by Catriona Mills

An Unusually Polemical Post; or, Why I'm Confused By The Debate Over Teaching-Only Positions

Posted 12 May 2009 in by Catriona

I was reading a fascinating piece on teaching-only academic positions over at Sorrow at Sills Bend: a piece that was not only nuanced and thoughtful itself, but led to an engaged and engaging discussion (until the troll appeared, at least).

And it made me think.

Because I’m a sessional academic. A casual academic. Whatever term you want to use: I’m someone who is post-Ph.D. but pre-potential full-time job. And like many people in that position, I’m anxious about any number of issues.

About giving my job the attention and energy it deserves when the work is so fragmented and temporary.

About improving my pedagogical practice, and whether it is possible to even do so under these circumstances.

About expanding my pedagogical practice—is it becoming too restricted, since I work only in the lecture theatre and the classroom, and never at the level of course design and implementation (though I’ve been lucky enough to work largely with a convener who does invite the imput of her sessional teachers)?

About carving out little spaces of time to research and write, so necessary if I want to move past sessional teaching.

About whether my writing will become a chore and a burden rather than a joy, if it becomes a mechanical, frustrating process. Will I come to resent it, because it is unpaid, because it is squeezed into time when I would normally be relaxing, because it comes to be nothing but a means to an end (the job! the elusive job!) and I’m not achieving that end?

I think the anxiety about losing the joy I take in my writing would be the cruellest blow of all.

So if universities offered teaching-only positions, I’d be dancing in the streets.

Because I love teaching. Yes, I love my writing. But I love teaching—and I love teaching young adults in a mature pedagogical environment.

And, frankly, I can’t see where teaching-only positions would hurt the universities.

Yes, I’ve heard the argument that it would create a two-tier system, where research academics are elevated and teaching-only academics are relegated to the position of second-class employees.

But why should it? Unless we let it. Unless we endorse an argument that teaching is the lesser purpose of universities. Yes, universities generate research. They generate knowledge. But can they not do that while also acknowledging that many of the students who pass through them are looking for something more than just accreditation? That universities aren’t just job-training centres, and that in the lecture theatres and the classrooms and the labs, we are doing much, much more than simply spoon-feeding?

In my experience (in a certain discipline), full-time academics work extraordinary hours. And then they go home or lock themselves in offices and work even more insane hours to complete their research. Or they have to step entirely out of their teaching positions (via ARC grants, for example) to complete their research. And when that happens, their courses often suffer, especially the smaller, more advanced courses that so often depend on the work of a specific individual.

It seems to me (as an admittedly baised sessional academic) that there’s more than enough work out there for those of us who would enjoy being more teaching focused. And most of us would continue to research on our own (to the benefit of the universities): after all, as Lucy Tartan points out in the post I linked to above, sessional academics are already engaged in research, and we don’t get paid for it now, either.

But giving more money to teaching-only academics wouldn’t take away from the others. It wouldn’t ghettoise those of us who entered joyfully and willingly into teaching-only positions.

And it would vastly benefit the students. Their tutors would be able to give them more time and more energy than we can manage now. We could focus more on detailed feedback to their assessment, tailor the feedback specifically to individual students. They’d be getting something out of their degree other than credentials.

Because that’s something that worries me. If academia becomes increasingly fast-paced, cut-throat, competitive (whatever cliche works best to describe the process), if academics are pushed to complete more and more work in less and less time, then isn’t there a risk that the students will also be caught up in that, that only a handful of students who are already driven and dedicated will be able to truly benefit from their university education?

That wouldn’t be their fault. And it wouldn’t be the fault of the academics either.

But I don’t think it’s where we want our universities to end up.

Share your thoughts [9]

1

Drew wrote at May 13, 01:50 AM

a teaching-only university position is my idea of a dream job. I could do that for the rest of my life until I died in the middle of a tutorial one day and they could then just hide me behind a pile of books and my role in the universe’s development would be complete.

