So You Want to Be A College Professor?

Once upon a time, being a college professor was thought to be an existence of intellectual pursuits and the imparting of knowledge to students who truly wanted to learn. Like all fairy tales, or nostalgia for the past, it has never been that ideal or idyllic, but the impact of the current world on collegiate teaching has been significant… and often brutal.

A generation ago, and certainly two generations back, if you were financially and intellectually able to obtain a doctorate, your odds of obtaining a full-time, tenure track position were far, far better than now, given that in the immediate post-World War II period, close to eighty percent of teaching faculty were in full-time positions. Today, 73% of all college instructors or professors are part-time adjuncts without benefits, a high percentage of whom have doctorates and are unable to find a full-time position with benefits. Part of the reason for this is that more and more students have gone on to gain terminal professional degrees – far more than there are full-time academic positions. At the same time, the massive demand for college degrees has coincided with a growing reluctance of state governments to support higher education. Two very predictable results have been the massive hiring of cheaper adjunct instructors and the burgeoning amounts of student debt.

Then there’s the problem of how students have changed. Undergraduate degrees are now regarded as “credentials,” particularly by politicians, parents, and even students. The combination of skyrocketing tuition, the consumerism of student evaluations, and the need for credentials have taken a huge toll on academic rigor. For their money, most students expect to receive a grade of A, and they’re disappointed, if not angry, if they don’t get it, and they’ll take that anger out through evaluations of any professor who denies them the grade they think they deserve. All too many of them are also ultra-sensitive, and any professor who uses sarcasm, particularly in written form, is risking disciplinary action in many universities. And in this age of educational consumerism, colleges and universities are factoring in student evaluations into decisions on faculty raises, tenure, and promotion. The predictable result is less academic rigor and a gradual dumbing down of course content.

Recent studies have also shown that students now entering college have a social and emotional maturity some 3-5 years less than students of a generation ago, which is why teaching courses taken in the first two years of college is often more like teaching high school used to be – especially in state universities and colleges. In addition, because of the proliferation of electronic devices, especially I-phones, most college students today have difficulty concentrating and maintaining a focus on anything – except electronics – for more than a few minutes. This combination, along with increased student fragility and sensitivity, is another reason why university after university has had to hire more and more counselors and psychologists. Too many of these students literally do not know how to learn on their own, or to handle the smallest adversity, and they’re overwhelmed.

To cope with all of this, administrators and politicians keep looking for the Holy Grail of education, trying new methods, new means of teaching, reinventing a new wheel, so to speak, even before they can determine whether the last wheel they tried really worked.

One local university here has announced just last week that it is going to a new “trimester” system, starting next January, so that students can graduate in three years. This will shorten each semester from 15 academic weeks to 12 weeks, which will likely result in more dumbing down of course content because teaching is not like higher speed automation. Cutting out roughly twenty percent of teaching time will mean less will be taught, and less will be learned. The university faculty is aghast at the timetable, because none of this was discussed with faculty. Higher level courses aren’t developed in cookie-cutter fashion. It takes time to develop an effective way to present material, and there isn’t time to carefully redo every course all in a few months, especially while teaching a full load at the same time. The impact will be even worse for adjunct faculty, because they don’t get paid for course development, and most are barely making ends meet anyway.

The result will likely be a disaster, and will take several years to straighten out, if it even can be, but the university president is clearly responding to parental and political pressure to make education quicker and more affordable so that students can get that “credential” sooner and cheaper. No one is talking about whether they’ll learn as much.

Now… do you really want to be a university professor?

2 thoughts on “So You Want to Be A College Professor?”

  1. Nathaniel G says:

    Technically, there’s nothing inherently bad about a trimester system (my wife got her PhD from one that did that, University of Washington): if the courses are designed to be 12 weeks long, then you just chop up the material differently. What was a series of 2 semester courses becomes 3 trimester courses, with the third forked into different areas of focus as it gets both the capstone information as well as an additional 6 weeks (as 3 trimesters is longer than 2 semesters) that can be varied. You still take as many calendar years to get through all the material, it’s still the same pace (if a bit choppier), but you get more flexibility and range- so it can work if you’re a university willing to offer a wide variety of courses and specialties.

    Of course, that’s not at all what the school you’re describing has done- the idea that trimesters mean that you can graduate in 75% of the calendar time is ludicrous, as by definition that means that you cut out at minimum 10% of the material- ignoring the choppiness, 9 trimesters is 7.2 semesters (90%), but you can’t ignore the choppiness because the courses don’t flow into each other like that with perfect student recall and teaching consistency, so every trimester changeover is going to lose you at least another 5-10% of time in recap and level-setting. So, that’s dumb.

    What’s dumber is expecting that all of the faculty will be able to completely rewrite the curriculum and course plans, top to bottom, in 8 months. Half the tenured faculty I’ve met couldn’t do that for their own course in a competent manner in 8 months, much less their entire school’s.

    Amusingly, the actual dumbest thing is that the changeover will take place in January- aka the middle of the school year, and middle of the course catalog. It takes a special level of obtuseness to not realize that universities don’t operate on calendar years while you “lead” one.

    Although, to be fair (if mean), the school we’re not naming is Southern Utah University (according to their poorly-written student newspaper). The majority of students are there solely to get checkbox degrees to put on a resume and they’re paying what I paid for a tier-1 college undergraduate 10 years ago for the privilege; there might be something to the idea of lowering the cost and time investment needed for that resume line-item, given that only half of their students even graduate in the first place.

  2. JakeB says:

    I recently read The Fall of the Faculty, which describes at painful length the loss of power of the faculty at universities and the quasi-rentier system of administrators as they absorb more and more funds and power.

    It’s funny then to see that in fact the increase in mental health services that you mention might actually be one valuable thing that the administrative part of the universities have to provide (if they want to keep the system that is working well for them in place).

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