On Teaching, Take Eleventy Gazillion

I have to rant about teaching a bit (again).

I’m doing course assignments this year and a relatively junior faculty member just tells me that he doesn’t want to be in rotation to teach a certain required undergraduate course any more. He just doesn’t want to! Why? Well, he taught it three times and his evaluations were always bad, “ruining his excellent teaching record.” His record is not excellent. Anyone (you’d hope) can teach well an upper-level graduate course in own specialty. Tbh, he’s not fabulous even there based on the numbers; there are much better people. My own grad students took his courses and do not consider him particularly good.

The freakin’ ego on people, seriously.

So he just doesn’t want to do it. And there’s a senior faculty member who doesn’t want to do it either, for the same reason (bad evals).

I have blogged about this course before. The material is hard and abstract. It’s not easy to teach, and it takes a ton of thought and time to do it right. But I have taught it many times and I’ve always received good evaluations because: a) I really care that the lectures are engaging; b) I learn everyone’s name even though it’s a huge class because that increases student engagement and class attendance; c) I carefully craft homework and exams; d) I have a ton of office hours, with extra ones the day before the exams; e) I often teach discussion. It is absolutely possible to get good evaluations in these large undergraduate courses, even as a woman instructor, but it requires a lot of work.

Here are some things I have suggested that the colleague do in order to help him engage students more. (Btw, I sat in on his classes several times. He knows the material, but he is deathly, deathly boring. If I were the student, I’d likely stop coming to class. )

I suggested to switch to three times a week instead of twice, as undergrads needs more contact with the material, plus the material is hard and they can’t keep focus for that long. He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

I suggested he teach discussions or introduce more office hours (he has them once a week) to increase contact time with students. He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

I suggested he get comfortable with the course materials: maybe find a different book or make his own notes; tailor the homework and exams a little bit rather than use previous-year materials made by someone else; decide what to focus on, maybe cut some material out or put something else in. His answer? He doesn’t want to because he wants to spend minimal time on teaching and focus on research.

So, to summarize. You have poor teaching evaluations because you don’t care about teaching at all and don’t want to invest time or effort into it, and undergrads are not stupid and can tell who cares and who doesn’t, and most of them do actually appreciate people caring about teaching. Now, since you didn’t want to put in the work and got poor evaluations you want us to reward you by never having to teach this course again.

It makes me livid because the reward for doing a good job with time-consuming teaching assignments is getting to do even more time-consuming teaching assignments, which cuts down your time for research.

The reward for bad teaching? Less teaching and more time for research, and thus more money and prestige and the ability to look down your nose at those poor suckers like me who end up picking up your goddamn slack. You can even say that we must enjoy these labor-intensive teaching assignments so it’s our own fault that we keep getting them, otherwise why wouldn’t we get out of them like you did?

I fuckin’ hate my colleagues who seem to think students are a nuisance. These young people and their families pay good money and go into debt to learn in our classrooms, so how dare you do a shoddy job, you self-absorbed piece of $hit.

And I hate it that the higher-ups just shrug and appeal to fairness to students when they create two strata of faculty, those who are too precious to teach undergrads and those whose research time is apparently worthless and who can be manipulated with these calls to fairness to students. I want it to be worth more to teach well a large undergrad course than a small graduate seminar. I want the effort recognized and rewarded. I want the colleagues who are selfish to be penalized for it, not rewarded with more research time.

Listen, I like teaching undergrads. They are adorable and hilarious. But I hate that teaching undergrads is considered lowly by my colleagues, that it’s considered $hit work unbecoming of true intellectual genii. I want us all to pull our weight teaching undergrads and I want us all to do it well. Evals suck? Do better. Evals still suck? Maybe a penalty of some kind, then, but definitely not an effective teaching release, for chrissakes.

17 comments

  1. “Ruining his excellent teaching record” lolololol. I don’t blame the untenured for prioritizing research over teaching. It’s a rational response. But I do blame senior faculty who suck so bad at teaching and research that it creates more work for the rest of us. Don’t let this untenured weasel off the hook — make him pull his weight while you still have some leverage over him.

  2. If your egotistical junior colleague wants to have a good teaching track record he should do what one of my colleagues does: Pull every possible trick to get out of the classroom, use lots of buzzwords when proclaiming your deep love for teaching, pester the Dean to nominate you for the university’s highest teaching award, and then use lots of buzzwords in the portfolio you submit after being nominated.

    My asshole colleague got a teaching award this way. Maybe yours can too.

    BTW, I also do teaching assignments, and I have noticed a negative correlation between stated enthusiasm for progressive teaching and willingness to actually teach a goddamn class.

