SHEFFIELD, England — Even after rising in London to the top of his profession, Damion Taylor pined to return to the Northern English roots still evident in his distinctive accent.
Which is how the former head of finance at the British Post Office and active co-founder of a startup in the hot field of renewable energy came to be teaching finance, banking and financial management to undergraduates at his hometown alma mater, Sheffield Hallam University.
“All of that stuff I plug back into my teaching,” said Taylor, pointing to a lecture theater normally crowded with students who come to hear the stories he tells from his career. “It’s about giving examples they can relate to.”
Sheffield Hallam wants to be known as the world’s leading “applied university,” a mantra splashed on the construction fences outside its new state-of-the-art business school building going up in the city center and scheduled to open next year.
Among other things, the university focuses on having students learn from people like Taylor, who work or worked in the fields they teach. It even has a catchy word to describe these practical academics: “pracademics.”
“It’s what we’re about at this university: practical application,” said Taylor, who had just received a thank-you from a freshly minted graduate he’d helped to get a job — “another byproduct of me staying plugged into industry,” he said.
“This is what we do here. This is how we work. We make it real.”
American universities have pracademics, too, of course. They’re among the more than 710,000 part-time and non-tenure track faculty who now make up 61 percent of all faculty, according to the American Association of University Professors. Other adjectives for them include “adjunct,” “casual,” “contingent,” “external” and “occasional.”
U.S. universities have tended not to boast about the people in their classrooms who also work outside of them, whatever they’re called. Many barely acknowledge them at all. But as consumers increasingly call for educations that lead more directly to jobs, the pracademic trend in other countries suggests that this could change, with the word itself a symbol of newfound respect.
After all, one way to help students prepare for and find their way into the careers they want is to have them learn from professionals already well established in those fields.
“There are cultural forces that are making pracademics at the forefront of discussions,” said Teri-Lisa Griffiths, a former youth worker who now teaches criminology at Sheffield Hallam and has co-edited a new book about pracademics.
Only one in three American students say their colleges are excellent or very good at connecting their educations with careers, according to a survey by the Strada Education Network. That has contributed to a widening conviction among Americans that a degree is no longer worth the price and is driving a continuing decline in enrollment.
Pracademics, on the other hand, “are very popular with students,” Griffiths said. Students “want to hear from people who are doing work in the field. Pracademics can draw on stories of practice. They can bring alive theory by describing their own experiences.”
On campuses in the United States, however, instructors like these have been relegated to second-class status behind their full-time academic counterparts.
“There’s been a devaluing of anything that sits outside the model of the traditional conception of a faculty member,” said Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC’s Rossier School of Education.
That’s partly an outgrowth of the interminable battle on campuses between theory and practice. As early as 1928, the education reformer John Dewey decried “the aloofness of ‘intellectuals’ from life.”
American universities have more than 710,000 part-time and non-tenure track faculty who make up 61 percent of all faculty.
But forces including escalating college costs and the Covid-19 pandemic have heightened the demand for vocational educations alongside purely academic ones.
“Nobody has the privileged position of just going and pondering life and not needing to have the outcome of a job,” Kezar said. “Maybe — God, I hope — we’re at a reckoning.”
Calls for a reckoning like this are growing. “Colleges must put economic mobility at the center of their mission,” declared an April report by the Project on Workforce at Harvard. But “the college-to-jobs ecosystem is poorly aligned.”
Pracademics can also help their purely academic colleagues keep up with changes happening outside the classroom, said Jo Painter, a nurse consultant in adult mental health who also works as a senior lecturer in nursing at Sheffield Hallam.
What those full-time academics don’t have, she said, is “current experience with changes in policy, changing demographics, how we work.” In her field in particular, she said, “we often talk about the theory-practice gap.”
Painter sometimes collaborates with a colleague who’s a full-time academic researcher. The colleague, Painter said, “tells me, ‘You give me the tacit knowledge I don’t have.’ ”
From students’ perspective, learning from a practicing professional “made things very relevant,” said Lou Wright, one of Painter’s advisees who plans to become a mental health nurse. “I really wanted that genuine learning experience.”
Working professionals teach a variety of subjects in the United States, including nursing, law and journalism. They’re particularly prevalent at technical and community colleges.
