Monday, August 23, 2010


Define “In the Discipline”

Who’s qualified to teach college level math?

This isn’t limited to math, but I’ll start there because it’s concrete. Similar issues arise in any number of other disciplines.

According to some in the math department, you either have a master’s (or higher) in mathematics, or you do not. Engineering isn’t math; computer science isn’t math; physics isn’t math; mathematics education isn’t math. The folks who hold this view claim that they’re upholding standards, and preventing a slow but presumably inevitable slide towards perdition.

At the topmost tier of the discipline, I suppose there may be something to the argument. But I have a hard time with the claim that a physicist or electrical engineer lacks the subject matter expertise to teach College Algebra. It just lacks basic plausibility.

The issue is real because sometimes the classes in areas like physics or engineering don’t fill, and we have tenured faculty who need to “make load” (meaning, have a full schedule). When people can fill in gaps in loads with classes from other disciplines, it’s easier to hire and keep them. When they can’t, the economic burden of their light loads has to be made up elsewhere.

I’ve seen similar issues in other disciplines. Does a Ph.D. in comparative literature qualify someone to teach English? Does a Ph.D. in American Studies qualify someone to teach history? (Put differently, if we insist on disciplinary purity, we couldn’t run, say, women’s studies. The faculty for that teach primarily in departments like English, psychology, and history. The enrollments don’t justify a ‘pure’ full-time hire.)

Depending on the rules of the regional accrediting agency, local culture, past practice, and the issues that individual departments have, I’ve seen each of these questions answered in different ways.

The argument from ‘purity,’ I think, is based on fear of a slippery slope. But it fails to acknowledge the often-arbitrary nature of disciplinary boundaries -- quick, is “modern political thought” history, philosophy, or poli sci? -- and the very real economic costs of specialization for staffing. If the physicists can only teach physics and nothing else, then I have to hire no more than enough to cover the lowest likely enrollments for the next few decades. If they can fill in gaps by teaching math, then I can hire a little more aggressively and not worry as much.

On the other side, I have to acknowledge that the fear of the slippery slope isn’t entirely unfounded. I remember having some teachers in high school who simply lacked subject matter competence in what they taught. It led to some embarrassing moments in the classroom. Gym teachers teaching Health were always crapshoots, but it wasn’t limited to that; I clearly recall my high school American History teacher trying to claim that the Missouri Compromise was when Missouri was divided in half. Um, no. Depending on how far ‘out of position’ an instructor is teaching, the odds of content-matter screwups can increase.

Wise and worldly readers, how does your campus draw disciplinary boundaries? Can a physicist teach math? A comp lit scholar teach English? Should they be able to? In the absence of a really bright line from the regional accreditor, I’m looking for a position I could defend that would respect subject matter competence without reifying disciplinary boundaries and/or locking unsustainable costs into place for decades to come.

At the local state college, *everyone* went to the math department to teach classes. They used primarily grad students and a few undergrads to teach a lot of the trig classes or recitations for other classes, so they were always the fallback when your department had too many TAs. When I was working on my MS, they instituted a new policy: interviews. Basically, you were given a section from a math book, and you had to teach a lecture on it in front of a committee of math profs. They were looking both at mathematical background and communication abilities. I guess if they are wary about someone outside, they could always try to get a feel for whether the person would be appropriate. (Yay! More committee work!) Realistically, one would hope they'd have more faith in their colleagues than that...but I've also seen cases where such faith was misplaced.

I guess I find it hard to see why someone with a grad degree in a closely related field couldn't teach, especially when practices aren't that stringent at universities. And given what you've been saying about the conflict regarding hiring adjuncts, wouldn't it be better to give the course-load to a full-time instructor rather than having to hire and then fire adjuncts?
I would think that some of it might depend on other backgrounds besides the most immediate graduate degree. Can a Comp Lit person teach English lit? I'd say yes if some of that comp lit included coursework in English literature (as it did for many of the individuals in my university), or one of their PhD exams had been in English lit, or they had an English MA or BA and a Comp Lit PhD... Prior teaching experience might also make a difference. These decisions might need to be made on a case-by-case basis.
Back in the dim dark ages, I was hired to teach cc English with a BA in English and an MA in History. I'm still beavering away at it.

