Master Teachers?

William Bowen and Eugene Tobin’s new book, Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education, has just been published: anyone interested in the governance of universities and colleges should read it. The first part is a very terse but interesting account of how ‘shared governance’ emerged over time in the US; the second part is devoted to a detailed discussion of how governance works, the challenges that the current common governance structures face, and proposals about for changes in governance that would help us cope with these challenges. These proposals are grounded in the case studies that constitute the third part of the book; highly textured discussions of the way governance has developed at CUNY, the University of California, Princeton, and Macalester Colleges, and how various challenges have been met, or failed, as a result of those structures.

I’ll write more, later, about the book, and some of the proposals. Right now I thought I’d discuss a proposal they make (I do know of places where some version of it is present, in embryo form) which is not central to the discussion of governance, but which, I think, raises a serious conflict of interest issue (which, actually, they don’t discuss): the proposal to develop a distinct career track of “master teacher” for employees who would specialize in teaching, who would teach more than regular tenure-track faculty, who would not be expected to do research, and whose continuing professional development would focus on instruction and pedagogy.

Cards on the table: I’m completely on board with the proposal (as I am with most of the other proposals in the book, in fact if anything I think that they probably think faculty should have more power over more aspects of the entire enterprise than I do—but, please, don’t dwell on this, I’ll follow up soonish with a post about the rest of the book). Private colleges can do what they like, but I think the way teaching is treated within large, selective, public colleges like mine, is close to scandalous. Tenure track faculty receive no training as teachers, and whereas they engage in intensive, daily, professional development activities with regard to their research, they typically receive only the lightest mentoring concerning their teaching, and they receive it from people who, themselves, have had no training and for whom neither teaching nor mentoring new teachers have been part of their professional development. Creating a track for people who would be expert instructors would save money and simultaneously add value.

Immediately it would be resisted by faculty throughout the institution. But I think many scientists would come round reasonably quickly. It would be more cost effective in many diciplines to focus the attention of researchers on raising grants undistracted by teaching, and use tuition money to pay for actual teachers. Imagine having Organic Chemistry taught by people who really wanted all their students to learn the subject, were constantly working on improving their instructional skills, and used real standards to assess their students’ learning rather than using a curve to gatekeep!

But it doesn’t work that way in the humanities, where I think resistance would be stiff, and persistent. Here’s where the conflict of interest issue comes in. TT faculty in the humanities have an interest in using graduate students and adjuncts rather than expert teachers (who, if my math is any good, would be cheaper than graduate students). Why?

Well, humanities professors cannot raise funds for research. By and large humanities research at my institution and others like it is paid for with tuition money and state funding. If we are not teaching, who is paying us? A situation in which a cadre of professional career teachers on, say, a 3-3 load, are bringing in the funding, while researchers teaching, say, 2-2 or 2-1 to fewer students (because, presumably, most students will prefer to take classes with the better teachers) is not sustainable in the long run. Currently, with graduate students dependent on us for their long-run professional prospects, and turning over regularly, and, importantly, supplying us with fodder for the graduate seminars we want to teach, our situation is stable; there’s no competition. Adjuncts, who teach a course here and a course there, are similarly dependent on our patronage. A serious, well-crafted, ‘master teacher’ track might be seen as a Trojan Horse.

Departments vary a great deal in how vulnerable they are to the effects of the reform. To see who is more vulnerable, you just look at the percentage of undergraduate credits taught by tenure-stream faculty. The lower the percentage, the more vulnerable the department and, I predict, the more likely it is to resist the proposal. So, eg, English departments, which are relatively powerful politically because of their size, typically have pretty low percentages of undergraduate credits taught by tenure stream faculty: TT faculty are responsible for a relatively small proportion of the revenues to the department, so have reason to be threatened by the establishment of an alternative (rival?) track that triggers a large percentage of the revenue, if members of that alternative track are stable, have job security, and have an equal role in governance (more on this later). My own department teaches relatively many credit hours per TT FTE on staff, and a relatively high percentage of those credit hours are taught by TT faculty themselves. The TT faculty, in other words, are responsible for the revenues,

