February 2, 2004

Teaching and tenure

Robert McCauley is professor of philosophy.

For promotion and tenure in Emory College, candidates must perform excellently in either teaching or research and perform very good work in the other. In addition, successful candidates will have provided significant service to some or all of their departments, divisions and schools, as well as to the University as a whole.

The demand for excellent performance in either one and at least very good performance in the other is presumably aimed at maintaining high overall standards for faculty performance while allowing for the different strengths individuals exhibit either overall or at various stages in their careers.

These, it should be stressed, are the minimum standards that candidates must meet. Ideally, we desire faculty who perform with excellence in all three areas. During my term (2000-03) on the Emory College Faculty Council (recently renamed the Tenure and Promotion Committee), the council judged that many candidates exceeded those minimum standards. (A brief note: Inertia in the academic world is profound. I am positive that many faculty members at Emory--let alone faculty at other universities--do not yet realize just how good the Emory faculty is.)

The distinction between de jure and de facto accounts of policies and practices suggests a distance between official pronouncements about such matters and their implementation. Consequently, the enunciation of the college's guidelines is insufficient.

In my experience, at least two sorts of questions regularly arise with respect to the place of teaching in the committee's decisions. At one time or another I have heard faculty from all ranks speculate about how the committee (a) weighs teaching as opposed to research and (b) assesses the quality of teaching. Let me take each up in turn.

The Principles and Procedures for Promotion and Tenure suggest that teaching and research are equally important to the life of the institution and in the evaluation of candidates for promotion and tenure, but a recurring suspicion is that the committee regards research as more important than teaching. I have heard colleagues informally propose alternative formulae for the relative importance of teaching and research.

First, to talk about how the committee "weighs" or "balances" teaching "as opposed to" research misses the mark. The committee does not view these activities as opposed so much as complementary, as two related facets of the university as an institution of higher learning.

The one place into which language seeps that could be interpreted as implying opposition is during fourth-year reviews. In some of these reviews, the committee believes it important to counsel candidates to consider the quantity of effort they devote to one dimension of their performance, as it could be at the expense of the other. Crucially, though, this is just as often to encourage greater attention to teaching relative to research as it is the converse.

Further, from a procedural standpoint, the committee seeks independent evidence about the candidate's performance on each dimension. This is not to say that committee members suffer amnesia about their assessments with respect to the first dimension when considering the second, but that cases of overlap between the two dimensions are infrequent. Moreover, they virtually always arise for good reasons, such as the fact that a candidate's scholarly work includes research on pedagogy or curriculum.

Second, a nontrivial minority of successful candidates achieves tenure and promotion on the basis of excellent teaching and very good research. This comment raises two points: The first is that the minority in question is nontrivial; these are not isolated cases that only arise once, if at all, during a typical member's term. Committee members readily recognize that a candidate can merit tenure and promotion on the basis of excellent teaching and very good research, because such cases arise periodically.

The second point is that the group in question constitutes a minority of the successful cases. This may offer a clue about factors operating below the level of consciousness (either individual or collective) in the committee's deliberations, about the criteria guiding departments' hiring decisions in the first place, or both.

These reflections lead to the consideration of how the committee assesses a candidate's teaching performance. Teaching is many things. The evidence the committee considers is substantial and diverse and, inevitably, differs across different types of cases. The critical point is that the evidence the committee considers is that which candidates and their home departments choose to provide. It is my impression that, over the past four years, no issue has attracted the committee's attention more than this one.

In 1999 and 2002 the college Faculty Council encouraged departments to undertake two initiatives to aid its assessment of candidates' teaching: to supply (a) written peer reviews of candidates' teaching and (b) comparative teaching data--that is, comparisons of the candidate's scores with overall department averages and with other scores for the same course, other courses at the same level, and other classes of similar size.

Importantly, a system for generating a collection of peer evaluations for a candidate need be neither solely one-sided nor solely evaluative. For example, a Center for Teaching and Curriculum program for junior faculty provides incentives for entering consultative relationships with colleagues about teaching that are neither. Instituting these recommended practices in all departments would provide a more thorough picture of candidates' teaching.

As then-chair of the council, I spoke in fall 2002 to department chairs and program directors about the varied forms of evidence concerning teaching that they and candidates for senior positions could supply the council. A partial list includes a list of courses taught; sample syllabi; a statement concerning teaching experience and philosophy; alumni and current students' statements or letters concerning the candidate's teaching; peer reviews; an account of teaching enhancement activities the candidate has pursued; a list of teaching awards and recognitions; a record of the candidate's supervision of students at all levels; reports on performances at conferences, professional meetings and colloquia; and publications, projects and grants concerning pedagogical or curricular issues. These, of course, are all in addition to summaries of student ratings of teachers.

The impact of student evaluations on the assessment of teaching is in no small measure a function of how much additional evidence about their teaching performance candidates and their departments provide. The items listed in the previous paragraph are as appropriate for internal promotion and tenure cases as they are for outside hires. Although the assessment of teaching involves attention to a wider range of considerations than it did a decade ago, how professors fare with respect to these student evaluations probably remains the single most influential factor shaping those assessments.

Attention to student ratings makes sense. Research indicates that students' responses to well-designed course and instructor evaluation forms do provide a valid measure of the quality of many features of teaching performance. (It also indicates that attention to the results of such evaluations can provide faculty with useful information about how to improve their teaching.)

This past spring a committee charged with examining the course and instructor evaluation process in Emory College concluded that for all of its limitations (for example, the doubtful applicability of some questions to the wide variety of educational settings in Emory College), the current evaluation form is as well designed as a dozen forms the committee examined from peer institutions. Still, many legitimate questions about the use of results from these forms remain. The point is that, even if we had satisfactory answers to all of them, such results would inevitably yield an incomplete picture.

This essay first appeared in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of Academic Exchange, devoted to examining tenure in higher education, and is reprinted with permission.