The Arizona Desert Lamp

Do we need tenure in English 101?

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 18 December 2008

These sorts of stories are always supposed to be bad news, but I’m not sure that this is such a troubling development:

A rising share of English courses at colleges are taught by full-time, nontenured lecturers who generally lack doctorates, according to a report released today by the Association of Departments of English and the Modern Language Association.

Such faculty members, most of whom are hired on multiyear contracts, “have become an increasingly crucial component of English-department staffing,” says the report, which was compiled by the English-department group’s committee on staffing issues.

This is also a frequent complaint here at the UA — specifically, there is one teacher who routinely comes up in conversation, who supposedly learned English as a second language yet teaches several sections of English 101/102.

Yet getting tenure does not make great teachers; in fact, with the lifetime guarantee that tenure provides, it may even make a professor less effective at, or less inclined towards, teaching — what’s their incentive? Overall, the professorial track has little to do with actual teaching. Most of the process is research based; and while this may lead to interesting subject matter, there’s no guarantee that the matter will be conveyed in an effective manner.

Especially in the early, required English classes, tenured professors even may be a worse fit. Having been cooped up so long in the university system, they have unrealistic expectations about the underclassmen that they teach. And while I’m all for increasing standards in just about every aspect of life, there’s no denying that much of the first-year classes here (and other state schools) are remedial in nature, getting students up to the level that they were expected to be at upon admission.

Instead of a doctor, you need a transitionary figure, someone between the pure ivory tower and the disciplinarian of the K-12 system. The grad student/lecturer fits this role perfectly. I’m certainly influenced by the fact that my grad student English 109 teacher was among the best I ever had, and one of the few who had a very real impact on my writing.

Yet there are bad sides to this set-up:

Although most nontenure-track faculty members are assigned to lower-division courses, they also teach a significant share of the upper-division courses offered to undergraduates — at least 22 percent at baccalaureate and master’s institutions, and at least 36 percent at those classified as doctoral/research.

You really do need to draw a stark line between lower and upper division classes here, having the grad students/lecturers teaching lower-level and allowing tenured professors to teach their area of expertise in the upper levels. This provides a sort of incentive, putting up with the 200-level course to get to converse one-on-one with a top academic. The exception, as far as English is concerned, is Creative Writing, where the idea of tenure is laughable. Creative Writing teachers should be writers themselves, not academics.

Another problem, which the article doesn’t touch on, is the willy-nilly way in which these lecturers are dismissed by the school. I understand that dealing with downturns and such requires reductions in the payroll, but many of these lecturers are more important figures to students than the full-time professors they come across. The bonds formed with college freshmen and their instructors often lasts for their entire time at the school, if not beyond, and should not be toyed with lightly (especially at a school like ours, with its low graduation rate). If you are going to sign these lecturers on, they should be signed for a minimum of five year contracts, to guarantee that at a minimum two classes of students will be seen all the way through.

3 Responses

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  1. Garrett said, on 18 December 2008 at 11:40 pm

    I wouldn’t know where to start when evaluating a candidate to teach English 101/102, but what I do remember is that my 101 teacher from Turkey was far more effective than my 102 teacher from the U.S. I only had two ineffective teachers whose first language was not English. One was eastern European; the other was middle-eastern. Both were very quiet.

    The latter was in my nutrition course (Tier I NATS) and was removed after about a month and replaced by a very effective lecturer/T.A. with a very strong Indian (from India) accent. I had no problem getting through the accent; I’ve known Indians all my life. It was hilarious watching sorority girls try to get through the accent “Nutrition, Food, and You” (Tier I NATS) as she started lecturing about “POLYUNSATURATED FATTY ACIDS!” Ultimately, I thought the foreign TAs were better than the Americans.

    I don’t see how long contracts would help, but a better way to evaluate instructors and candidates and to give retention incentives to the good ones would be an adequate start.

  2. Matt Styer said, on 19 December 2008 at 12:55 am

    For once Evan, I completely agree with you. Must be the holidays.

    I still can’t seem to figure out how to post again.

  3. lauradonovan said, on 22 December 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Agreed. You have a point about Creative Writing professors, but many of them write professionally in addition to teaching. They have to submit manuscripts for the MFA program, so they definitely write for themselves. Not everyone can be as successful as J.K. Rowling or as talented as Proust.

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