When I was hired, truth is, I had never taken a single writing course in college, as my fancy pants liberal arts college offered nothing of the sort, simply assuming we all could write adequately. The only course I'd ever had focusing even a little on writing as such was a course on Methodology and Historiography in grad school, and then I thought the writing tips were patronizing.

So, I set out to teach Freshman (sic) Comp and Tech Writing without ever having written a five-graf essay (or even knowing what one was) or a formal business letter.

Today I couldn't even apply for my current job. A doctorate in English is pretty much a sine qua non now--not that the sorts of things that happen while earning a PhD in English prepare one for dealing with our students or that five-graf essay.

On the contrary....
I think lots of people applying for academic jobs hope that being able to teach in one or more departments is a selling point they can use. I've especially heard this from 1) people from interdisciplinary programs and 2) yes, physicists who know a lot of math and computer science (That's what my PhD is in.)

The first commenter mentioned interviews. Perhaps you can make this a formal hiring criterion, "qualified to teach in dept X and also dept Y," and then people won't object so much if it actually happens? You might, for instance, mention that requirement in the advertisement, invite someone from dept Y to be on the hiring committee, ask about their qualifications in their "other" discipline at the interview, or even ask them to prepare a mini-lecture as the first commenter described. People with dual degrees, or even minors, or who can show either a lot of coursework or a research achievement in the relevant area, will be 1) easier to defend if someone questions their qualifications in their other discipline and 2) probably actually qualified to teach in it, so you don't have to worry about the slippery slope.

The academic job market being what it is, I don't think you'll have much trouble finding candidates who can back up some claim to multi-disciplinality, if you mention that in an add. And from then on you can say "No, he was hired to teach both" when someone objects.

My undergrad adviser suggested I apply for their math stats professor opening, even though my degree is in applied social science. I didn't, so I don't know how well that would have flown with the rest of the department. I do teach the equivalent of two of their classes at my own school (probability and statistics-- which I took from the math dept as an undergrad) and could easily teach calc. So in theory I could do it.
Three rules we use at my school that allow flexibility but stop the slippery slope.

1. 18 credit hours of graduate work in an area qualifies someone to teach it at the undergraduate level.

2. A record of publication in the subject qualifies someone to teach it.

3. A history of teaching a subject (here or elsewhere) qualifies someone to teach it now.

So physics profs (or quantitative social scientists like me) can teach math, interdisciplinary studies happen, faculty whose research leads them in new directions can subsequently teach the material, but there is a line in the sand that departments can point to and say "the slope stops here." YMMV, but it works for us.
Here you have to have a masters degree, but which one does not matter. What matters is the number of graduate credit hours in the subject. There is a mechanism to certify (every semester!) that someone without those courses is qualified for some other reason. However, the eternal question of whether statistics is math (and vice versa) is one of the more amusing issues.

Vague observations of skill don't cut it. That is evaluated after the qualifications are established.

IMHO (that is, based on what math I would trust me to teach) someone with the appropriate background (amount of theoretical training and experience) in some fields (like physics and engineering) is probably qualified to teach algebra. After all, how does a graduate course on rings or complex analysis help you there, other than in the way that my courses in QED help me be a competent physicist? I see it as much the same logic as comes into play in the class I teach that contains some chemistry. (I only had some freshman chemistry classes.)

Now at some level, those grad classes matter. I don't think someone can teach sophomore electricity and magnetism without some of the insight that comes from graduate courses in that area. Even though I can do calculus, I wouldn't teach it.
"Teaching math" is a very vague statement. Speaking as a practitioner, I'd say that anybody with a physics/engineering/computer science background could teach up through Calc 1. But beyond that, I wouldn't make blanket statements -- those guys probably don't use that level of math on a regular basis, and probably spent very little time studying it in school.

