Doing the right thing for the wrong reason

At my company (less in my unit of it), teaching is basically treated as a tax you have to pay to do your research, and faculty are hired and promoted for research and encouraged to avoid this tax where possible; indeed, one of our principal recruitment gestures is a reduced teaching load for the first couple of years. “Load”?  I’m not going to further review the evidence for this summary here; I’m comfortable with the simple version. Its spirit is pervasive, in the details of our promotion and tenure practice (which are greatly at variance from official statements of policy and even from the formal rules that are supposed to govern it) and in the resources of all kinds invested in increasing student learning.

Hard on the heels of my plaint about science teaching generally, our teaching listserv just circulated an article from the belly of the super-competitive big-time science beast in the ASCB newsletter. David Botstein makes a series of good arguments, and I love hearing the case that we are not at the production possibility frontier of teaching and research from someone in his shoes. I think what he says about the complementarity of research and teaching is mostly correct.

But without disagreeing with his claims, this line of argument sort of makes me reach for my revolver, as I do when someone says we should have arts in the schools ‘because music helps kids learn math’, or have a symphony orchestra ‘because it’s good for economic development’.  These arguments are (i) very risky; if it turned out that a dollar spent on another hour of (or better) math class increased math learning more than a dollar spent teaching violin, as is probably true, would that mean art is not worth doing? (ii) just wrong: art is not about learning math, it’s about art being worth doing and having for its own unique payoffs.

Teaching is costly in time and effort, and hard to do well.  It’s worth it, so we should have a lot as we should of anything that’s a good deal. But its purpose, professor, is not advancing your research career (even if it has some payoff of that type), nor about its intrinsic non-research rewards for you. Teaching is about advancing the learning of students, including students who are not in college or even grad school to become you. What if the time required to teach a course would advance my research even more if I spent it in the lab and not on the course; wouldn’t Botstein either have to say, “OK, lose the teaching”, or fall back on reach up for a much higher-level version of his case?

This article has lots of useful insight, but justifying teaching by its peripheral benefits to research is an unnecessary concession to careerism. Teaching doesn’t have to be free of research cost to be worth doing well; the world would probably be better off if all the students in universities this year learned 10% more of everything (an easy target, the way we operate now) and only 85% of the research got done, even if that’s what it took.  It would be enormously better off if 5% of our research effort were invested in improving learning, because the learning payoff would be way more than 5% given the infinitesimal base (of effort) we’re starting from.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

10 thoughts on “Doing the right thing for the wrong reason”

  1. The arts are worth teaching for their own sake. They are worth study for their own sake. Any benefits they may (or may not) have are side effects, unintended consequences if you prefer.

    To create art is to be human: the cave paintings at Lascaux teach us that even in the earliest days of our species we created abstract representations of reality. Music is only slightly more difficult to date, but we have found bone flutes dating to early H. sapiens. There is something in us that drives us to create art.

    Something with that deep a history is worthy of study (research) and transmission (teaching) to those who follow.

  2. Amen.

    I would also argue that many academics over-estimate their ability to teach.

    As a student in Germany I had a lecturer who was particularly awful. He clearly hated teaching and took particular glee in calling students stupid during class. I don’t think this is normal but somehow he received our student evaluations prior to the final day of the course. That last lesson he turned up with all of our comments and an hour-long powerpoint presentation dissecting our ratings. He had also done a handwriting analysis in an attempt to match particularly harsh comments to individual students. Truly bizarre.

  3. I think that people who dislike teaching, or are not good at teaching, really don’t understand how easy good teaching comes to those who give a rat’s ass about it. Yes, it takes time to prepare good discussions, time to plan assignments with real learning value, and time to grade assignments and exams in such a way as to promote continuous improvement by the student. But it is enjoyable effort, and a worthwhile effort. I’ve had students tell me that taking my course (yes, I had a teaching “load” of exactly one course per year, before I was “rewarded” for my great teaching with an administrative title) impacted the way that they though about science and how they approached not only scientific problems, but any problems that required them to devise strategies and sort good information from bad. I never felt like I had achieved anything half so important in the lab, other than training and mentoring very small number of good future scientists.

    I really think that much science teaching is of poor quality, and this is why so many potential science majors switch to something else. It’s not that science is too hard (recent NY Times story), it is that it is often poorly taught. There are numerous exceptions, of course but these tend to be folks at elite universities, and more often than not, these are the folks that are privileged to teach upper level undergraduate courses, after all the bad teaching has selected for the people who can survive it. And this perpetuates the bad teaching. Most successful scientists had to get through many crappily taught courses. We got through because, after sitting for fifty minutes, three days a week, while someone droned on about boring crap to 300 freshman, we cared enough to go to a quiet corner of the library, try to make sense of our notes, go through the text book and figure it out ourselves. So we managed to do well. Some of us then got to be exposed to good teaching, but many did not. So, when we became the teachers, many of us had never seen good teaching. We pass on what we know.

    I am a program director for a fairly competitive grad program in biological sciences. Our matriculating students come to us from decent schools, with good grades and, mostly, some fairly serious research experience. What continually stuns me is how low their expectations are for what they will learn in their course work. The quality of teaching, and the commitment to teaching on the part of the faculty is highly variable. They do not seem overly concerned with this. It is almost as if they expect to learn nothing from the time that they are sitting in class. These are the winners of the system that you describe-where teaching is discouraged and not only unrewarded but often punished (if Dr. so-and-so has so much time to teach, perhaps she should get a third R01, etc.,).

