Mike the Mad Biologist

Why Harvard’s Skocpol Is Full of It

And by “it”, I don’t mean the good stuff. Harvard dean Theda Skocpol has announced a new initiative to improve undergraduate teaching at Harvard. I’ll believe it when I see it–which means it will never happen. Here’s why.

The short version is that every year (give or take), some prestigious university announces that they are going to improve teaching. And then it never happens. At this point, it’s not cynical to assume the worst, it’s cynical to announce a ‘new teaching initiative.’ In response to this announcement, Aspazia and Steve Gimbel both describe how teaching isn’t rewarded even at institutions that focus on undergraduates. Gimbel describes the clash between professional success and teaching (and the whole post is worth a read, so you get all of the gory details; italics mine):

…university professors have three jobs: research, teaching, and training graduate students, the next generation of scholars. In training upcoming technicians in their field, they stress that which made them successful…hint, it isn’t teaching. Newly minted Ph.D.’s are sent out into academic world with explicit instructions to pay as little attention to teaching as they can get away with in order to be able to focus on their research, their “real work.” If they are lucky enough to get jobs, they have to labor for the next seven years with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head; if they are denied tenure, they lose their job. Imagine that you’ve just put in five to ten grueling years working your tail off in grad school, have miraculously achieved your dream of finding a job at a college or university, and have a family to feed. Tenure decisions are largely based upon publication, scholarly research, and networking with the powerful in your scholarly community so you can get good “external evaluations.” When your department chair warns you about spending too much time trying to help your students, what do you think these folks are going to do?

The entire reward structure in colleges and universities is centered around research. How many publications? Were they in elite journals? How much grant money did you bring in? How many times was your work cited by other scholars? Important ones? This is what makes your reputation. This is what lets you keep your job and earns you raises. This is what you are “supposed to be doing.” It’s funny that even our own students don’t realize this.

I’ll get to the last sentence later. The problem is even more magnified in the sciences because federal grants are a cash cow for universities. Why? Overhead. ‘Professional’ concerns notwithstanding, nothing can stand before the Almighty Overhead Dollar. So what’s overhead?

Overhead, also referred to as indirect costs, are a surcharge on the direct or actual costs* of the grant. More people on a grant and more research costs mean more ‘indirects’ for the institution. Typically, these indirects run 50-75% of direct costs. Personnel are a particularly good way to run up indirect costs**, since you can not only charge on the salary but on an additional 16% which pays for Social Security and FICA (and some places add on more than 16%–these costs are often referred to as fringe).

A certain amount of indirects is needed: all institutions have administrative and infrastructure costs (e.g., personnel, IT, utilities, and so on). But 50%-75% is exorbitant (and, incidentally, reduces the total number of awards federal agencies can give. Federal granting agencies subsidize higher education to the tune of billions of dollars every year***). At smaller colleges, a large federal grant can underwrite much of a department, and at larger universities, science departments are often ‘profit generating centers.’****

You’ll notice that teaching doesn’t enter the discussion. Compared to the economic incentives and the professional incentives that Aspazia and Gimbel describe, teaching just doesn’t signify. As Gimbel put it, “It’s funny that even our own students don’t realize this.” The only way teaching will improve is when there is an economic incentive to improve. Since most college and universities turn away some applicants, and the ‘elite’ institutions turn away the majority or even most applicants, there is no serious incentive for universities to improve teaching, at least from the consumer student end.

I usually don’t like to end posts like this without offering solutions, but I can’t really think of one (and I’ve been thinking about this issue for years). Cutting overhead will only make the pressure to obtain grants even greater (although it would have the advantage of increasing the number of grants available*****). One thing is for certain: without an economic incentive to improve teaching, it won’t happen.

*Different agencies and grant programs define what budget items qualify for indirect costs.

**Since graduate students do a lot of teaching (particularly in laboratory courses), having the federal government pick up the cost of a teaching assistant, instead of the university, is another subsidy.

***Even if you paid full tuition at a private university, your education was, in fact, subsidized. Suck on it, libertarians.

****In the biomedical sciences, a ‘small’ lab will bring in $250,000-$500,000 in direct costs. Larger labs bring in much more.

*****Last I checked, federal grant agencies were supporting research, not general institutional costs.

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Schmidt
    May 15, 2007

    Well, thanks for pointing out the obvious. No, really–it’s not something I feel comfortable pointing out myself–as someone who has been a mere associate professor for far too long, it would just sound like sour grapes.

    You have my admiration as well for not suggesting lame solutions. Usually when there is a “change” to a “focus on teaching” it is according to a research model. Get “education” grants, write “education” papers, get them published. Of course, this means that you must be “innovative,” else why the grant or the publications? The “science education literature” is full of “new ideas” that few bother to follow up on or implement, because where is the incentive to implement someone else’s “discovery?” You aren’t going to get a grant to do that, nor will you get a paper published about it. So you come up with another “new idea” that may not really benefit students all that much. I once proposed aiming for the “innovative teaching award” at our school by throwing baseballs at students. Hey, it’s innovative, right?

