The Implications of the Northwestern Study, or: Oh God Jordan Weissman What Have Ye Wrought

I am writing this reaction to Jordan Weissman’s recent article in the Atlantic, “Study: Tenured Professors Make Worse Teachers,” with several obvious (and at times conflicting) agendas.

Agenda One: I’m faculty who works off the tenure track, and I also work very hard to be an extraordinary professor, so I certainly appreciate the finding—flawed as it may be—that college freshmen at Northwestern University slightly prefer their non-tenure-track faculty to their superstars (maybe they all had a class with one professor there who shall remain nameless, but who gave a highly-paid invited talk at OSU last year, and who is just the kind of pompous, inaccessible dickbag who makes people hate tenured professors).

I can’t say I don’t get a bit of smug satisfaction that while the FULLPROFs of the world strut around delighted at how much better they are than the likes of me, the likes of me are the ones who really seem to be connecting with students…by a 7% margin, which, come on, is completely negligible in everything but Presidential elections and hill steepness. So there’s that. So the first thing that compromises my agenda is the realization that even if contingent faculty outperform their tenure-track counterparts by the problematic, rather intangible standard of “inspiration,” we barely do.

Agenda Two: It is an incontrovertible fact that there are spectacularly gifted teachers among the tenured and tenure-track faculty in the United States (here are just a few I have had in my short life). So the cliché that all tenured professors are incomprehensible-research-wanking solipsists who only care about their specialized graduate seminars full of sycophants, is tremendously offensive. This is in direct conflict with Agenda One, in which I secretly rejoice at out-teaching a bunch of research-wanking solipsists. You see why this is complicated.

Agenda Three (and Most Important): The Northwestern study may obscure or outright seek to contradict the fact that the current academic labor system in the United States is feudal, stratified, toxic, cruel, oppressive and detrimental to student learning—and I think if this study had been done at the hundreds of regional and directional state universities where the vast majority of our young people go to be educated, there would be a far different outcome. I’m trying, at all times, to be mindful as well that any participant, including all of the wonderful professors I just linked to and myself, is contributing to this toxic system.

The academic labor hierarchy needs to change, drastically, if we are to preserve anything good about higher education whatsoever.

Because every college faculty in the world deserves what every worker in the world deserves: a fair wage commensurate with their skills and experience; humane working conditions; dignity and respect. I do not believe most adjuncts receive these—I, for example, work for an institution that treats adjuncts better than anywhere I have ever seen (and I earn almost $1000 above the national average per course), and I truly love my students and my colleagues, and I know I am lucky to have an office to use at all (never mind one that used to be part of a convent and thus has its own bathroom!)…but I am typing this right now on a computer running Windows XP…

I have to add 15-30 minutes onto my day each morning for this thing to startup. No joke.

I have to add 15-30 minutes onto my day each morning for this thing to startup. No joke.

…in sight of visibly peeling paint that is almost certainly lead-based (it’s a good thing I usually remember to bring my lunch and have only had to resort to eating paint a few times this semester).

2013-09-10 17.15.33

The Impossible Solution. Hey everyone, guess what? You’d never believe this, but I have ideas about how to re-envision academic labor. And you’d double-never believe this, but they are highly polarizing. This is largely because they include some form (that I haven’t worked out yet, ALL RIGHT?) of the wholesale replacement of the tenure process as we know it, with a different system that still offers whatever passes for academic freedom these days…and as most tenure-track faculty are forced into simpering cowardice, how hard can this be? But I digress.

Whatever the amorphous new Schuman-fantasy system is, it must do away with the stratifications that currently plague the academy, where FULLPROFs and MOOCPROFs are the “rock stars” (think Nickelback, not Springsteen, and think $100,000 a year, not $100 million), and everybody else is either a sad warm-up act or a sidewalk busker (who isn’t allowed to work a day job for fear that someone will accuse him/her of not “loving it enough”).

Here’s something of which I am certain: the reform higher-ed labor so desperately needs can and will not be achieved in the impending MOOCiverse. And here’s something related: Weissman’s article, though it itself does not display any overt oppressive intentions, still has vile, dangerous implications about the acceptability of certain working conditions.

