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.