This is a Guest Post by a reader who shall remain anonymous. He teaches at a regional state institution. It’s the kind of place of which people say, “teaching is what counts.” He is here to tell us what just happened, this past fall, in a job search, when the rubber hit the road on the question of: just how important is teaching in ranking the candidates? Short answer: not very. Adjuncts: read this and learn. Your teaching will not get you a tenure-track job.
I am a tenure-track assistant professor in the humanities. I work at the sort of school that most of us, when we entered graduate school, thought we would only consider working at if we couldn’t get a job anywhere else. The teaching load is heavy. The location is not ideal for most academics. The institutional culture can, at times, seem more like the DMV than an institution of higher learning.
This year I was on a search committee, which recently concluded its work with a successful hire. We got a lot of applications. We had meetings to figure out how to sort through these applications, how to rank them against each other in relatively objective ways that would also allow us to process the many candidates. This is when a very interesting thing happened.
There was a major conflict over how to rank candidates, and the conflict spilled out beyond the confines of the committee and the department itself. It was only resolved when administration delivered a verdict.
I mentioned that we have a heavy teaching load. Some junior faculty—not the most junior, but those hired before 2009— thought that this meant we should mainly prioritize teaching experience, statements of teaching philosophy, teaching portfolios, course evaluations, and so on in our rankings. They thought that because we have a heavy teaching load, our school has a mainly teaching mission, and candidates should be judged on their teaching.
This reflected their own vision of their job. They were relatively content to come here, settle in, teach a few courses, publish the minimum amount needed for tenure, and then lead the comfortable life of the tenured professor. This was an entirely reasonable set of expectations when they were hired, and it is what most tenured faculty at the school have indeed done. Some are good teachers, some are bad, very few are known in their field. By and large, it’s not a bad life and most of them are pretty content. It does, however, lend the place the aforementioned DMV-like atmosphere at times.
There was another school of thought. The really junior faculty—the ones hired after 2009—wanted colleagues more like them. They have significant research profiles, publish, win money for research, and do extra service, while being fine teachers. Their line of argument went, “none of us were great teachers when hired, but we learned to teach perfectly well, so let’s prioritize hiring someone who is an active scholar, publishes a lot, and who won’t just phone it in in terms of service.”
Although some of these post-2009 hires are actively seeking new positions, others have sunk roots in the locale. All realize that, given the state of the job market, they could be here a long time and want to make the best of the situation. They are dedicated to raising the research ranking and developing the research culture of the institution, and see themselves as contributing to its transformation.
A stalemate ensued. No agreement could be reached.
Would it be “teaching-first?” In that case, the many multi-year adjuncts would have a distinct rankings advantage, despite no real signs of research or non-teaching accomplishments.
Or would serious research potential win out? In that case, we’d focus on someone with exciting ideas and a dynamic research agenda. We had a great pool of freshly-minted PhDs to choose from who had a little bit of teaching experience but already had several publications.
At one point the “teaching first” crowd invoked a moral argument. How could we look at all these multi-year adjuncts and not give one of them a job? They had dedicated themselves to their students and been super-exploited by various schools in order to barely scrape by as adjunct professors. Certainly, it made us all sad to see people teaching eight or nine classes a semester for half our salary and no benefits. Frankly, I think I cried looking at a couple of their c.v.s (and only in part because of how poorly written they were). But, you don’t hire people out of pity, and even the “teaching first” crowd realized the absurdity of this line of argument after a little while.
In the end we hit a stalemate between these two diametrically opposed visions of the institution, a stalemate that was only resolved when Administration weighed in.
And, eyes always on the bottom line, the administration spoke: Research Wins.
The administration did not waste time wringing its hands and piously invoking our teaching mission. “Teaching mission?” Please. That’s for the public. As they told the department in no uncertain terms, active scholars make the best teachers. Indeed, they promptly took the opportunity to chastise the “teaching first” crowd, publicly, that their tenure cases would be at risk if they didn’t step it up and publish more themselves.
The message was very clear: anyone can teach, and the administration is tired of professors who come here, settle into teaching and then do a minimal level of research and service both. The research-centric post-2009 hire, by contrast, are competitive with junior faculty at higher ranked schools with lower teaching burdens. Apparently, this boosts the campus’s standing with the state, which brings more money in, which makes administrators happy.
The lesson to be derived from all this? Once you can show that you have taught a couple classes successfully, teaching does not count very much toward getting hired even at teaching-heavy regional institutions like mine. Administrators correlate an emphasis on teaching with long-term lack of productivity and unwillingness to do time-consuming, necessary service post-tenure.
Meanwhile, junior faculty who have been hired in the past three years correlate a teaching emphasis with boring people they can’t talk to about cutting edge research, and who probably won’t even get the jokes we make.
We won’t even speak of the colleagues who can’t be bothered to do anything at all.
A caveat on teaching: Do not draw the conclusion from what I have written here that you should apply for a teaching-heavy position if you are totally averse to teaching. While teaching may not count too much in getting hired, you will do a lot of it once you are hired, and if you can’t learn to sometimes enjoy it (and other times not hate it too much), you will be miserable at a school with a heavy teaching-load. That kind of misery makes most people totally unproductive, and you will most likely not be able to publish your way out of the job. Your first semester with a heavy teaching load will be rough, and so you will want to be able to enjoy the challenge and manage the steep learning curve and get some satisfaction from watching yourself progress as a teacher and from teaching students in general.