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The Changing Landscape of Social Work Teaching
By Lisa M. Eible, DSW, MSW, LCSW

Herb Childress’ new book, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission, provides an eye-opening look at staffing for the classroom in America’s colleges and universities. Childress details the move from full-time, “permanent”/tenured faculty to staffing patterns that consist of part-time workers. He maintains that teaching at universities has become part of the “gig economy,” like Uber or TaskRabbit, where work is parceled out. Childress proposes that current staffing methodologies have a profound impact on the adjunct faculty employed, the tenured faculty in the department, the institution as a whole, and, most importantly, on the students. Specifically, Childress notes that the most vulnerable students, often concentrated in community colleges and nonelite state colleges, are facing the least consistency in the classroom setting. The Adjunct Underclass is an important and compelling read for all, including social workers who serve as adjunct faculty, as field placement supervisors, or in other types of leadership and mentoring roles.

Social Work Programs
What is the state of social work departments/programs in the United States? Are social work programs experiencing the trends that Childress notes?

A 2017 report from the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) reveals that this trend is occurring in social work departments/programs. It does not appear to be as prevalent as Childress notes is occurring in some settings, but it is worth noting that the CSWE report is voluntary and includes graduate and undergraduate program data, as well as likely data from elite schools. A trending chart in the 2017 Annual Statistics Report indicates that since 2012, social work programs have increased their reliance on part-time faculty and now, as a whole, have nearly 60% of faculty who are not full time. Further, even among those reported as full-time faculty, one notes many position titles in the report that are temporary in nature (eg, adjunct, instructor, lecturer, clinical appointment), consistent with Childress’ notation from The Chronicle of Higher Education that many full-time positions are actually short-term contracts.

Social Work Faculty


Number of Full-Time Faculty

Number of Part-Time Faculty

% Full Time

% Part Time































— Source: 2017 Statistics Report, Council on Social Work Education

It is widely recognized in social work education that there can be significant benefits to having adjunct faculty who are practicing in “the real world” and who are current with practice trends and contemporary social issues. However, tenured faculty can also have social work practice or policy experience. Further, the replacement of tenured faculty with part-time faculty is likely to have the same impact on social work education that Childress notes is occurring at universities across the United States; the effect on student connectedness to the department and university, as well as, in the case of social work, potential impact on field practice. It is unlikely that social work students are aware of this trend and the impact that it may have on their access to faculty or to addressing issues in the social work department.

Teaching of Social Work Students
Despite the focus in social work education on practice, many schools of social work continue to hire tenure-track faculty for their research agenda instead of their practice experience, service, and ability to teach. Of course, there are some schools of social work that have prioritized teaching quality and service, but many still operate as though social work is the same as other academic fields and prioritize research. Social workers understand the importance of social work research, particularly with the need to use evidence-based practice in the field. However, students need experienced practice faculty who are available for the many intricacies of learning social work practice, including the linking of classroom concepts to the field experience. Many students are surprised that tenured faculty may spend their time pursuing research and spend little time in the classroom. They may be surprised that the areas of interest or specialty of well-known faculty that drew them to a particular social work program may not be available to them during their academic career. Instead, students may find that their program is highly dependent on adjuncts for the required and specialty courses and that the field placement–related work is parceled out to task supervisors, clinical supervisors, classroom faculty, a field placement coordinator, etc.

Rethinking the Current State
Social workers who were educated in prior decades still remember their social work education. Perhaps it was a challenging course, a field placement that started shaky but turned out great, lessons that were unexpected, or the camaraderie of their colleagues. But most importantly, many social workers remember that unique faculty member who opened their heart and mind, who taught them social work values and the complexity of practice, and who supported them through mistakes. This is the experience that shapes good social workers—having safety and security while learning, the direct application of theory to practice, and the closing of the loops so that it all makes sense. Having consistent, invested faculty who get to really know students as individuals should be a cornerstone of social work education programs. There are universities that still support this type of staffing model. However, increasingly, there are many social work programs that parcel learning via short-term faculty contracts, overwhelming teaching and department requirements, and the focus on online learning. The relationship and its quality are at the heart of social work practice and should be the heart of social work education.

— Lisa M. Eible, DSW, MSW, LCSW, is a consultant and educator with more than 27 years of social work experience. She has advanced certificates in cultural competence and trauma. Her professional interests include social work in health care, administration, leadership, supervision, relational-cultural theory, and diversity issues. Eible serves as adjunct faculty at two universities.