Friday, May 11, 2007

Teaching at a Research University

Yesterday, when I wasn't reading the headlines in The Onion, I also read the New York Times' 57 millionth article on Harvard: "Harvard Task Force Calls for New Focus on Teaching and Not Just Research".

Items in the article that caught my eye included a quotation from an undergraduate: “You go to a liberal arts college for the teaching. You come to Harvard to be around some of the greatest minds on earth.” I wonder what that 'be around' part entails, if it isn't teaching. Does the greatness of those great minds diffuse somehow to the undergrads because the great minds are talking to people who talk to people who teach the students? I don't know how that works, but I am hoping that it means there are lots of chances for undergraduates to be involved in research or seminar series with the great minds, and it isn't all indirect.

I went to a liberal arts college as an undergrad (and taught briefly at one as a professor), but have mostly been at large research universities since then (grad student, postdoc, professor). There have been professors dedicated to teaching and research excellence at all of these places. I'm not sure why it is either/or at some universities; many professors at large universities value both, and I do not believe that research suffers. Of course, teaching loads have to be reasonable, but it is entirely possible to do research, supervise a research group, and teach classes (even a large introductory level class). Perhaps some great minds can't do both and that's fine, as long as administrators (like Harvard's Dean of the Arts & Sciences Grad School) recognize things like this:

"We can’t just mention excellent teachers occasionally. We have to notice and reward their efforts consistently.” Yes!

The article mentions Harvard, Amherst, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. The latter two, along with small colleges like Amherst, "are known for their commitment to both" teaching and research. So it is possible.

I was talking recently with colleagues from various large research universities about the expected ratio of research : teaching : service in their departments/universities. In my small survey, most faculty have a ratio of 40 : 40 : 20 or 45 : 45 : 10. A few places allow for variation of +/- 10 to account for different career stages, paths, interests, abilities. I did not encounter anyone who had a major imbalance in the expected ratio of research to teaching. Of course, there may be differences in the actual accounting of research and teaching activities, but that's another issue.


lost academic said...

I have discussed with faculty at my undergraduate and graduate institutions the practice of allowing faculty to 'buy out' of their teaching requirements, which has a variety of impacts, allowing them to focus on research, requiring other faculty to teach more, potentially allowing the university/department to hire faculty or staff to do nothing BUT teach with said funds, and so on. What is your opinion or experience with this?

Susan B. Anthony said...

I was talking recently with colleagues from various large research universities about the expected ratio of research : teaching : service in their departments/universities. In my small survey, most faculty have a ratio of 40 : 40 : 20 or 45 : 45 : 10.

This may be how their time actually breaks down. But are these the ratios on which they are evaluated for tenure or promotion? This, I suspect, is the issue for large research universities: not that no one cares about teaching, but that it's not rewarded in proportion with its importance to the institution or the time people spend on it.

Female Science Professor said...

lost academic -- that's a big topic, and an important one; maybe I'll write about that soon.

susan -- those ratios are the evaluation basis. I think they are kind of bizarre because it's unclear how to calibrate them (another big topic)

H4736 said...

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Am I a woman scientist? said...

It's pretty pathetic that the student quoted thinks that the "great minds" are all at the big Ivy League schools. There were many great minds at my top-ranked liberal arts college (with whom I had lunch on a regular basis). I got my research start there, and my first two pubs in peer-reviewed journals from that work before I was in grad school. A high school friend of mine went to Yale, and she encountered quite a few small minds among the faculty and students (although she mostly complained about the students).

I think the reputation of the Ivies is overblown with respect to the quality of the education that the undergrads get from them. Or rather there is a lot of variability in that quality. They're kind of like a popular product brand that you shell out a lot of money for, only to find out that half of the items are total s**t. Like that really expensive pair of Merrill sandals I bought that broke after wearing them for a week around town.

Anonymous said...

hi FSP,
i did my undergrad at harvard, majoring in the "physical sciences." my undergrad intro classes were pretty standard, nothing amazing. however, i benefited greatly from my undergraduate research experiences there. i learned about how to think about real research problems from leaders in the field, and my interactions with older grad students and postdocs taught me about the bigger picture and what people in the field were excited about.

compared to a liberal arts college, i probably had to be more aggressive about pursuing these opportunities and scheduling time with my advisor. i think this was balanced out by the resources that were available though - there was plenty of equipment and funding, i got to travel to conferences and published a first-author paper in a leading journal.

love the blog - keep up the good work! (and ignore the trolls)

Anonymous said...

