We Need to Elevate the Status of Teaching at Research Universities

Doing so requires a shift in incentive structures to promote teaching excellence

It’s no secret that teaching is valued less than research at American research-intensive universities. Pay for teaching-only positions is low, and tenure is hardly ever a possibility. Rather, full-time teaching is typically contract based up to a couple years or semester-to-semester. Aside from graduate student instructors, full-time teaching “faculty” are the lowest on the university status pecking order.

The “lesser-than” status of teaching in American higher education came into its modern form around the time that research and “the scholar” began to dominate our universities in the late 19th and early 20th century. This does not mean, however, that there was ever a “golden era” of teaching in higher education. As Jonathan Zimmerman notes in his recent book, The Amateur Hour, “college teaching has probably seen less change than almost any other American institutional practice” and “has languished for too long under the dead hand of tradition.”

The status (and job security, and pay, and respect) problem of teaching in our institutions is the result of a system set up in exactly the right way to completely disincentivize teaching excellence. This is a problem primarily within our research-intensive universities, but is also pervasive across institution types with faculty positions at non-research universities, generally receiving systematically lower pay, for example.

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I see four primary examples of misaligned incentives that culminate in the lowly status of, and general apathy toward, teaching at the average American research-intensive university:

  1. Teaching-only positions – commonly titled “Lecturers” or “Adjunct Professors” – are systematically underpaid relative to research positions. Full-time Lecturers, on average, are paid approximately $20,000 less than full-time entry-level faculty at research-intensive universities, whereas per-course adjuncts are paid a few thousand dollars per course.

  2. Teaching-only positions are often part-time contract positions offering little in the way of job security beyond one’s contract or the current semester. Depending on the specific rules at each university, an adjunct’s class – and hence their pay -- can be cancelled up to just a couple days before the term start date if enrollment does not reach a certain threshold. Other teaching positions are multi-year contracts with no opportunity for tenure.

  3. For those who are tenure-track faculty at research-intensive universities, they are hired for their research abilities, with lip-service hardly being paid to their teaching qualifications. Faculty that serve on search committees at research universities will confirm that teaching experience plays little to no role in hiring decisions. Once hired, the apathy continues: Tenure and promotion are nearly exclusively focused on research and scholarly output. The result is that little focus is put into course development or evidence-based pedagogy because of research obligations that hold clear consequences for one’s career progression.

  4. Teaching at most universities is evaluated primarily by students. Students often complain about poor teaching but when push comes to shove, the majority would prefer to sit through a boring lecture than to do active work in class. Because teaching is primarily evaluated by student feedback, professors are incentivized to comply with student preferences -- less busy work, loads of extra credit, and easy assessments -- to avoid a negative reputation. (Although good teaching is not rewarded, extraordinarily bad teaching can be damaging pre-tenure.)

Collectively, these form a poorly designed incentive structure for the average tenure-track (research) professor to put substantial time and effort into their teaching and course development, despite it being a requirement of their job. For those that desire a teaching-focused position, the lowly status and pay of these positions at our nation’s largest universities can be preventative for those who are highly-skilled educators and would thrive in a teaching-only faculty role.

Despite research and teaching requiring very different skillsets, universities either expect that adequate teaching will be part of the researcher package, or simply don’t care that their hires have no formal pedagogical training or limited teaching experience. Then when student outcomes suffer or extreme inequity arises, college administrators shake their heads and wonder what the problem must be. Despite a robust literature on how people learn and what makes for effective pedagogy, no one actually wants to admit that substandard teaching – driven by poor incentives – is a substantial contributor to mediocre student outcomes.

Elevating the status of teaching at research universities, then, will not be achieved without a change in the incentive structure. However, simply “taking teaching more seriously” for research-focused faculty members is not the solution for broad change. To elevate the status of teaching and to properly incentivize excellence in pedagogy, we need to create faculty roles that focus on only teaching, rather than expecting those that we hire for research to also excel in teaching.

A reasonable solution to fixing the poor incentive structure at research-intensive universities is to equitably disaggregate research and teaching faculty roles: research-intensive universities should hire tenure-track research faculty to primarily research and hire tenure-track-teaching faculty to primarily teach. (By “primarily” I mean in the ballpark of 70%, plus service, with the remaining time allocated to teaching specific courses and pedagogical research, respectively). Both faculty types would facilitate graduate training in both research and teaching – the latter of which is severely lacking in doctoral training programs. These tenure-track “teaching professor” roles already exist at some universities (the UC system being notable), but they are in no way normative across America.

Such delineation of duties makes sense from a practical perspective and a student perspective. Most (not all) research-focused professors at universities would marvel in the opportunity to not have to teach, or to teach only occasionally their preferred graduate seminar course. Professors also already “buy out” of teaching with research grants, or get teaching duties covered by editorships. And this is fine. Why should we expect that a talented researcher must also be a talented instructor in the classroom? Research also suggests that students at research universities may learn more when taught by instructors whose sole focus is on teaching rather than typical tenure-track faculty. By having disaggregated faculty roles, faculty benefit by focusing on their strengths – benefits that impact student learning, too.

A titled separation of teaching and research would allow teaching to be properly incentivized at our research-intensive universities. Such faculty would have the same range of benefits – pay, status, and security – of our traditional (research) faculty members, and would be evaluated and promoted based on their teaching abilities. Graduate students who wish to specialize in teaching will also benefit from proper instruction by a community of teaching professors in their department, so they are competitive on the teaching job market. (Most PhDs coming out of their doctoral programs don’t have the necessary experience to land a full-time teaching position at community colleges, for example).

This is not a new idea in the academy. After all, community colleges and liberal arts institutions have faculty that are hired, evaluated, and promoted exclusively on their teaching abilities. This focus on the classroom, however, faded rapidly at the dawn of the 20th century at what we now call “research-intensive universities”. We do not need to change the research university, but we need to change the faculty structure to incentivize excellence in teaching – for the benefit of our students and our faculty.

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