Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Emerging Role of Fixed-Term, Non-Tenure Teaching Faculty in Higher Education

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.

lecturer_smallFlash 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.

Jen Rogers Headshot




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.

A Journey to Develop a First-year Course in Critical Thinking. And the Learning Community it Created

thinkingHow do you develop a course called “Critical and Creative Thinking in the Life Sciences”? A course that isn’t content-driven – a course that will be taught by multiple instructors in multiple sections to all incoming students within a program that encompasses 7 majors and 2 colleges? How do you get that course approved by the various committees? Where does it fit into the curriculum for graduation? These were just some of our questions. The following is a brief history of our triumphs and struggles.

First-year programs, increasingly common in undergraduate institutions, have been shown to have positive consequences both for students and for the schools. At NC State, we instituted a Life Sciences First Year Program (LSFY) and included a new course entitled Critical and Creative Thinking in the Life Sciences (LSC 101).  We cited a call to critical and creative thinking – less content – more active learning from multiple sources: Vision and Change, Paul and Elder’s Guide to Critical and Creative Thinking, countless publications supported by NSF, HHMI, AAAS – the list goes on. It was the thing to do – all the “cool” schools were doing it! We thought we were completely prepared to tackle this.

Course Goals: (A struggle in itself to get 5 amiable colleagues to agree)

  • challenge students to apply the intellectual standards of critical and creative thinking
  • guide students to an understanding and appreciation of the rhetoric of science
  • help students gain an understanding of fundamental principles of the nature and conduct of science within the life sciences
  • encourage and challenge students to become active, engaged learners through an understanding of effective approaches to learning

These goals seemed reasonable…and vague. How do we achieve them? The curriculum committees would need to see specific activities and assessments. They would want to see…a syllabus. NOW what do we do? We need outcomes! We need backward design! The scientists in the room panicked like their hair was on fire – what WERE these terms? (I should admit that we were all trained as research scientists who had done extensive teaching and discovered we loved it.) Most of us had attended the National Academies Summer Institute. We were doing many of these things in our classrooms already – we just didn’t realize these approaches had names.

Our team was fortunate to have the support of our college and passing our syllabus through the various committees was relatively painless. Many schools have a 1-2 credit hour course that welcomes freshmen to the university. We replaced that course with this and made sure to incorporate information about research, internship, advisement, and other opportunities.

Activities: (More of a triumph – we had lots of ideas)

Ultimately, the course used a variety of approaches, with case studies and extensive group work incorporated into each class. Some of the case studies came from the NSF case study website, others were developed by our team. Students were required to solve problems, design experiments, and interpret data. They created and critiqued arguments. They evaluated scientific writings from peer-reviewed journals. We used classic communications like Nature’s classic Watson and Crick paper and the Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty paper from the Journal of Experimental Medicine to contrast different styles, target audiences, and impact of scientific communications. Students discussed mini-ethics cases from news sources (a student favorite). They wrote mini grant proposals (A shout out to Kover et al!). They learned the fundamental principles of the neurobiology of learning and developed their own strategies for learning. And almost all of these activities as well as some of the formative assessments were done within small groups of students working together as a cooperative team.

Back to the struggles:

We learned quickly that it was critical to have an instructor resource page to dump content, ideas, lesson plans, and anecdotes about time management, pitfalls, and student interest. As the student community grew, the discussion of “fairness” came up. “The other section didn’t have to do THAT assignment” or “I wish we had done THAT”. The site is very much a work in progress as we match activities with learning outcomes and work to create a bank of options for each. Ideally, these activities are dynamic as we incorporate current issues into the assignments.

And it was critical (and helped solidify the faculty community) to meet with each other weekly to discuss ideas and present a unified front. I know. I hate meetings too. So we set a stopwatch for 15 minutes. We met at a coffee shop on campus and we touched base. Honestly – 15 minutes is all it needs to be – think elevator talk.

What We Ultimately Learned:

So I mentioned we inadvertently created a learning community – it’s in the title – it must be true. And as a scientist, I thought I would provide a little data. (Very little data.) In many large universities, introductory courses populated by first-year students are large lectures with little opportunity for interaction. By creating small sections (30-40 students) of a required first semester course and structuring it so that much of the assessments relied on interaction, we hoped it would create learning communities that would last beyond those first few months. According to survey data, 94% of the students made new friends, 64% of these students purposefully scheduled classes with each other for future semesters, and 47% have formed study groups for courses other than LSC 101 (typically, chemistry and biology). It is our hope that providing this additional vehicle for forming learning communities will increase retention and overall GPA. So far, we have increased retention of students from freshman to sophomore year from 92% to 95%. And so far, students have been excited by the course. We will continue to track this information….”we” referring to our newly-formed faculty community of LSC 101 instructors and 15-minute coffee drinkers.



  1. R. Paul and L. Elder. (2008). The Thinker’s Guide to Critical and Creative Thinking
  2. Brewer, C. A., & Smith, D. (2011). Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action.American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington,
  1. Stone E.M. (2014). Guiding Students to Develop an Understanding of Scientific Inquiry: A Science Skills Approach to Instruction and Assessment. Cell Biology Education
  2. Stefanou, C.R. and Salisbury-Glennon, J.D. (2002). Developing motivation and cognitive learning strategies through an undergraduate learning community. Learning Environ Res 5:77-92.
  3. Jamelske, E. (2009). Measuring the impact of a university first-year experience program on student GPA and retention. High Educ 57:373-391.
  4. Handelsman J., Ebert-May D., Beichner R., Bruns P., Chang A., DeHaan R., Gentile J., Lauffer S., Stewart J., Tilghman S., Wood, W. (2004). Scientific Teaching. Science 304:521-522.
  5. Kover, H., Wirt, S.E., Owens, M.T., and Dosmann, A. J. (2014). “Thinking like a Neuroscientist”: Using Scaffolded Grant Proposals to Foster Scientific Thinking in a Freshman Neuroscience Course. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 13(1): A29-A40.


Lisa Parks, North Carolina University


Lisa Parks is the Honors Program Director and Teaching Associate Professor in Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. In addition to her regular teaching load of cell biology and advanced human physiology, she helped develop and currently teaches in the new Life Science First Year Program. She has been a participant and a mentor in the National Academies Summer Institute where she was bitten by the “research as pedagogy – inquiry-based learning – critical thinking” bug. She gladly drops what she is doing to talk about this course. Lisa received her BS in Zoology from Duke University and her PhD in Biology with a concentration in cell physiology at Georgia State University.