Sunday, 28 October 2007

Job Specialization in Academia

Having attended both a small university in the US and a large university in the UK for my undergraduate degree, and now studying/researching/teaching at a different large university in the UK during my postgraduate years, I've had some exposure to different styles of educational institutions, and experienced being on both sides of the desk.

One observation that has been increasingly on my mind is the nature of the dual teaching and researching responsibilities of academic staff at the larger universities. It is fairly standard that academics do both research and teaching as a part of their job description. However, almost without exception, every big-university professor I've met identifies more as a researcher than a teacher. Teaching becomes something that they appreciate the necessity of, much like committee meetings, but is often seen as just another job responsibility which must be done before they can get down to their "real" work -- research. This is a situation that appears to benefit neither the staff nor the students. To borrow an analogy from Mitch Hedberg, it is like asking that chefs also farm, and farmers also cook. Although their work shares the central element of food, requiring practitioners to both grow it and prepare it makes little sense. Similarly, researching and teaching revolve around knowledge, but generating new knowledge (research) and disseminating existing knowledge (teaching) rely on entirely different skill sets, and I cannot see why there is not more job specialization within academia. I've seen the current system produce a fair amount of both bad teaching and bad research by academics who are drawn more to the other component.

Of course, there are teaching-focused universities in the UK -- but they are generally considered a tier below the research universities. Why not have dedicated teaching staff teach most undergrad classes at all large universities? Allow the researchers to do more research, and have specially trained teachers do the actual teaching. It seems everyone would get a better deal: the students, the researchers, and those who love to teach, but do not wish to pursue research and grants. The current professors can continue to teach postgraduate classes -- this makes sense as most postgraduate work is heavily research based, and PGs are expected to learn for themselves from original source material.

These are just my recent thoughts -- there may be factors I've not yet thought of... can anyone give me a good reason why our current system is better?


C. Joshua Villines said...

As a professor and Ph.D. candidate who identifies himself primarily as a teacher, I strongly agree with your observations. The skill set that makes you a competent Ph.D. student and a competent researcher is an entirely different one from the skill set that makes you an effective teacher. Sometimes it even seems to me that they may be mutually exclusive. (Your Dad always seemed to me to be an exception in this regard. He manages to have the temperament of a reclusive poet and still be a brilliant lecturer...)

In the U.S. in the 70's an attempt to address this issue was made with Doctor of Arts degree, but it never got off the ground. I suspect that this is because Ph.D.'d academics look down on people who focus on praxis and teaching.


Christopher Chandler said...

It really would make sense to have two parallel systems for academics: one for teaching, one for research. I would love to do a DA if it were a feasible alternative. I think a general mastery of the subject area and better training in how to communicate it would be much more useful than being the world's expert on researching a topic so obscure that no one outside of the department will ever hear of it.

One of the big problems in psychology, and I presume most other research areas, is not in finding results, but in disseminating results. Psychologists have answered all kinds of Big Questions, but the research gets published and ignored often by other psychologists, and nearly always by the public. Research has no purpose if no one knows about it, and that is a job for teachers, and more broadly, communicators.

I was moved to write this post after seeing students get less attention each year. Even if we as teachers want to dedicate more time to students, it is usually not accounted for in the school budget. For example, I am expected to grade 5000 words per hour, including all feedback. Last year it was 4000. If I take more time than that, I'm not paid for it. It is not possible to provide meaningful feedback at that speed, and low feedback is perennially the number one student complaint.

Ash said...

The funny thing is that, as you touch on, we all tend to assume it's better to be taught, at university level, by people who are active in research. I am tempted to agree with you that this is not necessarily the case, because I have had some truly terrible lecturers in my time, who seemed to have no particular skill or inclination when it came to teaching. Having said that, I had plenty of teachers like that too, when I was at school! So it's hard to judge. Personally, I see myself as a researcher first and foremost, and someone who does some teaching on the side because this is a necessary part of academia. Would I still want to teach if it weren't a required part of being an academic? I'm not sure... I guess that can't be too good for the students :-s

Christopher Chandler said...

Ash, you are certainly correct about there being plenty of bad teachers at the pre-university level. In the US at least, there is just not the societal appreciation or institutional rewards to recruit enough qualified teachers to do the job.

Teachers are much like police officers: some do it to make the world better, some do it to pay the bills, and some are just sick and shouldn't do it at all, but the demand is great enough and the resources scarce enough that an adequate selection system is not in place.

Both at the university and pre-university level, I believe the problem is the same: teaching does not receive enough appreciation as a skill and vocation.