Building the Teaching University

Say you’re an ambitious new university president who has just become the head of a large public university. Let’s say for the sake of argument that it is widely conceded in your state that this new university has been underfunded and lacks a distinctive vision. What would you do to try and build a better university for the public of your state?

The New York Times had an interesting piece earlier this week on how public universities are facing big cuts in their budgets, which is in turn derailing some of the most ambitious attempts by university leadership to make their campuses into research powerhouses.

I agree with the basic thrust of the article, which was to suggest that the conventional formula for building a top-tier R1 just isn’t sustainable when you multiply it by 50 states, that there’s room for a few public university systems to build that kind of institution but that they don’t make sense as a generalized aspiration.

So go back to the hypothetical scenario: you’re a new president and you want to build up a public institution, and not just have it be a under-resourced, haphazardly organized, third-order imitation of the University of Michigan that is mostly seen by regional communities as the provider of football and basketball. That you want to think about how to combine public mission and excellence without trying to stuff your faculty full of supposedly world-class researchers.

Let’s say instead that you decide that what you really want to concentrate on is building the very best teaching institution that you can, one which offers a superb range and quality of education specifically tailored for the needs of the public of your state.

You now have two really huge problems.

1) The range of teaching you need to best serve most publics in most states is best modeled not by existing large public universities but by many community colleges. Community colleges are already doing the job you want to take on for your public university. They’re often badly under-resourced in various ways, so you could certainly perform a valuable service by building a very well-resourced “flagship” version of the same curricular architecture. What you’d need is not just courses for a four-year degree but a range of enrichment courses. You’d need programs aimed at specific reskilling and retraining as well as general education courses. It would take a lot of effort and leadership to get the average faculty of the average large public research university to see their course offerings in these terms.

2) I can’t think of a sound way to preferentially recruit great higher education teachers in an institution that’s building a lot of new capacity. It’s a really fundamental problem: great teaching doesn’t offer the same kind of external record that research or publication productivity does. If you, hypothetical president trying to direct a flagship teaching institution, had the budget to hire 40 new tenure-track faculty whose positions you defined expressly as teaching positions, where you expressly wanted great teachers who were intellectually lively but were indifferent to their research productivity, how could you do that? You’d get a lot of c.v.’s if the positions were tenure-track with good benefits and salaries, but you can tell almost nothing about the difference between a competent teacher and a classroom dynamo from a conventional academic c.v. In fact, a lot of professors know that the gap between someone who has proven creativity or accomplishment as a researcher and writer and someone who can hold their own as a lecturer or teacher is sometimes startlingly wide when a job candidate shows up for their campus visit.

So, if you were that president, trying to build up a well-funded “super CC” to serve a regional public, how would you go about it? How do you reconstruct a curriculum away from the default structure of an R1, and how do you recruit with most of the weight on teaching excellence rather than research accomplishments?

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16 Responses to Building the Teaching University

  1. north says:

    Constructing a hiring process for teachers is actually remarkably easy. You do it more or less the way that very fancy private high schools do. You request a CV oriented towards teaching plus a teaching portfolio, which should include syllabi, lesson plans, and if possible video of classroom sessions and samples of graded work. You might also request a statement of teaching philosophy or some other reflections from the candidate on what kind of teacher he or she aspires to be, and you tell the candidates to make sure that their letters address their teaching style.

    During the visit to campus, you have the candidate give not just a job talk, but a sample lesson to a group of actual students. In the case of a professor, you might have them give a guest lecture in a class related to their expertise, or just step in and teach a lesson that’s appropriate for the curriculum. College classes are far more specific than high school classes, but it should still be possible to set people up with a sample lesson in front of intro-level classes.

    Of course, you will still get crappy teachers who somehow slip through this process. But it’s an existing strategy to get excellent teachers that seems to work very well for the fancy high schools that employ it, and its mistakes are easily corrected by not giving someone tenure, and by having a tenure process that requires classroom observations and a more extensive teaching portfolio.

  2. AndrewSshi says:

    Caveat: This is the time of year when I’ve been getting three straight months of letters telling me that I shouldn’t feel bad about not getting the job because there were many highly qualified candidates blah blah blah. So I’m a tad bit cranky.

