The Back Story: I did not set out to become a college professor. My “aha” moment came half-way through my Master’s program when I counted the number of course credits left to complete and realized that I had not yet learned all that I wanted to learn. This led to a Ph.D., followed by a post-doc, followed eventually by a tenure-track faculty position.
Flash Forward to Today: I am now a Lecturer. Leaving a tenure-track position at a small private college to be a Lecturer at a large, research-focused university was the right career choice for me; however, as with everything in life there have been trade-offs.
The primary difference between Lecturers and tenure-track faculty at our institution is the research component. As a general rule, Lecturers are full-time faculty members specifically hired to teach numerous courses so that tenure-track faculty may focus upon their research areas. This is a good plan in theory. Tenure-track faculty benefit from a reduced teaching load. Undergraduate students benefit from courses taught by faculty who have specialized in teaching. For many Lecturers, it is a career “win” to teach in a college or university setting without the expectation to pursue external grant funding and simultaneously balance research against instructional requirements.
And yet . . . there is an element of sensitivity surrounding the “Lecturer” title.
Originally I wondered if perhaps it was my own sensitivity. Interactions with other teaching faculty, from my institution and others, suggest this uneasiness is a more prevalent and widespread issue. Perhaps it is fueled by the uncertainty of uncharted territory.
Whereas there are a handful of Lecturers who have held the job title for 10-20 years, the substantial growth of fixed-term, non-tenure teaching opportunities is a relatively recent phenomenon. A non-tenure teaching position is not the traditional career path, leading to questions such as: What exactly is a “Lecturer”? How stable are fixed-term appointments? By accepting a Lecturer position now, does it limit future job prospects down the road? From the other perspective, I sometimes wonder what tenured faculty think about teaching faculty. Are we consulted as valued and knowledgeable peers within the department and/or college? This matters.
Teaching faculty seem to be placed in an ambiguous category ranked somewhere between graduate students and tenured faculty. Part of the unease comes from the lack of clarity of our roles and the paradox of having demanding departmental responsibilities while being denied full faculty status. The students do not appreciate the difference. In their minds, we are essentially all the same—the bodies up at the front of the room challenging them to learn about the amazing human body.
This is where you, the PECOP reader, come in. Although I have only the lens of my own experiences, it would be interesting to hear the perspectives of other tenure- and non-tenure track faculty regarding the emerging role of teaching-specific faculty at other academic institutions across the country. These are the questions that I will throw out to foster discussion; feel free to add your own!
Question 1: What role do fixed-term, non-tenure track faculty play at your (or other) institutions?
This is a basic question. I have been a Lecturer at one institution, admittedly not a big sample size. Are courses at other colleges or universities primarily taught with the “old” model of tenured faculty, or are teaching faculty trickling in? Does the size of the academic institution influence the use of non-tenure teaching faculty? What is the general perception of teaching faculty and scope of their contributions to the department and college?
Question 2: What should our job title be? (… And remind me again why it is that we cannot receive tenure?)
“Lecturer” appropriately describes what I was hired to do, to teach four courses a semester, but it is a relatively small part of what I actually do on a daily basis. The time outside of lecture is spent predominantly on trouble-shooting student issues to the effect of “I forgot my Clicker, can I still get the points?” and “Is this [insert your own small, random fact] going to be on the test?”, acting in a more administrative capacity to coordinate coursework across numerous sections and numerous instructors/TAs, participating in departmental matters and curriculum development, answering endless e-mails, and so on.
There are, however, other titles describing teaching faculty. Listed below are a few that are relatively common:
- Lecturer (as mentioned): with possible promotion to Senior Lecturer
- Instructor, Teaching Instructor, or Teaching Professor: sometimes Associate, Professor status (still non-tenure, though)
- Assistant, Associate, Professor of Practice
A confounding issue is the wide range of abilities across the fixed-term, teaching-focused, faculty spectrum. Unlike the tenure structure, there is not a strong model in place to differentiate levels of ability and professional achievement.
Is one title more representative of the job at hand than others? Should different titles be used at community colleges compared to 4-year colleges or universities?
Finally, with a significant amount of my time centered around communication and administrative-type tasks, a small part of me sometimes wonders where is the physiology? Which brings me to my next question:
Question 3: What are the opportunities for professional growth and development for non-tenure/teaching faculty?
(Hint: volunteer to write a blog or a blog post!) The obvious answer is to engage in educational research and strategies to promote student learning, since this is precisely what the job description entails. As scientists, we have a natural curiosity to explore the correlations between teaching practices and outcomes. If we have data to support the anecdotal experiences—even better! It is one way to utilize the skills developed over time in the research setting. So, this is one very viable solution to promote professional growth and development.
What are other options for remaining engaged in the study of physiology if the basic science research component is minimized by the nature of a teaching faculty position? I have come up with a handful of potential solutions, but it is my guess that many of you may have faced similar questions. What do you do to stay professionally active and engaged once the research opportunities are minimized?
In summary, I predict that teaching faculty will become more common in upcoming years, paralleling the continued evolution of the undergraduate experience (fueled by educational research regarding effective teaching strategies, of course). For now, though, there is no obvious roadmap for continued professional growth for fixed-term, non-tenure teaching faculty. Just as we invest time and energy to provide our students with the tools for success, it is important to consider how to do this with our teaching faculty colleagues.
Jennifer Rogers received her Ph.D and post-doctoral training at The University of Iowa (Exercise Science). She has taught at numerous institutions ranging across community college, 4-year college, and university settings. These varied educational experiences set the foundation for her interest in student readiness for learning and incorporation of effective teaching strategies for academic success specific to different student populations. Jennifer regularly teaches Human Physiology, Human Physiology Lab, Applied Exercise Physiology, and other health science-focused courses.