The unfortunate universal history of American university education is — on the undergraduate level at least — students remain a bit dumber than their instructors from generation to generation. I include my early undergraduate experience in that wash.

The result is a cheapening of the shared social mind as students wish for straight “A” grades while their in-class performance rarely rises to the “B” level. Students will press professors and the administration for grades they feel they deserve even if they did not earn them because they were raised in the self-esteem generation where their parents taught them they are special merely for being born.

They are never expected to earn what they need. “Deeds over talk” strike no difference for that generation of student. These students have been trained by their parents to rebel against authority, to challenge any perceived threat to their forward advancement and to always move up the chain as the squeaky wheel in need of greasing. You can recognize these students in the real world because they always demand to speak to a manager or a higher-up when they are immediately displeased with their current station. This complain instead of perform mantra is especially evident on the private school level where four years for a degree can cost a student over $250,000.

For some public school students a debt load can top $50,000 and that amount is just as crushing for them as their private school peers. When that kind of money is spent on schooling, students demand universities bend to their wishes and many times the unfortunate end result is grade inflation where a university sells its future and its historic performance by rewarding average students with above average grades in order to placate the horrifying reality of the massive amount debt enlistment required to buy the degree. At many universities the hammers brought in to bring grade inflation under control are adjuncts. Adjuncts are fleeting. Adjuncts — against their wishes and by design — have no stake in the long term viability of a university.

Adjuncts are expendable.

I have been a university adjunct for a decade. Adjuncts teach because they enjoy the interaction with students. Adjuncts are not there for the money. Many adjuncts make less than $2,000 per course. Adjuncts generally care more about their students day-to-day than the regular teaching staff who must also worry about service and publication in addition to teaching if they want to stay long term.

Those who already have tenure rarely see a class with undergraduates. I advise my better students to seek out the contract teachers and adjuncts because they teach for the love of the event and not for the want of money or station and while the classes may be harder and the expectations set higher, the reward, in the end, will be a better long-term ability to retain the information and their grades will be hard-won and have deeper meaning beyond the student loan debt load. Unfortunately, few students can afford to purchase that advice.

14 Comments

  1. Imagine an academic world where learning, teaching and the true exchange of unfettered information is just an illusion.
    The arbitrary and capricious use of power dominates a hierarchy of power where the real rules are not in policy and procedure, but rather are unwritten and slowly learned or granted over time to those who buy into the process. The process mimics a game, where fiscal concerns trump over the development of new knowledge, and teaching falls into a devalued role, as a basic expectation.
    Imagine that promotions whether to student or faculty are granted upon those who understand the game and are willing to accept and to play by the rules.
    Now also imagine that there are individuals within the academic institution who in spite of the rules choose to remain true to the spirit of teaching, learning and the development of new knowledge. Like those who protect a flickering candle in the wind, despite a harsh environment, respect the basic values and even believe that there are true values within the learning process. With passion they put energy into teaching, caring about the outcomes of the next generation of students. They understand the game and in spite of the inertia and lassitude of the game, they persevere to make a difference.
    Many of us, whether learners or teachers know who the “difference makers” are in whatever the institution. I am sure that you are one of them.

  2. Hi Jeff!
    I had to read your message several times to divine all the deep levels of meaning. Incredible stuff, there Jeff! Thank you!
    Teaching is devalued and, as you suggest, I understand why. When university presidents at public schools are earning $700,000 a year there is a problem much more terrible than just how the adjunct faculty are treated. 🙂
    I believe something like 73% of the undergraduate classes at NYU are taught by adjuncts. The NYU adjunct faculty finally unionized and won a great package where they are now paid around $4,800 per course as a rule instead of $2,300 a class as was the case for so many years. That still doesn’t diminish the $11,000 per class chemistry adjunct with a “name” but it still levels out the playing field for those who choose to adjunct.
    I adjunct for selfish reasons. I enjoy interacting with my students. Thinking about how to teach them helps open up my writing. I love the library access. I enjoy the other adjuncts even though many are forced to teach at several universities in order to cover their monthly nut. I can afford to adjunct because I make my main money elsewhere. I won’t adjunct forever, though; because each year as student imagination and abilities diminish I spend more of my time working on basic skills instead of teaching them what is on the syllabus. The future of academe is only as promising as the fuel used to feed it and, when the intellectual core is diminished, so are we all.

