What Faculty and Students Need to Know About Each Other
Redacted and condensed transcript of conversation on 2/28, between Steven Newman and Temple News
SN: So, on point #1, different students bring different levels of preparation to class. Has it been your experience that you’ve walked into classes and you’ve felt blindsided? That is: “I have this 2000-level class over here that assumes this much knowledge and then I have this other 2000-level class that assumes this much knowledge. Is that an experience that you all have had?
Zack: Yeah. I’m still weighing the merits of this point, but I just think that overall throughout various disciplines, there isn’t a lot of conformity as to the progression. Two of us are tied to both journalism and political science, and those two majors have recently gone through curricular restructuring. The journalism program has become even further de-centralized; the idea of tracks has gone out the window while at the same time the political science department has gone in the opposite direction. You have to take an evidence and knowledge course that teaches you the basics. You need to take practice capstones before you take your capstone. Is there a set direction hat various programs should be going in? I think personally that we should be transitioning toward this added-knowledge model. I’ve been in classes and the people next to me either don’t know anywhere near what I do on the subject or know lots more than I do. It happens too frequently and it disrupts the learning process.
Sean: In journalism especially . . . I’m in the new journalism major. You take 5 or 6 core classes and then you’re basically free to pick 6 more specialty courses in anything. One of the things you run into is you either get a class like publication design that I’m in right now. You go from your basic design for journalists, which teaches you the basics of Photoshop and end design and layout programs. And then you go to publication design, which assumes that you’ve mastered those skills when you were in that class, but there are a lot of people in it who haven’t had as much practice and so they have to get another course on Photoshop and end design. The other thing is true in some reporting classes where you are regurgitating all the information that you learned in your basic reporting class over again in different subjects.
SN: So you don’t feel as if you’re actually making progress.
Sean: No. You’re just on the same level but perhaps in a specialty subject.
SN: There’s no increasing sophistication.
Angelo: I do think there’s something to be said about these classes where there are varying levels of expertise, but I think that it’s also fair to say that giving you that freedom allows you to expand… At least in journalism I’ve always been an advocate of being able to dabble in a little bit of everything, especially in journalism because it’s such a changing industry where you kind of have to know a little bit of everything, whereas maybe it should be a little more restrictive in fields that aren’t changing as rapidly.
SN: In Chemistry there’s a clearer progression. But in other fields—some in the social sciences, many in the humanities, the sense of additive knowledge often is not as clear. It’s more of a rhizome or a network. Nonetheless, one should expect that a course in any department at the 4000-level would be different in character from one at the 2000-level, and more advanced courses in all disciplines should build on each other. I think you have pointed to a fair criticism that can be leveled at many of our curricula, which is that the faculty as a whole have not thought them through sufficiently. Many majors have a gateway and a capstone course, but then the middle of the major lacks definition. This is true of the English major. While a department may have reformed its curriculum 15 or 20 years ago, it may not have done so recently enough to have thought through how the classes we’re teaching match up with the state of the discipline, whether those classes speak to each other and build on each other. That requires a conversation among the faculty and then a commitment by that faculty to adhere to those guidelines.
These conversations are complicated by a bunch of factors. One of them is the faculty’s understandable resistance to being told what to teach; professional autonomy and academic freedom are key values. Another is something I mentioned in my list of what students often don’t know, which is that courses are being taught by faculty members of different types. Leaving aside whether all the tenure-stream faculty are speaking to each other and we don’t do that enough, then there’s the question of whether we’re talking with our non-tenure-track full-time colleagues or with the adjuncts who are often hard to find because they’re teaching at lots of different schools. How do we bring them into the conversation? And then there’s the question before that question, which is: “What is that knowledge worth?” “Why is it valuable to be able to do x?” “What is it that you want your majors and other students to get out of your classes?”
But to answer those questions properly, we also need to know who are students are and to talk to them about what they want. Faculty, of course, are the experts in the field, and we should not cede that authority. Still, we need to know what our students want from the curricula and figure out if we can provide it, assuming that they’re willing to do the work. How do we balance a need to have students master particular bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing—from knowing how to build a bridge to how to analyze a poem—with students’ healthy desire to sample various courses? One reason I like this point most is that it assumes that students care about their course of study, and that’s something I want to believe. They want their studies to matter to them and to have some sense of coherence.
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Angelo: I really liked your second point about what teachers do outside of the classroom—specifically about research. It seems like Temple in the past few years, there is a growing move to do more research. There are different raises. . .
SN: You mean through merit pay?
Angelo: Yes, through merit pay. Does that at all, in your experience at Temple, detract from professors’ focus on the classroom?
SN: It can. The answer you tend to get from professors is that research is supposed to make our teaching better. We’re in dialogue with what’s happening out in the field and we can bring that back to our students and it keeps our graduate and undergraduate courses fresh. Ideally, yes. But the fact is that there are only a certain number of hours in the day. It is possible, then, to imagine that as expectations for research go up and as the incentives increase, some faculty make decisions about where to invest their time. Look, if you’re a scientist and you don’t nail a grant, you’re dead in the water. You can’t do your work.
