Forward my mail to Potemkin Village, please.

What would a modern public university look like if it hired only tenure-track faculty and compensated them adequately for their expertise and service instead of setting up Potemkin Villages designed to foster the illusion that they care about good teaching?

  • We could probably do away with those “Centers for Teaching and Learning,” which appear to me to be “Centers for Teaching an Overburdened and Adjunctified Faculty How to Do More with Less, Now Featuring Online Ed Coaching!”  If large public universities cared about teaching, they’d hire more, you know, actual classroom educators, support their research and teaching, and reduce all class sizes to no more than 40 students.  But instead, they create things like “Centers for Teaching and Learning,” which mostly serve to send out a bunch of crappy emails inviting faculty to crappy lunches to talk about teaching.  Or, they send out emails featuring the “teaching tip of the week,” which usually involves high-caliber evidence-based pedagogical secrets like, “spend some time on your first day of class letting students introduce themselves,” or “hand out index cards on which students can write down their preferred name or nickname, their major, and what they want to learn in your class.”  Of course, the reason universities do this is that “Centers for Teaching and Learning” are a lot cheaper than actually teaching or fostering learning.
  • I’m not sayin’.  I’m just sayin’.
  • Related thought:  how about we support the people doing the teaching and service at public universities instead of creating awards for teaching and service which merely suggest that the university cares about teaching and service?  I am sick to death of sitting on committees in which I read nominations for awards that run into the hundreds of pages, and represent hours of faculty labor both in nominating other faculty and then in the awards committee having to read these nominations, hours that would better improve the education in the university if we had them back to read and write in our own damn fields of inquiry and/or to spend prepping for class or evaluating student writing assignments.
  • Have any of you noticed that the more italicized words in my blog posts, the more pi$$ed off I am?
  • Do you get the idea that I am not in the running for a service award?  Do you get the impression that I care?

34 thoughts on “Forward my mail to Potemkin Village, please.

  1. Pawns are pawns. Compensation for pawns keeps in line with minimum wage. We can always leave and join the 1%.

    Salaries of teachers in professional schools (law, medicine, engineering, etc.) reach decent levels or exceed them.


  2. My uni has begun paying people (2k! a semester) for attending those b.s. workshops developed by the Center for Teaching and Learning. I guess they decided they need more than a stream of generally ignored emails to justify their existence.


  3. I’m totally (the last word would be italicized if I could get over to one of those webinars and figure out how to leverage that modality) down with this one, Historiann. Do you ever get breatless e-mails with invitations to sessions with snappy titles like “How Come My Students Don’t Think I’m Groovy?” or “Pretend That Your Course Is A Spaceship.” The actual function of these things, I’ve figured out, is that some small percentage of the faculty out there in Excellenceland can totally groove-out and get off of Planet Teaching whatsoever and become facilitators at these seances. You fly me into your campus, I’ll fly you into my campus, everyone at the National Conference of Centers for Teaching Excellence gets to fly into at least a dozen honoraria per annum, and everyone goes home happy.


  4. Amen. Even though the folks at our Center (the title of which, like Indyanna’s, also features Excellence) are pretty good. They do some good work in helping thoroughly clueless recent Ph.D.s who were hired for their research prowess become passable teachers, and some even better work in lobbying for the university to pay attention to, and perhaps even invest some money in, undergrad. teaching. The verdict on how well they achieve the latter is still out, but I appreciate that they’re trying.

    They’re also paid very well, much better than the average professor, at least in our field. In fact, a contingent colleague and I were mulling over how one gets one of the positions recently. It seems like it might actually be one of the more useful administrative posts (see thoroughly clueless recently-hired Ph.D.s above; there are, in fact, people who need to be told this stuff). Or maybe we’re just fooling ourselves because we really, really want better jobs.

    Okay, so maybe I talked (wrote) myself around to semi-supporting Centers, or at least some of their functions. But I’d happily see our own Center disappear in favor of paying the people who teach the majority of the classes decently. Honestly, if the majority of the faculty — including the teaching-oriented faculty — were decently paid and had loads that allowed for service, any necessary teaching mentoring could take place in-department, and any sharing of strategies among departments (which is a good thing) could take place in committee meetings and/or brown bags arranged by the regular faculty. The separate Center is, indeed, an outgrowth of the top-down, administration-driven governance structure that is not doing any of us any good. The fact that I and my contingent colleague are tempted to go over to the dark (administrative) side is another symptom of what’s wrong with that culture.