I am an FSP in the biomedical sciences, and I thoroughly agree with Am I a Woman Scientist. I did my graduate and postdoctoral work at Snooty Private Universities (SPUs) and am now a faculty member at Large Public University (LPU). In my opinion, the vast majority of work done in SPUs and LPUs is comparable in vision and quality. I see the comparison not only in my colleagues, but as a regular member of an NIH study section. It certainly is not the case that the only great work comes from Ivy League Schools and their ilk. While these types of schools may hire a slightly larger number of "star" faculty, my guess is that undergraduates have little opportunity to interact with them anyway.

By the way, I just started reading this blog a month or so ago, and I really enjoy it. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

In my country one has considered if teaching should be it`s one category. Because one can be an excellent scientist without necessarily being a great tutor..
I Don`t think one should employ researchers with an overemph. on teaching either- because that is not their prior work- in my opinion. The only disadvantage emplying teachers without having a research post is that one doesN\t engage the front in research as neatly into classes......

Even though I REALLY wonder if the researchers having the same classes years after year spend 40 % of their time on students (not having to prepare- they tell just like dead robots, some of them)? At our university (I am a grad. student in soc sciences) we have app 4 hours of lectures a WEEK. so one can ask oneself if the empl. are not doing research most of the time?? Yet they complain about too much teaching?? Doesn\ make sense to me.. OK! some researchers may be popular advisors, but all the others??

What do you say to this?

sabeth said...

Am I a woman scientist? said: "I think the reputation of the Ivies is overblown with respect to the quality of the education that the undergrads get from them."

Didn't your (I'm Canadian) less- than-brilliant President graduate from Yale? His getting a degree is not, in my opinion, much of a recommendation for educational standards at any university, let alone an Ivy League school.

I have attended three universities during studies for my 3 1/2 degrees. I have observed that the greatest academic range of standards lies within, rather than between universities.

It does seem possible that some academics can juggle research/administration/teaching. However, as a believer in meritocracies, I have always thought that having each professor spend most time in his/her area of greatest ability would be optimal.

Andres Carl Sena said...

just be glad your not teaching high school

Female Science Professor said...

I am. There's a very good reason I'm not teaching high school: I would be terrible at it. I admire very much those who teach K-12.

Flicka Mawa said...

I am at a large research university, and I can speak for a large percentage of the departments at it when I say that a ratio of 45:45:10 may apply to most professor's actual time breakdown, but it is exactly as susan b anthony suggested...when it comes to what's valued for tenure and promotion, it's like 80:15:5 or the like. Research is ALL that matters. Winning teaching awards for being an amazing teacher? They do not care at all, and you will likely not get tenure if you put enough effort into your teaching to get an award, unless you're really a master of being an awesome teacher who is available to her students AND a great researcher who has published published published.

YAMP said...

when it comes to what's valued for tenure and promotion, it's like 80:15:5

I believe this, but I don't really understand it. I understand that paper counting is more heavily weighted than it should -- even within our research group we have neither the time nor expertise to properly evaluate each other. When it gets to the department level, the chair or the dean there is no way that they can distinguish a great article in a B-journal from a mediocre one from an A-journal.

But, teaching is different. We can all sit in on each others lectures and get some sense of how good they are. We have a common frame of reference unavailable in research. If departments really want to take teaching seriously they must start evaluating it more seriously.

Anonymous said...

All of this makes me chuckle because I am living it at the moment. As a graduate student in Harvard's Education school, I see the emphasis as being on research and not on quality teaching. A large portion of our professors are not good teachers, by any stretch and yet they lecture away about what we need to do to change the prospects of schooling in this country. There's got to be some merit in allowing the big-name researchers, barely-qualified teachers, to stay in a lab all day while treasured professors (you know, the ones that can actually teach) lead scholars into the future...

Zahir Ebrahim said...

[Edited - posted the earlier one by mistake when I hit return prematurely]

If I might chip in with my 0.02 worth.

