Master Teachers?

by Harry on January 30, 2015

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.



mdc 01.30.15 at 2:30 pm

Interesting. I’ll definitely check out the book. But your description pushes the question one step back for me: why aren’t TT faculty more interested in teaching in the first place? The ideal arrangement, to my mind, would be for higher-ed teaching to be available as a life-long, tenurable vocation. Do you think teaching would to some extent displace research among the tenured/TT class if faculty had more power in governance? (I’m guessing this might be true.) For example, faculty at some schools might downgrade the significance of publication in the tenure process, if they were running the whole show.

Related to this, I note you describe grad students as “fodder” for the advanced seminars that TT faculty really want to teach. This may have been off-hand, but I’ve heard the sentiment elsewhere, and it doesn’t sit right with me. Are undergrads similarly “fodder” for master teachers? Some of my best learning experiences as a student were in grad seminars, where I neither imagined I was fodder, nor was I treated as fodder by professors. The fact that faculty want to teach small seminars of self-selected students is revealing. If they had more governance power, would they make this sort of classroom available to more students, including more undergrads?


EH 01.30.15 at 2:43 pm

I will also check out the book. There is another place that we could be looking for a model: our university medical centers. There, the distinction is between clinical work (taking care of patients + resident education) and lab research; only the latter are expected to bring in grants, while the former have time commitments to their specialty and occasionally to med school teaching (full disclosure, my wife is an ass’t prof on the clinical track). Granted, there’s a lot more money coming into hospitals on the clinical side, but what’s important in this conversation is that those departments have come to terms with a faculty divided between hard-core, focused research on one side (and trust me, those are doctors you do _not_ want taking care of you), and patient care and teaching on the other.


RSA 01.30.15 at 2:45 pm

At my large public R1 university, several departments in the college of engineering have Teaching Professors on the faculty. They are not eligible for tenure, but the expectation is that they will remain on the faculty for the long term. In my department the teaching professors are popular among the TT faculty, because they’re very good at what they do, they handle many of the lower-level undergraduate major courses (and sometimes service courses), and they improve the quality of the students taking upper-level courses that the TT faculty are more likely to teach.

There are no clear rules about which courses the teaching versus TT faculty teach, and the positions are new enough that there’s only a handful of teaching professors who have been promoted from assistant to associate, so some career ladder issues remain open. Promotion is very similar to the TT process. In my department teaching professors have full standing as graduate faculty (they have Ph.D.s) and in general participate as peers with the TT faculty in governing the department.


mdc 01.30.15 at 3:21 pm


What’s the justification for not giving them tenure?


CSC 01.30.15 at 3:24 pm

What sort of training do you think the Master Teachers in the humanities will/should have? One obvious institutional pathway would be for schools of Education to partner with traditional graduate programs to offer some kind of specialized “master teacher” credential.


hix 01.30.15 at 3:38 pm

In my experience, teaching Profs are sometimes annoying for students because many try try to get status from doing research anyway, for which they have no official time budget. Another issue is that lack of access to graduate students they can torture with their dirty work makes them sometimes torture undergraduate students with such dirty work.


Slanted Answer 01.30.15 at 3:44 pm


The comment about grad students being used for seminar fodder resonated with me. To address your question about whether undergrads would similarly be fodder for master teachers, I think the fact that master teachers would be focusing on teaching (which benefits the student) rather than on research (which benefits the faculty member) make the relationship less “fodder-like”.

When I was in grad school, I remember taking some grad seminars where it seemed pretty clear that the course was designed primarily to advance the research interests of the professor teaching the course. The topic of the seminar would be one that the prof was writing on, the papers read would be one’s the prof was responding to in his or her research, and the grad students were being used as a sounding board for the prof’s ideas and to raise issues to think about with the literature. I often learned a lot from these courses and I agree with you that these settings can be pedagogically valuable, but it did feel more faculty-centered. I take it master teachers would be more student-centered and so these fodder issues wouldn’t arise.

Harry — you mention in the post that there would be a different “track” for master teachers? Would that be a track that would start in grad school with students in a single department being filtered into research and teaching tracks? I realize that happens to some degree anyway, but, at least in the dept I was in, all students basically got a “research education” regardless so of the type of job they ended up getting. I think that the proposal is a good one, but I do share the worry about the Upstairs Downstairs issues raised in the post.


Margaret Atherton 01.30.15 at 4:09 pm

If you have been sentient in the state of Wisconsin recently, then you would know that the governor of that state is of the opinion that all faculty, even faculty at flagship R1 institutions, should be all and only teaching faculty. A proposal like yours would be grist for his mill, expect for the part about there still being TT research faculty. But with luck he doesn’t read CT.


