Thursday, April 05, 2012


Many years ago when I was a non-tenure-track professor, I was taken aback when I learned that the quality of teaching by people in my position -- that is, all non-tenure track instructors -- was considered a priori sub-standard by my institution because we had no long-term investment in the college.

The Dean said this aloud in a meeting and repeated it in a memo. At the meeting, I thought I misunderstood the Dean, but the memo was unambiguous. Tenure-track and tenured faculty had a commitment to the college and the rest of us didn't, so their teaching was, by definition, of higher quality than ours. I doubt if this conclusion was supported by any data; it seemed to be more a belief. I didn't see the point of stating it so explicitly, as a generalization, but of course the focus was to make the the 'real' faculty feel good.

I found that somewhat demoralizing. I cared a lot about my students and my teaching, and I was working extremely hard at my teaching, as I also had in a previous position as a non-tenure-track instructor. Some of my tenured and tenure-track colleagues were doing the same, and some weren't. I channeled my annoyance into targeted loathing of the Dean (but not the college, my colleagues, or my students), and focused on my work.

Later, when I was a tenure-track and then tenured professor at a large university, I learned that the quality of teaching by people in my position was considered by some to be a priori sub-standard because we spent so much time doing research, we couldn't be as good at teaching as those who are entirely dedicated to teaching, including non-tenure-track (adjunct/contingent) faculty. This was the view, not so much of the institution itself, but of a broader community (and in particular those focused on college-level science education).

The reason both statements could be made and thought possibly true by some is that the first one involved a small liberal arts college and the second a large research university.

These generalizations are meaningless. There are good, bad, and mediocre teachers in all the possible types of jobs involving teaching at the different types of colleges and universities in the US and beyond.

Here is my own (possibly meaningless) generalization, or belief, based on no data, just observations in the past 30 years as an undergraduate, graduate student, instructor, and the various stages of tenure-track/tenured professor:

Teaching quality (TQ) for an individual or even a group of individuals in similar jobs does not correlate with type of institution or with job title.

If that is the case, then TQ is more a function of an individual's teaching skills and dedication, both of which are somewhat fluid concepts because they can change with time and circumstance, but are still more important than institution type of job title. There may well be some 'environmental' factors such as teaching load, support from the institution etc., but it is not useful to make assumptions about whether someone will be a good, bad, or indifferent teacher based on whether that person is employed at a small college, a large research university, a private institution, a state institution etc. or whether that person is an adjunct or a senior, tenured professor. I don't think this is a controversial statement, but I am still surprised when -- to this day -- I encounter these stereotypes.

The issue that is relevant to students is whether they are likely to encounter more good teachers in certain circumstances than in others, but I am not going to wade into these larger issues, including debates about how we measure TQ, the value of student evaluations of teaching, whether students are at a disadvantage (or advantage) if taught by large number of adjunct faculty, and so on (I have discussed these in other posts),
My point today is a small one, inspired by a recent experience in which someone from the small-college world expressed surprise that teaching excellence could be found at a large university, bringing back some memories and triggering this post.


John Vidale said...

I agree with the latter view. Tenure track profs tend to teach worse. Both because we have less time (at least I know I do this quarter, chairing a search, advising students, going to and convening meetings, and several other chores) and because we justify our promotions by research rather than drawing students into the bigger classes.

Of course some tt profs are fabulous teachers, but it is in spite of the limited time they have to invest in course preparations.

Anonymous said...

I went to a SLAC for undergrad (one of the so-called elite ones on the east coast) and then to a large state university for grad school, and I had excellent teachers at both. I also had some bad teachers at both, but not many at either. I also TA'ed for excellent teachers at the big state school. I saw no difference in quality of teaching at the big state school vs the small college, so from my experience, I agree that it doesn't matter where you are or who you are in terms of teaching quality.

Anonymous said...

I get very frustrated with the assumption that there is a trade-off between research and teaching. Yes time is inherently a limited quantity and there will be trade-offs there but there's so much that research active faculty can bring to the classroom and if there's sufficient support for both they can create a wonderful combination. I also went to a top SLAC and my best teachers were those that were very engaged in research. At my MRU grad school I was consistently impressed by the thought and effort that went into teaching by faculty who were amazing researchers. We have to stop making these artificial distinctions and denigrating each other based on stereotypes.

Anonymous said...

Here is my contribution to generalizations:

Many -- not all, but many -- of the best college-level teachers also do research. It can be world-class transformative research or it can be small-scale, student-oriented research, but active research and dedicated teaching have positive feedbacks.

