Rethinking Tenure, Part IV: Labour Issues

Previous Parts in this Series:

Part of the reason I’ve decided to revisit this issue is that the first parts of this series seem to be getting just a bit of traction. As we say in French: «il faut battre le fer pendant qu’il est chaud» (“Strike while the iron is hot.” meaning that we should take advantage of the momentum we get).

Specifically, Vanessa Vaile over at New Faculty Majority has posted a short but enthusiastic comment on the first parts of this series. As I thrive on feedback (at least, in social media and in teaching), it gave me the push to do a follow up.

Vanessa mentions the COCAL conference, a meeting about “contingent academic labour.” Now, to be honest, while I knew it was happening in Quebec City this summer (during a meeting of Concordia’s part-time faculty union, our president had discussed it), I hadn’t really looked into it. Not that I’m not interested in the issue, but I’m not into formal conferences, anymore.

And (he says sheepishly), I’m worried that my position might not be well-received among (opinion) leaders in this movement. It’s one thing to post my thoughts on these issues and potentially debate them, in writing or face-to-face. It’s quite another to be directly confronted for a significant period of time by what might be a number of vocal activists of what I’ve described as “career part-timers.”  I’m all for thoughtful debates and I can stand up and discuss these things publicly. But I do have an issue when things quickly become heated. I may be way off, here, but in my (admittedly limited) experience with groups of “career part-timers,” the heat source has usually not been too far away, when members of these groups meet.

Now, let me stress that I’m not dismissing anything that any kind of part-timer, “career” or otherwise, does. I certainly understand the concerns with precarity and working conditions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been well-represented by strong unions at a number of places where I’ve thought and I do want to involve myself in some activities related to the responsibilities and rights of “contingent academic workers.” I just happen to think that the core issue isn’t so much with part-time work by itself (though I really wish we’d think about alternate models, including long-term contracts). Put bluntly, I’d say that the whole academic system could afford some rethinking. Which could have a huge impact on those who are currently part of the “contingent academic labour force” and those who will be member of the “academic labour” (contingent or not) in the future.

While this long preface has to do with part-timers, I’m really thinking about tenure. Not that tenure should necessarily disappear. But we might as well put some things in perspective. This is what this series is about. Not the defence of one group of people against another (I’d side with learners, if I were allowed to do so). Not a proposal to save academia in its current form. Not even a recipe for building the replacement to the current academia. Just some thoughts about things we may be taking for granted.

So…. I have been thinking about labour issues as I was writing the previous parts in this series. I didn’t mention these labour issues that frequently, but they influence much of what I say about tenure.

“In today’s job world” (at least, what I know of it), academic tenure seems quite unusual a system. Almost anomalous. As mentioned elsewhere, it’s similar to some employment in the public sector, especially in terms of “job security.” But academic tenure is it’s own thing. It’s “kind of special.”

Part of it has to do with prestige. Not only that “university[ref]Partly because, in Quebec, colleges are a separate programme between high school and university, I use “university” for just about any institution of higher education, including some which are called “college.” So, a professor at Bridgewater State College or Tufts College is a “university professor,” in the way I describe things.[/ref] professor” is among the professions with the highest social status in a number of social contexts (between dentist and architect, according to Davis et al. 2007). But there’s a gap between any other kind of academic work (graduate student, senior researcher, etc.) and the prestige associated with a university professor.

More so than a number of other professional groups, the group represented by university professors is often perceived as a select club. At least in the sense that membership doesn’t follow a similar set of guidelines as that of, say, lawyers or engineers. In that sense, other professions have more of a guild system while “academic tenure” is more similar to a club.

(It should be noted that multiple efforts are being made to make this “club” more open to representatives of a number of socially marginalized groups. I don’t mean to say that “the faculty club is still an old boys’ club” since I don’t have data on this. But, even in this case, the process seems quite specific to academic tenure. Sure, complaints about discriminatory hiring may refer to similar rules whether they concern administrators or professors. But it still seems, to me, that the way complaints and claims are discussed shifts, when it’s about academic tenure. )

The contrast between academic tenure and other professional systems seems especially obvious, to me, when thinking about the fact that university professors aren’t specifically trained to be university professors. Oh, sure, they’re trained in their disciplines and may even have some background in pedagogy. Some contexts even have mentoring programes. But there isn’t that clear a path to academic tenure. Many people who want to become university professors end up knowing about the process as they go along, often by talking with other academics. But even some advanced graduate students (including some PhD graduates) seem to be in the dark as to many aspects of academia. They’re expected to learn on their own much of what the job is about (i.e., committee work, advising, grant proposals, etc.). Many high-profile professions have very formal vocational training which makes the kind of preparation new faculty get sound less than minimal.

