Credit for Teaching

At many colleges and universities, the tenure trinity of teaching, research and service is widely viewed (at least by those coming up for tenure) as a myth. A new book (or articles in the right journals) will trump a great teaching idea every time, say many professors. Classroom innovation doesn't get any credit.

May 26, 2010

At many colleges and universities, the tenure trinity of teaching, research and service is widely viewed (at least by those coming up for tenure) as a myth. A new book (or articles in the right journals) will trump a great teaching idea every time, say many professors. Classroom innovation doesn't get any credit.

The American Sociological Association on Tuesday announced a new effort that -- organizers hope -- could change that. TRAILS -- the Teaching Resources and Innovations Library for Sociology Web site -- will be an archive for peer-reviewed classroom innovations, including syllabuses, class activities, individual assignments, bibliographies and Web sites -- all focused on teaching. A two-level peer-review process is being created to vet entries, and association officials promise that plenty will be rejected, or, as with journal submissions, sent back for revisions.

The idea is that by adapting a rigorous peer review process, successful items on TRAILS will be granted the respect on a tenure dossier that good teaching evaluations or a portfolio might never garner.

TRAILS will not be the first effort at peer review in teaching, which happens when senior faculty observe classes and in broader efforts such as MERLOT and the Peer Review of Teaching Project. Where TRAILS may be significant and successful, some experts say, is in its broad disciplinary focus. Junior faculty members win tenure based on publishing in their fields' top journals, the thinking goes, and the way to see teaching ideas actually get credit may also be to have the imprimatur of the discipline.

"I think there is power in having the discipline take it on," said Mary Taylor Huber, senior scholar emerita and consulting scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which has long promoted the idea of "the scholarship of teaching," advanced by the late Ernest Boyer when he headed the foundation. "I think there is a long way to go before there is a wide enough understanding and acceptance of this kind of pedagogical work as a serious intellectual enterprise, and I think this is a step forward."

Huber said that some disciplines and departments have made it possible for people to receive credit for teaching ideas in tenure and promotion by writing up scholarly articles about their teaching ideas and then publishing those ideas in key journals. While the basis for those articles may be teaching, they are ultimately being evaluated as research -- based on their publication. What she likes about the sociologists' idea, she said, is that the emphasis is on rigorous evaluation of and (where appropriate) "full credit for teaching as teaching."

How TRAILS Will Work

To get a resource accepted on TRAILS, a scholar will have to submit documentation that the learning tool meets a series of criteria -- and that assessment has been done by the professor to show that the idea actually works. The tool must also be demonstrably useful to others and explained in a clear way. Then the submission is reviewed by an "area editor," a professor selected by the association either for a focus on a type of teaching (introductory course, capstone course, research methods, etc.) or for sociology subject matter (from policy analysis to animals and society to stratification to immigration to biosociology). The area editor can approve the proposal for a second level of review (by the association's office or later by other panels), reject it, or ask for revisions.

Only after the second review would the resource be accepted and included on the Web site. To submit or to have full access to the materials submitted, sociologists will need to subscribe to TRAILS ($25 for association members and $100 for others). Those who join TRAILS will also be able to use any of the materials in their courses, with the only condition being that they give visible credit to the scholars who created them. So instructors will gain access to resources without any permissions process. Among the samples provided by TRAILS are a syllabus for a course on the sociology of the body, and a class module on AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Margaret Weigers Vitullo, director of the ASA’s Academic and Professional Affairs Program and the creator of TRAILS, said she was under no illusion that the application of peer review would make teaching innovations be seen as identical to research innovations. "I don't think that publishing a class activity is the same thing as publishing a journal article," she said.

But if sociologists believe that teaching innovations matter, she said, they should consider why current systems for evaluating teaching don't end up getting much weight in tenure reviews. "Measuring excellence is very difficult," she said. Teaching portfolios may not be reviewed by people with expertise in teaching that subject, student evaluations of instructors are widely questioned, and in-person observation by senior colleagues is "a snapshot of a day."

The TRAILS idea is to provide "meaningful evidence of teaching accomplishment" that could earn the respect of tenure and promotion committees. Vitullo noted that Boyer argued that teaching would get real respect in academe only when reward structures reflect its importance, and added that she hoped this project would move the field of sociology in that direction.

While TRAILS "can't magically undo" a century or more of institutions giving relatively little credit to teaching, Vitullo said that she hopes review committees will pay attention. "We are showing that we can measure high quality teaching in a way that is public and peer reviewed and scholarly," she said.

Further, the effort asserts -- in the face of calls for accountability to be demonstrated through testing -- that a discipline takes teaching seriously, but doesn't want to rely just on testing. "Rather than say that we know a university does a good job of teaching because we are giving all of our students a test that may or may not measure what we want," the individual reviews of teaching techniques and tools (all accompanied by evidence of success) speak "to the push for accountability" and show that it is "something we take seriously," she said.

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