  5. CC wrote: “The fact that I and my contingent colleague are tempted to go over to the dark (administrative) side is another symptom of what’s wrong with that culture.”


    Departments that hire recent Ph.D.s who are totally clueless about teaching really need to re-think their interview process. The skills one needs to mobilize as a researcher who networks and presents her work in professional fora are strikingly similar to good teaching & classroom management skills. In the humanities, I don’t believe that someone can actually be an excellent researcher without also being at least a decent teacher, because who gives a crap if your research is brilliant if you don’t have the skills to present it in a compelling and convincing fashion.

    This is why I hate hate hate departments that ask for a “teaching demonstration” in addition to a research talk. Reading your audience and knowing how to explain stuff to them are critical to both performances.


  6. Having worked in a teaching center, I have a different perspective on all this. I wasn’t offering frivolous workshops like the ones you and other commenters have described, and I was very hands-on with helping individual faculty improve their teaching.

    At UC Davis, this was a much-needed function, especially among the science types who, as you point out, tend to be hired for their research prowess. Many of them have zero teaching experience, even as TAs, and then suddenly they find themselves teaching classes of hundreds of students. Since the university already has committed $800K in start-up funds (for a physicist, as well as $800K for a spousal hire if the spouse is also an experimental physicist), it might as well pay my $57K/year salary to make sure these people can interact with students reasonably well. (At UCD at that time, $57K was a bit below what a humanities assistant professor would make in her first year.) Yes, in an ideal world, the university would hire people who already know how to teach, but as long as the higher-ups value big science research grants, they’re going to hire the folks who have demonstrated they can land those grants with their research.

    Now. . . are there teaching centers that do a crap job? Absolutely. Does this mean all of them, or even the majority, do a crap job? Not at all.

    For my interview for my tenure-track job here, I had to give both a teaching demonstration and a research talk, and they were two very different beasts. While yes, I did have to demonstrate I could read an audience and explain stuff to them, I had to show I could do so with two very different constituencies.


  7. I’ve never seen or heard about someone who gave a good or even very good job talk give a poor teaching demo. (I used to work in a dept. that did this, and I hear things from friends who work in teaching demo depts.) People who give sub-par job talks usually give sub-par undergraduate lectures. People who do well at one do well on the other.

    So my question is, do people who are great on the research talk but utterly terrible in the classroom really exist? I’m sure you got your job because you were good at both, but you were probably equally good, no? (So why the duplication of time & effort?)

    True story: friends of mine nearby teach in a department that makes their job candidates do a teaching demo, but that is literally the first and last time they’re ever observed in the classroom by their senior colleagues. They don’t do annual peer evaluations of junior faculty teaching, whereas my department doesn’t require a teaching demo but rather does in-class peer-reviews of junior faculty and all non-TT faculty annually. So which department does a better job in encouraging better teaching?


  8. I’m not so sure about the connection between teaching demo and research presentation. In my field (literature, at least when I’m applying for tenure-track jobs), the research presentation is just that, a presentation, while the teaching demo is an attempt to get students talking about a text (or perhaps, if it’s a comp job, doing something). I think it’s possible to be able to talk well about one’s own research, but have difficulty helping students at the 100- or 200-level engage with texts in a way appropriate to them. I thought history was pretty similar, but the people I know who actively teach history do so at the community college level, in small, discussion-based classes. Maybe discussion-leading skills are what you’re equating to networking skills?

    If I were trying to gauge whether someone was prepared to teach 100-300-level (in other words, core and intro to the major) classes, I’d also want to see some class materials, especially assignments. The students we teach aren’t the student we ourselves were at the same level, and often need far more explicit instructions (and much more scaffolding) than we did. That’s where I’ve seen beginning (and even more experienced) teachers in my field have problems: they think they can just say “write a paper” (or, perhaps, “read chapters 1-20 of the novel”) for homework, and think that a satisfactory paper (or a lively discussion) will result.

    It’s been a very long time since I’ve taught at an R1 (since my grad student days), but I’m reminded of just how easy it is to start a discussion with interested, engaged, highly intelligent students every time I teach a class at church. Of course I’m dealing almost entirely with people who already have B.A.s, but, more important, I’m teaching people who know how to contribute to a discussion. Most students need to be taught that skill, and most teachers (even, perhaps especially, those who developed the skill themselves without explicit instruction) need to be taught how to teach it.


  9. This may be a disciplinary thing, CC. Historians usually offer a lecture rather than a discussion for a teaching demo. This is often not their decision–very frequently, job candidates are told to prepare a lecture on X topic because they need to fit into someone else’s survey class schedule. (I don’t think this is good either for the students or the job candidates BTW.)

