Professing

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.

11 comments

  1. The discussion of grant money is interesting here….. I’m not sure that’s really the issue, though, or at least not entirely. The humanities certainly sees its share of poor teaching, and our research is almost never supported by external grants (or if it is, it goes to release time from teaching). Good teaching needs to be validated and rewarded in either case…

  2. I find that many of my colleagues who do not otherwise care about teaching find the financial argument compelling. Somehow the idea of someone spending their life-savings on their kids’ education and their kids getting a crappy class in return resonates with them. I do agree that paying less does not justify crappy teaching, but I would use any argument I can to convince my colleagues to teach better.

  3. It’s interesting — I’m at a private PUI, and we get this noxious entitled attitude from the students sometimes that boils down to “I’m paying a boatload of tuition so you should do what I say.” It’s something that we have to deal with pretty often as faculty, so it’s interesting to hear that a faculty member would make a related argument from the opposite direction (i.e., that tuition dollars are a reason to put more effort into teaching well). I don’t disagree with the sentiment — I definitely feel a responsibility to be the best teacher I can for my students, and part of is that they’re generally taking a leap of faith or sacrificing a lot to be in my classroom… but I don’t think how much they’re paying in tuition should have anything to do with it. Like… should I work less hard or be less responsive when teaching my financial aid students because they’re paying less/no tuition? Obviously not. I mean, sure, my salary is paid mostly by tuition, but that’s not where my responsibility to teach my students well comes from. I guess if I were paying myself mostly through grants I could justify spending more time on research and slacking off on teaching a bit (which is what it sounds like your colleagues are doing), but I still think that when I’m in the classroom, it’s a crappy thing to do to waste students’ time, and a huge part of my motivation for working in this job is knowing that the students I teach might take their last science class ever from me — their scientific literacy and the way they think about science for the rest of their lives will largely be set by what they encounter in my courses.

    So anyway, I guess if it works to motivate your crappy colleagues that don’t care about teaching, then sure, use every tool in your tool kit! It just makes me uncomfortable, having seen students use the argument from the other direction to motivate all sorts of crappy behavior on their part.

  4. lyra211, you bring up a great point. There’s money as a proxy for exclusivity (at pricey schools where students might therefore feel entitled) and there’s money as access to higher education (at public schools, where students and their families often strain or go into debt to send kids to college). I have to say I am lucky in that my students don’t act entitled, but I know many of them struggle to make our tuition. As nnnnnn says, faculty might respond positively to “This family spends all they have to send their kids to be taught by you”; not so much to student entitlement (“I pay you a lot of money, so you need to cater to my every whim”).

  5. I went to a fancy R1 for grad school (Snooty U) and the teaching was just as you describe: no selection for actually being good. Some people were great and most were either mediocre or terrible and it was by chance alone.

  6. I do have anecdata from a prof who recently moved to administration at Large State School. He shared with us his experiences working on the Rank and Tenure process at the college level. While yeah research output is the most important / biggest sticking point for tenure, he did say that the one case for full prof they denied twice was someone who had great research and ok service but abysmal teaching. And that generally teaching has to be at least “OK” to get Tenure. So it can happen.

    ““I’m paying a boatload of tuition so you should do what I say.” It’s something that we have to deal with pretty often as faculty”

    …my husband heard this at Snooty Private High School as well. Student complaint boiled down to “I felt confused after that lesson! My lawyer parents are paying you to make me feel good, not to learn hard things!”. What was really terrifying was how seriously the administration took this…
    So yeah they are learning early. See also: cheating.

  7. I’m at an expensive private research university, and I have used the argument that our students are paying for a much better education than we are providing, though that was to improve the curriculum, not to get an individual instructor to make more of an effort. I’ve given up on the latter. The students think the high tuition means they are owed higher grades. The administration wants us to do whatever it takes to keep the students happy to keep those tuition $$ coming— give higher grades, bend rules, be endlessly available to them…anything that doesn’t require more funds from the college.

