Jonathan Kahane: On rigors of academic life
WESTHAMPTON — I write in reaction to the guest essay by Susan Wozniak on the front page of the Feb. 4 Daily Hampshire Gazette. I write in “reaction to,” not in “rebuttal of” this article. I choose my words carefully here, because there are several issues on which I fully agree with the writer.
In her commentary, Wozniak addresses two topics — the public’s view of “entitlements” and teaching in higher education. I fundamentally agree with her stance on the former. The word “entitlement” is perhaps a misnomer and might better be termed “earned benefit.” It is her commentary on her position as an adjunct professor at a community college, her pay scale and her treatment by the administration that motivate me to respond.
These days, to teach at an accredited college or university and to expect to be considered for a full-time position with benefits, it should be understood that the applicant must possess a Ph.D. (or appropriate “terminal degree”) in his or her field. Right or wrong, this is the system we find ourselves in. The rationale is that if one is going to participate as a full-time member of the academic community, that individual should have proven to have reached the highest level of training available.
Teaching classes is arguably the most important part of the job. It is also crucial that the faculty member be able to conduct original and meaningful research, include and guide students in running these types of projects, advise the student in the profession, participate in scholarly committee work at the institution and attend and present at professional conferences.
The list goes on. Attaining the Ph.D. is supposed to represent evidence that this has been accomplished and will most likely continue. If it doesn’t, presumably the promotion and tenure process will weed out those who do not make the grade.
Families are sacrificing and spending too much money already to send their children to college. They accrue enormous debt due to the fact that they think it is of the utmost importance to educate their children to the highest level possible.
The title of professor is reserved for the highest level of accomplishment by a faculty member. One usually has to have advanced through the ranks — typically lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor and finally professor. It is a tedious and arduous process, not unlike most other professions.
At these tuition rates, it is understandable that people desire the most qualified professionals to teach them. Unfortunately, schools often hire adjuncts for the very reason that they do not have to pay full salaries or provide benefits to them.
I think that the adjunct concept is a good one when it is able to provide an expert in a very specific area of study that the full-time faculty is unable to provide. It often doesn’t work that way.
It is unfortunate that the pay and benefits of the adjunct position are so low or non-existent. These positions are certainly an asset to programs when used as intended. I certainly understand and sympathize with Wozniak’s situation and recognize that the system is not perfect. There are flaws.
Wozniak cites an example of a professor not reading the papers that her students had submitted. I have no doubt that there are instances of professors shirking responsibility. This is probably true in all professions. I also recognize that attaining a doctorate does not guarantee that the person will be a good teacher. It hopefully does guarantee that the individual is a scholar in his or her field of expertise. The system we operate under, however, has weathered the test of time.
When it breaks down, we address the problems. This does not obviate the fact that we should strive to have the most knowledgeable, educated, highly trained and professional mentors at the front of the class teaching our students.
This should be the goal of every institution. Perhaps then the students from the United States will once again be competitive with those in the rest of the world.
Jonathan Kahane lives in Westhampton and is a professor psychology at Springfield College.