Education

Can a Teaching Track Improve Undergraduate Education?

Jennifer L. Wong-Ma had a tenure-track job in computer science more than a decade ago at Stony Brook University. But she found herself more interested in her teaching than in her research. A few years in, she decided it was time for a change.

So Wong-Ma talked to her chair. He was understanding, she recalls. But the department had two flavors of faculty career: the tenure track, with its heavy tilt toward research; or annual contracts to teach classes as a lecturer. The chair got creative, and in 2013 finessed a way to keep Wong-Ma at the same salary in a non-tenure track job, where she’d teach twice as many courses. Her position, oddly, was called “research assistant faculty.”

Wong-Ma knew her department valued her, but she didn’t have a path for advancement, or even stability — her position was an annual appointment. Over time, the department brought in other instructors doing similar work, despite the lack of an official position for it. Wong-Ma and her colleagues noticed that other universities had created paths more or less parallel to the tenure track for professors like them.

In 2018, Wong-Ma took a job in one of those teaching tracks. She’s now an associate professor of teaching at the University of California at Irvine. A California native with extended family in the state, Wong-Ma found the move appealing for personal reasons. But the UC system also offered a track with features Wong-Ma didn’t have in her previous position. Now she has a title that fits her role, a path for career advancement, and, as a “lecturer with security of employment,” job protections comparable to tenure.

A growing number of research universities have formalized teaching tracks like the University of California’s. Designed well, these tracks have the potential to put a dent in two significant problems facing higher ed: faculty burnout, and disappointing educational outcomes. Offering at least some instructors more security and a path to advancement could make universities more hospitable places for them to work. And establishing longer-term relationships with professors who have teaching expertise could recenter undergraduate education as a real priority. As it stands, even as pressure grows to better support students, university structures — and culture — still reward research. Teaching often feels like an afterthought.

“There’s so much happening in the public-research-university space around what you might call educational accountability,” says Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning, and founding director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “And nobody is taking anything off anybody’s plate. So how are we going to be successful at turning around our outcomes for undergraduates, and ensuring equitable outcomes? Unless we have some people who are freed up to really put their attention on this, and unless we can communicate to the research faculty: You’d better respect these folks, because they’re saving your ass right now.”

Teaching tracks are still very much in the construction stage, with universities sorting out what titles, responsibilities, and job security to offer these professors, and how to evaluate their work. So far, there seem to be as many different models for a teaching track as there are universities that offer it. Some of those models make the respect of tenure-track colleagues more likely; none can guarantee it.

The way these jobs are structured, and the way people in them are treated, will help answer the bigger question of what, exactly, universities are building here. A teaching track might elevate undergraduate instruction and the instructors who put it first. But the new track also risks cementing their second-class citizenship.

College teaching is in the midst of a transformation. Growing numbers of professors are using active-learning strategies, allowing students more agency, and practicing inclusive pedagogies. But most professors weren’t really taught how to teach. Figuring it out now is hard work that usually goes unrewarded.

A teaching track might improve undergraduate instruction in two main ways. Professors on that track could do a particularly good job in their own classrooms — and perhaps be placed in gateway and other pivotal courses. And they might more broadly improve a university’s teaching culture.

There is some encouraging early evidence on both counts.

One crack at the classroom question comes from a 2015 paper, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?,” published in The Review of Economics and Statistics. The study sought to measure the impact of instructors on students’ success at Northwestern University, considering whether students who took an introductory course with them in the first semester of college went on to take another course in the same department and, if so, how they did in that subsequent course. It found a broad range.

The study then compared tenure-track and non-tenure-track professors. Non-tenure-track professors made more of a difference, according to the study — a finding driven by differences at the bottom: The lowest quintile of tenure-track professors made less of a difference than the lowest quintile of those off of the tenure track.

The study has sometimes been misinterpreted to show that tenure-track professors are worse teachers, says David N. Figlio, one of its authors. That’s not correct, he says — professors in the top three-quarters of each group have similar student outcomes. But the results do show that hiring and retaining professors for their teaching brings benefits.

Most of the non-tenure-track teachers of intro courses captured by the study were lecturers on longer-term contracts. Northwestern didn’t quite have a teaching track at the time, though it was moving in that direction — a process the study’s findings accelerated, says Figlio, who co-wrote the paper as an economics professor at Northwestern and recently became provost of the University of Rochester.

It stands to reason that teaching faculty would be good at their primary job function. But many universities’ teaching tracks require them to demonstrate a broader impact, through service, research, or some combination of the two.

illustration of a blueprint for building a ladder, surrounded by academic things

Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

That could mean serving on a committee to revise the curriculum. Running a program. Working with the teaching center to offer colleagues professional development. Conducting research in one’s discipline; or in discipline-based education; or in the scholarship of teaching and learning. Serving in administrative roles related to undergraduate education.

