So last night's #pubscience discussion was focused on decisions about undergraduate education. Specifically, how our panelists saw the pros and cons of undergraduate education at different types of universities and colleges. These are questions I face regularly at University open houses and in one-on-one conversations with families considering sending their child to the place of my employment.
"What can you offer that comparable universities can't?", "What will my student's job prospects be when they graduate?", "What types of student support are there here?"
Parents and students, alike, are trying to measure their chances of success at a particular place, and importantly, the value of an education there. Price point is increasingly becoming one of the most important criteria when students are selecting a school, IME.
Okay, but what does that mean for me as a professor? Whereas I don't teach as much as some of my colleagues at other institutions (and I teach more than others), I see my share of undergraduate faces every year. As a pretenure prof, balancing the amount of effort I put into teaching is important.
Why? Because teaching won't get you tenure. At least not here. I'm not saying that's right or just or The Way It Should Be, only that it is reality. Without significant* research output, the odds of one passing into the ranks of the tenured are dramatically lessened. This leads us to the great pretenure balancing act - do the best job at teaching that you can without taking too much away from your research effort.
As a specific example, let's take labs. I teach a class that has a lab. The class meets twice a week (1.25hrs ea) and the lab meets twice a week (3hrs ea), but the class is split so that each student only goes to one lab per week. Therefore, I have to prepare roughly 2.5 hrs of material for class per week and 3 hrs for lab. I teach all the class periods unless I am traveling or there is a daycare crisis, but I have a graduate student TA to teach the lab. We meet weekly and I have designed the labs to fit the class, but I am not there to teach the material and go over concepts.
From an undergraduate perspective, this is probably less than ideal. Unless the TA is excellent it would probably be better to have the person who designed the lab exercise and who is teaching the classroom portion to be instructing the lab as well. There's more opportunities to reiterate concepts from class and chances to push students on the core concepts when you have a single person handling all aspects of the course. I know I benefited from this as an undergraduate and I'm sure the students in my class would too.
There's only so many hours in a day and I have been asked to focus more on other parts of my job than on teaching the lab portions of classes. Reinforcing this is the fact the my college pays a graduate student to alleviate me from those duties. I know it would be a better educational experience if I was in the course lab, but my interests and motivation are elsewhere. And so we knowingly sacrifice on the quality of undergraduate education in the name of research and graduate student training (teaching experience).
It's a trade off, and like any compromise, no one is 100% happy with it. But it's the reality of a university that holds it's professors to a research-centric advancement metric.
But before you think I'm leaving you on an anti-bigU down note, one of the most critical points of last night's discussion was that every one of the panelists who went on to careers in science did so because they got into a lab and did actual science. It wasn't their classes that inspired them to head to grad school, it was getting their hands dirty in a research lab. So, while the majority of my students would be better off if I were in the course lab, the 5-7 undergraduates who work in my research lab per year have been afforded an opportunity they would not get if research wasn't thriving here. For those students who end up in science careers, their time in the lab was like a deciding factor.
*"Significant" is purposefully vague to allow for waffle room. Not Waffle House. Mmmm, train wreck omelet....