Peer Review

The Last Artisans? Traditional and Future Faculty Roles

The articles in this issue of Peer Review variously describe the changes in the role of faculty members in undergraduate education and the conditions under which they work. The traditional faculty situation of full-time employment in a department with a fairly well-defined career track that includes tenure and protection of academic freedom is disappearing. Tenure-track positions have declined, and the adjuncts, instructors, and other non-tenure-track faculty (NTTF) that now fill the faculty ranks are less secure and less well compensated. Moreover, many of the things faculty members used to do—course design, selection of materials, creation of assignments, and assessment—are increasingly being organized by administrators and specialists and then turned over to often peripatetic adjuncts. The faculty role, from terms and conditions of employment to the actual work of instruction, is, in current parlance, becoming “unbundled.”

Two obvious factors driving these changes are cost and technology. In all but a small minority of well-funded institutions, budgetary pressures, especially postrecession, make cutting personnel costs and even personnel an obvious, even necessary “managerial imperative” (Lazerson 2010, Ch. 4). The unbundling or elimination of the traditional faculty role is aided and abetted by technology that allows courses to be delivered more cheaply or even free as institutions increasingly go online and flirt with massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Those concerned about this brave new world have spent much energy and effort in trying to understand these changes and develop appropriate and effective responses to them. The work of the Delphi Project and the ongoing efforts of AAC&U are producing sound research and interesting possibilities. At the grass-roots level, efforts at unionizing adjuncts seem to be gaining some traction with good results. These admirable efforts nevertheless implicitly or explicitly recognize that we are unlikely, save in a few elite places, to see the traditional faculty role restored.

As we consider future possibilities, it might be of value to pause and remind ourselves of the traditional faculty role by looking at it where it still exists—the liberal arts college. The art and craft of faculty work practiced there might help us evaluate new ideas about the faculty role as it might be emerging under the pressures of cost and the possibilities of technology. It might also provide us with some perspective on, and responses to, emerging and potentially radical alternatives.

Bundling and Artisanship

The liberal arts college is often thought to reflect what “college” is—Delbanco calls this ideal “our American pastoral”—despite the fact that these institutions serve a small fraction of American students (2012, 11). Residential campuses create a small community of traditional-age students and offer the promise of personalized attention from faculty and administrators in and out of class, as well as numerous cocurricular opportunities. Most students also point out that in the often-isolated residential setting, they learn as much from their peers as their instructors—and perhaps on a broader range of subjects. As a common banner in college dormitories in the nineteenth century cheekily put it, “Don’t let your studies interfere with your education!” (Thelin 2004, 163).

Faculty members in these institutions, the large majority of whom are tenured and tenure track (usually more of the former than the latter), typically define their formal role through the traditional trinity of teaching, scholarship, and service. However, in these institutions, unlike in many or even most universities, teaching is given far more weight in personnel considerations, and spending a fair amount of time in advising and governance is not only typical but expected. In these and other activities beyond the classroom, there is an important, more or less explicit understanding that faculty members, administrators, and students form an intentional community. The expectation is that the constant academic and social interaction is an important part of what Delbanco calls “lateral learning” from peers and others in the community (2012, 54–57). Faculty members and others see themselves as mentors to, and friends of, their students. To be sure, these understandings are found at other institutions, but the particular situation of the small residential college facilitates and encourages these relationships.

With regard to teaching, faculty members individually have tremendous autonomy and nearly complete control over curricular materials and course content, pedagogical strategies and classroom tactics, and assessment. Although there may be some departmental or institutional requirements for offering certain courses or having certain assignments (e.g., in writing-intensive courses), the norm is for each faculty member to develop and teach courses according to his/her own best lights as part of a department’s disciplinary offerings. There are few specialists that assist faculty members in any aspect of this process, save perhaps for library assistance and technological support for a course management system. There are few if any design specialists for electronic materials, few or no assessment personnel, or technical staff to move courses into online platforms, etc.

Simply put, the idea of unbundling the faculty role, whether in terms and conditions of employment or in instruction, has not reached the shores of the small elite liberal arts colleges. Faculty members are fairly autonomous artisans who craft the process of learning in their own ways without much if any specialized help; the specialization and division of labor involved only pertains to their and their colleagues’ disciplinary training. Indeed, the faculty as a whole, like the disciplines/graduate schools that produce them, operates something like a medieval guild that provided entry to employment via apprenticeship, set craft standards, and resisted interference from authorities and potential competitors. Finally, the “bundled” role of faculty members at liberal arts colleges is dual, since it also extends to their broader role as community members relating to students in many ways beyond the classroom.

