Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Students and Professors

An article that profgrrrrl wrote while on vacation started a small whirlwind of discussion, mostly (based on my cursory read) by graduate students who have no idea what faculty do. One student seemed to think that tenured faculty are paid to teach (because that seemed the case at her undergrad school) and seemed oblivious to how a vast research enterprise comes about. Hint: It is entirely the result of the effort of the person whose name is on all of the grants that pay for it. That student did not say if she thought that her major professor got tenured because of teaching, but that would not surprise me either.

I was several years into graduate school before the real situation (not to mention the many ramifications of a job market where several hundred people apply for a single job opening) became clear to me, so I definitely don't think anything less of the students who shard my ignorance. However, I don't want them to stay ignorant of the realities of academic life.

I am not surprised that most students do not know that a faculty member with an excellent record (lets say 60 published papers, a Harvard PhD, a Sloan Fellowship, and enough prominence that I saw him quoted in our newspaper this week) is sometimes denied tenure because that record is not quite up to someone's fantasy of what the perfect professor should be at a top-10 research university, quite irrespective of his/her teaching ability. Simply put, a professor at a research intensive university is there primarily to generate money for the university and increase its reputation, not to teach undergrads or even graduate students.

I started a multi-part series of articles on physics jobs to try to help clarify this situation. (I'll link to the middle one, since it defines the different kinds of careers.) If you enter graduate school with a certain kind of career in mind, it helps to have a sharper idea of what those careers might be. I learned a lot, but not enough, from my mentors and friends - and then only about a few types of institutions. Toward that end, I was really glad to see Dr. Crazy's article on Juggling, listing the many things that faculty do and how those roles are radically different than the grad student version once you become a professor. She is writing from the English Department (I think), yet it could have been about physics. Profgrrrrl's follow up article dealt with some of the same misconceptions from her position in Complexification Studies.

I strongly recommend those comments to anyone who looks at part four, the part about tenure. That article was heavily biased toward the R1 end, because of the physics blogs that motivated me to write it. However, as I went to some lengths to point out in part two, most of the faculty jobs are at "comprehensive" universities that reflect the kinds of teaching load and tenure criteria that Dr. Crazy talked about. Her remarks are a nice counterpoint to mine, showing how the emphasis shifts away from an international research reputation toward a more local one as the nature of the college changes.

One of the comments came from a graduate student in the life sciences who thinks "people who have committed their life to teaching (because if you're a professor, that's really what you've done)". Uh, no. If you are a professor at any of a hundred or so graduate research universities, and quite a few of the several hundred or so colleges and universities that have a significant research emphasis, you became a professor because you committed your life to creating or discovering new knowledge and publishing and publicizing it through seminars and conference presentations. This is a form of teaching, of course, but not what the student meant.

Now it happens that I am in a job where I am paid to teach, and I am committed to it. Enough that I do quite a few teaching-related things during the months when I am literally not paid to do any teaching-related work, although part of the reason is so I can remain sane once the year gets rolling. This year will be a bit more intense than usual, given that I will be dealing with a major service load (I am on a major college-wide governance body) plus the usual challenges of an entirely new textbook.

I am committed enough that I have a virtual office hour every night around 10 pm for e-mail related to on-line homework, despite having to teach an early morning class. That is in addition to the time I am required to be in my office, so it is uncompensated time in our system. (Our salaries are fixed by contract, so there is not even any merit pay if one goes beyond norm, or well below it.) I'll post more about the expectations at a teaching job, and what is needed to get and keep it, when I get to part five of the jobs series. (I'll just say for now that one pleasure of reading Dean Dad is hearing about people with a 5/5/5 load. Sheesh. They are committed to teaching!)

Side Remark:
The life sciences are probably the one area (other than perhaps the humanities) where the job market might possibly be worse than it was in physics in the 1970s. The one thing those professors should be teaching is the reality of that marketplace and what you need to do to succeed, or even just survive, in it. Since they probably won't tell you this, you need to talk to a 35 year old post doc or one of the many research "faculty" about employment options in the life sciences and how to prepare to get what you want.

It is getting too late for me to wrap this up now, but I will add my dos centavos when I get a chance ... between wrapping up four syllabi and updating all of the materials I am responsible for as the coordinator of several classes. High ho, its off to work we go.

Some relevant articles from Inside Higher Ed:

There is also a lot that can be learned from Ms. Mentor (link is in the sidebar).

1 comment:

Dr. Crazy said...

Hey, Dr. P.

I only just got over here (busy with teaching, natch :) ) to read this post, and I'm about to go read yours that you link to. I'm glad that you thought the post on juggling was valuable, and yes, you're right, I'm in English. At any rate, I entirely agree that grad students shouldn't remain ignorant about what this job, in most cases, actually entails. I think for a lot of us writing pseudonymously, particularly for those of us writing from cc's or from comprehensives without grad programs, our blogs are probably our most real (and most invisible) service to this profession. At any rate, I just wanted to comment so you'd know I'd stopped over (finally!).