    We talk to our job candidates about their teaching ideas, the syllabi they’ve submitted, their ideas for new courses, etc. I think you can get a good handle on someone’s interest in and enthusiasm for teaching that way.


  10. As you know, I’ve been on more than my share of hiring committees, and both places I have taught at require the deuce in campus interviews. I can honestly say that while someone who gives a good job talk rarely bombs in the classroom, it certainly has happened.

    More often the case is that people who have very polished job talks and impressive research skills don’t bomb, but they have no idea what to do in a classroom, mostly because they have never been in one in that capacity. They do not know how to craft a lecture or engage students or what elements one should even include when teaching-even in a lecture setting.

    I’m sure over time, with good mentoring, they could learn, assuming they were interested, but its still a gamble. And when the field is so competitive, why not hire the person who gives a stellar job talk *and* demonstrates they can hit the ground running when it comes to teaching.


  11. What Cassandra said. I didn’t do a traditional lecture for my teaching demo–more of a tiny, image-heavy lecture followed by class discussion. Teaching for me is an entirely different genre from a research presentation. And both here and elsewhere, I have seen people give good research presentations and really mediocre teaching demos. In fact, I have attended very few good teaching demos, but that may be because I’m biased against lectures. 🙂


  12. At my first job we spent so much time talking about teaching excellence (which was pervasive in the university’s self-portrayal) that it took away from our teaching. I remember spending hours at these events, which took away from my prep time (and I was encouraged to go as an assistant prof). In retrospect, I think I became better at presenting myself as an excellent teacher than at really being an excellent teacher.

    The university did spend a good amount on research money and other perks for those who participated in various workshops, etc., but I’m not sure it would have risen to the level of hiring a lot of faculty. I don’t want to be too cynical. Maybe today I’m a pretty good teacher because I went to some of these workshops.

    To Historiann: I followed you advice and fought the good fight and we came close but lost. Interestingly, the white men sat together, and I got a glimpse of what the 70s must have been like. It wasn’t fun, but to quote that football coach, “They are who we thought they were.”


  13. I’m struck by Leslie M-B’s comment that she has rarely seen a good teaching demo. That suggests to me that there *is* a problem with the genre. I’ve done them twice – once to an artificially assembled group, once in a regular class. The problem is that the dynamics of the class are effectively those of the first day, when you are building a relationship, setting a tone, but you’re trying to be in the middle of a term. It’s especially hard with an exiting class, when you have to fit into a syllabus you don’t like. (My classroom experience was in a class taught by someone who had assigned at least one book that should have been pulped it was so bad.). In other words, the teaching demo is designed not to make peoplelook good.

    Oh, and our teaching center does very good work with TAs…and helps us with the dreaded assessment.


  14. Susan, I agree. That’s why I don’t like the teaching demo. Few job candidates really have much choice about what they present or how they present it.

    I think it’s quite possible that Teaching and Learning (for Execellence!) Centers do good work. My point in this post is that it’s the cheap way to signal that a university cares about teaching, and not the best way to ensure quality teaching. But that would take REAL money, so it’s not gonna happen.


  15. Historiann, I have seen people do a good speech and a bad sample class. My college genuinely did care about teaching quality. Our max class size was about 24.

    When we arranged to hire a new professor, the search committee built a short-list of maybe three candidates, and had them each come to the campus (separately). During the campus visit, they had to give a lecture/speech in the lecture hall, do a sample class in a classroom, and attend a pizza dinner in the student lounge with us students.

    There were slots built into the college schedule wherein NO regular classes took place, specifically to make sure everyone would have the same time-slots available for service. The sample class and lecture were in these service slots, so the candidates could choose their own topic and display their skills without having to fit someone else’s syllabus.

    One time, a candidate gave a good lecture presentation. But in his sample class, he tried to engage students and check for comprehension by presenting a concept and asking a student to apply the concept to a specific question. He had very specific answers in mind, and no one ever gave quite the answer he was looking for.

    Every time a boy answered, he said, “That’s great! You’re almost there! Try again!”
    Every time a girl answered, he said, “No. You’re wrong. Does anyone ELSE want to try?”
    Every single time.

    He had seemed like the best candidate until that point. If he hadn’t taught an actual class, we wouldn’t have found out.


