Written for Mercury magazine.
It’s that time of academic year when colleges and universities begin thinking about faculty hiring for next year. So, continuing my habit of throwing myself into debates where I really don’t belong, I will offer some suggestions about hiring decisions. (Full disclosure: I do not currently have a tenure-track faculty position nor am I looking for one; these facts may color my opinions.)
Faculty job descriptions almost always ask for a demonstrated record of success in a particular research subdiscipline (such as theoretical modeling of galaxies or observations of hot stars); they usually also ask for evidence of teaching ability. This type of job description fits the long-held ideal of research and teaching going hand-in-hand. But how does reality compare to the ideal?
First, we need to define our terms. At the college level, there are (at least) three distinct forms of science teaching:
- Teaching general science to nonmajors, as in introductory astronomy classes.
- Teaching small, upper-level classes to majors and graduate students.
- Teaching one-on-one, through mentoring students involved in research.
Category 3 meets the research/teaching ideal by its very nature, and Category 2 courses arguably require someone who specializes in the subject matter (though actual quality of teaching varies greatly). So let’s focus on Category 1, sometimes called “service” courses because they serve the general student population (as opposed to training future scientists).
Until a couple decades ago, service courses were not a major part of science department offerings. As a result, the ability to teach such courses was not a major concern in faculty hiring. Many current faculty can attest that ability to teach service courses had no role in their hiring. Indeed, as service courses grew in size and more professors were required to teach them, such courses were often considered a burden rather than a privilege. Not surprisingly, professors who considered them a burden often did an abysmal job of teaching. In an academic sense, I can think of few things sadder than the fact that so many students have left our courses thinking that astronomy is boring.
Most astronomy departments now recognize the importance of service courses to their overall mission. Nevertheless, the quality of teaching remains decidedly mixed. If we are to take full advantage of the opportunity presented by service courses — and it is a great opportunity, because a substantial fraction of college students take such courses — astronomy departments must figure out a way to hire more outstanding teachers for these courses. In my opinion, this means rethinking the nature of the research/teaching ideal.
Note that rethinking does not mean abandonment. I firmly believe that research and teaching must go hand-in-hand, particularly in a rapidly changing field like astronomy. The rethinking that must occur deals with how they go hand-in-hand: In traditional thinking, they must go hand-in-hand with each individual faculty member; that is, each faculty member should be both a first-rate researcher and a first-rate teacher. The problem is that, at least when it comes to service courses, this individual ideal is very difficult to achieve. First, the personality traits that make an outstanding researcher are quite different from those that make an outstanding teacher. For example, research requires the ability to work for long periods with little external feedback, while teaching requires instantaneous response to the looks on students’ faces. Some people have personalities that mix both sets of traits, but they are quite rare. Second, even in those rare cases, the time commitment required to do an outstanding job of either research or teaching usually means that the other falls by the wayside, at least temporarily. Many research projects have been slowed by teaching duties, and many students have been neglected when a professor’s research leaves no time to spare.
I believe that the solution lies in looking at the research/teaching ideal on a department-wide rather than individual basis. Just as in the corporate world, astronomical faculty must learn to work toward a departmental vision while delegating individual responsibilities to those most qualified. Departments have long had subgroups devoted to specialized research areas; the new piece would be adding a subgroup devoted to service course teaching. Faculty in this subgroup would create and teach the service courses, work to improve the service courses within the larger university structure, and work with other astronomy faculty to ensure that the latest research still makes its way into the classroom.
In the short run, hiring as I suggest will hurt: it will mean one less new faculty in a research group and, of course, teachers do not bring in research grants. But in the long run, this short-term sacrifice will prove well worth it. For individual faculty, it will mean that introverted researchers will no longer be required to stand up in front of 200 students, while outstanding teachers will no longer have their careers dependent on research papers that may not be their top priorities in life. More importantly, the service course students that we excite about astronomy today will be the public that supports astronomy funding tomorrow. The more we spread our enthusiasm for astronomy, the more astronomy the public will support. But until departments are willing to offer the same opportunities to outstanding teachers as to outstanding researchers, we’ll never spread our enthusiasm as much as we should.