Who Teaches?

I have a junior colleague (JC) who’s just phoning it in when it comes to teaching. JC’s been very successful in raising funds, writing grants, and advising students. JC travels a lot and is making themselves known. JC’s teaching evaluations are below average, but JC doesn’t really care. JC considers teaching a tax to be paid for the privilege of having a faculty position.

The thing is, JC is not stupid. JC knows that there’s no way they will be denied tenure with anemic teaching as long as they bring in the money and publish. I have been involved in tenure review at several levels at my school, and that’s the bottom line — unless you are routinely not showing up for class or otherwise completely shirking your duties, nobody will deny tenure to a research-active faculty member. You can be boring as all hell in the lecture, you can have 2 hrs of office hours a week during a time when no one can show up, you can be late grading exams or posting problem solutions, you can be inaccessible via email, you can get poor evaluations, and you will still likely get tenure.

What’s really infuriating is that this is still a university and people pay good money to come here and attend classes. When did it become okay to focus on raising grants over everything else? It’s as if people don’t consider it important to even pay lip service to teaching any more. When did it become okay to forget that we at public schools exist for the students — we are here to educate! It’s the teaching mission that makes a college or a university, not shining buildings and overhead. Remove grants? Still an academic institution. Remove students? Not so much.

I spoke with my chair recently, and basically he said that we simply had to make peace with the fact that some people will never teach well and that others who do will have to put in more than their share of effort. The problem is that the people who don’t teach well or much end up with more time for research and are thus given more respect by the upper administration and generally better career prospects (because research is portable, teaching not too much). So my chair basically says it’s inevitable that there will be Tier 1 faculty who focus on research, and Tier 2 faculty will pick up the slack after Tier 1 faculty simply because they happen to teach well, care about teaching, and are not completely selfish. Nobody asked Tier 2s if they want to be the maid for Tier 1s, doing the “dirty” unwanted work; people who teach well at research schools certainly want to do research and have not signed up to be second-class department citizens.

We should collectively be ashamed of ourselves that it’s okay to not want to do well a core, truly CORE part of the job, as long as you bring in the grants. It’s all about the grants, it’s all about the money, it’s not even about writing papers based on the work done with that money; it really is just about the money. That admins are allowed to insist, with a straight face and unchallenged by anyone, that the value of a faculty member lies in bringing in grants is completely perverted.

Why and how did we allow this to become the norm?


  1. Churning out Ph.D.’s is also often valued up there with bringing in the external funding at many research universities, prioritized far above teaching “lowly undergraduates.” Especially at some public research institutions where how much money the state gives them is partially determined by how many new doctorate recipients they produce each year: it’s kind of like a grant, that way.

  2. I would love to be able to say that it is different in teaching-focused institutions, but they throw buckets of money at you if you are involved in STEM Education Initiatives that mean going to meetings and teaching a few very special boutique classes rather than a bunch of bread-and-butter classes that the masses of students need.

    Academia rewards everything except teaching.

  3. In interviewing, I recently had a department chair say something like, “While everyone knows that you don’t get tenure at X based on your teaching record, students do pay $Yk a year to come here, and it’s important that you take that seriously.” Sadly, I think that’s one of the more teaching-positive statements I heard at an R1.

    Is this really driven so much by administrative pressure, or is it also coming from fellow faculty members’ attitudes about what is valuable? I wonder how much this is also aggravated by increasing specialization in faculty, too – seems like much more of the instructional burden is on instructors/adjuncts/teaching-track faculty than even 10-20 years ago.

  4. This sentiment is a huge part of why I accepted a job at a SLAC instead of an R1 after interviewing at both. I wanted to be a good teacher, do research, and be rewarded for both. I would have been miserable if my research program got off to a slow start at an R1 and I needed to focus on it and spent little time on teaching while teaching badly as a result. I really don’t understand how people can be happy doing part of their job poorly on purpose.

