Why Can’t We Have Good Teaching in Higher Ed?

Institutions are unwilling to put their money where their mouth is

The classroom, and the teaching and learning that occur within them, are supposed to be the heart of higher education, especially in the liberal arts tradition. Yet, teaching seems to get put on the back-burner across all levels of educational institutions. Doctoral candidates hardly receive teacher training and are actively encouraged to teach as little as possible during their schooling. Tenure track faculty rationally prioritize their research programs over their teaching because their sought-after tenure literally depends on their research output. Department heads and deans put money towards underpaid contingent faculty to keep their budgets in check. And, finally, the majority of consumers – I mean, students – demand everything from their university but better teaching.

There is little incentive to improve teaching in higher ed. And by incentive, I mean primarily money. Institutions are unwilling to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to improving the learning experiences of students in the classroom. Why so?

Good teaching requires people – live, thinking, socially interacting humans. I know, I know. “But, Nicole! Teachers don’t matter and tech can replace people.” I strongly disagree. Education matters. Teachers matter. And tech is a tool to be used by teachers, not a replacement for teachers.

That good teaching requires people means that good teaching is expensive because people cost more than technology. And people don’t scale efficiently in the same way that technology does. In theory and practice, as you produce more product, you can sell that product at a cheaper price – it becomes more efficient with scale. This does not readily apply to human teachers, however. If anything, wages rise overtime, and it can cost increasing amounts of money to retain teachers overtime, as tenured faculty cost more than entry-level or contingent faculty.

And this is why we don’t have good teaching. Higher ed is constantly looking for ways to cut costs and rein in their budget. So, if people cost more than tech, and better or more senior people cost more than entry-level or contingent people, what is the logical solution for a business to save money? Hire less people and hire more cheaper people when you do hire. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen happen in higher ed since the faculty boom of the post world-war two era.

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First, the rise of edtech and online learning. Just as the service industry is being automated by technology (have you been in a fast food restaurant lately?), so too, is higher education being increasingly outsourced to technology in an effort to decrease the required number of human staff needed to run courses. A great example of this is fully autonomous online courses whereby course materials are curated into a course that students can work through at their own pace. And, in these online environments, most learning assessments are designed to be graded by technology rather than people.

The result of this learning environment (note that I did not say teaching environment – more on this here) is that courses can be copy and pasted every semester with minor, if any, changes; assessments are graded automatically by software, and humans are needed only as professional emailers to handle tasks and questions from students that the computers haven’t been programed to answer. . . yet. In effect, learning environments can scale efficiently, but at the extreme end of the spectrum (e.g., Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs), teaching is completely eliminated. As eloquently articulated by Justin Reich in Failure to Disrupt, tech will not transform education – teachers will.

Second, the adjunctification of teaching in higher ed. Since mind-century, and accelerating in the 1980’s, the proportion of tenure-track faculty to contingent or contract faculty has nearly flipped. Rather than students being taught by full-time, modestly paid faculty, students are more likely to be taught by part-time, underpaid and overworked adjunct faculty, especially at the undergraduate level. Why? Because adjunct faculty are much cheaper, require no benefits or office space (at most institutions), and can be dismissed from courses and have contracts cut at a moments notice (an adjunct position I previously held reserved the right to cancel my course 48 hours before the start date).

In his newest book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free., John Warner breaks down just how much cheaper adjunct faculty are as compared to tenure-track faculty. A tenured professor is more than twice as expensive for teaching labor as compared to an adjunct professor. And that doesn’t include the fact that adjuncts don’t get benefits or infrastructure support like tenured professors do. From a business perspective, why not just hire an army of adjuncts to teach?

But, one might argue, those who teach full time are usually more passionate about teaching and dedicated to the practice than tenure-track faculty who care primarily about research. I would generally agree with you on that point. The problem, however, is that adjunct faculty are either (1) teaching part-time on the side because the profession is not enough to be a full time gig, or (2) teaching so many courses to make ends meet (have you seen their pay, above?!) that they are overworked. This does not create an environment for teaching practice to thrive and students to benefit. The best way to set up something to fail is to make it someone’s part-time job (a quip from Jeff Bezos quoted in Working Backwards) . . . or overwork them and underpay them.

As with most things in modern life, when something is not working you need to look at the incentives driving behavior and the money behind the behavior (two overlapping, but distinct drivers). When it comes to good teaching, we need more money paid to professors and a better incentive structure within our institutions that actually motivates and rewards excellence in teaching.

A reasonable first step to the money problem is to establish equal pay for teaching labor. John Warner breaks down what this means exactly in his excellent book referenced above, and addresses common questions to these data, such as “what about seniority”, “what about big-time names”, “what about research” – all of which he has great answers to. They all boil down to the baseline of pay per credit should be equal across ranks. For example, the big-time prof at the Ivy teaching one course will get paid the same rate as the adjunct, but then the fancy university can pay them as much as they think they deserve for the rest of their work on top of that base pay for their teaching. The point is equitable pay for teaching, per credit hour.

And, a reasonable step to the incentive structure problem is something that is already practiced to some degree at some institutions: separate teaching and research faculty, and a massive reduction in part-time and contingent faculty. I outline the full problem and proposed solution in a previous post here, but in short I argue that to fix the poor incentive structure at research-intensive universities is to equitably disaggregate research and teaching faculty roles: research-intensive universities should hire tenure-track research faculty to primarily research and hire tenure-track-teaching faculty to primarily teach. And, at teaching focused universities, average pay needs to increase to be competitive in the market, and teaching labor pay should be equitable to research universities.

The problem of good teaching is one I am strongly passionate about solving, but also one that causes me great disappointment in our higher education institutions who continually refuse to acknowledge the importance of teaching and then fail to make any change to faculty or classrooms. If institutions want to drive effective change to improve teaching and ultimately student outcomes, they need to put their money where their mouth is: hire more people to teach, pay them a competitive and equitable salary for teaching labor, and create an institutional structure that motivates and rewards excellence in teaching.