  3. I teach all over Texas to cover my bills. 6 classes a semester on three campuses one right after the other. I have a PhD but no one is hiring full time and forget a tenure track. 95% of the advertised jobs are already taken before the ad appears because universities always know who they want for any open slot. It’s a scam, I know, but I’m stuck in the shell game until something better comes along or I fall off the table.

  4. AdjunctX —
    I feel for you. I know several really bright and warm and tough adjuncts in your position. I hope a lighter path will open up for you in academe. People like you matter because you will not give in to the whims of the student and adjuncts can take the brunt of a student complaint about a grade better than the administration can or the tenured professor can or the new tenure track hire can because above everything else we only care about telling the students the truth reflectively with grades in the small, longing, hope that one day they will reflexively change their behavior in order to live a life of the mind.

  5. David, thanks for hanging in with my obtuse comments earlier today– I was in an obtuse mood. LOL.
    I also don’t want to unfairly target university presidents, because here are two of them who share your perspective, and from my readings are part of the solution.
    Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California writes in “The Uses of a University,” that there is a crisis in higher education, an almost catastrophic failure to prioritize education within American universities. The goal of such an education? To create an informed population of citizens who know how to think.
    Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, calls for reforms in higher education and exposes the game of corporate financial support from pharmaceutical companies as a primary driving force in continuing medical education.
    Like Kerr, Bok sees the goal of education for a learner not as a vocational end for a high paying job, but rather to facilitate independent thought, to create an informed citizen.
    These are not two radicals calling for reform, Kerr and Bok are two of the most established and regarded insiders in higher education.
    So I agree that Adjunct Professors remain the last line of defense in keeping real education alive in many institutions, until universities can reform.

  6. Heya Jeff!
    Thanks for the pointers to the two new books. I hope to add them to my Amazon basket! I wish the Bok book were still in print.
    I remember a year or two ago that grade inflation was a huge problem at Harvard. All the students received “A” grades and when asked about it, the students said, “we’re the smartest in the world so we deserve “A” grades” and the professors basically backed them up. When challenged from the outside and when asked about grading on a curve and pitting brilliant minds against each other where the end result was always a tie was laughed at by those in the know because those who know realize that even in a pit full of brilliance you will have those who rise above others to earn “A” grades and there will always be those who earn “C” grades and if you don’t have that kind of wide swath of grades then you are not challenging your students enough. A Harvard education was cheapened a bit.

  7. “Never expected to earn what they need.” I began to read your post about the students who had the demands on getting what they want from professors and thought of all the young employees I worked with in my last job. Always seeking more and more money, more and more attention for what they did, and mind you for no increase in their work loads, it was always in the back of my mind to call them prima donnas. But then, I was just the administrative assistant with no chance of advancement even though I have an extremely keen intellect and more street smarts than all of them thrown together in a gunny sack. What did I know?

  8. Hi Paula!
    If there’s one thing the young people really do well is complain. They’ve been taught since birth to never take “no” for an answer and in academe a few years ago it was alarming for the administration to get a student complaint because students rarely made an effort to complain down official channels. Now, however, the tide has changed, and when a student places a “formal” complaint, they get told to “stand in that line over there” will all the other complainers.

  9. Wow, David! How right you are about this “self esteem generation” whose parents treated them as ‘special for merely being born!’
    I was being raised completely opposite; I learnt to represent myself as a modest, low-key player, nothing was ‘good enough’ to be highly accredited. It’s not that I have never been appreciated, but I never learnt to show it off. I have never seen any of my parents to do it either. In fact it was considered something to be cheap.
    Even in today’s date, I feel I am a low key player. It’s not that I am not confident enough, but I can’t think of “claiming something without performing.” In fact, even when I perform, I let my performance blow its trumpet – I don’t.
    I know sometimes I miss the “right attention” because of my nature…. 😀
    I have an aspiration of becoming a ‘teacher’ one day, I will remember everyone’s contributions here. Thanks!

  10. Thanks for explaining the “game”…it goes without saying if I decide to venture out there I will be prepared to “play by the rules!”
    I find these “rules” are fascinating at times, David! We always “play by it”…knowingly, unknowingly, willingly, unwillingly…
    In my case, I feel a bit “dumb” when I discover it, to say the least! : D
    And yes, thanks for the wish!