Truth be told, as an engineering undergraduate, we had a bunch of courses that were rebranded math classes -- differential equations and discrete math come to mind. So it's not as if engineering profs aren't teaching those classes already.
I am going to talk about the "elephant in the room." I've taught lots of writing courses in my time. In nearly all schools in the English-speaking world, they're taught by English faculty.

Said faculty usually publish in academic journals. Most of the writing in those journals is full of jargon and unnecessarily convoluted sentence and paragraph structures. And those are among the things I teach my students NOT to do.

People who go to graduate school in English or Comp Lit are usually writing for an audience of like-minded peers. That doesn't always translate into helping students write the five-paragraph essay, or any other piece of writing that students may have to do in their academic or professional careers.

One college in which I taught required every student to take a research writing class in his or her junior year. Some sections of the course were for humanities majors, others were designated for students in the sciences and the rest were dedicated to students in professional programs like business, social work and the health professions. Yet all of those sections were taught by English faculty. I know that there are principles behind all good writing, but students and instructors alike often complained about the instructors' lack of understanding of the subjects on which the students were writing.

The college tried to get faculty from other departments to teach those courses. Some expressed a lack of confidence in their abilities to do so. Others (mostly tenured) didn't want to and continued to whine about the poor quality of their students' writing.

On the other hand, professional writers run into the dilemma I experienced the first time I taught freshman comp: I knew that one piece of writing was clearer, more interesting or simply more correct than another. But I didn't know how to explain why, and I didn't know the terminology needed to answer some students' questions about grammar and other issues. As a writer, there were certain things I instinctively did and didn't do. It took me time to realize that most students didn't yet have those instincts.

So, what qualifies someone to teach course X? One prof I knew says that that if there is a God, that is the first question he will ask on meeting him/her.
Great post and important issues to discuss. In my years in working in higher education, I've seen vastly different approaches to this subject even in geographically proximate institutions accredited by the same regional agency.

For example, one of the area community colleges tends to be fairly relaxed in many disciplines. For example, to teach mathematics, while they prefer someone with a master's or doctoral degree in math, they have approved individuals to teach lower-level math courses who may have a master's or terminal degree in a different discipline but who have taken sufficient master's or higher-level math courses. This seems to be a recognition that in many disciplines (e.g., engineering), an individual may have accrued sufficient graduate-level coursework in the discipline he/she wishes to teach even if his/her degree is not specifically in that field.

Similarly, I've seen them advertise for faculty to teach certain business courses and stipulate clearly that the 18 hours of graduate-level business coursework a potential faculty member must have can come from any of a myriad of business departments. This seems to be a recognition of your observation that oftentimes the delineation between academic departments can vary significantly from one institution to the next.

Interestingly, this same community college denied a former colleague of mine's request to teach psychology department courses because her degree was in counseling. From the perspective of the institution, these were not pure psychology courses, though arguably, and certainly from the perspective of my coworker, the coursework was very similar in content.

As an extra wrinkle on top of the factors that you outlined, there's also the issue of discipline-specific accreditation and the impact that has on faculty requirements. For example, AACSB accreditation is all the rage among business schools nowadays, and I've seen the impact that it has had on the criteria that schools have created for potential business faculty. Some institutions that previously might have hired a faculty member with an MBA to teach a business course now want someone with a terminal degree in business at a minimum.

