except that I’ve gathered he goes by Tim. Searching the web for news about him, I’ve read about his personal and professional background, his salary, and the new medical school he got started at UC Riverside. I’ve also read that he likes to walk around campus on exam days and give out cookies. A UCR professor posted a highly critical account of White’s record there. And of course there’s the “Undercover Boss” episode, which, troubling as it is in some respects, probably says more about his qualities as a television actor than as a higher education administrator.

I haven’t been able to find any statement of White’s overall vision for the CSU. No explanation of how he intends to cope with our funding crisis. No discussion of how he will restore public commitment to higher education. When it comes to our two presidential candidates, I’ve gotten sick of hearing about all their “plans,” but I’d like to hear at least a few ideas from our new chancellor.

In the comments section of his blog, Chris Newfield posted a series of excellent questions:

– Will Mr. White fight tooth and nail for restored public funding for CSU? Can you cite speeches and incidents in which he went out on a limb to oppose the status quo for either system?
– Will he define 21st century educational quality for the CSU students he no doubt cares about, putting new money into high-end instruction? What was his special educational vision for UC and UCR?
– Will he oppose the stratification of CSU campuses, refusing to protect flagships as UC protected its flagships in part at the expense of UCR?
– Will he be open and upfront with the CSU community about the budget? Was he upfront with UCR about the real costs to the campus of a new medical school that the state will clearly not pay for as it did for the 5 existing UC medical schools and centers in their early years?
-Can he work with unionized faculty and other unionized employees? How did he do with them at UCR?
-Can he press for the general good rather than for prestige showcase projects, and bring people together rather than set one category against another?

According to a San Francisco Chronicle report, White said, “We have our work cut out, but I’m enormously optimistic. . . . We just have to find a way here in a difficult economy.”

Yes, we just have to find a way — and if White’s got a map, or even just a compass, or maybe a seeing-eye dog, I sure would like to hear about it.

New CSU chancellor undercover

October 6, 2012

One of the first things I read about Timothy P. White, the new chancellor of California State University, was that in May 2011 he appeared on the hit reality show Undercover Boss. So I watched the episode. There’s a preview on the website of UC Riverside, where Dr. White has been chancellor since 2008, and I found the full episode on both amazon video and iTunes.

Undercover Boss portrays high-level executives who go undercover to work for a week among their lowest paid employees. Disguised in ordinary clothes, the bosses learn quickly. They pick up trash and clean toilets; they struggle under irrational policies and uncaring middle-managers. These minor humiliations bring enlightenment. Each show ends with the boss first revealing the ruse, and then eliminating selected hardships, announcing reforms, and bestowing favors on individual employees.

One reviewer points out that Undercover Boss reenacts an old fantasy of the powerless: if only the powerful understood our plight, they would help us.

The boss walks a mile in the worker’s shoes. The boss attains wisdom, and the worker gets a new pair of shoes. The basic model is noblesse oblige and corporate charity, not workplace democracy and social justice.

The show’s obsession with personal experience obscures the political causes of the harsh working conditions it portrays. We’re told that workers suffer because the boss is “out of touch,” not because investors demand large profit margins and the workers lack effective legal protection and union representation. As one critic puts it, “The idea that the soul journeys of CEOs can redeem or restore American industry in an age of ruthless globalism makes for an enchanting bedtime story, but it’s hard to conceive of a goofier approach to—or a more misleading account of—What’s Actually Going On Out There.”

In most respects, the episode with Dr. White follows this standard script. White amiably goes through the requisite indignities. In front of a chemistry class of 250 students, he fumbles nervously with a microphone and mispronounces words while a student openly yawns; while sorting books in the library, he falters over the proper ordering of the letters o and p; at the university track, he awkwardly drops heavy equipment; and during his day as a campus tour guide, White repeatedly stumbles while walking backwards in front of a group of visitors.

