Why Adjunct Professors Shouldn’t Need Graduate Degrees

Because looking good on paper is not the same thing as being good.

When hiring a professor, nearly every college uses commonly agreed-upon criteria. Among these, perhaps the most important is whether the applicant has a graduate degree.

On one hand, credentials are a critical part of a school’s brand. Given that students are coughing up an arm and a leg for today’s tuition, it’s helpful when a school can boast that “every single one of our faculty holds an advanced degree.” Indeed, this percentage contributes to a school’s ranking.

This argument makes sense, especially from a marketing perspective. Yet it’s less compelling when applied to adjunct, rather than tenure-track, professors — i.e., those who teach as a sideline. We adjuncts typically have another job that pays the bills; we don’t teach for the money, but because we love doing it.

Here, then, is the question: should part-timers be held to the same standards as full-timers? (For the sake of essentialization, let’s put aside the gross pay disparity.) For most colleges, the answer is clear: every professor, regardless of rank, must have a Masters degree or more. But this blanket rule seems myopic. Isn’t it preferable to judge each person on his own merits, rather than deploying a one-diploma-fits-all catchall? Isn’t a scalpel a better judge of ability than a sledgehammer?

Fair enough, says the ivory tower. But shouldn’t educators be well-educated? Shouldn’t they master the theories of pedagogy before they practice on live minds? Just as we require everyone from a manicurist to a lawyer to get licensed, so we should demand certain credentials of a professor.

That sounds reasonable, right? It does… until you talk with longtime educators. They’ll tell you that teaching is more of an art than a science. Just because you earned a PhD from Princeton in 17th-century French literature doesn’t mean you know how to make Molière come alive for two hours at the front of a classroom of easily distracted students.

Ultimately, what you think comes down to which you care more about: rules, or outcomes? Put another way: is your primary goal to perpetuate the perception of excellence, or to make that perception an everyday reality?

My take: let’s not rule out an entire class of people based solely on their resume. As fans of House, MD know, who you are on paper (or pixels) is often decidedly different from who you are in person.

A version of this article appeared on AdjunctNation.com on January 23, 2017.

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