Saturday, November 15, 2014

It’s the Teaching, Stupid! Retire already!

Hey, I didn't have to compose that kind of harsh sounding phrases for the title of this post--they happen to be how two commentaries were titled or promoted; though, of course, I second those without any hesitation at all ;)

It seems like it has been forever that I have been complaining about the intellectual onanism that passes off as "research" at institutions like mine where teaching is the very reason why we exist in the first place.  I often feel like shaking people by their shoulders and slapping them on their cheeks (though, I worry that will only add to the orgasmic effect ... hehehe) in order to help them realize that we ain't no Harvard.  As I noted in this post from, gasp, three years ago:
an Ole Miss or my own university wasn't set up to become an alternative to Harvard!  These other institutions have missions that are distinct from those of a Harvard or Stanford.  But, even these universities think and work as if they are nothing but a Harvard-lite.  The focus on "research" at third-rung universities is a classic example--most of the research publications that faculty from third-tier universities are in third and fourth rate journals, which seem to have brought into existence only to serve as an outlet for the great pretenders.
It is the mission creep that is awful, and this occurs mostly at public institutions, whether they are community colleges or state universities. 
But, who cares about mission creep when it is students who pay the high price!

How does this get institutionalized?  Simple. Even teaching universities have forgotten that "it's the teaching, stupid!":
Research and publication are important, of course, but teaching forms the core duties of the vast majority of college professing jobs.
But, what do Kafka's esteemed gentlemen of the Academy do instead when they set out to hire faculty?
Most job advertisements in the humanities and social sciences make the bad mistake of positioning tenure-track search committees to learn much more about applicants’ research than their teaching. In order to make the hiring process better-reflect their needs, many departments should consider taking a teaching-centered approach to their next job search.
I understand why elite private and Research I institutions might pursue research-centered profiles of their candidates. Professors there can expect to receive significant and frequent paid leave time and research grants. It makes sense for these schools to find out as much as possible about their applicants’ research agendas.
Professors at most colleges and universities, however, don’t get such opportunities, and in fact they focus most of their time and energy on teaching. It puzzles me why search committees time and again, especially on the tenure-track level, take so little action to measure candidates on what they will ultimately spend most of their time doing as professors.
It is awful.  I doubt there are many other industries where there is such screwed up approach to hiring highly qualified personnel on the basis of something that has nothing to do with the prime mission.

As they get older, the faculty do not leave either, however awful or great their teaching skills might be.  Now, it is not that I am a great teacher.  But, I know for certain that even the worst of the teaching has to keep pace with the changes in the world.  I know I recognize awful teaching when I see, for instance, PowerPoint slides that have not been updated.

Almost always, it seems like only the good teachers retire!
By any measure—course enrollments, teacher evaluations, testimony from students and colleagues, peer observations and evaluations, and even—I’m a fine teacher, even an exceptional one, though hardly perfect: One student called me, in writing, an "über bitch." Although I don’t have the energy I had when I was 40, or even 50, compared with most professors in their 60s, I’m an Amazon. I’m also far smarter and cagier about how to teach than when I was a young whippersnapper never more than a couple of steps ahead of my students.
She "signed an "irrevocable agreement" with Hofstra University that paid me a bonus to retire "early."  No, even in her case, the early was not really early: "In my case, that meant at the age of 66."

So, we have a double-whammy at the teaching universities all over the country: a great number of faculty whose interests are in "research" and not in teaching and who don't retire even when it feels like they are way past their expiration dates.  The tyranny of the senior-citizen faculty, which I have blogged about before too (like here, here).

I agree with the author when she writes:
What’s far more likely is a version of what I observed in my own department—an art-history professor in his late 70s who prowled the halls up until a few years ago. He didn’t appear to be able to use email, and we all knew he was a terribly easy grader. Even so, he faithfully met his classes and always attended department meetings, where he hardly ever said a word.
In other industries, this would lead to dismissal because of professional incompetence.  But, not in higher education!
The inconvenient truth is that faculty who delay retirement harm students, who in most cases would benefit from being taught by someone younger than 70, even younger than 65. The salient point is not that younger professors are better pedagogues (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t), but that they are more likely to be current in their fields and to bring that currency into their teaching.
Septuagenarian faculty members also cost colleges more than younger faculty—in the form of higher salaries, higher health-care costs, and higher employer-matched retirement contributions. Even if these costs pale in comparison to paying for bloated administrations, it’s wrong to pretend they don’t matter.
Worst of all, their presence stifles change. I’m not talking about mindless change for change’s sake, but the kind of change necessary to keep an institution thriving.
Ah, yes, reminds me of how one senior-citizen faculty had the arrogance to tell me that I wasn't respecting the hallway culture--a culture that badly needs changing!

The author notes:
I want to face retirement the way Prospero, directly addressing the audience at the end of The Tempest, voluntarily surrendered his magical powers:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: ...
            Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant.
Yes, I too would like to voluntarily surrender my powers, whatever little that I have.  Though, that time is a long, long time into the future, despite what others think, and it should work well with the other master-plan that I have ;)


Ramesh said...

Yeah, both these issues have always struck me when thinking of academia. The obsession with research, often obscure, incomprehensible to most mortals and read by fewer than 10 people, beggars belief. Even the Harvards of the world , I submit, produce mostly useless stuff. At least in business, which I know a bit, Ivy League research output, is in the majority either stating the blindingly obvious or producing useless claptrap.

As for the retirement issue, this is largely an American one because of your mania for tenure. Thankfully in India, we have a retirement age for Profs and therefore universities don;t resemble geriatric ward.

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, come on, awesome research work is done at the Harvards of the world. We don't want to get carried away when we criticize research.
(though, I agree that business schools anywhere are crappy ... hehehe ...)

The senior-citizen faculty issue is one serious problem ... but, of course, we can't even talk about it--not just me, but anybody, because it will be lawsuits galore the moment one even whispers ...