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.

To tenure or not to tenure?

I ran across an article some weeks ago online in the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding research and publication requirements in higher education. It has come across my path again in response to several conversations with colleagues and teaching faculty. It is titled, “Teach or Perish” and it addresses a question I have always had with higher education: why are so many college teachers measured on their ability to publish–and therefore not be in the classroom, more than they are on their teaching? And why, as a librarian, are people more critical of a lack of publication than a lack of performance in teaching, reference, and other public services?

I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that keeping abreast of current trends and contributing to the larger field is not important. It is vitally important, especially for librarianship as a rapidly changing field, to continue to grow and adapt. It helps the field progress, creates wider conversations and contexts, and informs other educators about the important work being done in libraries. But I also believe there is room, ample room, in the higher education landscape for professionals who want to dedicate their time to their practice, and not to theoretical research. I am one of those people, and I know I am not alone.

On paper, many positions (like mine) do prioritize the responsibilities of daily work over a publication record. But, being short on the expected scholarly activities is much more criticized that failing to meet other requirements. I hold a tenure-track position, which comes with it an expectation of scholarly activity. In contrast to my teaching colleagues, who often have something like a 50-40-10 split (meaning 50% teaching, 40% research and publishing, and 10% service), my position is 70-20-10. That means only 20% of my job responsibilities are to be doing research and publishing. Twenty percent. But what constitutes 20%? How much final product meets that 20% threshold? I can’t seem to find agreement on this among friends and colleagues. I could spend 20% of my time every week (approximately 8 hours assuming a 40 hour week, or one working day). But how much am I expected to produce at the end of the year? If I publish one peer-reviewed article in a year, does that reflect 20% of my effort? Should I produce more? Less? Who gets to decide?

This tension is hard for me to grapple with, because I would much rather be in a classroom or at a reference desk, working and engaging with students, than in my office writing a literature review or designing a survey. When things get busy, the first projects placed on the back burner are research and publishing. I became a teacher and public services librarian so I could spend my time helping students to learn how to do research, analyze information sources, use information responsibly, and a host of other non-publishing activities. One argument I have heard is to then write about my daily practice–talk about teaching successes and failures, pilot new programs and gather data on them. This is all sound advice, but also requires that when I am designing curriculum or programs, I think not just about how best to teach it and assess it, but whether or not the data I gather is publishable or interesting for the larger profession. Call me stubborn or naive, but I simply don’t want to have to bend my practice to make sure it can be written and published about.

This debate is happening among librarians at my own institution, and among librarians at others. There are a number of schools in recent years who have decided to change librarian status to non-tenured faculty. An article in the Chronicle Vitae in 2013 profiled several institutions that had either recently changed or had this model in place for years (Do Librarians Need Tenure? Depends on Which Ones You Ask). One person quoted makes a great point about the higher education landscape in general: “I don’t look at it as any sort of singling out . . . . Tenure as an institution is whittling all the time. We’re [librarians] just the low-hanging fruit.” I think as the higher education landscape continues to change due to things like budgets, shifting priorities, and changes in core demographics of college students, tenure models are going to have to adapt. And it’s true that many faculty and administrators may look at librarians and not see as aggressive research and publication going on than what happens in say, engineering or veterinary medicine departments. Our jobs are simply organized differently. Our research is just as valuable (but of course, I’m biased) to our profession. Additionally, compared to many fields, we’re a fairly new discipline. We may have growing pains.

The fact is, I didn’t take my current job because it was tenure-track. I was actually looking for a position that wasn’t tenure-track because I knew it would be more service-focused, and that was what I wanted. More than that, though, I was looking for a job based on what I wanted to do (teach information literacy) and who I wanted to do it for (Composition programs). The job I secured just also happens to come with research and publishing requirements. I am also lucky to work with a great set of colleagues who support my service-oriented priorities, and who are wonderful guides and mentors on publishing so that I can still meet those requirements.

But, as I said to one colleague several weeks ago when we were discussing tenure vs. non-tenure jobs: If tomorrow my “tenure-track” status went away and I was classified non-tenure track faculty or something similar and offered a three- or five-year contract to keep doing what I’m doing minus the pressure to publish all the time, I would take it and probably do a happy dance. It wouldn’t stop me from want to publish or do presentations or travel to conferences. I would still continue to do those things, just on my terms, and not someone else’s definition of “20%”.