Who is Teaching Your University Classes?

Cliche image of a professor. Why are they always dudes with beards writing on chalkboards? And why is it always math?

Cliche image of a professor. Why are they always dudes with beards writing on chalkboards? And why is it always math?

I’ve spent much of my summer researching university recruitment literature. I want to see how the rhetoric of university life compares to the reality, particularly for “first generation” students — those whose parents didn’t attend post-secondary education.

Through this exercise, I’ve had to sit down hard on my own cynicism at times, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of teaching, and of university professors. There’s some over-the-top material here. Take this institution, which promises, “Our award-winning professors are brilliant minds who will engage, motivate and inspire you.” Or this one, which echoes, “You will learn from nationally and internationally renowned teachers and researchers.”

This is, frankly, bald rhetoric. And there are a number of reasons why parents and students alike should be sitting up, and taking notice.

Reason Number One: Research is Over-rated. Seriously.

First, we should be cautious about buying in to the “academic rockstar” discourse. Professors’ international renown and prestigious research grants have little bearing on undergraduate students, unless students are, from the get-go, aspiring to graduate academic work. In fact, the more star-power an academic has on the research front, the more likely s/he is to buy out teaching, which means s/he potentially doesn’t set foot in an undergraduate classroom. What needs to be understood here is that tenure-track academics are rewarded for conducting research, and bringing research funding into their universities, not for their teaching. In fact, teaching gets in their way.

If you get a great researcher at a university who also genuinely enjoys teaching… well lucky you. But your prof is just as likely to wish s/he were somewhere else. When being introduced to a discipline, a novice is far more likely to benefit from an enthusiastic and skilled teacher than from a senior scholar who many know a great deal, but has little interest in sharing it in a low-status junior course.  In short, the tenure status of the instructor generally doesn’t have much bearing on the quality of teaching, and the relationship between research and undergraduate teaching quality? Well it doesn’t exist. Active research primarily serves the interests of professors, not undergraduate students.

Reason Number Two: Professors Aren’t “Really Professors.”

A second reason to double-take on the rhetoric is that, especially in first-year courses, there is a very good chance students won’t be taught by a “professor” at all, or at least not in the sense that is suggested in the breathy promises in recruitment viewbooks. Many instructors are graduate students. They may or may not have teacher training, although this is increasingly required by departments whose students teach. Graduate students are good caring folks, for the most part, but may be only a chapter or two ahead of their students on the textbook when they teach a course for the first time. True story. And don’t beat them up for it. Many want to do well, care about students, and are barely managing to pay for their studies. I know because I was one of them.

The other category of professor-who-is-not-really-a-professor is the sessional instructor, who likely does hold a PhD and some expertise and research interests in the field. Generally, these instructors become more valuable over time to a department because they know the curriculum and the courses they teach very well. They are reliable. They also tend to enjoy teaching and find it rewarding; that’s one of the reasons (aside from economic survival) why they put up slave wages and no job security while performing the same work as their tenured colleagues.

Despite the press that continues to surround the working conditions of contract or sessional instructors, students and parents may not realize that their tuition dollars are supporting a caste system of labour that they’d never want for themselves or their children to be at the bottom of.[1]

Reason Number Three: Students Are Not Well Served.

Both of these problems could be solved if more universities walked their teaching talk and hired “teaching professors.” These secure, permanent positions pay fairly, and keep instructors fully engaged in the university community. Teaching professors hold long term contracts, or are tenured like their research-focused colleagues, but choose to invest their professional learning in teaching. The research and innovation they engage in tends to directly benefit undergraduate students.[2] Faculty who want to teach (instead of being forced to) are more likely to innovate in their teaching — for example by creating community-service learning opportunities for students, using technology creatively, and tweaking assignments to improve student engagement and learning. Instead of spending their time applying for research grants, they are spending time with and on their students.[3]

And this matters. Research consistently shows that faculty contact improves students’ sense of community. It improves their academic performance. It improves the likelihood that they’ll stick around and finish their degrees.

Knowing these things, it’s tough to swallow the glowing accounts of “award winning” and “brilliant” professors on recruitment sites, particularly when they imply that being a good researcher is synonymous with being a great instructor. The suggested importance of research not only plays into a self-serving prestige game among universities, it obscures the central importance of secure working conditions, stable community and good pedagogy (teaching) to learning, and to the well-being of students and instructors alike. Forget the research rhetoric and the viewbook bragging. What really matters for undergrads? Class sizes, and instructors who are securely employed to devote themselves to the craft of great teaching.

[1] The Canadian state of affairs here was well covered by CBC last fall: Basen, I (2014, September 7). Most university undergrads now taught by poorly paid part-timers. CBC News. The use of part-time contract workers, who can make a quarter of what their tenure-track colleagues do working full-time, is also ubiquitous (and growing) in the US and Australia.

[2] In higher education, this is referred to as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or SoTL for short. Instructors work to improve their teaching practices, while publishing research that builds our collective knowledge of best practices for teaching at the post-secondary level.

[3] See this article for an overview of studies relating faculty status to student outcomes: Weissman, J. (2013, September 25). Are tenured professors really worse teachers? A lit review. The Atlantic Monthly.  Weissman’s review is certainly more nuanced than what I’ve offered here, but the gist is that full-time instructors who are well-integrated into their disciplines and university communities are better for students. For a less charitable view of the teaching-only track, read this editorial, which makes some good points about potential pitfalls of a two-stream system.

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: No One is Talking Precarious Labour. Why Not? | My So-Called Career

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