As a way to protect professionals, tenure also seems quite unusual. Nurses, architects, and surgeons all have orders, professional associations, or other groups to protect members. Such groups are often tied to a national or other state entity of some kind (in Quebec, for instance, these “orders” tend to be provincial). Tenure is given by a specific institution and is tied to appointment in a given “unit” (an academic department, faculty, or programme). There might be rules in terms of synchronizing different institutions’ tenure systems, like there are “transfer credits” and “course equivalencies” for learners. But, if there are, these rules don’t seem to widely known. For, say, surveyors and physicians, it might be very difficult if not impossible to work across national boundaries, but their associations protect them regardless of their place of employment. For university professors, it might actually be very easy to teach in a completely different part of the World but, unless I’m mistaken, there isn’t any “universal” protection going from one institution to the next.

All this to say that “university professor” is quite unlike some other professions.

Part of this may have to do with the fact that academic work isn’t really considered a professional career in the same sense as is dentistry, accounting, or psychiatry. In a way, it’s more like a “calling” like priesthood or a function of a person’s perceived skills, like some conceptions of art. In some people’s minds, the goals of academia are so lofty that, surely, these professional matters are either secondary to “true academic work” or even irrelevant to university professors. Not that faculty members don’t discuss these things at faculty meetings. But there’s a clear separation between “what the work is about” and all matters of professional issues.

Which brings me to unions. In few discussions of tenure is there an explicit notion that what tenure provides is what a union is supposed to provide. Tenure is too unlike union representation to be considered in the same context. Yet much talk about the importance of tenure revolves around things which are, “come to think og it,” pretty much what people in other lines of work consider to be labour issues, managed through unions, management structures, executive boards, and the like.

In my experience. teachers’ unions are typically quite active and quite powerful. But my experience might be unusual and/or biased.

Part of the potential bias can be attributed to the fact that I grew up in Quebec which is rather union-friendly and had a number of strikes by teachers (as well as by students). The two unions for “contingent academic labour” by which I’ve been represented in Quebec have gone on strike during the past few years (and both have eventually won some key points). In addition, my father spent most of his career as a special education teacher in a high school and what I saw from unions protecting teachers in Quebec was quite impressive to the kid that I was when some key events happened. So I might overestimate the power of unions.

The key notion, though, is that there’s a union-based way to deal with a number of labour issues affecting teachers at many levels, including higher education.

Many (but not all) university professors are unionized. In some cases, these unions are able to offer professors a lot of protection. Probably not as much as the tenure system, but often more than for many other jobs and professions.

As far as I can tell, union protection to university professors is quite effective in dealing with cases of undue firing. There are plenty of edge cases but it actually doesn’t sound like non-tenured but unionized “academic labour” is less protected than most other lines of work. And we’ve probably all heard of cases where tenured professors have been overprotected to the extent that it caused serious problems.

I insist so much on this because the refrain to the song about tenure is “academic freedom.” The notion is that, without tenure, professors wouldn’t have this very special type of freedom that only tenured professors get. Now, I do understand part of the difference between “academic freedom” and more general forms of freedom, including that associated with the set of responsibilities and rights given to people protected by a strong union. But that difference is often left unexplained.

In fact, several people have told me that tenure protects them from being fired from something they might say in class. It’s an interesting issue in its own right but it’s also one which may call for other solutions. Because it’s basically a labour issue. Besides that, though, it raises the question of exactly how free university professors really are. In my experience, people on the tenure-track clearly don’t seem very free at all (it’s almost like an overextended probation period). And, from the outside as well as from direct discussions with “insiders,” even tenured faculty don’t seem that free to work the way they would like.

Which is why I started with “contingent academic labour” (part-time and contract-based university teaching). While, as a context, “contingent academic labour” relates to limited job security (still, much more than that of your typical freelancer), there’s also a very clear freedom involved when you can decide to take or refuse courses, when you’re allowed to work elsewhere at the same time, and where the official “burden” you get is that of building and teaching courses. While it’s not the “carefree” lifestyle of the so-called “Bohemian,” it’s still closer to my personal ideal of freedom than requirements placed on most tenure-track or even a lot of tenured faculty.

So, in summary, tenure seems to be an unusual and probably not that effective a way to deal with professional and labour issues. And it’s probably not that straight a path to genuine freedom.

Rethinking Tenure, Part II: What Does “Research” Mean?

In the previous post, I was putting all the emphasis on teaching and almost didn’t say anything about research. One reason is that, these days, teaching is the main thing I do in a university context. Research is what I do outside of the university, mostly <a href="informally but sometimes under more formal guises. I do love research and I do find it very important in the context of higher education. But my perception of how the balance between research and teaching should shift probably diverges from most people’s thoughts on the matter.

