higher education, research, teaching

A few links and thoughts for managers

Now that I am School director I’m spending more time in meetings, listening to senior managers’ ideas about the campus plan for 2013 and I’m reading more posts in The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed. In many ways our NWU, or South African challenges are more universal than we think. Here are three quick perspectives.

Last week Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles released their survey of faculty (academic staff members’) activities and attitudes. The survey reached more than 23 000 faculty members at four-year colleges and universities in the US. The table below shows activities and time spent:

How Faculty Members Report Spending Time, in Hours per Week, 2010-11

  0 1-4 5-8 9-12 13-16 17-20 21+
Schedule teaching 5.8 15.8 34.6 28.6 9.2 3.7 2.1
Preparing for teaching (including grading) 4.9 11.5 24.4 22.4 13.9 12.1 10.7
Advising and counselling students 4.4 56.7 27.1 7.8 2.2 1.1 0.7
Committee work and meetings 7.6 58.0 23.7 6.8 2.2 1.3 0.4
Other administration 30.6 39.7 13.8 6.6 3.4 2.7 3.2
Research 13.1 30.3 19.2 12.9 6.9 6.0 11.7

The report shows that time spent on teaching is less than the years before, but time spent on research is not notably up. Many faculty members spend small but regular chunks of time each week on committee work, advising, research and other activities. I am keen to compare this to our School where most of the staff would fall in the 5-8 hours of teaching per week bracket. It is clear that the faculty members in the survey do not get close the the NWU’s idea of splitting their time 40:40:20 between teaching, research and community / commercialisation.

Another interesting table shows what is happening in class:

Men, Women and Teaching Methods in Used in All or Most Courses

Method Men, 2001-2 Women, 2001-2 Men, 2010-11 Women, 2010-11
Extensive lecturing 54.6% 34.1% 52.7% 33.8%
Class discussions 68.3% 78.9% 78.3% 88.0%
Cooperative learning 32.6% 55.8% 48.5% 68.8%
Student presentations 30.4% 45.2% 36.9% 53.8%

Faculty members seem to be moving to more student-centered approaches, but the men still seem to prefer more lecturing. This is specifically the case in the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). This week our campus is hosting a conference on teaching excellence and I am excited to go and have a look at what the top lectures are doing in their courses.

Finally, the report shows that these academics are stressed. The challenge for a manager though is that “teaching load” or “committee work” are not the big stressors. Items like self-imposed high expectations, working with under-prepared students and research or publishing demands rank much higher. Empowering staff to take their teaching or research to the next level will require more than just giving them more time. I think that training is one part, but I also like the idea of nudging. Maybe exposing people to that next level quality will inspire their own efforts.

This brings me to two other interesting posts. Margaret Wente writes in the Globe and Mail that Canadian Universities will have to choose between access and quality. The problem starts with government’s goals of access and mass participation. But:

Academics insist that universities must not become job factories. Their mission is to guide students to cultivate the life of the mind. But there’s a big disconnect between what academics want and what students want. For students, higher education is all about the job. Yet, they get virtually no counselling about what returns they can expect for their investment, or what their job prospects might be.

She goes on to argue that changing this will be difficult and outlines a number of points that sound familiar in SA as well: Big classes, more teaching done by part-time staff (adjuncts), all the incentives for research. Her solution is a bold one:

Give more research money to the most productive researchers, and far less to the rest. Let’s abandon our cherished egalitarianism and fund our leading research universities properly, so they can compete on the world stage. Let’s develop a tier of teaching universities that are excellent at what they do. The result would be smaller classes and lower tuition, a win-win all around.

I also do not think that universities should become job factories, and I disagree with the article’s idea that there should be greater government intervention, but I agree that the system as it is set up, is a danger to undergraduate teaching and in the end post-grads and research will suffer for it as well.

Finally, the Chronicle writes about a Michael Rizzo, a full-time lecturer in economics at the University of Rochester, and argues for two tracks for faculty – teaching, or research. The idea put forward is:

But what if the academic work force were made up primarily of two types of faculty members? One, a small proportion of tenure-track professors—those who earn doctoral degrees, do research, train graduate students, teach advanced seminars, and help administrators run the university. And two, a larger portion of full-time instructors, like Mr. Rizzo, who teach undergraduates, help advise them, keep up with developments in the field by reading and attending conferences, but do no research. Instead of earning Ph.D.’s, like those on the tenure track, instructors could stop with a master’s degree, as many in the adjunct teaching pool already do.

At the NWU this idea is heresy: we recently scrapped the idea of a teaching-learning associate professorship. But then management also has this idea that we can’t have all these part-time lecturers on the  school’s budget. Who is supposed to do the teaching then? Or the other way around, if everyone’s teaching, who’s supposed to do the research then? As an economist I am in favour of the idea of the division of labour and specialisation. If everyone has to do everything, there can be limited gains from trade.

In conclusion, I don’t have answers to these different questions, but I do find it interesting that there are many more people out there, thinking about them.

Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical thinking, dissertations, higher education, student essays, student writing

Writing as assessment

This weekend I helped a colleague to grade some student assignments and it got me to thinking about writing as assessment. As a manager I always say that I would rather help someone move a body in the middle of the night, than to help them with marking. I know that there is quite a discussion online about student writing and I have not read enough of it to write anything sensible, but after ploughing through those “research proposals” I do want to ask some questions.

First-off, I just want to say that I do believe that it is important to have students make their thinking and reasoning visible through writing assignments. This can be short or long essays, research papers or “articles”, whatever you want to call them. It is a way to demonstrate the 4C’s: Creativity, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Communication. Being able to write simply and clearly will benefit anyone, everywhere, always.

But how can we go about this in a undergraduate Economics course? There is no shortage of topics, my questions are about practical challenges. The groups are large, ranging from 1200 first years, 450 second years and 180 third year students. Thus writing assignments present a lot of marking. How much individual-specific feedback can you give? If you don’t have more than one essay, what use is the feedback? How do you deal with plagiarism?

Maybe there is someone out there who can share some ideas?

I suppose that having a writing assignment (with all its trouble and flaws) is better than having none. Maybe it is possible to use peer-evaluation for the first essay of the semester and have the lecturer grade the second one? Or you can try and get a bunch of post-grads to help read. Or the lecturers can share the load. Turn-it-in helps a bit.

I would love to hear from other academic economists on this. Are you still giving writing assignments? How do do the grading and feedback? Has anyone tried alternative approaches? Please leave a comment…