Changing my mind

A good scientist is willing to change her opinion in response to evidence and logic. Recently my opinion has changed on a couple of points regarding Academia. Everyone agrees that academia is broken. I don’t know how to fix it. I have a few ideas. It is two of these ideas that have changed: that we should hire researchers to research, and teachers to teach, and that tenure needs to go.

It doesn’t make sense to me that we select the best researchers and hire them as professors and put them in classrooms. Not only have these people had little or even no teaching experience, and little or no training in teaching, but they were hired on the basis of how well they do their research, not how well they teach. Those who make an effort to become excellent teachers win teaching awards but not tenure. If they achieve tenure and then go on to become excellent teachers they win teaching awards but not promotions. Professors are rewarded for putting their efforts into research. At least, this is the common paradigm in state schools. Many private schools pride themselves on offering quality teaching.

A trend in the last few decades is that adjuncts do more and more of the teaching. Adjuncts, if they don’t receive any more training in teaching than tenure track professors, at least are hired to teach, not hired to do research and oh yeah, you teach too. When I got my position as a Research Professor–with my own lab (a rare treat for a Research Prof)– I thought this was the solution. Hire research professors to do research, and adjunct professors to teach. Get rid of the regular faculty entirely. Spend some resources on providing training to adjuncts so that they will be better teachers, or focus on hiring adjuncts who have that background already.

A couple people have objected to my scheme. They don’t think teaching should be completely divorced from research. One presented sufficiently compelling arguments with real examples that I’ve changed my mind too. If someone only has experience teaching, and little or no experience in either research or practice (ie, clinical), what she teaches will be what she learned as a student. Someone who has current research projects or current clinical practice understands what the practice actually is. Research techniques change as often as our underwear. There’s not much point in learning what a northern blot* is anymore, but someone who graduates without a basic understanding of quantitative RT-PCR** is at a disadvantage.

That argument leaves me convinced that it is a mistake to divorce research from teaching, or clinical practice from teaching. I don’t know an alternative solution. Perhaps devote more resources and some incentives to teaching, reduced class loads so that instructors can devote more attention to the classes they have. My original plan had the advantage of being a lot cheaper: you can higher one adjunct and one research professor for little more than the cost of one tenure track professor. Adding yet more tenure track professors is prohibitively expensive.

That brings me to the second idea which I have abandoned: getting rid of tenure. Everyone knows the ancient moldy professor who hasn’t done a lick of work since he got tenured in 1972…well, actually, he’s as mythical as the Welfare Queen, according to Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education. But doesn’t tenure discourage change, lock professors into a rut, enforce the good old boy system? Isn’t it bad for students? According to this article, faculty tenure is only bad for overpaid university presidents. Tenure protects faculty the way labor unions protect the labor force…and tenure comes with many of the same problems that labor unions bring.

There are some ideas out there about fixing academia that I’m still in favor of. Use permanent technicians instead of temporary postdocs and grad students to do research. Backwards funding of individuals, not the fictional forward funding of experiments. Changes in the culture of science through changes in funding, publishing, hiring and promoting.

*A northern blot is a technique where RNA is loaded into a well in a gel, and electric current runs through the gel which drives the RNA to travel the length of the gel. It separates based on length. Once it is separated the gel is transferred to a nylon membrane (the blot) and labeled with probes, radioactive in the first northern blots. The sequence can then be determined based on the probes.
**Reverse-transcriptase is an enzyme that turns an RNA molecule into a cDNA molecule. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) makes many copies of, or amplifies, the cDNA molecule. Using fluorescently-tagged bases during the PCR and high-tech detectors that pick up the fluorescence and can distinguish the colors, the amount of cDNA is quantified during each amplification cycle, such that you can calculate relative quantities of the original RNA in your sample.

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