So, my second claim about the tenure system is that we should rethink what “research” means in this context.

The emphasis on research at some research-focused institutions (“Research I Universities”) have often seemed both displaced and too narrow. Much of the “research work” has to do with grant proposals, advising, and publishing. These are all tremendously important, of course. Increasingly, these tasks are an integral part of any university or college professor’s career (along with committee work, which is usually associated with “service” but may also have to do with research).

In my mind, these research-related tasks aren’t more accurately described as “research” as is some of the work a teacher might do to develop a new course or adapt an old course to new contexts. Sure, these talks may be involved in more “important” research projects than anything a teaching-focused person would do. But these tasks don’t constitute research in and of themselves.

In a way, they’re the research equivalent of “extracurricular activities” in the learning domain.

“But,” I heard many people say, “you can’t do research without these while you can take a full curriculum without any external activity!” In other contexts, I’d probably dispute the second claim (that a learning programme could be free of extracurricular activities). But I’ll focus on the first: it’s impossible to do research without doing “all this other stuff” university professors are doing, as part of their research projects.

Let’s take grants… True, many research projects need large sums of money to be invested. Without funding, researchers can’t, for instance, purchase pieces of equipment which are essential for their work or remunerate assistants who are such an integral part of their projects. (I’m leaving out travel for fieldwork or conferences as well as many other things which appear on budgets for research projects. I can address them later but they seem somewhat less central than the other two.)
So, sure, it makes sense that a university professor would need funding to purchase research-related equipment or to hire assistants. But three things come to mind…

The first one is that funding comes in different forms and external grants to individual projects are only one. Some other ways to fund research are exceedingly rare, nowadays (such as self-funded research by academics who happen to be independently wealthy). But there are models which could still make sense and in which the burden of finding funding wouldn’t be put on individual researchers.

Unless I’m mistaken, much “R&D” in the private sector is managed in a way which separates much of the quest for funding from the actual research work. Sure, some employees in those R&D programmes may still seek and obtain external funding. But I’m quite sure that a large number of projects are conducted by people who aren’t directly responsible for finding funding.
Also, what I’ve heard (recently) about the Media Lab at MIT is that external funding by commercial entities isn’t tied to specific projects. Maybe researchers still have to fight for it (it didn’t sound like they did, though), but the point is that the time-consuming work of grant proposals wasn’t assigned to researchers in quite the same way that it is with most professors at “Research I Universities.” Keep in mind that we’re talking about a context of extremely high research productivity and very large funds.
Another example, very controversial, is that some people argue that funding should be directly assigned to institutions which already attain a high degree of performance in research. I don’t personally subscribe to the potentially elitist dimension of this view, but it shows that people are at least thinking about other ways to fund research. I don’t claim to know which one is the best solution, that’s beside the point. The point is that there are other ways to get funding than getting primary investigators to spend much of their energy on grant proposals.

The second thing about grants is on equipment. Sure, many pieces of equipment which are “absolutely essential” in some contexts are incredibly expensive. But many research projects rely on less-expensive tools, on shared/borrowed equipment, or even on no dedicated equipment. For instance, I clearly understand the need for “supercomputers.” But some computing-intensive research programmes have been undertaken without supercomputers and many research projects require fairly limited computing resources, even in some fields of computing. Similarly, research procedures which used to require dedicated equipment may now be done through general-purpose equipment, including personal computers. Not to mention so-called “crowd-sourced” projects and “distributed computing.” It’s also interesting to see that some research projects which typically required no dedicated equipment and which now make use of equipment “because they can.”
Which isn’t to say that budgets for equipment are necessarily bloated. But that, as a justification for external funding, equipment costs only cover some research projects. If funding were mainly about equipment, the “I can’t do research without a large budget” line only covers a part of academic research and I’d say that it’s often applied a bit too broadly.

The third thing about grants is the work of assistants (including graduate students). Research assistants are often essential to research projects. So much so that some “primary investigators” are acting more like managers than like active researchers. In those contexts, the research assistants are the ones doing much of the work which ends up being credited as research.
Now, this model is probably not generalised. I’m willing to think that most people who mainly use funding to hire people also do a lot of hands-on work and use research as an opportunity to train students. It’s also very important a way to help graduate students, financially. So I’m not saying that this model should disappear. Just that it puts a lot of pressure on the primary investigator to not only work as a researcher and mentor but to also manage a team of employees.
On its own, that model makes for a tight system, especially if you see research as a straightforward process which churns out “knowledge” and/or innovative products by virtue of spending the time and money necessary to “do the work.” I don’t happen to share this view, but even if I did, I’d still say that there’s something skewed, in there. For one thing, it doesn’t sound like the model people think about when they think about academic research. And while it doesn’t exclude the other things a university professor is expected to do (including teaching and advising), it does tend to create strain in a professor’s life between diverse types of pressure.

