Scholars and Teachers on Divergent Paths
March 18, 2010
Research (source)via Female Science Professor. A recent news bit in the Chronicle of Higher Education details another case in which the alleged three legged stool of Professorial careerdom (teaching, research, service) is revealed to stand only on the one leg- research.
his department’s tenure-and-promotion guidelines.. were revised in 2000, shortly after he had received the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award and a similar prize from a statewide association of governing boards.
Under the revised criteria, faculty members are given many more points for supervising graduate students than for teaching undergraduate courses. “I can teach an undergraduate course with 44 students and get only three points,” Mr. Vable says. “But a faculty member who supervises a graduate student gets 19 points and can be released from course duty. So that totally skewed the algorithm.”
Well, at least they are up front about it.
Look, this is no surprise to me and it shouldn’t be to you either. Even in primarily teaching-focused colleges you can have evidence of “scholarship” raising its head as being more-equal than teaching excellence. Research University? Forgeddaboutit. I’ve never yet heard of a professor with high research productivity and grant acquisition being held back in any serious way because of crappy teaching. It may happen somewhere but it sure isn’t common. OTOH, reports of faculty with teaching accolades being denied tenure because of a failure to generate a sufficiently active or awesomez! research program are easy to find.
I’m not so concerned about the specifics of this case. About whether the University changed promotion criteria mid-stream, whether a faculty member was a fool or not to believe the three-legged-stool lie when originally hired, what this dude’s publication rate was relative to colleagues, etc.
The question is whether this is a good thing to be doing in our higher education / academic research institutions. What does it mean to be a faculty member of a research university? Are we right to be encouraging a sort of dual-track separation between researchers and teachers?
Mr. Vable, for his part, believes Michigan Tech is still far out of balance. Last month students in Michigan Tech’s College of Engineering named him one the college’s best three instructors. He used the occasion to write an open letter to students. “We are creating a system where teachers and scholars are on divergent paths,” he wrote.
Whether or not this is the case at that University, at least Professor* Vable’s provost argues that this is not the intent.
“I firmly believe in the unity of teaching and research at a doctoral university,” Mr. Seel says. “And hopefully discussions about how to achieve that balance will never end. Those discussions are healthy for all of us.”
I don’t know that I agree with this and I certainly believe that our business has been actively dissolving this relationship for a long time. The reasons for tenure-denial and failure to make full professor are one area in which this is apparent. Also the relative number of teaching hours covered by temporary vs. tenure track staff. The way research grant awards can be used to “buy-out” of teaching duties.
I am just not convinced that undergraduate education, as education, is superior at a research institution. Teaching is…..a thing. An art, a craft, a profession, a vocation…call it what you will, not everyone can do it. Not everyone can excel at it. And it takes work. Real work. Focus. I just don’t see how anyone can argue that the teaching / learning part of undergraduate studies is not superior when the instructor has but the single job- of teaching undergraduates.
Now, there may be other benefits to being around research or cutting edge humanities scholarship, particularly for those who will eventually continue into academic-type careers. I am not sure these benefits outweigh the cost of inferior education for the vast majority of college students who will not go on to graduate studies.
The conversation over at FSP’s place seems to be focused a little bit on the cost angle. Are undergrads being forced to pay for research activities of doctoral students and faculty from which they do not benefit?
I’d ask the other question- are NIH funds being used to underwrite general undergraduate education? Do those grants keep the University infrastructure rocking, thereby lowering tuition costs? How much of that grant/University time allocation edges over to the professor engaging (reluctantly) in his or her teaching responsibilities on the NIH grant dime? If those alleged educational benefits of active research laboratories are accruing to the student (see this comment), what fraction should be charged to the tuition bill and what fraction to the NIH dime?
*Anyone know why the Chronicle doesn’t use “Dr.” or “Professor” and opts for “Mr./Ms.”?