  3. Our current problem child gets great teaching evaluations and has won the department teaching award four years running. But… in his 4 years of teaching a required core course he has not given one grade below an A. Not a single one. Hundreds of students all earning As. His grades are based on whether or not they complete in-class assignments, and apparently everybody completes the in-class assignments in class (which I also find hard to believe, but …). The other sections of the class taught by other professors have bell curves. Granted, I do not know if his students are getting the material in his class because none of my courses build on it (I mostly teach required core courses in the other tracks), but nobody in his course can tell me what they’ve learned or even covered in the course, whereas students from the other sections can. So…

  4. I really struggle with this. In my department, some of us have made an enormous effort to revise the intro classes and put in a ton of time to teach them well. This is generally respected by our higher ups- but there is still a massive difference in teaching loads between us and the rest. I would love to someday rotate our from this high workload (and frankly emotionally taxing) role, but part of me can’t bear the thought of turning this over to someone who doesn’t give a shit. Right now our students are really learning, and being supported. How is it fair to them to turn them over to someone who won’t provide that environment? But how is it fair to us to constantly do so much extra? Whose fairness should win??

  5. This makes me angry too! But as a practical suggestion — our department chair just configured our teaching credits in such a way that you could get your entire credit for the year if you teach two large (>200 sizes) undergrad lower division classes. On the other hand, if you only teach graduate classes, then you need to teach four a year. This formula has generated a lot of enthusiasm among our faculty who are now suddenly finding themselves in love with our undergrads 😉

  6. So clearly male, clearly entitled. Why do I think white also? Only real question left is if this approach works for them…….???

  7. Here’s a great racket:

    1) Wait for the next big inter-departmental multi-investigator STEM Transformation Student Pipeline All Things To All People grant to come along.
    2) Pinky-swear that if they give you money for reassigned time and other goodies you’ll totally use it to design course materials for whatever hip new education fad is pleasing unto the funders.
    3) Spend the money.
    4) Refuse to actually teach a class using the materials. Complain when they are no longer interested in giving you money.

  8. Sometimes your posts make me very happy to be at a SLAC rather than an R1. So much less ego. So much more genuine enthusiasm for teaching.

    So much more worship of student evaluations, which is the flip side, I guess. And I think the relative lack of ego may be peculiar to my department. But this totally out-in-the-open wrangling to get out of teaching is just so alien!

  9. That does seem wholly unfair, and your colleague sounds like a jerk.

    Where I am, most income does not come from tuition (in the sciences, anyway). And I know from reading instructions from tenure review committees, and from second-hand accounts, that teaching is considered not at all unless you are abysmal. There are some unfortunate selective pressures here.

  10. The thing is, I agree that he’s a jerk, but his point of view also seems frustratingly rational. As I’m sure you’re well aware of, at most institutions in the US, teaching is simply not valued for promotion/career advancement/etc. Research is. As annoying as it is, your colleague is just making the rational choice to spend more time doing what will further his career (research). On the other hand, people who spend much more time teaching are essentially playing the martyr, sacrificing their time and effort and not getting much in exchange (career-wise, anyway). This is just one of the many reasons I am fed up with academia and want to leave…

  11. J’s comment succinctly puts the main issue in all this:

    “Right now our students are really learning, and being supported. How is it fair to them to turn them over to someone who won’t provide that environment? But how is it fair to us to constantly do so much extra? Whose fairness should win??”

    I know that, if I am to only focus on my own career, I should do what most colleagues do: minimize time spent on teaching, do a passable job at best. And I also understand that administration at R1s is going to reward mostly people who bring in research dollars. But what is our duty to the students? They pay so much to come to our university (and what they pay in nowhere near what they pay to go to some other schools). I feel that we owe it to them to do the best job we can teaching them; most students actually do want to do the work, but need teachers who give half a $hit. I, too, am torn between the desire to do the teaching part of the job well and not wanting to be a martyr (because martyr also means stupid, naive, misguided). I wish we were much more serious about selecting for teaching excellence when we hire and when we promote. Here, it’s basically impossible to not be tenured because of teaching, as long as you show some effort to improve (go to teaching academy and whatnot), and then all effort stops after tenure.

  12. This is one of the most frustrating things about academia. For all the lip service about the importance of teaching to the University’s mission, there is little institutional back up for all the talk. Bad teaching behavior is rewarded by less teaching, so of course some people follow that path. For the department chair, I totally see how removing someone causing headaches and complaints is the easy thing to do. Worse, the same people who care about their teaching are also the people who care about their service (or at least don’t like to do a crappy job on something they have agreed to do). settling themselves up for more frustration.

  13. I think there is too much negotiation and people pleasing in these course assignment gigs.

    In my dept they ask you what you want to teach and then make every effort to give you that. The senior ppl try to convince the junior ppl that they should want to teach large enrollment classes and multiple new preps. But if we ignore that and say we want to teach grad seminars there is a good chance we will get them.

    I don’t think it’s fair because someone else who wasn’t so honest/selfish will get stuck with the big teaching load.

    But is the solution that I should pretend that my preference is general physics I and II when it isn’t?

    Seems like it would be simpler and more fair if this stuff was assigned by lottery or rotation or whatever and there was none of this backroom dealing bs.

  14. Interesting that you put forward the money paid by students as a reason for teaching to be taken seriously. A corollary, I suppose, is that where tuition fees are very low (my own shade of godforsakia) efforts should be accordingly reduced

  15. I really really hope that what you are going to say to these assholes is “you can either put more effort into your teaching and get better evals or accept the evals you have” rather than actually letting them not teach the course….

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