UTorontoAP 01.30.15 at 4:14 pm

You might want to check out the system at the University of Toronto. I’m a junior faculty member in the social sciences on the “tenure stream,” which is our term for research faculty. I have a 2-2 (with some pre-tenure releases, etc). The alternative, smaller track for faculty is the “teaching stream.” In the social sciences, they typically teach research methods (both undergrad and intro grad), with modest TA support. Research faculty and adjuncts teach most other courses, including the big intro courses that are often regarded as service courses. Grad students don’t teach much during the year, though many of them pick up summer courses.[1]

Under the terms of a new agreement, Lecturers have contract conditions not unlike ours. 4-4, no research expectations (though they are rewarded for both pedagogical and disciplinary research). 6 year clock followed by promotion to Senior Lecturer (old term)/Associate Professor, Teaching Stream (new term), with leaves in year 4 (or 5) and 7 for research and/or professional development. They key difference is that after promotion, they have continuing appointments but no tenure. This is a new system, so I don’t know how it will work in the long run, but I would guess that means they are the first to go in a budget crunch.

This seems like a good system on the whole. Though I would be happy to teach methods occasionally, I know it is a lot of work and if it guarantees that students all get the same basic ideas out of the methods courses, that is probably a good thing. I also wonder whether this would work in a US public school, where the politicization of higher ed could lead, as Harry intimated, to pressure to convert everyone, or at least the majority of new hires, to the teaching stream.

[1] As an aside – having done my grad work in the US (R1-Private), I find the treatment of grad students here to be quite good. They are paid reasonably well and protected from over-work by faculty through a bureaucratic, but effective, system. When I was assigned to TA a course in grad school, I did however much work I was told to do. Here, we sign a contract at the beginning of the semester for a certain number of hours, and people seem to stick to it. The main drawback is that you have an incentive to have TAs skip lectures so that you can use their hours elsewhere, and this is probably bad for their training as teachers.


RSA 01.30.15 at 4:50 pm

mdc @3: What’s the justification for not giving them tenure?

I don’t know. It would seem reasonable for them to be on the tenure track. It might have to with how the money is divided up for different functions of the department, as well as institutional history and inertia.


Metatone 01.30.15 at 5:42 pm

I think Master Teachers is a great idea overall, simply because right now most departments are heading towards a research/teaching split anyway, but the teaching track is being populated by adjuncts – and I don’t believe that the insecurity (and poverty) of the typical adjunct contract leads to good teaching in the long run.

I teach and I do occasional research – but these are unbundled because they occur with different institutions. I’m a competent teacher I think (and my students largely agree). I can look over to a colleague who is a great teacher and know I’m not great. However, I’m definitely an above average researcher, that’s why the institution persists with me even though I rejected the PhD track and am pretty choosy about how I work with them.

All of which is to say, I suspect that there isn’t necessarily any great connection between the qualities needed for teaching and research and as such, with all the economic upheavals, I suspect they are destined to be unbundled, at least at the formal level.


Metatone 01.30.15 at 5:47 pm

As an adjunct, I think it’s worth noting that the biggest problem with non-teaching staff making the big decisions is that no-one, anywhere, seems to pay for class design.

So every change of class (or institution) tends to involve a large pile of unpaid and unacknowledged design work. This is made all the worse because the older the decision makers, the more they think that class is just about lectures and “you can do it off the cuff with some headings, if you know your stuff.” So all the real work of making a good class for modern students (including group activities, new creative assignments that they can’t just pay someone else to do, etc.) is just ignored.


Chris Armstrong 01.30.15 at 6:34 pm

Some such move is already happening to a degree in UK academia, where we see more and more teaching-only positions advertised, and where staff judged not to be ‘research-active’ may be ‘encouraged’ to move to contracts where they mainly teach (and therefore teach a lot *more* than they used to). In the humanities and social sciences there is, I think, quite a bit of resistance to this, but not for the kind of reason Harry discusses. The fear is not at all, as far as I can tell, that research-active staff will somehow have the rug pulled from under them by these people – I’ve certainly never heard that argument. Rather, the assumption is that people on teaching-only contracts will be dumped on, asked to teach more than is reasonable, and paid badly for it. For this reason I think even a lot of research-active staff, who would never be in this position, just worry that it’s the wrong thing to do (even though in principle it might free them up to do more research) – there’s a feeling of solidarity against it. You’ll also find plenty of people willing to make the argument that, intellectually speaking, teaching works best when it feeds off research, so that good researchers *can* make good teachers, and teaching can even stimulate research – whereas asking people to teach who have little or no connection with research is less than ideal. Harry’s proposals 2) and 4) would definitely mitigate the dumped-on point, but I suspect that there would still be grumbling that a division between teachers and researchers was unhealthy, both for staff and for students.


harry b 01.30.15 at 7:00 pm

Chris — the big difference between the US and the UK is the REF (or whatever they like to call it), which is, effectively, a large research grant for people in the humanities and social sciences. So researchers (collectively) attract revenues by virtue of their research. There’s no equivalent for the humanities and social sciences in the US — basically, in the humanities, for the vast majority of (successful) researchers their research is entirely subsidized by the teaching that goes on in their department.

I’m very skeptical of the argument that teaching works best when it feeds off research. Yes, the two can inform one another wonderfully. In my case, my teaching has really benefited my research (I’m not so sure the reverse is true though). But teaching involves very complicated skills that take a great deal of attention and practice to develop, master, and keep up (just as research does), and time devoted to that is more likely to bear fruit in the quality of instruction than time devoted to research.

