I spent all of yesterday in a workshop called “Launching an academic career” wherein four tenured faculty members laid things out bare (or so they claimed) about how to position oneself in a Ph.D. and postdoc to land an interview, how the interview and selection process works, and the first 3-5 years leading up to tenure.
Now, I try not to be too cynical, but the take home message (and not just my interpretation of the message) was that it’s all about the research. The argument is that an excellent publication record as a PhD and postdoc will land you the job, and then your own grad students publishing excellent papers will land you the grants to hire students to publish papers to land grants … you get the idea.
During the last small-group discussion about the tenure process (the one phase of the workshop with which none of the participants had any experience, being all grad students and postdocs ourselves), I asked point blank: how much does teaching contribute to the tenure and promotion (T&P) process? The answer: basically not at all. In what (I hope) our facilitator thought was an anecdote to assuage fears of a room of 8 early-career researchers with little to no teaching experience, he explained that <5% of faculty up for tenure don’t make the grade, and the reason is always publications. In what is almost a direct quote, he said that someone could be terrible in front of a class of undergraduates, but a good researcher, and that beats an excellent teacher and mediocre researcher any day.
Jaw, meet floor.
Now, before I come off as being entirely naïve, I have known for some time that research was always valued more than teaching (and service), but I had thought that it mattered at all (heck, even in proportion to the time allocated to each). Now, perhaps this is a particular shortcoming of my university, so I’m keen to hear others’ experiences either in the comments below, or by e-mail (email@example.com).
I enjoy teaching, and I also enjoy research. They’re different activities, and I get different things out of them, which is why I don’t really see myself at a teaching-only institution, but equally not at a research institute. I like the regular interaction with undergraduate students, but I also like working with other grad students and researchers (for those interested, check out Small Pond Science for some excellent posts about working at a primarily-teaching university).
But perhaps this attitude is changing in some areas. Universities in Ontario are looking at having teaching-only faculty and research-only faculty (not something that appeals to me). What I would like to see is the valuing of good teaching, but not to the detriment of the teacher.
Perhaps I come at this from a minority viewpoint. I did my undergrad at Mount Allison University, a primarily undergraduate university in eastern Canada where enrolment was capped at 2200 students when I attended. But there was a small graduate program (no more than 10 students in Biology, for example, and few more in Chemistry).
As Tory (and short-lived) Prime Minister Kim Campbell said during the 1993 election, “The election is not a time to discuss serious issues”. And perhaps she was right. Maybe, just maybe, (some) universities are not for teaching undergraduates.
Edit: as Terry pointed out in the comments, there is research at primarily teaching universities (which was the whole point of Small Pond Science).