Missing the point on the Northwestern Study

Yesterday, several journalists converged on a study arguing that students at Northwestern learned more from adjuncts than from tenured/tenure-track faculty. Here’s my take: This study reveals something about the great work done by adjuncts, but also makes me think about the perverse incentive structure of R1 full-time faculty life. Every incentive – prestige, status, money – pushes faculty to get out of the classroom or to give it as little time as possible. (Many? Most?) Faculty at R1 schools are dedicated teachers despite this incentive structure.

Here’s the background:

At Inside Higher Ed., Scott Jascik wrote:

The study — released this morning by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract available here)
— found that the gains are greatest for the students with the weakest
academic preparation. And the study found that the gains extended across
a wide range of disciplines. The authors of the study suggest that by
looking at measures of student learning, and not just course or program
completion, their work may provide a significant advance in
understanding the impact of non-tenure-track instructors.

Many adjuncts will no doubt be pleased by the study’s conclusions on
their teaching ability. But the study does not call for an end to the
two-tiered system of academic employment between those on and off the
tenure track. Rather, it says that the study may provide evidence that
research universities benefit from more teaching by those who don’t have
research obligations.

Northwestern is a pretty specific environment, but:

“Moreover, the results held for all subjects, regardless of grading
standards or the qualifications of the students the subjects attracted,
though we found that the results were particularly strong for
tougher-grading subjects and those that attracted the most qualified
students,” the authors write. “In addition, we found that the apparent
benefits of taking classes from non-tenure track faculty were enjoyed
more by the less academically qualified students than by the more
academically qualified students — the biggest gains to faculty outside
the tenure system were for relatively weak students taking courses in
the toughest-grading subjects.”

The authors acknowledge that Northwestern is not a typical college.
It has highly competitive admissions and more resources to hire faculty
members (tenure-track or not) than is the case for many other colleges.
However, they add that “our findings that the benefits of taking courses
with non-tenure track faculty appear to be stronger for the relatively
marginal students at Northwestern indicate that our findings may be
relevant to a considerably wider range of institutions.”

Meanwhile, Jordan Weissmann at The Atlantic weighed in under the lede: Tenured professors make worse teachers (Weissmann has also written about the “rise of the adjuncts“).

To start, the team asked if taking a class from a tenure or tenure-track
professor in their first term later made students more likely to pursue
additional courses in that field. So, to borrow their example, if an
undergrad took economics 101 from an adjunct, and political science 101
from a tenured professor, were they any more likely to sign up for
additional poli sci classes. That’s the inspiration part. Second, the
researchers wanted to know if students who took their first course in a
field from a tenure or tenure-track professor got better grades when
they pursued more advanced coursework. So, if our hypothetical student
took more classes in both economics and poli sci, what did they fare
better in? That’s the preparation part. …

 Now time for a few disclaimers, some from the paper, some my own. As
the authors note, this paper only looks at freshmen. Tenured professors
might very well might do better in advanced junior and senior-level
courses where they can incorporate their own research and special
expertise into their curriculum and have a chance to work with students
who’ve accumulated a bit more specialized knowledge. Also: Northwestern
is a tony private university that attracts highly qualified faculty to
work as adjuncts and non-tenured instructors. Who knows if these results
would hold up at a typical state university. 

Beyond that, I would have liked to see these results broken down a
little further. Do tenure track professors, who are struggling to
publish as much as possible to impress their colleagues, fare better or
worse than faculty who are already set with tenure? And are adjuncts
really just as good full-time, non-tenured faculty? It’s not clear.

These are fine reactions to the study and Weissmann asks good questions. The results of the study are limited in their utility.

For some time, in the wake of the “CRISIS IN THE HUMANITIES!!!!!!!,” or at least its latest iteration, I’ve been thinking about the R1 life that I do not live. I teach in a school in which we are expected to spend almost all our time teaching, for which which scholarship is a distant third in priority. But at the R1 level, though much lip-service is paid to teaching, and MANY R1 faculty are great teachers, what do they gain from it? If you want more money, you need a grant (research) or you need an outside offer (gotten by grants or great research). If you want more prestige, you gain it through research. If you want more time to research, you get it by course releases to get you out of the classroom. And then of course if you want tenure, you have to do research.

So if some tenured faculty are not as great as the adjuncts, desperate to hang on to the crumbs (I suspect fairly nice crumbs at NW compared to many schools, but I don’t know) of an academic career by teaching effectively and getting good evaluations – then we should be surprised. The rational decision of the R1 faculty is to spend as little time teaching as possible.

Thank goodness so many of them act irrationally.

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