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Margin Notes

Tenure policies and the undervaluing of teaching

The perception that research trumps teaching may be partly due to ambiguous tenure policies.


In my previous blog post, I wrote that “teaching and learning must be valued more at universities, and that this should be better reflected in faculty tenure and promotion decisions.” My blithe assumption about teaching vs. research was questioned by a regular reader, Reuben Kaufman, a professor emeritus in biological sciences at the University of Alberta. “Do we have any reliable data across academia to suggest that teaching/learning are not valued equally to research?” he asks in a comment, adding, “I certainly think that before one makes the assumption that effective teaching is not given adequate importance at tenure/promotion time, there should be data to back it up.”

As it happens, there is some interesting research on this by Pamela Gravestock which she presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education this past June in Montreal (you can view her abstract by clicking here and scrolling down to session CS2.03). I attended and recorded her presentation and had intended to revisit it at some point. Now seems to be a good time!

Dr. Gravestock is the associate director of the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation at the University of Toronto. Her research doesn’t necessarily answer the question of whether research is valued over teaching, but it definitely gives some clues as to why this perception persists. Where are these clues? She found them in the tenure policies at Canada’s universities.

(Dr. Gravestock’s 2011 PhD thesis, entitled, “Does Teaching Matter? The Role of Teaching Evaluation in Tenure Policies at Selected Canadian Universities,” covers these issues in a much more extensive manner, including a full list of the universities studied.)

Like many others, Dr. Gravestock agrees that there is a perception that only research matters, or is at least privileged, in hiring and promotion. “I’ve worked in the field of faculty development for just over 10 years now, and I’ve heard this concern about the undervaluing of teaching from faculty, from administrators and even from my own students. So it’s a common refrain,” she said at the STLHE conference.

She wondered about the source of these beliefs, which led her to take a systematic look at the tenure policies at 46 of Canada’s universities. She collected the data up until the spring of 2011. These policies do change from time to time, she noted, and therefore some of the data may be dated.

All of the universities’ policies noted that tenure-stream faculty were expected to engage in teaching, research and service. Research was usually defined as scholarly inquiry and the dissemination of those results. Multiple terms were used, but the focus was generally on impact. Teaching was almost always understood as a set of activities but was seldom understood in relation to student learning or through the concepts of Ernest Boyer’s model of the teacher-scholar. As well, the standards of performance that the institutions were looking for in these areas were often undefined and frequently ambiguous. The standards also often differed: for instance, one university called for “excellence” in research but “competence” in teaching. The policies also differed in terms of the sources of evidence on which to base teaching contributions, and rarely was there clear direction of how to review that evidence. Even when the policies were clear, noted Dr. Gravestock, there was no evidence whether they are actually being followed or how they’re being applied. Prevailing institutional culture may have an impact.

Summing up, she said, “My study has revealed that tenure and the evaluation of teaching are institution specific – there is no one specific approach.” Teaching was a recognized and stated criterion for tenure in all of the policies, and no policy explicitly stated that research was the primary criteria for tenure. “But, I think the policies could be vastly improved. Institutional understanding of teaching and expectations for teaching aren’t always clear or transparent; data are often optional or recommended but not required. Standards of performance are not clearly defined.”

So does teaching matter? “I think it does,” says Dr. Gravestock. “However, institutions, and in particular the directions and the messaging contained in our policies, don’t always demonstrate this. And while policies may not be the sole cause for ongoing perceptions that teaching is undervalued in higher education, they do play I think a really significant part. There’s enough missing in these policies to enable the inaccurate interpretation and application of policies, and thus insufficient assessments of teaching, which can result in a culture that really perceives teaching to be undervalued.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. NoName / October 31, 2012 at 08:53

    Why are teaching and research always treated as separate activities? I spend more time with students outside the classroom than inside. I hire them on research projects (yes, including many undergrads), and spend hours and hours training and mentoring them through these activities. I’ve published more papers with students than without.

    And yes, I’m in the humanities.

    Research IS often a teaching activity.

  2. William / October 31, 2012 at 10:43

    Good article and discussion.

    It’s so unfortunate that few universities value teaching enough to actually teach professors how to teach.

    Most of our College cousins require teaching credentials as well as industry experience and increasingly, applied research capability. Perhaps universities need to catch up and not assume that simply because you have a graduate degree and have taken a teaching workshop you know how to teach and design curriculum.

  3. Ernie / October 31, 2012 at 12:16

    Policies may state that both teaching and research are required but it’s the interpretation and application of the policies that often put the emphasis on research. It can be a simple matter of evaluating teaching based on a “no complaints about teaching” system, but then research is evaluated on the number of publications. It’s not enough to just be active in research and mentor students, there is the need to produce (“publish or perish”). Of course the degree of emphasis will vary by institution but even some (many?) smaller universities are starting to think this way in their quest to secure more research dollars and prestige.

    Perhaps it’s not a conscious effort to shift the emphasis onto research. It could be that it’s just easier to judge research so that’s where the focus falls by default.

    At any rate, it’s this very emphasis on research over teaching that led me to leave the tenure track rat-race and move to teaching in a college.

  4. Rory McGreal / October 31, 2012 at 13:30

    For teaching to be evaluated properly by a promotion committee, some metrics would be helpful, other than student opinions (which are one good metric, but not sufficient). Achievement levels are another metric, but they can be manipulated unless the exam is independently administered. Also, some solid teaching training should be in place before the candidate steps into the classroom. And, evaluators would at some point have to visit the classes in progress. These evaluators would need teaching credentials to avoid farcical interventions. And, then we would need to preserve academic freedom while doing so.
    So, taking teaching more seriously would require some major changes. Faculty should be careful what they wish for. As it is, many institutions give a free ride on the teaching evaluation and that is why many think that research is given priority. In a university, research is also important and it can be measured more easily, so it is often seen as the sole criterion for promotion. Should faculty who are only teaching and not productive in research get promoted? Or should we have special categories for teaching faculty and research faculty? Does treating all equally mean we all have to be the same?

  5. Reuben Kaufman / October 31, 2012 at 13:42

    Thanks, Leo, for bringing Dr. Gravestock’s interesting thesis to our attention.

    Yes, perhaps the evaluation of teaching is largely based on student satisfaction surveys at most institutions. But at least in the faculty where I’ve just retired from, a low score on such a survey raises a red flag and triggers a deeper investigation, but does not damn the instructor outright, any more than a high score leads directly to a teaching award. I agree, that’s not a perfect solution, but we live in an imperfect world. If low student satisfaction leads to a more subtle investigation and to remediation when warranted, I think that’s pretty good. It just happens to be easier to get more objective information on research performance, and perhaps this leads to the illusion that teaching is undervalued.

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