    While people on my campus certainly gain status through high research activity, excellent teaching is even more prized. Good teaching is absolutely necessary for tenure, while research just needs to be present (publish a couple of papers, but they need to be solid, not groundbreaking).

  5. Oh Lord this is so familiar – and I’m not even at a research intensive university! But the effect of getting more research time – and being seen as a great researcher who “can’t be expected to be as good as admin and teaching because they are passionate about their research” – is actually probably geeater here because we all have so little of it – even a couple hours a week makes a significant difference in research productivity over a year

    There’s a lot of rhetoric about excellence in teaching – but I know of exactly 3 promotions in recognition of teaching excellence in 15 years and all the others were for research achievements (according to the announcements, which surely show what lessons the administration want the rest of us to take from the promotion successes…).

    It’s really frustrating!!

  6. I’m in a department that really values teaching, and we work hard to hire people who are good teachers and seem to have a genuine interest in education. I love working with undergrads and having them in the lab (and I put a lot of effort into teaching well, although I won’t go so far as to use the L word), and it is gratifying to be around colleagues who value and support this work. We’re probably an exception within the university, but I just wanted to make the point that hiring decisions are key to changing attitudes and there are lots of people out there (applying for jobs) who do great research and are also dedicated teachers. Requires a search committee with some members who prioritize teaching and committee members willing to look beyond the pubs section of the CV.

  7. I’m at an R1 and we force our faculty who do poorly on teaching to waste time going to ridiculous weekly seminars across campus on how to teach. Somehow our faculty manage to be both excellent researchers and excellent teachers. If only admin didn’t believe women should do more of the service work…

  8. If someone is going to phone in teaching then they should be asked not to teach at all, but instead to become 100% (or whatever the maximum is) soft money. AKA be required to produce more grants than others. Then hire an instructor in their place to actually teach. If they can’t maintain it and want the 9 mo salary back, then by god they need to put the effort in.

    Having decent teaching evaluations was somewhat important at the University level R&T committee at the place where I postdoc’d. Postdoc supervisor went over the process with us and there apparently was a split decision that hinged on the fact that this person was a poor teacher. Might have been an extreme case.

  9. I agree with you 100%. My department is more like pyrope’s. The culture in the department values teaching, though we still have our share of shirkers (which I suspect is unavoidable). This culture is propagated through our hiring process, where teaching comes up more than just in the chair’s office. It is also a big part of our hiring decisions. People with poor teaching evaluations have to speak with the chair about improving, though I am not sure anything actually gets done. I like N&M’s department, where bad teaching is rewarded by seminars in how to teach rather than in less teaching.

    I find it beyond frustrating that some people think it is A-OK to take thousands and thousands of dollars from a student and then not provide value for the money. What is more annoying is that these same people often are the biggest complainers about poor service when they receive it. Pot, meet kettle.

  10. My department is a lot like pyrope’s, but our institution has only somewhat recently become research-intensive. That means that there’s an old guard here of We Are Here To Teach, especially in less research-intensive departments. Not long ago but before I was here, someone who went up for tenure from my department with an R01 did not get tenure, due to subpar teaching. That incident has had lasting effects, both in attrition and in how pre-tenure people still here are mentored.

    It’s still an internal conflict at the university level; there was heated debate over whether we could hire a senior person in with tenure, and without having to prove themselves here in the classroom first. I mean, that Nobel Prize is nice and all, but we haven’t seen her teach ….. (ugh).

  11. I’m in a top R1 university – that highly values teaching across all departments I’m familiar with.
    Its great. I believe part of the research quality here is due to undergrad students, who are drawn to the quality of education we offer. In my department of ~60, I only know of 1-2 that have the attitude you had mentioned. My opinion is that efforts put into teaching makes you a better researcher as well. You should not though confuse ‘teaching’ with work that should be done by teaching assistants – fight for additional TA hours/do not mark homework/prepare exams which are self marked… etc

  12. At the departmental level, it’s all about money. In my institution, we get “money credit” for research grants we bring in, but not for tuition dollars. My department gets return for overhead costs paid down as a proportion of the research dollars that we bring in. On the other hand, we get no credit for the fact that teaching X hours to a student means we have brought in that proportion of the student’s tuition.