Does it work? If depth of belief and testimony are to be believed, these liberal arts colleges have a strong positive impact on their students (Chambliss forthcoming). “High-impact practices” may not be a term of art at these institutions, but they are commonly practiced. Perhaps inevitably by dint of size and character, students report higher levels of engagement than are found at most institutions, a combination of intentionality and serendipity on a small residential campus. The key ingredient to making it work is immersion in an intellectual community with multiple opportunities for personal interaction, mentoring, and “lateral learning.” Students often “major in a professor” (Jaschik 2013) and have many opportunities for one-on-one engagement and feedback. The sense of community developed among undergraduates extends beyond graduation. Maintaining connections with peers and with the faculty and the institution is common, including high rates of participation in annual giving, reflecting belief in the worth of the institution and program.

As ideal as these circumstances are, the model is not perfect. With a few notable exceptions, formal assessment of learning in these settings is rare, and it sometimes seems that such resistance correlates with elite status. Similarly, innovation in program or pedagogy is not necessarily an imperative, especially as mostly tenured faculty, with artisan-like confidence in their individual work and institutional role, often see little need to change what seems to work well. The success that is a product of both lavish resources and highly personal kind of artisanship is enviable but probably not widely replicable; this kind of education is simply too costly to be offered widely. It works, but primarily in some limited and privileged precincts.

A Future Faculty Dystopia

If the traditional role is being preserved at elite liberal arts colleges, cost and technology are driving experimentation and disruption elsewhere. Recently the University of Southern New Hampshire’s College for America received accreditation from the New England Association of Colleges and Universities for a two-year degree in liberal studies (Parry 2013). That action received a lot of attention, because the degree would be awarded on the basis of the achievement of competencies rather than the accumulation of credit hours.

Competency-based programs are certainly not new (Field 2013), but this is “the first university eligible to award federal aid for a program untethered from the credit hour, the time-based unit that underlies courses and degrees” (Parry et. al 2013). Specifically, the program does not involve faculty members doing instruction, as “it lacks courses and traditional professors” (Parry et. al 2013). Students do self-paced work at various tasks, informed by online materials, tutorials, and problem sets presumably constructed by subject specialists and instructional designers. When students complete 120 tasks or sets of tasks that demonstrate competency the degree is awarded; there is no credit hour or time on task requirement. About the only recognizable direct faculty role in this process is in assessment of the performance of these tasks, though occasionally an individual “coach” might be in contact to help a student having difficulty. Otherwise the learning process is, so to speak, largely mechanized and routinized, the opposite of the more personal interaction in the artisanal process described above.

The appeal of this approach lies primarily in improved access and increased transparency. It improves access in two senses, cost and convenience. The degree costs as little as $2,500, which wouldn’t even pay for room and board at most residential colleges. Instruction is offered completely online, allowing the work to be done from almost anywhere. College for America has partnered with a number of corporations to support onsite locations where employees can pursue their degrees online after, and even sometimes during, work hours. The tasks and work involved in the degree should be transparent (although the lessons and tasks have yet to be made public) so that other educational institutions and future employers can see what the student has done. It is too early to answer the question of quality, “Does it work?” but the quality of the results should be able to be assessed.

For those concerned with the future faculty role, College for America might suggest a potential dystopian end point for the declining role of faculty members in undergraduate education. The faculty role is so “unbundled” in this case it all but disappears. Online resources are assembled and tasks constructed in cooperation with subject and other specialists. The resulting units are then offered widely, with the relatively limited personal contact just mentioned. Just as the artisans and guilds were replaced by more standard, mass, mechanized production, so too this kind of division of labor and use of technology could, if successful, further diminish the faculty role in undergraduate education

Beyond the threat of supplanting the traditional faculty role, it might be objected that this approach, despite the virtues of access and transparency, has major overlapping pedagogical and social problems. Students may be able to complete the tasks using online materials, but there is little or no ongoing pedagogical process and no artisanship—the mentoring that would support deeper, longer-lasting development of skills and knowledge. It seems doubtful that the level of engagement and immersion at a residential institution that achieves its results can be matched by simply doing online tasks (though the evidence remains to be seen). From a broader, equity perspective, the development of this kind of program and perhaps other technology-driven approaches, such as MOOCs, hold out a future in which a rich, deep, closely supervised education is enjoyed by some, typically the better off, and not afforded, in several senses, to others. Although the strategy of College for America offers broader access and therefore serves equity in one way, it also reinforces inequities in the kind of education available to students.

Whatever the merits of these objections, technological experimentation and innovation like College for America is here to stay. The question, then, is what the faculty role might be—a question that, not surprisingly, folds into the broader question of the role of technology in structuring and delivering (“disrupting”) undergraduate education.

