Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On Not Being There

It can be difficult to balance a typical research university professor teaching load with a typical research university professor research activity level, not just in terms of the time required to do both when physically in one's own department but also (and perhaps especially) when some travel is required. I have already been on two major trips this academic year, and have two more scheduled before the term ends. How is this possible for someone who also teaches?

This is a question asked by one of my non-academic friends on Facebook. She was surprised to read that I was on the road yet again last week and wondered how I could do that and teach.


- Very careful scheduling of travel dates, if possible, to minimize classes missed.

- Very careful scheduling so that exams coincide with some missed classes (but only if this doesn't involve strange twisting of the schedule to place exams in times that make no sense with the course schedule).

- Team-teaching (very important for me).

- Selective use of substitutes, possibilities for which include colleagues with whom one trades teaching, postdocs or grad students who want to get some experience teaching a class or two, and postdocs or grad students who are paid to do substitute teaching.

The postdoc/grad substitute option must be done carefully and selectively and not be an oppressive or unfair burden on them or lead to an unpleasant experience for the undergrads in a class because of the challenges of parachuting into someone else's class to teach. Example: Last year a senior grad student wanted to teach a class or two for me; he thought it would help his application for academic jobs to have this experience. I organized the course schedule so that he taught for me while I was at a meeting, he did a terrible job, the students hated him, I had to redo the important parts of the lectures, and I don't think my substitute enjoyed the experience much either. Other substitutes have been great, but it can a bit hard to predict who will do well and who won't.

I have to travel for essential research purposes (it is part of my job) and I have to teach (it is part of my job) and the collision of these two priorities in time and space leads to some complex logistics. I try to work something out that allows both to happen in the best way possible for everyone, but sometimes I succeed in this and sometimes I don't.


Anonymous said...

You sound just like politicians when asked "how can you lower taxes and increase benefits?"

Just tell the truth. You get paid to bring in the money. That means research is your first priority. Teaching is what you do to take a break from writing yet another grant proposal.

luisa said...

this is much like being a scientist and parent of a small child -- traveling comes with the scientist part of the job. work travel when you are the parent of a small child requires scheduling carefully with the spouse or grandparent(s), making sure the travel doesn't run over big events (like starting in a new day care room), etc.

Anonymous said...

In relation to your comments on substitutes you stated "he did a terrible job". I was in this position as a graduate student - in a supposedly mentored teaching position, the faculty member used my presence as a way to plan her yearly travel. As a result, I had no mentoring, no guidance, and was teaching a subject I had never taken or had any expertise in. It was awful.

In the future, if you use substitutes, I think it would be ideal if you could find an hour or two with them before they leave to go over the content and give them pointers to prevent such a negative experience. Most people are not born teachers.

Female Science Professor said...

Research and teaching are my equal priorities.

Before leaving on the trip described in the anecdote, I spent a couple of hours with my grad substitute, who had taught one course as an instructor before, and went over the intro-level course material and provided him with my previous powerpoint files and outlines. Given the level of material and his previous experience and his enthusiasm for being my substitute, I was surprised it was such a disaster. When I got consistent negative comments from students about certain aspects of his teaching, I had a discussion with the grad student about what went well and what did not, but he dismissed all the negative comments as irrelevant. I hope that was just his reaction when discussing the situation with me but that he has thought about the feedback and will use the info the next time he teaches. Mentoring is a 2-way street: the mentees have to be receptive to some advice.

American in Oxbridge said...

We are not allowed to be away more than 2 nights during our teaching term without written permission, and we are not allowed to get substitutes generally. It's doable. You only agree to do the conferences that fall outside teaching. There are plenty of meetings on the calendar!

PUI prof said...

I've had to miss classes recently, but these were not planned absences. I had to make up the lecture time in labs, and I'm finding that I really hate that. Stuffing the lab intros with lecture material is no fun for me or the students.

At our institution, there are no possibilities for substitutes unless planned well in advance Because we don't have grad students we don't have TAs, etc.

Anonymous said...

in this day and age of teleconferencing, video-conferencing, file-sharing, project wikis, iPhones and other technological advances, it should be possible to significantly cut down on the number of face-to-face business trips.

