Thursday, March 03, 2016

Authentic Improvement: A Case for Flexible Faculty Evaluation Policies

For those who belong to the exclusive club of world-class universities, the need for publishing is a non-issue. It is something that you do – or perish as the catchphrase goes. However, for universities with strong teaching traditions, both liberal arts colleges and regional universities, the rationale is not always obvious. “We are not going to become the next Harvard anyway. And there are too man pointless publications already in the world. Why should I take time away from my students?” The short answer is that without an active scholarship agenda, one can only be successful as an undergraduate instructor, and onle for some foundational generic courses. Anything beyond that requires a clearly established scholarly agenda and a reputation. As graduate education continues to expand, it behooves universities to strengthen their scholarship output.

It is easy to make the case why we all need scholarship, but much more difficult to explain how it could be done. The barriers are many. In many teaching-centered schools, it is actually very difficult for faculty to product good quality scholarship. And this is only partially due to higher teaching loads. In social sciences, research is impossible without access to data, or the ability to gather qualitative of quantitative data. Both need time and money. The lack of high quality publications makes faculty less competitive in grant seeking activities. They just don’t have the right pedigree to be competitive, which creates a vicious cycle: The lack of funds to do good research, and no research record to get funding.

For many universities aspiring to enter the world-class club, issues are very similar, although sometimes a windfall from a government-funded excellence initiative may temporarily relieve the pressure of funding. In addition, those in non-English speaking countries experience language barriers that perhaps only Nordic universities have been able to penetrate. Yet the rest of the mix is the same – lack of skills, connections, access to data and equipment, large teaching loads. The Russian higher education represents an interesting case of distorted labor practices. As instructors are paid mostly for face-to-face encounters, faculty are very reluctant to redistribute hours within academic plans in favor of more independent work. Who is going to grade all those assignments for free? On the other hand, university leadership is suspicious that more independent work for students will just tempt professors to work less, and see additional part-time work in other universities. The confluence of such interests produces a highly inefficient lecture-centered teaching practices, with poorly paid and overworked faculty, who have no time for real research. Despite all the peculiarities, I think first-rate universities in emerging economies have a lot in common with second and third tear state schools in the developed world. Both want to move up, and both have barriers to overcome in engaging in quality research.

In this context, I would like to invite us to think about exceptions –faculty that seem to be able to break through the institutional and cultural barriers and establish themselves as leading scholars in their respective fields while working at a second-tier university. Perhaps in understanding how they are doing it, university leaders will better understand what kinds of institutional reforms are needed to move their entire institutions on the next level. The characters below are entirely fictional… And if you recognize themselves, just saying hi, and thanks. All cases are from education, because that’s what I know.

Susan is a super-engaged early childhood educator: with her professional community, with her many students, friends, family, her own and adopted children, their schools and friends, books, the news, and about anyone she meets for the first time. That incredible inflow of encounters and relations gives her the kind of dense phenomenological data that makes her an engaging author. One of leading publishers recognized her talent, and over the years she build a relationship with an editor that trusts her instincts and lets her work on anything Susan likes to work on. The editor knows well, that books will be engaging regardless of the specific topic, and people will buy them. But the books are not just popular; they have a serious scholarship dimension, and gained recognition in the scholarly community as well. Susan does not care much about grants, nor does she demand release time; she just learned to get by without those.

Michael’s strategy is somewhat similar. He writes books on literacy and has build a strong relation with a leading publisher. But his emphasis is on graduate students, who are his research laboratory. He spends enormous amount of time coaching, teaching, observing. That gives him enough materials for making generalizations about what works in literacy instruction and what does not. The publishing connection also gives him access to book tours, and an opportunity to engage with hundreds of teachers across the country, hear their stories, and receive their feedback. I don’t believe he collects data formally from them, but for the kind of practice-oriented research it is not necessary. And of course, Michael could probably show the highest Hirsh on campus.

Tony’s success is connected with an opportunity his predecessor saw and snatched. Back in 1960-s The US Federal Government sought to establish centers on Excellence in Developmental Disabilities in every state. The Feds supported them with small grants, and specifically tried to place them not in flagship or Ivy League schools, but those second-teach teaching universities. Tony was able to use the really small advantage by positioning his group as the center of expertise within the entire state, and gain national recognition. Success builds success, and he later was able to bring in very significant, highly competitive federal grants. One of the secret of his success is that his unit is somewhat independent of the University’s bureaucracies, and thus can behave as a true entrepreneurial organization, with its own small staff, its own budget, and schedule. Yet he is also very helpful to colleagues within the university’s Special Education department, and involves them in the grant-writing and projects.

What’s the moral of these stories?
  1. It is highly unlikely that faculty will all have the same strategies in building their scholarly identities so. So, be prepared for a variety of scholarly engagements, and keep tweaking your faculty evaluation and promotion policies until they are flexible enough to accommodate the diversity in academic careers. Those systems can be both flexible and rigorous.
  2. It is also unlikely that entire faculty of any university will move towards scholarship excellence all at once. Perhaps it is wise to focus on a few, break-troughs first, and make sure they gradually enlarge the orbit of influence to give opportunity to others. Or, more likely, your university already have such champions; it is only a matter of allowing them to include others. Scholarship is, as we all know, a network of ideas, practices, and individuals. One person can provide access to many, but that requires strong institutional support and encouragement, otherwise islands of excellence will remain islands. 
  3. It is important to recognize that none of the three of my heroes would be doing well at a top research university. Their scholarship does not fit well, and some were actually late bloomers. They would have been denied tenure at a highly competitive place, and would not have the freedom to pursue their interests. The second-tier universities must recognize their unique niche in the talent market, and try to specifically attract the kind of passionate, talented, self-directed people by promises of freedom and independence unobtainable at R1 schools. 
  4. All these people learned to capitalize on a specific resource. Without resources, there is no development. But those do not have to be monetary or even tangible resources. Connections, reputations, unique experiences – all of those can be used. People need help in recognizing such resources and latching on them. I will end with a story illustrating the point. Many years ago, I was talking to our Dean with a group of other young faculty. He looked at us and said – you together probably speak 7 or 8 languages, and come from four different countries. Why don’t you build your program using your strength? It just did not occur to us, but an experienced administrator should be good at spotting a resource when he sees it.
A version of this blog is published here

No comments:

Post a Comment