What I’ve found at Temple, though, is that in many cases our most accomplished researchers are also our most accomplished teachers. If you look at the Great Teachers inscribed on the wall of the Alumni Garden, they do not only excel at teaching. They are typically serious researchers, some with international reputations.
In the modern sciences, peer-reviewed research has always been crucial. Provost Dai who is himself an eminent chemist who has received a great deal of funding for his research is looking to help build on recent gains at Temple in attracting sponsored research. This also applies to social sciences where grants are more common, though that doesn’t make them easy to get, like criminal justice and geography and some fields in education.
Things have also changed in the humanities. 30 years ago, to get tenure at even some good schools, you simply didn’t need to publish as much. But as we in the humanities started to take our cues from the sciences on research productivity, since that’s where the prestige is, the expectations there have shot way up. There’s a push to publish more.
Sometimes research does invigorate your teaching. Sometimes it forces you to make a painful choice where to invest your time. Does that make sense?
Sean: It goes hand in hand with students not only going to class, doing lots of things outside of taking classes.
SN: Yes, and it shows why when we do manage to get together, to be in the same room together, that’s really precious time and we have to make sure it’s productive.
Zack: What are the administration’s priorities on these issues? Research obviously increases the university’s visibility and adds prominence and helps with recruitment. But teaching is what keeps students here. Which would you say they stress?
SN: That’s really tough… .It’s going to be hard to find anyone, be it an administrator or faculty member, who doesn’t say that teaching and research go hand in hand. We say this in part because we believe it, but it’s also a useful way to deflect the question. I would just judge in part by how merit gets broken down. Our union puts out how the different colleges award merit. Across the board, 64% of merit last year was awarded for research, 20% for teaching, 16% for service, and that’s similar to the levels over the past few years.
This is a research university; and the value of research is not exhausted by what it contributes to teaching. Temple is committed to producing knowledge. But in addition to being a public university, which means it needs to be responsive to the public’s need for educated citizens, Temple is also relatively unusual in its commitment to the Conwellian mission and in having a very small endowment relative to other research universities, which makes it dependent on undergraduate tuition. So we have to commit to undergraduate education in a serious way. Have to. Otherwise, we’re false to our mission, and we will not be able to sustain ourselves financially.
Angelo: In my experience as an undergrad one of the things that’s been missed is the idea of teachers bringing their research back to the classroom.
SN: You just haven’t seen it that much.
A: I haven’t seen it at all. It might just be because of my major and because the classes I explored outside of my major are pretty basic. That may play a role.
Sean: The only thing you see in Poli Sci a little bit more is the fact that the professors might make you buy the textbook that they wrote. [laughter] Adjuncts in journalism, if you count their actual work, they a lot of the times use their stuff in their papers as examples. If you count that as research…
SN: I would.
Zack: It is in theory, but not in the sense that these are tenured teachers who are getting paid and bringing in revenue by doing their research and the university then gets paid for selling it.
SN: I’d like to define research a bit more broadly since the stuff I do doesn’t tend to sell. Even if you define it that way, look: If we’re all telling you that, “No, you’re producing a false dichotomy b/t research and teaching and research actually invigorates our teaching.” Say, “Well, I don’t see it.” Even if you grant in theory if you say you aren’t seeing it practice, that’s something we need to hear. Obviously, it also depends upon the level of the class. But if we’re not making good on the claim that research makes for better teaching then we either have to do better or acknowledge that the claim is bullshit and give it up.
Angelo: I would venture to guess that you do see it more in some areas, but it’s not as prevalent as it might be.
SN: Is that true of your experience?
Cara: I’ve taken a lot of sociology classes, and I’ve found that the professors there and in Women’s Studies tend to use what they’ve written as textbooks.
SN: Let me ask you about that. You say they use it as a textbook, and there was a knowing wink about that. It’s one thing to say they are bringing their ideas into the classroom. It’s another to say that they’re charging you 50 bucks part of which goes into their pockets. Is it more the latter or the former?
C: This semester, it’s the former. I’m taking a Women in Poverty class, and the teacher isn’t necessarily using the textbook that she wrote, but she does discuss the research that went into it, and she’s supplementing the course with novels. While the course is structured around what her research background is about which is mostly about welfare reform, by saying that she’s done all this research, it gives her authority in the class, but she’s also using texts outside of her own.
SN: But it does feel as like her particular research interests are helping to producing the scaffolding on which the class is built.
SN: But it doesn’t sound as if you’d had that experience all the time with tenure track faculty. Where one of the things they’re paid to do, their research, is not well integrated with their teaching. And the fear is that if the incentives are on the side of research that might actually distract them from teaching.
SN: To speak to my own experience, the people who are really accomplished researchers are very devoted to their teaching. It’s like tenure. You get tenure, and it’s quite possible to get away with phoning it in. But very few professors in my experience do. The same thing with research. If you’re a well-known researcher in the sciences or not, you could act like a big shot, “Screw you. I’m on CNN on all the time. Who are you?” I don’t see it as much as one might expect. Do you all run into this Big Cheese Syndrome much?
Angelo: I have had people who would qualify as Big Cheeses, yes, but they haven’t acted that way. •