Tuesday, June 23, 2015


The Advancement Problem

In higher education, we often use the term “advancement” to refer to fundraising.  Here, I’ll use it in the sense that the rest of the world uses it, meaning career advancement.

Higher ed has a severe advancement problem.

It has for a long time.  The well-documented malaise of the Associate Professor, I think, is a symptom.  I was reminded of it over the weekend, when I had the chance to visit High School Friend on Right Ocean.  HSFRO noted that in many departments, if you didn’t know titles, and just watched faculty day to day, the only way you could guess who had which title would be by their ages.  The duties really don’t change much.  

Which is weird, if you think about it.  Getting into the full-time faculty ranks is a task in itself, but it involves a pretty rigorous (and often quick) climb up the occupational ladder.  These are people who have been climbers since high school, if not earlier.  They move from high school to college to grad school to postdoc or adjuncting to full-time faculty, changing venues every few years and outcompeting peers along the way.  They advance to tenure, and then…

For most, there’s really nowhere to go after that.  They can spend thirty years or more doing the same thing.

That’s especially true at teaching-intensive institutions.  At research universities, even if the teaching doesn’t change much, the research does; there’s always a new question to work on.  But at a teaching-intensive place, you can easily be looking at multiple sections of “Intro to…” every semester for the rest of your career.  After a couple of decades, keeping it fresh can become a challenge, particularly in fields in which the basics don’t change much.  The Pythagorean theorem hasn’t changed much in some time, and probably won’t.

This isn’t about “deadwood,” exactly.  Deadwood is a symptom.  It’s about a structural flaw that both encourages and enables deadwood.

Some people get around the advancement problem by going into administration.  There are good reasons to do that, and some of us -- hello -- find fulfilling careers doing that.  But it’s a fundamentally different job than what faculty do.  The Venn diagram of skill sets for the two jobs will show some overlap, but a whole lot outside the shaded area.  Some people have both sets of skills, but that’s more a matter of personality and serendipity than training.  (For reasons I still don’t understand, higher ed doesn’t seem to believe much in management training for its own people.)  I’ve known some wonderful professors who made terrible administrators, simply because the tasks are so different.  For an ambitious professor at a teaching-intensive institution who has no appetite for administration, the ceiling comes early.

Professional development is crucial, of course.  I’ve seen some professors who had grown a bit stale reinvent themselves when they started teaching online.  Sometimes team-teaching, or picking up an entirely new course, can shake things up productively.  But at a basic level, professional development works only when the professional being developed wants it to work.  By the time he has thrown in the towel, it’s too late.

I’ve seen plenty of articles advocating “phased retirement” plans for senior faculty, to allow them to stick around longer.  But as an industry, we seem weirdly reluctant to discuss what to do for mid-career faculty who are solid performers, but who are looking at decades more of doing exactly the same thing.  As near as I can tell, that’s actually the much more common problem.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective institutional responses to the advancement problem?  I’m particularly interested in solutions that make sense in a teaching-intensive setting.

I wonder if this is part of why some people get into edufads. If you're staring at a few decades of doing the same thing again and again, jumping onto a snake oil bandwagon might look good for some people.
Shuffling courses does help yet is also mixed. Variety! (smiley face) New prep outside area of expertise! (sad face) Being at a 4-year also creates much more of an opportunity for shuffling, and for research.

I did hear once (but don't recall the source) that the tenure process is designed to search for people who will succeed in this corporate "sidewalk" environment. Perhaps a strong self-driven motivation to succeed makes an explicit advancement ladder less necessary.

I brought up the topic when I saw DD because another PhD friend who works as permanent staff (runs labs, teach courses, no research) at yet another college had noted the day before that her position didn't have opportunities for advancement. She meant it as a negative comparison to tenure-track faculty, though I saw more parallels than differences from an advancement perspective.
I agree with your diagnosis of a critical problem in higher ed, but would add that the problem is as bad or worse with staff positions. For many staff positions, there is no upward path at all, or at best a low ceiling beyond one cannot advance without changing institutions. For staff members who are placebound or whose salaries can't justify a move, they're essentially frozen in place for a lifetime. Advice on finding ways to unlock this unrealized staff talent would be much appreciated.
Perhaps the problem is the belief that increased satisfaction can only come from "advancement". Must proving the Peter Principle be the only path in academia? And is a job hiring adjuncts (or hiring the people who hire them) really an advancement over mentoring them? It is in pay, and perhaps in variety, but that need not be the case. Satisfaction often comes from creative control, and support from above for innovation even when it fails and is abandoned.

I will first observe that not all faculty at R1 institutions maintain an active research program throughout their career. Might not even be a majority. One very perceptive Dean of past acquaintance (business, not science) developed a way to assign loads so young faculty had a high research load while young and creative (and until they learned to teach) -- and were evaluated on that -- while others who lost interest in research could transition to more teaching -- and be evaluated on that. The latter enabled the load shift for new faculty (and other active researchers) and was not viewed as punishment. You could advance on good teaching as a senior prof even more than another senior prof whose publications have become more boring than a new grad assistant armed only with PowerPoint.

One tactic I have seen used is a planned regular turnover in the lower admin ranks of dept chair and asst chair for undergrads, etc. Keep those people moving in and out of the classroom. Ditto for major policy and curriculum committees. That can be stimulating in the short run, but leave you happy to get back in a classroom. Using some sort of leadership program, like the Chair Academy, can improve functioning at that level and even when those people go back into the classroom.

For me, variety also comes in trying out new techniques in the classroom. We don't teach Pythagoras like he did (or maybe we do, rather than like they did in industrial classrooms of the 20th century). I have a blast learning from new faculty members as I mentor them on the things no one teaches you in college about the inner workings of our sausage factory.
I thought about this a lot during the back half of my career. I don't think it was much of a problem for me (teaching macroeconomics sort of keeps you from thinking you can just repeat the past; also, I kept teaching new courses), but I saw it in some of my colleagues. In almost any discipline, there are things individuals can do (e.g., in into accounting, switching the course to a computer-intensive course) and that administrators can provide incentives for (e.g., finding funding for teaching-related course releases or summer money on an equivalent basis with institutional research money). But I agree it's a problem (when I retired, I calculated that I had taught over 100 sections of intro to microeconomics and about 90 sections of intro to macroeconomics in my working lift).
Perhaps the problem is the belief that increased satisfaction can only come from "advancement". Must proving the Peter Principle be the only path in academia?

I agree with CCPhysicist. Someone who is able to handle the important, inspiring, challenging job of teaching for many many years without looking for a way out should be looked highly upon, not seen as having fallen into a boring repetitive life situation.
I've been teaching introductory science for a couple of decades now. It's still challenging — not in the material, but in coping with every new fad imposed on us by administration.

Now, I'm all for evidence-based change, and in science education we've got a fair amount of evince on what works, and we're always testing and tweaking to improve. (Hey, it's what we do: make a hypothesis, gather data, evaluate, refine hypothesis, repeat.) But matching fads is just busywork.

As an example, imagine you have written a textbook. Every year you are forced to rewrite the book, not in a substantive way, but to meet fads in publishing. Change the aspect ration of the pages. Add sidebars, take out sidebars. Use coloured blocks for emphasis. Change the font. Include examples; don't overwhelm the reader with examples… Meanwhile, all the research you've gathered on the effects of font and text size on reading retention etc are cheerfully ignored because that's not what the big name magazines are doing this year. (And any comments that you are writing a textbook not a magazine are met with accusations that you are being deliberately obstructive.)
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