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Well, if you teach in a Ph.D.-granting institution, what counts is research, and if you teach in a bachelor’s degree-only institution, it’s teaching. With apologies to Depeche Mode, not “Everything Counts, in Large Amounts.” This unsurprising result is brought to you by a national survey of Political Science departments, published in the most recent edition of PS: Political Science and Politics, and reported by Inside Higher Ed.
A national survey of department chairs found that superior research compensates for “mediocre teaching” at 55 percent of Ph.D. granting institutions, compared to 34 percent of master’s institutions and 17 percent of bachelor’s institutions. A contrasting split is evident at bachelor’s institutions — although many of them do not claim that their faculty are committed to research. At 64 percent of bachelor’s institutions, superior teaching would compensate for mediocre research, while that’s the case for 38 percent of master’s institutions and 14 percent of doctoral institutions.
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Departments from different sectors share some approaches to evaluating teaching. Overwhelming majorities across sectors report using teaching evaluations, teaching portfolios, syllabi, and peer review of teaching by other faculty members. But department chairs or deans are much more likely to be involved in peer review of teaching at bachelor’s institutions than doctoral universities. For instance, 69 percent of chairs reported doing peer review of teaching at bachelor’s institutions, compared to 27 percent at doctoral institutions. For peer review by deans or senior administrators, the figures were 31 percent for bachelor’s institutions and 3 percent at doctoral.
This survey appears to be a relatively blunt instrument, because I think the more interesting questions are: 1) What kind of teaching are we talking about: survey classes, upper-division elective courses, or master’s or Ph.D.-level seminars?, and 2) in any case, how do we know what is good teaching? The demands of constructing a lecture course for hundreds of students in a darkened lecture hall are totally different (and much higher, I think) than the demands of constructing a graduate course for cozy discussions for 8-15 graduate students, and both of these courses are totally different from putting together an effective research methods seminar for juniors and seniors. I tend to think good or bad teaching is more discernable in peer evaluations of teaching than in a review of syllabi and student evaluations only, and only by reviewing teaching across the curriculum that a given faculty member is expected to teach in.
(But then, this may be a self-interested thought: My evaluations always look like they were written by two entirely different classes, one of which hated me and the class, and the other of which really dug the class. Few people feel neutrally about me or my classes. I’m also the kind of professor who runs into a student several semesters or years later, and the student says, “gee, I thought you were totally unreasonable when I was in your class, but your class was where I learned the most/was the only one that prepared me for graduate school/was the only one where I was encouraged to think/etc,” which only leads me to question the value of student evaluations further. The value of our teaching may not be discerned by a student until years after they wrote their evaluations in a peevish or distracted state in May or December.)
How do you define good teaching, and how do you use those standards to rate yourself or others? I have to say that I’m extremely humble about evaluating other people’s teaching. (At least, I’ve never written a negative peer evaluation of anyone else’s teaching. When I observe others teaching, I always learn something about the subject matter at hand and about teaching itself, and I’m probably more forgiving than your average 19-year old who is distracted from the business at hand by romantic intrigue/a hangover/roommate troubles/text messaging/or all of the above.) What works for one faction of the student body won’t work for another, so shouldn’t we just let a thousand pedagogical flowers bloom? Moreover, in a department that produces Ph.D. students, it’s entirely appropriate that research is valued more, and that (according to the IHE article) “superior research compensates for ‘mediocre teaching?’” (Once again: what’s mediocre, in which context, and isn’t mediocrity in some contexts OK once in a while? Or are we supposed to be like the children of Lake Woebegone, “all above average,” all of the time?)
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