Research University, Now With Words

I am at a major public research university. Sure, this is a university and teaching is important, for some definitions of important; anyone who says that research does not beat teaching to a pulp is a liar.

Bringing in extramural funding is the most important metric in most STEM fields. It translates into overhead dollars for the university. It also generally translates into high-profile work, for money means you are doing work that is “hot” and also money can pay for a lot of smart students and postdocs who actually do the work in many fields (with the exception of math and some fields like theoretical physics and computer science). The most highly paid and most coveted members of the faculty are those who do flashy, news-worthy, high-profile work. [Between research productivity and  funds raised is an implication (–>) rather than equivalence (<–>), i.e. money is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for high productivity or flashy papers; there is such a thing as having too much money to efficiently handle. But I digress.]

We are professors, yes, but our peers and our administration care about research almost exclusively. So, where do teaching and service come to play?

Teaching has to be good. If it is bad, you will not get tenure. It has to be decent. But, anything better than decent, unless it is at the level of prestigious national teaching awards, is not rewarded. Being better than a decent teacher is all on you, and feel free to do it if it makes you feel good. But, if you are doing a better-than-passable job, people may (as I know from experience) ask what it is that you are not doing instead when you are wasting time on this silly teaching business. Not all colleagues are like that; in fact I have several in the department who really value and do an excellent job of teaching while also having some political gravitas. However, for the most part, spending considerable time on teaching is looked down upon by the most-research-productive colleagues, who sometimes consider teaching a nuisance that should be minimized or avoided to the extent possible.


For example, when I told a colleague that I give 3 midterms, hour-long and in-class, over the standard 2 longer evening exams (more frequent exams are less nerve-wrecking for the students because their grade does not hinge on any one exam so much, and it’s also less daunting for me to grade so I do it faster and they get the results sooner), the colleague told me that I must have too much time on my hands; he, who apparently must be the yardstick by which all workload is to be measured, has only one midterm (this is way too few for undergrads, in my opinion). So it’s not “you do this, I do that,” it’s an explicit statement that me doing something that I feel benefits the students is indicative of an unforgivable professional deficiency (not being busy enough). The same colleague told me “That’s loser talk” a few years ago when I complained that a grant was unjustly slaughtered in review (likely by this guy); needless to say, I am not discussing grants with that colleague again.

People who run very large groups and raise a lot of money generally have very hectic travel schedules and are overall very busy. I know from what students tell me that it translates into many cancelled and rescheduled classes, which is probably not a big deal for graduate students, but it is for undergrads, whose days are usually packed to bursting with classes, labs, project group meetings, and often part-time work. The extremely busy colleagues would often love to have the absolute minimal teaching load, and perhaps they should, for everyone’s benefit.

What about service? There are some important service assignments, and I understand and endorse that they have to be done. Many of them have to be done by faculty (e.g. serving on PhD dissertation committees, or tenure and promotion committees). My beef with service is threefold. First, there are people who really do the fewest and the lightest assignments; they tend to be either among the very high performers or, unsurprisingly, among the very poor performers (deadwood) who have mentally checked out. My second beef is that there are many committees that are pointless because what is needed is money, but the money is not forthcoming; while meeting to brainstorm and bloviate may appease whomever because it seems like something is happening, nothing really is, so the whole thing is a time-wasting charade. Third, service doesn’t do anything for an individual’s career unless it is a formal administrative position (e.g. you serve as department chair), and even so the gains appear… dubious.

The most aggravating part of life at an R1 university is that, during the semester, teaching and service can easily eat up your entire work week. I have several student papers to edit, I haven’t been able to get to them in way longer than I would like. We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research — the only part that can potentially advance your career — suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.

I don’t think faculty are at fault here. People do what is expected of them, and smart people read expectations very well.


  1. Given that it is the teaching that suffers (apart from our mental health), I am coming around to the view that teaching is best done by those who only do research as a side hobby, if at all. Not fair to the students. I wonder what is the situation in german technical schools/universities.

  2. Nailed it.

    “We are dealing with a completely nuts situation, in which much of the core university mission work (teaching, service) takes up so much time that, if you are at all conscientious, your research, the only part that can potentially advance your career, suffers terribly; if you don’t want to neglect your research (or your career in general), you shaft the core mission or your personal life, usually both.”

