Invisible Faculty, Invisible Writers

Clayton M. Christensen is primarily known for his work on innovation. His books The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution are required reading for business innovators (and in many classes), and the phrase “innovator’s dilemma” has passed into general use.

Christensen recently turned his attention to American public education, applying disruptive innovation theory to the various crisis facing public schools in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (2008). While the book focuses on grades K-12 (with one chapter on pre-school), it is fascinating and accessible. It’s useful for its insights, but also at places where those insights fail.

These qualities intersect when Christensen discusses the ideal educational world he’s arguing for, which is a world of “student-centric learning” placing computers to the center of the learning process so as to create individualized instruction that meets the unique needs of each student.

Christensen asks and then answers the question “Where do teachers fit in this futuristic classroom?” His answer is that as things like they’ll write things like Virtual ChemLab (, a simulated science classroom developed at BYU.  Virtual ChemLab is a huge success. It is already used by over 100,000 students (who report it helps them), and won the Pirelli Award for multimedia in education.

However, put that in context. Virtual ChemLab was developed with money from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education and BYU; will those funds be available for every faculty member to create their own material? Or will a few receive these prestigious grants while most fill the other slot Christensen sees as ideal for teachers in student-centric learning: guiding more students? Christensen argues that it is appropriate and desirable for students to interact primarily with these programmed learning opportunities, for teachers to guide, advice, and tutor them—and to do in larger numbers. This sounds sort of like the current world, with adjuncts filling the tutoring roles.

I do think adjuncts will be doing quite a bit of writing in this world, though, because they already are. They’re doing a lot of what I call invisible writing. They’re writing the study guides put out by companies like SparkNotes, CliffsNotes, and eNotes that students buy by the tens of thousands to help them study…and sometimes take the place of doing the course reading. (They are also writing course outlines, storyboards, quizzes, etc., but more on that anon.)

Is using these study guides wrong? No, of course not. I used them as an undergraduate. I write them now. They are highly useful aids to scholarship. However, in many of these, the author becomes invisible. Here’s an example. Look up, say, History 101 on Amazon, and you’ll find that “Sparknote editors” are listed as the author. However, on his entry on the H-Net editors directory (, Kelly D. McMichael lists himself as author of that book…and if you scroll down a bit further on his site, you’ll see he was an adjunct at two schools at that time.

It isn’t easy to tell how many of these guides are written by adjuncts, both because they aren’t always given bylines and because the companies don’t always track authors by faculty status. However, I can tell you from personal experience that in addition to genuine scholarly desire, I wrote the study guides I’ve written for the money. As an adjunct I needed it. Writing these guides pays now; traditional scholarship pays later, in the form of tenure. This gives perceived market needs a larger say in scholarship.

What’s more, because students don’t think of these study guides as written by anyone in particular, the results are sometimes curious. I have had, for example, students cite study guides I’d written back to me. They might do that with a book I’d written under my own name…but not accidentally.

Adjunct faculty members are already invisible members of many colleges, both there and not there, teaching but not listed except as “staff,” etc. One ongoing trend in academic writing is for them to become invisible as authors and scholars as well. We’ll return to this possibility in future posts…

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