Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Adjunct Star

Interesting article in today's Baltimore Sun about Jim Thomas, an adjunct philosophy professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Despite not having a Ph.D. and teaching at the worst named university in America, Thomas holds sixth place on the Rate My Professor web site. His students rave about him:
"Not only is it that I enjoy coming to class," says Unum Siddique, a junior from Howard County who has taken three of his classes. "It's that he makes it so much easier to understand the material. I can say, 'Oh, that story relates back to what that philosopher said in the reading.' "
Among the questions raised by the story are: of what value to the State of Maryland are philosophy professors who do "research", if a guy like Jim Thomas, who does none, is so much better at explaining philosophy to undergraduates?

How hard should professors work to make ideas easy for students to understand? Thomas works a lot of popular culture into his lectures, and is most noted for being very funny. Is that the right approach, or should we challenge students to understand difficult material without the aid of humor and Road Runner references?

How seriously should we take the opinions of students as to which teachers are best? Should hugely popular professors be paid more?

What is the purpose of grading? Thomas is an easy grader, and this seems to be part of his appeal. Should that make us think less of him, or should we instead notice that his students think they are learning a lot? Is there any "objective" way to measure how much they do learn, and what part hard or easy grading plays in that?


David said...

A faculty is like a tribal hunting-and-gathering band: the best arrangement is to have a variety of personas and skills to meet whatever issue comes up. Thus the best department will be one that offers a variety of approaches. It's good to have someone ingratiating like Thomas, plus an acerbic, demanding disciplinarian, a doctrinaire right-winger who will inspire a few with the thought that they're saving western civilization, a super-careerist, a genius, an activist with a Che poster, plus whatever else you can get a hold of. I'm not sure any of them should be paid more than any other.

John said...

I was thinking along the same lines myself.