Do those contributions make a difference? That’s one of Brian Sato’s research questions. Like many teaching-track professors, Sato came up in a traditional discipline — biology — and segued into conducting discipline-based education research. Now a teaching professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Irvine, Sato is investigating whether teaching-track professors in the UC system can be “change agents” on their campuses.

Sato, who is also an associate dean in the division of teaching excellence and innovation, has done interview studies showing that research faculty turn to their teaching-track colleagues for advice. He’s also conducted network analyses finding that teaching-track faculty figure heavily in conversations about teaching and diversity. And he’s investigating teaching-track professors’ impacts on teaching practices and on student outcomes. Through all this research, he hopes to shed more light on how well the teaching track works to improve undergraduate instruction.

Perhaps universities’ approaches to teaching tracks vary so widely because institutions must construct these tracks within existing academic structures, policies, and norms. The faculty members who don’t emphasize teaching, after all, have generally been encouraged throughout their careers to make research a priority.

Figlio, the Rochester provost, counts himself a believer in the scholar-teacher model that both Northwestern and Rochester emphasize to prospective students. As he sees it, a well-designed teaching track doesn’t work against that model but actually supports it.

The scholar-teacher model works best, he says, when tenure-track faculty members teach courses related to their expertise. Sometimes that leaves gaps, when students need a course that doesn’t fall under anyone’s research area. Professional instructors, Figlio says, can cover those courses. Such instructors can adapt more readily as students’ needs change, since they don’t have to worry about aligning their courses to their research interests.

To realize those benefits, “it’s very important to treat instructional-track faculty as professionals, as colleagues, as valued — and as not expendable,” Figlio says. “There are lots of different ways in which institutions might grapple with how to do that.”

Universities aren’t likely to start paying their best teaching-track professors what they pay star researchers. But they might make them feel more valued with better titles.

So far, universities are all over the place on what to call their teaching-track professors, which makes for a confusing landscape. Some universities have stuck with “instructor” or “lecturer” titles, but many have sought to differentiate teaching-track positions from adjunct ones. Some have assistant teaching professors, associate teaching professors, and full teaching professors. Some use those ranks but don’t add “teaching,” so that titles on the teaching and tenure tracks are identical. Some have adapted pre-existing “clinical” or “of the practice” titles for professors with a teaching focus. Virginia Tech has a teaching track with titles modified by the word “collegiate.”

Andrew DeOrio’s title is “lecturer IV,” which probably doesn’t convey much to anyone outside of the University of Michigan, where he has taught in the computer-science department on the Ann Arbor campus for a decade.

Computer-science professors are in demand: Student demand is high, and most faculty members could also work in industry, where they would probably earn more than in academe. Recruiting computer-science instructors has been tough, so DeOrio has been pushing for change.

“One aspect of the problem is demonstrating that the institution recognizes the contributions and respects the contributions of teaching-focused faculty,” he says. “A title would help communicate that institutional value, to both their existing faculty and to prospective faculty.”

He’s made some headway. The system recently approved a new working title, “teaching professor,” which the first group of qualified lecturers can begin applying for this fall.

It’s a start, DeOrio says. “We really need to have some assistant-teaching-professor and associate-teaching-professor titles.” That, he says, would help with “communicating that teaching-focused faculty is a career, and there is career development that happens over time.”

Hans van Oostrom has had an unusual opportunity to help design one such career track. Van Oostrom, an associate professor, is the founding chair of the department of engineering education at the University of Florida, which brings together teaching faculty who teach core engineering courses using innovative, evidence-based pedagogies and conduct related research.

In 2018, Florida hired 500 new faculty members, half of them in non-tenure-track roles. That included a large cohort in engineering, allowing the university to convert an institute of engineering education into a department and reduce its reliance on large engineering lecture courses. “We all know that that’s not the way to teach them,” van Oostrom says, “but we just didn’t have the resources to do that any better.”

While they teach courses across the university’s undergraduate engineering programs, clustering instructors in the engineering-education department allows them to support one another. “The first step is to not have single lecturers in departments, or one or two or three, that then the rest of the 40 faculty will see as lesser faculty,” he says, “which is what has always happened.” Being organized as a department brings other benefits, van Oostrom says. For instance, the teaching-track faculty can get money to cover travel to conferences without competing for it against their tenure-track colleagues.

The next consideration, he says, is how teaching professors are evaluated. The university already had a progression of non-tenure track titles: lecturer, senior lecturer, and master lecturer. But it wasn’t always clear, van Oostrom says, how to move up those ranks. The department spearheaded the creation of new criteria for evaluating the performance of teaching-track professors, he says, using a portfolio rather than looking only at their student course evaluations, a measure that’s known to be flawed.

The department has further formalized the teaching-professor track with new working titles that put “instructional” in front of the assistant, associate, and full ranks and by clarifying the university’s use of continuing contracts. The instructional professors do not have access to tenure.

