Who teaches university courses?

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Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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You have received excellent feedback here. I would like to add that there are ramifications to you as a student depending on your educator. All will be qualified to teach you. Part of choosing your teachers is finding people who will mentor you throughout your education; the work you will do with professors outside of the classroom matters just as much as your time in the classroom. Be sure to connect with educators who will be there for the duration of your education. Contingent (adjunct) faculty members may not be there when you need a letter of recommendation or advising. And really they shouldn't be called upon to do such work since they are getting paid solely to teach a class. Those other roles should fall upon the shoulders of full-time faculty who are paid not just solely for teaching. Other issues may arise when you need consistency in the professors on your roster. For example, if you take an incomplete grade and then a temporary faculty member leaves, you will not be able to finish the course. You are asking an important question that all students need to ask of their universities and colleges.

Andrew Arroyo, Professor, Researcher, Father of four

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This is an important question. My institution is a historically black college or university (HBCU), where teaching is a priority for faculty members. Some institutions prioritize research, so you might get a graduate assistant doing a lot of the teaching. Others have a large adjunct or part time faculty pool. However, at my HBCU -- and at most HBCUs -- you're going to get a full time professor.

What's the big deal? Full time professors, especially if they are tenured or tenure track, tend to be more invested in the long term success of the college. This is the place where they have chosen to invest their careers, which means investing in students if the college's emphasis is on teaching. Not only would you get a professor with the appropriate terminal degree (i.e., PhD, EdD, MFA), but you would get a professor who is accessible during and around standard office hours, and that professor is more apt to have published or contributed in some significant way to the knowledge in their field.

This is one of the biggest reasons I suggest looking seriously at a historically Black college or university. No matter your race/ethnicity, you're likely to find that open, supportive, and knowledgable faculty members are assigned to teach all of your courses.

Marguerite Dennis, Higher Education Consultant

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I believe the classroom professor is the most important factor in student success. I also know that many schools do not have their “best,” full-time faculty teaching freshman students. According to a recent report, 50 percent of all professors at four-year colleges are part-time adjuncts. Adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants cannot, in my opinion, provide the same kind of educational experience and academic advising that a full-time professor can provide.

There are many excellent adjunct professors and good graduate teaching assistants, but I do not believe that they are assigned to teach first-year students only because they are good teachers. Most schools use adjuncts and graduate students to save money. The best colleges and universities will put their best teachers in freshmen classrooms.

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David H. Nguyen, Education Consultant, College Lecturer, PhD

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A dirty secret in academia is that adjunct instructors/professors do more than half the teaching in American universities, but are paid less than half of what tenure-track professors get. It’s a broken system that exploits some of the most well-trained people in the world. Adjuncts, or part-time professors, don’t receive benefits, such as health insurance, paid time off, and salary promotions, so they are much cheaper for the university. The irony is that at large universities, adjuncts are often the most dedicated teachers because that’s what they love doing. Plus, they don’t have administrative duties that take away time from their teaching responsibilities. Aside from adjuncts, a lot of the teaching is done by graduate students, many of whom are much better teachers than the professors.

Research Universities: A Dirty Little Secret

Class Warfare

Tedra Osell, PhD, Parent of 2e teen, former homeschooler and college professor, SENG Model Parent Group Facilitator

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In general, anyone teaching a university or college course will have a PhD in the field (or, at universities, be a graduate teaching assistant who is working towards a PhD).

That said, and as others here are pointing out, there are different categories of instructors at colleges and universities:

  • Teaching assistants are students, usually graduate students but sometimes advanced undergrads. They may teach discussion sections attached to a larger lecture course taught by a professor or they may be in charge of their own courses (usually this will only be true for graduate students).
  • Adjuncts are usually part-time instructors who are paid by the course. Often they are recent PhDs who are looking for tenure-track jobs and adjuncting in the mean time; sometimes they are career adjuncts with years of experience at all kinds of schools, either because they were unable to find a t-t job (I hasten to point out that the academic job market means there are tons of great teachers and researchers who can't find t-t jobs, so this doesn't mean adjuncts are second-rate teachers by any means) or because they prefer to teach part time because they have a dual career path or for other personal reasons.
  • Instructors or lecturers might be adjuncts under another name, or they might be permanent non-tenure-track faculty--a distinction that is more about how the college classifies them for payroll purposes than it is about their research or teaching abilities (for instance, some instructors are the PhD partners of someone who got a tenure-track job, but the department that they are in didn't have a tenure-track opening in the partner's specific field, so they are brought on as an instructor).
  • Assistant professors are full-time permanent tenure-track faculty at the beginning of the tenure track.
  • Associate professors are professors who have earned tenure (which usually means they have published a certain number of articles or books).
  • Full professors are tenured professors who have reached the end of the promotion chain. Obviously full professors are generally older and well-established both in their fields and in their particular college or university. One note that students might want to take into consideration is that assistant or associate professors are necessarily the future of their fields. So while it might seem natural to assume that a full professor's experience makes her or him "better" than an assistant or associate, or than an adjunct or instructor, within academia itself the junior faculty are the life blood of a department and a research field, and may sometimes be more "in touch" with new directions in research than their seniors.

The primary division students need to be concerned about is the distinction between part-time (adjuncts/instructors) and tenure-track faculty. While both adjuncts and t-t professors can be great and effective teachers, the latter are more secure in their jobs and are therefore far more likely to be around for recommendation letters or to teach other courses, to be linked in to the administrative and support resources their institution offers, to be effective advisors within an institution, to have administrative support and backing for their professional development, and to have the freedom to design their own courses (which means more and varied course offerings).

Samer Hamadeh, Co-author of The Internship Bible and America’s Top Internships. Former Vault.com CEO.

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To add to Marguerite's answer, this is also somewhat dependent on the size of the college or university. At larger institutions, while a lecture class might be taught by a full professor, you will effectively be reviewing and learning in smaller sections. These sections are taught by graduate students, called teaching assistants,and they will evaluate and grade your performance. Larger universities are also more likely to employ adjunct professors, contingent faculty who work part-time or at several different institutions. While adjunct professors and teaching assistants are often excellent instructors, it is understandable that some students prefer to take courses from full professors, many of whom are prominent in their fields of study.

If you want to take classes from full professors, research your class choice carefully. Look for smaller classes taught by the professors you want. If you attend a smaller college not focused on research, it will be much easier to find classes taught by professors. Some schools have honors programs that will give you priority in choosing your classes and often have special classes taught by top professors specifically for honors students. Finally, if there are professors who you specifically wish to learn from, go to their office hours and explain your interest in taking an upper-level class from them (smaller classes that do not use graduate students as teaching aides). Professors have a certain amount of leeway in creating their class lists and may be able to approve you for a class you would not otherwise be able to take or enroll in.

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