In September 2008, I wrote a Labor-themed post (well, sort of) in honor of the US holiday, Labor Day. Last year I seem to have ignored Labor Day, so I figured that it was time to return to the relevant topic of Work, in today's case focusing on who can teach what when and why.
Some colleagues and I were recently chatting about who could teach which course in the place of particular faculty who will be on research leaves in the coming year or two. In less economically difficult times, an option is to hire a visiting instructor, thereby injecting some new energy into the department and giving a boost to an early-career scientist who wants the teaching experience. Being a visiting assistant professor was very important to my career in its early days, although there are pros and cons to such positions for the individual in question.
In times of austerity, existing faculty can cover for others. Many of us can teach a variety of courses and some of us like having this variety, as long as it is not excessive and doesn't involve teaching new courses too often (other than graduate seminars of course). As long as our teaching loads are only varying and not increasing in a particular year, adjusting the teaching assignments of existing faculty can be a good option for a department. This option doesn't necessarily work, however, for highly specialized classes.
Another option is to cancel the classes. My department wouldn't cancel a class that was essential to a degree program, but it might cancel an elective. That would be too bad for the students who really wanted to take these courses.
Yet another option is to have research scientists, postdocs, or senior grad students to teach some courses. My department has used this option in the past as well, and it has worked out well for all concerned.
My colleagues and I were mostly discussing this last option for a couple of specialized courses that are aimed at the advanced undergraduate to graduate level. Apparently a senior and highly qualified research scientist may teach one of them, and the name of another highly qualified research scientist was mentioned for a similar course in another topic.
In one case, the people with the most knowledge about these scientists said that they would both be excellent and diligent teachers and the students would certainly benefit from having these people as instructors, but the concern is that the research scientists would be unable to do anything else and their research would come to a screeching halt during the months they are teaching.
Well, in a way that would be understandable. Whenever I create and teach a new course, my research productivity definitely decreases. It does not go to zero, but that's partly because I've been doing this research-teaching-service balance thing for a long time and am pretty good at multi-tasking in general.
I wondered briefly if there might be an element of "We professors can balance teaching and research but you research scientists cannot" to the opinions of some of my colleagues. I decided, however, that, given that these colleagues have years-long close knowledge of the working habits of the research scientists, they probably do have a pretty good idea about work habits and multi-tasking abilities of the individuals in question.
So, if it is indeed true that their research efforts would go to nearly zero during the teaching term, would it be in the best interests of the research scientists to teach these courses? Would the benefits of a teaching experience offset the loss of research productivity for a few months, or would the harm of that loss be greater than the benefit?
Of course the answer varies with the individual, their career goals, the source(s) and stability of their funding, and the ability of the PI's research group to function without the research scientists performing their usual roles.
In general, though, if the choice is between canceling a class and asking a (willing) research scientist to teach, the latter is the better option. If the research scientist is paid by grants for which they are not a PI, they would have to work out an agreement with the PI about some level of activity involving essential research activities. If that is possible, the situation could work out for everyone: students, researchers, and PIs.
6 months ago