Day: May 31, 2018


Saveedra says: “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.”

I guess my previous teaching post does sound like that, doesn’t it? I’ve been thinking about whether this is really what I think and feel and no, I don’t really think that the quality of education is commensurate with payment. But, I guess that I do think and feel that the amount students pay for tuition can and perhaps should be wielded in the face of those who are university faculty yet for some reason don’t think that doing a good job teaching undergrads is part of their job. Why? Because often they cite money (specifically, money they brought in) as the reason not to teach or not to teach well/spend effort on, so perhaps money talk is what they understand.

I did my undergrad in a country where you pick your major as a freshman and your studies are completely focused from day one. None of the breadth requirements that we have in the US, in part because our public high schools taught kids much more in quantity and breadth than what I’ve seen here. I know this is an obnoxious thing to say, but it is true, as I can attest after one of my kids has been through K-12 in a state with good public schools and graduated with high honors (he has 4.0 GPA + a number of AP credits). Anyhow, my undergrad education was free because I was one of the top performers. Lower performers paid on a sliding scale etc., but I wrote about it all before and I don’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole again.

In Godforsakia, my ancestral home country, professors and TAs were married to their courses: course A was only ever taught by Professor X; discussion/labs for course A were only ever taught by a certain TA or TAs. Teaching assistantship was not like in the US: instead, it was a faculty apprenticeship. You became a TA through a selective job recruitment process, it was a permanent job with salary and benefits (one of the benefits being grad school for free) and nearly complete autonomy over discussion content and the written portion of each exams (yes, TAs wrote written exams and graded them). Being a TA also meant that, eventually, after the PhD, you would become a professor after someone retired and vacated a course for you to teach/marry. But before becoming professors, people had years of teaching experience as TAs.

Even so, some professors were great teachers and some were not. Some were downright terrible. Most had big egos (few students dared go to office hours to disturb these sacred professorial beings; they made do with discussions and TAs). Professors were not paid great, but their jobs were secure and carried high societal status.

In the US, I know that some of the best teachers are at community colleges (the least expensive for students and not overly financially rewarding for faculty). There are also fabulous teachers at primarily undergraduate institutions, which themselves range in terms of price from inexpensive state schools to very expensive private ones. So all these typically give undergraduates excellent educational value.

I’d say research schools (again, some inexpensive some extremely pricey) are those where the quality of instruction is most highly variable. I know people who are dedicated and talented teachers (I’d like to think I am among them) and I know those who don’t give half a $hit. I really, really wish we didn’t hire or tenure the latter, ever. I also wish we didn’t hire or tenure people who have single-gender or single-ethnicity research groups (yes, they definitely exist, still). We faculty speak of this among ourselves, but the thing is you can’t tell the future (and assuming you can reeks of bias). By tenure time, if someone has money and papers and their letter say they’re great, they will get tenure, unless they have grossly violated conduct (e.g., not shown up for classes or abused students or staff). That’s the ugly truth at research universities: there’s service, and there’s teaching, but they are the bastard children while research is their heir-to-the-throne sibling.

There are good teachers at research universities, but they are good because they inherently value that part of their job. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t value teaching and devotes all their efforts to research that brings money, they will often be able to do so with impunity. I don’t think it’s possible to convince them that teaching is, in fact, important. My musings here have to do with finding ways to compel such people to pull their weight in teaching. Money probably has to be involved in the compelling.