By Walter Wendler
(Originally published on November 30, 2015. As we begin this season of reflection, “Teaching First” is worthy of another look as we focus on the first purpose of the university and the importance of staying true to our roots.)
Forward focus is essential. Over the past four decades, many faculty and university leaders have begun to believe that research and scholarly activity are more important than teaching. Graduate assistants, adjunct and non-tenure-track faculty may be excellent teachers, but they have a tenuous relationship to the institution by definition, and are paid like janitors, and in the best instances, plumbers. Tolerating this equates teaching to caring for dirty floors or fixing leaking pipes. This is not a diminishment of the janitor or plumbers who know their craft. Instead, it’s a failing of leaders and faculty who don’t. And universities struggle.
For example, weak-kneed science abounds at too many universities, even purportedly good ones. The pressure to publish and its seemingly invincible measurability drives faculty to publish junk. Academic Conferences with peer-reviewed (other scientists affirm the work’s value) proceedings, web-based journals with battalions of “peer” reviewers, and willing faculty in the chase for tenure, put out junk. I wish there was a better word for it. It is so pervasive that university leadership won’t call it what it is for fear of upsetting the apple cart, or, equally disturbing, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Something is broken, and the basis of science, the idea of being able to replicate the finding of an experiment as reported, is in question. John Loannidis, a medical professor at Stanford University, makes the point adamantly, “…false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims.” Way too much of what is published is junk.
As a faculty member and university leader, I have participated in the perpetuation of weak scholarship for its superficial clarity in professorial evaluation at the expense of measuring good teaching, because it is purportedly too difficult to measure. Yet, we all know excellent teaching when we see it, and worse yet, we hold our noses and turn our heads winking-and-nodding as miserable teaching is passed off as something other than what it is: junk. The system is difficult to buck. The crime is simply understood: it is easier to assuage tenure-protected, poor teachers with the myth that even poor scholarship has more value when published than the negative impact of poor teaching. Absolutely wrong. The best research universities are frequently recognized for excellence in teaching. Quality follows quality and effective universities demand it in every aspect of work.
The peer review process is blind. Unknown (blind) reviewers ostensibly weeding out bias, professional jealousy, favoritism and cronyism review the scholar’s work. These same principles should be applied to teaching. When students subjected to weak-kneed teaching are willing to say so through teaching feedback instruments, and do so semester after semester, their concerns should be attended to with forcefulness akin to the gospel-like accolades of blind peer review. Instead, universities are often dismissive of consistently poor teaching evaluations, with the admonition that “students” are not fit to judge. The result is predictable: Junk science is heralded as valuable scholarly activity. Junk teaching is ignored: Students don’t know what they’re talking about.
A faculty member once came to see me regarding her teaching evaluations. She was ecstatic about her “marks,” and felt that this response from students was ironclad evidence of teaching excellence. The next semester she posted a significantly lower assessment of teaching prowess from her students. Her response? Students “were just students” and could not be counted upon to rightly judge her ability to teach. I said, “Jane (not her real name), how can the students go from experts to morons in less than 12 months? You can’t have it both ways.” Upon reflection, she concurred that her view of the students’ ability to “grade” her teaching was biased by the kind of grade she “earned.”
Additionally, the focus on the value of scholarship is its impact on student learning — teaching first — and nothing else. Every proposal for a sabbatical, or request for university support for research, should require a Pedagogical Impact Report estimating the influence of the intellectual work on teaching.
Such interdependency is the mark of a great university. Too many universities, worry about too much that has too little to do with excellent teaching.
Predictably, they struggle.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His reflections are available at www.walterwendler.com.