The Silenced Majority: Part-Time Faculty in a Full-Time Occupation

The word educate derives from the Latin verb educare:  “to rear” or “bring up.” Rearing requires constant attention. Educate is also related to the verb educere: “to open up and lead forth.” This activity requires the development of a relationship between educator and student and a commitment to the latter’s growth.

Neither definition is consistent with faculty outsourcing.

Yet, increasingly, that is what’s happening to undergraduate education in North America: it is being outsourced to part-time, itinerant “faculty.” It’s not exactly the same as having your computer problem solved by talking to someone on the nightshift in Mumbai, but it’s close.

I put faculty in quotes here not because these scholars lack credentials, lack teaching skills, or lack a desire to “educate” their students. It’s because they usually lack offices in which to meet their students, lack time to speak with students outside of class, lack any control over what they teach, lack any say in their department’s policies and curriculum, and, usually, lack even the modicum of security necessary to invest time in remaining engaged in the scholarly activities that enliven teaching. These “faculty” are, in effect, barred from engaging in the process of education.

The transition from a full-time faculty supplemented by occasional visitors to outsourced undergraduate instruction has been rapid. In the US between 2002 and 2010 (the last date with data on the Department of Education website), full-time faculty at public universities shrank from 332,740 to 297,595 while part-time faculty grew from 121,892 (26.8%) to 382,579 (56.2%). National data for Canada are lacking, although a recent CBC story reported that at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2012, part-time faculty taught 52% of its courses. These “faculty” were compensated with a whopping 4% of the University’s budget.

As this last datum makes clear, this radical change in faculty composition is all about money – about improving the “efficiency” of teaching in our universities. As William Baumol and William Bowen pointed out more than fifty years ago, however, the industrial model of efficiency – minimize inputs and maximize outputs – doesn’t work for everything: it still takes four people 25 minutes to play a Beethoven string quartet, just as it did in 1814.

And it still takes focused and unhurried student-faculty interaction, intellectual engagement, and coherent curricula to educate an undergraduate who will be able to thrive in a fast-changing and uncertain world. Outsourcing this task in the name of efficiency will fail.

Outsourcing this task in the name of efficiency will fail.

Quality education requires time. Time to plan out a course’s learning goals and to integrate it with the student’s overall educational trajectory. Time to provide prompt and substantial feedback on student assignments. Time to answer student questions and play the role of a mentor. Time to learn about effective pedagogical techniques and to experiment with new approaches. Time to keep up to date in one’s field.

There is no time to plan a course when you are informed you are hired a week before a class begins. There is no possibility of an integrated curriculum if teachers are excluded from curricular design. There is no chance to mentor students if you don’t have an office in which to meet them. And there is no way to give extensive feedback, to explore effective teaching strategies, or to keep current in a discipline if one has to rush off to another teaching gig after class in order to make ends meet.

PSE institutions are envisioned as intellectual communities wherein the interaction of faculty and students fosters growth – of both individuals and ideas. If they become property management firms that hire poorly paid, part-time, temporary employees to provide service to customers looking for paper degrees, they will soon cease to draw customers and the taxpayer money that supports them.

February 25th next year has been declared National Adjunct Walkout Day in the US. Students concerned about the quality of their education and faculty concerned about the future of their profession should take note. The silenced majority will have some interesting things to say.

David J Helfand was a faculty member at Columbia university for 37 years, serving half of that time as Chair of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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