Monday, December 14, 2009

Teaching, Training, and Researching

A post and comments over at FSP inspired me to post about my thoughts on teaching. One comment in particular, by Steph, coincided so exactly with my own thoughts that I wanted to quote it here:

The system is totally and completely flawed. How many professors become professors because they actually want to teach? How many are just doing the teaching because it gives them the independence to pursue whatever research they would like, unlike in an industrial or government lab setting? I think there should be more teaching professorships at undergraduate institutions and just research professorships, both of which should have respected status (unlike lecturers, who are often treated like crap, from what I hear, and are disposable). I think this is an especially good idea in these times, where educating all members of our society in basic science is important because so many scientific issues face our society these days. Why remove all potentially very good teachers from the possibility of becoming profs at R1 universities when they could do a great job and help the hard-core researchers (who just want to spend 24/7 in the lab) have more time for research? People should be able to choose research or teaching or both.

I think this comment is right on target. Steph says the system is flawed, and she questions the teaching aspirations of people who become professors. I would even add in a couple more scenarios that support this flawed-system point of view. I'll call Steph's scenario "Scenario 1". Then we have Scenario 2, professors who do aspire to become great teachers but find they don't have the time that really would be required to teach well. And finally we have Scenario 3, professors who aspire to become great teachers, but are simply atrocious teachers by nature. Scenarios 2 and 3 could easily overlap, in that a professor lacking teaching skills could learn them (as discussed in another FSP post), but these professors would need more time to commit to such a task. So that's three scenarios that would result in professors being terrible teachers: professors who don't want to teach, professors who don't have time to teach, and professors who are terrible teachers by nature.

So, what are the scenarios that would result in professors being good teachers? I can think of two. Either the universities must demand excellence in teaching for job retention, or all 3 of the above "bad teacher scenarios" must be false, i.e. professors would need to want to teach, have time to teach, and have demonstrated excellent teaching skills to obtain their professorships. And of course, neither of these "good teacher scenarios" is true for R1 professorships.

So why is our system designed this way? Why is excellence in research the only real job requirement for obtaining a prestigious professorship in R1 universities? Where did this disconnect occur between a university being a teaching/learning institution vs. a university being a research institution?

The disconnect so clearly exists. It's evident in the "silly" questions we academics are asked by our non-academic family, friends and acquaintances. Questions like "What will you do during your summer vacation?" or "When are you going to graduate and get a real job?" (Ok, that one is kind of valid when asked of a Ph.D. student such as myself, but it is somewhat tiresome to explain that actually, I'm a paid research assistant doing a real job already.) Even undergrads are mostly clueless about how their academic institution really works. And good thing, probably, or would they really want to pay the big bucks so that professors and grad students could teach them as "side work?"

As for the reason for the disconnect between universities as teaching vs. research institutions, I can guess at one excellent, but flawed, reason. The excellent, flawed reason: isn't it best to learn from the best? The flaw is, the answer is not necessarily yes. Yes, it's best to learn from the best, if the best will take the time and make the effort to teach, and if the best is not abysmal at teaching. But often the best is abysmal at teaching, simply because the best didn't struggle very much to learn in the first place, or face as many obstacles along the path to their fantastic success.

Another possible reason for the teaching/research disconnect is monetary. Money makes universities go-round, so what brings in money at universities? Research brings in money through overhead on grants. Teaching brings in money because students pay tuition. And pleased (and wealthy) alumni bring in money through donations. Public universities get money through taxes. Am I missing any monetary sources?

In any case, all the monetary sources are heavily based on reputation. A university with a good reputation brings in more research grants and higher tuition and turns out more successful (happier, wealthier, more likely to donate more money) alumni. So, what determines a university's reputation? That's a weightier question than I can deal with in detail at the moment, but reputation should have a research component (publications of faculty, awards to faculty) and a teaching component (success of students). Here's how US News and World Report does it, and it actually seems to mostly depend on previous reputation. Is there some reason reputation would be more heavily weighted on research than teaching?

Regardless of the reason, the teaching/research disconnect at universities is alive and well, and does not serve it's two masters well. The researchers are distracted and burdened by teaching that bears little consequence on their success, and the students are taught as "side work" by professors who are never even trained to teach. Call me cynical, but I think all three of the "bad teaching scenarios" are true for many professors at R1 universities. And I think the problem could be solved if we really owned up to the flaw in the "it's best to learn from the best" logic. If, as Steph suggests, teaching professorships and research professorships could be separated, we could have the best of both worlds: universities producing excellent research while simultaneously providing an excellent education to students.

1 comment:

  1. I think the logical extension of the idea is to split the university itself into a teaching institution (only does teaching) and a research institute (only does research). The two institutions might be related to each other and hire the same people (if they are good at both), but would be distinct places.