    But North, the problem with the Teaching Dossier is that it basically winds up meaning that you’re going to skew the hiring process towards folks who’ve been in adjunct purgatory for a few years, since they’ve got a much longer paper trail of classes taught, which means that they’ll naturally beat out the grad students finishing their dissertations who are great teachers but only have some TA-ships to their name. So you wind up perpetuating the system that makes everyone spend a few years in the adjunct trenches as a form of quasi-official hazing.

    The teaching philosophy is also something that strikes me as kind of, I dunno, not terribly helpful, since it doesn’t tell you much about the *performance* of teachers. You can have the most brilliant ideas in the world about teaching but be a colossal bore when sitting in front of a classroom of semi-conscious undergrads at 9 AM on a Wednesday morning.

    Okay, done grousing.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree about the skepticism on a statement teaching philosophy, since that tends even for very good, experienced teachers to be kind of empty of real content, full of truism.

    The model for building a “world-class” research university often involves mid-level hires. So what I’m curious about in part is what a mid-level record of accomplishment for a great teacher looks like.

  4. north says:

    Yeah, I mean, all that is true. But people are also more likely to know how to teach after that time in adjunct purgatory, and more likely to know what kind of teachers they are: it’s kind of an unavoidable reality of trying to hire teachers that you’ll privilege people who’ve been teaching.

    There are ways to mitigate that: if you’ve taught and graded sections, you should have some graded papers that you can use to show you give feedback to student work. You can construct a syllabus without having taught it, and then show it to professors (either at your graduate institution or older friends who have jobs) to get a reality check. Most importantly, the hiring committee needs to think of their hire as a long-term investment in a good teacher, rather than an attempt to get the person who’s already done the job. The real way to get rid of adjunct purgatory isn’t to avoid any process where having been an adjunct could be helpful, but for institutions to stop using adjuncts. Then there won’t be any applicants with extensive adjunct experience, and it won’t be a competitive issue.

    Teaching philosophy mostly tells you if someone has actually thought about teaching. If I were hiring people, I’d read the teaching philosophy first, as a screen. And of course, you’ll end up with some people who show up for their interviews and are clearly total crap at teaching, and some people who have great interviews but are also total crap at teaching; but that’s what the tenure process is for, at least in theory. You’re not stuck with your new hires forever.

    I dunno. No process is perfect, but this is a process that some institutions already use to hire really good teachers, and it works reasonably well.

  5. Chris Goedde says:

    I don’t know how I’d do it across an entire university, but within physics there’s an extremely strong physics education research community. So to staff a physics department in such a university I would look for candidates who had successfully implemented current best practices from that research.

  6. ccagle says:

    I guess one hesitation I have with your proposal is that it so neatly reproduces class divisions, especially as they are distributed geographically. Your description of the underfunded R1 would apply pretty well to my alma mater, University of Tennessee, which continues to suffer from the state’s starve the beast approach to tax/fiscal policy. So in one sense, you’re right: the R1 model might not be sustainable for UT, but I also know that that was the only school I could afford and its research orientation gave me a future that I would not have had otherwise. Bourdieu’s work, among others, has shown that even free higher ed can replicate class stratification, but pushing state institutions to the community college model just tips the scales from the get-go.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure. But the Times piece suggests, I think correctly, that not every state can afford to build a top-flight university on the R1 model, and that maybe it isn’t even a model that services most publics very well. Maybe there’s a hybrid form that would work: a few research institutes scattered within a teaching university, etc.

  8. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Hmm, Tim I think you have discovered the gordian knot of our times.

    I work at a teaching institution and the administration is still stuck on a hybrid R1/high school teacher model for tenure and promotion. (Some sort of publication plus time served and not pissing off your colleagues = tenure and promotion). Some of this is due to the union contract, but a lot of it has to do with minimizing costs in terms of time and money for the administration.

    As you say, “great teaching doesn???? offer the same kind of external record that research or publication productivity does.” Publications are a simple and easy way to validate a hire or promotion. In a sense the journal reviewers have already done this for you. Which is why my school wants more people to publish something before tenure. It has nothing to do with the mechanics of the job, but it sure makes hiring and promotion easier. Somebody else thought you did something good so we’ll give you tenure.