    Some of the best things you can do for students are pretty much invisible to colleagues and administration. Weekly quizzes work wonders for student learning, but few students will praise them in the end-of-semester teaching evaluations, because, crap, who wants to wake up each Friday morning with a quiz hanging over your head? Now include on those quizzes questions that are somewhat open ended, the better to see what’s going on in students’ heads, and the better to make them realize that they really need to understand, and you have yourself a weekly grading headache. Time well spent, in my opinion, but if you describe such a thing in your tenure/promotion file, nobody is going to really believe you actually graded the work all that carefully anyway, unless you include xeroxed examples (requiring student permission, another extra task) and even then people will assume you cherry-picked….

    Don’t get the wrong impression–I’m not so saintly that I actually include open-ended questions on my weekly quizzes–I’m just trying to illustrate the sort of thing that ought to count for a lot, but doesn’t and probably can’t in our present situation.

  2. #2 Gerard Harbison
    May 15, 2007

    Mike:

    Quibble: there’s no overhead on fringe benefits.

  3. #3 SteveG
    May 15, 2007

    Michael Schmidt,

    Very well said.

    “Now include on those quizzes questions that are somewhat open ended, the better to see what’s going on in students’ heads, and the better to make them realize that they really need to understand, and you have yourself a weekly grading headache. Time well spent, in my opinion, but if you describe such a thing in your tenure/promotion file, nobody is going to really believe you actually graded the work all that carefully anyway”

    Not only will they not believe you, but even if they did, you’d come off looking like one of those damn humanists, not teaching the sort rigor needed in science classes.

  4. #4 Drugmonkey
    May 15, 2007

    In your pondering have you considered why teaching of undergraduates needs improving? For those that really want academic education there is the small liberal arts college and the community college. Large research university undergrads aren’t really there to be taught but to acquire a degree from the place, no? And if they want to be taught they continue on into graduate work. Perhaps the market is indeed working. Thus, the faculty member who wants to be valued for teaching should go where such talents are appreciated.

  5. #5 PiledHigher, Deeper
    May 15, 2007

    How do you know what amount of overhead is “exorbitant” anyway?

    This is, of course, a common refrain of scientists. but is it based on anything other than “i wish i had more direct funds”?

  6. #6 Michael Schmidt
    May 15, 2007

    Drugmonkey, at a school where the emphasis should be on teaching (not small liberal arts college or community college, but large comprehensive non-research state school) there is still a tendency for faculty to try to emulate the research universities where they got their degrees. And administrators are going to be hungry for grant dollars everywhere, even at the small liberal arts college. Undergraduate teaching IS better here than at the big research universities, but

    (a) there are still perverse incentives in place to be spending time on research of questionable value and

    (b) the rather unspecific, unspoken “rankings” in peoples’ minds still tend to push the best students to the places that don’t emphasize teaching. Maybe a great equalizer, in a sense, but maybe not the best way to fulfill potential.

  7. #7 Michael Schmidt
    May 15, 2007

    PHD wrote: ‘How do you know what amount of overhead is “exorbitant” anyway?

    This is, of course, a common refrain of scientists. but is it based on anything other than “i wish i had more direct funds”?’

    One indication that overhead is exorbitant is the avidity with which administrators pursue it. If the “F&A” provided only enough money for the “facilities and administration” that it is supposed to cover, nobody would be clamoring for professors to do more research, because it would just be more administrative headaches. But if it’s enough to cover all that AND fund your pet project, well….

  8. #8 Mike the Mad Biologist
    May 15, 2007

    PiledHigher, Deeper,

    I know because I’ve been involved on the administrative side of things, and 50-75% overheads are more than enough to cover the indirect costs of the project. In my experience, 10-20% would be adequate; the rest is profit.

  9. #9 ponderingfool
    May 15, 2007

    May I also add that where I went to graduate school, they charge tuition for PhD studies which is covered by the grants. We only took a full slate of courses our first year. Only a couple of classes in the second year after that full time lab work. The tuition is waived for the social sciences and humanities PhD students. Basically, in addition to the overhead universities also get “tuition” funds. GradU also charged the grants for e-mail accounts & internet access in the labs above what they took in for overhead.

  10. #10 BethL
    May 16, 2007

    In your pondering have you considered why teaching of undergraduates needs improving? For those that really want academic education there is the small liberal arts college and the community college. Large research university undergrads aren’t really there to be taught but to acquire a degree from the place, no? And if they want to be taught they continue on into graduate work. Perhaps the market is indeed working. Thus, the faculty member who wants to be valued for teaching should go where such talents are appreciated.

