Why do poor teachers get university tenure?

This is the time of year when tenure and promotion cases start getting going, so this seems a timely moment to consider the question. The answer at the most basic level is twofold: (1) there is more to the job than teaching and (2) evaluating teaching is difficult. Many times this is simply misinterpreted as “teaching doesn’t matter,” which while true in some institutions is not really true.

Take the second part first.  How do you measure success in classroom teaching?  Most universities have relied on student surveys at the close of class.  These are notoriously weak measures.  For instance, it is trivial to skew the numbers by providing students higher midterm grades than final grades. These surveys usually coincide with the peak of student anxiety over their grades and so tend to accumulate a fair bit of vitriol.

A second measure that is reasonably common is peer review of teaching.  To do this well would require a lot of effort on the part of the peer reviewer; frequently this is little more than examining a syllabus and watching a lecture or two. Even then, the perspective of a faculty member will often differ greatly from a student.  The Feynman Lectures on Physics was once described as being a wonderful textbook so long as you already understood physics.

Efforts are being made, particularly in core-type classes, to identify material students should have mastered and have a standard assessment of their success.  This is, for instance, a key part of the Science Education Initiative’s program here at CU, and this can help separate successful from unsuccessful approaches for courses where the material is clearly documented and the assessment is well-vetted.  Even here, though, one can ask what the goal should be: is this to assure that the greatest number meet the lowest bar? That the class average be as high as possible? That the most successful are engaged and succeed beyond their initial position? Toss in the reality that developing valid course assessments is hard and any variation between classes of the same course in material covered and you find that this isn’t going to be a frequently useful tool.

But let’s return to that first part: classroom teaching is only part of the job.

In fact, classroom teaching is only part of the teaching.  At a research university, teaching also includes mentoring graduate students and can include mentoring undergraduate theses or honors work.  Again, not trivial to evaluate, but usually letters are solicited from current and former students to see how they view their mentor.  Additionally, if a faculty member is known to have had an unusually large number of students leave the program early, this can factor into the overall teaching evaluation. A lousy classroom teacher can be an excellent mentor and vice versa.

At most research universities, though, teaching of all stripes is not even a majority of the job.  CU’s Arts and Sciences has as a default that 40% of the job is teaching, 40% is research and 20% is teaching–and that is in the school year. Now being a liability in the classroom will definitely hurt your chances of getting tenure, but with the percentages as listed, it isn’t certain doom.

Part of the reason that folks assume that research is the key to tenure is because it is the element that really only gets examined at tenure time.  Faculty are aware of one’s teaching as the years go on, and involvement in service too is pretty evident, so annual reviews can easily document accumulating deficiencies (indeed, the absence of such documentation has formed the basis for court cases challenging denials of tenure).  Aside from simple bean counting (have you published the requisite number of papers? Applied for the usual number of grants?), the quality of research really only gets examined at tenure time (and at promotion to full professor, a less strenuous exercise). Here we ask experts in the same field to provide us with feedback and ideally we get back some thoughtful comments on the impact a candidate’s work is making on the field. (Sometimes we get back little more than a rehash of the candidate’s cv, which is not helpful).

It is probably true that it is more common for tenure to be granted to excellent researchers with so-so teaching than to excellent teachers with so-so research, and this might well reflect a flaw in the system.  But consider too that if teaching is really your passion, there are multiple places to engage in a pure teaching career, including K-12, community colleges and 4-year (non-research) schools.  In contrast, academic-type research is increasingly rare in industry (though Google seems to be making an effort there, things equivalent to Bell Labs are pretty rare and the oil industry purged much of its R&D efforts in the 1980s as T Boone Pickens made very barebones evaluations of company bottom lines the measure of success and failure).  Government labs also are increasingly focused on short term goals (and the number of jobs in such labs in many fields is pretty small).  So it seems likely that the population of university faculty starts with a bias towards excellent researchers.

What this means for students considering college is this: if you aren’t looking to get involved in research as an undergraduate, you may well be better off at a school lacking a graduate program.  Odds are that the teachers are more invested in classroom teaching; they might be a bit behind on current state of the art, but that is not usually a huge deal at the BS/BA level. If you do attend a school with a graduate program, you will get more bang for your buck if you can find a way to be involved with that research effort. Perhaps the professor lecturing to the chalkboard has more to offer in the lab.

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