Visiting Professors in the 21st Century

audience speaker perspectiveI am fascinated with the topic of visiting professors. Students perk up when they hear that a guest lecturer comes to visit, and it’s often a point of pride when they can name-drop them to their peers. That’s a good thing for the institution, of course, but is it a good thing for the people who are there to be educated?

In his 2009 book, The 30-Day MBA, author Colin Barrow says that sometimes the system of visiting educators are not as good for the students as they are supposed to be. The book explains how this system works, or at least as it pertains to business schools (bold words added):

The prospectus of business schools will, where they have them, feature their star faculty. You can’t however, be certain you will see much of them while you are there. In order to keep their stellar positions, such academics have to lecture around the globe as visiting professors in other schools. They need to attend several conferences a year, as that is the primary way to keep abreast of new job opportunities. In order to get to conferences in the first place they have to publish papers in learned journals.

Learned journals are where academics display their intellectual prowess to a very limited audience. The average readership of a double-blind referred article, that is, one that has been selected by a respected peer group of academics that have not been given the author’s name, is three. The purpose of being published is to have sufficient high-quality citations to ensure that your school maintains and improves its research rankings, and so its position in the league tables, and to be eligible for promotion.

In other words: Big name-professors want to make big money. To this end, they must publish papers, get their research cited, attend conferences, and visit other schools, generally in that order. But here’s where a problem comes into play, as the authors continue:

Except in so far as it polishes the business school’s brand, this activity is of little benefit to its current student. Only a tiny fraction of 1 per cent of the research published in journals results in useful knowledge. That’s not to devalue the activity totally, as knowledge about what works and what doesn’t in business is vital, however inefficiently gained. The problem is that in the pursuit of this knowledge the student’s welfare can be neglected. For example, it is common practice for seminars to be run by PhDs with little or no experience beyond the walls of the classroom in which they are teaching.

In fact, in some schools some subjects are not even taught be a ‘warm body’. Basic accounting, for example, from double-entry bookkeeping through to ratio analysis, is often covered using self-learning software. Nor can you even be certain that where you are taught, your teacher will mark and access your work. That job is often outsourced, much as with school external exams – GCSEs and the like.

In fact, the more successful the business school is at recruiting students the less likely you are to be taught and evaluated by the best teachers – unless of course you are on an executive development course, when you will almost certainly be taught by the best faculty, who may also be prospecting for consultancy assignments.

That’s not to say that the system is terrible and that there are no benefits. The benefits are largely obvious – you can hear the insight from an intelligent professional. But this book seems to be referring to star professors who are visiting business schools in the UK. An article by one American professional tells a very different story.

Policy analyst and former visiting professor Rachel Leventhal-Weiner wrote in Salon about her experience, which I found very insightful. Her experience was in the American higher education system, particularly at the undergraduate level:

Once upon a time, the “visiting” title meant something. It signified a certain level of status—you were good enough in your field to leave your own institution and grace another with your presence. You were a specialist and you were talented. Today, however, that is no longer the case.

The entire American higher education system is moving in the same cynical direction, hiring fewer long-term faculty members and more visitors. Accordingly, the “visiting” qualifier is now an empty signifier meant to confuse both students and job seekers.

Like its counterparts, “in-residence” or “term,” the visiting title is meant to distinguish contingent faculty members from long-term, tenured colleagues. These suggestive adjectives are meant to mislead, because visiting and in-residence positions are typically one step away from the lowly “adjunct” status in the faculty hierarchy. Visiting professors are affiliated with institutions on a short-term contract, and rarely, despite the grumblings of the labor market, result in transition to a long-term, tenure-track position. [. . .] In a survey of chief academic officers conducted by Inside Higher Ed, at least one third of institutional leaders agree that their institutions are becoming more reliant on non-tenure faculty and this trend will continue in the future.

As you can see, this sounds very different from the star-faculty status alluded to above. However, some of the problems are still observed in Leventhal-Weiner’s article:

Visiting professors face the same pressures as their tenured peers to publish and serve their disciplinary community, distracting them from their students and compromising the quality of the undergraduate academic experience.

Visitors may be cobbling together several jobs to make a living wage or distracted looking for their next long-term gig. Many campuses offer opportunities for course development money, for travel expenses for scholarly activities, or to pay student research assistants but as a visiting professor, my colleagues and I are unable to plan for such long-term commitments. Building social capital and adjusting to the rhythm of a new job takes time and in a visiting job, time is not on your side.

Faculty members are part of students’ intellectual and personal development outside of the classroom, [. . .] but students who double down on their relationships with contingent faculty may come up short when they try to cash in on this social capital down the road. Though most students assume faculty member have a long-standing relationship with the institution, they typically don’t know anything about the faculty hierarchy, remaining clueless about the difference between an assistant professor, an associate professor, and a visiting assistant professor.

Visiting professors tend to be less connected to campus resources and are often unable to serve as advisors, mentors, or confidants due to lack of time and their tenuous relationship with the institution. When students want to discuss the possibility of an independent study for the following year, it is impossible to commit. As my own contract negotiations stretched into registration last spring, I found it difficult to explain to my students that I was unsure if I would even be counted among the faculty ranks come fall semester. [. . .]

My advisor warned me about the perils of taking a “visiting” job. Visiting professors are subject to the same standards and the same scrutiny as their peers (and competitors) who stayed an extra year in graduate school to work on their publication record or who (luckily) found tenure-track positions. After holding a one or two-year position, most visiting professors have sunk all of their time into their teaching and perhaps also into service for their institution, leaving little time for research. After two years at my current institution, I know that I feel like a real professor even if I’m merely visiting for another few months.

An article from Inside Higher Ed concurs that visiting professors are becoming more frequent, saying that they “have increasingly become the entry point for new scholars coming out of graduate school and headed towards an uncertain future in academia.” The article goes on to explain some of the things that make this difficult for the .

In entering a visiting position, scholars are likely to face a number of gray areas. In teaching, for example, my experience at a small liberal arts college was that undergraduate students (unsurprisingly) made no distinction between me and other, tenure-track and tenured faculty in the department. This meant that, while I had no formal advising commitments, I was still asked to provide informal advisement, to supervise independent study projects, and to teach more rigorous honors variants of my courses. While I was not required to carry out any of these responsibilities, it was difficult to say no to students who came looking for guidance.

On the other hand, the article mentions that the benefits of this type of job (aside from the compensation) includes access to “professional development opportunities that are not available to other types of contingent faculty.” I suppose depending on who you are, there may be many other benefits, such as the lifestyle of traveling/moving from place to place. Of course, not everyone would consider this a good thing, but as in most jobs, it’s a matter of opinion.

The Bottom Line

I have not made this post in order to denigrate the ‘visiting professor.’ Instead, I am more interested in explaining what it is, because it seems clear that most people cannot distinguish between an adjunct, visiting, or full professor. It seems that this is becoming a gradually more wide-spreading phenomenon, and if you’re a young academic, you might want to start looking into this. Whether it’s an option you want to take or a path you hope to avoid is up to you.

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