Which brings me back to the connections between research and teaching. One reason they’re both done by the same person, I would guess, is that there’s an expectation that work in one domain will help with work in the other. So, a professor who teaches about her or his area of expertise is likely to bring in the output of “the most current research” in the classroom. In my experience, this is only the case in some rather rare situations where a researcher’s very specific domain of expertise matches a very specific need in the curriculum. More importantly, it can as easily happen through collaboration, guest lecturing, or even…. part-time teachers who are also doing research.

Just a few words about publishing (as I tend to be carried even further away than with the other points). For many people, the connection between research and publishing is unequivocal. Since reporting the results of a research project is part of research, publishing is obviously part of research. Yet publishing is very different from reporting, at least in the current model of academic research. There’s a multitude of ways to share your results, from classroom discussions to academic conferences, from blogposts to internal reports, and from textbooks and even “non-fiction books” to articles in peer-reviewed academic journals.
I won’t get into the details of the peer-review process (which I also think should be overhauled), but the equation of academic research with articles in peer-reviewed academic journals seems to me way too narrow. A lot of research doesn’t lead to articles published in peer-reviewed academic journals… and some significant portions of peer-reviewed academic articles aren’t really based on brand new research.
In fact, according to a number of people I’ve heard discuss this, there are some clear examples of people who end up “milking” a research project to publish a series of articles which are more or less equivalent, in terms of the advancement of knowledge. It sounds like a harsh criticism but, unlike several people I’ve heard on the subject, I’m far from blaming them. I won’t even “blame the system.” But, if this “milking” happens, I do think there’s something skewed in the process.

I could even go into “citation impact” which was not only the basis for Google’s PageRank algorithm but is also amenable to the same kind of “gaming” as the type of “Search Engine Optimisation” which targets the very-same PageRank algorithm.
But I won’t. This post is probably long enough.

Point is, here, that professors who are hired as part of the tenure-system to “do research and teach classes” end up spending much of their time on other tasks.
In other words, there’s a “disconnect” between the way academic institutions function and the way they are expected to work. As long as academic institutions fit in their respective social contexts, the problem is merely one of expectations. But if, as I tend to think, academia as a whole is fitting less tightly in “today’s world,” the way academic research is conceived could afford some open-minded discussion.

Much of what I wrote here may sound like it’s strongly-stated. Harsh, even. But, in all honesty, I’m neither that cynical (anymore) nor that dogmatic about any of this. And, really, I’d be very happy to be proven wrong, in a thoughtful and convincing way. (I half-expect strong disagreement containing strongly-voiced statements of my “wrongitude.” These aren’t the ones I enjoy so much. I much prefer being shown that someone has understood what I meant and can find a more appropriate way to describe or explain things than what I proposed.)


Rethinking Tenure, Part I: Part-Time and Contract Teaching

This two-part piece was originally meant as a reply to the following post, by the pseudonymous “Dean Dad” (a blogger who acts as a dean at a community college):
The Tenure/Adjunct Dialectic

Partly because of Blogger’s limitations in comment-length, I decided to transform it into posts on this still-unpublicized teaching-focused site.

My basic claim is that the tenure system needs to be overhauled. In this first post, most directly related to that “Dean Dad” post, I’d like to rethink the relationship between the tenure system (tenure-track and tenured full-time professors) and “contract-based” teaching. In the latter category, I include diverse positions which are variously called “adjunct,” “part-time faculty,” “visiting lecturer,” or even “limited time appointment.” Yet my focus is on those positions which are assigned on a course-by-course basis (i.e., one contract per course).

A semi-disclainer… I’ve been teaching part-time, in different capacities and at different institutions, for several years. I originally envisioned a career through the tenure system but, for the time being, I’m more interested in other opportunities, including part-time teaching and freelance work.

So, my experience is quite different from that of a college administrator (like Dean Dad) or that of a full-time tenure-track professor. I did spend a year as a full-time visiting lecturer (through a teaching fellowship) and got to see the other side of “tenure/adjunct dichotomy.” I’ve also experienced the tenure track vicariously through my then-spouse or through other people close to me.
So the tenure system isn’t completely foreign to me, you might still say that I’m an outsider to the tenure system. Which makes sense. As we ethnographers are fond of saying, “you don’t ask a fish about water.”

Seems to me that a key issue is how people conceive of the tenure system itself. The fake dichotomy with adjuncts is part of this. But so is the notion that academic freedom is an exclusive prerogative of tenured professors or the notion that this type of job security should be preserved at all costs. Not to mention the points about sabbaticals, salaries afforded tenured faculty members, etc. In other words, the tenure system is “boxed in” as its own system.
Tenure is the way it is because all those things we get from tenure are related to the way tenure is. Or some such.