    100% agree. This is why I left academia. That and the fact that it was very clear that my long term success & ability to succeed was not a concern. Since my long term success *is* my priority, I left.

  3. While this is nothing I haven’t observed as a graduate student, it’s… reassuring? to hear it confirmed. It is certainly going to affect the kinds of schools I consider when (if) I’m out of the government lab.

    My department has a policy of letting the big research dollar professors “buy” out of their teaching obligations, which has resulted in too few professors in rotation, so they’ve axed a lot of the grad classes that were once on the books. The undergrads are probably a little better off for it, except that our most research-productive professors are better teachers than the faculty who are actually teaching (not claiming any causation, just the balance in this department). Also, professors with fewer research dollars wind up doing more teaching and service work, which tends to lead to neglected graduate students.

    Across the engineering departments, there a few permanent lecturer positions, who are often assigned the big introductory classes, but are often regarded as the best teachers. Unfortunately, while the university managed to create permanent positions, the departmental acceptance can be difficult, especially in a department that acknowledges how little it cares about teaching…

  4. missmse, same here — graduate courses are being cancelled because there aren’t enough people to teach. Sabbaticals, buyout, people leaving or retiring without being replaced, and you have folks like me going several years without teaching a single graduate course because undergrad courses have to be staffed first. I love teaching undergrads, they are fun, but grad students are complaining that they don’t have anything to take.

    our most research-productive professors are better teachers than the faculty who are actually teaching

    That’s probably true. There are many qualities that are necessary for being successful in grant raising and publishing — the ability to clearly and engagingly convey ideas, charisma (for raising grants, especially with agencies that don’t do peer review) — that translate into being successful in the classroom.

    Although, what’s a really good teacher is a bit of a loaded question. When I was a graduate student, some of the most interesting and engaging teachers left me with no skills to actually solve concrete problems; some among the more boring ones actually gave me all the tools I needed. I think I am a pretty good teacher, so say all evaluations and awards. But I don’t think there is anyone who will click with everyone, and being fun and interesting doesn’t always translate into actually learning things deeply. It’s really it’s all about the student. Anyone can teach a motivated student, and no one can teach one who doesn’t care. A good teacher might make a difference to the undecided middle-of-the-pack student.

  5. These people who say there is something wrong with you if you care about teaching or teach well….they drive me around the fucking bend. Have they no shame?

  6. One problem here is that the only way we can afford to offer all our classes is if the faculty buy out of teaching and we hire cheaper lecturers to replace them. We have no funding for lecturers except buy outs and course relief—despite having one lecturer with a continuing appointment who teaches 6 courses a year. It’s an insane way to fund a university.

  7. I had all but given up hope before I started working where I am now. While it’s true that you won’t get promoted on teaching here, at least they do give a crap about the undergraduate experience. Sadly, I think it’s only because they have the endowment to do so.

    And: thanks for the comment. Because now I’ve found you. And I love your brilliant comics (doodles, whatever you want to call them).

  8. teaching is like a gas…it expands to fill the time you give it. The key is to figure out how to minimize your prep, grading, etc and still get the most out of it. If it takes time to do, it had better have a sound pedagogic purpose. Super detailed comments on a short paper in a science class? 99% of students don’t care, so you give basic comments and offer more if they come to office hours (I get about 1 student a semester take me up on that). Any ability to reteach the same thing helps…if you do it right. I know people who have been teaching the same intro course for years who still spend excessive time going over their lectures. You shouldn;t have to do that. You’ve got to give up perfection, and you can still do very well and be engaging. It takes time to fine that balance though

  9. Although, what’s a really good teacher is a bit of a loaded question.

    Agreed. However, the faculty buying out are certainly less bad than some of the faculty currently teaching, who can’t maintain a coherent message through one lecture, let alone build and develop concepts throughout a course. If they were just boring, that would be one issue, but some of the grad courses are just a mess.

  10. Yes… We also have a couple who are just all around terrible. Don’t do research, are awful at teaching. Can’t penalize them by giving a much higher teaching load beause then it screws over poor students. Those folks simply never should have been granted tenure.

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