Negotiating a New Faculty Role

Obviously there is a vast terrain that needs to be negotiated between the artisans in the liberal arts and the largely mechanized program of College for America. Initially, this question has been addressed as one of assessment—can online instruction in any of its many forms be as/more effective than face-to-face instruction? Like many social science questions, definite answers are hard to come by, but there is an emerging consensus that the best strategy may be a blended one that mixes online and face-to-face elements. This in turn has led to the more recent discussions about, and experiments with, “flipping the classroom,” in which materials and activities best delivered and completed online are pushed out of the classroom, with class time reserved for those activities (coaching) best done in face-to-face setting (Bowen 2012).

The moving target then is which activities belong in which domain and how they may be best combined. That is, where and how can instruction be routinized, and what kind of role can and should faculty members play in a world in which many aspects of instruction can now be found and done online? While online and adaptive learning have made huge strides, there are still many instructional tasks that ideally involve or even require human judgment. As Levy and Murnane (2013) note more generally about the role of computers in the work force, in the areas of “solving unstructured problems” (i.e., a lawyer writing a convincing legal brief) and “working with new information for use in problem solving” (i.e., a motel manager deciding whether a new air conditioner represents a useful upgrade), human judgment is needed to do the task well.

In an instructional context the implications of this are two-fold. First, some of the critical aspects of the faculty role involving judgment (artisanship) cannot be routinized or done through technology. For example, coaching students in doing inquiry—framing a problem in an interesting way, developing a research strategy, interpreting results, and giving feedback—is a task not likely to be subject to technology-based rules and pattern recognition. Perhaps equally important, the aim of undergraduate education in the economic situation Murnane and Levy describe is precisely the development of the capacities to work with unscripted problems and new information. Again, it is doubtful these capacities will be best developed through technology-dominated programs and materials, but again that is a question that demands hard thinking and evidence. At least it seems now that faculty involvement—artisanship—is still needed.

What this suggests is that faculty members need to negotiate their role on two related dimensions, the professional and the political. Professionally, faculty members are going to have to adopt and even embrace the idea of maximizing the potential of technology and the flipped classroom, even if the classroom itself is online. In training new faculty and retooling existing instructors, the way to serve both faculty and students is to develop and demonstrate the value of a combination of coaching and technology. Faculty members’ artisanship should be brought to bear and practiced in the classroom or online as a functional equivalent or enhancement of the kind of work found in a residential liberal arts college.

What is most dismaying about the current trends and changes in the faculty role is that institutions and their leaders apparently do not see the desirability of actually developing and deploying faculty to effectively take advantage of the new pedagogical possibilities. Fascination with technology and cost savings seems to have distracted administrators from thinking about what students need and what technology (and faculty) can offer. There is little or no investment in creating faculty members who can maximize the incredible potential technology creates.

It may be then that the faculty’s professional work has a political component. That is, in both advocating for and actually embracing the possibilities of the flipped classroom and similar instructional innovations, faculty members need to aggressively stake out what their professional role is and standards for it. To get institutions to respect this role, promote it, and create terms and conditions for work that allow it to occur will almost certainly require political organization of some sort, whether through existing professional mechanisms or nascent efforts at unionization.

When the guilds were overrun by industrial production it took a very long time and a great deal of struggle for labor to organize and achieve some modicum of appropriate terms and conditions for work. And, as recent events have shown, progress in the interests of labor is not guaranteed. The difference in the case of faculty is that “management” and “labor” have a shared interest in having a capable, professional, and decently treated workforce that can take advantage of the new possibilities opened up by technology. The “industrial” path we are treading and the treatment of faculty as piece workers in a quasi-industrial way serves our students, faculty, and society poorly. Reframing and redefining the artisanship of the faculty in a new era in a way that embraces technology and innovation is imperative.


Chambliss, D., and C. Takacs. Forthcoming. How College Works. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Delbanco, A. 2012. College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Field, K. 2013.“Student Aid Can Be Awarded for ‘Competencies,’ Not Just Credit Hours, U.S. Says. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 18. Awarded-for/137991/.

Jaschik, S. 2013. “Majoring in a Professor.” Inside Higher Ed., August 12.

Lazerson, M. 2010. Higher Education and the American Dream: Success and its Discontents. New York: CEU Press.

Levy, F. and R. Murnane. 2013. Dancing With Robots. Washington, DC: Third Way.

Parry, M. 2013. “Helping Colleges Move Beyond the Credit Hour.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29.

Parry, M., K. Field, and B. Supiano. 2013. “The Gates Effect.” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 14.

Thelin, J. 2004. A History of American Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

David Paris is the vice president of Integrative, Liberal Learning and the Global Commons at AAC&U.

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