Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Book Preview

If you look at the preview option of the FSP Book on lulu.com, you don't see much, if anything, past the table of contents, so, as requested, here is a preview of some random text -- the introduction to a chapter on being evaluated as a professor.


Most non-academics probably think that the life of a tenured professor is fairly easy and low stress, and I am certainly not going to complain about having the job security that comes with tenure. However, one aspect of academic life that few people (including graduate students) seem to appreciate is just how often we are EVALUATED.

Our teaching is evaluated. Teaching evaluations may consist only of the anonymous survey that students fill out at the end of each course, but may also involve classroom visits by more senior faculty.

Our research is evaluated in many ways:

• Manuscripts are reviewed and criticized; based on reviews, they are accepted or rejected.

• Proposals are reviewed and criticized; based on reviews, they are funded or not.

• Conference presentations or talks in other professional setting are open to criticism, questions, and comments in a very public setting.

In addition, untenured faculty are evaluated every year or two or three prior to the big evaluation that comes during the tenure process. Associate Professors who are considered for promotion are re-evaluated. Professors are also evaluated, in some departments every year, as part of the post-tenure review and consideration for merit raises.

If you are devastated by criticism, you might well be very unhappy in academia unless you can develop a thicker skin and become receptive-but-impervious to criticism.

Every spring I fill out an annual report detailing my publications, grants, conference presentations, awards, teaching activities, and students advised/graduated. I typically feel pretty good about this, as most years I have a good number of activities to report.

A friend of mine at another big research university told me that in his department, the bar for research expectations 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. 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 bad for morale, especially for Assistant Professors. Hearing that made me feel grateful for my department's more mysterious but more holistic system. By the standards of this other department, I might be considered a failure or, at the very least, underperforming, even though I’m a fairly productive researcher. I definitely would not feel so positive about my annual report.

Teaching evaluations are part of the annual report, and we are also evaluated as to whether we fulfill the ‘service’ part of our job. The former is fairly straightforward, but the latter is more ambiguous because we never really know what the expectations for this are.

It is easy to specify that faculty need to teach a certain number of courses each year, but I don’t know of any place that tells faculty how many committees they should be on. Part of the mystery has to do with the fact that service involves such a wide range of possible activities, each of which requires a different amount of time: 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, department and university service should be minimal, but professional service activities that provide visibility can be important.

If some department/university service is expected, there are some committees that can be more useful and interesting than others. I have found that the graduate admissions committee and hiring committees are examples of service work that can be worth the time and effort.

Everyone has to find their own balance in terms of what they can manage, but the priorities are to be a productive researcher and to be a good teacher. You need to be a good academic citizen, but within reason.

Other parts of the chapter include further discussion of teaching evaluations, including comparing online evaluations to in-class evaluations.

And so on. Thanks to all who left nice comments on the book announcement yesterday.


Professor in Training said...

Great job on the book FSP. The big question is ... are you going to include this book on your list of publications for the year?? Or would this be considered teaching? Or perhaps service???

Anonymous said...

Delightful surprise! I'll be sure to order a copy, and who knows maybe it'll be the next New York Times bestseller.

Would it be possible to post a 1-page PDF of the inside. I'm curious how it looks like.

Anonymous said...

As a new Assistant Professor in a large department, I was in fact recently just wondering about service. I have the impression that the right amount of service might be "the amount that doesn't get your colleagues pissed off at you".

The department also seems to encourage new faculty to participate in discrete, small, service tasks like writing notes to incoming freshmen; such tasks seem easy to manage.

chemcat said...

My department too evaluates people compared to the most productive ones, and it does it across ranks and disciplines. Thus, a FSP with two RO1s and one NSF is not at the top, because she's not publishing as much as the electrochemist. Never mind that she's a crystallographer.... It's a bit tougher to solve massive membrane complex structures... oh well.
You might imagine where this leaves the ast profs. Sometimes I wonder whether the Chair and Dean really would like to fire everybody and just hire clones of the two people he deems productive enough. We'll be renamed the Department of Nanotoys.

Ms.PhD said...

Funny, we get zero feedback as postdocs, and then as faculty we can expect to be evaluated constantly??

Oh well, it shouldn't matter much if you have Tenure and Job Security. Criticism is much easier to take when you're not constantly picturing what it will be like to live out of a cardboard box on the street.

Anonymous said...

How do those nanotoys people get taken seriously? I once spent a lot of time in grad school trying to replicate one of their nanotoys because I thought I could do some cool physics with it, and I kept getting nowhere. The group that I talked to wasn't much help, because the people involved had all moved on to other nanotoys that could generate a few quick papers before moving on to the next thing.

It turns out that the conditions just have to be right and then you get small regions of the sample that look cool under the SEM but the rest is crap. Hence they quickly move on to the next thing.

I'm sure there are some nanotoys people who aren't like that, but it seems like one of those things where you have to know which groups are worth trying to replicate. Well, now I'm a theorist.

Anonymous said...

We're not top tier over here, more like a "wanna be". Our University is more interested in bean counting for their evaluations. The standard procedure is pubs/$$. The extension faculty get thumbs up because they get a lot of panflets with their little grants. And the upper administration does not understand why the multi-million genome grants lead to only a few papers...

Pamela Ronald said...

what a great idea. definitely include it on your service/outreach list!

Åka said...

I tried to talk to my PhD supervisor about my anxiety about being evaluated. She just told me that people don't evaluate each other like that. That's a lie, or she just could not see it. On some level you will always think that someone is smarter, or someone is putting out more work, or that someone is giving so much better talks. With more experience I have been able to figure out that usually this does not get in the way of how people interact and think of each other socially. Anyway. Evaluated you will be, some way or another.