You’re not a professor unless you spend some time professing

It’s never a good thing when folks start suggesting solutions to the problem that is you. In this case, I’m talking about the ‘problem of tenure’ that we hear so much about. The most recent ‘solution’ to get some attention appeared in the New York Times last week, under the headline “A Solution for Bad Teaching.” While the solution in this case wasn’t to abolish tenure, it was to create three ‘tracks’ a new ‘professor’ might follow to reach the hallowed ground of tenure: a research track, a teaching track, and a hybrid track. Essentially, the author argued that universities should ‘also’ reward professors for teaching. Researchers get a track, of course, but we need to make room for the teachers. I found it telling that, throughout the essay, the author seems to use  ‘teacher’ as synonymous with ‘adjunct.’ Dear parents thinking about sending your kids to college, that should tell you something about R1s. It’s an implicit admission that the ‘professors’ those schools value the most (i.e. by making a long term commitment to them and paying them the most) won’t be spending much valued time with your kids. Kind of makes you wonder what you are paying for, maybe?

Of course, the author was writing about research universities, but my first reaction was to think that he was completely unaware that other sorts of institutions of higher education exist. The Little Professor expressed this reaction very nicely, right here, suggesting that maybe the solution to bad teaching is teaching teachers how to teach. Madness, right? Quality teaching maybe isn’t some implicit magic that the rare prof can harness while others excuse themselves to the lab. Maybe it’s a skill that can be learned?

At ‘non-research’ schools (which is most of the schools, by the way) faculty are rewarded for quality teaching. Faculty here are also expected to be active in their professional fields. We write papers, review manuscripts, attend annual meetings, and serve on the committees of our professional associations. We teach 6 or 7, or 8, or 9 classes a year, and we perform college and community service. I’d argue that positions at non-research universities have already become that ‘hybrid’ position, and have been that way for quite some time. From a parent’s perspective, the easiest solution for ‘bad teaching,’ I’d suggest, is to send your kids to places where teaching is already valued and the teachers remain well versed in their chosen fields without the need of the ‘research’ prof sitting in the classroom with a checklist.

Central to these debates, but nowhere to be found in the NY Times piece, I’d argue, is the definition of professor. I’d start from the proposition that it means you’ve got something to profess to those not already converted to your worldview. Writing research papers or academic books that are read by 3 anonymous reviewers who are experts in your field, and periodically cited in research papers by those trying to climb the ranks of the profession doesn’t qualify in my mind. If you spend your time focused on your research to the practical exclusion of teaching, you’re not a professor. If you aren’t spending significant time passing your discipline on to those who aren’t already, or won’t soon be, professionals in the field, maybe you’re not a professor. If you spend most of your time attempting to sway the skeptic that your perspective is worthwhile, sort of like faculty teaching in ‘core’ or general ed curricula at liberal arts and community colleges do much of the time, you’re definitely a professor.

Well, at least in my book, which I hope to soon get published at an academic press. Gotta get full.

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