Saturday, May 12, 2007

Research : Teaching : Service

The research : teaching : service ratio by which many of us are evaluated in our annual reviews has always puzzled me in terms of how it actually works. It puzzles me even though I've been on the committee that does this evaluation for my department: the committee members independently come up with evaluations without discussion with each other and then the department chair makes the ultimate decisions based in part on these recommendations. We never know exactly what he decides (or why). We each get a letter with our salary data, but no other information or evaluation information. Other departments/universities do things more strictly by a point system, though from what I've heard, that approach can be gratuitously stressful and too rigid.

Part of the mystery has to do with the fact that the research : teaching : service numbers (45 : 45 : 10, for example) don't have any meaning in terms of describing how we really spend our time (e.g., in reality, research time >> teaching time).

There are other ambiguous aspects of how faculty are evaluated: Let's say that the expected teaching load in my department is 2.5 classes per year, and that I teach 2.5 classes in a year. Does that mean that I have done well or that I am only average for teaching that year? If I am only average, what are the implications for my annual review (which I never see)? Teaching evaluations are also important in the evaluation, of course, but is it better to teach more and get average teaching evaluations or to teach less and get better evaluations? And what about grad teaching/advising and serving on grad committees? Is that teaching, research, or service? It has elements of all three; some of my colleagues think it is mostly research, some think it is mostly teaching, and some think it is mostly service (it would be interesting to plot these opinions vs. the number of grad advisees each professor has).

In my department, it's also not clear what the research expectations are except that we should do as much as possible. That's what I do anyway, so the ambiguities of the research expectations don't bother me. It's not as if I'm going to do more or less research depending on some arbitrary standard.

A friend of mine who is a department chair at a big research university told me that in his department, the Dean sets the 'bar' for research expectations and it is set at a level corresponding to the highest-performing faculty members -- the ones bringing in millions of $$ in funding and running big labs that produce a lot of papers with the PI as co-author. If the bar is set there, most faculty get lower evaluations, even if they are doing really well by almost any normal standard. My friend says this system is really bad for morale, especially for assistant professors. Hearing that made me feel grateful for my department's more mysterious but more holistic system.

The expectations for the 'service' part of the job can also be ambiguous in terms of what we have to do to meet or exceed the expectations for that component. Part of the mystery has to do with the fact that service involves such a wide range of possible activities: department/college/university service (committees), professional service (reviewing papers and proposals, serving on panels, being an editor, holding office in professional organizations), and outreach (visiting schools, judging science fairs etc.). Are all of these equal in value? What about giving invited talks at other universities? Is that service, research, both?

I think these issues are particularly important for assistant professors who need to know what the tenure criteria are, and for senior professors facing a negative post-tenure review. For example, should early career faculty agree to serve on administrative committees and teach a graduate seminar in addition to their regular teaching load and is it OK to decline to do some reviews? For early career faculty, service should of course be minimal, but professional service activities that give you visibility in your field can be important.

Everyone has to find their own balance in terms of what they can manage, but the two priorities are to be a productive researcher and to be a good teacher.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. My department seems to have a similar system to yours: mysterious. I have to say I do spend about as much time on teaching as on research, especially if I count advising as both (which sounds right at least at this point in my career with mostly undergrads and jr grad students as advisees.) I wonder if that is an imbalance I should worry about. I'm very deadline driven and my research projects that do not have a student attached to them are getting hopelessly posponed :(

The very brief orientation we had on tenure made it very clear that we would have to be super extra amazingly outstanding as teachers to get tenure based on that, so that alone should suggest I need to spend more time on research than teaching. Unfortunately, students have a way of clamoring for attention that data files and computational models can't aspire to!

Anonymous said...

Teaching evaluations are also important in the evaluation, of course, but is it better to teach more and get average teaching evaluations or to teach less and get better evaluations?
Do you mean "it's better to teach less and get average teaching evaluations or to teach more and get better evaluations"? Just asking because I'm wondering if you're making a profound comment that's flying over my head there.

On a completely different note, thank you for your posts. They reallt help demystify academia, especially the daily life of a professor. You're a real inspiration to other women working in academia, or working towards a career in academia.

YAMP said...

I am about to have my third year review and am not nervous at all even though I don't know the precise breakdown of duties.

