Teaching, Research, and Higher Education

There is a bill in consideration in North Carolina right now which would require all professors at state universities to teach a 4-4 course load. The purpose, according to the senator who proposed the bill, is to improve teaching in higher education, and put more professors in the classrooms instead of TAs. Recently, I wrote a post discussing my feelings about librarians and tenure, where I came down on the side of “maybe tenure-track isn’t for me.” The driving reason behind my feelings toward traditional tenure models and my preference for a non-tenure track position is what I believe is a too-narrow focus on research and publication in order for tenure to be granted. That this narrow-minded focus on only research and publication as a measure of a teacher’s effectiveness is damaging to higher education and the students we serve. However, seeing this proposed bill has me wanting to further clarify my thoughts on this contentious issue.

First, I do not think that research and publication should not be considered at all in granting promotion and tenure. It should be. My problem with some current tenure model is that I feel too much emphasis is placed on only those areas when, in the case of my current position, the actual job is structured differently. It is easy to focus on these two criteria because they are much more quantifiable than teaching. You can count how many articles I have published. You can see what the impact factor of the journal(s) is/are. You can track how many times any given article is cited. But measuring teaching? That’s a much more complicated, messy process that usually relies on more subjective measures, such as observation and evaluation. So it stands to reason that it is easier to count things like the number of articles and grants.

Second, to further clarify the point above, I believe that individual faculty should be allowed more flexibility in how their positions are structured. Research is vitally important to every discipline, for various reasons. Much of the research done at universities in certain sciences is solving real-world, really important problems in medicine, environmental science, and engineering. And the people doing that research were hired specifically to do that research. That is the purpose of their job. An article in Slate magazine discussing the North Carolina bill points out specific examples of how important and impactful the research at universities is. In the humanities, research is being done that is constantly improving our understanding of ourselves and our communities, and often has far-reaching implications. So when I argued previously that more emphasis should be placed on teaching and less on research, what I really should have been arguing was that tenure-track positions should allow for faculty to perform and be measured in the ways that are determined most beneficial for the faculty member, students, department, and university. If a professor is most passionate about teaching and mentoring students, and excels in the classroom, instead of teaching a 2-2 or even a 1-1 load and being required to publish in multiple peer-reviewed, high-impact-factor journals every year, maybe that person should be allowed to choose a higher teaching load and a less rigorous publication track. And the opposite should be true as well: if a professor is doing valuable research, excels at research, is passionate about research, and was hired to do research, then that person should be teaching a smaller load (if any at all), and be researching and publishing.

I do not think that tenure-track research models should be abandoned. And I think bills like this one being considered in North Carolina, while proposed with good intentions, demonstrate a lack of understanding of the purpose of research in higher education, and the value that research contributes to our communities, our country, and the world. It also fails to recognize the time commitment that teaching requires. A 4-4 course load is not just additional hours in a classroom. It is also additional prep and grading hours, and it would leave professors without the time, funding, or support to continue researching. Finally, it ignores that for TAs, the opportunity to teach classes to undergraduates is often part of their education and training. This bill, if passed, would also deprive North Carolina of premier scholars who will pack their bags and move to a university that will fund them.

Instead of legally requiring professors to teach more at the expense of research, what higher education really needs is additional ways to support and fund graduate students and adjuncts, providing higher pay, benefits, and more stable working conditions to the people shoulder much of the weight of educating our college students.* This way, important, life-changing research is being done, students are being educated, and some of the most vulnerable among higher education teachers are being supported and paid for the incredibly vital work that they do everyday. What higher education needs is a balance of these two sides, not one or the other.

*This is another extremely important topic in higher education, and one that I am personally very passionate about. I hope to have time to write more on this topic in the future.

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