    I do wonder how and when it was that we lost track of the fact that we are supposed to be training the future “us”.

  4. Speaking from my own necessarily limited experience as an 18-year ASCB member at two large state universities (both good-to-excellent, one A&S, one medical school), a Top-2 medical school in a Mid-Atlantic state, and a small community medical school somewhere else, my thoughts:

    1. Most graduate institutions care precisely nothing about teaching. As an undergraduate I sought out the good, demanding teachers and was for the most part very fortunate. But in general, if you don’t totally suck as a teacher, you will be “ok,” students be damned. “Teaching, research, and service” really means “teaching, RESEARCH, and service.” And RESEARCH means money, of the right kind (i.e., that with the highest indirect cost rate). The quality of the science generally matters a lot less than how much you can gather to do it. As for teaching, those of us who enjoy it and are good at it make the choice to “waste” our time. As an Assistant Professor I graduated 3 PhD students and 1 MD-PhD as co-Major Professor, and routinely had very good-to-outstanding evaluations from my students in the classroom. I was well-funded and was never a financial burden on the institution. Quite the opposite in fact. Didn’t make any difference though, because my money wasn’t green enough.

    2. David Botstein is a star, and rightfully so. He is always worth listening to. He has been a pioneer scientist and teacher since he was an Assistant Professor at MIT. During his peregrinations he has done some astonishing science. Demanding of his students and colleagues in a good way from what I have heard, he is an exemplar. He can also afford to be. No one is going to tell David Botstein he is wasting his time in the classroom. Thus, his experience is not typical. While good teaching is its own reward, I also learned a lot from my students. Our relationship benefited them and me. That mattered not to the institution of higher education in which we did our work, however. As I said, as my Sociology 105 teacher back when I was a freshman taught me, it is not valid to generalize from one’s own limited experience. Having said that, I don’t believe my experience has been atypical.

    3. The idea that as academic scientists we are preparing the next generation of “us” is probably wrong-headed. Whether there is a future for basic science in the US is very much an open question. Since the “doubling of the NIH Budget” during the Clinton-Gore Interregnum, success rates for investigator-initiated research grants at NIH and NSF have plummeted into the abyss. Both NIH and NSF quote relative high overall success rates, but as Disraeli (I think) is supposed to have said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” In most non-clinical Study Sections (e.g., GMS, NCI, NHLBI, NIAID, NSF MCB) success rates are in the single digits, or might rise barely out of that range. That means that who gets funded is either predetermined or stochastic. Either way, potentially groundbreaking science is not getting done. Despite their claims, Program Directors cannot pick the “winners” ahead of time. This malaise is slowly working its way toward Botstein’s current institution (Princeton) and others that have generally been immune (Harvard, UCLA, UCSD, UCSF, Berkeley). When these institutions catch a cold, the rest of us have double pneumonia. My first student was outstanding and very successful as a postdoc, winning a coveted, competitive fellowship. She then took a good hard look at her likely future in science and left. Having your efforts judged very good, excellent, outstanding but then being told, “Sorry, no money in the till” is more than dispiriting. When your best students see this, the words are engraved, not written, on the wall. She is not the only one having second thoughts. The science we need may well get done, in Asia most likely. And while that is a good thing, it makes much of what we do in this country superfluous.

  5. Story from a friend in a research-oriented department. A new assistant professor won “best teacher of the year” in a vote of undergraduates. The department chair called him into his office, looked him in the eye and said “Don’t ever do that again”.

    1. In the department where I was an Assistant Professor, the chair refused to nominate Assistant Professors for teaching awards, because he did not want to hurt their chances of being awarded tenure.

  6. Agree 100% with this post. I’ve never understood the economics, or whatever it is that motivates universities to stress research/publishing and leave teaching to the graduate assistants. To me this is the ultimate rip-off. Swollen tuitions and haphazard instruction cause today’s large school undergrads to get the worst deal in our consumer universe, imo. No wonder the students respond with a half-assed effort!

  7. Teaching is a subject that no professor of anything should not have to take. It should be a course requirement at all levels, bachelor’s, master’s or PhDs.

    I have 8+ years of formal instruction past high school.

    The quality of teaching by most professor totally sucks. They don’t know how to teach. If their job is teaching, then kick out the dicks that can not, ever, teach.

    I think that I have had 5 good professors at the college level. That knew their subject and teach it well. 2 were people with master’s degrees teaching in a community college after they had taken teaching courses in their program. 1 was an exchange professor from France, that I kept causing to explode by asking seemingly innocent questions. I despised him personally, but he was a teacher.

    A “teaching assistant,” I would never take a course from. I paid for a full professor that could teach, not some person whose focus is on their own studies and to hell with those poor suckers paying for a professor.

  8. Botstein doesn’t say that enhancing research is the ONLY reason to teach; he just points out that it is one significant benefit.

    You complaint seems to be that he didn’t write an article that says teaching is intrinsically valuable. But he certainly didn’t say that teaching WASN’T intrinsically valuable, and I am sure he would agree that it was. So you are basically mad because he didn’t write the article you want written. There is a solution. Write it yourself.

    (Botstein is absolutely correct that enhancing research is a significant benefit of teaching, btw. No one by a complete narcissist could have failed to achieve a much better global view of the subject matter of any course they taught as a result of the interactions inherent in teaching it. And doing actual research typically does little or nothing to enhance a broadened perspective)

Comments are closed.