Talking about tenure, I would argue that people rarely think about higher education in the broadest possible way. Again, the “fish in water” problem. Or, more specifically, people usually think about their jobs. Whether or not they’re part of said “tenure system.” (One could argue that this system is so pervasive and so fundamental in higher education that even those who aren’t on the tenure-track are directly affected by it. Still, they’re not technically “part of the tenure system.”)

In my experience, adjuncts and other “contingent” instructors are as “guilty” as anyone else of this kind of circular thinking. I hear many part-timers, bittered by their experience, talk about the tenure system as if it were their focal point. Several of them have assumed that there was (or should be) a way for adjuncts to go on the tenure track in the same department as where they teach on a part-time basis. As you might expect, some of these have been especially disappointed by the results. Bitterness is a common component of life for many of those who teach on a course-by-course basis.

One thing to note is that higher education systems differ greatly. I mostly have experience in the United States and Canada, which are already very different from one another in terms of contractual teaching. In some ways, part-timers at Canadian institutions have a much sweeter deal than adjuncts south of the border. In financial terms, at least (even allowing for exchange rates and cost-of-living differences). In the U.S. when I was teaching there, it wasn’t rare for a three-credit course to be paid about 2,000$. In Canada, it’s common for the same three-credit course to be paid more than 5,000$. Since then (i.e., in just a few years), teaching contracts in Montreal, at least, have gone up to close to 8,000$ and I know there are still teaching contracts in the U.S. which are still close to 2,000$. I’ve heard colleagues in Ontario talk about even higher figures for a 3-credit course, but those figures are so high that I find them hard to believe.

Also, many tenure-track positions are much better here in Canada than in the U.S., under the same terms. For one thing, salary discrepancies are quite limited, in terms of both institutions (within the same province) and field (at the same institution). Since Canadian universities are public, salary figures are frequently posted, so I’m not supposed to be divulging too much when I say that I know several people who were making around 50,000$ a year as new faculty on the tenure-track (assistant professor or equivalent) and that, in Ontario, the same position was close to 80,000$ (for instance, I’ve heard that the posted figure at Queen’s, in Kingston, is 77,000$). In the U.S., I’ve heard 50,000$ as a “very good annual salary” for that same position at a wealthy university. Though I don’t have direct evidence, I think many tenure-track positions in U.S. universities are much less than that. Canadian professors also get to a ceiling rather quickly, in that it’s not really possible to get extremely large salaries through promotion. In the end, the two systems appear to be quite different, in terms of finance.
While in Switzerland, in the mid-1990s, I heard about salaries for professors, there. Since money tends to be a taboo, among Swiss people, it was almost impossible to have open discussions about salaries. But, given my own salary as a mere “postgraduate assistant,” I’d imagine that the figures which were “whispered in my ear” weren’t too far off. And they were much higher than even the amount quoted at Queen’s.

All of this may be inaccurate in terms of the figures themselves. The basic point being that different academic systems have different structures for paying the academic staff. And these differences may matter in terms of the meaning of tenure.

Going back to part-time teaching…
In the U.S., “adjuncts” are not only paid very little, but they’re often limited in terms of the number of courses they can teach in a year. The result is that it’s almost impossible for them to survive on this type of teaching gig. They’re also not typically protected by their own union, which tends to explain a number of things. In that context, “drive-by teaching” isn’t exceedingly rare. Typically, this expression refers to people who don’t spend much time of campus, maybe out of lack of interest. But I mostly think about the fact that these people basically aren’t able to spend much time on campus, either because they absolutely have to work elsewhere during the semester, or even because they have very limited access to office space. Even though I don’t drive, I’ve had to do something of this “drive-by teaching,” one semester, and it wasn’t fun. Conversely, the year that I spent as a full-time visiting lecturer was remarkably different from the kind of course-by-course contract teaching that I usually do because I was on campus full time. In fact, I probably spent more time in my own office than many full-time colleagues. And, yes, I had my own office. This was in a department which also hosts the kind of adjunct who can’t really spend much time on campus. So the distinction wasn’t even subtle.
Both experiences were in the United States, the source of much discussion about academic systems (including, as far as I know, what Dean Dad describes).

