Professor Asimov in 1950

I just finished Isaac Asimov’s last autobiography, “I. Asimov”. I want to share this passage (page 163) because it is sadly familiar. This situation is well known to anyone who has experienced academic research. What was interesting to me is how the situation in 1950 matches the situation today.

“My utter failure at research didn’t bother me in the least, considering my excellence at lecturing. I reasoned it out this way. The prime function of a medical school is to teach medical students to be doctors an done important way of doing this is through lectures. Not only was I capable of informing and educating the class with my lectures but I roused their enthusiasm as well…”

“I had left one factor out of my calculations. Lecturing helps only the students. Research, on the other hand, means government grants, and a portion of the grants is invariably marked for “overhead”, which goes to the school. What it amounts to is that the school chooses research over lecturing every time–money for itself over education for its students. That meant I was not invulnerable at all, but rather a sitting duck once my research vanished altogether, which it did.

“You might argue that the school was correct in choosing itself over the students, since if the school were forced to curtails its facilities through lack of funds, the students would suffer. On the other hand, surely one could strike a balance. A superior teacher might be forgiven failure at research. That, however, as I shall explain later, was not to be.”

Ultimately he was fired. Everyone agreed he was an excellent teacher. In addition to teaching he was a prolific writer–and not just science fiction. He thought that science writing would fulfill the “scholarship” arm of teaching-scholarship-service. He scaled back on his fiction writing while he was receiving a salary from Boston University, in order to fulfill that commitment. But it wasn’t good enough and he was fired.

He was describing his 9-year stint as a professor from 1950 to 1959. Sadly, nothing has changed. Well, if it has changed at all, it has only gotten worse.

I think my institution is perhaps a little better about this because they do not get much money from research grants. In fact I’ve heard complaints that they do not value research enough, and I worry a little about my own position. My position is 100% research, 0% teaching, unless I want to teach, and then I’m allowed up to 10% teaching, but it is discouraged. If the institution doesn’t value research, how secure is my 100% research position? (I don’t worry about it much.) However, I don’t think they value and reward teaching prowess either. I’m not entirely sure about them actually. I haven’t quite figured them out.

Regardless, in general, and certainly at most other institutions (even, to some extent, liberal arts colleges), there is simply not even a pretense of caring about teaching quality. If you have grants, all is forgiven. A professor can be the worst teacher ever. S/he can go so far that there are lawsuits, and all that is done is to rearrange the schedule so that you don’t teach certain students.

There is not the slightest attempt to “strike a balance”. Far from it.

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