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Is your IHE truly teaching-focused? It probably isn’t, and if you teach, you’ve seen the signs.

Posted in Academic Life, Higher Education, Ideas and Resources, and Trends and Change

In last week’s Chronicle Teaching Newsletter, reporter Beth McMurtrie offers a thoughtful reflection on the valuing, and devaluing, of teaching within higher education. Sparked by a conference put on by a high-profile national organization, her points echo ones I’ve heard, and seen for myself, throughout my 30-year career.

By now it’s a truism that college teachers usually have to learn what teaching skills they have through hit-or-miss self-training. Equally discouraging is the paradoxical set of institutional priorities that’s become the norm. Teaching is often the most publicly visible activity within an institution of higher education, and sometimes the biggest and most reliable source of revenue as well – and yet the money and the glory go to research. Or to sports, or to impressive new building projects, or basically anything other than the classes where students spend their time.

McMurtrie cites several signs that this devaluation dynamic is at work. Reliance on adjunct faculty is a big one, followed by institutional cultures that explicitly steer tenure-track faculty away from putting serious effort into teaching. Over-reliance on student evaluations is another, especially if those carry most of the weight in the teaching category in promotion and tenure reviews.

I heartily agree with McMurtrie’s list of red flags. But I’d add to her list a set of issues that are more granular, including quite a few you would notice as a faculty member teaching at a specific IHE or even within a specific unit.

You may be at a teaching-devaluing IHE if:

  • Your IHE tolerates classroom spaces that are in disrepair, are chronically too hot or cold, dirty, or just generally broken-down.This sign might not even register as an unusual thing, especially if the problem has gone on so long faculty no longer bother to complain. The point isn’t whether teaching spaces are luxurious or tastefully decorated. It certainly isn’t whether they have expensive, specialized technology over and above basic projection and videoconferencing capabilities. Rather, it’s how the overall physical quality of teaching facilities stacks up compared to research and administrative spaces at that same institution. It also hinges on whether problems with teaching spaces are seen as urgent action items, or worthy of fixing at all.
  • Classes are routinely assigned to rooms that don’t match pedagogy. Your IHE might have a few state-of-the art classrooms  – spaces showcasing high-quality projection equipment, portable collaboration tools (mikes, whiteboards), and most important of all, furniture that can be moved around to support active learning. If so, that is a wonderful start, and such spaces do make nice settings for publicity photos. But are these high-end rooms in regular, day-to-day use? If so, are they being used by instructors who’ve expressly shown interest in using them to their full potential? If instead the rooms usually sit empty or are randomly handed out regardless of class pedagogy or instructor preferences – your IHE is devaluing teaching.
  • Faculty are routinely assigned to courses that they’re neither excited to teach nor particularly effective at. Double red flag if sub-optimal assignments happen mainly as a scheduling convenience or to accommodate certain faculty members’ research agendas. Triple red flag if  convenience-first, teaching-last scheduling approaches also determine class format (online, hybrid and so on). I’ve heard of faculty being assigned asynchronous online courses as a perk or way of easing the perceived burden of teaching “real” classes, rather than because they have genuine interest in this uniquely demanding kind of teaching. It’s not a stretch to predict that such courses will hardly be paragons of substantive online engagement.
  • Foundational, 100-level courses routinely receive far less support than upper-division and graduate courses. Perhaps they’re taught by less-experienced faculty, or by underpaid and overworked contingent faculty. Or class sizes might be wildly out of proportion, compared to upper-division courses in the same discipline. Or they might be beset by persistent, ongoing problems that no one ever takes the time to address. In yet another example of paradoxical decision making, many IHEs extol the importance of supporting students in the early, formative stages of their college careers, and recognize the importance of foundational, “gateway” courses to success later on. Yet the same IHEs send lower division offerings to the end of the line when it comes time to assign faculty and resources. Even worse, a stigma may have developed around lower-division “service” courses, to the point where tenure-track faculty don’t want to teach them and departments don’t want to invest in them.
  • No one at your IHE has seriously grappled with the question of how to assess teaching quality. As McMurtrie observes, over-reliance on teaching evaluations is a huge problem, one that gets in the way of improving teaching across an institution and one that fails to fairly support and reward faculty for great pedagogy. The answer, however, is not to try to buffer data from these flawed instruments by offering vague instructions not to take the surveys too seriously come promotion time. There needs to be some other system put firmly in place of student surveys, ideally an evidence-based system for describing and assessing what goes on in an instructor’s classes. Nothing about creating such a system is easy; it requires making hard decisions about which teaching and course design practices are favored over others, and developing ways of consistently measuring whether those preferred practices are happening. I know that many IHEs are struggling to create and gain buy-in for such systems, and others are adapting ideas generated outside their walls as a way to cope. Struggle is expected, but if your IHE has simply walked away from the challenge, that constitutes a major devaluation of teaching.
  • When your IHE does recognize good teaching, it’s in the form of one-off, low-prestige awards. Especially discouraging are the teaching awards that carry no tangible benefits. Worst of all is a pattern seen in the most teaching-devaluing institutional cultures, in which teaching awards actively drag down the recipient’s professional reputation – becoming something faculty dread receiving because it might somehow stain their reputation as a serious scholar.
  • Scholarship of teaching and learning and educationally focused research don’t count. In some IHEs, SoTL and similar forms of research lack the cachet of more traditionally focused disciplinary research, even when the work is rigorously conducted and peer reviewed. Or this kind of work might not count at all. Downgrading scholarship tied to teaching practice is a clear message from an IHE that pedagogy is not the priority, and over time, it systematically sets back the career progress of scholars who care about teaching. 
  • Professional development programming is limited in scope and lacks grounding in learning sciences. Even today, after decades of major discoveries in how people learn, too many professional development programs fail to take advantage of this wealth of research. Worse, professional development continues to be one way in which myths about learning are spread. Great PD directors (and there are many out there) know to vet presenters and their content to keep this from happening. But at some IHEs, empirical evidence isn’t a driving factor in programming decisions. Especially when PD offices are under-resourced and under-supported, there may also be a lack of cohesion in what’s offered and, importantly, failure to emphasize following up with action. An inspiring keynote can be a great way to celebrate teaching and get faculty excited to expand their skills. But without a plan in place to actively support putting ideas into practice, the value of that keynote will fade along with the fanfare of the day. The scope of PD programming needs to include follow-up and skills development along with a range of other offerings, and ideally, this range would help engage a broader swath of faculty than just the highly-committed usual suspects.  