The post-academic Twitterverse was alive with succinct commentary about exactly what these implications are.

Here’s my fellow Chronicle Vitae project hellraiser William “Billiam” Pannapacker:

And Al Jazeera English’s almost-the-same-birthday-as-me-having St. Louisan Sarah Kendzior posted an utterly straightforward critical Tweet…

that prompted this response from the article’s 27-year-old writer:

Meanwhile Claire Potter, the Tenured Radical, weighed in quite judiciously on behalf of my tenure-track and tenured homeprofs, pointing out, among other excellent arguments, seven percent schmeven schmercent: this means almost as many students thought their adjuncts were shitty, too.

And now for the capital-I Implications I promised. I want to believe that Weissmann’s article, at its heart, is positive: it’s saying that many adjuncts, so maligned and so underpaid, are against all odds and rather heroically spectacular teachers. But I am very afraid that this study will not bring about what I want it to bring about: the much-needed democratization and de-FULLPROF-ification of the faculty hierarchy, with the tenure process burnt to the ground and a more democratic, healthier and saner way of protecting faculty expression put in its place.

My pessimism exists because that would only happen in a world that treats the kind of higher education most people in academia value—the one conducted by humans for humans, in the pursuit of a more perfected humanity—as the ideal, and not the corporate profit-based, startup-culture-style “disruption” bullshit model currently favored by the well-paid administrators replacing their instructors with Coursera MOOCs that have a 90 percent attrition rate.

I fear that the result of this study will be trumpeted around universities with much less revenue and much lower adjunct pay than Northwestern, to justify the idea that, as Pannapacker has put it, since children make the best chimney sweeps, we should keep sticking children up chimneys.

“Since professors who work around rat infestations and hold office hours out of their cars make the ‘best’ teachers, we should kill that pesky tenure line and replace it, not with a humane multi-year, infinitely-renewable full-time contract position, but with four adjuncts whose combined wages equal that of a high-school teacher ten years their junior. And they can hold office hours from their 1996 Subarus, while what once were faculty offices get commandeered by a new fundraising office, tasked to support a new UltraDorm/strip mall with Jacuzzi tubs on every floor.” Don’t worry, they actually teach BETTER under those conditions! They like them!

I don’t fault Weissmann, the pip-squeak who wrote the Atlantic article, for not knowing the intricacies of adjunct hell, and I don’t fault the hundreds of commenters who also don’t understand that most adjuncts have zero chance ever of becoming full-time, and thus who insist that it’s the “competition” that makes adjuncts popular (hint: it’s the grade inflation tied to the evaluations that get us re-hired). It’s not really a question of “fault” at this point—it’s a question of coming up with a better solution than these hypercapitalist Sean-Parker-type Ed-Bros do, faster than they do.

Tenure is dying. I would be OK with that if it were going to be replaced with anything humane. I fear it won’t.

22 thoughts on “The Implications of the Northwestern Study, or: Oh God Jordan Weissman What Have Ye Wrought

  1. Hi Pan,
    I may not be able to help with the horrific nightmare that is the academic job market, but I might be able to help with your computer taking so long to boot up. Back up your documents (you should probably have them in Dropbox anyway), and see if you can either reinstall XP yourself or see if you can have your IT people do it. It should speed up considerably.

    Make sure you have your Microsoft Office disks handy before you do this, as you’ll need to reinstall it.

    If you don’t want to reinstall XP (which is actually a decent operating system, even if it’s showing its age), running the disk defragmenter overnight and an anti-spyware program might help.



    • Thank you! I already have DropBox (love it), but here’s the problem: this computer is actually a castoff that is no longer officially in the system (when the full-time faculty, all of whom I adore by the way, get a new machine, the adjuncts get their old ones instead of the boneyard getting them, but as far as the school is concerned, they Don’t Exist). The tech support budget does not cover IT coming to any adjunct office, ever.