There are many other professions in which different people within single units specialize in different skills.

CSC – -I don’t have a good answer to that, but what you say sounds plausible. Well, I do have an elaborate plan for improving instruction but this isn’t the place for it, I’ll try to follow up (but not soon!).

mdc — I don’t have any principled reason for thinking this should be a separate track; just practically that seems the best path. If my institution said that it was going to take teaching much more seriously in its tenure decisions, and really meant it, tenure track faculty would have lots of reason not to believe it (because the institution could say that, and mean it, but still it would be tenured faculty making the decisions, and it is very hard to enforce new criteria), and, anyway, they would know that if they wanted to move, other institutions would make research the sole basis of hiring/tenure. Having a separate track would help solve that problem.
Why aren’t TT faculty more interested in teaching? Loads of reasons. Here are 3.
i) Great teaching is rewarded less than mediocre research, merely good teaching isn’t rewarded at all
ii) quality is hard to observe, so employers focus on the much easier-to-observe quality of research
iii) teaching is not set up well to be rewarding. Eg, teaching 180 students in a lecture hall twice a week, its hard to get to know many of the students, whereas knowing people is what makes teaching rewarding; even in small classes you see a student for 16 weeks, not long enough to really see substantial development (part of the reward of teaching is seeing the student improve); teaching is specialized along the lines of research, so we teach only a few classes, so have relatively few repeat students; students are typically around for only a couple of years (when they are really focusing on their major); we’re not trained to teach, and have no ongoing professional development, so we’re not very good at it (doing things you are not very good at and are not improving at is not very rewarding — by contrast we are highly trained researchers, and masses of resources are devoted to our professional development in that, so we’re quite good at it); we’re hired as researchers not teachers…. etc.

I don’t know why parents put up with it. (I say that as a parent whose kid, a freshman, is getting a staggeringly good intellectual experience right now at a large flagship public university, just in case any of her teachers are reading, so I have no complaints personally!)

Metatone @8 — great point!


Harry 01.30.15 at 7:19 pm

Margaret — I know! I don’t feel great about that. I prefer my proposal, though, to the gradual erosion into a tiny research faculty supplemented by a large, contingent, and powerless adjunct force.

Your comment was caught in moderation (along with several others, which I haven’t responded to for that reason) — can’t imagine why!

I think you underestimate CT’s reach — I am sure most elected officials read us daily!



The Temporary Name 01.30.15 at 7:27 pm

I think you underestimate CT’s reach

I regularly forward things you post.

Mom assures me I’m important.


Mr Punch 01.30.15 at 8:18 pm

I believe that Yale at one time had a category of College faculty who were selected for undergraduate teaching rather than research. Didn’t work out, apparently.


Matt Karush 01.30.15 at 9:06 pm

As a history professor and a parent, I oppose your proposal. I think Margaret Atherton’s point is on target. Given that we in the humanities have no outside source of research funding, we can’t afford to give up our role as teachers. Once we do, administrations will have no need for us.

What needs defending is first, the value of humanities research and second, the value of a college education provided by research faculty. You say you’re skeptical of the idea that the best teaching feeds off research, but your reasons are unconvincing. Based on my experience peer-reviewing my colleagues’ teaching, I can tell you that my department is full of research faculty who are excellent teachers. And their excellence seems to me to be deeply connected to their research activity: they know the scholarship at a deep level, and they’re able to teach students at that level. Their research activity doesn’t make them distracted or narrowly focused. On the contrary, their scholarly success depends upon their ability to make their research findings speak to broad questions. In the classroom, they tackle those broad questions in a way that enables students to participate in the intellectual project of history.

The case of Spanish is important but not particularly relevant to other humanities departments (except perhaps composition classes in some English departments). There is a tremendous disconnect between the research activity of a Spanish literature professor and what goes on in a lower-level Spanish language course; analyzing fiction probably does not make you a better teacher of grammar. But nothing remotely like that disconnect exists in history classes – not even in 100-level, introductory courses. Even there, the expertise and scholarly engagement of research faculty provides significant value.

As a parent, I very much hope that when my children are ready for college, they get to have the experience of being taught by faculty who are actively engaged in research.


mdc 01.30.15 at 9:42 pm

Your list of factors undermining good teaching is recognizable. Could stronger faculty governance push things in the other direction? I see how “teaching is not set up well to be rewarding” a lot of places. Why not have the people who love and understand teaching set things up differently?

If tracking is the way to do it, I would hope the teaching track came with tenure, sabbaticals, and reasonable compensation/benefits. Once a crop of ‘master teachers’ is tenured, they could assume faculty governance powers with which they might counteract the systemic anti-teaching factors you mention.


Z 01.30.15 at 11:43 pm

I happen to be strongly against the proposal (largely for the same reasons as Matt Karush, once researchers abandon teaching, universities will abandon all but the absolute star researchers) but will concentrate on your prediction about the science department being naturally more in favor. This seems unclear to me. The thing is, master teachers and research teachers alike will teach for 30 to 40 years and some of their students will in turn become high-school and junior high-school teachers teaching for an additional 30 to 40 years. So some high-school kids will lear science from someone who was exposed to the research science of 60 to 80 years ago. That doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.

