Monday, April 12, 2010

The Invisible Hand and the Math Teaching Job Market

For those of you who have not been keeping score at home, the university that I work for is having a budget crisis. My department relies on a lot of lecturers in order to cover all the demand for lower division courses. Lecturers tend to be full time (with benefits) and to teach twice as many courses as a tenure-line faculty member for less than half the money. (Well, I'd say half the money of a new assistant professor but a quarter of the money of an experienced full professor.)

So the obvious answer to the budget crisis is to threaten to lay off the lecturers. If you lay off two lecturers, you save just as much money as denying tenure to one assistant professor -- but without inciting the wrath of the faculty senate. Of course then you have to figure out what to do about the 560 students who don't get to take math. The obvious plan is to deny math to the freshmen who are most likely to drop out, as our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate kind of sucks. If the potential drop-outs are the ones that don't get to take math, then this doesn't have much of a negative impact on the overall graduation rates.

Who knows what sort of crazy plans are being tossed about by the upper administration, but most of them involve saving money by laying off the people who do the most teaching for the least money. Most of my colleagues are not stupid, so many of the best instructors now view working here as a poorly-paying job with low job security, and so just about everyone is going on the job market. Some people are going on the academic job market (community college circuit), but most are just going for regular jobs. A lot of the worst performers are hoping to stick around and ride this out, but some of them have seen the writing on the wall and are trying to get out before they are asked to leave. Most of them don't have many options. I'm pretty sure that we have someone teaching here who could not come up with the Maclaurin series for f(x) = ex without looking it up. I'd even be willing to bet that we have multiple people who this holds for. One of them even commented to me that she didn't realize that the derivative is a slope until she taught calculus here. They're all sticking around.

The more people who leave voluntarily, the more secure everyone else's jobs are. The people most likely to get job offers are the ones who have the most to offer.

Because of my administrative role, a lot of the people who are job-hunting have listed me as a reference, and the other jobs are starting to call.

I have an easy time dealing with the phone calls about the stellar candidates. A few months back Small Rural College called about Over-Qualified Olivia. It was easy to answer the questions with examples of ways that she had excelled. Olivia has an active research program in a trendy area and has ways to get students involved. She's an amazingly effective teacher. She gets things done.

Recently I got a call from Triangle Community College, where Mediocre Mary applied for a position. Mary is not the most effective instructor. Mary does not appear to reflect upon the practice of teaching. It was hard for me to be enthusiastic and truthful at the same time (especially while thinking on my feet). On the plus side, I can say that Mary really wants her students to do well. Will my tepid comments sink her application at Triangle? Would we be better off hanging on to Mary or would we be better off if Mary got the job at Triangle? If Mary got the job at Triangle, would we give her a night class as an extra class?

There are only so many people qualified to teach math in this area. Math teaching pays a lot worse than just about anything else you can do with math. The university is unable (or unwilling) to do anything to hang on to the superstars. Will there come a point when the mediocre are the best that the math department has? Will the university end up dropping its math gen-ed requirement? Will every quantitative department start teaching its own calculus class?