Why so down on teaching?

Aug 22 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

A couple of days ago I posted about my relatively low teaching load at the moment and how this was a mild source of jealousy among some colleagues in my department. An anonymous commenter left the following:

I work in the private sector - so I have a pretty insignificant "teaching load", and like P-lS I'll not apologize for this lack of teaching assignment. I did some TA work in grad school - and I appreciate how teaching might not be the first thing you want to do when you get up in the morning... but if P-lS and tideliar find it such a "sucking" proposition, might I suggest you've not chosen your line of work as cleverly as you might have?

While I did not say that teaching sucks (merely that my colleagues think that I suck for having a light load), I can see where the commenter is coming from and thought it might be an opportunity to clarify why it appears that new faculty are anti-teaching. Really, it comes down to one factor if you are at an research-oriented institution.

Teaching will not get you tenure. Research will.

It's as simple as that. As junior faculty, you are almost exclusively evaluated on your research output in terms of dollars brought in, papers published and students trained. I'm not saying that an ability to teach effectively is not important, and service is also important, but what you do with your research program is the primary focus. One could perform worse than average in both their teaching and service if their research was very successful, but the same is not true for either of the other two categories at the expense of research. From that perspective, the time one has to develop a research program and get the lab steaming along can be directly related to success at getting tenure. The time any academic researcher spends teaching undergraduates is time taken away from research productivity, so teaching load is extremely important to junior faculty. 

Another factor, of course, is that many of us got where we are based on our ability to do research. Every search committee wants candidates to pay lip service to teaching and teaching experience is valuable to have on one's CV, but rarely will those qualifications make or break a candidate's chance at landing a job (again, at a research-oriented university). Therefore, many starting faculty have limited or no serious teaching experience. One of the major failings of North American graduate training, IMO, is the lack of real training to teach. So, if you got a job based on one set of skills and then had to perform an entirely different set of activities for that job, would there not be an element of trepidation?

All of this is not to say that I am not looking forward to teaching. It is, after all, a good part of the reason we are here. I am excited (and nervous) to take on my first class and show the students why I think the subject is way better than studying something boring, like humans. I want to expose the undergraduates at my university to what I work on and the kinds of science that will make them think, I really do. But if that's my focus as a junior faculty member, I won't be teaching these students at all once I miss out on tenure. 

4 responses so far

  • EC says:

    I think the point that really comes through to me in this post is that it is unfortunate that institutions don't make teaching more of a priority. I certainly see the original commenter's POV that it can make undergrad students feel crummy when they have paid thousands of dollars for their education and it is obvious that the prof standing in from of the class has no desire to be there (As a student, I once had a first year physics prof outright tell our class that he was only there because he was being forced to teach us). However, I can definietly understand it from the PI view and the fight for tenure. So basically, I think its a fail for the system and a big part of the reason that many students are drawn to smaller, undergraduate-focused schools

  • madscientist says:

    There are definite pluses and minuses to going to either a undergraduate-focus school or a research oriented school. The beautiful thing that the research oriented schools give student the opportunity to do things that will impress the crap out of the perspective employers. If you have worked on the solar car team or on a team that did a civil engineering project in Brazil, you are much more likely to get a job than someone who got good grades at undergraduate-focused school. So, while the experiences in the classroom may be not as good, the experiences out of the classrooom more than make up for it.I am definitely not advocating that researchers should shirk their duties in the teaching department. I am saying that education is more than just classroom time.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    EC: Junior faculty are already stretched thin. Keep in mind that this is a time to make a name for yourself in your field, so there are external considerations on top of what makes your department happy. While it is not ideal to have JF teaching courses they are not invested in, the flip side is that they are often teaching in their area of research, which can add relevance to a course. Also, the reduced teaching load in the begining means fewer JF in front of classes. That said, it is unacceptable for any teachers to portray apathy or disdain to the students. Madscientist: I agree that a lot of out-of-classroom learning can be great at large institutions. Unfortunately, only a relatively small number of students will benefit.

  • Anonymous says:

    I am not particularly keen on lecture-style teaching (I would give it up in a heartbeat if I could), but working with students one-on-one and in small groups on research is one of the best parts of the job. You don't get nearly as much of that in industry or other research positions outside of academia. For me it's a tradeoff; I'll take more of the one-on-one interaction if it means I have to do lectures too.

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