Thursday, May 15, 2014


An Open Letter to Graduate Program Directors

Dear Graduate Directors,

I hope all is well with you, and that all of your charges have landed safely and happily in tenure-track positions at high salaries in desirable locations with compatible cultures, happy partners, and book contracts.

I hope a lot of things.  That doesn’t always make them happen.

Anyway, I’m still reeling from a wonderful meeting I had on Monday with some of your counterparts.  The ‘hook’ for the meeting was a sense that many Ph.D.’s aren’t landing in R1 positions, like they had been trained for, but that they weren’t well-prepared for full-time positions at more teaching-focused colleges.  As a result, even in a market with a severe labor surplus, it’s often difficult to find good people.  It seems like there’s a potential harmony of interest here.  If your grads were better prepared for teaching-intensive places, they’d be more competitive and have more options.  We’d have better candidates.  You’d have better placement records.  

For present purposes, I’m addressing programs in traditional academic disciplines.  Fields like Culinary or Nursing have different needs.  I’m focusing here on the liberal arts, broadly defined.

I have a couple of suggestions that shouldn’t be difficult to implement.  In fact, I hope you’re already doing them, and you find this redundant.

First, make sure that any grad student with potential designs on a teaching institution gets experience teaching online.  Preferably more than once, and with some sort of mentoring or support.

At my college, as at many others, online classes are the area of fastest growth.  Students are voting with their devices.  Whatever your philosophical position on online teaching, it’s where the growth is.  That’s particularly true in the parts of the country where the number of 18 year olds is likely to remain flat or drop over the next decade or so.  Given the limited number of full-time faculty lines we can afford to carry, a candidate who offers no experience in what is rapidly becoming the future simply isn’t competitive.

In some cases, your students may need to teach at other institutions to gain that experience.  I strongly encourage you to let them.  In fact, to the extent that you can, you should encourage them by building bridges to those institutions.  I will much sooner hire the Northeastern grad with online experience at Bunker Hill Community College than the Harvard grad who thinks he’s the second coming of Professor Kingsfield.  Think of that what you will, but it’s the truth.  

Second, and you should already be doing this anyway, train your people in ADAA compliance and universal design.  They should know that it’s not just a matter of sending copies of an exam to the testing center for extra time when they get a note from the relevant office.  It’s about consciously designing classes and other learning experiences to be accessible to everyone from the outset.  That means, for instance, ensuring that any textbooks used are accessible even before ordering them.  It means ensuring that any videos you use in class or online are captioned.  It means a host of small details that make a real difference to students, and that make a real difference in job interviews.

Hint, hint.

And that’s something you should be doing anyway.  Incorporating universal design into classes on your own campus -- whether onsite or online -- could only help your undergrads.  I’ve heard philosophical arguments against online instruction, but I’ve never heard a philosophical defense of excluding people with disabilities.  You can do better by doing the right thing.

Neither of these should be budget-busters.  I don’t think either would require that you completely rethink everything you’re doing.  If you aren’t already doing them, it wouldn’t take much.

It’s not enough anymore to send us people who are good in the classroom with students who are traditionally prepared to be there.  That’s an important, but decreasing, part of what we do.  Candidates who bring those other skills tend to win.

Thanks, and I hope your summer goes well.


Matt Reed

This is definitely eye-opening and worth saying, even if it is obvious to you! As a grad student at a university that doesn't offer online courses, I haven't had firsthand opportunity to observe that they're necessary teaching experience, and our faculty and administration certainly don't encourage pursuit of outside teaching opportunities. But I can take an online class in universal design through my second job this summer, and online teaching is something to keep in mind when looking for work in the future.

Wonderful points, especially about universal design. I need to reexamine my own web materials to be sure nothing was overlooked as they evolved. As I carefully pander to the many who claim to be Visual Learners, it is easy to forget blind students.

I think many of the grad program directors are in denial because they don't have any information on the ultimate destination of their grads except of the very few they see later at national meetings. All they know is that X graduated and Y took a FIRST job (often as a post doc). After that, nothing. This is one place where a national longitudinal data base would help a lot. And after a career where they have known nothing except a miniscule fraction of higher ed, the marketplace is a black box.

And how can you reject on-line learning when such a large fraction of the textbooks used in lower division classes have on-line "ancillaries"?
As you noted in your previous post, you already have these students at your institutions working as adjunct instructors. Why aren't you already training them to better do the job you're already hiring them for?
Matt is correct. The faculty at research universities had better tell their graduate students that their chances of landing a tenure-track gig at a research university are going to be pretty small. They should also tell their students to pick up some teaching experience before they go out onto the job market, because it is more likely that they will end up at a teaching-intensive institution when they finally do land a full-time academic job. Admittedly, there isn’t exactly a surplus out there of teaching gigs at community colleges or 4-year undergraduate schools, but your chances of landing one are somewhat better. So a student had better get some teaching experience, because that’s probably what they are going to end up doing.

And even if you do manage to grab that brass ring and actually do land a tenure-track appointment at a research university, your life there is probably going to be a living hell, as you grub for tenure. You will have to spend so much time working that your spouse and kids will forget what you look like. The pressure to publish lots of papers, the pressure to get a book contract or two, plus the pressure to obtain external funding are going to weigh down upon you like a ton of bricks. Along the way, you will probably become rather paranoid, and you will start to get suspicious and fearful of just about everyone. Deans, provosts, tenured faculty, other tenure-track faculty, and even students will become potential enemies. You will come to believe that dark, malevolent forces are at work against you and you will fear that the entire universe is in conspiracy against you. Do you really want to life like this?

So your chances for a less-stressful professional life are probably going to be a lot better at a strictly teaching institution, and your chances of landing such a gig will probably be a lot better. It is not exactly going to be an easy ride for you in a teaching-intensive institution, but the pressures on you will be a lot less severe.

