Saturday, April 21, 2012

The future of universities

Or, why contract lecturers are probably a bad idea.

The last time I was job-hunting, I noticed a number of positions advertised as "sessional" or "contract" lecturers. These were positions where a person would present a few lectures a week for a certain course, for a fixed period of time, then leave the institution. In this article, the use of contract lecturers in American universities is described as a crisis, where quality of teaching is suffering and the highly-skilled educators end up severely under-paid. While administrators justify this as a way of cutting monetary costs, the educational costs are huge.

Firstly, contract lecturers are not available for struggling students. This is because they are seldom paid full-time, which makes it difficult to find time for out-of-class student consultation: people don't like to work for nothing.

Secondly, the fly-by-night nature of contract lecturers prevents them from forging bonds with cohorts of students: the students see them for one course, then never see them again. In other words, the contract lecturer has no motivation and little opportunity to see their students as anything other than faceless blobs that sit in the lectures absorbing information. This is not conducive to high-quality teaching.

This also makes it harder to recruit post-graduate students. I vividly remember the first time I was lectured by the man who would go on to be my PhD supervisor: I was a first-year undergraduate, sitting in a lecture theatre on a cold Dunedin evening, and he described a world of computational intelligence that I knew right then was a world I wanted to explore myself. I knew that if I worked hard in my first and second year courses, I would be able to do his third-year honours-track course, and if I did well in third-year, I could do his fourth-year honours course, and if I did well in that, I could do a PhD with him. If he had been a fly-by-night contract lecturer, would I have been as inspired? I probably would have skipped honours and gone into the workforce straight after third year. While that might have placed me in a slightly better financial position, my life would be much less rich than it is now.

While I don't have evidence for it, I suspect that contract lecturing does not overall attract the best teaching talent. Now, I'm not trying to denigrate contract lecturers, and I know several people who have worked as contract lecturers to support themselves while looking for post-docs, immediately after completing their PhDs. But as a highly-trained professional (which is what anyone with a PhD is) it is hard to justify taking a contract lecturer position if there are any other options available. I never even bothered applying for the contract lecturing positions I saw advertised, even though I was capable of doing them well, simply because it was not worth my while to shift myself and my family to do the job. If I were a single man, perhaps I could embrace the digital nomad lifestyle, and drift about doing contract lecturing here and there. But with a family to support, including a primary-school age daughter, it simply is not an option.

On the flip side, contract lecturing can provide a way for junior staff to get some experience lecturing. Also, technology is getting to the point where the lecturer no longer has to be in the same physical location as the class: the success of the Khan Academy and open courses (like the courses run by Sebastian Thrun) has shown that it is possible to have a class that is far away from the instructors. If the option to teach remotely were there, it might be easier to get top-talent as contract lecturers. I wouldn't mind being a contract lecturer if it meant I didn't have to relocate. That is, I wouldn't mind the job so much if I didn't have to move to do it. Of course, the alienation between lecturer and student that I discussed above could become even greater.

I think that the use of contract lecturers is probably going to increase, especially for first-year or general "service" courses, like for introductory programming or basic web development. But for more advanced under-graduate courses, or for post-graduate teaching, permanent staff are absolutely essential, due to the multi-year nature of post-graduate study. This also requires a level of specialisation that contract lecturers simply cannot develop: they are treated like interchangeable parts, which is no way to treat anyone, let alone someone who you expect to teach, and to inspire, students.