In Canada, it’s not uncommon to find “career part-timers” with full teaching loads. Actually, I’ve known someone with an overfull teaching load: a total of ten courses during the same academic year. I’m talking here about people who became fixtures in their departments, having taught in the same place for fifteen to twenty years or more. Not that they enjoy real job security of the tenure type. Who gets that, nowadays? But these “career part-timers” still get much more stability than many people in other walks of life. Not only are they not “drive-by teaching,” but they sometimes act as key figures in students’ careers (through formal and informal advising, by teaching several courses in a given subfield, and occasionally by undertaking long-term research projects). In the U.S., similar things migth happen to some part-timers but, in my experience, it’s much less common and tends to surprise colleagues when I tell them about it.

Something which tends to give people pause is that, in many if not most large universities in Canada, a majority of courses are taught by these people who are defined in ranking systems as “not tenured professors” (in other words, ranking systems look at the proportion of courses taught by tenured professors and the inverse proportion is defined negatively). The assumption is that such courses result in inferior academic experiences, for some reason. Yet student evaluations of part-time teachers frequently surpass that of full-timers and I personally haven’t seen any evidence of inferior learning experiences at these universities with a large proportion of courses taught by part-timers (after studying and teaching in both contexts).

In fact, one might say that some courses actually benefit from being taught by someone who has a foot outside of the Ivory Tower. Not that it’s representative of most part-timers or that it’s technically impossible for a full-timer to also work outside of academia. But there’s a model for part-time teaching which makes a lot of sense, here. It happens to be the one which applied to my father and which currently applies to some other people I know.

My father, a Piaget-trained «psycho-pédagogue», was a full-time teacher at a high school where, every year, he was responsible for a class of students with learning disabilities. For many years, he also taught pedagogy as a part-timer at two universities in town. Thanks to his dual position, he was able to bring to his university students “real-world cases” from his high school classes, and he could draw on his experience “in the trenches.” I’ve heard unsolicited comments about this from teachers who had taken courses with my father, many years before I met them. Clearly, my father’s experience benefitted them greatly.

I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who works full-time as a researcher in a hospital’s pharmacy department. He also acts as an advisor, lecturer, and internship supervisor for a local university’s faculty of pharmacy. Technically, his affiliation to that university is that of a part-time faculty member and his work benefits both the university and the hospital.

During a conference on teaching (Spirit of Inquiry), I also met a businesswoman who was teaching on a part-time basis. She didn’t have anything to teach, that semester, but wasn’t bitter about it. Her teaching experience is an opportunity to stay in touch with academic contexts, network with potential colleagues or employees, and share her expertise. Her livelihood clearly didn’t depend on her teaching contracts.

Those cases, to me, represent “the real model of what part-time teaching was supposed to be about.” In my experience, it’s not an extremely common model, on either side of the U.S./Canada border (or in other places where I’ve lived, like Switzerland and Mali). But it’s a model which seems to me to make a lot of sense. If all part-time teaching were like this, I don’t think there’d be much bitterness involved. In fact, I’m moving toward a similar model (though the teaching part is a larger proportion of my time and income, at this point) and I’m enjoying every moment of it. I feel as free as one can feel. My academic freedom is protected (in part by my union) and I don’t feel stuck in the Ivory Tower. “Best of both worlds,” as some would say.

Conversely, the “career part-timer” and the “drive-by teaching” models seem to me to be the results of an inefficient system. It also seems likely that both models could be replaced by a special form of long-term and renewable teaching-focused contract. And other people, Dean Dad included, are thinking about this.

I wish more people were thinking about such a model, and this is the reason for this post. I want to raise awareness of this other model which has a bit of the “job security” of the tenure system and much of the advantages of part-time teaching.

Someone I know teaches at a smaller “comprehensive” university in Atlantic Canada. At the point when we were talking about these issues, my acquaintance’s university only had a small proportion of courses taught by part-timers (language courses, mainly). At that time, people in the university’s administration were thinking about getting more part-timers, for several reasons. My interlocutor was quite worried about the prospects, and part of his fear was that the shift to having more part-timers might somehow adversely affect full-timers. I must admit that I found this strange, since the alternative to increased part-time teaching has often been heavier teaching loads for full-timers, but I could still understand his position. Where it gets interesting, in my humble opinion, is that others in the university had talked about adding (if I remember correctly) five-year full-time teaching contracts renewable every year. From my position as a part-timer, this model sounds like a giant step up from the type of course-by-course contract teaching to which I’ve grown accustomed. To that full-time professor, it still represented a step down from getting more tenured faculty and there was a fear of a disconnect between research professors and these teaching positions.

In my mind, such a system leaves the tenure system intact. But it puts tenure in context as only one possible career path in academia. And it might be something of a transitory system between one based almost entirely on the research-focused “publish or perish” system and one which allows for something closer to “teaching professors.” I could even see that system be used to hire qualified teachers who, gasp!, don’t have a research Ph.D. in the field in which they teach! But I know this sounds like heresy and I won’t push it.