We have a mentoring system for new faculty which seems very sensible: regular meetings with a few senior department members in the first year with little pressure or direction; a check-up in year two just to ensure that everyone has found informal mentors in a variety of areas (the questionnaire alone can be enough to point out ot people that resources are available), departmentally sponsored social events for assistant profs, the chair and a few select senior department members.

We have bi-annual salary reviews and there is a de-brief with the chair after the ones in years 2 and 4. Assistants have meetings with the chair to help prepare our third year renewal application and a debrief afterwards. This process is really a no-brainer but it is preparation for the tenure application.

All these things acclimate new assistants to local expectations and make the tenure application process transparent. By the time you go for tenure you have been evaluated three times against your local peers and have had this evaluation carefully explained to you by the chair.

We don't use a strict x:y:z breakdown, instead during these evaluations we are steered to bring different areas up to par. Each person has different abilities and this flexibility lets each person contribute according to their strengths. With our current chair it works very well. However, I can imagine the vaguaries allowing all sorts of disasters with different departmental politics.

Female Science Professor said...

I was making the point that if you teach fewer classes, you can spend more time on each and therefore (perhaps) have higher evaluations. If you have a high teaching load, especially if some classes are large, it can be difficult to do as well. For example, I prefer not to teach the big intro class the same semester that I am teaching a core class for majors because then I can't give either one as much attention as I would with fewer classes. But if you teach fewer classes, even with higher evaluations, is that seen as better than teaching more classes and getting OK (but not spectacular) evaluations?

bqiu said...

This is my first visit to your blog. Interesting stuff. Here's my view (as a student at a research university). Teaching and research seem like they would each be more effective and productive if they were connected. For me, a huge reason I chose a research university over a liberal arts school was the chance to learn in the classroom and in the lab. With regard to teaching, the courses that I've enjoyed the most and learned from the most have incorporated research and experiment design into teaching the subject matter. I guess this applies more specifically to higher level courses, where professors may actually be teaching material that is very close to their actual field of research. I realize this can't be the case for every course, but its just a feeling that I've gotten from my experience thus far.

bug_girl said...

A system in which you are evaluated by invisible criteria (and constantly changing invisible criteria) is one reason I bailed on my tenure track position.

I got sick of the bar being moved constantly (and not ever knowing where the bar was until after a review.)

Industry understands that you get better performance when criteria are specifically spelled out, and employees have annual reviews. I don't understand why no one sees how profoundly broken the the academic system is :(

Anonymous said...


Female Science Professor said...

Obviously I have asked, and I'm always told that I'm doing fine. Yet my merit raise each year seems to have no correlation with my actual accomplishments in terms of papers, grants, teaching etc. And the department chair and Dean changes from time to time, as does the committee that reviews faculty records. It's a moving target with a random system.

Rosie Redfield said...

Can you include your blog under 'Service'? It's certainly a big service to the larger community, but you may not want to compromise your anonymity by claiming credit for it.

faceblindgirl said...

I think "anonymous" meant why don't you ask what the metrics are. Make the committee write them down. Where I work it is very clearly defined, with a very long and complicated algorithm incorporating publications (and the impact foactor of the journal in which they're published), percentage of time spent on which type of project, amt of funding dollars you bring in, etc. (I'm also a female scientist, non-academic.) One of the perks of my job is that I know exactly what I need to do to get a raise, if that's what I'm interested in. Not having these metrics in writing is what leads to discrimination (be it real or perceived) - people need to demand that performance metrics be well-known!

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, but as I noted, I've been on that committee and I know there is no formula, metric, or whatever you want to call it -- we don't even discuss our results with the committee as a whole, so we aren't even 'calibrated' within the committee.

Please note that I am not particularly bothered by the ambiguities. I was, as usual, just musing.

gs said...

Other departments/universities do things more strictly by a point system, though from what I've heard, that approach can be gratuitously stressful and too rigid.

My instinct is to favor clear, objective criteria, but any ranking scheme is imperfect and somewhat arbitrary.

Explicitly incorporating randomness into the computation of rankings might reduce stress and salve egos. The role of chance shouldn't be so large as to make excellence irrelevant, but it shouldn't be so small that the atmosphere becomes cutthroat.