My former graduate student “Jason” was an excellent researcher with outstanding academic career prospects. But just out of the doctoral trenches Jason decided he preferred teaching to research. Mentoring the next generation of global citizens was his passion. Recently though, Jason informed me that after several years of precarious employment he is looking for an exit from academia.
Can academia afford to lose dedicated scholars like Jason? Drawing on the insights of Dr. Russell Day, a highly respected senior lecturer at Simon Fraser University, I would suggest we acknowledge and nurture the contribution lecturers make to the overall mission of the university.
First, lecturers are one of the best ways to help other research faculty, by reducing their potential teaching load. At SFU, lecturers can teach up to double the normal load of tenure-track professors — in some departments, eight courses per year. That would surely be exploitive, and adjustments are often made, particularly to recognize the additional workload of managing first-year courses.
Even so, Dr. Day tells me, senior lecturers teach two to three times as many students as regular research faculty.
Lecturers can relieve the demands on pre-tenured research faculty, who are often in effect handicapped by being assigned to first-year teaching. Moreover, senior lecturers often do as much service work as do tenure-stream faculty.
Second, Dr. Day points out that teaching first-year undergraduates is a specialized skill which lecturers are well positioned to offer. Newly-minted research faculty, he argues, may find it difficult to teach the basics of their discipline, partly because they often have a critical and particular ‘take’ on their field.
Moreover, we shouldn’t assume research productivity automatically translates into brilliant teaching, especially vis-à-vis adolescents just out of high school. My two daughters recently completed degree programs at SFU, in sciences and arts respectively.
They had a mixed experience of undergraduate teaching. Their best instructors, some of them superb, often proved to be lecturers. Tenure-stream instructors were at their most engaging in upper-year courses related to their own research areas.
If we regard first-year courses as gateways, intended to encourage and empower our future majors, it’s sensible to hire faculty who are passionate about that mandate as the core of their career path, not a diversion from it.
Dr. Day’s own discipline has apparently gotten the message. At more than half the 46 psychology departments he researched across Canada, first-year introductory courses are typically taught by faculty members who specialize in that particular skill. They were either hired for that purpose, or migrated to it during the course of their career. To be sure, faculty in very small departments share in teaching their relatively small first-year classes; but all the large established schools, as well as many younger medium-sized ones such as SFU, employ teaching specialists.
Third, lecturers can enhance the quality of teaching, not only through their classroom contributions, but also through their advice to colleagues. At SFU, where the quality of the student experience has become a major focus, we have excellent teaching advisors in each faculty, but I still find experienced lecturers an equally invaluable resource.
Fourth, lecturers cost less per student taught, compared to tenured faculty. And that’s the rub. In these neoliberal, fiscally chilly times, university administrations are all too ready to hire “teaching-only” faculty in lieu of research faculty, ringing alarm bells for those of us rightly concerned with the university’s research role, and with the potential for a two-tiered system of faculty appointments.
But lectureships cannot be blamed for inequalities among faculty. American universities — where faculty are much less unionized than in Canada — already have a steeper hierarchy of faculty. A reserve army of casually-employed academic staff labours in the shadow of a handful of global research stars, who themselves may make less than the football coach.
An appropriate response is not to abandon lecturers, but to use collective bargaining to ensure they are treated fairly as full partners in the academic enterprise, including academic freedom and decent levels of compensation and job security. While a ceiling on lectureships as a proportion of new hires may be an appropriate safeguard, they should not be regarded as teaching-only appointments.
Lecturers need to keep up with developments in their discipline and they should and do engage in research, especially on pedagogy. At SFU, lecturers account for about one-eighth of the faculty, but half of the teaching and learning development grants awarded.
The faculty association has been arguing that ongoing lecturers should be eligible for more research terms. At the University of British Columbia, research faculty members can now be promoted on the basis of research in pedagogy.
Increasingly, Canadian universities are recognizing the scholarly role of their lecturers and raising their visibility within the academy. It’s about time.
Bob Hackett is a professor of communication at Simon Fraser University and a former president of the SFU Faculty Association.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.
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