The issue is undoubtedly complicated, but you bring a great administrative and practical perspective to the conversation. With a very dynamic and changing world and the resultant heavy swings in higher education enrollment, it would seem that these are important conversations to have and seriously should call institutions to re-examine their previous models of doing business. "Because that's the way we've always done it" just isn't a sufficient answer any more.
Mary -

I know someone who got a job with the qualifications list you described. But the key is not whether you "know" a lot of math and physics, the key is having 18 graduate hours of math and 18 graduate hours of physics (for anywhere in our accreditation region IIRC). The accreditation people don't actually care if you know it.
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when applying for jobs in Communication I saw postings that wanted someone who could teach communication AND drama, or English comp or Great American novels. I didn't study communication for as long as I did to teach these other courses, in fact I have no business teaching such courses. Nor do I believe someone without a background in communication should teach communication theory, writing for media, or interpersonal communication. But there it is.
We evaluate on a case-by-case basis, with the CV and the transcript as the primary evidence (for part-time faculty), and publications/presentations included for full-time faculty. We would hire - and have hired - comp lit faculty to teach English (based on a thorough review of their credentials); on the other hand, I have rejected people with education and communication degrees (they had applied to teach lower- and upper-level English courses), after a thorough review of their transcripts. I will say that the slippery slope is an ever-threatened reality at my institution. I've had some bizarre teaching requests from faculty members - both full- and part-time - over the years - people who are manifestly unqualified asking to teach certain courses. Administrators have also asked me (and my predecessor) to staff certain courses with unqualified people. Some folks seem not to believe that an advanced degree with some specialization gives an instructor a desirable expertise. I can't decide if that's American anti-intellectualism or a basic misunderstanding of English as a discipline at work.

Finally, having run a Women's Studies program and having hired for it, I can say that despite its interdisciplinarity, there are any manifestly unqualified people who apply for its jobs. Just because someone writes about women does not mean that they are qualified to teach WS courses. Women's Studies qualifications are tougher to evaluate, so one has to go over the transcripts and any publications/presentations with a very fine comb.
Honestly, I think it depends partially on the students too.
A biochemist is amply qualified to teach intro chemistry or O-chem to premeds and biology majors. To future inorganic chem engineers? That could be more iffy.

Knowing where-your-students-knowledge needs to be at the end of their studies makes it easier to build the appropriate framework when you introduce a topic.

But then, if you had enough physics majors that a physics prof would be the best possible person to teach your calc classes, you probably wouldn't need them to teach calc.
I have taken three mathematics classes at the local community college. Two of the instructors were excellent. One of these had both an undergraduate, and a masters degree in mathematics, the other instructor had a background in engineering to the masters degree level as well as forty years experience under his belt. The third instructor who does seem to have a love of the subject manner, has a bachelors degree in education. The numerous errors that this instructor made during lecture, as well as a demonstrated incomprehension of what significant digits are, were an embarrassment to witness. This instructor's faults may well be atributable to a lack of experience.

As for the distinction between people with an engineering or physics background, and those who's education is in mathematics, I have not seen that it is of great importance from my perspective as a student.

A student.
For math, it seems like it should also vary depending on whether the course is a "service course" for another discipline. I've both taken and taught trigonometry classes with a strong physics bias in the textbook and course goals, and I believe that a physics professor would do as good or possibly even better job than I did because they'd be more comfortable with the real-life modeling problems that make up much of the coursework. I obviously have a decent grasp of the math involved, but I don't always know all of the places a concept will come up again in their further non-math coursework unless I ask my colleagues in those disciplines, nor do I always know how "realistic" a given textbook problem is. 200-level differential equations seems like another good candidate for this. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't feel comfortable with a physicist teaching abstract algebra unless they had an usually thorough theoretical math background.
Yes, yes, yes. We need to get over this disciplinary purity because it is holding us back. Better to have math education people and engineers and physics people teaching College Algebra with passion than to fail our students because we don't have the bodies with an advanced mathematics degree. Same goes for Comparative Literature vis a vis English and English vis a vis Composition and Rhetoric.

The cult of specialization has gotten out of hand. And the people who are silently being most cheated are the returning veterans who can't get into the classes they need -- though everybody who wants access is getting cheated, to be sure.

