HIGHER EDUCATION

Some thoughts on higher education:

I just read an article in an academic periodical, arguing that faculty in colleges and universities do not spend enough effort on teaching. This is not new: every ten years or so, a top level committee comes out with a well-publicized report, calling for the same changes. Yet, over time, there seems to be relatively little improvement, so a hue and cry erupts, and we get another study.

There is a good reason for this continuity, and it has to do with the kinds of people who become professors, and the way the American academy is set up.

I have been a part of higher education for quite a few decades, at a number of institutions, and met colleagues from all over the world. While the academy attracts its share of curmudgeons, overall the people I've met are pretty normal. They are decent folks, not trying to change the world (except in their own discipline); they like students and enjoy teaching.

But they're also ambitious. Not in the Gordon Gekko, shark-at-any-cost sense, but rather, as a normal, moderate day-to-day life approach. Just like every middle level employee at any corporation, they want to get ahead. Every academic I know dreams--or has dreamed--of getting tenure and becoming a full professor, much like how everyone else, no matter what they do, hopes to rise in the ranks.

In the modern university, however, the best--and in many cases the only--way to do this is to publish a book from a university press, or articles in refereed journals. Teaching is a good thing, and will burnish your portfolio, but is hardly sufficient. In the vast majority of schools, the situation is clear: if you publish a great, important work and have mediocre teaching, you get tenure and access to university resources, like travel money and release from courses. Reverse the situation to great teaching and no publications, and you'll be reentering this horrible academic job market. The entire incentive system is geared to this: there are plenty of prestigious awards honoring a brilliant book or article--both national and by discipline--that really make a c.v. stand out. I can only think of a few major citations for superior teaching, on the other hand, that would grab the attention of a hiring committee in most departments, and even these citations might be ignored.

This holds true even at the institutional level. If you are a university on the make, the route to greater prestige is to hire well-known scholars, not teachers of the same caliber. It is far, far more important for a school to claim it has a Pulitzer or Nobel prize winner on its faculty than a top instructor; this is true in terms of impressing colleagues, to ranking agencies like U.S. News, and even as a recruitment tool for prospective students.

Thus, the fundamental truth of academe is its reward structure. Unless an institution is willing to change that, the reports are just verbiage. Note how all the authors, usually persons holding high level positions at prestigious universities, never suggest they change how tenure and promotion are granted at their school. It's not being hypocritical; they don't propose it for any school.

Yes, some colleges and universities, some departments, chip at the edges of this structure, and they should be praised for their efforts. These places mentor young faculty in teaching, and even create new positions where colleagues are hired solely to improve the level of instruction. All of this is worthwhile, and I emphatically endorse such moves.

But until the academy makes much bigger changes, there will be precious little of this, and the trends will continue in the other direction. Academics are just like anyone else: they want to buy a house and a car, raise their kids, and do well in the marketplace. As long as their employers lay out a specific path to these reasonable goals, most folks will follow it, and be rewarded for their efforts. For the report authors to cry "foul" on teaching, without creating an alternative route to these same rewards, is at best verbiage, at worst duplicity.

My second point involves one huge issue that may cause short-term hardship but long-term benefits to young academics. The hottest news in publishing is that Amazon is reporting it now sells more e-books than hard covers. Somehow I don't think this has caught up with the academic world, where evaluations are still based on the quality and quantity of written publications.
In the near term, this portends disaster for up-and-coming tenure candidates. Right now the only accepted criteria for advancement is getting accepted by traditional publishers and journals. Yet, the number of such outlets is diminishing, as readers switch to a digital format and libraries buy fewer items. In response, academic presses will reduce the number of titles they produce; this means it will become harder and harder to get published, and thus to meet the only accepted standard for advancement.

As this sector shrinks, a generation of academics will find diminishing prospects. There will be anger, disputes, and eventually a revolution, as we finally accept academic e-publications.
At that point, the scholarly world will open up, and become a lot better. University presses will still perform the important function of gatekeepers, winnowing out works of different quality. They will still hire editors and proofreaders. But freed from most production costs, they can publish more quality works by bright, aspiring authors. And these works may actually get wider distribution, as even graduate students find they can afford the lower price of an e-monograph.

Do not misunderstand me; I love the printed word. There are seven books under my name, with more on the way. I will mourn the book's passing, in so many ways; I dread the notion of curling up at night with a Kindle, rather than with paper and ink and binding.

But I would also like to see smart, deserving young colleagues get tenure. I'll accept that tradeoff.