When I started, the math faculty was assigned four courses each. My friends teaching high school will say, “Big deal!” In truth, I don’t know how they survive the load they are required to carry. But it is a big load at the college level, especially when each class had about 60 students.
We had a department chairman who told us the only thing he cared about was good teaching, no matter what we might hear about the rest of the university. Those of us who joined the faculty at that time were attracted to this because teaching was what was most important to us.
Our department chairman did us a disservice. Universities that aspire to graduate education, and mine did, cannot survive on teaching alone. This became clear to me when our founding president stepped aside and a research-oriented leader assumed the post.
Fortunately for me, I was carrying out a small amount of research, which was all that was possible with the classroom requirements of the time. Then an amazing thing happened. My new chair told me, since I was doing research, I could have a half time research appointment, resulting in teaching two courses per semester. I was shocked and asked him if he really could do that. He just laughed.
That kind of work load was my experience for almost 30 years.
Usually there are three levels of faculty: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Full Professor. Other levels include instructor and adjunct, but tenure normally is associated with only the professor classes. Newly minted PhDs, and you need a doctorate to be considered, start at the Assistant level. After several years they can apply for tenure and often, if granted tenure, they are simultaneously promoted to Associate.
Each step of advancement results from a lengthy evaluation process than can last most of an academic year. A candidate is evaluated in three main areas: teaching, research, and service (committee work, administrative duties, professional society positions, etc.)
I think the majority of faculty would agree that, by far, the most important area considered in this evaluation process is research, with service and teaching being of secondary importance. Faculty with many yearly refereed publications and, nowadays, with external grants (read money) stand an excellent chance for advancement, even if they are lousy teachers. Faculty with wonderful student evaluations and recognition from colleagues of their teaching prowess, but with a weak research record, are often in trouble. It is sometimes true that poor teaching can hurt advancement, but poor research is always a killer.
Something about this seems wrong to me. I believe that a university has two equally important functions: teaching and research. Some may be surprised by that. It’s a school, after all. Schools teach. But it’s more than a school, it’s an institution of higher learning. Learning, not teaching. Everyone is learning, including faculty. And our country is dependent on the ability of faculty to carry out research independent of the pressures of company or government demands. This, of course, raises questions about tenure, but that’s for a different discussion.
So I accept that teaching and research are both essential for a successful experience in higher education. What I don’t understand is why one is more important than the other, or why faculty should be expected to excel in teaching while being rewarded mainly for research.
In my opinion, a university should indeed have faculty recognized for their research. They should be expected to teach, but mainly higher level undergraduate and graduate courses. And, of course, supervise master theses and doctoral dissertations.
And there should be faculty equally recognized for their teaching. Now don’t let me give the impression that is all such faculty should do. To be truly great teachers they must extend effort in continuous study beyond the levels at which they teach. For one thing, it sets a good example for the students and it also permits greater insight into how what is taught fits into their students’ further study. But they shouldn’t have to be setting the world on fire with this work. Outstanding teaching should be sufficient for advancement just as outstanding research is. I wish it were so.
Of course, when there is a faculty member that excels in both areas, and many such individuals do exist, he or she is a treasure who should be honored by their institution. Most are.