So a graduate student had better get some teaching experience along the way, which will make them more competitive for the jobs that are actually out there. A graduate student should teach lots of recitation and laboratory sections, and if their institution will allow it, even teach an actual class or two. They should also try to do some part-time teaching at nearby community colleges or 4-year colleges. Also get lots of experience in online teaching, because that is the wave of the future.

Speaking of online education, you should probably also obtain some computer skills along the way. Learn how to use web development tools such as Adobe Dreamweaver or Microsoft Front Page, and you should also learn how to program in HTML. These skills will help you be more competitive in the academic market, and will aid you in developing your own web-based course.

However, chances are that you probably won’t have the liberty to design your own inline course. When you actually teach an online course, you will probably be using some sort of pre-packaged online course produced by an outside vendor such as Pearson, one in which you have little room for innovation. You will have little academic freedom to produce your own course. Chances are that in the upcoming online surge, you will be reduced to the status of a glorified teaching assistant, simply relaying the works of others to your students.

Derek@6:48AM fails to understand two things:

1) The adjuncts employed at HCC are employees, not students. The people who should be educating (not training) them in the various facets of their future profession are the ones collecting tuition from them as students.

That said, my college provides professional development opportunities to adjuncts who wish to make use of them.

2) A community college does not have a graduate faculty that can teach pedagogy or the financial resources to provide a free education to its employees. Read their budget, or be forever recognized as someone who has chosen to be willfully ignorant of the reality of community college finances.
1) Every single non-university job I've held has begun with a period of on-the-job training, designed to orient employees to the specific skills and procedures needed to fulfill the specific needs of that work environment. Yes, employee training, support, and development is part of the job of any employer. Who is better equipped than you to help people adapt their existing academic and pedagogical skill to the specific needs of your students?

(Aside: If you think even a substantial minority of the grad students training for academic jobs pay tuition, you're pretty out of touch on how graduate education works.)

2) Look, I know that public colleges are woefully underfunded. But let's be real about the consequences of that underfunding:

Are you already routinely hiring many people without the pedagogical training needed to teach your students? Or are you already routinely underpaying and undersupporting many of the adequately trained people you're already hiring?

But I'll tell you what, I'll take some time to read over a community college budget and see whether I can make any recommendations if you'll put together a sample household budget that shows me how your part-time colleagues can live off what they make as teachers.
Dear Dr. Reed,

I appreciate your suggestions but unfortunately, your problems are not my problems. I need to produce graduate students who will go on to be the next great set of scholars and unfortunately, the time they spend at your institution will not help them achieve that goal. They need to teach well enough but the quality of their scholarship and their ability to write grants and get money will determine whether or not they keep their jobs - at least the ones that I care about.

My purposes are not served by sending students off to employment at Master's granting institutions where they do little research or community colleges where they do none. My institution's reputation grows when I produce great scholars. Your proposal serves the needs of graduate students in the aggregate but does not meet my needs.

This advice would be directed better toward graduate students who have the freedom to plan their own time. If teaching is important to them, they will make it a priority and learn what they need to know. But that's their problem not mine.

I don't mean to sound callous but there are certain realities to academic life and this is one of them.


PD -
Ever hear of performance-based appropriations where job placement N years after graduation is an important factor? Right now they look at undergrads, but if legislators ever realize how much of taxpayer money is siphoned off to graduate education, they might start looking at that as well.

Derek -
1) We have orientation for our new adjuncts, but extensive training is only invested in our full-time employees and long-term high-quality adjuncts. YMMV, but we already have a training program (read what I wrote above) and cannot afford to do more.

BTW, few corporations train people who only work 10 hours a week.

(Some colleges find it advantageous to pay grad students more and have them pay tuition because it increases their overhead return and makes students think they are getting a better offer. You are "paying" tuition whether you know it or not.)

2) Yes, and sometimes we even fire them in the middle of a semester. Yes (IMO) and no (IMHO). There are full-time faculty who are underpaid and part-time ones who are paid more than they are worth beyond making sure a class runs.

Whether a person can live on the income generated by a particular combination of jobs is dependent on many factors, but there is a ready supply of persons that meet the needs of those who hire them. However, that has nothing to do with the reality that our training program increases the need for adjuncts because of the budget contraints we operate under.

1) Yes, and most companies also don't hire part-time workers to do highly specialized mission critical work for low pay.

(And accounting tricks in the grad school don't mean grad students paying tuition in any meaningful sense.)

2) If you're not interested in considering how your adjuncts make ends meet, I'm not going to waste my time reading your budget.

Instead of smugly justifying your reliance on adjunct labor, you should be bragging about all the things you do right (training programs, maximizing full-time faculty within budget constraints) but acknowledge that it's not enough. You should be shaming those who refuse to adequately fund higher education, and you should be shaming those peer institutions that aren't as committed as yours to providing adequate pay and support to your faculty.
If you think that working in a lab to earn a tuition waiver is not meaningful payment in-kind for labor, you missed the boat a long time ago. And the contracts related to that sort of employment are one reason their profs don't know they teach at a CC to add to their income and experience.

They are not "my" adjuncts. I do not hire them, I do not fire them, I do not make the decisions to rely on them for certain classes, and I do not set their wages. However, I do know how most of them make ends meet. Do not confuse a refusal to violate their trust with ignorance.

And we do brag about the things we do right. For all you know, you may have even read about some of the things we do very well. I have my doubts about how effective we (as a collective CC group) are at informing the legislature, but that is a tough challenge because legislators care more about football and cutting taxes than education and they see every one of our successes as an argument that we don't need any more money!

Catch 22.
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