    North might have a model for hiring great teachers, but it certainly would skew things in favor of not only adjuncts, but also midcareer people who want a lighter teaching load, or a chance to teach in a larger department. I would love to teach more classes in my specialization, but frankly, thats not what my current department needs. So most of my time I teach Western Civ.

    So there is a way to hire great teachers, but it would certainly stack the deck against recent PhDs. But I am not so sure that is a bad idea given the mission of your hypothetical teaching university. I do not think I was that great of a teacher when I finished grad school. I was competent, but not great. I think most people would admit as much.

    A R1 PhD program is a lousy place to learn about teaching. Either the subject is ignored entirely and you learn to teach from your fellow TAs and grad instructors; or the department “outsources” the lessons in pedagogy to a nebulous “college teaching portfolio” program offered for minimal credit by the Grad School. To be honest, most recent PhD’s really learn to teach in their first two or three years on the job.

  9. north says:

    To be honest, most recent PhD???? really learn to teach in their first two or three years on the job.

    This is true of high school teachers as well. But by 3 years out, people are usually well on their way to being promising teachers, or pretty clearly not headed there. So, yes, this would require people to put some time in as non-tenure-track faculty to be hired at an excellent institution; but the institution would then have to recognize that as the plan, and not be all “we can’t hire someone from a tier way below us,” as many institutions currently are. There’d have to be a real shift in hiring priorities for this either way, and I think it would lead to greater mobility for teaching-oriented academics in what could be a really good way.

  10. One strategy is to try to poach from tier 1 and 2 liberal arts colleges, where advanced-asst/assoc. faculty have proven their teaching abilities and passions. But I think there’s an inherent scale issue in your plan – to be passionate about and successful in teaching typically involves smaller scale, allowing for one-on-one mentoring and seminar-style interactions. But a flagship school operates on economies of scale that disallow this, especially without the grad student base that would be missing without the R1 research drive. There are a lot of “public liberal-arts colleges” within larger systems that work, but usually because they are small and not competing with the system’s R1 flagship.

    Another model is more innovative but cost inefficient – build an R1 base of top-researchers whose sole teaching responsibilities focus on grad students. Add a “teaching college” layer with faculty who are passionate about teaching and can mentor those grad students in the undergrad classroom – these people would lead undergrad education and guide TAs, while the researchers pull down grants and infuse the “new knowledge” into the system. But effectively, you’d be hiring two faculty to fulfill the role that 1 typically is assumed to do now. Not going to fly, especially in this climate.

  11. G. Weaire says:

    Just to agree: teaching classes (plural) during the on-campus visit should be the main tool. The job talk should also be viewed with an eye to “is this person making this topic compelling to undergrads?”

    Also, the more teaching experience, the better – if a person’s only been a TA, then have they at least TA’d for large lecture courses on several occasions, so that they’ve seen it done well and/or badly? If visiting/adjunct faculty end up favored, this is IMO a feature, not a bug – it would be a good thing for academia in and of itself.

    Recruit from SLAC’s, but with caution – I’ve done both, and (at least in my personal experience) the required persona and skills are a little different. One can be a very good teacher in the SLAC context, and yet not have the charisma to hold the attention of a room with 2000 people in it. I would also try to recruit from the next tier down in the state schools, who may well have more relevant experience.

    I think one should be wary about duplicating the community colleges too much. The school at which you’re aiming should have a symbiotic relationship with the cc’s – it should be the ideal destination for strong transfer students from the cc’s.

    First thing for the new president to do is to thank heaven for small mercies. S/he has a couple of things going for them. First – a lot of small private colleges with regional identities are going to be hard-pressed in the next few years. There’s still a certain market for regional identities, though, and, less nebulously, for higher education that’s close to home. The public university is ideally placed to take advantage of this. I’d repeat to myself, as often as possible: “The University of Whatever is here to serve the population of Whatever.”

