Teach or Perish

If the dateline on this story had been a day later, I would not believe it (hat tip to Diane Ravitch for linking to it): “Bill would require all UNC professors to teach heavy course load.” Apparently, a state senator named Tom McInnis from Richmond, NC has introduced a bill to that effect:

“There is no substitute for a professor in the classroom to bring out the best in our students,” McInnis said in a statement, according to the Richmond County Daily Journal. “I look forward to the debate that will be generated by this important legislation.”

University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill Professor Stephen Leonard, who teaches political science and is chair of the UNC system-wide Faculty Assembly, said the legislation is nothing more than an attempt to kill public higher education in North Carolina.

What McInnis is responding to is the fact that most tenured and tenure-track professors receive (or have received) release time (or have reduced loads contractually) to engage in research. This has been one of the “wedges” that has allowed for the increase in the number of adjuncts teaching in our universities. The solution, though, isn’t to make professors teach more classes, for that would break the synergy between research and teaching, but to create more full-time positions that include opportunities for both research and teaching. That’s what will really bring out the best in our students.

According to the Richmond County Daily Journal:

Senate Bill 593 ties professors’ pay to teaching assignments, requiring a minimum of eight courses for the profs to earn their full salary. If academic research requires a lighter course load, universities could supplement professors’ salaries with money from their nonprofit foundations.

The bill would achieve a serious shakeup in higher education among University of North Carolina System institutions by nearly doubling course loads for professors at research universities like UNC Chapel Hill, where full-time tenure-track professors teach an average of 2.3 courses per term.

The reductive reasoning is that universities are for nothing more than teaching undergraduates and that the job of a professor should reflect that. This has never been the case in American universities for it ignores the dynamic connection between research and teaching and omits completely the “value added” that research creates. Making public universities primarily teaching institutions would, as Professor Leonard rightly says, kill public higher education. It would also, as we all know (or should know), set back American intellectual and creative progress tremendously.

13 thoughts on “Teach or Perish

  1. “Kill public higher education”? “Set back American intellectual and creative progress”? Aren’t these the active goals of the political Right? This is what happens when you invite politicians into academic governance.

  2. You had to imagine this was coming, Aaron, but there about 6,000 of us in PA state system universities who teach 8 courses per year in TT/T positions–and plenty of other people too. While I agree that suddenly shifting somebody’s job description unilaterally like that is outrageous, to describe a job many of us rather like as “killing” strikes a sour note.

    • I know what you mean, Seth, and once would have been much more defensive of the teaching side, believing that was enough. I had no objection to a 5/5 load, even, if the demands on scholarship were light. After all, I like teaching! But that was before I really started to write and began to see how much my own studies were changing my teaching, how neither is separate from the other. Now, I’m quite happy that our load at City Tech has been reduced to 4/3 from 4/4 (which is what the NC senator wants to increase it to there) for that gives more of a chance to integrate scholarship and teaching substantially. A 3/3 would be even better for that. Right now, because of administrative duties, I am only teaching one course, and that is bothering me–I feel I need to be in the classroom more. The thing is to find a balance where teaching and scholarship each improve the other. By forcing teaching to be the dominate focus of our profession, we limit even the best teachers!

    • I agree with the sentiments expressed by Seth. I too understand the value of research and the concern about jobs shifting unilaterally, but too often the rhetoric comes across as dismissive of those on 4/4 loads. As though we aren’t real academics because we teach so much.

      • That’s a point. Personally, I think a bad teacher who is a good researcher has less business being an academic than does a good teacher who is weak at research. They both are important, though, and I’d like to see a better balance than we have now.

      • My concern, Aaron, is with the assertion that people who teach 4/4 aren’t doing research. I don’t publish a great deal, but I’m a pretty active scholar. And as I’ve argued publicly before, I don’t think I work especially harder than anybody else. The only advantage I have in terms of productivity is that what I write about and what I do for most of my professional service is the same stuff, and I realize not everybody’s research agendas lend themselves to that overlap. But we have people all across our system publishing books, producing plenty of top-notch scholarship–not enough to be full professors at Princeton, but I for one wanted nothing to do with a job like that.

        Like I said before, I have a real problem with this bill. If I got hired at UNC to be a scholar, and all of a sudden some nitwit is telling me my work as a scholar is so worthless I shouldn’t get paid to do it, then of course somebody needs to learn that guy a thing or two.

        • This is an important discussion, one I wish I saw more of!

          I returned to academia to teach, and I wish that got the respect it should. I get tired to hearing about Harvard “super teachers” when I know that these so-called “super teachers” would crash and burn in a school like the one where I teach, where real teaching skills are absolutely necessary. Like you, my teaching and my research meld easily and, yes, that’s not true for everyone. But it is something our institutions could encourage and facilitate.

          Certainly, I don’t want to force researchers to teach when they aren’t good at it any more than I think we should be making teachers do research (which happens more and more). But we also don’t have to accept that there’s an unbridgeable gulf between the two.

          • Sorry, maybe I’m not being clear enough. My point is exactly that there’s not an unbridgeable gulf between the two. Lots of us teaching 4/4 do plenty of research. Except for a very occasional deadline day panic, in 13 years at my job I have *never* felt like I didn’t have time to do as much research as I want to do.

            There are certainly people being made to teach 4/4 or 5/5 who don’t want to teach that much. Oftentimes they’re being forced to teach those loads in gen-ed classes they don’t care much about and that aren’t tied to their scholarship at all. But that’s not a problem with the teaching load. It’s problem with people mismatched to positions they don’t actually want. Many of them have lots of their own reasons to stay in them anyway (I don’t want to pick an argument with anybody about people’s motives for taking and keeping positions), but I can’t conclude from there that the teaching loads are the real heart of the problem.

          • I guess what we’re both saying is that people need to fit the job! I taught 4/4 for years and continued to publish. Teaching enhances my writing. But that isn’t true for everyone.

            Perhaps the real takeaway from the attempt to force a standard teaching load on universities should be that there really needs to be the range of institutions and of employment possibilities.

          • Yep. And that the people who decide what the job is and who fits it maybe ought to know something about what the actual work is before they make those decisions.

  3. Seth and Aaron, your discussion serves to highlight one of the problems in addressing these sorts of issues: namely, there is such variability from institution to institution, and even from discipline to discipline within many institutions, that when we try to address these issues, we almost inevitably seem to be insensitive to, if not insulting to, some of our colleagues.

    In this sense, I think that your discussion exposes another facet of what Jonathan Rees is addressing in his recent post on “Pivoting.”

    The real issues with this legislation are (1) that it completely ignores the variability from institution to institution, never mind within institutions, and (2) that it violates shared governance, seeking to impose from the outside policies that need to be developed within each individual institution if they are going to have any hope of being effective.

    That said, I have found your back and forth to be very thought-provoking, in terms of both the issues that you have been discussing and in terms of the challenges that we face in trying to communicate effectively on the issues that should be of most concern to all of us.

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