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Apr 2, 2004 5:41 am

What's The Matter With Kansas?* ...

I've been following with interest a discussion on H-Survey, a private listserv, about the use of student assistants in history departments. It was initiated by James Schick of Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, who moderates the list. He explains that his department has a terminal M. A. program and that in order to tighten the belt it is under pressure to employ first year M. A. candidates as undergraduate adjunct instructors rather than limiting them to being teaching assistants to members of the faculty. That means, of course, that a student with a B. A. and no graduate hours in history would be teaching their own sections of Pittsburg State's introductory history courses. Schick says that the department has resisted doing this and seeks advice from list members about what other departments have done. Should the department stand and fight or is this commonly done elsewhere?

If you have good information or advice for Professor Schick, I'm sure that he'd be glad to have it. The link to his name above gives you his e-mail address and he is receiving some suggestions off-list. If you know, for instance, of any recent studies of how first year graduate students are employed by departments, I am sure Schick would be happy to have that information. Listserv responses to his query suggest that the bottom line for his department at Pittsburg State would be whether employment of first year graduate students as adjunct instructors of undergraduates might threaten its credentialing with the North Central Association's Higher Learning Commission.

As I read the H-Survey discussion, I thought"What would Invisible Adjunct Do With This One?" and recalled Tim Burke's point that a University of Southern Mississippi or a Pittsburg State is the far more common experience of higher education in the United States than a Chicago or Michigan, Texas or Yale. And so it's come to this: that at our ordinary institutions of higher education we are contemplating putting 22 year old B. A.'s in charge of a class of first year college students and doing so because it's cheap.

When I was a kid in the Louisville suburbs, we often had female business college students boarding with us in return for light child-care and household help. They came to Louisville from rural communities in eastern Kentucky, where their prior experience was fairly provincial. One, in particular, told us that her illiterate uncle was a member of her county's school board and that he was opposed to education of females. That seemed quaint, but it was also common practice in her home county for a high school graduate to begin teaching in its public schools immediately on receipt of a high school diploma. They didn't have to be paid very much.

And so it's come to this: in the name of saving money, Kansas higher education authorities will revert to the example set by barely established and backward Appalachian public school systems. Reasonably literate administrators with earned doctorates will betray higher education's values and jeopardize Pittsburg State's credentialing in the name of saving money. And it isn't just in Kansas that this happens. Remembering that Invisible Adjunct has just given up her search for a job in an American higher education, I know that its administrators will betray the promise of its credentialing processes and employ much less well prepared people because they can be had cheaply. They betray all of us.
*With apologies to William Allen White

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Jonathan Dresner - 4/2/2004

We might get some relief, ironically, from the accrediting agencies. The pressure for measurable student achievement, while wrong-headed, certainly calls into question the value of undertrained instructors.

Full disclosure: as an undergrad computer science MINOR, I was given responsibility for grading programs by students a mere year behind me in the program, and for providing advice and support for students working in the computer lab.

But, given the opportunity to TA in my first year of graduate school, I passed because I didn't feel qualified. By my second year I had no such qualms....

Jonathan Rees - 4/2/2004


Nice post. I agree completely that this is bad, and that such outrages are all too common. To me, they are the real threat to free expression on campus since you can't talk about anything, liberal or conservative, if your program or even your campus is closed down due to budget cuts.

Here's the latest plan coming out of the Colorado State Legislature to "save" Higher Education:,1413,36~61~2057525,00.html

Just in case you can't get through the link, it's vouchers. Yup, vouchers. The same solution that's supposed to "save" secondary schools by throwing most children over the side. Remember when you're reading the article that the state now pays about $3500 per student, down from about $4000 just two years ago.

Jonathan Rees

PS If anyone reading the article above has trouble understanding terms like TABOR and is really interested in understanding just how bad things are in this state for higher ed, you can visit a web site set up by a friend of mine:

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/2/2004

One of the results of the current round of budget cuts has been, in some places, forcing university administrators to choose between expanding class loads or cutting off admissions. Politics makes the latter a dicey maneuver.

It would not surprise me if one of the reasons for the fiasco you report is that administrators and faculty are trying not to "sweat" the faculty by raising their teaching load.

Robert L. Campbell - 4/2/2004

I'm in a Psychology department rather than a History department, but I'll assume the same principles apply.

Our graduate programs are in Applied Psychology. We don't let students in our MS programs teach classes-- period. They can work as Teaching Assistants, of course. (Frankly, I think sometimes the first-year students are asked to be TAs in courses they're not ready to handle--I usually feel more comfortable if my TA in Experimental Psychology has been in our program for a semester or two.)

Students in our PhD program usually teach classes in their specialty only: Industrial Psyhology, Human Factors. We don't ask them to teach Intro to Psychology. They don't do Intro unless they request it and they've performed well in the classroom already. Just once, an older PhD student who had been a math teacher taught our undergraduate Statistics course.

The restrictions we put on the use of Master's students are commonplace. I think our program is on the conservative side in what we ask doctoral students to do.

Meanwhile, the Clemson administration can't make up its mind whether grad students are a financial burden to the university, or a simultaneous source of prestige and cheap labor. Depending on how they make up their minds, we could end up under the pressures now in evidence at Pittsburg State.

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