Academic advising by tenure-track faculty


Based on some recent conversations, I’m realizing that an underappreciated piece of professoring is academic advising. I don’t think I’ve written about it on here yet (?), but a substantial piece of work by faculty in our department is advising our majors. Just like the unseen labor of writing recommendation letters, doing quality academic advising is very important but how much and how well we do this (or not) generally gets overlooked.

If you’re at a small liberal arts college or a smaller regional state university, then you probably are doing a lot of advising. Continue reading

The Church of High Impact Practices


Educational fads come, and educational fads go. A dominant fad at the moment is “High Impact Practices.” Several years ago, George Kuh wrote a book about High Impact Practices that has come to dominate discussion in universities throughout the United States. If you want the nutshell version of the book, this seems to be a good summary.

I doubt anybody is actually reading the book. Continue reading

Which classes should tenure-track faculty deprioritize?


Academia has an adjunct problem. Most of the verbiage on this topic (that I see, at least) focuses on the plight of adjunct faculty.  I agree that this matters, a lot. But, this isn’t the bottom line for the people who are the designated focus of the teaching institutions: the students.

At the top of my list of worries about adjunctification are educational quality and making sure that we do the best for our students.

I am not suggesting that the quality of classroom instruction by adjuncts is better or worse than their tenure-track colleagues. The problem for students isn’t connected to quality in the classroom. It’s about what happens — or doesn’t happen — outside the classroom.

Take, for example:

There lots of explicit or implicit job expectations of tenure-track faculty, which are not expected of contingent faculty, including

  • Academic advising

  • Research with students

  • Mentorship

  • Career advising

  • Sponsorship of student organizations

  • Development of new curricula

Meanwhile, in some universities, adjuncts don’t even have a shared office space.

Nobody expects adjuncts to do the same kind of service, research and student mentorship activities that are part of the role of full-time tenure-track faculty. Tenure-track faculty are expected to interact with the same population of students throughout their undergraduate careers, especially in smaller institutions, which often sell themselves based on the close professional relationships betweens students and faculty.

In my own department, we have been dealing with one dilemma tied to the fact that we don’t have enough tenure-line faculty to teach our courses. Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors.

Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?

Here are the options:

  • Our introductory for-majors courses. We have a 3-semester intro sequence, and each of these is taught by a single tenure-track faculty member. This has been great because the all students get to know these faculty in the department by going through their course (aside from some transfer students). Though I don’t own any of these courses, I chat a lot with my colleagues who do teach these courses to identify students who could join my lab. These courses are foundational for the rest of the major, and we need to be sure that there is consistency in its instruction so that students are well prepared for the upper division. Having a rotating set of instructors in this course wouldn’t be good.

  • Upper-division speciality courses. We happen to have plenty of adjunct instructors who are qualified to teach most of these classes well. Would it be better to have the tenure-track faculty stay in the majors intro courses and leave some specialty courses to adjuncts?

  • Graduate courses. Our courses for the graduate program should, in theory, be taught by research-active faculty. However, there are so few of us that we are also needed for other parts of the curriculum. Teaching the graduate courses in a seminar format, with smaller class sizes, is lighter on the schedule than an introductory majors course, and keeping this course in the schedule can free up even more time for other activities. However, this would keep faculty from getting to know as many undergraduates.

  • Our non-majors courses lecture and labs. Like many other departments, we have pretty much already abandoned the hope of teaching these. I have taught a few sections of these courses in recent years. My rationale was that these courses which have a large proportion of Liberal Studies majors (those preparing become K-8 teachers), and teacher preparation is a priority of mine.

We aren’t punishing any of our students by having them work with our adjuncts, but when students are taught by our adjuncts that means we are less able to provide them with opportunities and interactions outside the classroom. These interactions are often what makes college valuable. So, which courses do we, as tenure-track faculty, give up?

This is a hard call. We have managed to make sure that all the lectures, if not the labs, of our introductory majors courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. This helps us build a community in our department, in which the faculty who run the department are personally familiar with the students going through the major. It would be a step backward if we divested ourselves from our majors at this early stage. On the other hand, it would be great if research-active faculty continue the speciality courses in the upper division and to graduate students. Moreover, this could be an important part of continuing to support students conducting research in our labs.

For example, I’ve been the instructor of the graduate biostatistics course for several years now. This means that, for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the statistics guy who the students contact (and sometimes ignore) when they are designing experiments and analyzing their results. If our biostatistics course was taught by an adjunct, these students wouldn’t have that adjunct available around the department to discuss experimental design and analysis. While I don’t think I need to serve as a statistical consultant too often, I think being available for these kinds of conversation is a part of my job that I shouldn’t be giving up. If I didn’t teach this class, the students wouldn’t even be aware that I am available in this capacity.

