Sunday, June 19, 2011

More on Faculty Productivity

Blogging at The Education Optimists, Sara Goldrick-Rab, an assistant professor of education policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin, has some comments on my analysis of teaching productivity data from the University of Texas.

To make a long story short, Richard Vedder, an economist from Ohio University, produced a report analyzing teaching at UT. The Vedder report grabbed headlines by finding that there are sharp disparities in the distribution of teaching duties at UT. I summarized these findings in my essay:
A report on teaching productivity at the University of Texas at Austin by Richard Vedder and his colleagues at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) concludes that there is a “sharp disparity in the teaching loads for individual faculty members” at UT. Strikingly, they find that the top 20 percent of “faculty with respect to teaching loads teaches 57% of all student credit hours” while the bottom 20 percent teach “only 2% of all student credit hours.” On this basis, Dr. Vedder and his coauthors argue that substantial financial savings are available to UT by increasing the average teaching loads of faculty and eliminating a large number of positions held by “the least productive” faculty members.
Analyzing the data myself, I found that Vedder's report was misleading. Accounting for the part-time status of many faculty members, faculty assignment to nonteaching duties, variance in class size, and differences in academic programs showed a much more reasonable distribution of teaching duties. Part-time teachers taught less than full time faculty members. Faculty who are assigned to academic support, advising, and administrative duties teach less than faculty who are assigned to a full teaching load. People teaching large classes taught moire total credit hours than those who taught smaller courses. Faculty in colleges that are principally or exclusively oriented toward graduate education (e.g. law and public policy) teach smaller classes and fewer credit hours than colleges that mostly serve undergraduates. And so on.

Dr. Goldrikc-Rab writes that my analysis misses the point:
A rebuttal from a Texas A&M political science professor tries to bat down the accusations. But he seems to miss the point of Vedder's approach, which is to say that every decision about staffing matters-- so we should lump together faculty in different categories given that theoretically the distributions could be changed. Case in point: "First, much of the skew in teaching duties observed by the CCAP report authors is simply a function of the fact that UT employs a large number of part-time faculty." Well, yes, but that's part of the point-- and a big problem. Universities do that NOT to serve students better but to save money on benefits. PT faculty are perfectly good at teaching but are overworked and underpaid so don't have time for out-of-classroom interaction. His second point, that there's a potential consequence for education quality is right, in theory, yet he cites not a single study showing that large class sizes are associated with diminish instructional quality in higher education. And that's because he can't-- such studies don't exist. Doug Harris and I covered this at length in our La Follette working paper released last year. I do agree that there should be adjustments by field, but this needs to be carefully done because decisions about offering fields with lower enrollments are also strategic decisions and institutions have to be accountable for them. I'm not saying don't offer them, but you can probably only do it if you high-demand fields are very productive. Finally, I see nothing about the use of our resistance to technology, especially blended learning, about faculty in the professor's rebuttal. Technology breaks the iron triangle between access, quality, and costs -- it makes it more possible to offer a high-quality lower cost accessible education. I'm on-board with that and it may be one thing that sets me apart from most other professors.
I have a couple of points to make in (sincerely good-spirited) reply.

First, the point of the Vedder report is quite clear and very difficult to miss. These are the first two bullet points in the report's executive summary.
20 percent of UT Austin faculty are teaching 57 percent of student credit hours. They also generate 18 percent of the campus’s research funding. This suggests that these faculty are not jeopardizing their status as researchers by assuming such a high level of teaching responsibility... Conversely, the least productive 20 percent of faculty teach only 2 percent of all student credit hours and generate a disproportionately smaller percentage of external research funding than do other faculty segments.
I take the point to be that most of the faculty are shirking their professional responsibilities, including a sizable proportion who are barely working at all. So, the logic goes, UT can safely ditch the bottom fifth of its faculty in terms of student credit hour productivity, reshuffle teaching duties, and save a boatload of money without the university losing out in terms of teaching or research.

In response, I attempted to show that the faculty aren't dodging their teaching responsibilities, by and large. There is simply enormous variance in what those responsibilities are, particularly in any given academic year. A full-time faculty member in the College of Science who teach two introductory chemistry courses to 400 students each semester is not 100 time more productive than the adjunct professor of law who shows up to teach a seminar on estate law to 16 third year students every spring. One is full-time; one is part time. One is teaching an introductory courses to undergraduates; one is teaching an advanced course to professional students. Likewise, the political scientist who teaches four sections of American government each year to 300 students at a time is not doing 100 times the work of the professor of nursing who is supervising a dozen students in clinical rotations, for example. One is teaching material that can generally be delivered effectively in a large lecture hall; the other has to look over students' shoulders while the insert IVs and give injections. Naively looking at credit hour productivity loses critical information about subject matter, course levels, and so on and leads to misguided conclusions about what is going on at a university and how it might be managed more effectively.

The Vedder report spends few words and shed few tears for the part-time contingent faculty, and so I speant little time on the issue myself.

I am very sympathetic to worries about the shift towards college teaching by part-time contingent faculty and away from teaching by full-time faculty with research responsibilities up to a point. First, contingent teaching faculty are often "over-worked and under-paid" with little job security. Second, over-reliance on a teaching faculty that is distinguishable from the research faculty undermines a university's mission. Indeed, the idea of a research university is that the faculty conduct research to generate new knowledge and inform their teaching to improve the quality of education received by their students. The more that university teaching is done by an instructional faculty who are not actively engaged as scholars (or practitioners in some professional fields), the less the enterprise of a research university is justified in the first place.

Having said that, I think that lumping together all "non-tenure track" faculty together into one big bundle obscures the issue of tenure status and teaching and makes it difficult to assess just how big of a problem is involved. It is easy to lament the position of a part-time lecturer who is otherwise unemployed or a visiting assistant professor who work year-to-year with little job security for a very modest salary and few benefits. It is harder to critique the status of an adjunct professor of law, who works full-time as a lawyer and teaches part-time on the side, or an advanced Ph.D. candidate, who is teaching her own class for the first time under the supervision of her dissertation adviser in preparation for the academic job market. The use and treatment of lecturers and so-called visiting faculty deserves much scrutiny. Teaching by professionals as adjuncts or advanced graduate students making reasonable progress through their degree programs is less troublesome. The UT data makes no distinction among these groups, and so it is difficult to evaluate the issue for the University of Texas.

Lastly, the Vedder report expresses no views on the feasibility of improved economies of scale in teaching by making use of new teaching methods or technologies. So, once again, I didn't address the issue in my Tribune essay.

I am very excited about the prospects for developing new ways to teach---and to teach larger numbers of students---with evolving communications technologies, but I am deeply skeptical about the technology-teaching interfaces that are available at the moment (at least those that are available to me). I am certainly not an expert on technology-enhanced teaching, though, so I would be curious to know what else is out there beyond posting lectures online and having online class discussions.

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