  16. We do the j-talk and the t-demo, and while I wouldn’t say it’s exactly useless, it has lots of built-in problems. It’s never clear who’s going to volunteer to have several of their class slots absorbed in the exercise. We teach in such overlapping layers that it’s seldom possible to get anything like the same sample-set of colleagues into the room for more than one visit, which can make the hiring discussion an exercise in confusion. With administrators shoe-horning students into classrooms, it’s sometimes hard to fit faculty in there to watch anyway. Many of our classrooms are better equipped to show how a future colleague might handle a Pepsi truck crashing into the building than how ze would keep quieter students involved in the discussions. The students are invariably polite, and often attentive, but they are less often clear about what kind of role playing they are supposed to do. Their written comments hover between enlightening and amusing. I especially enjoyed one years ago when a sophomore reported that of the three candidates, she “really liked the kid from Berkeley…”; with the “kid” in question being about three times her age.

    In the spirit of anarchy, and not because it would be otherwise useful, I’d like to propose scrapping both the research presentation and the teaching demo in favor of a hybrid “research demo.” The candidate would walk into a surgical-amphitheatre type room with the faculty perched in the murky rafters like keening Jacobins at the National Convention. On a seminar-sized table would be three large boxes stuffed with moldy deeds, torn maps, packets of libelous letters, and a bizarre array of curious artifacts, all putatively at least somewhat related to hir expressed fields of interest. The instructions in an envelope would say: o.k., this is your first morning at the Historical Society of Nowhere. For the next few hours, show us how you would get a handle on the situation, and then offer a preliminary verbal report over a catered lunch. (o.k., maybe we would only do this for senior hires.)


  17. In my former US department, we asked for a classroom demo about a concept–any concept–the candidate thinks is essential to our discipline, given at the third year undergraduate level. It’s a chance to see how they view the discipline and how they work in the classroom.


  18. So my question is, do people who are great on the research talk but utterly terrible in the classroom really exist?

    They certainly do in the sciences. One of my pals is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, but is not allowed anywhere near a classroom. The one time I heard him try to give a lecture, he was mumbling so quietly, no one could even hear a single fucken word he said.


  19. My husband gave a great research talk and a disastrous jobtalk at his first flyout.

    But he gets stellar teaching evals as a prof. So it didn’t mean anything in the end.

    I’m glad Wogglebug’s colleagues were aware of the sexism! A lot of faculties wouldn’t even notice something like that.

    I related somewhere recently that when I gave a practice teaching talk it informed me quite a bit about the students. Ir may not have been useful to the faculty, but it was plenty useful to me.

    RE: centers for teaching excellence. Ironically, the semester I did one of their workshops was the semester I got the absolute worst teaching ratings of my career. What works for tall middle-aged white guys does not work for small cute young women. I found when I did the opposite of their advice and treat my students more like high school students and less like adults (even though it goes against the grain for me), they learn more and I get higher evals.


  20. This term I’m teaching in an under-used p.m. timeslot that’s exactly when our local “Centre” is apt to schedule their activities. It was suggested to me that I could get my T.A. to cover for me so I could attend one particular event.

    I declined the suggestion because a) I have no T.A. and b) I had actual teaching to do (which I happen to enjoy as that class is going splendidly this year, thankyouverymuch).


  21. What a story, Wogglebug. And I bet if you pointed it out to the guy (or maybe you did?), he’d be saying, “No, no, no. That’s not how it is, at all.”

    I guess until we can stop that garbage from vanishing into the Great Forgetting, people will keep being oblivious and will keep producing it.


  22. As to your main point, Historiann, it reminds me of a line out of the Tao Te Ching. (Charles Muller, translator)

    When the great Way perishes
    There is humaneness and rightness.
    When intelligence is manifest
    There is great deception.
    When the six relationships are not in harmony
    There is filial piety and compassion.
    When the country is in chaos
    Loyal ministers appear.

    And when teaching is despised, teaching excellence is exalted. Or something like that. Poetry is not my strong suit.


  23. Janice, your story cracks me up! The advice to cut out on your own class to go talk about teaching just about sums it up for me.

    Thanks for all of your stories. I guess I’m left wondering why people who can’t communicate well are getting jobs at all (as in the case that CPP notes.) In my field, that is no longer rewarded. I just can’t imagine approaching teaching a class and giving a research presentation very differently. Both require organization as well as being able to read and respond effectively to your audience.


  24. I found when I did the opposite of their advice and treat my students more like high school students and less like adults (even though it goes against the grain for me), they learn more and I get higher evals.

    Do you have any sense whether this would be generally a good idea, or whether it depends on the level of course and quality of the students?


