What Ezra Klein gets wrong about pedagogical innovation

On Vox this morning (May 27), Ezra Klein mounts an interesting defense of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, arguing (in short) that Sanders is catalyzing lots of policy debates that need having, even if he has little to no chance of actually winning the Democratic nomination. I agree.

Too bad he includes a bizarre claim in response to Sanders’ higher education proposal, which includes two key provisions–a tax on financial transactions to pay public college/university tuition; and second, a mandate that 75% of courses taught at US public colleges/universities are taught by tenured/tenure-track faculty. To the first, Klein responds that some students who don’t need the money might benefit from it, which I think is silly; as long as it helps the people who need it most, why is it bad to also help other people?

But it’s his response to the faculty ratio provision that makes my head hurt:

And even if I’m not a fan of the move toward adjunct labor in universities, the requirement to use so much tenure-track faculty might kill off innovations in teaching that we haven’t even considered yet.

Admittedly I read this while I was halfway through my first cup of coffee, but I’ve tried three times since then and still have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. Well, OK, I sort of do. Or I think I can kind of cobble together a sort of logic that maybe makes whatever he thinks he’s trying to say sound like it isn’t complete nonsense. My armchair mind-reading effort:

1. Many adjunct faculty are innovative and excellent teachers.

2. Many TT/T faculty, especially in research-oriented jobs, don’t care as much about teaching.

3. Therefore, reducing the number of innovative teachers in favor of less-interested teachers is bad.

And if that’s actually his argument, it’s not horrendously wrong. I do think he’s overdrawing the extent to which TT/T faculty don’t care about teaching, but not completely.

The problem is this. As it’s formulated now, essentially what he’s claiming is that precarity drives innovation. Huh?

If he wants to make sure that there’s more emphasis on teaching innovation and quality at US colleges and universities, I’m with him. But to claim as blithely as he does that maintaining our reliance on precarious adjunct labor is the way to do it is, um, not the “policy debate” we were looking for. It puts all the pressure to innovate on people who get no support for innovating, and it attaches the motivation to innovate to a structural condition that nobody should be subject to. If hiring/firing faculty at will, and under-compensating faculty for our work, and refusing to include faculty in shared governance, and all the other harms that come from contingency are the primary source of “innovation,” I’d rather not have it. Or on a more positive note, there are lots of ways to support innovation without exploiting our way to it.

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