The key point is about the possibility for longer-term teaching contracts. Ones which allow contract teachers to build something, like a learning programme or even some connection with a research project. In his blogpost, Dean Dad talked about several other advantages. I’d add that I’m aware of many caveats but that we could still think about it carefully.

In the end, it sounds to me that the result is something of a compromise. Some people dislike compromise and prefer something which is beneficial to everyone (the so-called “win-win”). But I still haven’t heard of anything which would satisfy everyone. In the context of an academic institution with thousands of students, it’s quite rare to find a way to please everyone.

But I’d be very happy to hear about such an alternative.

Learning Material and Content Management

Had some blogposts in mind, for this yet-unpublicized site. Through a thoughtful post on learning management systems and content ownership, Bruce D’arcus gives me an opportunity to put some thoughts together.

Bruce D’Arcus on Content in Learning Contexts

I’d like my LMS to make it really easy to share teaching resources among faculty; ideally not only within just a particular LMS instance at a single university, but across universities. Why can’t I, for example, create a course module and make it public? Why shouldn’t I be able to easily borrow work from colleagues at other institutions? And by easily, I don’t mean having to force them to export some damned package, email it to me, and then make me import it. I mean single-click sharing. What if, for example, I could search for particular concepts in my area of geography, and get a list of modules from both my colleagues here, but also other colleagues elsewhere, and simply click to use it in and/or adapt it to my course?

darcusblog » Blog Archive » Content Ownership and Sharing in an LMS – geek tools and the scholar.

(Bruce’s post is based on Michael Feldstein’s post which also talks about students owning their content.)

My Take: Systems for Learning and Content

Fully agreed with Bruce and Michael, here. And it happens to be something about which I think a fair bit[ref]And about which I talk, on occasion…[/ref] Not that I have specific expertise on it, but it’s enough to make me “drift-off” and go into “wishful thinking mode”. As Bruce asks: “What if…?”

This mode leads me to a comparison of LMS and CMS: Learning Management Systems and Content Management Systems.

Part of this has to do with with initiatives surrounding WordPress and BuddyPress in learning contexts: Stas Sușcov, Mario Asselin, and Kyle Jones. Another part relates to the #ENA2010 unconference on LMS and standards.

A Broad Claim

Simplifying things probably a bit too much, one might say that:

A Learning Management System is a special form of Content Management System.

For this claim to make any sense, we need to define our terms.


With what I call “Learning Management Systems,” a major issue is that different concepts and different terms are used by different people. For instance, the Wikipedia entry on Learning Management System makes distinctions which aren’t necessarily made when people talk about LMS. And some people use “Virtual Learning Environment” to talk about the same type of Web-based platform for learning. In other words, it’s difficult to find a neutral, stable, and consensual way to name this thing.

In my mind, there are strong connections between online tools I’ve been using in connection with my courses (in chronological order): OnCourse, WebCTSakai, Blackboard, and Moodle. In all of these cases, each course has a dedicated site to do a number of things. Simplifying greatly and lumping apparently-disparate things together, any learning management system can be used to do all of the following:

  • Provide course information (description, instructor(s), syllabus, etc.).
  • Post course material (lesson plans, handouts…).
  • Submit and evaluate assignments.
  • Create or take online tests, quizzes, and exams.
  • Process, distribute, and grades.
  • Participate in some form of communication between learners and teachers (from private messages to forum posts, from realtime chat to video conferencing).
  • Engage in some interactive activities (interactive “lessons” and such).

Some learning management systems emphasize one over the other and there are multiple things these systems can do which aren’t really covered there. However, in my experience, these are the core functionalities shared by all of these learning management systems.

This description may not give you a very precise idea of how a Learning Management System works, if you’ve never used one, but it should provide you with a basic framework for understanding the rest.

Reaching Consensus on CMS?

For Content Management Systems, there’s some level of consensus in common usage, but even Wikipedia doesn’t make very clear and explicit what a CMS is. So, here’s my take…

To me, the “typical CMS[ref]Actually, I’m mostly thinking about WordPress, which may be misleading since some people claim it’s not really a CMS. Still, WordPress is my platform of choice and I’ve been using it in diverse contexts. My experience with Drupal is rather indirect and I haven’t really used Joomla.[/ref]” is something like Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal. I might add TikiWiki to this list as I’ve been exploring it recently and it happens to have “CMS” in its description.

AFAICT, and at a very basic level, a CMS brings together:

  • Some mechanism to create, edit, and control access to content.
  • Some sort of database to store content.
  • Some way to dynamically produce webpages based on content.