“There have always been these kinds of instructors,” Kezar said. “Prior to the trend of the exploitation of hiring part-time faculty and adjuncts to save money, that’s what adjuncts were. It was only recently that you started having part-time faculty [who don’t work in the fields that they teach] being mainline faculty in areas like the liberal arts.”
The idea of elevating pracademics, she said, “is really going back to the roots. In a sense, what’s old is new.”
Still, words matter. “It’s really important to have this term in circulation,” said Trista Hollweck, a research fellow at the University of Ottawa in Canada who has written about and advocated for pracademics.
“So many people resonate with the term when we define it as a person who is situated across two domains,” Hollweck said. “Not only a researcher who goes out and studies a profession but someone who actually straddles both of those worlds.”
Using the term pracademics for part-time teachers with professional experience is making inroads in the United States, too. One advocate of this is Steve Morreale, a former Drug Enforcement Administration senior agent who now teaches criminal justice and public administration at Worcester State University in Massachusetts.
Universities should, but don’t, market people like him as “Here’s somebody who’s going to teach you who has already done the job,” said Morreale.
“To me, a person teaching accounting should have been an accountant and not just learned it from a book. I don’t want somebody teaching aeronautics not to have ever flown a plane. That just makes no sense.”
Students “want to hear from people who are doing work in the field. Pracademics can draw on stories of practice. They can bring alive theory by describing their own experiences.”Teri-Lisa Griffiths, Sheffield Hallam University
Still, even advocates warn that there are some risks to having established professionals teach future workers. They can perpetuate bad habits and cultures as well as good, in fields such as law enforcement, for example. And they can recount their experiences without context.
“We run the risk of allowing that to be repeating,” Griffiths said of bad professional behavior. Added Morreale: “We have to tease out a person’s ability to be in the classroom so that they’re not just telling war stories.”
But pracademics can also use their experiences to promote change. An architect she knew, for instance, Griffiths said, encouraged his students to create designs that were more inclusive than his had been.
Another problem: Working professionals have limited time to teach, which often doesn’t pay enough to justify leaving, or taking time away from, full-time jobs.
“There’s a challenge to pulling people out of industry,” said Taylor, the Sheffield Hallam business instructor. “The reward is not enough. The only way this happens is if you have someone like me who wants to have a life change, or you really believe in teaching.”
Hollweck — a pracademic herself, who works two jobs at education policy organizations on top of her presence in the classroom — said, with some frustration: “It’s not valued. As a teacher who’s doing all sorts of work teaching at night, has an adjunct position, publishes in journals, there’s nowhere on your pay scale that that comes out.”
There are signs that this valuation may be changing, with some U.S. universities beginning to market the advantages of having pracademics teach for them.
One, Adelphi, is promoting a new master’s program in business administration launched this spring as being taught by “leading industry experts who bring their professional know-how and experiences into small classroom settings that offer opportunities for mentoring, networking and individualized support.”
There’s another reason American universities may be starting to publicize the value of their part-time faculty: They’re being forced to pay them more.
After a three-week strike late last year, some of the lowest-paid part-time faculty at The New School won pay increases of about a third. And in April, after a strike, Rutgers part-time faculty adjunct professors were awarded raises of nearly 44 percent.
“There is a natural evolution going on where there is greater valuing of adjuncts, just because of the numbers,” Kezar said.
“There are cultural forces that are making pracademics at the forefront of discussions.”Teri-Lisa Griffiths, Sheffield Hallam University
Barriers remain. Research universities often don’t let people join their full-time faculties, even with professional experience in what they’re teaching, for example, unless they also have a doctoral degree. But even that tradition is slowly being chipped away.
An employment tribunal in 2021 found in favor of a longtime lecturer in accounting, finance and economics who was dismissed by the University of Huddersfield, just northwest of Sheffield, because he declined to get a doctoral degree. When the university wouldn’t reinstate the lecturer, it was ordered to pay him £100,000, or about $126,000.
Cases like that, said Morreale, only emphasize that pracademics “are seen as vocational” by their employers. “We are not seen as academic. We are marginalized.”
To full-time academic faculty, he said, antagonism toward pracademics “is job preservation. In their minds, they’re fearful. It’s insecurity, in some cases. Because they see, ‘Wait a minute — the students like you more.’ ”
This story about pracademics was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.