As an aside, I will note that France has a dual higher-education system in which the best high-school students generally opt for two years of intensive preparation teaching given by master teachers with a typically very high level but no research activity. The system is highly effective within its stated objectives.


Slanted Answer 01.31.15 at 12:49 am

I’m wondering if people strongly opposed to the proposal are understanding it correctly. I don’t think the proposal is for research faculty to abandon their teaching. I thought it was for research faculty to keep their current loads, but to replace adjunct — and perhaps some graduate student teaching — with master teachers.

I could see how the proposal could result in fewer teaching opportunities for grad students, which might lead to lower enrollments. But given that at least some humanities disciplines are overproducing PhDs, it’s not clear that’s really a bad thing.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the proposal, however.


harry b 01.31.15 at 1:38 am

No, slanted answer, despite your name you’ve understood it exactly right! Humanities disciplines are overproducing PhDs, and to be honest at most of the top tier schools (mine is an exception) they don’t teach a great deal anyway.

mdc — absolutely, it is crucial that a teaching track comes with those sort of benefits, and the kind of systematic embedded professional development that the research track has built into it.

Matt. I have lots of questions. How do you know the teaching you observe is excellent? What kind of assessments of student learning does your department use? (And do you use the results of these instruments to train the judgments you make from observations)? Do you have a systematic way of getting the non-excellent teachers to observe the excellent teachers and learn from them? Of making sure that the excellent teachers teach more students than the non-excellent teachers? What protocols do you use for debriefing observations?

When I compare my own teaching practices with stories that some of my students tell me I feel pretty good about them (though I don’t have reliable assessments of student learning, let alone that I can compare with others). But when I compare them with those of the best teachers my eldest kid had in high school, I’m a bit embarrassed: those people are real experts.

Given that we in the humanities have no outside source of research funding, we can’t afford to give up our role as teachers. Once we do, administrations will have no need for us.

That was my point really. No outside funding. Inside funding comes from the state, and parents. We do not make the case that humanities research is valuable enough that other people should pay us to do it because we have captured enough resources in the institution that we don’t need to make it. I do think that some humanities research is valuable enough that the state should pay for it, and that there is enough connection between research and quality teaching that its worth it for some students to pay for it. But universities would be healthier places if we turned some of the capacity currently devoted to research to systematic professional development around undergraduate instruction. I think undergraduate instruction in my institution could improve a great deal with fairly small (if well-directed) investments of faculty time.

Z — don’t you have professional development for science teachers in France? Or a national curriculum? Or people who manage teachers? Those would solve the problem you pose. (I’m not asking those questions rudely — the answer to those questions in the US are “Not really”; “No” and “You must be joking!”)


Main Street Muse 01.31.15 at 2:03 am

“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.”

And then there are all those contingent faculty, who are the mules to the tenure-track faculty – who teach 70% of the curriculum in higher ed, who have no university-sponsored training, no professional development, no support, no mentoring at all. And many have no benefits to go with their low wages.

How many R1 institutions are there in the US? The vast majority of higher ed falls outside of this classification, right?

As a member of the contingent faculty roster and a parent who will be sending three children to college soon, I feel that higher ed’s approach to teaching is troubling – at best. Students do not know that I make significantly less and teach more than the tenure folks. I am not included in any “shared governance” – I have been told repeatedly by tenured faculty about how I need to know my place – I need to go to meetings but remain silent – that I need to understand the lecturer position is a “job” while the tenure-track is a career. (These are things I’ve been told by academics.)

Coming from the private sector – with a wealth of experience greatly appreciated by my students, the arrogance I’ve witnessed from tenured faculty is astonishing – and pathetic. It is too bad that I like teaching (and my students appreciate what I teach them) because clearly, this is a road to nowhere for me, and I am beginning to look for alternatives. I’m considered lucky (and I’m supposed to be grateful) because I am a lecturer (thus far, though there are no guarantees my luck will extend past this semester – the lines are not available, so probably not.)

I love teaching – but I recognize the fact that adjuncts earn $2500 or so per class showcases the value the university places on teaching – it is not valued at all. (As per market rules….)

“(She added that a colleague has said that they [Master teachers] 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.”)

^This is one of the most fascinating parentheticals ever posted in a blog, FYI… Upstairs/Downstairs is a great metaphor for teaching at the university – the students are the ones paying dearly to get the wisdom of the downstairs staff as the upstairs folk ponder the changing universe.