Genomic Repairman said...

I do agree with anonymous that we can cut down on travel but no so significantly. You have to go to conferences to network and keep a finger on the pulse of your field. Not to mention some folks have study sections, societal meetings, seminars to give. So while the iPhone may save some time and keep you connected, it doesn't take the place of strolling through poster sessions for ideas or listening to talks at conferences. This puts a strain on the prof when they are not team teaching or there is a lack of TA's.

Anonymous said...

And then there are the trips mandated by the funding agency for program reviews etc. that cannot be avoided. I have 2 of these during the term I'm teaching and I've limited my travel for these to 2 days but adding the travel days onto that, I will still miss 2 classes per trip which is hard to supplement with subs etc.

EliRabett said...

Eli has been toying with the idea of a reverse Skype, using a computer hookup to lecture. . . Not ideal, but it could be a partial solution

Did it once using videotape but, of course, there was no feedback. It kind of worked because it was unique

Anonymous said...

You have to go to conferences to network
You don't need to go to conferences to network. Sure you can network at conferences, but it's not the only way.

and keep a finger on the pulse of your field.
Ummm...what about ordering the conference proceedings and browsing? e-mailing or phoning colleagues with thoughts and ideas?

Not to mention some folks have study sections,
Not all study sections require a business trip. Some do but not all.

societal meetings,
which are usually a big waste of time anyway.

seminars to give.
My organization frequently hosts remote seminars by videoconferencing.

So while the iPhone may save some time and keep you connected, it doesn't take the place of strolling through poster sessions for ideas or listening to talks at conferences.

That's true it doesn't but my point is that a lot of such activities are not absolutely necessary to be conducted face to face. There are options to do it remotely without losing much. The time and money and effort saved could more than make up for whatever extra is lost. I'm just surprised that with so many technological advances at our disposal, that so few faculty seem willing to embrace them to use them to advantage and are still clinging to old ways of communicating and doing things. And then they lament at how hard it is to keep up in this fast paced world.

Genomic Repairman said...

Anon I agree about using technology to alleviate travel and save money but at a certain point I think you sacrifice some benefits and opportunities to save a buck. I take part in a monthly seminar in my field that is videoconferenced out from the NIH or other university sites. I get a lot of good ideas from this but for me some of the best ideas have come from platform talks or poster sessions where people can see my unpublished data and get feedback. I agree that most societal meetings boil down to utter bullshit and ball fondling. I think for me as a student the meetings are vital to seeing what else is out there beyond what I am seeing in the literature. For a PI not so much since they have a lot more time to review the literature versus I who am chained to the bench and still stuck in classes. Another way that I try to bridge the scientific divide is by joining as many relevant listservs as possible so that I can see what is going on out there, this has been invaluable such as the NIH interest groups, MGIlist provide by the Jax Lab.

Jonathan said...

I also think that *most* (not all) travel done by faculty are unnecessary and a huge waste of taxpayer money (since travel is often funded by their research grants). Since when were professors supposed to also be jet-setters. If you consider how often a lot of faculty travel, the duration of the trips, and the per diems paid out to them... Multiply this by all the PIs in the department or field....the savings from cutting back on faculty travel can be substantial. This money saved could be better used directly for research, or to fund more researchers or - if someone is going to travel - why not send the students to more conferences for their learning experience?

Kevin said...

"For a PI not so much since they have a lot more time to review the literature versus I who am chained to the bench and still stuck in classes."

I don't know about the rest of you, but I had a hell of a lot more time for reading the literature (and having a life) when I was a grad student than I have had in 25 years of being a professor.

"This money saved could be better used directly for research, or to fund more researchers"

I agree, and one of the best things that NIH and NSF could do is to stop having panel meetings in Washington DC. Reviews the way journals do (sending out to referees) would make just as good decisions at a fraction of the cost. It could also make the playing field more level, since it costs a researcher from the west coast a lot more time than it costs a researcher from the east coast to attend a panel review. There has been a decided tilt toward east coast reviewers in the past few years.