Elizabeth Olsson | 29 November 2019
November was a great month for the School of Global Studies. Academic staff in the department were awarded millions of Swedish crowns in research funding from multiple sources. The Swedish Research Council (VR) alone granted funding to 5 research applications— an impressive number— infusing 22.6 million Swedish crowns into the department. This funding was, undoubtedly, cause for celebration, but it was also a stark reminder of the necessity of research funding and, by extension, research publications to the careers of academics. The problem is these same successful research applicants will now have less time to teach university courses and, while their resumes will benefit, the education offered by the department will suffer. This problem points to a self-destructive standard of academic excellence, a standard that encourages research and publication and, simultaneously, discourages pedagogical excellence. This post is a reflection on both the problematic nature of hiring and promotion in academia as well as the consequences it has for our work as teachers.
Academic staff have two principal jobs: to research and publish, and to teach. These jobs, however, are neither equally valued nor equally rewarded. There are two reasons for this. First, although academic staff are often obliged to teach, their ability to get a job, keep a job, and secure a promotion are almost exclusively reliant on their publication records. As a result, academia currently attracts and retains researchers, not teachers. Current standards for hiring and promotion highlight the second reason why teaching is less valued: it is considered a fallback job. Academic staff teach when they do not have research funding thus making teaching the booby prize in the academic lottery. An academic culture has consequently developed where research and publishing are the ultimate goal and teaching is just what you do until you receive your next grant.
The consequences of this standard of academic “excellence” are not only that academia is discouraging prospective teachers from pursuing academic careers; it is leading to the development and provision of less than excellent courses. A teacher may facilitate a course for a couple of semesters, only to leave when they receive funding. This forces the department to scramble to find someone else who can teach the course until, of course, that person’s funding comes in. This ad hoc solution means that courses are often taught by Ph.D. students and other junior staff who have less teaching experience. It also means that those who do teach spend far more time and energy researching and publishing than developing their teaching craft. After all, if they want to get promoted, teaching an introductory BA course with rigor and skill is not going to help them.
Our students are suffering from this push to publish. When they are taught by staff more interested in publishing than teaching, they are less likely to appreciate their coursework or to complete their courses and programs. We are losing our students because we do not value teaching them as much as we value our publication records. The sad thing is, teaching makes for better research, but, as we are increasingly seeing, research does not make for better teaching. If you don’t believe me, consider the skills of an excellent researcher. These skills include critical thinking, astute argumentation, and wide-ranging knowledge of the literature. But they also require the ability to communicate research findings clearly to multiple audiences. Teaching is an excellent venue to hone these skills.
There are, of course, exceptions to the prevailing audit culture. Some lecturers are excellent teachers and who value teaching above publishing. The problem is, these lecturers tend to be the old-timers who bring with them a passion for pedagogy that new hires seem to value less and less. And, as these old-time pedagogues retire, they are leaving a vacuum in their wake. A vacuum that new hires have neither the skill nor interest in filling. If and when new hires are interested in pedagogical excellence— and some undoubtedly are— the push and pull of academia quickly pushes them away from both teaching and developing their pedagogical skills and pulls them towards publishing. In other words, it does not matter if an academic values teaching because the system does not.
The funding announcements in November are cause for mourning. Many of our best teachers will spend the next several years researching and publishing rather than designing and facilitating courses. As a result, their research will suffer, the courses we provide in our department will suffer, and departmental culture will suffer. Until our teaching records are accorded more value than they are now— or, let's face it, any value at all— we will continue losing students. After all, why take courses from academic staff who have a much greater need to write their next article than help students develop their knowledge and skills?
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. She holds a single-subject teaching credential (UCLA Extension, 2006) and a master’s degree in educational research (University of Gothenburg, 2013). She worked as a classroom teacher for more than a decade.