I studied at MIT in the late 1970s-early80s. And at Stanford through the mid 1980s. A family member is presently at Caltech. Based on this limited experience of elite schools in the United States, I would have to say that teaching is an art form quite divorced and orthogonal from the pursuit of Science and being a researcher (famous or not).

The two aren't the same, although sometimes one does find an iconoclast teacher/researcher like Walther Lewin at MIT - physics professor whose 8.01/8.02 videos for introductary physics is world famous (and available on mit opencourseware

At Caltech, the emphasis seems to be entirely on 'learn as fast as possible on how to learn on one's own'.

At MIT as well as at Stanford, I found it quite arbitrary when I might run into a really good teacher.

Some were very terrific with a passion for teaching - such as the late Prof. Melcher at MIT, and the current young Anant Agarwal at MIT, and Prof. Hennesy at Stanford - and some were so focussed on their research and so monotone in their style that teaching just seemed to be a chore for them and one rather not have had them teach period.

At Caltech, it appears to be the same - random.

Some professors seem to be incredible - this weekend the freshman geology class is out camping studying geological formations and the professor pretty much knows the entire class.

Others are simply terrible and their idea of teaching is to read from slides that are 10 years old (forget powerpoint) and to test the kids in mid-terms on what was specifically on those slides as opposed to the subject matter in general.

If there is any generalization at all possible, I found that usually tenured profs seemed to be more inclined to pay more attention to undergrads and to teaching than the hungry-for-tenure stressed out assist/assoc. profs who seemed more interested in publishing and research. Due to the structure of how research oriented academe generally promotes faculty, it is highly unlikely that any monetary emoluments/student reviews can make any difference in them becoming better teachers - because the weightage to publications and research is just too large to bother with learning how to teach more effectively.

And like all generalization, this one fails when one finds a young really enthusiastic assistant prof who is just such a pleasure to have in class. This occurs quite randomly whether one is at Harvard, MIT, or I am sure anyplace else.

The issue of being a good teacher is quite different from undergraduates getting to know faculty members, and is quite an orthogonoal issue. The Harvard article which I also read confuses many things together. Access to faculty is different from being able to teach - obviously.

Access to faculty in schools like MIT and Stanford is very very easy - because a very large fraction of undergraduates are involved in the UROP. The same is true at Harvard for science/engineering majors at least. That's how one gets good letters of recommendations for instance. Not through merely attending coursework classes where it is difficult for a professor to get to know 100-200 students in a typical freshman/sophomore class, where the interactions mainly tend to be with the TAs anyways (who are generally grad students and easier to talk to anyway), and where letters of rec are generally based on what grade one got in class rather than the professor actually knowing the student. This is true no matter where one is, and is not a problem specific to any school.

So do liberal arts school by magic teach better?

I think this is a red herring. In small discussion oriented classes, it is possible to get to know the faculty well enough, and liberal arts teaching is generally discussion oriented anyway - unlike say math/science/engineering classes.

So even at MIT, every single (yes every single) humanities class I took, I found just terrific professors who got to know everyone in the class quite well. From music to history to philosophy to psychology to foreign language (all the hums I took), I had simply terrific teachers. And even when they may not have been very great at teaching, the smallness of the class and interactive nature made getting to know the faculty all the much easier.

So the Harvard article, like everything else about Harvard in the past few years - from its former President who thought women were less smart than guys, or its present famous Law professor waging a campaign of deception against another notable academic at DePaul, something is messed up when they can't even separate the issues properly in their articulation of the problem space. How are they going to converge to a reasonable solution space?


Flicka Mawa said...

If there is any generalization at all possible, I found that usually tenured profs seemed to be more inclined to pay more attention to undergrads and to teaching than the hungry-for-tenure stressed out assist/assoc. profs who seemed more interested in publishing and research

I'd have to say I had a different experience with this. The newer, younger professors, although stressed over tenure, are more in tune with the students and more accessible. They tend to put more time into their teaching, in the department I was in, but I just thing it's horrible that it's not valued at all. The department generally hires new professors who have good teaching ability; they may not all be gems, but they are good, and in many cases much better than the senior profs. It's just that I've seen that they aren't rewarded at all for being good profs, and it's been a long time since a junior faculty member actually attained tenure in that particular department, even though many of them were good or great teachers.

chinareporter said...

