Margaret Wente is a columnist for the Globe, so she doesn’t tend to do as much research as a journalist would (which, as you know from my disdain for the quality of mass media reporting, I don’t hold in especially high esteem either). So usually I don’t bother commenting on her mistaken ideas in the columns she writes, but this week’s missive on why professor’s don’t teach hits a topic that’s close to the heart, and also contains some really questionable logic.
“[Professors] can make $125,000 a year, with a good pension and six months off each year to do as they please. Their duties include sharing their research at conferences in Italy or Mexico, whose popularity hasn’t waned despite the advent of the Internet. Meantime, what many of their students need most is remedial instruction in basic composition. But there’s no future in that.
Setting aside the fact that no professor I know gets six months off per year, or that going to a conference is a sweltering, stinking mess of networking, politicking, and shameful self-promotion that is just about the opposite of a beach vacation as the article implies… setting all the nonsense in that one paragraph aside, how can it make the remotest bit of sense to have a professor making 6 figures teach remedial composition?!
I agree that the quality of teaching in universities could stand to be improved, and that teaching should be a higher priority in universities, and that professors should be held to a higher standard of interaction with their students. But the issues that many people are hanging onto with the problems in undergraduate education are really problems in high school education. Remedial composition, seriously? A university-bound student that can’t write an essay is an issue; a university graduate who can’t an even bigger one. However, the universities can’t really be expected to do the hand-holding and remedial stuff that shouldn’t be getting through the cracks of the high school system in the first place. I’ve long believed that Ontario went the wrong way in trying to save a few bucks by eliminating grade 13. The labour of graduate students is nearly free, certainly cheaper than a certified high school teacher, but nonetheless, these general education issues that are not degree-specific should be handled in high school where they belong. It’s unfair to the students to make them pay tuition to learn what should have been covered in their basic, government-provided education; it’s unfair to society to misallocate resources so badly that people that are specialists, even world-experts in their field, might be expected to teach basics and hand-hold students that don’t even want to be there. Of course, many universities (including UofT and UWO) do have classes for things like how to do research in the library, how to write an essay, how to make a CV/resume, how to do remedial math, etc. It’s just not part of the “curriculum” — it’s up to the students to seek out the help from the various workshops. And again, it’s not high school: a university student is expected to be moderately capable and self-directing.
Beyond that, teaching is considered a little more highly than her column indicates: at both UofT and Western, every student evaluates every instructor (and TA) for every class. Those evaluations are looked at, and serious issues are dealt with. Beyond that though, the question is raised: what metric tells you it’s broken? How do you know when a professor is not doing a good job in their role as a teacher? Students will beat up a “hard” professor in those comment forms more than they will one that can’t teach! The article quotes one professor who says that his departmental head never came to watch him teach — and that is probably true for many professors. However, if the departmental heads did pay attention to teaching, and sat in on a few lectures, how would that make things any better? Professors don’t have to take “how to teach” courses, and perhaps some do need that sort of help, but departmental heads don’t take “how to evaluate adult education” either. They don’t have to take on large courseloads as part of their job. Indeed, universities are very research-oriented, and despite the masses of undergrads taking up space on campus, they’re a bit of an afterthought in the whole system. It’s just where we get the next generation of grad students from. Maybe it would be nice if professors could opt to take on more teaching loads, and get just as much compensation and job security. That would require more money though — all sorts of organizations, from government to private industry provide funds for research (and here I’m focusing on my own area of the sciences), but you can’t get salary support for offering to spend more time teaching. It’s publish-or-perish (or perhaps more exactly, land-grants-or-perish) out there, and only a change to that method of employment incentivisation will allow for a change in teaching philosophies to take hold.
I’d love to see that, personally, for a number of reasons. As I pointed out a long time ago when discussing women in science*, the typical professorial life is very hostile to making a family: long hours, an encouragement to move between cities to stay at different universities, and basically zero job security until one gets too old to bother with children. Focusing on your teaching is similar: it just doesn’t lead to making your career as a professor any better (except for the warm feeling that you helped your unappreciative bratty students).
We just don’t incentivise teaching, and maybe if we did it would make for a better university system, and at the same time might fix the “women in science” problem. If there was the option for a professor to spend 80% of their time teaching and only 20% doing research, we might get better teachers, and more women in academia.
As someone who’s thinking of going into academia, I’m also 100% in favour of Margaret Wente’s dream world of six months off every year off to do whatever I want along with a 6-figure salary and a pension, and where the classes I do teach don’t require any prep work. Sounds almost as good as being a newspaper columnist: spend 20 minutes a week hacking out a column, send it off to the editor to fix, and then sit back on the deck of the cottage and wonder if you should have done some research on researchers first. Plus the only qualifications are an undergrad degree that you can acquire while stoned!
* - I know I discussed it at some length somewhere, but I can’t find it in the blog archives to link to. Maybe it was a comment on someone else’s website?