2

Lisa wrote at May 13, 02:48 AM

Been thinking about this for a day now, and this is one of those unusual occasions where I think I disagree with you. I don’t want to see teaching only positions.

The first reason is purely selfish: I want eventually to end up doing both teaching and research and don’t wan’t to get shunted permanently into either on their own.

The second is more considered. I don’t want to see teaching only positions because under a mentality where lots of publications are equated with quality research and therefore funding, it is almost inevitable that a split system will occur where you either teach or research and I believe that research benefits greatly from teaching.

Regular teaching, particularly with first years, means having to explain your fundamental assumptions in plain terms to people who are not yet immersed in your discipline and have only partially absorbed academic discourses. It means having to explain why what you are doing is important, not just for you but more generally, and in terms that really mean something rather than just the usual crap about ‘a gap in the research,’ or ‘national’ or ‘strategic priorities’. And it means doing this on a regular basis.

It also means being kept on your toes to the fact that there are other ways of looking at the world and the things that your discipline is interested in, and other interpretations of what’s going on that don’t fit your nice theories and so maybe you should go back and think about what you’re writing with a more open mind.

Ok, so maybe the second reason is personal too. Still, it seems to me that there are plenty of arguments out there for why active research is of benefit for teaching and very few acknowledgements that regular teaching can also benefit research. And I think the lack of these arguments is because teaching is undervalued and funding is tied to publications in a cash-strapped sector.

3

Catriona wrote at May 13, 04:48 AM

Lisa, I agree in part—except that I don’t think a two-tiered system should be inevitable. And I’d ideally like to do both teaching and research; I’m not advocating a split in the university system where one is all teaching or all research. But research-only positions do exist, and I think the universities, with some degree of flexibility, could include teaching-only positions or weighted positions (like the elusive four-year post-doc., where the extra year weighs off against the small teaching load you’re expected to take on).

I certainly agree that teaching benefits research, as well as vice versa. That’s a belief I hold strongly. And it’s not one that has been brought up much in this debate. But does this also apply to research-only positions? Are they subject to the same disadvantages as teaching-only positions?

(It seems to me that part of the problem is that universities don’t always value the teaching aspect of the work, or not as much as they value the research part. Perhaps this will change under the new funding system for universities? Who knows.)

But since student numbers are high and academics already over-worked, the ideal solution is not teaching-only positions, but to simply bring more staff into universities. Stick with the standard 40-40-20 split on work, but hire more staff, so people are working reasonable hours, classes are sensible sizes, and we all have more time and energy for both teaching and research.

That would be ideal.

But in the interim, though I think we’re agreeing more than we’re disagreeing, I am rather in favour of teaching-only positions—not as a replacement for the current system, but as a supplement.

Plus, I like Drew’s vision. I could see that in my future.

4

Lisa wrote at May 13, 05:44 AM

No, I don’t think it should be inevitable either, but under the current funding biases I think it would be.

Research positions are a little more secure than casual teaching because contracts tend to last for as long as the funding rather than from one semester to the next, but I think it is probably just as easy to find yourself shunted off to the margins career-wise.

I think it is likely that research is valued over teaching primarily because researchers are perceived (expected, more frequently) to bring in additional money above what comes in from student numbers. That is a fault with the funding system, but more widely with the tendency of our society to value only that which can be measured in monetary terms.

Agreed, the ideal situation would be adequate funding so that more staff are employed, workoads are realistic, and everyone gets to do really good quality teaching and research rather than pumping out publications and/or graduates just to make quota.

I guess that my problem is that the system is broken and held together by bandaids, as demonstrated by the overwhelming reliance on casual teaching. And I’m hugely in favour of casual teaching, by the way, as a way for people to gain teaching experience. But once they graduate, people shouldn’t still be having to hang on from one semester to the next while others have teaching loads so heavy they can’t get their research done. As you say, the abundance of casual contracts indicates that the work is definitely there to warrant employing more academics.

So I guess my point is that I don’t trust that putting on a bigger band aid will fix the broken bones of the system. I can certainly understand wanting to get into the system and grabbing at whatever opportunities you can get (been there, still there to some extent), but in my more cynical moments I see that desperation as something fostered by university faculties because they are so desperate themselves and survive only by exploiting casual labour.

