McGill University associate professor Nathan C. Hall posed an interesting question on Twitter recently: “If you could go back and tell your younger academic self one thing that you’ve learned about academe, what would you say?”
The responses to his query were wide-ranging, but several themes emerged. One of them is best summed up by Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics, who said, “You’ll end up having a bigger impact on the world through your teaching than your research.”
We, the authors, both went to grad school at the same R1 university. One of us is on the tenure track at a small teaching institution, and the other is non-tenure track at a large R1 university. Our reactions to those tweets could not have been more different: one of us agreed with these ideas and the emphasis on teaching, while the other believed that such platitudes sounded wonderful in theory and nonexistent in practice. Guess which one is which?
But which reaction best represents the typical academic’s experience in the United States? In 2015, there were more than 3,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, and 115 of those have been designated as R1 institutions by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. That means that only 4 percent of colleges and universities have a reward structure (tenure, promotion and so on) in which research is much more highly valued than teaching. If we add R2 and R3 institutions -- which must place importance on research to receive any kind of research designation but in practice recognize teaching because of heavier faculty loads -- then 11 percent of colleges and universities encourage their faculty members to research as much, or more than, they teach.
That’s barely one out of 10. And yet we spend only a tiny fraction of time in graduate school learning to teach. So why are our graduate programs preparing students for the far more rare research job?
Let us be clear: research is absolutely important. Without university research we would not have medical breakthroughs, like technology to repair damaged tissue; we would not know that humans were eating bread as early as 14,000 years ago and we would not be able to understand the ways fake news on Facebook impacts election results. But the other primary mission of colleges and universities is to teach. And since we know that the vast majority of jobs for faculty members go to those whose main job will be to teach, why do our graduate programs still focus almost solely on how to conduct and publish research?
Very few programs take time to teach their graduate students how to teach. Grad students may serve as teaching assistants -- though research assistantships are more prestigious, of course -- but the main skill they learn in that position is how to grade lots of papers in a short amount of time. (Hint: it usually doesn’t involve in-depth feedback.) Then, once someone has passed the comprehensive exams, she might be eligible to teach a class on her own, but it’s often seen as wasted energy.
“Why would you want to do that?” an adviser asked when one of us requested to teach a class. “It’s a lot of work,” the department chair said. Both: “You should focus on your dissertation research.”
Let’s Stop Winging It
The first semester teaching your own class as a graduate student is stressful. Grad students are often left to wing it for that first semester of teaching: googling example syllabi, using pre-existing test banks, borrowing someone else’s lecture notes. The undergraduates end up complaining about the course, which only serves to stress new instructors even more. It is an experience universal to every graduate program, and there is something to be said for making us learn by throwing us in the deep end.
Still, we need to do better. The simple fact is, most people getting Ph.D.s right now are not going to be researchers at an R1 institution, and it is folly to prepare all doctoral students as if that is the case. Besides forcing them to learn an essential job skill all on their own, it also harms them on the job market for most available jobs. While some search committees at elite R1 institutions toss a CV if the candidate does not reach a certain caliber of pedigree, at some teaching institutions, they toss a CV if the candidate has not taught at minimum two classes on their own. And how does a candidate get “evidence of teaching effectiveness” -- often a requirement in job packets -- if she has never actually taught a class?
While we both survived our first few years on the job, we know what we wish we'd been taught. Here is our advice for graduate programs that want to fully prepare their students for the job market:
- Include a required class in the curriculum dedicated to teaching how to teach undergraduate students. In that class, students would read pedagogy (How College Works by Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs is a great example) and practice developing lectures, in-class activities, exams and writing assignments. That way, graduate students can connect their newly acquired advanced research skills with desirable teaching outcomes.
- After taking the class, assign each graduate student a class to teach mostly on their own. Some graduate students already have this opportunity, but we recommend that it is required instead of an option. We also recommend an addition: have a faculty member pop in regularly to observe and offer feedback. Alternatively, someone could tape the student regularly while she is teaching, so she can see for herself what she does well and what she should work on. Either way, this would be Undergraduate Pedagogy Part II: Experiential Learning, and it would offer an invaluable opportunity for practice and reflection.
- Finally, work to ensure that department culture isn’t hostile to teaching positions. Like Simon Hix, whose tweet about teaching inspired this article, many professors find teaching more rewarding than research and believe it will have a greater positive impact on the future. Let graduate students know that pursuing a teaching-intensive career is not any better or worse than a research-intensive one.
Admittedly, taking the time to accomplish these three goals would take away from other important work that needs to be done in theory and methodology. We also recognize that larger programs might have trouble finding classes for their graduate students to teach. But if our Ph.D. programs continue to refuse to put an emphasis on teaching, we are doing a disservice to both graduate students and to the undergraduates they will eventually teach.
The fact is, even if we are training to be political scientists, biologists or economists, we are still going to be teachers if we go into academe. It’s time that graduate programs prepare students for this reality.