Tuesday, March 03, 2009

On Board

A colleague of mine has been attending a series of mentoring sessions with tenure-track faculty this week. These meetings are designed to give the assistant professors an assessment of their progress, evaluate their teaching-research-service activities to see if these are in an appropriate balance, and discuss any questions or concerns.

My colleague reported that the department chair and other senior faculty involved in the discussions were particularly concerned that the assistant professors not teach 'too much' or do much service work in their first few years. This has also been my experience with recent discussions involving the progress of tenure-track faculty.

Most of the motivation for this approach is to give assistant professors time to get their research programs going, but some of the motivation involves helping new faculty become good teachers. If you have time to focus on one new course at a time, that new course will be better than if you are also teaching another new course. If you slowly build up your repertoire of courses and get a solid start, everyone benefits.

This go-slow approach to teaching and service is interesting because it is the opposite of the way things used to be in my department. Even as recently as 10-12 years ago, the philosophy was 'pile the teaching and committee work on the assistant professors', giving real meaning to the adjective 'assistant'.

My colleague has the same reaction I do to the current system: advocating the new mode as a progressive way to support early career faculty so that they make a good start and don't go insane in the process, and yet feeling a twinge of "Wouldn't it have been nice if ..." (things had been that way for me).

This twinge must be suppressed until it is only a faint feeling of wistfulness. Otherwise there is a danger that senior faculty like me will get in the mode of "Well if I had to suffer, so should they" or "I'm not impressed with her because she didn't work as hard as I did when I was an assistant professor".

I don't see that happening, at least not in a way that people are willing to express openly. This gives me some hope that academia can change to allow for a better work environment and work-life balance: if we can overcome our urge to treat assistant professors as we were treated when we were at that stage, and still respect them for what they accomplish, we can make some progress.


Anonymous said...

If it's any consolation:
A) There are definitely departments where they still work the Asst. Profs to the bone. I don't think my advisor has really slept this entire quarter.
B) As the grad student of an Asst. Prof, it's somewhat vindicating to know that he is just as overworked and sleep deprived, if not more so, than I am.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the assistant professors are seeing an improvement in work-life balance due to this shift, since the most important factor at some institutions (as concerns tenure) is funding. Young faculty have just shifted their focus away from what used to be the primary goal of the institution (teach the students) to the new goal (bring in funds).

Chris said...

So I actually think it is a *good* thing for junior faculty to sit on a university committee relatively early in their career. It's a very good way to meet other faculty and get to know people outside the department and get a feel for how the University works.

I dont mean constant service all the time, but I do think sitting on a well-chosen is a good part of faculty development.

It may also depend on the size of the university. In an enormous state university, it may be less helpful. In a smaller university like mine, however, I do think its a benefit, if done in small doses.

I seem to be in a minority in this opinion, but I'm glad I did it as a junior faculty member.

Anonymous said...

It's good that you admit that you do have some jealousy.

I'm a junior faculty member who has been blessed by an administration that is also trying to lighten the service load of junior faculty members. The catch is that the publication requirements for tenure have gone up drastically in the last 5 to 10 years.

Thus, although I have less service demands on my time than faculty who got tenure 5 years ago, I also have to produce drastically more than them. Is that the case at your university?

Anonymous said...

Works for me! :) The one course I'm teaching, though, still seems to be taking a lot of my time (more than it should?). I'm hoping that it'll take less time when I teach it next. I'm also planning to get lots of research done in the other two terms, when I have no teaching.

Anonymous said...

Definitely a step in the right direction. This would be good for everyone, but I have the impression that it would be of the greatest benefit to young, female faculty (at least in the physical sciences) who tend to be really overloaded with duties other than research, often because everyone is eager to (or required to) have a woman on their particular board/committe/course/whatever -- in a situation where there, unfortunately aren't all that many female faculty members around. By extension, of course, decreasing the load on these young female faculty would also be enormously helpful for their graduate students. And yes, I'm speaking from experience.

Anonymous said...

Now if we could a way to support new (and seasoned) high school and elementary school teachers, we could transform the education system and have people who want to remain in the profession.

Anonymous said...

"Young faculty have just shifted their focus away from what used to be the primary goal of the institution (teach the students) to the new goal (bring in funds)."

Yes, I think this is the dark reason why chairs are so concerned with "protecting" their junior faculty. The chairs care more about the faculty bringing in funding than that they teach. This is especially true in departments where there are more senior faculty who can no longer be expected to bring in research funds. And in medical schools, where teaching is only a small part of the reimbursed part of the job (i.e. soft money, and even state medical schools generally expect 30-60% from private sources, and have many 100% faulty).

