Valuing Teaching in a Precarious World

As was reiterated in the last couple of weeks with the discussion around the conduct of Avital Ronell and the academics who joined together to defend her, academia in the U.S. is a system that is geared toward the top. This is true in terms of the academic stars that we all seem to orient ourselves around, and it is true of the kind of labor we are taught to aspire to. As graduate students we are trained to be mini-me’s of our R-1 profs who have light teaching loads in order to focus on their research. If you just mold yourself into a facsimile of the star you align yourself around maybe one day you can rise from the plebeian ranks and enjoy torturing your own graduate students. You can’t be in academics too long without hearing funny jokes about how well the academic system aligns with the feudal system, har har har.

That is the system we have inherited and grown up in. But as the larger higher education system around starts to be more and more and more unsustainable—budgets are being cut, teaching loads are going up, pay is stagnant, yet tuition costs and student debt are rising at alarming rates—many people are looking and asking what we should be doing to stop these changes, or adapt to them, or construct new possibilites. A lot of this discussion has circled around graduate education because of the truly abysmal state of the academic job market. If you follow conversations in higher education, you have been reading about and discussing these questions for awhile now. What are we preparing our students to do if there are no jobs in academia, at least ones that pay a living wage? Do we provide more examples of alternative careers? Do we need more unions? Do we need to train academics differently? Do we need to take in less graduate students?

I think these conversations are good, and I have seen some change come out of them. But I am also reminded again and again how entrenched we still are in these models that privilege certain kinds of academics and certain kinds of knowledge.

As someone who is increasingly interested in pedagogy, this is reiterated to me when I see how much we still do not value teaching. We can’t seem to escape the model where research is best and teaching is secondary. This was shown to me when I received very little training in graduate school about how to teach, when I see good teaching being treated like a nice addition to a scholar’s resume but not really a necessary one, when my friends on the tenure track are told to focus as much as they can on their scholarship even if their teaching suffers.

If we value research so much though, one might think that if we study our teaching and publish scholarship about teaching, then that work will be counted as research. And it might have a nice added benefit of also helping your and maybe someone else’s teaching. However, I was on the job market last year, and it was made clear to me a few times that while it was good to have publications related to teaching, it wasn’t really the same as having “real” research on my CV. In one case I was told that a forthcoming article in Pedagogy about PALS was not “academic” enough of a subject, and in another I was told that the tenure committee would be more interested in scholarship of discovery than research on teaching. To be clear, these were both jobs where the fundamental duty was teaching and both jobs had minimal research requirements to be promoted. They were teaching jobs, and it was made clear that maybe my focus was a little too much on TEACHING.

I use these examples not to just complain about my own experience. Rather I want to point out these instances because they illustrate how ingrained in our system the idea that research, and certain kinds of research at that, are best and everything else we do as academics is secondary.

The reason this bothers me so much right now is that I see the devaluing of teaching as adding to the crisis that higher education finds itself in. Now, I realize that the corporatization of the university has much larger forces at work than individual departments or professors not valuing certain kinds of labor. But I can’t help but see the connection here. I think this is especially true of the adjunctification of higher education. If we don’t think that teaching has value, than who cares who teaches our classes? who cares what we pay them? who cares if those teachers don’t have health insurance? who cares if they use their car as an office?

When lamenting the state of the job market with my friend a few years back, I asked her why the profession let this happen—watched job security slip away and spent time wringing their hands but doing nothing really to stop it. I can’t help but think that maybe because it was teaching that went first people didn’t really care as much. They let the grad students take on heavier teaching loads and watched as those students graduated to take on even heavier teaching loads. They watched people be grateful, so grateful for non-tenure track jobs that had one year contracts because at least that was some stability. Maybe if the academy really valued teaching in the same way we do research, defensives would have been hit earlier and people would have fought harder.

The root of my argument here is that we need to value teaching more. However, I do know that valuing something doesn’t magically solve all problems. That it isn’t really an actionable item. So if you have suggestions about how we teach others to value teaching, then I would love to hear them. I am in for brainstorming ways to shift the power.