by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings
This essay is one in a series of blogs in which the authors reflect on themes drawn from their in-depth case studies of four departments at four institutions participating in the Bay View Alliance’s TRESTLE initiative.
As higher education has grown and diversified over the past thirty to forty years, the professoriate has grown and diversified as well. One well known, and to many disturbing, aspect of this trend is the growing proportion of faculty in “non-career ladder positions, both full-and part-time,” hired specifically to do “instructional ‘heavy lifting,” (Finkelstein, Conley, & Schuster, 2016, p. 94). They are there to teach classes, not to contribute to knowledge about teaching or to the general improvement of teaching practice.
But we have been struck by an interesting countertrend—not yet visible in the statistics–that seems to have taken hold: the proliferation of different kinds of appointments that up the ante on–and value of–pedagogical knowledge and skill.
One manifestation of this trend, familiar to many Bay View Alliance readers, is the use of departmentally embedded science education experts in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative and, subsequently, the Bay View Alliance’s TRESTLE project.* These positions may be filled by postdocs or faculty, but their special role as science education experts is to serve their department as a resource on teaching and learning in that field. We will say more about these experts and their work in a subsequent post, but here we want to place them in the context of the growing number and variety of teaching-focused positions in higher education in the US, Canada and, indeed, around the world.
Some of these are staff positions, including departmentally based undergraduate lab directors and the growing number of professionals employed in teaching and learning centers and in education technology units. But you can now also find a variety of postdoctoral or instructor-level positions connected to special pedagogical projects, like the science education experts who have participated in the Science Education Initiative and the BVA’s TRESTLE program.
Additionally, on many campuses one can find faculty on the “regular” research tenure track who have exercised an option to apply for promotion to full professor on the basis of pedagogical accomplishments; faculty who have been hired into “regular” tenure-track lines with an expectation that they will undertake and publish discipline-based education research; and faculty in new “teaching stream” professorial ranks.
As one might expect, given their novelty, many of these positions are in a state of flux. This is most evident in the new teaching stream, where there’s considerable variation between (and sometimes within) institutions in titles, promotion criteria, status, and salary vis a vis the traditional tenure-track stream. Some of these streams are officially tenure-track, some are not, and still others are on a track to tenure in all but name, as in the University of California system, where they are called lecturers with (or with potential for) security of employment.
Indeed, as we have learned during our case study interviews at the University of British Columbia (UBC), these teaching stream models are often works in progress. Since the rank of Professor of Teaching at UBC was established, in 2011, the “Teaching Stream” has been renamed the “Educational Leadership” stream, and a concerted effort has been made to examine how educational leadership is understood around the campus. Colleagues there have told us that although the university provides guidelines, there’s been considerable variety in how appointments and promotion within this stream have been handled in different units, and a continuing effort to achieve equity in governance and pay. That said, one interesting development in the definition of these positions is a requirement (at the highest rank) that their work has an impact beyond their own classrooms.
Similar challenges face faculty in traditional tenure-track positions who are engaged in discipline-based educational research. Even those “hired in” with an education-related research specialty can face ambiguity in the expectations that colleagues hold for them and in the evaluation of their work (Bush, et al., 2008, 2011). Indeed, their situation is often similar to those of their colleagues in regular tenure track positions who seek to have their work in educational leadership and the scholarship of teaching and learning recognized in the institutional reward system (Huber, 2004; Hutchings, Huber, and Ciccone, 2011).
The emergence of these new teaching positions is heartening in many ways. First it may give hope to many in the large cadre of term-limited and contingent faculty that a career pathway for scholars with serious pedagogical interests may open up for them. Second, it speaks to the growing recognition of the value of pedagogical knowledge and expertise and the benefits they bring to student learning and program effectiveness. Finally, it is putting pressure on colleges and universities to address long-standing issues in the evaluation of teaching, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and educational leadership.
It’s fair to worry that these new positions will leave regular faculty off the pedagogical hook, in effect “outsourcing” teaching expertise to these new specialists. Yet it’s also possible that their presence will help raise expectations for all faculty and make it possible for a new view of teaching to take hold. In other words, a widening array of teaching positions may, paradoxically, set the stage for a new consensus that, in Carl Wieman’s words, teaching “is an activity that involves true expertise that comes from knowledge and careful practice, rather than merely a matter of individual opinion and expression” (2017, p.123).
How TRESTLE’s “science education specialists” are contributing their share to such an outcome is a theme we will return to in a later post.
*Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, TRESTLE builds on the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia and Colorado University in which STEM Education experts (postdoctoral scholars) are embedded in departments to collaborate with faculty on course transformation to enhance student learning. TRESTLE is testing whether we can propagate change through a smaller infusion of resources and expertise (fewer experts in a given department) by building communities of scholars around course transformation to amplify the effects of the embedded experts.
Bush, S.D., Pelaez, N.J., Rudd, J.A., Stevens, M.T., Tanner, K.D., & Williams, K.S. (2008). Science faculty with education specialties. Science 322, 1795-1796.
Bush, S.D., Pelaez, N.J., Rudd, J.A., Stevens, M. T., Tanner, K.D., & Williams, K.S. (2011). Investigation of science faculty with education specialties within the largest university system in the United States. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 10 (Spring), 25-42.
Finkelstein, M.J., Conley, V.M., & Schuster, J.H. (2016). The faculty factor: Reassessing the American academy in a turbulent era. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Huber, M.T. (2004). Balancing acts: The scholarship of teaching and learning in academic careers. Washington, DC: The American Association for Higher Education.
Hutchings, P., Huber, M. T., & Ciccone, A. (2011). The scholarship of teaching reconsidered: Institutional integration and impact. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wieman, C. (2017). Improving how universities teach science: Lessons from the science education initiative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.