For colleges and universities that expressly present themselves as being teaching-focused, it’s obvious that valuing pedagogy, through actions large and small, is a matter of institutional survival. But even at bigger, more research-focused places – like the one where I teach – treating undergraduate instruction like something to be gotten out of the way, as cheaply as possible, is going to be an increasingly untenable approach. This isn’t just about the soaring costs of getting a degree, or to questions about the value of college, but it’s related. As families become more and more sensitized to college as an investment, students and their parents will increasingly perceive it as bait-and-switch to enroll and then find that your education is simply not that important in the grand scheme of things, for several semesters if not more. Families will not be content to, frankly, subsidize other agenda items with their tuition dollars.

Besides basic facilities and resources like working HVAC and appropriate scheduling practices, what do IHEs need to have or do in order to say that they value teaching? First, there does need to be a serious commitment to defining and measuring teaching quality. If an IHE needs to borrow from the many ideas that are floating around out there, or even bring in some experts to help, so be it. But that process needs to be underway, and it needs to have some teeth – institutional backing to help ensure that standards are applied fairly and consistently. These standards also need to take into account what’s been discovered about how human beings learn, and as importantly, innovations in equity-minded teaching. Recent research has uncovered a wealth of ideas about how to reduce bias and engage diverse students in ways that ensure their success – but without policies for putting these principles into practice, they’ll be applied hit or miss, or not at all. Truly teaching-oriented IHEs will also give their PD staff what they need in order to maintain a full range of offerings, from traditional keynote-focused conferences to one-on-one coaching to skills training. In other words – programs that carry faculty from what approaches to use (i.e., preferred practices), to why (i.e., the research basis), and finally, how.

I predict that in the not-too-distant future, IHEs that deliver on the promise of truly student-centered, expert, caring, and effective teaching will be at a major advantage. And in order to do this, they’ll have to dispense with the teaching-support theater that’s all too frequently put up as a substitute for real, difficult, committed action.  

This in turn will require not just money and staff time, but courage. Maya Angelou’s famous take on individual courage was that it was the virtue that enables you to practice all other virtues consistently. I think this is also true for institutional courage. It’s one thing for leadership to stand back and applaud as a few well-informed, energetic souls knock it out of the park with classes that are effective, inclusive, and plain amazing. It’s quite another to ensure that all classes at an institution embody an agreed-upon set of standards, practices, and values. It takes courage to commit to consistently maintaining ordinary classrooms and to keeping gateway courses fresh and well-resourced, especially when the siren call of grant dollars, big-name researchers, prestigious graduate programs and splashy new projects is always wailing in the background.

As you get back into the classroom this academic year, look around you. Do you see abundant evidence that teaching is the priority? Does that evidence extend all the way down from philosophical and aspirational heights, down to the physical spaces where teaching happens? I’m guessing you may not. If you can, make noise about what you see. If enough of us do, maybe academia will finally make headway on what should have happened about fifty years ago: recentering teaching as the mission of higher education.