  25. A representative from our Center for Teaching Excellence recently showed me the library’s brand new “active learning stations.” What were they? Rows and rows of computers lined up facing a lecture podium. Because active learning = pointing and clicking. Sigh.


  26. So my question is, do people who are great on the research talk but utterly terrible in the classroom really exist? I’m sure you got your job because you were good at both, but you were probably equally good, no? (So why the duplication of time & effort?)

    Yes, they exist. Sort of. They don’t give great job talks but they give good/passable ones on their slice of research that engage enough of a research-heavy department that warning signs are ignored. Admittedly, the person I’m thinking of gave a job talk to mixed reviews (somewhat divided along geographic lines, with one group mesmerized by potential theoretical insights and the other frustrated by the absence of a clear narrative). Not shockingly, the latter is a telling sign that teaching could be a problem, and indeed, said person is a terrible teacher who students readily (and fairly) complain about being incoherent. This could be discerned from a job talk but probably would have been more obvious in a teaching demo. The real issue, of course, is that the R-1 department doesn’t care enough about teaching to use it as a metric in hiring. But then you get frustrated students, annoyed TAs, and a real brewing problem, all of which could have been ducked had anyone listened to the people concerned with teaching (a small but not insignificant faction).


  27. About the existence of great researcher — not so good teacher: absolutely. My second semester of inorganic chemistry was taught by a Nobel Prize winner who enjoyed teaching. He *loved* chemistry. He knew what he was talking about (even if we didn’t), he’d go off on tangents, he’d demonstrate how to work through an equation right in lecture, and forget to input something and have it not work out and start over.

    I loved it. I’d never conceived of being that excited about yucky chemistry. It was just fun to watch the way he thought and to see him unable to get stuff right on his calculator. It was one of those “see new worlds, go places you’ve never been before” type of things.

    But most of the students were pre-meds and just got irritated. And, to be absolutely fair, they were right. He was too disorganized to be good at teaching a 500-student basic chemistry class.


  28. Contingent Cassandra writes: “Honestly, if the majority of the faculty — including the teaching-oriented faculty — were decently paid and had loads that allowed for service, any necessary teaching mentoring could take place in-department, and any sharing of strategies among departments (which is a good thing) could take place in committee meetings and/or brown bags arranged by the regular faculty. The separate Center is, indeed, an outgrowth of the top-down, administration-driven governance structure that is not doing any of us any good.”

    Does anyone know, back in the good old days, did this type of teaching mentoring actually happen? Because I entered a small, collegial, dept in a large public university in 2004, with a 2/1/2 load (VAPs taught 2/2/2 but we had no true adjuncts), where many of us taught the same class (capped at 20), where we took teaching seriously, and I don’t recall much of this happening. What level of pay would it take?

    In moving from faculty to full-time advising, it has become abundantly clear to me that jobs in advising, at centers for teaching, and so forth, are basically ways to buy time for faculty by removing these items from their service load, and also to get better results by putting such items in the hands of people who won’t see them as an undervalued imposition on their research time. I don’t think we can wholly blame the growth in such jobs on a top-down administration.


  29. My graduate school experience turned me off of teaching centers. I was employed as a full-time managing editor of a scholarly journal for several years, helping to pay for grad school, when my department needed more teaching assistants. I took one section of a course. The TA’s were required (and were paid a higher stipend) to attend writing across the curriculum seminars. Due to my job, I could not attend all of the offered seminars. The center’s assistant called me one day and told me that the director wanted to speak to me about my absence. I was dressed down by the director and docked some money. But she could not answer my question as to why the center did not monitor teaching assistants’ employment of the center’s required writing emphasis IN THE CLASSROOM. In short, one could attend the seminars but never utilize the teaching strategies and be rewarded.

    Aside: the teaching awards given by the center during my years at that university were all given to men.

    Teaching centers depend on grant monies and an administration’s support and I suspect the measures of effectiveness are sometimes, if not often, at odds with departmental and college practices and expectations.


  30. Best thing I’ve read in awhile because we have the exact same “Faculty and Teaching Learning Commons” entity recently created on our campus. They give out teaching “awards” to anyone who attends their workshops, enabling teaching-challenged colleagues to list such on their c.v. as if they have really achieved teaching excellence. Good lord . . . .


  31. Years ago, William Arrowsmith compared the issuance of teaching awards in universities that focused on other things to creating a desert, then honoring the Druid of the Year, rather than growing forests. Little appears to have changed.


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