5

John wrote at May 13, 06:03 AM

Catriona, I think you nail it in your comment (3): teaching-only positions are not being mooted on the basis of a pedagogical principle, but simply as a cost-cutting measure, where university administrations can screw even more blood out of their overworked teachers.

I was an associate lecturer on a teaching-only contract, with 5 tutorial groups in the same course. I know that the students in group 5 got a poorer performance out of me that the earlier groups, because after 5 tutes (4 in one day) I was knackered.

If there was some theoretical principle in support of the idea, there (probably) wouldn’t be the opposition. The only solution, as you point out, is more funding to reduce class sizes and workloads.

6

John wrote at May 13, 06:06 AM

And Drew, you don’t get piled up behind books, you just don’t notice that you’re dead and go on teaching, like Professor Binns…

7

Catriona wrote at May 13, 07:04 AM

Lisa, I wholeheartedly agree with this entire paragraph of yours that I’m about to requote:

I guess that my problem is that the system is broken and held together by bandaids, as demonstrated by the overwhelming reliance on casual teaching. And I’m hugely in favour of casual teaching, by the way, as a way for people to gain teaching experience. But once they graduate, people shouldn’t still be having to hang on from one semester to the next while others have teaching loads so heavy they can’t get their research done. As you say, the abundance of casual contracts indicates that the work is definitely there to warrant employing more academics.

I also agree entirely with your point about research being considered valuable (in part) on monetary grounds, about the risk of being shunted to the side in a research-only position, and about the desperation of sessional academics being if not actively fostered by university at least very much to the latter’s advantage.

In fact, I agree with everything you’re saying. I don’t think our opinions are polarised on this, just that they’re coming from slightly different angles.

And I agree with John’s comment, too.

I think my essential point is this: yes, teaching-only positions as they are being mooted now would almost certainly be a larger band-aid over an ever-widening problem, as you so aptly put it, Lisa.

So what I’d like to see is the recognition that what we’re talking about here is a serious issue and that teaching-only positions could be made to work within the system if we think seriously about how we position research and teaching, and how we give value to one at the expense of the other.

So, yes: teaching-only positions in the current academic environment come fraught with peril. I don’t dispute that. But the fact that we’re talking about them like this suggests to me that maybe we need to rethink the way that universities are shifting, and maybe there’s a way to consider the role of teaching in academia.

The fact that we’re talking about teaching-only positions means something is seriously broken somewhere.

Or, you know, they could just give us some more money and we can shift back to reasonable class sizes and workloads.

8

Quintus Sertorius wrote at May 19, 01:15 PM

The problem with teaching-only academic positions is that such academics rapidly fossilise. Research is an essential part of making teaching relevant, dynamic and exciting. My experience is that the academics who drift to teaching-only end of the spectrum tend to end up as the dead wood of their schools as a result of this – more so as they age and recede further from their PhDs. A whole school of these people would rapidly fade into irrelevance.

The best academics (in my experience as a student and academic) are those who are active in research – and preferably who have ongoing engagement with industry via linkages, consultancies, contract research etc..

Of course, the other extreme is equally bad; research-obsessed academics are usually abysmal teachers.

9

Catriona wrote at May 19, 01:35 PM

I do agree with you, Quintus Sertorius, and with Lisa, who made a similar point above. I have always found that my teaching benefits my research, and vice versa.

(And, indeed, my teaching in the writing major also improved the mechanics of my writing: it was one of those moments, which I mentioned in another post, in which my writing suddenly—or it seemed sudden—leapt up in quality.)

The best solution, of course, would simply be an increase in the number of university positions under the conventional research/teaching load. This would alleviate some of the pressures on current academics dealing with enormous teaching loads; would allow class sizes to shrink, so that students get more interaction with their tutors; and would allow new academics to move into the university.

I’m fairly pessimistic about the chances of that happening, though.

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