The Lost Argument: How Relying on Adjuncts Privatizes Knowledge

Despite having this blog for over a year, I’ve yet to comment on one of the largest threats to the professoriate and to the future of higher education at large: our increasing reliance on adjunct faculty. In a previous post, I referenced the website the Adjunct Project and perhaps mentioned that higher education is now comprised of anywhere between 66 and 76 percent adjuncts. This means that only 1/3 of our professors are tenure track (TT) or tenured. As any discourse about adjuncts communicates, this is problematic both for the adjuncts themselves and also for their students. The use of adjuncts deprofessionalizes the career, creates a rift between TT and adjuncts, expands the rift between private and public institutions, and belittles pedagogy as something doable part-time. The message sent to the public is that collegiate teaching is so easy, one can do it while being completely disconnected from the college and with credentials earned online!

This could not be more untrue. But that is not the purpose of this post. Many have argued that case more authentically and articulately than I ever could. I would like to complement the debate by presenting an argument not against the use of adjuncts, but for the use of full-time tenure track/tenured faculty. To do so, I must first outline what it is TT faculty do because contrary to general perception, TT faculty do not solely teach; they cultivate knowledge. We are called scholars for a reason.

To become a scholar, PhDs endure rigorous and extensive training. But this training is not teaching oriented, it is research oriented. We spend 5, 6, 7, or 8 years in two main endeavors: acquiring a breadth and depth of foundational knowledge and skills in a particular discipline, and applying such knowledge and skills in a new context/method with the goal of generating new knowledge. Graduate programs accomplish this through 3-4 years of coursework, annual conference attendance and participation, and 2-3 major research projects, the largest being the culminating dissertation which can range in length from 50 pages in the social sciences to 500 in the humanities. Data guiding such research can take 4 years to gather in some disciplines, while the publication process can take up to 2 years. The ocean of research is not something to be waded into. To make waves one must dive in head first.

And we are expected to make waves. Tenure and promotion in academia is closely tied to scholarly productivity. At major research institutions, faculty are expected to publish 1 peer-reviewed article per year prior to tenure. Given the long publication process, the expectations for time spent on research are high. They are extremely higher (and more objective) than expectations of teaching effectiveness. Ask any TT faculty what they worry about with respect to attaining tenure and I would guess that 9 times out of 10, their response will be about scholarship.

I say all of this to illuminate what is at stake when we require only teaching of our professors. If in fact 70% of professors in higher education are solely teaching, who is researching?

Until recent years the production of knowledge has been a joint endeavor between academia and what we call industry. To describe the partnership in most basic terms, academics develop theories and industry uses them. Research produced by full-time faculty informs policy and law development  across social institutions; decides public school curriculum; even mundane things like safety guidelines for your new oven are the result of labored research. With the erosion of full-time faculty comes the erosion of theoretically-driven cumulative knowledge. Sure the comparatively small number of PhDs working in industry can do their own research and devise theories thus eliminating the need for academic scholarship. But in privatizing the production of knowledge, the value of information becomes monetary thus affecting the ethics of the research process.

For example, if you have young children you may have been attune to a top news story 6 years ago about Baby Einstein products. Baby Einstein (owned by Disney) marketed their products to parents with claims that their toys were educational and increased children’s IQ by enhancing their vocabulary, processing skills and emotional development. Parents were purchasing these toys like hot cakes and the field followed suit. All of a sudden we were inundated with ‘educational’ toys and TV shows. Mothers were putting headphones around their tummy so the fetus could hear classical music and have a higher math IQ. Then, in November of 2007, the University of Washington published a piece in the journal, Pediatrics, stating that babies who watched the so-called educational videos had a significantly smaller vocabulary than those who had not watched the videos. 10 years earlier, Baby Einstein had released a statement saying “studies show that if these (language) neurons are not used, they may die. Through exposure to phonemes in seven languages, Baby Einstein contributes to increased brain capacity.”

This is a prime example of what happens when industry co-opts knowledge they did not produce and don’t have the training to understand. Guided by work conducted by Dr. Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington (yes, they were debunked by the very research they used to support their products), the creator of Baby Einstein, Julie Aigner-Clark strongly felt she was following findings in three published articles. I italicize three because any researcher worth her salt knows that information exists in a body of knowledge. One cannot hope to understand the complexities of language development by reading three articles from a single source. There was no consideration for research done on the effects of nonhuman teachers (e.g., TVs) and the fields of developmental psychology and neuroscience were completely ignored by Ms. Aigner-Clark. Disney was so keen on making money in the 4.8 billion dollars a year industry, they failed to do due diligence and contextualize findings in individual research reports. Unlike academic scholars, they were seeking confirmation for why their products would work instead of for whom and when they wouldn’t work.

This is what is at stake when we adopt business models in higher education; when we prioritize the bottom line over the big picture. The presence of adjuncts means the absence of epistemology. We’ve been so caught up (and rightfully so) in how the abuse and misuse of part-time instructors affects teaching quality, we’ve neglected to address how it affects knowledge quality. Scholars are trained to look for contradicting evidence so that our contributions to knowledge are valid and lasting. We are taught to be revolutionary and to refine knowledge, not to capitalize on it. Knowledge is not for sale.