    Secondly, despite all the talk about small class sizes, there is a glamour and a thrill to sheer size that has deep cultural appeal to Americans. Those huge lectures – done badly, they’re astonishingly awful, of course. But done well, there’s a real energy in the room which I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I’ve seen that become an end in itself, where the arena rock atmosphere started to get in the way of actual learning. But I’ve also seen it used responsibly to reinforce the retention of information.

    Thirdly, the lifestyle of the big college town is likely to be appealing to potential faculty, which, once you’ve decided who you want to recruit, should make recruiting easier.

  12. jmg3y says:

    The president of even a public universities dedicate much of their time to fund raising, a distant second as figure head at important events. Otherwise, a cadre of vp’s headed by a provost runs the place day to day. I suspect that the tenure of a public institution president who moved to make it the very best teaching teaching institution at the expense of other missions would be short.

    The most critical investments in individuals for many large public universities are in athletics. There is a reason why the head football and basketball coaches at such institutions are by several fold the highest paid state employees and that is the economics. Based on ticket sales alone a full stadium is worth at least 2 million dollars per game and that doesn’t include the income from the courted well-heeled donors in the special boxes. As winning is the primary requirement for filling a stadium and the supply of coaches who can establish and maintain a winning program in a competitive conference is limited, considerable attention and funds are invested in football and basketball programs and their head coaches.

    Next is investing in individuals who can increase research funding indirects. Even in public institutions the indirects on most grants are close to 50% of the grant total, half of the granted amount going to the investigator to spend on research supplies, lab technicians, minor equipment and graduate students and the other half being retained by the administration to support such things as the library collection, the power bill, the janitors, general upkeep and so on. As state support for typical major public institutions is around a quarter of the total budget, these indirects are a very important source of income. Therefore, attracting faculty who are highly competitive for those $500K NIH R01’s is very important as less than one in five proposals are funded. A research star who is successful in consistently obtaining funding to run a large lab brings in millions of dollars so institutions compete for such stars. Hence, considerable funds are invested in attracting research talent and because the institution tends to get what it pays for, the associated reward structure.

    By comparison, what additional revenue does the institution generate from additional investment in excellent undergraduate teaching? Little or none if the additional students are in-state students paying in-state tuition. Because the supply of these students is in excess at the current level of in-state tuition, no classroom seat will be left unfilled no matter the teaching. As legislatures pay a school for x students, if x + 1 are enrolled, they still only pay for x so attracting more in-state students is a loosing proposition. I doubt legislatures will pay more per student to improve teaching excellence. Attracting additional out-of-state students who pay the several fold higher out of state tuition to generate income to support teaching excellence is problematic. If the target market is those out-of-state students attracted by reputation for teaching excellence, the public institution is now competing with the elite private institutions with established reputations, making it a very tough market with a long lag between investment and return. I’m betting that comparing public institution websites to the elite private institution websites will show that the former are promoting other things about themselves more heavily than teaching excellence compared to the elite private institutions.

    In short, I doubt that the marginal benefit of investing in teaching excellence is sufficiently positive, particularly compared to alternative investments in other missions, to justify that focus as the primary emphasis. I wish that was not the case.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s a good run-down of how it looks to university presidents. Unless they’re given some strong external directive (and funding) to build that kind of institution, there really isn’t any reason to do it. Or unless the students themselves demand it, and preferentially choose institutions built on this basis.

  14. rachel says:

    One option that hasn’t been discussed much in these comments is structuring the interview around teaching. Ideally, the interviewers should ask the candidates substantive teaching-related questions such as, “Give an example of a problem that you have encountered in teaching and how you handled it” (as interviewee, I gave the example of an inexperienced student who had committed plagiarism without realizing that he had done so), “What are your priorities in evaluating students’ writing?”, “How do you integrate historiography into your classes?” and “Suppose that a student expressed an unpopular political opinion in a small, seminar-style class, and two or three other students responded hostilely. What would you do?” Another interview activity that my institution often uses is to have the candidate sit in on a few classes, and then engage the candidate in conversation about curriculum and class dynamics. It can be a little awkward– naturally, the candidate does not want to criticize!– but one can usually tell, from the questions and comments, how closely the candidate observed what was going on, how good a read the candidate had on the intellectual goals and content of the course, and how good a read the candidate had on class dynamics.