And yes, tenured faculty are past their heyday with their perks under threat – in that the tenured professor is being weeded out in favor of a Walmart model – the no-bennie, low-wage mule. I have a feeling that those involved in “shared governance’ will trash this idea of the “master teacher” within higher ed…. elevating mules in anyway is too big of a threat to the thoroughbreds…


harry b 01.31.15 at 2:42 am

MSM — thanks. That’s depressing, but fits with everything else I hear.


js. 01.31.15 at 4:12 am

Also, here’s the obvious question (haven’t read all the comments, so sorry if I’ve missed this being addressed):

Why make the teaching positions untenurable? As it is, you’re talking about a pretty basic institutional change (one that I have a lot of prima facie sympathy for, ceteris paribus—is that enough qualifiers?). One way to do this is what you suggest: create a non-tenure track that has a lot of the privileges traditionally associated with tenure. Another way to go, presumably, would be to create a different subclass within tenure, where all that’s affected is the evaluation criteria. So teaching faculty would be tenured but with a distinct remit. Why go the first way vs. the second?


js. 01.31.15 at 4:13 am

Umm, not “also”. That was supposed to be “So”.


Alan White 01.31.15 at 4:50 am

Harry–in your own System there are institutions such as mine–the UW Colleges–that make teaching excellence a necessary condition for tenure. We are not typically regarded in the discipline as representative of academic philosophy–yet teaching institutions at the public and private levels at least rival the sheer number of students taught at R1s (I’ve never taught 300 students at one time, but over my career at my 4/4 I have taught well over 7000, dwarfing the number of many that teach at R1s with TAs for large sections). I’ve sent a number of students to Madison to major in philosophy; one of which completed a law degree as well at UW and I contracted to do my divorce. If I am well-equipped to instruct students I have sent to you and have tenure–and have published in Analysis and Erkenntnis, etc. BTW while teaching a 4/4–why would not someone who is burdened with a 3/3 not be tenurable? Even with modest publication expectations beyond that horrible 3/3 teaching load?


DCA 01.31.15 at 4:57 am

“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.”

You have, I think, just described an existing job title at the University of California:
Lecturer with Potential Security of Employment [LPSOE] — which is “tenure track” in the sense that if you teach well and do the appropriate professional development (which means contributing to the literature on how to teach), you become Lecturer with Security of Employment [LSOE]. I do not know how much this is used in different settings; the only examples I happen to know are in the sciences.


Magari 01.31.15 at 6:07 am

Coming from a university where there is such a “Master Teacher” scheme, and seeing that it is also found in Commonwealth (UK/Canada) countries, this new trend echoes transformations in the American university, where research is paramount and teaching is devolved to a new class of faculty. But, importantly, this shift is mediated by (1) a relatively greater appreciation of these instructors as professionals and (2) a relatively greater appreciation of the importance of undergraduate instruction. So rather than an underclass of teaching professors, you get pay, participation, and advancement modeled upon the “regular” tenure track faculty, albeit without tenure or with greater time-to-tenure.

I’m not sure this is a good/bad shift for those working in these countries, but in the US it would make quite an improvement.

@ Slanted Answer: some would simply consider that research-teaching synergy! Smart faculty are careful to present their research as something that informs/benefits their teaching. I suppose this could result in narrow seminars that miss the forest for the trees, but on the other hand could be rather stimulating, as you’ll have a motivated faculty member who is working firmly within her/his expertise. I had a seminar on Nietzsche like this once.

@UToronto: these teaching-track faculty teach a 4-4 but only methods classes? That seems odd… it also strikes me as funny that the last class faculty want to teach is research design and methodology, and yet in their own research (and in their evaluation of others’ research) it is all important.


js. 01.31.15 at 6:36 am

ps. to @25:

I think unless you do make both research positions and teaching positions tenured (under this imagined regime), it will be very, very difficult not to make teaching faculty an underclass. That’s the worry.


harry b 01.31.15 at 1:17 pm

Alan, js: you’re misreading me or I’m mis-writing (well, if the latter, then probably the former). I think the Master teachers should have secure stable employment, good pay and clearly defined opportunities for raises, sabbaticals, embedded professional development, etc (all after having proved themselves). IE, tenure — and I agree that’s a precondition for them not being second class citizens. (And they would be part of the talent pool drawn on for leadership positions, like chair, dean, provost, etc — we certainly need to expand the pool from which we draw those positions). I see no reason why juniors and seniors should be unable (as they currently are) to take classes simultaneously from Alan and from me, and lots of reasons why he and I should be encouraged, systematically, to learn from one another how to teach better. Sorry for not being clearer!


Matt Karush 01.31.15 at 1:19 pm

I guess I’m a bit confused about what problem we’re trying to solve. I agree that the exploitation of adjuncts is absolutely scandalous, but I’m not sure how the master teacher proposal addresses it. Why would administrations simply turn under-paid adjuncts into well-paid master teachers? I had thought you, Harry, were saying that we need master teachers because research faculty are poor teachers. In your response to me, you say that there should be some systematic professional development around undergrad instruction. That seems like a much more modest proposal. “Master teachers” implies taking a step toward separating teaching from research. That’s what I was objecting to.

How do I know my colleagues’ teaching is excellent? I read their syllabi and assignments, I observe them in the classroom, and I look at student evaluations. It might not be a perfect system for assessing student learning, but it’s not nothing. Presumably, it’s similar to how you know your kid’s professors are so good. (Incidentally, your kid’s experience as a freshman sounds like it supports my point!)

In the current context, it’s absolutely crucial to defend the value of research faculty in the classroom. The master teacher idea cedes too much to the opponents of the humanities.