The episode ends with White revealing his identity to the university employees who graciously showed him their jobs, followed by heart-felt conversations, hugs, and lots of tears. White and his new friends share personal stories that are truly moving, for an instant, before they wilt in the glare of publicity. Nothing real can stop the cynicism machine that is reality television.

Between the hugs and tears, White hands out presents like Santa Claus: loan forgiveness and scholarships for the student employees, a training opportunity and brand new track for the coach, and a Women in Science Scholarship named after the chemistry professor. These gifts differ in the breadth of their impact, but they’re all funded by private donors and remain within the basic narrative of the show.

White’s appearance on Undercover Boss thus reinforces the ongoing diffusion of a top-down, feudalistic, corporate management style in higher education.

But maybe there’s more going on here.

If White’s goal was simply to learn about his campus, he could have gone undercover privately. By doing the show, White may have been trying to educate not just himself but also the viewers.

If you subtract the bullshit associated with the show’s basic premise, what you see in this episode are talented, dedicated, hard-working students and faculty who truly care about public education and public service. The episode challenges the typical image of public universities as party schools, escapist ivory towers, or leftist indoctrination camps.

After revealing his identity to the chemistry professor, White tells her, “I was so impressed by the respect that these students have for you.” She later says, “It feels good to know that . . . if I work here until midnight . . . it means something.”

Yes, it certainly does. Welcome to the CSU, Chancellor White.


Time for a test on student testing

September 17, 2012

Spaghetti sauce

“Will you test my spaghetti sauce?” I ask anyone who happens to pass through the kitchen. Typically the person dips in a spoon, tastes, looks puzzled for a moment, and then says it’s got too much of this or too little of that. I then add whatever miscellaneous ingredients seem promising.

Testing students in schools and universities is almost nothing like that.

A spoonful of sauce taken from a pot gives you a pretty good idea of how a ladleful will taste on a plate of spaghetti. But a quiz, exam, or other test of a student’s knowledge – even a take-home essay assignment – provides only a tiny glimpse into what the student actually knows and understands.

As social studies of science and technology have shown, all tests presuppose that the test is similar to something else “out there” in the world. Technicians determine that a car at a crash-test facility is similar to a car on the freeway packed with kids, luggage, and the family dog. But identifying two things as similar requires setting aside the many ways they are also different: we may notice that two people have a similar skin color, which may obscure their many differences. To what extent is a student’s performance on a test similar to all the facts, concepts, skills, and long-term capacities and inspirations that educators hope their students will take away from the classroom?

Student tests mostly show how well students take tests. Beyond that different kinds of tests vary enormously in how well they stimulate and assess student learning. A quiz may compel my students to get the reading done, but that doesn’t mean it tells me very much about what they’ve learned, and it may induce them to focus on isolated facts rather than genuine understanding.

Educational researchers have repeatedly confirmed what many teachers say, and what I’ve seen first-hand as my kids have gone through school: over-reliance on standardized tests corrupts the curriculum and destroys intellectual curiosity. And when it comes to evaluating teachers, standardized tests easily produce misleading results. It’s important to assess student learning and teacher effectiveness, but we should do it in a smart way that actually fosters improvement.

Unfortunately, increased reliance on standardized tests has long been a nationwide trend. The New York Times reports that 30 states now link teacher evaluations to student test scores, and at least 13 states use student test scores to account for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. And at universities, increasing class size pushes faculty to rely more on standardized tests.

A key issue in the massive Chicago teacher’s strike, now entering its second week, is the role of standardized tests in both teaching students and evaluating teachers. Among other things, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants the percentage of teacher evaluations based on student tests to rise from 25 percent to 40 percent over the next five years.

Emanuel sends his own kids to a lavish private school, the University of Chicago Lab School, whose director has criticized efforts to measure learning outcomes with standardized tests.

