Friday, September 16, 2016

Research / teaching balance

This semester I meant to keep Fridays (one day a week I don't teach) for research exclusively, and resist the urge to catch up with teaching prep work on Fridays. But lo and behold, it took me exactly 3 weeks to relapse. The first week went well: I was writing a research paper. The second week was fine as well, but I had to come in on Saturday for a few hours to catch up with other work. But the third week came, and I'm defeated, at least temporarily. I need to rework a lecture that failed last year (the one about normal distribution - hard topic to conceptualize), write some lab assignments, and so on.

Don't get me wrong, it obviously get easier with time: it seems that had I stuck exactly to my previous year lesson plans, I could have saved about half a day, maybe a day worth of time every week. But I am trying to rework both courses, to make them better: to introduce more group work and primary literature in my intro, and to move the emphasis away from probability theory and towards data presentation in my biostats class. And it means prep work, and weekly firefighting.

Now, here's an interesting blog entry (from 2011, but relevant and very well written) about what it takes to get a tenure in a major research university:

It may seem like a non-sequitur, but actually it's intimately related to the existential threat of research Fridays. The question is: how should I balance research and teaching, in an ideal world? Is research only for vacations and weekends, or is it possible to do it during the week? And also, should it be possible, from the administration point of view, thinking in their shoes? Should we (the people, the faculty) encourage a more even split between teaching and research? We are a teaching college, but an aspiring one: we are a SLAC, as in "Small Liberal Arts College", but we want to become a SLAC as in "Selective Liberal Arts". We are trying to boost our profile, and it means that while teaching takes most of our time and effort, surprisingly, it is research that mostly comes up during tenure evaluations. I mean, if you are bad at teaching, you are fired. But once you are good, or at least decent, everybody just shift to weighing and assessing your research. Is it sustainable? But is it ambitious enough? Are you stretching too thin? Or maybe too narrow? Too many collaborations? Too few? Too little work with students? Too much student work? There are many dimensions to assess, and many considerations to balance.

In a way, it came to me as a surprise that our tenure discussions are actually not that far from that in a major research university, at least in spirit. Granted, we can collaborate with our former advisers, we can be third authors, and the expectations for productivity are much lower; perhaps as much as 5-10 lower (depending on what weight you ascribe to collaborative papers). But the criteria themselves become more and more research-oriented.

There are aspects of this shift that are worrying. For example, I don't quite like the shyness with which the older tenured folks refuse to set clear criteria for the publication record. The reasons for this shyness are actually good and valid: in a small college the same group of people has to discuss publication records of a computer scientist (all conferences), theoretical physicist (all arxive), molecular biologists (typical paper has 30 pages and 12 figures), and synthetic chemist (typical paper has 2 pages and 2 figures). It's hard to come up with clear criteria when every single case is so unique. Yet it is a bit annoying, as in theory this flexibility can be used both to save a case, and to sink it.

But at the same time, there are upsides here as well, and not just because I personally like research. Perhaps the most curious one is that with research emphasized so strongly, our tenure goals are now not that far, in terms of CV building, from job search goals for a person who suddenly decides to leave for another institution. So in way now we can try to just "be successful" as potential job candidates. If we are successful, we'll probably get tenure as a collateral, but if for some reason we won't, we'll still have some decent chances of finding another job. It feels that in a teaching-only college there would be a stronger fork here, a bigger difference between tenure goals and job search goals. In our case it's not that bad, which makes the situation less risky.

And in practice it means: publications, publications, and some more publications. No popular books no textbooks, minimal service. Teaching should be good, but pedagogy related publications, conferences, grants and projects are more important, as they are more objective and more visible to outsiders.

That's the plan.

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