Main Street Muse 01.31.15 at 1:41 pm

“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…”

Please seriously consider what you are saying here – you are taking for granted that parents must subsidize the research of TT faculty (to the tune of $55K a year) – and in return, those higher valued TT faculty will probably never, ever teach their child at the undergraduate level. This is an unsustainable funding model for research – and one of the reasons why higher ed is so troubled today.


Eli Rabett 01.31.15 at 1:51 pm

Now some, not Eli to be sure, might think the issue with science and engineering classes (not math) is more that a bit different than you are putting it. For one there are labs to be taught and even if the grad students are responsible for direct contact, master teachers fit well for overall supervision, much better than helicopter faculty who drop in for five minutes at the beginning and the end. That model leaves everyone wide open for responsibility for accidents, and labs ARE dangerous places. The other is recitations.

Finally many places use master teachers to take care of undergrad drop in rooms where help can be found all the time, rather than just during office hours.

Math, of course, if much like English for the same reasons, no grants, lots of students.


UTorontoA 01.31.15 at 3:06 pm

@magari. To be clear, the division isn’t quite as stark as I described. The teaching stream faculty do teach other courses, but their primary responsibility is usually to cover the intro methods courses that can be a non-Econ social science student’s most painful reminder that math matters (I have spent hours sitting with undergrads at my prestigious grad institution explaining different estimators only to finally realize that all the nods and grunts of agreement masked complete befuddlement at the concept of a distribution).. Since those courses can be very hard for students, I think it makes sense for people with lots of practice to do most of them. As for research focused faculty wanting to do research design courses, I think in general the preference is for advanced course where they can engage methodological questions that would be far over the heads of most undergrads.

None of this is to say that this division of labor is the only logical one. I could imagine a number of other ways of doing it that would work. Harry’s correspondent pointed to language, where the divide between language learning and literature is quite stark, but most disciplines don’t have those kinds of clean lines.


AB 01.31.15 at 3:26 pm

During my undergraduate degree in the UK I was taught in roughly equal measure by tenured research faculty (some very senior), teaching fellows, graduate students and postdocs. The mix was important.
Why do US universities, with the world’s most expensive undergraduate degrees, value undergraduate teaching so little?


Jeremy Fox 01.31.15 at 3:35 pm

University of Calgary ecologist here. Similar to @13, UCalgary has what are called “instructors”–faculty with no research or scholarship duties, and who teach heavier loads (about double the load) of “professors” (faculty with research/scholarship duties). The salary scale is a bit different for instructors, but in other respects (tenure, promotion, etc.) the two “streams” (as Calgary calls them) are alike. It works very well in my department (Biological Sciences). The instructors and professors respect and value each other as equals; we’re all professionals, we just have different duties. Several of the instructors and professors work together to offer pedagogical workshops, which is raising the quality of teaching across the entire department. Instructors don’t just teach large introductory courses; they also teach smaller upper-level courses in their areas of expertise (though not graduate courses)…I could go on and on, it just works really well, I think it’s a great model, at least for science departments.

I don’t know what instructor numbers are like in other departments, particularly humanities. Can only say I’ve never heard of any serious problems at Calgary (where “serious” means “serious enough for the faculty union (of which all profs and instructors are members) to raise it publicly”).


Z 01.31.15 at 3:36 pm

don’t you have professional development for science teachers in France?

As far as I can tell, we have absolutely none (well perhaps science teachers in Paris will be invited one or two days over the span of their whole career to some activities that might qualify, but that’s it really).

Or a national curriculum?

We do have a national curriculum but it is devised by people who have abandoned research so who might have been exposed to research ideas dating from 60 to 80 years ago. Also this national complaint is the result of a delicate compromise between bureaucratic and administrative issues (how many teachers do we have?) and “pure” issue (what should we teach?). A regular complaint is that the former are already too often overriding the latter and credible research credential from people devising it the curriculum is thus important.

Or people who manage teachers?

Same as in the US, i.e you must be joking? So unfortunately no, the way I see it the fact that University professors have credible research experience is the most important guarantee that the high-school curriculum is scientifically sound.

Anyway, in an ideal world, the idea of master teachers would make sense, I think. In our currently existing academic world, I think its real advantages (again, we have this system to some extent in France and it is highly effective) would come with real disadvantages.


Z 01.31.15 at 3:40 pm

Also, in the history of knowledge, it has always been taken for granted (at least in the European tradition) that a core part of research was transmitting said research to students. I don’t see the divorce of research and teaching that is more and more prevalent in current academia as a welcome development, ethically and sociologically speaking, and I fear that a division of labor between master teachers and researchers might be a step in the wrong direction.


Slanted Answer 01.31.15 at 3:51 pm


I agree with that. The narrowness point you mention is what my response was tracking.

Also, I don’t think that the main concern with “seminar fodder” is with the seminars themselves, but rather with graduate admissions. The problem is when you have departments admitting (often large) numbers of graduate students, not because they think all those students will successfully land academic jobs, but because they want to have sufficient numbers so that faculty members can teach seminars. Even if the seminars are themselves excellent, it still feels like the graduate students are fodder.