The protection from teaching is done because teaching isn't important, to anyone, not for your more positive reason -- to improve the teaching.

Of course, teaching protection is better than extra teaching + higher demands for funding & publication, but I think they've chosen the former largely because the latter is a recipe for disaster, from which the department will also to benefit (especially if they anted up a 500K startup package to start with).

(the situation might be different in programs where teaching is a larger part of the job, i.e not in the biomedical sciences).

Anonymous said...

There are tough calls here. Getting a class down really seems to take 3 iterations. I'm on the 3rd iteration of a course, and I'm thanking the gods that I get to teach it next quarter, because it will be easy for me next time. OTOH, some of the most interesting courses are the hardest to get and are only offered one a year or every other year. Those classes may have heavier preps (or at least new preps), but they are a welcome relief from doing the same old, and if it's in an area where you do research it's a chance to shine (especially in comparison to people whose research background is a bit more dated).

On service, a lot of it is drudgery and I certainly don't seek it. OTOH, the few service tasks that might actually make a difference seem to be monopolized by the dinosaurs.

So do protect research time for junior faculty, but don't do it by just giving us small amounts of grunt work and a few boring classes over and over.

Anonymous said...

OK, here's more data. I'm starting the second year of my faculty job. My teaching load is 2/yr for the first two years, 3/yr thereafter. (Fortunately, this term I'm teaching the same course twice, which takes care of my teaching for the whole year). I had no committees last year. This year I'm on a faculty-wide committee (plus the Women in Engineering committee) and a hiring committee.

Unknown said...

As a department chair with several junior faculty, I have tried my hardest to protect them for at least two years. Our standard teaching load, here in the state university system is 12 units, which is four different courses each semester. I have tried to limit this, for my new hires, to "only" 3 courses per semester, for at least two years. After that, they have enough courses developed that one more prep is not that bad. Of course, since we are a "undergraduate centered teaching institution", this workload is very hard, especially since junior faculty are also expected to somehow write grants and do research. And serve on university-level committees too, which I generally discourage until the third year. Even though when I started (more than 20 years ago), I was expected to immediately prep four different classes, no one expected me to do research. The fact that I did significant research (and brought in many grants) may have led to higher expectations for future generations. I don't think it's my fault, even though I am typically used as a role model by the Dean when hiring new faculty. And it is certainly true that the woeful state budget situation has only increased the pressure to bring in more outside funding.....

Anonymous said...

Firstly I agree with what you say, and I recognise that the more senior staff will be at least slightly (justifiably) envious.

In a situation like this however, what is your opinion on how to deal with staff (or how these staff should cope) who started (not too long ago) when the loads were high, and are now in the position where they are likely to be 'leapfrogged' by junior staff who have been given a break and thus have very rapidly better publication/grant track records?

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, that will be part of the topic for tomorrow or the next day, along with the issue of salary compression. Complicated..

Anonymous said...


In our department the lowest paid faculty are those one or two years before tenure (we have a six year wait). The younger people coming in all get larger starting salaries and are often bumped more quickly. This is partly because of how we treat faculty in years 1-4 rather than 5-6 and partly due to strategy. This J shaped salary distribution is then used to give huge bumps to the recently promoted. It generally works OK but there definitely are grumbles of "I have been here longer and she makes more than me?!?!?!?"

Rising tides raise all boats, or something like that.

Anonymous said...

"'Well if I had to suffer, so should they'"

Hmmm... this sounds remarkably like the attitude I often encounter towards undergrads at my particular (European) university when I suggest improving the quality of teaching and the curriculum, so that the students will be able to spend their time developing an understanding of the material, rather than wasting their time trying to decipher incomprehensible lectures and course materials.

After all, I am told, students must learn to work independently (so apparently classes are entirely superfluous?). And students aren't capable of determining the quality of a lecture, they just complain when classes are challenging (is this a euphemism for poorly conceived and cryptic?), and even if they are suffering now, when they look back on it later, they will be grateful.

Narya said...

the pay problem arises in other worlds, as well, not surprisingly.

The one thing I'd fear is that there isn't an established way to evaluate the lighter-load people. The standards of the heavier load certainly won't work, but you also want to avoid promoting or not promoting (or renewing contracts, or whatever) w/ insufficient info.

Anonymous said...

One negative of this is that an assistant prof. may not realize how much harder the job gets after getting tenure.