There isn’t a good answer to this problem, but it’s one that we’re facing. I’m really curious about how other departments of different types of decided which classes are kept by tenure-track faculty, and which ones end up being taught by adjuncts on a long-term basis. When these decisions are made, what is the currency behind the decision? Faculty scheduling, available faculty expertise, student familiarity with faculty?





“Student quality”


When you are sizing up the teaching part of your job, what is the role of student quality?

I often hear other scientists talking about how they enjoy the teaching part of their job when they have high quality students. They are successful teachers when they have high quality students.

I also hear professors sympathizing with other professors who report that they have poor quality students in their classes.

These conversations make me want to barf.

What the hell is a “quality student?”

I won’t say anything about a person behind their back that I wouldn’t be willing to say to their faces, admitting that at times it could be an uncomfortable conversation. Would anybody be willing to say to their own students that they are of low quality? Clearly, students can do low-quality work and have a low-quality investment. (Actually, I just said this last week to my class after slogging through some lackluster exams.) Are these students, themselves, poor quality?  I feel like I shouldn’t have to say so, but maybe I do: of course they aren’t.

When people are talking about student “quality,” they could mean a variety of things. They might be thinking about how smart the students are (whatever that is), how hard working they are, or how motivated they are to learn.

All of those variables change given the context. Some students will not work hard at all in some classes, but work hard in others. Some students will be disinterested in some classes but be fascinated by others. I suppose the “high quality” students are the ones that will work hard and be fascinated regardless of the context.

In other words, high quality students are the ones that would learn even if they had a poor quality instructor.

If you have traditionally “high quality” students, it doesn’t matter if you teach well. Do you really want that kind of job?

Clearly, if our classrooms are filled exclusively with bright, hard-working and inquisitive students who are always willing to learn, then our jobs would be really easy. In fact, the students wouldn’t need us other than to assign readings, play videos of lectures and have labs set up for them. We wouldn’t be required as teachers because they would be all ready to learn whatever is put up in front of them. I guess that’s a high quality student – one who is the least amount of work. The one who always understands and always does perfect work.

If that’s the case, then I don’t want these high quality students who are easy to teach. I want to be the person that made a difference in the life of another person. I want the students who come into my classroom to be the ones that don’t think that biostatistics matters, or not really caring much about the mechanisms of climate change. When I am successful at the end of the semester, which means that my students are successful at the end of the semester, I want it to be because of the quality of my work. I don’t want to preach to the converted, and I don’t want to spend an hour in class on a lesson that the students could have learned for themselves. I want the students who couldn’t just sit down in a MOOC and take it all in.

It means that all of the time and preparation that I put into my lessons actually matters.

Perhaps, some might think, that with classic “high quality” students, highly effective teachers can take things to extraordinarily high levels so that their students excel far beyond what any lesser “quality” student could ever imagine. If you are thinking that way, then please stay away from the classroom. You need to enter the room thinking that every person has unlimited potential. If you start out assuming that some students aren’t capable of extraordinary achievement, then you’re never to going to expect or get it from them. You need to expect the outstanding if you’re ever going to get it. And you need to expect it of everyone. Once in a while, I get outstanding from students that who have already been written off by everyone else. Now that is a quality student. And I have that opportunity every time I enter the classroom.

By the way, why is it that some of the most famous experts on science teaching come from universities that only admit students who earned top notch grades in high school, and mostly from private schools and public schools in wealthy school districts? Do their experiences with white middle- and upper-class students really reflect how education works for everyone else?

Almost none of the students in my university would be able to land admission to a highly selective institution, in part because of their social class but also because of their performance and preparation.

How I do I feel about teaching students who could be labeled as “poor quality?” I love it. There’s nothing better. I have unlimited opportunity to make a difference, and every day I am challenged to inspire and create a need for understanding. If you want to teach well, then how do you know you’re even capable of doing so if all of your students are pros at learning?

If you are teacher by profession, and all you want to do is teach “high quality” students, then you’ll never master your craft.

This is water: focusing on what matters


David Foster Wallace. photo by Claudia Sherman

It’s unsatisfying to be told that college students are learning “how to think.”

You don’t need to go to college for that. While the lack of teaching critical thinking in the curriculum is problematic, that’s not what the primary outcome of college should be.

You go to college not to learn to think, but instead to discover what to think about, said David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, including this 687-karat sized gem of wisdom, was reprinted in the Best Nonrequired Reading series. Since then, it’s been abridged and put into a cute book that you can give to a graduating student, if you don’t want to gift Dr. Seuss’s Oh the places you’ll go. I think it’s better to hear his talk than to read it. (He’s such a good writer, that you can tell that he wrote his address to be heard and not to be read.)