Alan White 01.31.15 at 4:11 pm

Thanks Harry for the clarification. I guess I was a bit uncharitable in my reading, but I’m like Margaret fuming about what the state is doing with UW too, and so my mood is pretty foul. I see we’re a lot closer than I thought on this, and I apologize!


harry b 01.31.15 at 5:11 pm

MSM — you’re completely missing the slant of my argument! I’m not taking that for granted at all. I’m saying that tenured faculty have managed to make that happen and have a vested interest in making sure it continues to happen — not that it is a good thing!! If you bring in tuition revenues, and teach well, you should be paid accordingly.

Yes, the timing of this post couldn’t have been worse for anyone in Wisconsin, I realise that.


Mdc 01.31.15 at 6:30 pm

“tenured faculty have managed to make that happen and have a vested interest in making sure it continues to happen — not that it is a good thing!!”

This goes back to my governance question. Is it really the case that faculty’s highest interest is in research? You listed just a few of the ways research-centric structures undermine good teaching. I know plenty of faculty who wish things were different- and this might require rethinking courses of study, or tenure criteria, or assessment practices, or admissions policies, or the ‘mission’ position of the institution.

One way to see whether ‘publish or perish’ is faculty-driven is to see if stronger faculty governance across different schools is correlated with policies that prioritize teaching.


harry b 01.31.15 at 6:35 pm

Mdc – that’s a neat thought (in the final para).

I also know plenty who wish things were different (I do). I think they are outnumbered be people who don’t; and they include people (really, to be honest, like me) who are not very optimistic about change, so don’t exert much effort to make it happen. (If I give an hour extra a week to something, its probably more rational to put it toward my teaching than to changing the system, is the thought).


Main Street Muse 01.31.15 at 7:39 pm

Harry – I am in NC, contingent faculty in a system that, like WI, has been turned upside down by the hard-right turn of the general assembly. A couple of weeks ago, the UNC system president was fired by the BOG – though the BOG – in the most awkward press conference ever – praised Ross lavishly for his work. (see here for a bit of that – the man stumbling and bumbling through the press conference is BOG chairman: Though politics are denied, everyone and their brother thinks Ross was fired to make way for Art Pope (NC’s version of a Koch Brother.) God help us if that is true!

I am newish to higher ed – love teaching – but quite frankly, looking for a new place to hang my professional hat. I work at a place that is so very disdainful of those who are just “teachers.” We have two-semester contracts – apparently because a few years ago, TT faculty voted for the right to get easily rid of us. (And yet, whenever tenure is threatened, they scream loudly – they want job protections just for themselves.) It is difficult to be a good teacher when you don’t know what – or if – you will be teaching in the fall.

The rigidness of faculty hierarchy is – as you noted – very Downton Abbey – and the modern American university is now becoming unable to afford the upkeep of its antiquated social/professional roles. College is now FAR too expensive to think students/parents can continue to subsidize the research of people not interested in teaching their children. MANY of the people who teach in higher ed are completely shut out of faculty governance. That’s simply wrong and the model will have to change. Let’s hope that the far-right politicians are not the ones to remake the public university to conform to their vision.


rather B anonymous 01.31.15 at 10:55 pm

In my college, tuition accounts for about 25% of the revenue, but financial aid accounts for about 13% of the costs: essentially, it’s a massive redistribution system from the children of the wealthy to the children of the merely middle class and, occasionally, the few children of the working class or poor. The upshot, though, is that the net revenue from tuition isn’t as big of a chunk of the inflow as many people think.

Although it’s rarely acknowledged (particularly by the humanists), the social scientists in the college support the humanists by (a) bringing in far more grants and IDC money on those grants; and (b) teaching far more undergraduate students per FTE (here, pretty much all tenure-line teaching by research faculty), which in turn allows the size of the incoming cohorts to be what they are. Incidentally, at my university, sociologists bring in the most grant money per FTE, followed quite distantly by economics, political science, and psychology (neuro psych is with the “hard” sciences); anthropology and the other interpretive social sciences are down with the humanities at about 1/10th the grant money per FTE as the average FTE in the non-interpretive social sciences.

What about the scientists, you ask? Yes, the scientists bring in much larger grants per FTE than the social scientists, they constantly have grants, and there are far more scientists running about the college and the campus. But scientists also cost much, much more to sustain: $1M startup packages for new assistant professors are common, and scientists need new buildings and lab space and equipment on a fairly short cycle in order to attract scholars who will then get the research grants to fill the buildings and the lab space and use the equipment. According to our (scientist) dean, the IDCs on the average science grant don’t cover the costs of that grant. The IDC’s on social science and humanities grants, by contrast, are pretty close to a “free” revenue stream for universities, beyond the initial investment in grant administration.