      • Well that figures. The bright side is that, since it’s a castoff that doesn’t officially exist, it sounds to me like you can do what you want with it. IT might be willing to give you an XP key/disc (if you go to them… good grief), and if not, you could always try installing Linux instead. Which, I suppose, could be its own special nightmare.

        Anyway, I’d try the disk defragmenter (Accessories > System Tools > Disk Defragmenter), an anti-spy/malware sweep, and an anti-virus sweep. All that should be done overnight, since it will take a few hours. If that doesn’t speed it up, you can always just leave it running and logged in (but locked) when you leave, instead of shutting down.


  2. I wish I could be more optimistic, but the neo-liberal wave/MOOCpocalypse will hold sway in the end. The only people on the faculty with the power to change things are insulated from these changes, and a great many are more than happy to stay on their lifeboats while others drown. I fear you and Messr. Pannapacker are correct about the chimney sweep analogy. Not to beat a dead horse, but the only solution for the people not protected is to get out while they still can.


  3. As an undergraduate, I took several courses with the NU professor you reference—he was nothing if not accessible to his undergraduate students. He taught at least two undergraduate courses every year. He held office hours weekly and offered to meet with students at a different time if his office hours conflicted with any student’s schedule. He encouraged questions and student participation—if an undergraduate student wanted to speak or give a presentation, he was enthusiastic.

    Just some observations from a recent undergraduate.


  4. What would it take to change the cowardice of the tenured? Get them to care, speak up en masse? Are they really so seduced by being above others in the academic hierarchy that they don’t care? On some level I don’t get it: if you’re not going to be fired for speaking up, then why not speak up? What do they really have to fear?

    Deep sight…

    It is just so depressing, and a reminder that a grad student friend from a working-class background was right when he said the academy is an institution for the reproduction of bourgeois privilege. If it’s just about making sure the neoliberal machine cum corporate university runs smoothly (i.e. maximizes profits) then I guess this is all we can expect.

    It’s just really sad that the academy isn’t about ‘access’ and ‘inclusion’ and learning something other than capitalist culture, as it tries to claim it is–and actually should be.

    It is good that people like you are telling the truth about what the academy really is such that the students you are inspiring with your teaching don’t go to grad school naively thinking that a desire to teach at the university level–and to inspire others as you’ve inspired them–is all it takes to end up with a TT position (just work hard enough, love it enough!!). In some ways maybe this is the best lesson you are teaching them, in the end. Eyes wide open.


      • That Lombardi article is depressing and Orwellian. And illuminating insofar as it explains the faculty employment rational of the corporate neoliberal university.

        Love the use of the word ‘talent’ for discussing the hiring of contingent faculty to whom one pays poverty wages. Yes, because this is generally how one treats those who are truly valued as ‘talent’.

        Also love that line about ‘accountability’ being increased. Hilarious! Seriously, Orwellian. Especially since the increased use of contingent, non-tenured faculty, I mean ‘talent’, allows a lack of actual accountability as people are too afraid to speak up when they see wrongdoing, lest they be fired. Paving the way for scandals like the sexual abuse at Penn State, or the cover-up of sexual assaults and hostile sexual climate for which Gloria Allred is now suing multiple universities (including Berkeley and Dartmouth, and I was viciously retaliated against for speaking out about these cover-ups precisely because I was not tenured faculty and thus highly vulnerable and easily punished).

        ‘Accountability’ and ‘talent’, right…


  5. I didn’t quite understand why Weissmann got so het up about Kendzior’s Twitter post – maybe I just missed something.

    I did point out to Weissmann on Twitter that the study implies that American university students have never been better taught than now (considering that uni teaching has never been as dominated by adjunct teachers). Not sure that’s what he was getting at …

    One thing I wanted to point out …

    Tenure-track (TT) faculty are only supposed to dedicate 40% of their work time to teaching (the rest is 40% research and 20% service), while adjuncts are presumably dedicating 100% of their work time. I’m not wanting to cast any aspersions on adjuncts with that comment, but just point out that it is inevitable that adjuncts will be better teachers because they dedicate more of their working time and effort to it. I appreciate that adjuncts might also be doing research (and maybe service), but that is not part of their “official” work time or job, even if it’s necessary (research) – or might be beneficial (service) – to get a TT job.