    I’d also point out that a lot of expensive schools have shit salaries. Our lecturers get paid less than a year’s tuition. And TT salaries aren’t great either except for the superstars. That undermines the argument that we should make more of an effort because of the high tuition.

  8. I think that identifying the people who will be good at both research and teaching is critical at the hiring stage. It tends to be fairly obvious just from job talks and teaching statements who cares and who doesn’t. I think much of the onus of changing departmental priorities happens at that earliest stage. Of course, that just means more service for the people who care about things beyond research 🙂

  9. First, a disclaimer: my involvement with universities are my own one Master and one (unrelated) undergraduate degrees. Don’t work in academia, never did; my perspective is from the viewpoint of the outside world.

    That world runs on business interaction. University is an actor in service economy; it provides customer with a service: education. The amount of service varies: 2-yr, 3-yr, 10yr (in case of lawyers, architects and doctors). It’s price varies, too: for time spent and for quality of service received.
    So in this regard your “entitled” students are absolutely right: Ivy L or similarly expensive college should justify their higher tuition with better quality of education they provide. Note – I didn’t say faculty should spoil students with catering to their every whim; they are not in business of babysitting. Nor they are in business of raising political activists or community organizers: this is not what their customers paying their tuition for, but that’s whole other topic.
    Payment for this service can come from variety of sources. From a customer’s point of view, it doesn’t matter if I pay for a car by combination of check, cash, a handful of gold rings, bitcoins and direct deposit-gift from a grandma. If the total sum of payment equals the price of a car, I am entitled to receive the same product as if I paid for it all in one method.
    Same goes for your students: doesn’t matter if for some of them tuition doesn’t make a chip in their trust fund, and others have their whole extended families struggle to make ends meet – this is their internal problem, not your concern. Both category should receive absolutely same quality of product/service they are paying for. If a student pays with combination of sources, it’s still his/her money they are paying, and the service they receive should be of the same quality as for the next paying guy.
    Now, I roll out all these rather long-winded trivialities to address lyra211’s notion that students on financial aid somehow pay less tuition. No they are not. It’s just their tuition is paid from several sources, including state/fed grants and loans. Without their applying to government and private funds and institutions, your university will not get these moneys. So IT IS their money and you, as your college rep, are not doing them any favors and not giving them any discounts. Whether they receive financial aid does not concern you: you’re getting full tuition anyway.

  10. ETat, if only it were that simple. Even if you accept the student-as-customer model (which I do not), many universities are providing financial aid out of general funds (often obtained by charging other students more tuition), so the simplistic analysis that “their tuition is their money” doesn’t quite work.

    Slightly better is the student-as-product model, where we take in raw materials and produce educated workers, but in that model students should not be paying any tuition—if anything, they should be paid for being students and forgoing gainful employment. (This model is or was used a lot in northern Europe, though government paid for the education, with employers being indirectly billed through employment taxes.)

    A broader model is education as a public good, where the benefits of the education are diffuse and accrue to many people (the student, their employer, the government, their fellow citizens, the community, …). Under this model, public funding for education is the only reasonable solution, with perhaps a small share from the student.

  11. *gasstation,
    Ah, here I can provide you with useful data for your hypothesis: the second model, where government pays for student education plus pays students for getting this education. My Master is received after 5 years in former USSR, where this model was the only available model for 70+ years. I can attest: it is not only NOT better, it removes incentives from everybody, students and faculty as well. It creates government slaves. Like every socialist invention. For the last 15 years high education was gradually (and with varying success, have to say)reformed into the “capitalist” model, where education is a service one pays for.

    Funny, academia supposedly stuffed with clever people; scientists who should be familiar with the concept of rejecting model that gives negative results – but for 50+ yrs American academia still worships at the clay feet of marxism-socialism: a model (with variations) that failed everywhere it’s been tried.

    Universities robbing Paul to give Peter, by their “general” funds? Then maybe they should stop and think if this policy is an example of good intentions/bad result. What lesson they give to their charges?

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