Given this, it’s hard to see a sustainable financial model in which the university hires more non-research teaching faculty (or upgrades its adjuncts) at higher pay and with the perks of sabbatical etc AND doesn’t also drastically shrink or eliminate its research faculty in the humanities and interpretive social sciences. Financially, the smart thing to do would be to move some of those research lines in the humanities to the high-grant fields and subfields within the social sciences, but politically it’s hard to see this happening. Ever.


js. 02.01.15 at 12:36 am

harry b,

@31 is helpful–thanks. I was working off the four desiderata listed in the post, the language of which suggests, as you put it, that “MTs” would have “equivalent of tenure”, which suggests, not tenure itself. At least that’s how I was reading it. And I guess I was wondering why that way of phrasing it, and the implied distinction. But if it really were _equivalent_, then yes, my major worry is addressed.


Joshua W. Burton 02.01.15 at 12:38 am

All my undergraduate language instructors (three languages, both sexes) were married to tenured professors in other departments, mostly mathematicians and scientists who were from that country or had met their spouses while doing research there. About half the instructors for required freshman English composition were also conjugal hires; the (male) director of that program was married to a very famous fine arts professor. Is the point that dual academic careers have become more symmetrical in this century? I called out gender because even in the 1980s it wasn’t as simple as wives as slave labor, but I guess that must have been part of it.


onymous 02.01.15 at 7:42 am

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.

Are you imagining that grants could pay the salaries of scientists? It may work this way in medical schools but certainly not across the board. Grants might pay a month or two of summer salary, but you would have to assume a huge increase in the funding of agencies like the NSF and DOE if they were going to start paying the salaries of professors in the sciences. Either that, or a massive slash in the research budget as money currently supporting research (in the form not only of equipment but graduate students and postdocs) is diverted toward faculty salaries.

If you’re going to get scientists on board with this you’d better explain where the money comes from.


LFC 02.01.15 at 1:58 pm

rather B anonymous @46
Incidentally, at my university, sociologists bring in the most grant money per FTE, followed quite distantly by economics, political science, and psychology (neuro psych is with the “hard” sciences); anthropology and the other interpretive social sciences are down with the humanities at about 1/10th the grant money per FTE as the average FTE in the non-interpretive social sciences.

I know you’re condensing here and I get the point, but there are quite a few political scientists — and prob. even more sociologists — who do ‘interpretive social science’. (Maybe not at your univ; I don’t know.)


Eli Rabett 02.01.15 at 2:54 pm

Perhaps what is needed is faculty members on football coach contracts, that is long term (like 5-10 year) contracts, that renew for an additional year each year with performance goals (Nobel Prize, bowl game) clearly stated.


Lowbrow 02.01.15 at 5:05 pm

The question of who in the university is subsidizing whom is a difficult one to determine at most universities precisely because the budget models are generally deliberately opaque. At my partner’s institution, the business faculty are convinced that they’re subsidizing the social sciences and humanities. In my Faculty, we’re told that research grants cost the faculty money as the funding councils won’t allow enough admin costs to be expensed against grants to account for the actual overheads and so we’ve been encouraged to seek industry funding with better margins.

As someone n a teaching stream position I’ve enjoyed the ability to focus on my students and to pursue the research interests that actually interest me rather than pursuing projects for status or because they’re needed for my file. The trade off has been a lack of status, higher teaching load, questions about whether my research should count for PTR evaluations, inability to hold certain admin positions, and a need to get provostial approval to be PI on a research application. In my unit these issues have been minor and my colleagues have been supportive. In other units, the status differences have led to open conflicts in which the inability to run departments has meant that one smaller subset of faculty has set the priorities for the the larger set of teaching stream instructors with predictable conflicts and consequences. However, this same type of factionalism and lack of collegiality has been present in other departments I’ve been associated that didn’t hae teaching stream appointments and it is a considerably better status for teachers than long-term sessional appointments (which often suffer form a 4 years on 1 year off problem) or straight up adjunctng.


A lecturer 02.01.15 at 5:39 pm

One possible problem is that if research faculty have little teaching responsibility, they’ll lose a sense for the need for works that can be used for teaching and won’t write them. Teachers who are teaching 3/3 + summer teaching, won’t have the time to write such works; and the students will end up reading too many classics or textbooks or, in the worst case, popular non-scholarly works. Students will come to know of current scholarship primarily through lectures, not their own reading.
I (really) like the idea of (paid!) sabbatical for master teachers (I have taught full loads for ten years, including over the summers, without a break); perhaps it could be used to write pieces that could be assigned for undergraduates. I have reader reports back for a book and two articles that I have not had the time to bring up to standards acceptable to myself. In many ways though I’d rather spend the time working on written materials for my undergraduates.


chairman 02.01.15 at 8:12 pm

Hypothetical: how possible do people see the scenario that in the coming years, as the job market continues not to improve (I’m not confident it ever will, before a seriously major social change has to occur) and more and more students are shoved into colleges they’re unsuited for because there’s just nothing else for them to do, undergraduate classes will start to look like an extension of high school classes and professors will have to increasingly worry about discipline and “classroom management”?


rather B anonymous 02.02.15 at 1:57 pm

@49. Absolutely. There’s heterogeneity within the social sciences, within a field, and within approaches in a given field. (E.g., a “quant” economist studying health economics probably has an easier time getting large grants than one who studies income inequality, because there’s far more money at the federal level — in the US — to study health.)

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