Wednesday, July 12, 2006

What is an appropriate amount of teaching for graduate students?

There are contradictory stories on teaching by graduate students in the current issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement (effectively, the Chronicle of Higher Education for those of us in the UK). Both relate to a recent conference at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

The first story is "PhDs Told to Avoid Too Much Teaching" (subscription only). An excerpt:

"Postgraduates must resist pressure from managers to take on a teaching load so heavy that it affects their research, a conference has heard. John McKenzie, a PhD researcher and teaching assistant in Aberdeen University's sociology department, told a national postgraduate conference held at the university this week that postgraduate teaching experience could have positive and negative effects. Mr McKenzie, who is in the third year of a part-time PhD on contemporary spirituality in Scotland, does up to 12 hours of tutoring and 20 hours as a care officer a week in addition to his research."

Yet, then there is a story "Postgraduates Told: Those Who Can, Teach" as well (subscription only). An excerpt:

"Engaging with students is a matter of integrity, and it can improve promotion prospects, reports Olga Wojtas from a conference of postgraduates. Research is not the be all and end all in higher education so if you don't want to teach then don't bother becoming an academic, a postgraduate conference was told last week. [Professor Trevor Salmon] also warned that teaching was one of the criteria for promotion. "A lot of people think it's research, research, research. Maybe it is if you're a Nobel prizewinner, but if you're an ordinary mortal and you're poor at teaching, that hurts your promotion prospects."

Which gives the best advice? Should a graduate student teach only to gain a bit of experience or is it a shining path leading to a pot of gold?

When I was a graduate student only a few years ago, my supervisors recommended taking on minimal teaching only---if I wanted a job, the goal was to keep publishing. Better still was advice given to a friend of mine (and stated at graduate conferences elsewhere): if given the choice of publishing one article or teaching one course, take the article each and every time.

A bit of experience is very important; indeed, teaching is very important. This is true wherever one goes. However, entry level academic positions need not require extensive teaching. Those with a publication or two and only a dose of teaching experience will almost always see off applicants with plenty of teaching experience and no publications. There is a balance between the two, often tilted towards publications. It is therefore important to get this balance correct.

It is somewhat disingenuous to suggest that graduate students should be teaching plenty now so that they might earn promotion later. I know of no instance where past teaching as a graduate student helped earn promotion for a tenure-track staff member later in his/her career. We all know of stories where past publications have benefitted (and rightly so) people for some time post-publication and (in some cases) throughout his/her career. Yes, successful promotion applications normally demonstrate at least competence and often better teaching abilities. Yes, these skills are not learned overnight. However, a graduate student should be receiving advice that will help him/her gain a job. Promotion advice is only helpful for those no longer students. Plus, the best promotion advice is to publish in premier journals and engage in high visibility endeavours.

I am reminded of the late Professor Warren E. Miller (Political Science, Arizona State University), formerly President of the American Political Science Association. His students recanted that lectures consisted of reading chapters from his book: when time elapsed, he asked students to read the rest of the chapter. And on it went. Yet, he was the kind of fellow who could get away with it, a leading figure (indeed, towering figure) in the field and full of terrific advice I've continued to benefit from.

Always best to be a better researcher than teacher, although better still to be a good teacher. This is advice for one's career. The best advice for graduate students remains: teach no more than a course and publish, publish, publish.

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