Most importantly, the debate over standardized tests is not just about pedagogy, but the purpose of education itself. As Henry A. Giroux argues, excessive use of standardized tests turns teachers into deskilled technicians and fosters “curricular models that devalue critical thought and reduce imaginative inquiry to the teaching of marketable skills.” Education becomes vocational training and loses its capacity to reduce social inequality and enrich democracy.

Tests increasingly permeate our lives. Genetic tests, intelligence tests, personality tests, relationship tests – none of them gives a complete picture of what it claims to measure.

Maybe it’s time to start testing politicians on what they know about tests. It might not tell us how well they understand the issue, but it could be an enlightening experience for everyone. Or better yet: educators could start including a few questions on standardized tests on every standardized test. That could promote the sort of critical thinking that standardized tests so often undermine.

Academic precariat

August 24, 2012

Pullias Center for Higher Education, The Changing Faculty and Student Success, “National Trends for Faculty Composition Over Time,” p. 1

As faculty around the United States get ready for the first classes of the fall semester, myself included, it’s worth remembering that over two-thirds of the people teaching those classes will be adjunct faculty with part-time and/or insecure employment.

I’m fortunate to have tenure, but adjunct faculty teach nearly half the courses in my department. My wife has periodically taught part-time at UC Davis, and my dad has been an adjunct professor for over thirty years at the University of San Francisco and other universities in the Bay Area. While writing my dissertation, I also taught part-time at USF, UCD, Golden Gate University, and Sacramento State.

Non-tenure-track faculty have long been called “adjuncts,” which sounds increasingly odd, given that universities today couldn’t function without them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Adjunct Professor” as “a junior, temporary, or casual academic position.” That hardly captures the situation of most adjuncts today.

As Jonathan Rees points out, “most students and their parents don’t know anything about adjunct faculty members, nor do they understand the difference between adjuncts, lecturers and tenure-track faculty. After all, everyone tends to call whoever is at the front of the classroom ‘professor’.”

The average percentage of faculty with contingent appointments varies among different types of institutions: at public two-year colleges (community colleges), it’s over eighty percent, while at public research universities it’s about 50 percent.

Pullias Center for Higher Education, The Changing Faculty and Student Success, “Variation in the Composition of Faculty by Sector,” p. 2.

A report released yesterday by the Center for the Future of Higher Education, “Who is Professor ‘Staff,’ and how can this person teach so many classes?”, highlights the difficulties created by “just-in-time” hiring practices, when contingent faculty receive their appointments just a few weeks before the start of the semester, as they often do. Among other things, adjuncts generally don’t get paid until they start teaching, so they aren’t paid for prep time before the semester starts. Adjuncts often have limited access to support services such as sample course syllabi, clerical support, copying, telephones, computers, and office space. As the report rightly notes,

It is only the extraordinary effort, personal resources, and professional dedication of contingent faculty that allows them to overcome the obstacles to quality education that derive directly from their employment status.

In June the Coalition on the Academic Workforce released a study on the working conditions of contingent faculty, “A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members,” summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Based on a survey of nearly 20,000 non-tenure-track faculty, the report found that teaching was the primary occupation for a large majority of respondents, but two-thirds received an annual income of less than $45,000. Over half received less than $35,000.

Other findings include:

  • the median pay of contingent faculty is about $2,700 per course;
  • for most contingent faculty, length of service does not lead to higher pay;
  • less than one-fourth of contingent faculty receive health benefits from their universities;
  • contingent faculty represented by unions tend to have better pay, benefits, and working conditions.

So far most universities have done little to address the profound implications of the emerging academic precariat for the future of higher education. But the issue seems to be getting more attention than before. It’s clear that promoting quality education depends on major improvements in the working conditions of contingent faculty.

One approach (discussed here) is to change university accreditation standards so that they take account of institutional support for contingent faculty. Another approach is to urge prospective students and their parents to consider the working conditions of adjuncts when choosing a college.

The Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC has a website on The Changing Faculty and Student Success with links to relevant reports, projects, and advocacy organizations.