The Career Pathways of Non-Tenure-Track Full-Time Engineering Faculty
Roughly 10% of full-time engineering faculty members in the United States are not in tenure-track positions. The increasing use of non-tenure-track faculty, especially in teaching roles, has caused concerns about the quality of instruction and the commitment of non-tenure-track faculty to their students and institutions.
Early studies characterized non-tenure-track faculty as contingent workers, showing that student learning is negatively impacted because non-tenure-track faculty spend less time with students, are less likely to use active learning techniques, have lower expectations for their students, and spend less time preparing for courses. The results may be caused by the non-tenure-track faculty themselves or by their environment which typically provides fewer resources and less support to them as compared to their tenured or tenure-track counterparts.
More recently, the modeling of non-tenure-track faculty as contingent workers has been questioned by researchers who call for new theoretical models with which to view non-tenure-track faculty and their contributions to student learning, noting that previous studies had been unduly influenced by the preconceived notions of the authors and often relied on a deficit model. Instead of viewing the increasing use of teaching faculty as a threat to the tenure system, non-tenure-track faculty can increase the diversity of the faculty, bringing new experiences and viewpoints into the classroom, enhancing student learning. These new theoretical frameworks can be drawn from the experience of the non-tenure-track faculty themselves using an inductive, qualitative approach.
Inductive approaches have been fruitful, revealing that non-tenure-track faculty are a diverse group, choosing academic careers for different reasons and following a wide variety of pathways into the career. Department cultures vary in their support of non-tenure-track faculty and include destructive, neutral, inclusive, and learning cultures, each culture having specific effects on student learning. These new approaches have yielded recommendations to improve the departmental culture for all faculty, including non-tenure-track faculty.
This qualitative study consists of interviews with ten full-time non-tenure-track faculty members who teach in the engineering colleges of large, public, Midwestern, research universities. The interviews explore each faculty member’s professional and academic experience prior to teaching, their experience of the recruitment and hiring process, their expectations and concerns about becoming a full-time engineering faculty member, and their motivation for accepting the position. We examine their departmental culture to see what aspects fit the destructive, neutral, inclusive, and learning cultures.
We found that in general the participants in this study had significant industry experience which they bring into the classroom, that they are intrinsically motivated to teach, and that the departmental cultures in which they work are varied with all four departmental culture types represented. We found these ten participants to be committed to their students and institutions.
Understanding the pathways to becoming full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members and the departmental cultures in which they work enhances student learning by allowing engineering programs to design recruitment and hiring policies that attract and retain non-tenure-track faculty members with the professional skills and varied backgrounds that are characteristic of this diverse group.
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