You have, as always, raised a very interesting question here. Having graduated myself from an inconspicuous German university (which used to have a fine faculty of journalism studies, but otherwise was not much heard of), I am now teaching at one of China's finest universities. Many many delegations from Germany flock our campus and highly speak of its academic achievements in the limelight of its upcoming centenary. But in my daily work I see not so much excellency, if by it we mean dedication to one's aim and academic questions. Yes, we have many outstanding visitors here in Shanghai. But they prefer to talk to the professors, not so much engage in tedious discussions with students. "Great minds" may diffuse indeed, if namedropping is what counts after graduation. Otherwise we need an atmosphere open for discussion, we need to involve students into our projects. For doing this, any campus will do, curiosity and academic zeal provided. But this is not the trend of our times, if I may judge from my home country, which just discovered the concept of elite universities which, of course, will again draw the "great minds". I cannot help it, I am still a follower of the principle of educating the many and in many different places, academic federalism instead of centralism.

bug_girl said...

I worked at two undergrad teaching institutions; one public, one private. I'd describe the research:teaching:service loads as 100:100: 20.

I loved working closely with students, and knowing all my students. But I just didn't have enough stamina for the 60+ hr weeks it took to get it all done.

Zahir said...


Some commenters have noted the Snooty Private University vs. Large Public University aspects, and some feel great minds are at ivies, or not at ivy and only at this and that university.

In my limited experience of three top research oriented highly competitive to get-in universities in the United States, I would have to observe that:

1) none have a monopoly on morons

2) some of the top scientists/scholars regardless of where they are can be obnoxious and hold highly abhorrent views under freedom of speech/academic freedoms

3) top universities tend to attract top faculty in general - but that's hardly a principle in a nation with almost 2000 universities and colleges - there are bound to be a healthy sprinkling of good faculty almost everywhere. My kid, between high school and college, took some classes at a local community college just for fun and still feels the philolosophy professor was peerless.

4) For science and engineering classes, much of the learning occurs outside the classroom (unless its a lab class). At least at these top three schools, 90% of the learning occurs in problem-sets, and the other 10% in asking questions of the TA (when necessary). The lectures/recitations are merely entertaining, sort of akin to watching NOVA. You can't solve a problem just by watching NOVA, but you do get the big picture and guidance on what to study for the p-sets. The real problem solving skills get developed doing the p-sets. This was true at least for me, and for almost everyone I know. P-sets and labwork is where the real learning occurs. The rest is merely fun or chore depending on the lecturer and your fatigue level.

5) Interaction with the peers rather than the professors for scinece and engineering classes is the best teacher. In collaborative problem solving in small working groups and with friends, a majority of the learning used to occur (at least for me). Thus if you take a look at most problem sets in MIT opencourseware, there is a section that is collaborative (but you write up the solution yourself), and a section which is not-collaborative and very individual. And a very high emphasis is placed on honor-code. Infact, the honor-code of Caltech is incredible, and all exams are take-home, and specific directives are provided on what to do (such as open or closed book, how much time, etc.).

6) The universities with large endowments, private or public, and opportunities for undergraduate research with leading researchers in their fields, are quite equivalent for those students who actually can get associated with one or more research labs, do hands on science, and work with top scientists in their fields.

Apart from this, education has many more components. Liberal arts and humanities are extremely important for a well rounded undergraduate education, and many of the best teachers are often found pretty much everywhere, but specially in small teaching oriented, rather than research oriented schools.

And imho, the focus on selecting a university to attend based on merely the name of SPU or easier access to LPU are misemphasis.

One should attend a university where one will have a) one's requirements met, b) have a better fit with the peer group, c) enjoy the culture of the place, d) and have an opportunity to grow intellectually and socially.

Thus someone getting admitted to both MIT and Berkeley for instance, who is ultra liberal political activist, may find a better fit at Berkeley. One admitted to a large LPU vs a small private non SPU and wishing a small more teaching oriented school may be better off in the smaller private university (or community college as a transition).

So then we are left with the students who are mainly very academically inclined and want to study at the top-10 universities. Since there are more kids than spots, with admit ratios ranging from 1:10 to 1:15, some real great education can be had almost anywhere based on the above description.

For what that's worth.