Content can be a number of things but typically involves any combination of the following:

  • Text (structured, formatted, and associated with metadata)
  • Images (with thumbnails and captions)
  • “Multimedia files” (audio/video, streaming with a browser-based player and/or downloadable)

As applications in the CMS context, it’s common to find:

  • Forums
  • Blogs
  • User profiles
  • Wiki pages
  • Directories

As with my description of LMS, this may not make things very clear, but it has the merit of situating the conversation.

LMS/CMS Similarities

Users may not realize this but all the functionality of a CMS is present in a Learning Management System. Some of the “content” which is created, edited, stored, controlled, and shared as dynamic webpages is quite specific (syllabi, grades, assignments, quizzes…). But some of this specificity is at a surface-level. After all, we’re still talking about Web content. At some point, it’s all encoded in HTML[ref]And, of course, much of it is actually XML, in the form of XHTML or some such.[/ref].

In terms of architecture, there are clear connections between CMS and LMS. This is especially clear given learning management systems like MoodleClaroline, and Dokeos which may use the same type of LAMP infrastructure[ref]At least, the php/MySQL part[/ref] as typical CMS. (Sakai and WebCT use Java, OnCourse used IIS, not sure about Blackboard.)

In the case of Moodle, the technical similarities can even go one step further. See, among the easiest (and best-known) ways to install Web software are installer scripts like Fantastico and SimpleScripts, which are available through control panels like cPanel on some commercial webhosts. Among the things these scripts allow to easily install are most of the typical CMS and… Moodle. Which means that, to someone with a webhost account, Moodle is in the category of “what can be installed easily,” along with WordPress, Drupal, TikiWiki, Joomla, and most other known CMS.

There’s even a potential for confusion, here, as among names for learning management systems, a common one shares an acronym with “Content Management System.” It’s just a coincidence, but it involuntarily reinforces the connection.

So, technically and even terminologically, it wouldn’t be that difficult to say that “Learning Management Systems” are “Content Management Systems.”

Distinguishing LMS from CMS

While similarities seem obvious, to me, there’s a clear distinction between the typical CMS and the typical LMS. At the core of this distinction is the type of control exercised on the content.

For the typical CMS, it seems that the content tends to be available publicly by default and only made private for specific purposes. Actually, put another way, a CMS typically has a public face and some private components. The private components may be more important than the public face, but there’s still an expectation that some things are “public-facing.”

The logic behind LMS is almost reversed. Things are often private by default and are only shared for specific purposes. Some things may be publicly available, but the expectation is that most content is “hidden.” For the LMS as a whole, the “public face” of the LMS might be closer to a directory of courses than to the typical website. The notion of a “Web portal” applies in both cases but, in my experience, the public part of most Learning Management Systems takes the “portal” experience to an almost hostile degree of barrenness. To get to the real content, you need an account on that specific LMS. And while there might be an allowance for guest access or an easy way to get a full account, most content is still hidden from public view, isn’t necessarily indexed by search engines, and isn’t amenable to the kind of treatment afforded, say, a forum or blog post. Bluntly put, the core message of the public-facing parts of the typical LMS says: “if you don’t belong here, go away.”

To an extent, Moodle is an exception. The Moodle Community site is powered by a Moodle installation which also serves as an example of what Moodle can be. Much of the support for Moodle comes from forums which are part of that Moodle installation. So, Web searches for things related to Moodle do turn up results from the public-facing part of Moodle. But, even then, one frequently ends up with a login page while trying to access some Moodle-related content. Since Moodle does allow for guest access, it’s still possible to access content without an account. But the overall experience is similar to that of accessing “private” content, even though this content isn’t hidden. In fact, Moodle has some support for “blogging,” which makes it sound even closer to the typical CMS.  Yet the Moodle model of blogging isn’t oriented toward the same principles as those which are shared in social media (say, what Jeff Jarvis calls the “link economy“). While I really enjoy Moodle, I wouldn’t say that its support for blogging is much of a strength.

So, in general, Learning Management Systems may be a special case of “content management” but they’re more “inbound” than the typical CMS. There are advantages to this, in terms of protection of some information (in general, instructors don’t want everyone to have access to their exam questions in advance and students may prefer that some of their grades not show up in a web search for their name). But the “walled garden” model helps us raise some of the issues about which many people seem to care (including Bruce D’Arcus, if I’m not mistaken).

Where to Go from Here?

I had planned to say many things about making Learning Management Systems more open. One thing is that the next version of Sakai is clearly oriented toward this kind of CMS model, as displayed on its future directions and project homepage. Another thing is the significance of ePortfolios in the public-facing part of learning, especially in large programmes built on portfolio-based learning. Not to mention a whole thing I had to say about different types of learning material, based on a talk I gave about it. But it took me longer than expected to write this post and I should probably use this as a prelude to other blogposts.