Monday, July 30, 2007

Status in Academia, or What is in a Calling?

I have a lot of friends who believe they have been called to ministry (specifically ministry in the Unitarian Universalist church). I have always liked the idea of a calling. In a world so full of choices, it seems comforting to feel so drawn to a particular profession that you just know is what you are supposed to devote your life to. Let's just say that when I started graduate school in sociology, I wanted to be a professor, but I don't think I would have ever used the word calling to describe that want.

However, I do believe that people are called to be professors (and I've grown to understand that I was called to be a professor, too). The trick is that to fulfill the professor job requirements, we are really asked to have a calling for two different professions with two different (and not always compatible) sets of skills.

Professors are expected to be excellent teachers (which is no small task) and excellent researchers (which, again, is no small task). The general public tends to think that a professor's main job is to teach, which has led many a discouraged graduate student to become quite frustrated when talking with his/her parents. However, within academia, a place where theoretically you're paid to teach the thousands of students who pay tuition, teaching is rarely supposed to be the main focus of our endeavors.* Instead, we are supposed to write, and procure, research grants that actually bring in a lot more money in total than the tuition of students.**

This system may shock those of you who believe, like I did until about my third year of graduate school, that the university system is a highly noble mecca of learning. It is a highly noble mecca of learning (sometimes), but teaching often takes a back seat to research interests.*** This problem is brilliantly discussed in the PBS Frontline film (and companion book) Declining by Degrees.****

This gets me back to sociology. I, like many sociologists, study inequality. As a discipline, we have done an excellent job of documenting inequality and trying to find solutions to ameliorate it, especially in the realm of status differences. However, we are also excellent (like many humans) of overlooking the "inconvenient truths" that we don't want to see.

Teaching in our society is undervalued. In traditional occupational prestige tests (please email me for citations - I just don't want to look them up right now), teachers score much lower than doctors, lawyers, and even professors. Despite the immensely important job of educating/socializing our children that they do, teachers are not given status commensurate with their tasks.

The same is true within many academic institutions (especially the big state schools that so many students get funneled into every year). Professors who spend time being excellent teachers are not given the prestige/status of those professors who spend time doing research. This seems easily explained with pure economic theory (at least in the eyes of the university). Research brings in more revenue, and revenue is good for the university.

I'm not advocating that we abolish research (it does help to pay the bills). However, I do think that more balance needs to be struck between the status accorded to teaching vs. research. And I also think that our values need to shift somewhat. Professors and graduate students are constantly complaining about the lack of quality in our students. I think it might behoove us to work a bit harder to stimulate intellectual excitement, instead of the alternative.

Lastly, to get back to the idea of a calling in academia...I'm not really sure whether there are a vast number of people who are ideally suited to both teach and do research (although there are definitely a good number of excellent teacher/researchers in sociology). However, I would urge those of us called to do research to remember that we are bright, capable people who can learn to teach well with some work. Similarly, those of us called to teach will be better teachers if we understand the messy process of research, and are up-to-date on the latest developments in the fields that we teach. Even the strongest calling requires perseverance to maintain.

*I am speaking specifically about research schools here, but even at smaller state schools and liberal arts colleges, research is an important component of the tenure process.

**Did you know for every grant that professors bring in, the university automatically gets 51% of the money? This is one reason why grants are written so large. And why the university takes notice when a professor brings down $1,000,000 in grant funds. Guess who will get tenure now?

***In our department, the faculty pretty much leave the graduate student teachers alone, unless we have very low course evaluations. At my most cynical, I imagine their attitude is that we should strive to be mediocre teachers (not too bad, or the students will complain; not too good, or our research will suffer).

****Incidentally, I believe that all people working in higher education should have to see this movie, but I'm not sure how to implement my evil plan.


Drek said...

Part of the problem, additionally, is that parents often think that it's a good thing to send their children to a university with top notch researchers. Some of those folks ARE excellent teachers but, probably more often, they either are not, or struggle to stay out of the classroom whenever possible. What college students get is not exactly what is advertised.

In defense of grad programs, however, what gets most of us jobs isn't our teaching acumen. So, from the perspective of a department, a grad student who is spending a whole lot of time on their teaching is a student who is more likely to be sitting around using up a budget line for ten years. That is, arguably, not good for anyone.

Brad Wright said...

Great post.

Graduate school is quite a shock for a lot of students as they try to work through the teaching vs. research angle.

Once you have tenure, it's easy... you do what you want. I have one colleague who just focuses on teaching and wins awards for it. But... even then s/he suffers when its merit pay time.

I've had to learn to value teaching, for coming out of graduate school I was so socialized into research that teaching was just a necessary evil.

Related to this is a sea-change in expectations for grad students publishing. Back in the day, several decades ago, students were hired on promise and connections. Now, its publish or perish, even as a grad student.

Maybe this is good, maybe bad, but it is what it is (to quote Bill Belichick). As a result, it's more important than ever for faculty to publish with grad students.

I don't know if being a professor is a calling, but it sure is a great life!

anomie said...

What came as a shock to me was the apparent status-consciousness of departmental hiring practices. Maybe it's a coincidence, and those students at the 'top schools' really are always better qualified, but I've noticed a distinct trend for schools to only hire graduates from departments with a higher ranking than their own. I have even been told that the vast majority of jobs out of grad school are lateral moves or lower. Why? Is there any hope for me???

I graduate in three years, and my dream position is at a certain school that is a few notches above my own. A quick perusal of their hiring record shows NO hires from schools at my prestige level. My only hope is that if I work hard, I can become a statistical anomaly. Maybe my department's ranking will significantly rise while I'm there...

Practicing Idealist said...

Brad, I agree with you. However, I wonder if priviledging research becomes a pattern that continues after earning tenure. Getting the accolades that come with publications can be a powerful motivator to continue devoting most of one's time to research, rather than teaching. As somebody who cared passionately about having good teachers when I was an undergraduate, and somebody who cares passionately about being a good teacher, the whole system really frustrates me from time to time (and the more so the farther I have gotten in my program).

Anomie, you know as well as I that there are always statistical outliers. It seems to me that if you publish in the top journals while you're a graduate student, it will be hard for the top departments to ignore you. Additionally, there are professors in my department who didn't start out at the top, but worked there way up by getting jobs at mid-rank schools, publishing a lot, and going for the higher-ranked departments. Nothing is impossible, but our structural positions do constrain our choices, I'm not going to lie. Good luck!