    Something I wanted to suggest …

    Maybe the problem is not tenure, but the PhD system. Spending 6+ years to train to become an academic is a major problem, esp. when PhD training leads you up a single, narrow alley with few (if any) escape routes from academic life. It might be better to restructure the PhD rather than tenure. You could cut out ‘topic’ coursework (should be done at Masters level instead) and keep it solely focused on research methods, design, etc.; and cut out comps altogether (never understood these – but I’m British and we don’t have them). That’d bring down completion to 3-4 years. Then you could restructure the thesis itself so it’s more “real” world-focused, forcing students to undertake a range of research tasks (e.g. policy analysis, statistical analysis, qualitative analysis, AND discourse analysis) rather than just one narrowly focused piece of research. That way it becomes relevant training for a much wider array of work. I’m sure there are other things you include, but getting the time down to 3-4 years would be a good start, as would having more clear-cut and definitive milestones.


    • There are definitely good arguments for shortening the process. I think it’s complicated, though, because then that would further stratify the gain and dissemination of knowledge betw. elites and Normals.

      I would also have no problem at all with the assertion that those paid only to teach might be (sometimes) “better” teachers, but the reasons so many adjuncts are up in arms is that we are barely, barely paid. I work at one of the best places to adjunct–if not the best–in my area. I love it here. I would be out of academia entirely if I weren’t here. But because I am paid $3300 per course–which is far, far above the national average, btw–I also work two other jobs. With my clients and my freelancing, plus adjuncting, I will make about $29,000 this year. So the idea that I have all this time to dedicate to pedagogy because I’m not paid to research is upsetting, because any adjunct striving (usually in futility) to leave adjunctitude is busting her ass to research for free, and with absolutely no travel or other professional development support, and any adjunct who is a “career” adjunct must either depend upon a rich spouse, like Jordan Weissman’s mother (and, really, like me–he’s not “rich” but his regular middle-class salary bought our St. Louis condo and owning the condo helps me not have to pay rent), or adjunct way more courses than is manageable.

      the Northwestern study is atypical, because it also used other contingent labor–specifically, full-time lecturers and instructors, which is a totally different ballgame altogether (they receive a fair salary and benefits).

      So it may be 100% accurate to say that full-time non-tenure-track faculty sometimes make better teachers for exactly the reasons you state, but to say that adjunct faculty do for those reasons is to misrepresent what it means to be “paid.” In my case, I am paid about $16,000 a year, so I treat adjuncting like the part-time job it is, which means that I cut corners prepping and grading wherever possible, I refuse to write recommendations or do other service, etc. I believe that my students get a good learning experience from me, but if I were paid $32,000 a year with benefits, they’d get a great one because I’d devote all my time to them.


  6. Kudos and applause for your humorous and brilliant Pan Kisses Kafka..I graduated (EdD | 4.0 | president of Graduate Student Senate) taught one course as an adjunct, with high student evals, to be let go due to budget cuts (UCONN Storrs) never to set foot in a classroom in an institution of higher ed since; that happened in 2009. My entire academic career (as an adjunct paid $5000.00 compared to my counterpart tenure track prof’s $25,000.00 apx for same course) lasted one semester. I am now on the list for debtor’s prison, and NSA’s list of favorite people to listen to, because I have this completely radical idea that like you say: education by humans for humans, ought to be a part of an educational agenda. Thank you for your insights…


  7. Is anyone else a bit startled that a writer for The Atlantic would respond to a fairly mild criticism with “Screw off?” I guess I’m being a bit inconsistent because there’s profanity on this blog and I don’t mind it, but it isn’t usually directed so specifically at a particular person, and I guess maybe I hold what used to be a snooty literary magazine to a higher standard.


  8. The solution for adjuncts is similar to that for all workers: organize to take as much power to themselves and away from employers. This is difficult especially since at best the govt looks the other way when employers victimize workers, but without workers organizing themselves their conditions will mostly get worse.


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