Interestingly we do, already, have one model: Spanish departments. Generalizing greatly, many Spanish departments already have a small cadre of professional career teachers, who teach the language to the large numbers of students that want to learn Spanish; while tenure-stream faculty teach the much smaller number of students that want to study literature or who, believing it is valuable to get a Spanish major, are willing to take the courses that departments require because their faculty want to teach them. If anyone can explain how this is long-term tenable, I’d be grateful. I talked to a colleague knowledgeable about the Spanish situation and she had some interesting background, and thoughts, about how things have gone in her (public, R1) institution, to share.

When Spanish enrollment exploded in the late 90s, Departments were overwhelmed with the numbers but happily expanded their grad student TA support offerings. Overseeing a course taught by TAs was usually assigned to an untenured (but still TT) fac member. This was when each course had, maybe 10 TAs. But when the numbers of grad students teaching lower-level language classes became unmanageable (first year went from 10-20 sections to over 50 and were still wait-listed), the university allowed my department to hire a language director to manage it. This was 15-18 years ago. The language director was a tenure-track gig but turned out to be untenurable because the work involved in overseeing over 100 TA-taught sections didn’t leave this person time for research or publishing. Hence, the hiring of lang. coordinators to serve under the director to relief the director of much of the burden of daily operations.

So, the positions were designed to get TT faculty out of the business of TA training and course supervision because the job became too big, not because anyone thought they did a bad job. It had the added benefit of relieving some the pressure for finding instructors for upper-level courses in which enrollment was also bursting (remember most all the coordinators have PhDs too). However, TT faculty started to see these new hires as a way to get out of the undesirable teaching assignments (advanced composition, for example). Mid-level classes are very hands on, lots of grading and even with the star instructors they get lower student evals scores than a lit class because, when rigorous and done well, they are hard and often tedious. Fifteen years ago, tenured and and tenure-track faculty all taught everything: language (usually above the 200 level) as well as literature.

She goes on to identify the problems with the situation (confirming how much issues of governance matter):

The “professional teaching” group is extremely unhappy….The people who do this in foreign langs in our peer institutions are even unhappier than we are, although that’s hard to believe!… Problems are numerous and often revolve around issues of governance. These so-called “teaching experts” were hired primarily to manage and train TAs but sometimes to teach upper-level classes like TT members. Everyone I know in these “teaching” positions, has a PhD and is trained in lit or linguistics like TT members except they have no power in the department and often decisions are made at the EC level that effect their duties and programs…People in these positions often feel they were tricked into a crummy job that has trapped them and ruined their careers. They’re considered not fit for any tenure-track position after this and community college—which pays a lot more—does not want PhDs who have been at Research I institutions.

(She added that a colleague has said that they are like the downstairs people in Downton Abbey. I can see that; and it’s possible that the tenure line faculty in Humanities departments might be a little bit like the upstairs people in Downton Abbey—past their heyday, and looking at a future in which their perks are seriously under threat).

As I say, I’m an enthusiast for introducing a “master teacher” track, and her comments didn’t change that, but there are some important lessons (Bowen and Tobin note the first and fourth, and I think it’s reasonable to infer that they would support the other two)

1) Any “master teacher” track would have to have carefully articulated duties attached to it, and a well elaborated career ladder within the institution.

2) TT faculty salaries can be increased suddenly by outside offers – which are less likely to raise the salaries of master teachers. So salary bumps reflecting excellent performance would have to be built in (or, alternatively, the MTs should get slightly higher pay raises on average in the regular merit exercise than TT faculty)

3) Very clear rules should be established about what courses TT faculty teach and what courses MTs teach.

4) Crucially, MTs with equivalent to tenure should be members of a department’s executive committee, and this should be decided at the university level. They must be the peers, not the subordinates, of the TT faculty.

I’m curious for reactions, both to the proposal and to my predictions that it will be easier to get support in the sciences than in the humanities.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.