Monday, September 06, 2010

Division of Labor

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.


AnonEngineeringProf said...

You ask if there are benefits to having research scientists teach a course. Benefits for who?

Are there benefits to the research scientist? Probably not. It doesn't improve their ability to get new grants (if they are on soft money and have to raise grants to pay for their salary). It probably doesn't increase their employability or visibility in their field. The only benefit would be if they are hoping in the future to transition into an academic job that involves both teaching and research. In that case, there might well be benefits to their career. However, my impression is that teaching ability is distinctly secondary in those hiring decisions, and odds are, their time would be better-spent getting some fantastic research results that will improve their visibility in their field.

Does it benefit the funder? Absolutely not. It takes away from research progress.

Does it benefit the students? Yes, it might, depending upon the instructor. I see this as entirely specific to the particular person. I don't view research scientists as inherently better or worse teachers.

I also don't understand the funding model. Who is paying their salary while they are teaching? Their research grant is going to continue paying their salary at the full level, while they teach and their research productivity is drastically diminished? If the funder was aware, would the funder approve? How can that pass an audit? This sounds shady to me. On the other hand, if the university is picking up their salary, that'd be another story entirely -- but given your comments about austerity, I'm guessing that's not what you are talking about.

mOOm said...

I did find it hard to switch constantly from teaching to research and back again throughout the week when I was regular professor. On the other hand, teaching one course for a semester shouldn't bring anyone's research productivity to zero except perhaps for a couple of weeks at the beginning to prepare the course overall.

Anonymous said...

I think it is odd that you and your colleagues are trying to make the decision for them. Why not just invite them to do it, and tell them they shouldn't feel obligated?

They can decide for themselves what they can handle.

AnthroPhD said...

In my field (anthropology), there are very few research scientists. Grad students therefore usually take over courses for faculty. It's an important part of our professionalization - in an incredibly tight job market, we are expected to have completed our degree, taught classes, gotten our own research grants, and published peer-reviewed articles, all before even applying for a tenure-track job. Perhaps asking grad students to teach rather than asking faculty or researchers perpetuates the rather stringent requirements for getting a job, but it's just seen as normal in my field.

That said, my research definitely didn't go to zero when teaching upper-level, specialty anthropology courses, even when it was for the first time. I find that teaching makes me think about the subject matter from a different perspective, and that generally benefits my research, even if I don't get as much of it done.

Doctor Pion said...

Asking or paying?

It is illegal to have someone paid from "soft" contract funds teach a class. I recall one university having to pay back large sums of money to a US agency for just that oversight, some decades ago. Similar issues might apply to a position funded by the state or the university toward a specific purpose.

If the position's duties are under the control of the department chair, then it is simply a matter of a change in assignment of duties with a corresponding change in expectations ... and mentoring on the proper use of time.

This can be risky, but potentially beneficial, to the person in the research position. Risky, in that a drop in research productivity can lead to termination; beneficial, if it serves like a VAP to help in next year's job search.

m @ random musings said...

I would hope that the department would chip in somewhat to funding the researcher during the course (obviously not to the extent of a visiting prof, but something). I also think that, in this situation, consideration must be given to the desires/expectations of the PI of that lab. Will the PI penalize the researcher for lower productivity? Does the PI view their researcher as "theirs" or a resource to be tapped by the greater academic community? An ideal situation would be if the researcher is taking on teaching commitments that the PI is unable to meet due to schedule conflicts, etc.

Female Science Professor said...

Of course the department would pay part of the salary for the teaching time. I didn't think that needed specifying.

My colleagues and I were not 'deciding' anything; we were discussing options. Any decision would be made by the PI, the research scientist, and the department chair through further discussions.

Of the colleagues participating in the informal discussion, some were the ones who will be on leave, some were the PIs involved, and some were former department chairs with experience with such issues. We were just talking over the options.

another young FSP said...

I agree with those who say ask the research scientist, while being clear that saying no is a valid option and will not reflect poorly on them.

Hopefully their senior mentor will be open and honest about the pros and cons for them and their careers, but having teaching experience is almost always a positive if they pursue any academic-based future employment prospects. If they aren't planning any moves in that direction or if they need to focus primarily on their research right now, they can say no.

Anonymous said...

While we do not have graduate students teach classes, we do have postdocs fill in for faculty or teach in the summer session. In the past ten years, five or six postdocs have each taught half of a major summer session class--one of our Departments core-requirements. On balance this has been excellent for all concerned. They got valuable teaching experience and boosted their resumes (four are now professors at good-outstanding liberal arts colleges or small Universities, and one is at an R1 institution). Our Department got excellent, excited young folks to teach these classes, and I did not suffer substantially. All had their own postdoc funding, so I wasn't paying their salaries at the time. While their research stopped while they were teaching, half a summer session class lasts only three (very full time) weeks.

They differed dramatically in how much the prep time before the summer session started affected their work--some did a much better job than me at fitting it into a normal work day without a disasterous drop in productivity--for others it was more problematic.

Several taught the same class more than once, and all used Powerpoints and outlines from existing sections to get started.. Both reduced prep time and stress substantially

I guess my conclusion is: as in many other things, some people can do more than one thing at once, while others cannot, so it really depends on the person.

Mark P

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The most important question is What are the research scientist's career goals? If those goals involve securing a tenure-track position at a research university, then taking time and effort away from research and devoting it to teaching is counter to those goals. This is because search committees for such faculty positions give no positive weight to teaching experience, and focus all of their attention on research accomplishments.

Anonymous said...

Comrade Physio Prof is once again taking an extreme position, claiming search committees for such faculty positions give no positive weight to teaching experience, and focus all of their attention on research accomplishment.

This is definitely untrue of our department. While we have hired faculty without teaching experience, it has always been a plus to have some evidence of teaching ability, and actually teaching a class or two a big plus.
Our current chair taught a couple of classes while he was a soft-money research scientist, and this was major benefit to him when we considered offering him a tenured position. (He would probably still be a soft-money researcher if not for the teaching and service he did the department in those days.)

Anonymous said...

I'm more curious about how much you pay adjuncts and research scientists in your department for filling in. It strikes me that this has been part of the downfall of tenure in the humanities, as administrators tightened budgets and eliminated tenure lines when it became apparent that adjuncts paid much less than tenured faculty could teach the course "satisfactorily." How much of a role the departments at the time had in their own unraveling is something to consider.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious what the title of "research scientist" means in your department. In our program, research scientists are soft-money researchers who run their own labs and programs and get their own funding. It sounds like your group has a different approach with research scientists working for/with a PI; something we would call a "research associate", sort of like a very high level technician or permanent post-doc.