Teaching and research can co-exist

June 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm 4 comments

An interesting study that’s going to fuel the claims that faculty don’t do enough work — 20% of UT-Austin’s faculty teach 57% of student credit hours.  That’s understandable.  Graduate classes are small, and first-year undergrad classes are huge.  It’s pretty easy for a small number of faculty to rack up most of the credit hours.

It’s the later stats that I found more surprising — those teaching the most still brought in their fair share of research funding.

But the study suggests that research and teaching can easily coexist. It found that the 20 percent of faculty with the heaviest teaching loads generated 18 percent of UT’s research funding, meaning that they remained competitive in research even as they carried more than their share of teaching duties.

“This suggests that these faculty are not jeopardizing their status as researchers by assuming such a high level of teaching responsibility,” the study states.

The least productive 20 percent of faculty teach just 2 percent of all student credit hours at UT — meaning that students barely see them.

Research grants at UT go overwhelmingly to a small group of faculty. Two percent of faculty are responsible for 57 percent of research, and 20 percent are responsible for 99.8 percent.

via Study: One-fifth of faculty does most of the work – College, Inc. – The Washington Post.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Boothe  |  June 1, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    It is unclear what they mean by “research”. They keep saying things like:

    Research grants at UT go overwhelmingly to a small group of faculty. Two percent of faculty are responsible for 57 percent of research, and 20 percent are responsible for 99.8 percent.

    This would imply that by “research”, they mean “grants”, which strikes me as a problematic equivalence, and makes me distrust the rest of their paper. And that’s before we even get into labor market issues about how one would appropriately sift the grant-acquiring wheat from the non-grant-acquiring chaff in such a way that it would not completely discourage people from entering the field…

    Even worse, some research is expensive (High energy physics, big chemistry and biology projects, etc) and some is much cheaper (literary criticism, pure math, etc). By treating these the same and putting all the grant dollars into one big pot, we confound so many factors as to make any results pretty much meaningless.

    But back to the main idea of coexistence. I think that a salient point is that professors can, to a large degree, choose what courses they teach. This would imply that the professors who are negatively affected by teaching large classes would generally opt out of doing so. Which would lead a casual observer to think that professors are unaffected by teaching large classes, when in fact that causation goes the other way: the professors who opt to teach large classes are the ones who are unaffected by doing so.

  • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  June 2, 2011 at 2:53 am

    Clearly this was written by someone who did no research, since the confusion between $ and hours is very obvious. Someone can be bringing in huge amounts of money, but doing no research (all farmed out to postdocs and grads), while someone else doing a huge amount of research may be getting no funding for it.

    Also, “teaching” a huge class may mean just showing up once a week for lectures, while an army of TAs does all the work, and teaching a small writing-intensive upper division course may mean many hours of work each week.

    The authors clearly had an agenda here, and it involved only $, not teaching or research.

  • 3. beki70  |  June 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    In trying to figure out whether they were measuring grants by $$$ or number of grants (since not all research requires the same amount of $$$) I found this statement “A total of 3,380 faculty (77% of all faculty at the Austin campus) receive no external research grants.” which I find hard to believe. I wonder whether they looked at one year’s worth of getting grants rather than the number held by a faculty member at the time.

  • 4. Mike Byrne  |  June 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    This endeavor is farcical, because “teaching load” is not accurately measured by the number of people in a class. The marginal cost in term of instructor time of the 75th student in an intro class is *not* the same as the 9th student in an intensive senior seminar or graduate course. There so many other factors at work besides just the raw number of students in the course that only someone truly ignorant of how university teaching really works would attempt to draw strong conclusions from these numbers alone.

    This report is politically motivated. The Texas governor, Rick “The Hair” Perry, is destroying the state budget allocations for higher education under the banner of “fiscal responsibility.” This “research” is all related to the effort to gut the higher ed budget. Perry and his cronies have latched on to whatever evidence they can, no matter how shaky, to support the idea that the research universities can “do more with less” by which they mean “more teaching” and “less money.” They are trying to argue that they can do this without hurting the research output of the big state research universities (UT, Texas A&M, Texas Tech). If this vision is really implemented, expect to see waves of academic talent running out of said universities, possibly worse than what we’ve seen with the UC system.

    If you really wants to know how research and teaching trade off (and I assure you, the people behind this research actively do not), you should compare research productivity–even with a slanted measure like research dollars brought in, but preferably with more sensible metrics that balance publications and research–at small liberal arts schools or mid-tier state schools where the teaching load is 4 or 5 courses per semester to a research universities where the load is something more like 3 courses per year. I guarantee there’s a correlation there, and that it ain’t positive. But by using an obviously bogus measure of “teaching productivity” and a pretty weak measure of “research productivity” they can get the numbers out that they want.

    And, as it turns out, even those numbers are suspect. Virtually all the results in that study are based on binning by quintiles (why quintiles? never explained) and it contains exactly zero inferential statistics, and certainly no analysis of the effects of high-leverage outliers (of which I suspect there are probably several). No individual-level correlations are reported, and all analyses aggregate across disciplines–that is, there is no control for the effects of particular disciplines. The exact same methods are used for Physics as for English. It is entirely possible that almost all the conclusions drawn in this report are based on the effects of a very small number of faculty in a handful of departments.

    There’s a subsection of the report titled “A Thought Experiment: What if Teaching Productivity Increases?” where they consider what the impact on research might be if teaching loads (measured in the flawed way mentioned previously) were increased. This is almost pure speculation, since the data only measure faculty behavior based on their current resource and incentive structure, which would almost certainly change with a change in said structure. You can easily guess what their conclusions are before you even start reading the section: “[I]ncreasing teaching responsibilities for the bulk of the faculty would even under the worst case scenario impact research funding by only miniscule amounts.” In a shocking development, they generated conclusions perfectly consistent with the political mission!

    The upshot here is that this report tells us almost nothing about the actual relationship between teaching and research. The measures of both variables are deeply flawed and the data analysis is hopelessly bad. This is a political hatchet job, not empirical science.

    As a sidebar, there is one result that I would agree is at least interesting, though not particularly surprising: research $$ at universities are highly concentrated. As noted, some fields require substantial dollars just to get things off the ground, and the “star” faculty in those fields will get an enormously disproportionate amount of the total research $$ coming in to the university. Thus, statistics showing such effects aren’t a big surprise, though 20% of the faculty being responsible for 99.8% of the money seems a bit more tilted than I would have expected. What that suggests, though, is that aggregate-level analysis is going to deeply misrepresent what’s really going on in the data, a fact the study authors blithely ignore.


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