Who’s teaching this college course anyways? And why does it matter?

Over the past few years, COVID-19 has had significantly affected community college, liberal arts college, and university instruction.

Many institutions of higher education have pivoted to on-line and hybrid instruction. With the introduction of the vaccine, mask mandates, testing, and hygiene theatre during the past few semesters, there was an assumption that by the Spring of 2022, teaching at universities could go back to normal (e.g., in person instruction) or close to it. The appearance of Omicron, the current strain of the Corona virus, in late 2021 has once again forced universities to rethink how instruction should proceed.

Universities have had to remain flexible with respect to the courses they offer and who is going to teach them. One challenging area that has been called into question is who exactly is teaching the classes? With administrators, faculty, and staff out sick, suffering from long COVID conditions, or being extra cautious about face-to-face instruction, changing enrollment patterns, and the constant need to find part-timers or adjuncts, because of the challenges of staffing, the ability to find appropriate instructors for classes has been a daunting task.

Many people, from administrators, to professors, to students, to parents (who are often the ones footing the bill), are rightly asking, given the current pandemic, who exactly is teaching our classes.

Here are some basic facts. Universities depend on both full-time and part-time people to teach classes. Full-time instruction is typically done by professors at different stages of their career. Part-time teaching is usually provided by individuals on short term contracts including, doctoral holding experts, advanced graduate students, or other experts (typically with an advanced degree).

Just because someone is a professor does not necessarily mean that they are good instructors. They may be Nobel prize winning researchers, raise lots of grant money (a portion of which goes to the university in terms of overhead), but have challenges communicating their knowledge to nonspecialists. On the other end of the spectrum, a reasonably educated person, with minimal subject knowledge may, when pressed into service, rise to the occasion and make a stellar performance teaching a university level class.

Throughout the United States, and other countries that have similar post-secondary types of education, we have lots of excellent adjuncts and part-time instructors. These individuals can have a Ph.D., be in the process of earning a doctorate, or they may have a masters but they have subject matter expertise (e.g., current or former practitioners).

On the plus side, there is an assumption that teaching part-time can be a good training ground for wanna be professors. If you have earned a PhD, or are in the process, are looking for a full-time contract or tenure-track job, and need to demonstrate that you can teach, then teaching part-time either at your university or another one may look good on your vita.

In fact, many universities, formally train their doctoral level students how to teach. They may start them off as teaching assistants asking them to grade quizzes, mid-terms or term papers. They may even be required to lead a seminar or a lab. This is a good proving ground. Over time, (one or more semesters) the department in which the student is enrolled, may even feel comfortable asking the graduate student to teach their own course. In this manner they are eased into teaching.

Also keep in mind, that in some particularly large urban centers (e.g., New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, etc.), there is a large pool of qualified adjuncts from surrounding campuses and/or from the at large population, so much so that there are literally scores of people with Ph.D.’s who cobble together a paltry income teaching a variety of courses at different institutions of higher education.

Let’s face it, in general, and regardless of the labor market, part-timers are cheaper to hire, and allow entities to accommodate to unpredictable demands for a product or service. The business or organization can staff up when demand is high, and let go of employees when the demand decreases. Adjuncts, who are part of the precariat, often bear the brunt of this process. They have little job security and considerable financial insecurity. They may be asked at the last minute to teach a class, or told right before a semester starts that a course they were scheduled to teach (and may have already prepped for) is cancelled or reassigned to someone else. That is why we have seen the formation of graduate student and adjunct unions in numerous universities and university systems.

Why don’t universities just hire adjuncts to teach all the classes? Is it because they are afraid of unions? No. There are lots of reasons why universities don’t simply replace the full time teaching staff with part timers. To begin with it’s a nightmare to manage such a diverse labor pool. And, professors (the full-timers) do lots more than teach (i.e., they engage in research and service, both of which have numerous implications for the university as a whole). In an attempt to build in another layer of quality control, most good universities are accredited. And accrediting agencies, like Middle States, tells universities that only a portion of the courses can be taught by part-timers.

But Omicron has made staffing even more challenging. Some universities have been forced to hire less than expert or unwilling graduate students to teach. In some cases these students have pressured graduate students to prepare and teach classes at the last minute. Many of them have never taught before, but are financially insecure and need additional income available.

True, younger grad students may have more abilities in online teaching and/or understand the challenges better than older professors. They may know their way around Zoom and other on-line technology especially the ability to create breakout groups, record

What is the result? There are two problems that students are confronted with here. The person who is teaching may not be adequately qualified to teach. And graduate students engaged in overwhelming assignments cannot make progress on their own course work, advance in their candidacy, or dissertations.

So how can we best address this current challenge.

This is the moment where department chairs, deans, provosts need to step up. Specifically:

1. Provide adequate training for new graduate student teachers and/or pathways to ease into teaching
2. Understand the needs of students and the reasons for low enrollment. Perhaps ask the students which modality is preferred and/or what their schedules look like. Times have changed and people have full-time lives, and
3. Adequately compensate grad students and give them enough warning to prepare for academically and financially for the semester.