Professor of practice: More than a title?

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Imagine learning how to crunch the numbers from a business owner, how to code from a game designer, or how to use a camera from a filmmaker. Thanks to professors of practice, students are increasingly getting classroom access to real-world professionals within their fields of study.

While the term ‘professor of practice’ is popping up in universities throughout the country, few know what this title actually means. According to the American Association of University Professors, professors of practice are “full-time, non-tenure-track faculty appointments.” This role is often filled by “practitioners who are appointed because of skills and expertise acquired in non-academic careers.”

Fixed-term faculty are present in every university, college and department, though the individual’s preferred title may vary based on professional field or the university or department’s preference.

According to a 2010 article by Judith M. Gappa and Ann E. Austin, the majority of faculty members do not occupy tenured positions. In fact, they found a continuous trend away from tenure as the prototype of faculty positions. This leaves more space in the academy for fixed-term faculty like professors of practice.

Here at Michigan State, tenure-track faculty members still outnumber those that have a fixed-term contract, but the percentage of fixed-term faculty members is growing rapidly. The number of tenure system faculty increased by 2.2 percent between the fall of 2012 and the fall of 2016, while the number of fixed-term faculty increased by over 13 percent.

While MSU doesn’t technically recognize ‘professor of practice’ as an official title, this phrase can certainly be found on faculty bios in colleges and departments within the university.

A matter of rhetoric

Take, for example, Susan Convery of the Eli Broad College of Business, whose bio characterizes her as both a “fixed-term faculty” and a professor of practice.

“Our college voted to use this phrase ‘professor of practice’ as a title of respect for people who are teaching in front of students whether they are part-time or full-time,” Convery said. “It’s a general label.”

In most cases, “professor of practice” is just a synonym for a fixed-term faculty member. As Convery said, some consider the title a matter of respect, some do not.

While Convery tells students her name is ‘Professor Convery,’ she is careful to always denote herself as a professor of practice in writing to remain “professional or respectful or transparent.”

“I do recommendation letters for students all the time, and I publish and present at conferences and I always use the term because I am not the same as (a tenure-track professor),” said Convery. “If I say I’m a professor at Michigan State University, and there are professors here who have been here and produce research at a level you’d expect out of a research article, it’s not right for me to use that same term.”

In many cases, being a tenure-track professor requires a level of higher education that many professors of practice don’t have. The Broad College of Business requires a Ph.D. while the College of Communication Arts and Sciences requires a terminal degree.

“It’s nice to be recognized as someone who has reached the level of expertise in my field to be thought of as a professor, but clearly that expertise is ‘less than’ someone with a terminal degree,” said Carleen Ling-an Hsu, a professor of practice with a joint appointment in ComArtSci and in the College of Arts and Letters. “It’s like saying, ‘We think you’re great in your field, but not great enough that we recognize that your work is on par with studying at an institution and worthy of all its bells and whistles.”

The bells and whistles

Because “tenure-track” implies a level of permanency, some professors of practice question their teaching freedom and job security, as their time in a position is limited anywhere from a single semester to five years. Unlike a tenured professor, they can still be let go from their position at any time.

“I’m interested in being able to work in my field and be able to teach what I think would most benefit students, the institution and the field without fear of being reprimanded because of my perspectives,” said Hsu. “That’s academic freedom. Job security is important, too.”

In academia, tenure-track professors are also seen as more qualified to conduct research and teach certain classes because of their higher degrees.

“It’s kind of ridiculous,” Hsu said. “In other words, someone who is recognized with one of the most prestigious awards in their field is ‘less than’ someone who has studied in their field, even though he/she may not have or never will be recognized with an award actually doing the thing they have studied.”

For Mike Castellucci, a video news artist-in-residence for the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, his career prior to teaching has been his own form of higher education.

“I basically lived the research in my TV career,” said Castellucci. “Practical experience, which goes back to what ‘professor of practice’ means, is the background I come from. My experience is in the business and being able to translate it to the classroom.”

Additionally, the opinions of professors of practice aren’t always taken into account when it comes to the direction of their colleges and departments.

“I don’t want to be thought of as ‘less qualified’ by an institution,” Hsu said. “Why is it that most professors of practice can’t vote on things that affect their department and how it’s run? Being able to vote and have a say in the institution means that your voice is not only wanted, but desired. So, what does it mean that in most departments, ‘professors of practice’ can’t vote?”

A diverse workload

According to Convery, who sat on nationwide committee for the American Accounting Association about fixed-term faculty, professors of practice are sometimes brought on to make up for a shortage of accounting professors in the pipeline.

“To be able to cover the same level of courses that you generally teach, business schools are told, ‘You’ll probably be using more of these [fixed-term faculty],” said Convery. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it’s up to you, and you have to either make incentives for people to get a Ph.D. or change your staffing model or course sizes.”

Aside from education, professors of practice also differ from tenure-track professors in the distribution of their workload. While tenure-track professors might spend the majority of their time conducting research and spend little time teaching, fixed-term faculty spend most of their time teaching and doing service work.

Some of these professors of practice still work in their field outside of the university as well. Hsu said she spends half of her time teaching students, preparing for class and doing department service, while the other half she spends making films.

Castellucci continues to do video news broadcasting aside from the time he spends teaching.

“The title is just that, a title,” said Castellucci. “I’m sure that it’s not as highly regarded as a full professor in the educational arena. But maybe it is. I think it all depends where you’re coming from. A full professor, one who I couldn’t hold a candle next to when it comes to research, might feel like a fish out of water at Channel 8 in Dallas, where I come from.”

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