    Drugmonkey, that’s baloney. Why improve teaching undergrads? Because we (including myself, currently a sophomore chemistry major) don’t come into college knowing everything already! (What would be the point?) Someone must teach us, and plenty of the instruction is absolute crap – professors who don’t view teaching as an important part of their job descriptions waste students’ time and money.

    If the emphasis is mainly on research, teaching suffers. How can we students become researchers if we do not understand the concepts at work? If the emphasis is mainly on teaching, what can we attain beyond a continued stay in academia? What are we science-oriented students to do if our only options are small liberal arts schools and community colleges?

    Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m the only one in the world like this, but I am going to college to learn something, not just “acquire a degree from the place.” If I just wanted a degree, I could go to the community college and spend less! Perhaps I’m just a poor “consumer.”

    I “really want [an] academic education,” AND a familiarity with research. Why must it be an either/or decision? Answer me that.

  11. #11 D.D.
    May 16, 2007

    BethL,

    Once we’re in college, things are up to us. I find that most of the material I learn well, I learn on my own. And students motivated enough to go to college in the first place have probably been absorbing knowledge independently all along, maybe without realizing it. I agree with your point though, but there’s nothing we can do except crack open our books…

  12. #12 Tex
    May 16, 2007

    I think discussions like this set up a false dichotomy; research vs. teaching. For the last 6 years, I have been involved in reviewing annual reports for faculty in a basic science department. We have a very large teaching mission, and our departmental administration and our departmental culture place a high value on effective teaching. In almost every case, those professors who excel in research also excel in teaching (and just about anything else they choose to do). Conversely, professors who are not very good at research are not very good at teaching. There are a few exception in each direction, but in general, just because you can’t (or don’t)do research, that doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher.

    Could our good teachers be better teachers if we did not expct them to do research (which in our dept is closely tied to educating graduate students and postdocs for the next genration of scientists)? Possibly, but I doubt it. Most of us went into science to push back the frontiers of knowledge, or at least be the first to figure out something really cool. I suspect that most of my good colleagues would leave rather than give up research.

  13. #13 Michael Schmidt
    May 17, 2007

    Just curious, Tex–how do you measure “effective teaching?” Effective teaching of whom? What is the teaching load of the faculty you are evaluating? If a research faculty does a great job of teaching one course a semester, great! If the students are motivated and competent, and just need inspiration, that’s not hard to do. But give the same faculty three courses (including general education for non-science majors) and a few committee assignments, and put them in a school that doesn’t have a grad program in their field, and just see how much they publish.

    I would certainly agree with the statement that “in general, just because you can’t (or don’t)do research, that doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher.” But I think the exceptions to your general rules are a little more common than you seem to find in your department. One of the anecdotes above is about someone who got a teaching award and then didn’t get tenure. I’ve heard similar stories that teaching awards on some campuses are the “kiss of death” with respect to tenure.

  14. #14 Michael Schmidt
    May 17, 2007

    Sorry, some things in my previous post I now see may be unclear. For one, I think the anecdote I was referring to was in the Steve Gimbel link, not in the above discussion.

    Also, the reason I asked about how the effectiveness of teaching was measured was because, in many annual reports, “performance” is measured as the number of items listed in a certain category; publications, talks, “innovations” in teaching. People who are good at marketing their research will also be good at marketing their teaching. That’s not to say these people may not be, in fact, brilliant teachers and researchers, but one has to be a little cautious about what measures one uses.

  15. #15 Tex
    May 18, 2007

    Michael Schmidt – I use several criteria to judge teaching effectiveness. You can quibble with these, but I think that taken together, they are reasonably reliable. Or at least they are good for providing a relative ranking within our department.

    Criteria include student evaluations, both numerical scores generated from scantron-type surveys and written comments students are encouraged to supply at the end of the survey. Also, in my 20 years here, I have co-taught courses with a significant number of other professors, and I have had many more give guest lectures in my classes. Other professors on our annual review committee (which oversees both tenure and post-tenure reviews) have co-taught with most of the other professors, so we have that input to consider as well. Simply talking to students informally also provides good feedback, and I can tell which professors are loved because they are so easy, and which are respected because, although they are harder, they care about whether the students actually learn something.

    Finally, and most importantly from my personal perspective, I handle all teaching complaints and conflicts in our department (45 professors, 1,600 majors, 20,000 student credit hours per semester). It is always the same 2 or 3 people (none with significant research programs) who generate the bulk of the problems.

    You asked how our professors (who teach one course per semester) would perform if they had to teach 3 courses per semester. Most of them would not be interested in such a job, but if they had to do it, I suspect that they would act like the true professionals they are and acquit themselves admirable.

    I think professionalism is the bottom line. We ask our professors to make valuable contributions in teaching ressearch and service. Again, although there definitely are exceptions, for the most part the people who excel in one area excel in all.

  16. #16 PhysioProf
    May 19, 2007

    How do we actually know that undergraduate teaching is deficient and in need of improvement?

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