Wednesday, January 23, 2008

R1 Reality

Both of the following occurred at the same time in the same Science department at a research university:

1. A senior professor tells a candidate for a faculty position that "teaching doesn't matter" for tenure, only research, so there is no point in even talking about teaching during an interview.

2. The department Chair won't permit online teaching evaluations because of concern that not enough students will fill out the forms and the tenure files of assistant professors will then be lacking critical data on their teaching, thereby jeopardizing their tenure cases. Similarly, some assistant professors are worried that their teaching portfolio isn't impressive enough and that this might tip the tenure decision against them.

Which is reality (such as it is)?

Case #2 is closer to reality (in my opinion, and since this is my blog, I am the Decider). The assistant professors need not panic so much about having an awesome teaching file, but their anxiety reflects the importance of research and teaching.

Case #1 describes the actions of an insecure person trying to impress a young faculty candidate by emphasizing how rigorous the department is when it comes to research. Strangely enough, aforementioned senior professor is also deadwood (in my opinion, and since this is my blog, blah blah blah).

I think it is becoming uncommon for anyone to be promoted at this and many other research universities unless they are at least good at teaching (i.e., not awful). You don't have to be a superstar teacher, but you have to demonstrate that you are a reasonably effective teacher by the time you come up for tenure review. [I am of course excluding from this discussion those faculty who are on 100% research appointments, and discussing only those from whom both research and teaching are expected].

In the last few years, I have not seen a situation in which a research-star-but-lousy-teacher came up for tenure, although I know of such cases from a while ago. This may be because people who seem like they will be bad or uncaring teachers are seldom hired in the first place anymore -- at least not into jobs involving significant amounts of teaching. Of course it is possible for a hiring committee/department to be wrong about whether someone will be a good teacher and/or fail to predict that someone will have an incapacitating crisis that negatively impacts their teaching, but there is at least a sincere effort to gauge teaching ability.

I could be very wrong, as happens from time to time, but despite the increasing emphasis on research and teaching at research-oriented schools, I don't think that brilliant researchers (who can't/don't want to teach) are being driven away from Science, thereby depriving the United States of creative scientists who will lead the way to solutions to major problems facing our nation. Ideally there will be enough research faculty positions at universities, as well as jobs in national labs and in industry.

The "we're so serious about research, we don't care about teaching" posturing of the senior professor in Case #1 might have gone over better in days of yore, but these days it is a deeply disturbing (and inaccurate) thing for someone to say to a faculty candidate.

About 10-12 years ago, I once saw the reverse situation, in which it was the candidate who was doing the posturing regarding teaching vs. research. When faculty compared notes, we realized that the candidate had told me (the assistant professor) that he only cared about research, was not interested in teaching, and would rather hire postdocs than deal with students; he told the tenured professors that he was interested in teaching but only at the graduate level; and he told the Chair and the Dean that he would teach anything they wanted him to teach, as he was deeply interested in undergraduate education. He was not offered the job.

More problematic are situations in which a tenure candidate is an amazing teacher but a mediocre/unproductive researcher. Being an excellent teacher can tip the scale to a favorable tenure decision, but I have also seen cases where tenure was denied anyway, although some of those cases led to lawsuits that resulted in tenure in the end (especially if students mobilize to protest the eviction of a beloved teacher).

Some of these situations are complicated, but the fact remains that professors hired to do both research and teaching at R1 universities these days are expected to be good at both.


ARL said...

I am working with a brand-new assistant professor in an experimental area, and the lab work is more than in tenured professor's lab (at least in my experience). With the new professor trying to get results soon to "guarantee" tenure I cannot see how an assistant prof would have time to be good at both teaching and researching. Unless you get several very good grad students progress in the lab won't move that fast.

While I think teaching is an important area that is in many instances neglected, I find it ridiculous to expect success in both areas during the first 5-6 years, especially when people don't share their notes!

Could teaching be waived thru postdoc teaching experience?

PonderingFool said...

Boy I would love to see the research universities you have been at. At GradU and SnobU (where I am now for my post-doc), faculty who were awful professors were given tenure. The research is what carried the day. I TAed while at GradU for one of them and said professor very freely admitted to coming up with the lecture the morning of the actual class. The lack of planning and care showed. Students who came in interested in the subject decided they wanted nothing to do with it. That is a complete 180 from the ideal. Maybe with in the biomedical sciences with NIH grants things are different from the physical sciences.

