Letters to the EditorOpinion

Guest viewpoint: The dichotomy of tenure and non-tenure faculty

This piece reflects the views of the author, senior instructor Randy Sullivan, and not those of Emerald Media Group. It has been edited by the Emerald for grammar and style. Send your columns or submissions about our content or campus issues to [email protected]

I have been reading in President Michael Schill’s “Open Mike” emails and in communications from United Academics about a disagreement concerning the role of non-tenure track faculty here at the UO. I think that the positions of both of these parties are outdated and in need of revision.  The president is of the opinion that students benefit greatly from having meaningful interactions with researchers.  That is certainly true.  The union counters that our students benefit greatly from the pedagogical expertise of our non-tenure track instructors.  That is also certainly true.  The dilemma is that both of these parties present these options as a dichotomy; that we must have either one or the other.  Like most dichotomies, this one is not only false, but also oppressive.  It is based on a “one class/one instructor” model of instruction that is outmoded and will not result in creative approaches to providing effective instruction.  This is particularly true in “bottleneck” courses, those large-enrollment, lower-division courses that serve students in many different majors.

Teaching in the 21st century, particularly teaching large introductory courses, is very different than what it was even 20 years ago.  There have been many advances in cognitive science and learning theory that inform responsible and effective instructional practice. These insights should be guiding us as we plan our learning activities. They frequently prescribe methods of instruction that require active and expert management.  There have also been tremendous advances in instructional technology that require users to be trained to use fairly complex computer programs and to keep abreast of program changes and updates.

In short, the days of a researcher hanging up her lab coat, dusting off her notes and walking into the lecture hall to teach are long gone.  If we are going to effectively deploy our research faculty to teach introductory courses, they are going to need support.  And our non-tenure track instructors are uniquely equipped to provide that support.

If we want our students to excel in our “bottleneck” courses, we need to start thinking outside of the box.  What would it look like to have a non-tenure track instructor in charge of the instructional technology and classroom management of several sections of a large introductory course and rotate in several different researchers at various times during the term to present instructional units or research reports appropriate to the level of the learners?  The researchers could narrate real-life research dilemmas that could be resolved using the skills that the students are learning at that time.  Problems and study questions could be embedded within this meaningful context.  The instructor can then follow this up with related support material, assignments, activities and evaluations.  Students would gain the benefit of both the researcher’s experience and the instructor’s pedagogical and management expertise.

If we are going to decrease the number of non-tenure track instructors at our university, we are going to have to deploy those that remain more creatively and not get caught up in, and bound by, the “one class/one instructor” dichotomy.

Go Ducks!

Randy Sullivan
Senior Instructor
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry