Final post: Valuing Research about Teaching (Part 3)

I’ve been blogging this weekend in reaction to a panel at the Worldviews conference on Higher Education and the Media in Toronto in June (see first installment and second). Two Canadian university presidents were resigning themselves to the media-generated ranking system of their institutions, although they made sure to express that they didn’t like it one bit.

I’m arguing that the presidents are in an excellent position to do something about the rankings. My suggestion is that universities that want to take questions of student engagement and experience seriously need to bring faculty to the core of the question.  Administrations can  encourage this by ensuring that the scholarship of teaching is explicitly shifted from the “teaching” column of faculty activity and squarely over into the “research” column for faculty evaluation purposes.

Forget taking seminars, applying for awards or building a killer teaching portfolio. Study the pedagogy as it applies to your discipline. Do it formally. Publish it in peer-review journals. Make it count toward your “count”.  Make that an expectation of your colleagues and peers in your department and discipline. Reward those who pursue this line of research on par with those advancing new discoveries in your field.

I think such an action would have an immediate impact because it eliminates the tension some faculty experience between a desire to make teaching and engagement better and the demand to focus upon building up traditional research publications instead.

But it would need an edict from the highest levels (such as a common call from many presidents) to make it happen. As long as research into teaching is deemed as “softer” or “second tier” scholarly work, it would be a risk to rest one’s chances for promotion on such pursuits.

Here’s why.

The biggest barrier to mutual understanding between the rankers and the presidents about university rankings rests, in my view, in the soft bigotry (real or perceived) within some parts of  the academy toward pedagogy.

An anecdote comes to mind.  To this day, it remains my favourite capture of the difference between liberal arts professors (particularly in education) and those in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

As a long-time teacher of journalism long before I was researching it, I remember talking to a niece  about the efforts I was making in my undergraduate classes to generate engaging, active and collaborative peer-learning environments. On my liberal arts campus, there was a lot of concern about student success.

I had a pre-service education degree under my belt, so I was already happily socialized into the idea that my pedagogy should be learner-centred. I hadn’t started a PhD yet, so had no idea that this wasn’t knowledge my colleagues shared.

My niece is currently a doctoral candidate at one of the top American STEM universities. She was a very successful product of a Canadian top notch engineering science program. This is how she described her “learning experience”.

The professor arrived. He wrote an equation on the board. He directed the class to solve it, thusly (and I paraphrase).

“If you can’t complete this, [local 2-year college] is just down the street.”

Clearly, this is but one anecdote. I don’t for a moment think it paints all STEM faculty with the same brush. But it didn’t happen that long ago. And it was in keeping with my own memory of  science undergrad culture on the hard-core side of the university.

There, a sense of  intense competition remains, a sense that the conditions ensure only the cream rises to the top.

Engagement in that pedagogical culture is presented as a dare, an extreme sport. Students hanging on by their fingernails with gritted teeth are “engaged” in learning engineering. “Disengagement” means you couldn’t hack it (and were, as such, unworthy).

While I suppose that goes a long way to ensure our bridges remain standing, surviving in that pedagogical culture embeds the survivor  with the assumption that all success was intrinsic —  you must have had it in you all along.

Of course, that’s utter bullshit. The bulletin boards and pillars in the Engineering Science building at the U of T are littered with informal student calls to create collaborative communities of learning on their own. Those seeking mutual support (or private tutoring revenue) are applying the best practices to maximize their learning in a DIY manner. They didn’t pick it up in lecture. They need more help.

I would think students wouldn’t dare complain to professors in such an environment about a lack of quality pedagogy or efforts to engage or support student learning, at risk of public shaming. Faculty, those who rose to the highest echelons within those highly competitive disciplines (and did so without the benefit of pedagogical theory), replicate for a new generation the experience as they remember it.

Teaching isn’t really their problem.

So, I can see why they might hold at a distance (and with some distain) efforts on campus to engage faculty in means by which they might make learning better.

And, if my thesis holds, the members of the kinds of committees senates strike to study student engagement are potentially the very survivors holding that internalized belief (reinforced, possibly, by the culture of their disciplinary peers).

Imagining the micro-social politics, one can see how the authors charged with producing the U of A report to (and its recommendations for enhanced engagement) would find consensus easiest to attain by keeping faculty engagement in these processes to a minimum.

So, we get recommendations about class size or extra-curricular support groups.

The hand-holding and fuzzy cultural stuff that is at the core of pedagogical theory is already from that foreign Planet of the Arts. It utilizes methods that are hard for positivists to embrace as “real research”.  It would take a lot for STEM faculty to erase years of indoctrination over what really ‘counts’ (their ‘count’) to embrace the space between themselves and their students as a site of legitimate (and important) knowledge production.

To those who hold that view, I note the increasing commitment to interdisciplinarity within hard science. There is a growing literature in most disciplines relating to importance of student learning and public engagement in the sciences. In fact, the public understanding of science is well-recognized as a growing imperative if the science community is going to survive (in terms of science funding and the preservation of a robust and valid national research policy).

Anecdotally, my niece’s current doctoral program approaches complex problems with the ethos that a scientific solution to a problem — no matter how sound the science — remains a failure if it doesn’t also survive translation and uptake into the public sphere through policy.

If you can’t make it go, it doesn’t work, does it?

It’s a great ethos. Considering her work relates to atmospheric physical chemistry (read: climate change), I think it speaks well of her current institution that these engineers are taking culture so seriously.

The point of these blog entries, and the rankings in general, is the optimization of the undergraduate learning experience. While food services and pub crawls are a part of that, the elephant in the room is the engagement of students in the knowledge that we love so much ourselves that we’ve dedicated our lives to its pursuit.

So, to conclude, if I were on that panel at Worldviews, I’d have leaned over to the esteemed presidents and said:

Take the following statement (no need to attribute it back to me) and run.

Teaching and student engagement is more than a customer service function. It is a scholarship function.

It is a professorial research function.

It is every faculty’s business to study and improve the teaching and engagement of their students in their subject.

Faculty that pursue that scholarship as part of all of their research portfolio could easily be welcomed and valued if you make it so.

I don’t know  if one has to believe it. (Presidents, like politicians, are required to reflect values of their constituents that occasionally conflict with their own). But at least it would be better than the sort of presidential passivity I witnessed during that panel. Pedagogical research is already alive and well within their own universities, albeit understandably in the shadowlands of their powerful, “research-intensive” institutions.

There will likely be objections from the “cream” crop of scholars within the scholarly pecking order that such a move would devalue research in general. Surely a university-wide declaration (or maybe a common edict from all university presidents) won’t strike the fancy of every professor, either.

But that’s not the point of such a blanket assertion.

The goal is to effectively ignite and validate a good, broad smattering of interested faculty across the entire enterprise — those folks Boyer himself notes in the quote I included in my last post. Offer them presidential protection, make them the favoured children for awhile in their respective departments. Legitimize and validate their interest by presidential decree such that it might withstand the withering distain of their hard-core, competition-based compatriots (should that be their circumstance).

All it would take is a common call. The result would allow faculties to generate good, solid data about engagement and learning effectiveness that will inform and support the institution’s efforts to better engage and educate the undergraduate.  Faculty members following their passions would be rewarded appropriately for the research they produce and not have to feel like they’re “wasting” their precious research time in order to pursue this work.

We could ditch the decision to marginalize teaching and learning as an ancillary “support service” that helps profs build better courses in a culture that treats such effort as a distraction to research. Instead, we could restore those “support staff”  into scholars (and they are scholars of teaching) and allow them to engage with faculty as peers. As co-investigators, those EdDs and PhDs who provide instructional design support could help frame the study and recommend the most appropriate methodology for the question the disciplinary professor seeks to answer.

Perhaps, over time, tenure review would require evidence of that sort of breadth of scholarship within one’s publication record. One can only hope. But at least, for some faculty who already have an interest in engagement and teaching, it will render its pursuit possible.

As I noted at the outset a couple of posts ago, University of Alberta President Dr. Samarasekera declared university admin staff shouldn’t be wasting university resources on filling out questionnaires for Macleans.

I agree.

If the university presidents are serious about students, they could offer to do what universities do best. Rather than reject the rankings as bad science, they could support the generation of good science within their own walls.

Good quality, peer-reviewed scholarship on the subject would do much more to solve the problem in an efficient, discipline-by-discipline, organic manner. University presidents need to declare that research on innovations in student pedagogy and engagement is as much a function of professorial life as research into the latest discovery.

Teaching is more than a talent to be rewarded. It is a knowledge to be cultivated.


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