Anonymous said...

in my experience, good scientists tend to be perfectionists, and will after a year or two be at least reasonable teachers. The first year almost everybody messes up, but it is usually because of inexperience (or poor assignments, like a 200 people class and/or a course outside the professor's direct expertise). After that, one understand what's important (organization, confidence, etc) and does at least OK. Bad profs are the arrogant types, and project the idea that the students don't count at all. Incidentally, they do the same to their fellow ast profs, but they're pretty smooth with whomever is a player in the dept :-) The example I have in mind even collaborates with our scientifically comatose chair-- talk about kissing butt!
At least that's what I see with my ast prof colleagues....

EarlyToBed said...

I'm sad to report that my experiences at four different big research universities (grad school, two postdocs, and now asst. prof) suggest that teaching is undervalued and devalued in some cases. None of my colleagues has ever visited my classroom. None of my course materials have ever been looked over. I was clearly told "not to spend so much time teaching" at my four year review. I realize this was an encoded message for "write more papers" but I prefer the direct message.

What irked me about it most, was that none of my colleagues had ever asked me about how much time I spent teaching.

I agree with comment #3 who notes that good scientists tend to be good teachers also. I think the job market right now selects for people who excel at many different things. Most of the assistant professors I know at this institution and others care deeply about teaching. I know I do.

Anonymous said...

At my big research university, I recently met with a job candidate who confided to me that he thinks that teaching would just suck time away from his research, which is what is most important to him. His job talk reflected his lack of interest in communicating effectively.

Anonymous said...

At my R1 university there are recent examples where demonstrably poor teachers (including one who belittles students, according to multiple reports) get tenure as long as their grant income exceeds some threshold.

The decision to fund departments and schools with grant overhead has some nasty repercussions; the administration simply cannot afford to let go of big earners.

Plague of Crickets said...

arl: If someone is being paid to teach and do research, he/she just has to make the time for both. Yes, more time spent on teaching does mean less time spent on research, but most faculty members seem capable of balancing the two activities. And from my experience, being an acceptable teacher is more attitude than effort. If you think being a good teacher is important, you do the small things that make you a better teacher. (anonymous essentially said the same thing.)

ponderingfool: R1 universities (and even departments with the same university) and quite heterogeneous. In my department, outstanding researchers who are mediocre teachers have received tenure. But outstanding researchers who are horrible teachers have had problems (at both the departmental and college level). It's interesting you bring up the biomedical sciences. In my experience as a biology faculty member, assistant professors in biomedical areas tend to struggle a lot more with teaching than those in non-biomedical areas. My impression is that it is because, as graduate students and postdocs, they are supported continuously off of grants and thus have had little teaching experience. In contrast, new faculty members with substantial teaching experience (even if only as teaching assistants) tend to have a much smoother transition.

Anonymous said...

This is a bit random, but I've been wondering for awhile now where the term "R1 university" has come from? Don't suppose it's because they're the ones getting all the R01 grants? Wikipedia is disappointingly silent on the matter...

KCProgramr said...

I agree, #2 is more likely. At my department we're just moving to an online course evaluation. N is smaller, but the scores & variance are about the same. It doesn't appear to make much difference.

I've seen institutions where it's just the opposite; where there's a lot of lip service about the importance of teaching but at the end of the day, it's all about papers published and how much grant money you brought in. In this case it was a smaller school with aspirations of being an R1. Sometimes the institutional pressures distort the process much more than they should.

But teaching is part of a university's mission and is part of what distinguishes a research university from a research foundation.

As for the applicant who told different things to the asst profs, tenured profs, & dean... that's not only slimy, that's stupid. Did that person really think no one would compare notes?

Anonymous said...

Your blog rocks! I'm a grad student at a big StateU (R1 University) in social sciences. I have been reading over your archives and so many of your experiences have been similar to mine. And, you have answered some big questions I had, like the discussion about when to have children during your career. As a hardworking woman in academics, there are many unspoken roadblocks. Thank you for discussing these issues frankly. I look forward to reading more posts from you.

Dr. Lisa said...

I must disagree, sadly. Four faculty have been hired in my discipline at my grad institution in the past few years. None had teaching experience coming in, nor were they required to perform a microteach as part of the interview process. The bulk of the teaching is now going to non-tenure track lecturers, who are great at teaching, but not as well-paid or held in the same esteem.

Anonymous said...

I guess I've seen more of the bad teachers/good researchers getting tenure while the good teachers/mediocre researchers are let go. After getting tenure, they seem to get lax about the research. Some of it may be because they are poor teachers, they don't do a good job of interesting students in their research (or working for them). So once tenured, they aren't really good at either the research or the teaching.

It strikes me that the more rational way of dealing with it is to make sure that a tenure track professor's teaching really is high quality. I think they'd be more likely to keep their research going (as students will want to work with them) and if not, they're still useful to the department as a teacher.