Written with Mary Churchill
Mike: Education departments have been denigrated for a long time, often based on the claim that they make a fetish of process and do not adequately take substance into account. But there is a different reason for the defensiveness that often accompanies that judgment: It is primarily in education departments and rarely in other disciplines that faculty are most likely to discuss the relationship between teaching and learning.
Mary: This is related to the fact that so many academic departments seem to devalue teaching. We actively recruit and hire junior faculty members who are able to teach in innovative ways: utilizing global outreach, service learning, and new technologies. But we fail miserably at promoting and retaining these faculty members. We hire them for the “differences” they bring (significantly, many of these new hires are women and/or racial/ethnic minorities), but then we can’t deal with their innovations — particularly when it comes to evaluation.
Too many departments are unable or unwilling to change. Instead, they reward sameness. They reward teaching and scholarship that looks familiar, that looks like their own teaching and scholarship. One reader commented that there is little room for innovation in teaching. Junior faculty members are often afraid to take risks in their classrooms. They fear negative teaching evaluations and the “I told you so” looks and comments from senior faculty. They are afraid of hurting their bids for tenure or the renewal of their contracts.
Mike: But the sort of tenure evaluation that undervalues teaching did not originate with faculty. It was, and is, increasingly imposed by administration as part of establishing a certain reputation for the institution. I don’t mean that senior faculty members don’t support those criteria, only that their support may reflect a desire to be associated with a “ranked” institution.
At the same time, there are intrinsic difficulties in evaluating innovative teaching. All of this can contribute to what I consider an unwarranted and at best exaggerated suspicion on the part of some faculty that what is called innovative teaching is really nothing more than a matter of trendiness rather than substance.
Mary: Mike, I couldn’t agree more. These new faculty positions often stem from administrative initiatives focused on cultural change or institutional transformation. This is problematic from the start, and although departments welcome the additional teaching staff, they rarely “buy in” to administratively imposed enterprises, in either scholarship or teaching. Before approving this type of hire, both administration and faculty should be required to outline the ways in which these types of innovations will “count” in tenure and promotion decisions. If that change doesn’t occur, the new hire is set up for failure.
Mike: Administrative oversight in this regard is likely to narrow what is considered “innovative,” and, at the same time, fail to respond to the fact that certain pedagogical innovations are necessary features of developments in research. But even more important is the fact that some of these innovations have to do with the sort of teaching we began discussing in earlier posts: where the teacher is a learner and the learner a teacher, and where the logic of discovery is emphasized more than the logic of justification.Return to Top