Paula Krebs

Dean, College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bridgewater State University

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Ph.D.’s, Adjuncts, and the Teacher-Training Conundrum

Full 07032014 conundrum

Well, I complained back in the winter that graduate programs don’t spend enough time talking to teaching-intensive institutions about what they need out of new Ph.D.’s. Grad students ought to know how to get jobs and be successful at colleges and universities with 4-4 and 5-5 teaching responsibilities, so why not ask those institutions what “success” means?

It didn't seem as if the problem was going to solve itself in a hurry. So with some help from a friendly graduate dean, I rustled up a bunch of New England deans and other folks from research institutions in my region, some representatives from regional comprehensive universities like mine, and a bunch of faculty and administrators from Massachusetts community colleges.

We all got together in May to talk about a couple of key questions: How do we set up a system that lets us link the three sectors (along with some liberal-arts colleges that expressed interest) to give doctoral candidates more training about teaching at other kinds of institutions? And how can we teaching-intensive schools cultivate helpful relationships with research universities?

We're naming it grandly, which means we have to actually produce something. It's to be called the Massachusetts Cross-Sector Partnership.

At our first meeting, representatives of all sectors talked about the kind of preparation doctoral candidates would need: specialized coursework, visits to the other schools to shadow faculty and participate in workshops, and part-time teaching opportunities. And we began planning how we’d build the structures we'd need to make these links.

The institutions bring enthusiasm and commitment to the table. And since there are administrators in the mix, there’s the potential of some modest funding, too (food money, at least). We agreed to design a one-day event, scheduled early in the fall, at which the regional comprehensives, community colleges, and even liberal-arts colleges could introduce themselves to those going on the job market. We could host a bunch of workshops on such topics as: Where do the students at a regional public university come from? What is the level of preparation? How do you balance teaching with keeping up with your field at a community college? What are the research expectations at a liberal-arts school? Perhaps we could offer job counseling: Veterans of search-committee work could look over sample application letters and CV’s.

We set up a website to share openings for tenure-track and temporary positions at our institutions. And we talked about other kinds of collaborations we could develop, mostly to help doctoral candidates, but also to help ensure better-prepared candidates for jobs at our institutions. With some outside funding, we can make this network really productive for all the sectors concerned, we figure.

But as we brainstormed, talked about existing models (such as Preparing Future Faculty and the Preparing Future Professors program at Stanford and San Jose State), and discussed the constraints on what we could build, I began to worry about whether we were trying to tackle the wrong problem.

What we are setting up is a great idea, and it will provide better-prepared job applicants for our jobs. It will help research universities to better understand regional universities and community colleges, and it will even make possible other kinds of extended collaboration amongst the sectors.

But to really benefit the teaching-intensive schools, it would have to also help with a major teaching problem facing not just our sector but also all of higher education. That problem, of course, is our increasing dependence on non-tenure-track adjunct labor paid on a per-course basis.

One step our partnership can take is to take any programs we are designing for area Ph.D. students and open them up to adjunct instructors in the area as well. We could invite part-time professors to workshops on the teaching issues faced by faculty in our sectors, on work-life balance and teaching-research balance, on getting grants to help carve out research time, on working with undergrads on research, and many other topics. Our part-timers don't need lessons on some of that stuff, of course—they know a fair amount about our institutions already. But they may have very limited perspectives, so some professional-development opportunities might be useful. And coalitions among area institutions for hiring and mentoring could perhaps work to benefit part-time faculty looking to move to full-time positions.

It might be a hard sell to try to add the issue of contingent labor to a project focusing on Ph.D. candidates' teaching preparation. It's not an easy fit, and it's not a comfortable issue. But the issue of doctoral preparation is intimately connected to the issue of adjunct employment, whether we're talking about the MLA's recent report or our regional efforts to connect across sectors.

In preparing Ph.D.’s to work at teaching-intensive schools, we are asking placement officers to acknowledge that we can’t—and shouldn’t—assume that our Ph.D. students will get the jobs that departments have been training them for decades. Step One may be to prepare Ph.D.’s for the majority of the tenure-track jobs that there are out there: at the universities and colleges that teach the majority of our students. Step Two might be to prepare them for non-teaching jobs, both alt-ac jobs in the academy and the jobs outside higher ed that benefit from advanced academic training.

What step would it be that would take the Ph.D.’s who are already teaching at our institutions on a per-course basis and reconfigure the system to secure them long-term, benefitted professional employment? That would take a coalition larger and much more powerful than the one we're building in Massachusetts. But, at least in Massachusetts, bringing together institutions from different sectors around a shared concern for teaching is an important step taken by sincere and committed people. And who knows where that might lead?

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