Lisa said...

I think faculty naturally tend to put more time and effort into the activities for which they are rewarded. How could they not? And this means that faculty at SLACs do, on average, put more energy into their teaching, while faculty at research universities do, on average, put more energy into their research.

I have experienced those differences between the overall TQ levels at the institutions I've attended.

But there have also been individuals that defy the trend at both, so I'd agree with you that it's foolish to make assumptions about individuals' teaching abilities based on their positions.

Alex said...

I will again tell the joke about a well-balances department of 30 faculty.

10 were outstanding teachers, respected by students for the depth and insight and care that they brought to the classroom.

10 were outstanding researchers, honored by their peers for important contributions to the field.

10 were outstanding for their diligent, committed service to the institution and the profession.

The only problem is that it was the same 10 in each category.

John Vidale said...

I'll again mention the documented fact that the vast majority of faculty consider themselves better than average, which might help explain why we think, as a class, we can teach better than people hired specifically for their teaching ability and more time to spend on it.

Doctor Pion said...

That Dean must have been pretty ignorant of what goes on in the classroom, or pretty contemptuous of the students who had (what the Dean thought were) incompetent faculty inflicted on them.

TQ is definitely a function of individual skills and dedication, but it is also a function of experience and mentoring. Persons without those skills can learn how to be competent, and persons with them need appropriate experience to hone those skills. I attribute many of the reported issues with teaching at large universities to a lack of experience with specific audiences.

One example that comes to mind was a pair of students who ended up taking the second semester of calculus at a nearby university. One of them had a guy who had taught calc 2 a few years earlier and had just finished teaching a second year graduate course in complex analysis the previous semester. The other had someone who taught calc 2 every year when not teaching undergrad applied math. Guess which class was better?

Right. And the best class (when a third student compared notes with the other two) was taught by a skilled and dedicated professor who taught calc 2 (plus either calc 1 or calc 3) every semester at a CC, and had been doing that for years. Like the experienced prof at the university, he knew EVERY mistake and conceptual error students make, how to assess those, and multiple ways of addressing those problems. But even that person wasn't all that great the first time around, just as I have great sympathy for the students I had in my first class.

On the topic of research and teaching, I recall one instance of a truly Brilliant Researcher who originally appeared to be utterly incompetent in the classroom and - not surprisingly - gave rather obtuse seminars. You needed to read his papers to get a clue about what was going on. Twenty years later, that same person was giving great talks and had become quite good in the classroom. It is hard to know what comes first, the teaching or the improved talks, except for one generalization I will offer:

Most of the really bad talks I have heard were given by people at national labs who have never taught a class.

Anonymous said...

I think SLAC professors have more time for "customer service" kinds of activities (I don't mean this in a rude way), and this can make the overall experience better for the students, but in terms of classroom teaching (ability to explain things clearly, ability to be engaging and inspiring, and so on), I have never seen a difference from my experience at 2 SLACS and 3 big universities.

Alex said...

we think, as a class, we can teach better than people hired specifically for their teaching ability and more time to spend on it.

I teach at a place where the load is often 3-4 classes at a time (some of them might be labs or discussions). We still do some research, and we do a lot of service. My R1 colleagues usually teach 1 class at a time. They might spend less time in total on teaching, but they seem to spend more time per class than I do, because they have only the 1 class.

My local colleagues will disagree with me, because they are convinced that nobody could possibly be better at teaching than we are, but I think that a person who really wants to hone their teaching can do a better job of it at an R1. Especially after tenure.

Anonymous said...

Most of my students think that a professor is either 1) a good teacher or 2) a good researcher. They assume the skills are mutually exclusive. I wonder what FSP readers think -- if you see that a professor at an R1 university is a good teacher, would you assume they are not a good researcher? The converse? The inverse?

GMP said...

Anon at 01:11 PM said:
Most of my students think that a professor is either 1) a good teacher or 2) a good researcher. They assume the skills are mutually exclusive.

I don't know about students, but I know there are professors, my colleagues, who think that -- that if you are a good teacher, that must be at the expense of research. The same goes for actually showing any initiative in curriculum overhaul, or any service over the minimum. The question "what is it that you are not doing instead of teaching/service?" (i.e why are you wasting time that could be spent doing research) gets asked by some of my colleagues. These colleagues tend to be consummate researchers who are well-regarded but still second tier in their fields. My department's brightest research superstars tend to also be very good teachers and good department citizens. Sort of like Alex's 10-10-10 example.