We need to think about the right things. For the past several years, when I get annoyed with minutia, I’ve told myself to focus on what matters. I don’t leave notes for myself, though that’s a great idea. I non-verbally tell myself, “This is water.” If you haven’t yet taken the 23 minutes out of your life to listen to this, I heartily recommend it.

When you’re done, if you’re still excited about the E.O. Wilson v, Math kerfuffle, then you could listen to David Foster Wallace with this perspective: how do you think about ecology? Are you thinking about their organisms and their interactions with the environment, or thinking about how math describes the interactions of organisms with the environment? Both are great. I lean towards the former, but to each their own.

Undergraduate first authorship?


When undergraduates are conducting their own research projects in your lab, should first authorship be one of the main goals of mentorship?

This isn’t common, but it happens. (I’ve met several such undergrads at conferences.) If you work in a research institution, the event would be fun thing to lightly celebrate.

At teaching schools, this would be ultimate evidence of a top-notch operation. It probably would look better for your undergrad to be first author than to be sole author yourself, or better than having several undergrads as coauthors. It could potentially seal the deal on the scholarship expectations for tenure or promotion, especially in an institution that only expects one or a few papers before tenure. Off campus it wouldn’t look like much, but on campus it would be a big frickin’ deal.

Here is the rub: It takes much more of the mentor’s time for the student to be first author than if the mentor just wrote the paper on one’s own. It requires frequent individual meetings, revision of draft after draft, lots of advising about literature review, reading and placing the work in context. Even if the mentor does the final analyses and results and makes the figures (which wouldn’t preclude first authorship in my view), the rest of it is probably a long slog, even if the student is talented and motivated. Some manuscripts are long slogs even without undergrads doing the writing. It could be a joyful process, but simultaneously time-intensive.

I’ve never known an undergraduate to expect first authorship unless the mentor is the one who generates, and reiterates, the expectation. I regularly express this expectation among my students who clearly own their projects. I create a specific set of tiered expectations, first with lots of reading, then generating a set of specific questions for the manuscript and an introduction leading towards it.  Then, well, then… umm…. I’ve never gotten any further than that.

I admittedly set the initial bar high. It takes persistence for anybody to write their first manuscript, especially as an undergrad. I don’t want to have the process drag on for months and years only for a student to drop the ball. So, if the student is up to the first task with gusto, then we proceed. This limits an unnecessary investment.

I would love it if one of my students wrote their own paper and became first author. I’d be over the moon. (I think it might actually be happening this semester for the first time, though I’ve said this before.) Some students are too busy and consistently fail to meet deadlines, and various deadline extensions. Others change their priorities. Others have moved on to grad school and their PIs think they should leave the manuscript behind. Some students might decide that it’s ready, even though it’s not, then get frustrated and give up.

Most of my students don’t even get past the first filter. They stall at the first stack of reprints and come unprepared to discuss them. Clearly, if student authorship is my main goal, I could provide even more care and feeding to students, with more and smaller tiers of expectations. I could be doing the job better.

My first priority when supervising research is to make sure that the work gets finished and published. Because my lab relies on students to generate most of the data, we can’t afford to have students spinning their wheels on projects that result in half-completed projects or data that can’t be used. I’m the only one in the operation who is equipped to ship a manuscript out the door on schedule. I’m also equipped to mentor students through the process of doing it themselves, but this would take more resources and limit productivity.

I want my students to benefit the most they possibly can from being in my lab. In my view, that benefit isn’t the the opportunity to write their own paper. It’s being an actual co-author on an actual paper that comes to press. I could carefully mentor, cajole, coddle and push, and get students to write papers once in a long while. Or I could write a bunch more myself. Without much conscious thought into the process, I’ve fallen into the latter approach.

Perhaps it’s crass to say that I favor creating a productive lab over careful individual mentorship of students leading their own projects to publication. At some liberal arts schools, that’s heresy. However, what I really want to offer students is the opportunity of being in a successful lab, and the fact that I’m writing most of the manuscripts lets this happen. If I didn’t write up student projects, then productivity would take a bit hit. Nobody has suggested that this approach is exploitative of students, and given standard criteria that people apply to authorship, I’m relatively generous with students.

Ultimately, I think my approach offers a much greater benefit to students, and to a greater number of students as well. If my success is measured by the professional trajectories of my students, then I’ve been doing just fine.

Research labs, even in teaching institutions, need outside validation. Outside the microcosm of my campus, nobody gives a hoot about student outcomes. Even NSF cares much more about pubs than the quality of student training (but that’s another post of its own).

Have you had an undergrad write their own paper? Have you been tempted to slap their name as first author even if they haven’t? How do you measure your success as a mentor? Does tenure change the approach? How does departmental climate matter?