Why isn't Bill Gates up in arms about THIS public educational failing???
Well, in the humanities and social sciences, I have to say that I have seen a number of people in newer disciplines (communication being one) who would not meet some basic standards of capability for teaching their own discipline, let alone any others. Really, I think one of the most useful qualities for teaching disciplinary methods in the humanities and social sciences is more of a long-run view about what the history of those particular disciplines are; the questions about how to manage disciplinary closure as a manager are something else entirely however.
For essay-writing, I think it's actually fairly simple. As an MFA student (with BA in English), we were required to take a composition pedagogy course if we wanted to TA. This was a GREAT class, that gave us a ton of useful information, and actually prepared me to handle the basics of basic / remedial writing, ESL, five-paragraph-eessays, and a whole lot more. It might have been the most useful class I took in my entire MFA -- and one of the most interesting too.

Sadly, my Ph.D. program (in English) didn't offer or require such a course, and I suspect many English lit. and creative folks do end up teaching composition without any preparation. Which is a shame, because it often goes wrong in multiple ways.
"those guys probably don't use that level of math on a regular basis, and probably spent very little time studying it in school."

You mentioned your eng school rebranded math classes; mine just borrowed em. Frankly, the main reason to teach discrete math at the associate/undergrad level is for the CS/engineering crowd, so I doubt the content is much different, and I know CS people pretty much live graph theory. Any math department that refuses to let CS degrees teach algebra, calc1, discrete math or set theory is mainly doing themselves a favor at the expense of their students.

Still, my background is light in calculus and neglects Diff Eq.
This is only an issue because you are looking at hiring adjuncts to replace what should be well-0-qualified math professor. Open a search for a FT math professor and there are plenty of well-qualified (MA in Math with ample teaching experience and clearly excellent in the classroom) applicants. To be an excellent teacher of developmental mathematics (through algebra II), I would want a developmental educator who has taken math and uses practices that are needed for students with math anxiety, etc. Does an Engineer have experience with that? Maybe.
For the College level instruction, I would want someone with a BA/BS in Mathematics, precisely because they have experience with applied and pure mathematics that is used beyond the scope of the students' courses. I had minors in Comp Sci and English. Does that make me qualified to teach these disciplines? No, and that is comparable to the Scientist you want to teach Calculus.
Math departments want mathematicians to teach math classes because these classes are, after all, math classes. Engineers often view math as a tool, and tend to teach it that way. So an engineer teaching Calculus I would skip all the proofs, because the engineer sees little value in formal proofs. To a mathematician, those proofs are essential to mathematics.
My university creates a barrier to teaching classes in other departments: if I wanted to teach a class offered by another department, I probably wouldn't get credit within my department for teaching it. That pretty much ends the discussion.

As it happens, I'm a computer science professor. One of the classes I teach is a discrete math class. However, it's a class that is officially offered through the computer science department. This way computer science faculty can teach the class, get credit for it, and ensure that it meets the needs of computer science students. That was easier than trying to get computer science faculty teaching the class offered by the department of mathematics, or trying to get changes made to the class offered by the math dept.

I think your question is exactly right. Certainly, there are plenty of faculty outside the math department who could teach introductory math classes very well.

I think what's really going on is that the giant service classes are the way that the math dept justifies hiring its own faculty. Math profs don't tend to bring in a lot of funding or a large number of graduate students or undergraduate majors, so one of the main ways they justify their existence is through service courses. If the administration assigns other faculty to teach those service courses, then that is making it harder for the math dept to hire good faculty, and over time the size of the math dept is going to shrink rather than grow. Of course that's going to hit an enormous amount of resistance! And personally while I think it might be a good thing to have non-math people teaching those service courses, I think it would be a bad thing if the math dept suffered as a result.

(Personally I think it's screwed up that we require all undergrads to take Calc 1A. I tend to think of that as driven by inertia and the imperative to justify the size of the math dept as much as by any pedagogical reason. But oh well.)
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