Publish or Perish?

Examining how teaching factors into Western's

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Publish or Perish?

In November, Western’s latest five-year plan, “Engaging the Future,” was debated and passed by the school’s Board of Governors.

The plan outlines the school’s goals in several areas, including enhancing the undergraduate programs currently offered while expanding its graduate cohort.

As Western embarks on these dual missions, The Gazette interviewed various administrators and professors to determine the relative importance of teaching and research today, and where undergraduate teaching will factor in the future.

 

40-40-20 workload

While most students know their professors must instruct and conduct research, many are unsure how professors are evaluated.

As professors ascend the ranks, they are evaluated yearly by the chair of their department or a committee of their peers. Officially, they are expected to devote 40 per cent of their workload to research, 40 per cent to teaching and 20 per cent to service or committee work.

“In all the things that we do, teaching and research are treated equally and honoured equally,” said Fred Longstaffe, provost and VP-academic at Western.

“Within the faculties, I know that the deans and the chairs and the directors of schools are all placing strong, strong emphasis on the value of teaching and education,” he said. “It’s the education component that distinguishes Western from a stand-alone research institute; it’s the combination of teaching and research that makes it a university.”

While the official policy stands at 40-40-20, how it is adjudicated at Western receives mixed reactions.

English professor David Bentley, who holds a 3M Fellowship for excellence in teaching and instructional development and a Western Hellmuth Prize for achievement in research, said the attitude toward teaching has improved since he first joined Western in the 1970s.

He said he was told as long as a colleague didn’t totally screw up in the classroom, that proffessor would be fine. He doesn’t think that holds true anymore.

While the attitude toward teaching has improved, Bentley said the balance between teaching and research favours the latter.

“As much as people try to make it the case that teaching and research are weighted equally, the fact remains that there is a lot of pressure on research and a lot of expectations on research,” he said.

“The result is that the balance can sometimes drop in the direction of research. As long as the teaching is fine, that will be okay, especially if the research record is very strong.”

Graham Smith, a geography associate professor, was recently nominated as one of TVO’s top 100 lecturers in Ontario. While acknowledging Western values teaching better than many other universities, he said the attitude needs improvement.

“It’s the culture within the university body itself " and that’s not just the administration " it’s also the culture of academics that have to come to accept, acknowledge and want teaching to be an equal parity to research,” he said.

“It’s 40-40-20, but teaching is not the same 40 as research. Research is the 40 that counts, teaching is the ‘other’ 40.”

Smith said professors’ merit pay is based on research and teaching scales from zero to four.

While the full spectrum is often used to evaluate an individual’s research, the scale for teaching is often limited to between 2.5 to 3.7, thus giving the implication that every person is, at the very least, an average teacher.

And though professors must submit a teaching dossier when applying for tenure, research was also indicated to be a bigger factor in advancing a professor’s career.

“Teaching is a factor in that if you have exceptional research and acceptable teaching, you’ll get tenure,” Smith said. “If you have exceptional teaching and okay research, on the other hand, you may not get tenure.

 

Recognition and the culture of teaching

Western has internal incentives to promote enhanced teaching.

For example, the university annually awards the Edward Pleva award to the school’s top teachers and recently introduced the Distinguished University Professorship program, which awards $10,000 to a professor with a proven track record in teaching, research and service.

Western also currently leads Ontario with 19 accumulated 3M Teaching Fellowships to date, which are awarded to Canada’s most outstanding professors.

Nonetheless, the culture or attitude of how teaching is valued at Western remains up for debate.

“Part of the problem is that when an individual faculty member takes on additional responsibilities " whether they’re service responsibilities or running a research network " the currency that is invariably used is to buy that person out of some of their teaching,” said Jane Toswell, an English professor and last year’s Faculty Association president.

Western, which is looking to increase its research profile, currently has 71 Canada Research Chairs, up from 41 two years ago.

While universities aren’t required to reduce the teaching load for their chairholders, the CRC website says “[the program] does expect that universities will do so to allow chairholders maximum time for research.”

In addition, research revenue has increased by nearly $70 million over the past five years.

Smith said it’s important the school’s top researchers continue teaching at the undergraduate level and not exclusively teach at the graduate level while conducting research.

“I think it’s a misnomer to think that if you are really, really good at research you should only teach at a graduate level,” he said. “I understand there are a lot of people who specialize, and who do exceptional research and have a large graduate contingent, that’s fair enough.

“But I think that key administrators and key researchers should still have an undergraduate course to keep them grounded in what this generation of undergraduates is like.”

Though distinguished in his field, Bentley still teaches a first-year honours English course.

“Undergraduate teaching is every bit as important as graduate teaching because undergraduates grow into graduates, and if students get put off your discipline in fourth, third, second or first year, then you’ve lost a good person to your discipline, and maybe even your university,” Bentley said.

 

Limited-term faculty

In addition to increased research revenue and expenditure at Western, the number of limited-term faculty teaching at Western has increased from 93 to 152 over the past five years.

Limited-term faculty work on a contractual basis and aren’t expected to conduct research.

And as Western shifts further into research, Toswell said professors will have increased responsibility supervising graduate students, which could have implications at the undergraduate level.

“If full-time faculty are teaching graduate students, who’s teaching undergraduates? Your part-time faculty,” she said.

“They’re very fine teachers, they’re dedicated teachers, but they’re not part of what I would see as the underlying ethos, the thing that makes a university different from a community college " which is the research " and we want to keep that as strong as possible.”

“Fundamentally, what’s happened is you’ve got almost a two-tiered system of people who are expected to do research, and administration, well as teaching, and people whose only requirement is that they do teaching. And the downside of that, potentially, is we’re losing people from the classroom who are actually active in research,” Bentley said.

 

Western’s rankings

With Western looking to improve both its research and teaching profile, the school has recently begun using the National Survey of Student Engagement to compare itself to other North American institutions.

Though Western paces other Ontario schools in certain categories, it scored worse in academic challenge and active and collaborative learning.

“I would say that we’re middle of the pack [in Canada], but that’s not a place that Western likes to be,” Longstaffe said regarding Western’s level of academic challenge. “This suggests to us that we need to very carefully examine our curriculum for not only the level of challenge, but also the way in which that challenge is delivered.”

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