115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Evaluating Teaching: Outcomes and Advancement for Non-Tenured Academics

Deborah M. Sims, University of Southern California

This paper explains how university culture is impacted by over-reliance on teaching evaluations as the primary means of assessment for Non-Tenure-Track faculty, and explores possible solutions to providing a sustainable, ethical career path for NTT faculty.

Proposal: 

In recent decades, the American academic workforce has dramatically changed.  Tenure-track opportunities have been replaced at an alarming rate by the university system’s reliance on NTT and contingent faculty teachers. This is particularly prevalent within composition instruction, which requires a consistent supply of teachers to fill general education demands. While graduate-level teachers and a small cohort of adjuncts have previously filled these positions, writing programs across the country are now being routinely staffed by permanent, highly qualified NTT faculty.

Universities have responded to this upheaval in the academic labor force in different ways. Three distinct models have emerged: First, some colleges have become reliant on low-wage “contingent” instructors, despite the destructive long-term consequences of the practice. Second, other universities (eg. legacy institutions such as The Univ. of Chicago, Northeastern, and Tufts) have fostered conditions that have made unionization inevitable—in particular, the policies that deny their career NTT faculty governing rights and exploit them economically with unconscionably low wages.

In contrast to these two models, some universities (my own employer, USC Dornsife, included) have initiated policies that draw the outlines of a third faculty model: dual track. While preserving the traditional tenure track, these institutions attempt to codify the elements of a “professional track” system running parallel to tenure. Within different universities, these elements have included the conferment of rank and title, opening up university governance to NTT faculty, rigorous promotion and retention protocols, the increased recognition of service work, and the use of (slightly) longer-term, more stable contract arrangements.

As universities move forward in building dual-track models, there are important considerations.  Chief among them is the question of faculty evaluation. While TT faculty contracts are heavily linked to research and thus offer concrete benchmarks for advancement, NTT faculty contracts typically exclude scholarship and thus rely on teaching as the primary measure of evaluation. Although many universities have attempted to create merit-based systems that consider syllabi, course curricula, and departmental service, it is commonplace (and seems well known among NTT faculty) that student evaluations of teaching are the primary factor of assessment for faculty.

The culture that is created by this practice produces a perhaps unresolvable tension among colleagues. If instructors are ranked against one another by numerical scores provided by students, then instructors are encouraged to root against their colleagues. This approach to assessing NTT faculty produces a culture of withholding effective teaching materials, adopting a trial-by fire/sink or swim attitude toward junior faculty, and – of course - grade inflation.  Measuring NTT faculty according to student evaluations also undermines the mission of the university system at large, as it prompts teachers to develop a kind of tunnel-vision that ignores the needs of the whole student body, the development of best instructional practices, and the vitality of the teaching profession in academic life.

 While it is as yet uncertain if a dual-track career model can be established without eroding tenure, ensuring fair labor practices for NTT faculty whose livelihoods are already contingent upon such systems is an important step for upholding the values of higher learning. Using student evaluations as the primary means of assessing teaching and the employment value of NTT faculty is an untenable practice; certainly better systems of professional assessment can be developed. This paper will explain how and why university culture is being impacted by this method of evaluation, and seek to answer the crucial question: What parameters are necessary to ensure that dual-track models deliver on the promise of creating a sustainable, ethical career path for NTT faculty?