On the concept of research and teaching as “two tracks”

Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, recently published an article which proposes to solve a set of related problems that supposedly plague higher education in America. In truth, he’s actually offering a myopic view of a non-problem, or rather one that could only be envisioned from the privileged perspective of a faculty person working at an elite institution.

Adam Grant, “A Solution for Bad Teaching,” New York Times (2/5/2014) URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/06/opinion/a-solution-for-bad-teaching.html

Grant apparently shares the widespread inability of faculty at elite research institutions even to imagine the realities of life in the rest of American higher education. Elite faculty seem always to assume that the types of things they see happening in their context are typical across faculties in American institutions. This seems to me to be a major problem for the way discourse about education reform proceeds, in this country, especially since their “elite” status seems to grant them access to prominent public fora like the New York Times, while people who better appreciate what’s going on may be relegated to bitching on facebook or taking the time to put together a hasty sketch for a blog post.

Yes, Grant reports on research, and offers seemingly persuasive commentary about how different are the skills of “research” and “teaching.” He takes note of the different teaching practices and outcomes among non-tenured versus tenured faculty. This seems solid enough, and probably does reflect the experience of faculty and students elite “R1” research universities, but it has almost nothing to do with what goes on in undergraduate education at the thousands of liberal arts colleges in this country where most faculty and students work.

According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of teaching, no more than 10% of students in higher education, nationwide, are served by such large research institutions. The faculties are, ultimately, also a small percentage of those who are employed in higher education. The other 90% attend schools with faculty who are far less focused on research.

For data supporting this claim, see the table of institutions, and the analysis of enrollments, at http://classifications.carnegiefoundation.org/summary/ugrad_prog.php.

Grant’s proposals are thus a set of solutions in search of a problem, or rather, they are a symptom of misreading the economic and practical landscape of higher education in America.

The fact that R1 schools have problems with the teaching quality of the people they hired to be researchers is not news. Universities realize that they often have poor educational outcomes from their most highly valued employees, and can’t continue to economically justify their model.

Cry me a river.

The R1 schools went out of their way to hire people as researchers, reward them for their research, and then gave them tenure and new administrative roles. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these people don’t make teaching their focus.

So, in response, Grant supports an idea of separating “research” track professorships from “teaching” tracks. You might think this would create a caste system in research universities. And maybe it would. Or maybe, it would just reflect what is already in fact the practice of higher education in America.

Because in this country, we already separate research from teaching.

At present, this separation takes place in the job market, where universities go out to hire people to do research, while colleges (liberal arts, general, and community) hire people to teach.

You have to look at the system as a whole, and measure what is going on at the inter-institutional level. System wide, we heap economic and professional rewards (including time and support for research and writing) onto a very select, very lucky few. These are the PhDs who get hired to work at research universities, where they benefit from lower teaching loads. The vast majority of newly-minted PhDs go without employment altogether, and the rest of us are hired to teach more, and be paid less to be teachers at teaching-focused schools. Some of us get tenure, and the rest operate as minimum-wage drones in the adjunct system, or leave academia altogether.

What the “dual track tenure” proposal amounts to is an attempt to impose the conditions under which most of us already operate onto the much smaller pool of academics who make up the faculties of the R1 universities. What he is actually proposing is that R1 institutions act more like the teaching schools.

Schools in America have shown that they don’t really need any empirical research in teaching effectiveness to justify pushing more and more of the teaching burden off of tenured research faculty, and onto the non-researching contract faculty whose jobs are focused on teaching. That process is long underway. There have never been more students being taught by exploited adjuncts and only slightly less exploited term employees. And besides, Grant reports, as if its a bonus: there’s research that shows research has nothing to do with teaching outcomes, and even research that says students learn more from non-tenure track faculty! Wow. Cool.

We’ve heard this before. Of course any research that reports that students learn more from such faculty will warm the hearts, I’m sure, of administrators everywhere. But what it really means is all professional full time teachers are in trouble.

As a well prepared and thoughtful but ordinary liberal arts college professor, I’d like to do more work involving research and publishing writing. But that’s unlikely ever to happen. I personally find it almost impossible to incorporate a serious writing practice into a life of “scholar-teacher-family-man” with a 4/4 teaching load. Others in my position, particularly those who decide to forego family life, seem to fare better at maintaining one foot in the world of “research.” But most of us are far less productive, as researchers, than our counterparts in the universities. I’m therefore often envious of colleagues who have secured one of those elite jobs where they get paid to act like an expert in their subject field by conducting obscure and technical research for publication in journals that will only be read by other elite researchers.