That’s not unusual. On most teaching tracks, the best job security available is a longer-term contract without potential for tenure. How much does that matter? It’s a tricky time to be considering that question.

One argument against giving teaching-track faculty members tenure is that they don’t really need it, since they aren’t engaged in research requiring tenure to protect their academic freedom. But academic freedom is needed every bit as badly in the classroom, says Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. States’ moves to restrict the way professors teach about race are just one example, Kezar says. “With how polarized the country’s getting,” she says, “I can see all sorts of fields being attacked.”

The question of whether to offer tenure to teaching-track professors is complicated by the uncertain future of tenure itself. The field is ripe for a model that decouples the protection of academic freedom from guaranteed lifetime employment, Kezar says. But that protection is still needed, and needed across the board.

Even if academic freedom can be uncoupled from tenure, it matters to faculty members. That’s because it’s a proxy for so much else. Tenured professors have a voice and a vote in some university decisions that are closed off to their colleagues. Tenure is also a shorthand and a symbol. Like a perfect SAT score or an Ivy League diploma, it’s taken to mean that someone’s smart and has made it to the top on that basis.

To Christine Cucciarre, a professor of English at the University of Delaware who is on the teaching track, this is the sticking point. At Delaware, teaching professors’ titles are identical to those of their counterparts on the tenure track. They focus on teaching but wear other hats, too. They can eventually get onto a rolling contract. But they cannot earn tenure.

“You can look at it optimistically,” Cucciarre says, and think, ‘Good for the research universities, who are finally saying that teaching has the same status as research, and undergraduate education, graduate education, are as important as research money.’”

But that’s not really what universities are saying, Cucciarre says. “It’s a way to create a hierarchy,” she says — “there are tenured people, and then there are teaching-track people. And tenured professors are real professors, and teaching-track people are professors — but they’re really just teachers.”

Kelly MacFarlane, a teaching professor in the department of history, classics, and religion at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, feels similarly. MacFarlane has carried a full course load for 19 years, while also “creating new courses, improving old courses, keeping up with my field,” she says. “I would absolutely stack my research output against a number of my tenured colleagues.”

MacFarlane’s position comes with many benefits, she acknowledges, some of which are the fruit of successful advocacy from people in similar jobs. “But at the same time, I want tenure,” she says. “For the love of god, I want a sabbatical.”

In a better system, MacFarlane says, the only difference between the teaching and traditional tracks would be how much time professors are expected to devote to the different aspects of the job.

Perhaps that’s where this is all eventually headed. The University of California has its “lecturers with security of employment” status. Worcester Polytechnic University, in Massachusetts, recently made a splash for creating a teaching track that includes tenure; its first cohort of teaching professors will go up for tenure in about a year.

The structural changes at WPI have been years in the making, says Destin Heilman, a professor of teaching in chemistry and biochemistry who co-chaired the faculty task force that helped design them. The next part of the process is cultural change. “Despite the fact that we now have an equivalent tenure track for teaching faculty,” Heilman says, “there’s the danger of it still being perceived as lesser.”

Among the challenges that remain: “It’s really unclear for teaching faculty when they’re doing their merit, how they’re being evaluated,” says Wong-Ma, the computer scientist who moved to Irvine.

By and large, universities don’t do a good job of evaluating teaching in general. Many still rely on student course evaluations, despite the research showing they can be biased and may not measure the right criteria. Those flaws are compounded when teaching is the primary work on which a professor is being judged.

This dependence on course evaluations puts teaching-track professors who conduct related research in a further bind, notes Wong-Ma. These professors use their classrooms as their labs. Running an experiment means trying something new, she says. But at course-evaluation time, students tend to ding professors for trying new thing. That leaves being recognized as a successful teacher and advancing evidence on what works in the classroom at odds.

Then there’s the question of whether a teaching professor’s departmental colleagues are sufficiently familiar with the scholarship of teaching or discipline-based education research to evaluate it. “Given that nobody gets a teaching professor job in the UC without a research Ph.D.,” says Greene, the Santa Cruz associate vice provost, “I actually think it makes more sense for a teaching professor to vote on the personnel file of a research faculty member than the reverse.”

There’s a strong case for teaching professors to have more-expansive voting rights, Greene argues, “because we believe that they are perfectly capable of assessing the research of their colleagues — and they are particularly good agents in helping with assessing the teaching of their colleagues.” The university is discussing the issue, Greene says.

In his research on whether teaching professors can be agents of change on their campuses, Sato has identified some other hurdles. Departments able to hire such professors often give priority to short-term needs: what classes they need taught, now, rather than a longer-term strategy.

If universities really want their teaching professors to make a difference, he says, then they need to ensure they have funding — and time. “If you expect folks to have an impact outside of the classroom,” Sato says, “you have to give these individuals the ability to do things outside of the classroom.”

The question, then, is whether universities really want their teaching professors to have that kind of power.


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