    I do not think this is an accident. Universities know that students don’t come to universities based on their teaching quality, but rather on the reputation of their faculty. Universities (and faculty) thus compete in the world of research and fame, not in the realm of teaching.

    Many of our faculty value teaching and do a great job at it. But we don’t get credit for it from the powers-that-be.

  13. This is one major reason why I turned down a state R1 offer for a research-active SLAC offer. I knew I’d be driven to teach well, and didn’t want it to become a battle or a source of tension (or a feature that would hurt my tenure case!). I think my school fills an unusual niche in that they do truly value both teaching and research — that said, of course, the flip side is that now I have to get angry when my friends and colleagues (often the women in STEM fields) get denied tenure purely on the basis of lukewarm student evaluations. Why can’t we both value teaching and evaluate it in a multidimensional way (and preferably using methods that don’t have a thick dossier of research studies showing that they are biased and not all that informative about quality)?

  14. The phone-it-in attitude makes steam come out of my ears. I’m betting that there’s not an “evening-out” process so that those who teach more/pick up the slack get credit on the grant dollars that your junior colleague rakes in, so why should it work the other way around.

    That said, my R1 department values teaching–it really does–and while research/scholarship remains the primary determinant of success, no one can get away with lackluster teaching, I don’t think.

  15. I understand what you are saying but It is (almost) always about the money. (like in psychology they say everything is about sex: I don’t agree but it fits)

  16. When the NIH/NSF and universities between them allowed 100% overhead costs to be added on to grants, is my theory.

    At Snooty U, there were some professors who were good teachers, but it was basically by accident. No selective pressure from the administration – they only cared about the 60% grant overhead, which by the way didn’t include, say, building maintenance such that we had non-leaky ceilings and reliable water- so no selection in the departments for decent teaching.

    This a school where people *do* come as undergraduates based on the supposed quality of the teaching – a great deal of which is done entirely by TAs – and I’m still not entirely clear how that illusion is maintained.

  17. @JennyF –

    This is not a new phenomenon. I knew a situation in the 1970s when the best teacher in a STEM department at a large public state university was denied tenure because he didn’t have a strong research track record. In particular, that person had developed demos for every possible example of phenomena seen in that STEM department. He took all his demos to a room in the basement and became invaluable to the department because all of the other professors teaching regimens depended on him. Nevertheless, this shows that this research / teaching balance issue has been skewed for at least the last half century.

    Also, I don’t know whether your Snooty-U is a SLAC or ILAF (given your description, I suspect an ILAF). At a lot of the ILAFs, students are coming for the opportunity to “learn from famous people” which they (incorrectly) imagine is a sign of quality teaching. Of course, the real bonus from ILAF undergraduate experiences are the networking opportunities (from other students and from professors), which are the key to success in many fields, so maybe the undergrads are not all that wrong in their unstated goals?

  18. I was recently at a conference, and I have met some professors from a small liberal art college. Their comments on the situation were a find/replace version of yours: since when doing research has become optional? We’re the only ones doing research, while all our colleagues think that once they’ve got good teaching evals, the day is over!
    I guess no one is happy in academia. My guess is that we spend so much time with a “third reviewer”‘s hat that we find something wrong with any institution/situation.
    I am at a top research institution, and the quality of the teaching varies dramatically between faculty. I don’t think it has much to do with age, though. I have seen many young professors doing a fantastic job, despite the fact that this will not earn them tenure (our tenure package preparation instructions say teaching should be given a *nonzero* weight — I hope they meant that to be a **positive** nonzero weight).

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