    I have mixed feelings about the value of teaching portfolios because good teaching depends so much on responding to specific situations. A syllabus, lecture, or assignment that is perfect for one institution may be utterly unsuitable for another. I think that a show-and-tell approach might be useful here: have a candidate bring one or two specific assignments, activities, websites, lectures, or whatever to the interview, present them to a small or a large group, and discuss the thought process that underlay their development: the nature of the student body, the goals of the course, the reasons for developing this particular element in the course, different ways in which these particular items could be adapted to a new course or a new setting. This might help the interviewers evaluate each candidate’s teaching philosophy and intellectual flexibility more substantively than a canned statement of teaching philosophy does.

  15. sibyl says:

    I think that in addition to following many of the suggestions about recruitment and evaluation, I would also make a commitment to changing existing reward structures. I’d launch a Center for Research on Postsecondary Teaching that would study and underwrite research in the scholarship of pedagogy. One of the functions of this center would be to edit and produce the world’s leading peer-reviewed journal on college teaching issues, so that faculty from all institutions and all disciplines would have a place to publish research; another would be to host a conference (or several) that would basically be an expansion of the excellent Lilly Teaching Conference at Miami University; a third would be to infuse graduate education at this university with a solid grounding in teaching scholarship and experience, so that new Ph.D.s from this university would be highly sought after by teaching-oriented colleges and universities.

    In other words I’d have to put some money toward shaking up the structural problems that currently drive institutions toward the “third-rate Michigan” model. It goes without saying that any serious reform would require serious backing, both from the state governing bodies and campus constituents, though because this is a hypothetical experiment I get to assume I have both.

  16. mlw says:

    As someone who teaches at a small, public liberal arts college, I just wanted to share my 2-cents for folks stuck in “adjunct purgatory.” Some disciplines here usually expect not just the conventional “job talk” but also a teaching demonstration from job candidates. Because our program gives a great deal of flexibility to faculty to design and teach what they believe their program needs, we usually hire people who impress us as on their way to becoming strong and creative teachers with good vision for how to engage students with disciplinary knowledge in only a few classes (most of our “departments” are 3-4 faculty, though some are as small as 2). We do tend esp. in Humanities to hire people with some real teaching experience–independently taught courses at their graduate institution, but also teaching at multiple institutions since that shows the flexibility in dealing w/different kinds of students and institutions. However, on the flip side, I’ve also seen searches where a LOT of adjunct teaching esp. at introductory-level actually hurts a candidate because he/she has been teaching a level that we don’t really teach or has be teaching outside the area of PhD expertise that we’re looking for (for instance, in Philosophy, most adjunct work is in analytical tradition, but if we’re hiring in European phil then that teaching isn’t pertinent; you might think about teaching composition rather than literature courses in English, or teaching American Civ when we’re hiring for European history or poli sci, etc.). So there’s a point after which the kind of teaching you’ve been doing makes you fit only into certain kinds of institutions. Just as for us, teaching in the small liberal arts college for 4 years often means that we teach too broadly and define our projects differently and are no longer good candidates for hire into a Research I university. It’s worth thinking about the kind of adjuncting you’re doing and recognizing that you’re building a certain kind of CV.

    As a matter of course, we almost always ask applicants to submit 2-3 course descriptions of classes the applicant envisions and would like to teach. These matter a lot–and they can tell us more about vision, responsible knowledge of field, some effort to suss out our institution than a teaching statement. They take a different kind of thought than syllabi (which often tell much less about how someone thinks of a course than the institutional policies on plagiarism and grading). Since we don’t do letter grades but narrative evaluations, we don’t much care about grading policies and we do want to know more about how this person would envision the field and work with our students.

    Teaching portfolios are now common, and at least the first posts leave aside the students’ evaluations of the course. I’m guessing that like me, many find these problematic, but sometimes these comments can be suggestive–even negative student comments can tell us that the teaching is challenging and demanding, which is what we’re looking for. Faculty who pitch it high and then back down as students need them to work better than those who pitch it too low and then try to ratchet up.

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