“Differentiation:” The à-la-carte Way to Hire More Course Instructors

I’ve written before about attempts in Canada to create more separation between university teaching, on the one hand, and university research, on the other. In 2009, I wrote this opinion piece about an attempt by five university presidents to each acquire a larger share of university research dollars. And last year, I blogged here about a proposal for the Ontario government to create more separation between teaching and research within the university sector.

A recent proposal in Saskatchewan adds another dimension to the debate; apparently it’s possible for a university to create such separation within itself. According to CBC News, the proposal would

split the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan into separate teaching and research arms…Under the proposed restructuring, full-time faculty would spend most of their time on research, while doctors from outside the university would do most of the teaching.

The logic of “differentiation” appears to be as follows:

-It is in everyone’s best interest to see high post-secondary enrollment. (If nothing else, it makes government look good…)

-Historically in Canada, a great deal of teaching has been done by professors who also do research. (In Ontario, it’s typical for a university professor to be expected to teach two courses in the fall, and two in winter term.) When professors are not teaching, they are expected to do a combination of administrative work and research.(It is often said that a professors should spend 40% of their time teaching, 40% doing research, and 20% doing administrative work.)

-Some policy wonks believe it would be more cost effective to have a smaller proportion of teaching done by those who also engage in research. Under the status-quo model, a professor could get $100,000/yr. to teach four courses (…and to do administrative work and research). But under a different model, perhaps $100,000 could buy instruction for eight courses (but without the research).

It’s like an à-la-carte way of ordering new course instructors, the notion being that we’ll pass on the potatoes (i.e. the research), but have a double-order of meat (i.e. the teaching). Put differently, we’ll pay more people to teach courses (which is indispensable), but we could do with a bit less research (which is relatively expendable).

The quest to find cost-savings is certainly one of the stated motivations here.  I think that’s what led to the arguments in Clark et al’s 2009 book and in Clark et al’s 2011 sequel (both of which appear to have the blessing of the McGuinty government in Ontario).

But I think another piece of this is prestige. When the so-called “Big Five” presidents made their pitch, I think they were largely motivated by the possibility of bringing more notoriety to their respective universities. They wanted to party with the big boys, like Harvard and Princeton and Yale. They wanted to win Nobel Prizes.

My main fear with this emerging trend is that I think that, for someone to be a good course instructor, they need to be actively engaged in research. Suggesting that teaching doesn’t suffer when the instructor hasn’t published more than three or four articles in the past decade, in my mind, is exceedingly naive.

If “differentiation” moves ahead, I think the teaching-only components of the system will start to look an awful lot like community colleges.  Most of the best professors will try to avoid them like the plague, and students who graduate from them will have a relatively difficult time getting into graduate school.

I think such a system would move us towards a two-tier system, creating one wedge between “professors” and “course instructors,” and another between students who study at real universities and students who study at fake ones.

4 comments

  • There may have been a time what was taught in undergraduate courses was the bleeding edge of science so it was useful for instructors to also be researchers.

    In my experience much of what is taught in undergraduate courses these days are things that where discovered 50 to 100 years ago that could taught as well, if not better, by a skill teacher then a researcher.

    Having a researcher teach my first year computer science course was a waste of his time (and ours, as most serious computer science students knew everything that was taught).

    Of course, this varies from field to field and course to course. Adding more teachers to the mix for first and second year courses would benefit everybody.

  • Michael Boudreau

    I enjoyed this Tedx Warwick talk from Dr Michael McMahon on the subject:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXVGD5PA3yI

    I have to concur with Darwin that many early courses may not benefit from being taught by an active researcher. Unless of course that researcher is also a good teacher. I suspect it does vary by subject as mentioned.

    IMO this is a discussion worth having and I do share some of Nick’s concerns. Teaching and mentoring seem to be a little of a lost art these days and I suspect it is in part because it is not what we reward. I’ve taught. To do it right with passion is hard work. I’m not sure that is generally understood these days.

    Maybe we should ask Jim Stanford about his recent experience (previous post). My gut feeling is that it took a lot of work to create that 5 day experience and that he probably needed some time to recoup after it was all done.

    BTW Nick, I just checked out your Carelton bio – great work with more to come no doubt.

  • Michael: I’ll have a look at the Warwick talk, and thank you for the kind word.

  • First, thanks for the post, Nick. This is a discussion that really needs to happen at the university level right now. I’ll chime in on this since I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. In theory, one is supposed to spend time as a TT faculty as follows: 40% research, 40% teaching and 20% service. That ratio rarely happens in practice. More significantly, it almost never happens at the level of hiring. Departments want the “shiny object” — that is, star researchers that make their departments look good, write books and get them grant money. Teaching ends up incredibly low on the priority list.

    Within departments, their tends to be an over-reliance on contract instructors/adjuncts to fill the gaps; these positions have low pay, few benefits and poor job security. Conversely, there’s very little use of Lecturer I/II positions or Research Professor posts, which specialize teaching or research, respectively. Personally, I think hiring many more LI/LII positions would fix a lot of problems, much like hiring Nurse Practitioners has helped in health care. Research Professors are a special case, useful when someone has say, industry experience but little experience in the academy. There are also Academic Professionals at some schools, which is similar to this and designed to meet a specialized admin or tech need.

    On the TT side, universities have to acknowledge the value of supervision, which they do only superficially now. In theory, everyone should have a few grad students, but in practice some professors have many (and get them through quickly) while others have none at all. There should be some form of course release for research based on supervising x number of students. This would go a long way to leveling out the playing field.

    As a rule, splitting research and teaching as a blanket policy is a pretty terrible idea. The two should feed into each other in a way that benefits both students and professors. The fetishization of research hurts both parties.

    I guess what I’m saying here is that we’ve become so caught up in thinking in terms of tenure track/non-tenure track, research/teaching, full time/adjunct that we forget there more nuanced ways of running a department or a university. We seem to have fallen into a combination of either/or thinking, superficial status games, and the prioritization of faculty wants over student needs. The problems facing the academy are fixable, but only if we accept that there isn’t a “magic bullet” or cookie-cutter solution. Good institutions are cultivated — not born, made or legislated into existence.

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