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Viewpoint: The myth of the lecturer

BY LILIANA NAYDAN AND IAN ROBINSON

Published April 1, 2013

We write in response to Amrutha Sivakumar’s March 19 article, “The Research Difference: How the University varies the value of faculty members.” The report addresses the relative value of tenure-line and non-tenure-track faculty at the University, and Sivakumar presents several keen insights into the work of University lecturers. However, several statements made by members of the University administration within the article misrepresent lecturers in disconcerting ways. Lecturers are excellent teachers, but many also conduct research, present at conferences, publish articles and provide departmental service. This response speaks to the myths and realities of teaching off the tenure track at the University and it addresses misrepresentations of lecturers.

Myth One: Lecturers and tenure-track faculty are inherently different. This is the fundamental myth in which the other four following myths are rooted, and all the rhetorical moves administrators make to defend current inequalities speak to it. For example, Christina Whitman, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs, argues that lecturers and tenure-track faculty bring different skills to their teaching, characterizing lecturers as experts “in pedagogy” — the science of teaching — and tenure-track faculty as “people who are bringing their scholarship into the classroom.” She goes on to assert that “professors are constantly expected to think and work outside of their business hours in ways ‘outside-the-box,’ ” the false implication being that lecturers do not normally do these things. Of course we do: It’s our job to think both outside the box and business hours.

Myth Two: Research necessarily makes for better teaching. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald observes that a “‘blending together’ of research and teaching defines a professor at the University.” But why should an individual’s research prowess inherently result in effective teaching? Max Weber long ago made the point with characteristic force: “One can be a prominent scholar and at the same time be an abominably bad teacher … ” As Weber explains, “this very art is a personal gift and by no means coincides with the scientific qualifications of the scholar.” Poor teachers are poor teachers, no matter how impressive their research credentials.

The evidence summarized in a recent report funded by the Lecturers’ Employee Organization suggests that, on average, lecturers may be somewhat better teachers. Nonetheless, administrators pay lecturers, on average, half as much as they pay tenure-track faculty.

Myth Three: Lecturers don’t do research; they just teach. “We are looking for somebody who is really specializing in pedagogy rather than people who are bringing their scholarship into the classroom,” says Whitman, but the administration gets much more than that from its lecturers. Many lecturers conduct research even though they’re not paid or recognized for their scholarship, and, like tenure-track faculty, they bring their scholarship into the classroom. Our report finds that 47 percent of lecturers in Ann Arbor have Ph.D.s, 60 percent do scholarly research in their field and 51 percent publish the results of this research in academic journals.

Myth Four: Research is the main thing that enriches teaching. Many lecturers who aren’t engaged in scholarly research and writing bring other kinds of valuable knowledge beyond teaching skills to their students. For example, foreign language lecturers often come from the countries whose language they teach, and they bring a rich understanding of the cultural nuances of those countries to their teaching. Likewise, many lecturers in schools such as the School of Education and the School of Social Work bring “real world” knowledge of and personal connections with communities and institutions in which they work. These kinds of insights can enhance student understanding as much as a published scholarly article.

Myth five: Lecturers work for the University only temporarily. “When we hire somebody as a lecturer, we are asking them to teach well for a defined, limited period,” says Whitman. Certainly, Whitman’s right that tenured faculty have job security that lecturers lack: Many administrators limit lecturer contracts to as little as one term in order to save money. Yet most University lecturers are hardly temporary. We aren’t just passing through the University on our way to some other kind of work. The average Ann Arbor tenure-track faculty is 49-years-old and has been at the University for 14.6 years; the average lecturer is 47-years-old and has been at the University for 9.2 years. Many lecturers spend their entire academic careers at the University: The faculty survey we did for our report found that one lecturer had been teaching here for 45 years, and one-third of our lecturers had been here for more than 20.

It’s a good thing for students, tenure-track faculty and the administration that many lecturers are committed to the University for the long haul and able to spend their entire careers here. What’s wrong, however, is that administrators continue to portray and treat lecturers as “temps.” Instead of propagating myths about us, they should respect our work and give us the job security and pay equity we deserve.

Liliana Naydan is a lecturer in Sweetland Writing Center. Ian Robinson is a lecturer in sociology and the Residential College.