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. Continue reading

Accountability: Coming to a School Near You

After a conversation with my Dear Old Dad last night, I am mulling my previously stated positions on the role of “trust” at work. I wrote about this in my last blog, and touched on it again in a forthcoming editorial piece for Canadian Nurse. I’ve argued generally that excessive workloads and misplaced emphases on accountability are damaging to the long term health of organizations, and I’m certainly not the only one to have made this case.

But Dad’s all over accountability; he’s an internal auditor at an Alberta college. This leads us to some great conversations about university culture, and the very different world views of administration and faculty. We can get into some back  and forths on this  because I “get” and will sometimes defend the position of faculty. The underlying debate works more or less works like this:

Administrators: “We are really concerned about the bottom line. This place is bleeding money. What are we gonna do?”

Faculty: “Money, schmoney. You’re eroding the Life of the Mind.”

So Dad and I are talking about the resistance of faculty to requests that they  account for their time. The term “scholarly activity” is contentious because it’s a deliciously convenient catch-all that, to Dad’s frustration, seems to warrant little further elaboration. He wants to know if faculty are teaching two classes a year on full salary, and otherwise wiling away their time with outside consulting contracts and stints at the summer house on Salt Spring Island. I can’t deny it: he’s got a point. These things do happen.

When it comes to work and accountability in universities, it seems to be the usual case of a few rotten apples spoiling the barrel. I’ve hung around universities long enough to observe that most people work very hard, but some people… not so much. Roll that in with tenure and regular increments, you end up with some very expensive dead wood, and that makes people like my Dad crazy.

Ummmm... yeah. I’m, like, working from home today, okay?

The situation is similar in public education, where teachers are also effectively tenured and locked into negotiated pay grids. There are increasing calls in the United States for “merit pay” for teachers as a system to keep teachers accountable for the quality of their work [1]. The publication of standardized exam results are similarly intended to keep teachers and schools “honest,” holding them to account when students do poorly.

But here’s the problem: both academics and teachers are examples of specialized occupations that requires latitude for decision making. What’s more, in such lines of work, it’s really hard to link specific tasks to outcomes. Two teachers could teach the same material the same way to two different classes and get wildly different results. Two academics could read and write every day for four hours, but it would be pretty near impossible to measure the outcomes of these efforts. Is Prof A less productive when it takes him four years to write a really good book while Prof B is spinning out so-so research every year? Who knows? [2]

Notions of “accountability” are not horrendous in and of themselves, but they tend to be applied in a knee jerk fashion that overlooks an important characteristic of work in complex environments: people need to be able to exercise discretion, and respond appropriately to what’s in front of them. Contrariwise, “accountability” tends to demand uniformity in individual task performance, which in many work settings is neither realistic nor desirable.

All this said, I don’t mean to be naive in my defense of trust at work. I know academic work very well, and can make a pretty solid case for the difficulty of linking “scholarly activity” to specific outcomes in any sort of systematic way. On the other hand, those charged with managing the budgets and day-to-day affairs are stymied when they’ve got no data to work with, and people tend to get annoyed when some people seem to get an awful lot of money for very little work [3]. What Dad and I seem to come around to is that there must be some sort of balance between freedom and accountability on the job. The trick, of course, is getting that balance right.

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Notes and References

[1] For a quick Canadian take on the issue, here’s a piece from Globe Campus: Should Canada offer merit pay to teachers?

[2] This is rather timely: here’s a report on a longer running performance based funding strategy operating in Tennessee’s public colleges and universities. Although it is only one study, it did find that performance based funding had little impact on student retention and completion rates.

[3] See also: Canada’s Senate