Tuesday, November 07, 2006

There They Go Again

I may be completely delusional (as opposed to partially delusional, which I freely admit to being), but I really don't recognize the academic universe described in a recent article in the Sunday New York Times (Education supplement). The article discusses which statistics reported by a college or university might not give a true picture of the institution.

I liked the start of the article: an example of a University of Michigan student who has taken small classes with a cohort of fellow students for much of her undergraduate career. The point is that these environments and programs exist at big universities, not just at small colleges.

But then there's a section titled: "Prizes and Ph.D's: They Don't Teach". I do not recognize the academic environment described. Not even close. Is there really any U.S. university, no matter how highly ranked and festooned with Nobel Prize laureates, at which teaching is not important? The scary thing is that the following quotation comes from a 'career and college counselor' and author of a guide to colleges:

"People who self-select into Ph.D. programs are academic research types, not teachers," he says. "Their knowledge is so deep and so profound they often don't have the ability to communicate well with undergraduates who need the basics." And this: "A person with a Nobel Prize-winner mind is in the loftiest stratospheres of their arcane pursuit and, in general, is not that gifted a teacher."

Where to start, where to start..

It's true that I often don't have the ability to communicate well with people, particularly when I'm asleep or alone. Otherwise, I typically do just fine.

Re. arcane pursuits: since I have no perspective, despite my deep and profound knowledge of some things, I Googled the term "arcane pursuits" to see if things like inventing magnetic resonance imaging and semiconductors or understanding the causes of diseases really are "arcane". Nope. It turns out that the following are arcane, though: Latin grammar, programming multicast applications, archiving television audio, fly fishing.

Anyway, I am really tired of reading this professors-can't-teach (or the variant: professors-don't-teach) myth in the mainstream press. Of course there are research professors and there are some not-so-great teachers at universities (and colleges), but I don't have any colleagues here or elsewhere who don't devote a lot of time and energy to teaching, to being very good teachers, and to integrating teaching and research. We are better teachers for our intensive involvement in research.

Another myth that is repeated in the article: that full-time faculty are better than adjuncts or part-time faculty: ".. being around (full-time) tends to increase their participation in the life of the campus and their students' development." Without getting into the issue of universities exploiting their adjuncts and not giving them sufficient respect or salary, it is clearly not the case that part-time faculty aren't as committed as full-time faculty.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't like the popular "good researchers are bad teachers" myth either. Especially because some people seem to think that being a bad enough teacher automatically makes them a good scientist, here in Frau-Professor-Land. (Or at least one of the candidates, although I think you were in another one.)

Thanks for clarifying the point about "submitted" papers on CVs!

kstrna said...

Based on my limited experience and discussing with those others in my department, is that the teaching quality is poorer at research universities than at SLACs. Many professors routinely refer to their course load as their "teaching burden". Many are known to recycle lectures/handouts with the same errors year after year. Other times lectures are prepared literally in the minutes leading up the class start time. We do have some professors who are devoted to their teaching & do a good job (it has been improving) but the overall quality is no where near what many of used experienced at top notch SLACs.

Anonymous said...

I rolled my eyes so early and so often reading that article that I wouldn't know where to begin. Cleary not a worthy battle to pick.

Anonymous said...

At my large R1 university, teaching is not important. There are some professors who care about the quality of their instruction, usually just before they retire. I don't think the article is wrong. You get tenure because of your research, teaching has nothing to do with it.

Female Science Professor said...

I believe you, but I really don't see that type of behavior in my department or in any of the other science departments I interact with at this R1 university. Teaching is a big deal, and faculty with major research programs devote a lot of time and energy to teaching well. Most of us participate in the large non-majors classes, and we work hard to make our classes up-to-date in terms of content. Teaching is a major part of our evaluation for promotion and for merit raises. Professors who don't teach well are at a serious disadvantage.

Anonymous said...

That's great. I think the university I'm at is one of the few in the nation that are this way, but I now know where this stereotype comes from. Such cultures exist, and I am not finding this one a pleasant place to work in.

ceresina said...

(I came from Ancarett's teaching carnival, so I'm a little late.) I love how the article first slams researchers (i.e. full professors) for being unable to teach, and then says that adjuncts can't teach, & a student has to go to a full professor for a real academic/intellectual experience.

David Mazella said...

I'm coming from the Ancarett Teaching Carnival, and I'm tenured in an English dept. that has 800 majors and close to 100 grad students.

You better believe we value our teaching, though we don't have the time or the funding we'd like to have.

I see both kinds of profs in the dept., along with TA's and lecturers, though I think lecturers, at any rate, cannot afford to get a reputation for bad teaching.

These kinds of pieces drive me nuts, because the teaching/research dichotomy is simply misleading at every echelon of the academy. Moreover, at all but the most privileged institutions, profs HAVE to do a good job at both, or they will run into big problems.

DM

Anonymous said...

It's not a myth that professors can't teach. Some don't care about teaching, some simply can't teach, and some display both, but don't be fooled by your own positive experiences. Like any trend, there are outliers, and you are one of them.