Somehow, it doesn’t make me feel better to see that R1 institutions are re-thinking their model. In fact, I would seem to occupy precisely the middle-ground that has the most to lose in this discussion. I have tenure and am being paid a middle-class salary, with benefits, to do something for my students that a slightly younger Ph.D. would probably be willing to do for approximately 1/6 the cost (as an adjunct), or 1/2 the cost as a term-employee.

Along comes Grant with his unique economic logic. If the R1 universities took Grant’s advice, they would begin hiring a new faculty to work exclusively as teachers. They would presumably be paid less and expected to teach more. These faculty would exist alongside the (presumably thereafter much smaller) research faculty, who would be paid the same or more, and would have research and publication as their primary or only responsibility.

Grant even writes, at the end of a colossally tone-deaf passage, that while “[r]eplacing adjuncts with tenured teachers would cost more,” nevertheless “there are ways to offset that, perhaps by funding more research with grants.” These kinds of comments drive University Provosts and Academic VPs to drink. “No problem… just turn your existing adjuncts into tenured professors.” Ha. What he’s actually proposing is to kill off any remaining pretense that university faculties are groups of scholars working on disinterested research in recognized areas of important inquiry. Research funded by external grants depends on corporate donors or political processes that are by definition, interested. His proposal could either bankrupt the universities or unacceptably narrow the range of subjects where serious research was happening; or do both.

By the way, have you ever noticed how difficult it can be to get an ordinary American undergrad to benefit from working with a typical peer-reviewed article or serious monograph? Most academic writing is pitched to a graduate-student or professional-peer audience level. You can just imagine Grant’s proposal exacerbating this problem. On the other hand, books written for undergrads—i.e. textbooks—are sometimes models of the worst sort of scholarship, offering at best only minimal engagement with sources, or failing to model critical interaction with the literature, or studiously avoiding “technical jargon” at the expense of providing a foundation for further study in the field. What might actually be needed is MORE, not less, research and writing done for the college-educated lay-audience, written by people who professionally teach young adults, and LESS not more, advanced and highly technical research. But what do I know?

In this new system proposed by Grant (and others) the elite will become even more elite. Congratulations to you rock star researchers! When the rest of us finish grading our undergraduates’ papers, we might read your latest article. If we can find the time. I will go ahead and assume we can understand what you’re working on. And to all you new teaching-track professors, welcome to the working week! Let’s hope that we don’t all compete each other out of a living wage.

Post-Script (Feb 10, 2014):

According to an April, 2013 report by The New York Times, the average salary of professors at Private Research Universities is over $160,000 per year. I just want to note that this is more than three times my current salary. This emphasizes my point nicely: in this country, we sharply divide “research” from “teaching” already, reward “research” by an elite few far more than we reward the “teaching” by the many. (The same article reports that assistant professors at schools like mine average just over $60,000 per year, which, for the record is around 20% more than my salary as an associate professor at a relatively poor school in rural Appalachia). But please don’t think I am complaining about my modest salary. Because I know that things could be a lot worse. The same report explains that tenure or tenure track jobs make up only 24% of the academic workforce. Yes, that’s right, about 76% of those presently teaching in colleges and universities in America are adjuncts or defined term lecturers. Bear in mind that the average pay for an adjunct teaching a college-level course is less than $3000 per year, with no benefits. Accordingly, we can say that these people, who do most of the teaching for us, are paid, usually, only 1/3 to 1/5 what I am paid for the same teaching load. If you needed any, this is strong evidence that Prof. Grant is completely out of touch and off his rocker when he nonchalantly admits that moving teachers from the ranks of the adjuncts into tenure-track teaching-only jobs might be kind of expensive. You think so? Oh, but we can just get some grants to support the work of all those research professors. Is Grant really this clueless?

Sources:

Tamar Lewin, “Gap Widens for Faculty at Colleges, Report Finds,” New York Times (4/8/2013) URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/education/gap-in-university-faculty-pay-continues-to-grow-report-finds.html

William Pannapacker, “Just Look at the Data, If You Can Find Any” Chronicle of Higher Education (6/17/2013) URL: http://chronicle.com/article/Just-Look-at-the-Data-if-You/139795

what do you think?

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