I spent a couple of days in Montreal last week at the annual meeting of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. I’m invariably left energized by the enthusiasm of the STLHE folk, whom I’ve often called the evangelists for good teaching. Last week was no exception.
There were many fascinating topics discussed that I hope to touch upon in future blog posts. A good place to start is with a session that addressed the thorny question of what policies and practices universities should put in place to enhance teaching. The background for this particular session was a teaching development project entitled University Teaching: Meeting Challenges and Demands, funded by the Max Bell Foundation of Canada and implemented from 2006 to 2010 at McGill, Dalhousie and Queen’s universities. The key initiative of the project, offered over a span of two years at each institution, was a five-day, 35-hour workshop on course design and teaching. These voluntary workshops were delivered through each institution’s teaching development unit to early-career faculty, and a total of 42 professors took part.
Three professors were on hand to discuss their experiences with the workshop, and for them it clearly had an impact. Ilana Bank, an assistant professor of pediatrics at McGill University, explained that after the five days, she was so enthused by what she had experienced that she enrolled for a full semester in McGill’s “teacher scholars” program. That, in turn, prompted her to develop a simulation curriculum for pediatric emergency medicine fellows that has since been turned into a national curriculum; it will be tested as a pilot project this fall across Canada. All of that came from her initial exposure to educational development through that five-day course.
The provosts at two of the universities involved in the project were on hand to reflect on what was presented. Their reflections were, I thought, quite revealing both for what they said and didn’t say. The two were Carolyn Watters, provost and vice-president, academic, at Dalhousie, and McGill provost Anthony Masi.
Among the questions, they were asked whether it would be feasible to offer course relief for early-career faculty members to develop their teaching. Dr. Watters responded with her own question: “Why is this not part of the PhD program?” Referring to the common assumption that faculty will spend 40 percent of their time teaching, she commented: “Why do we think, as [new faculty] walk in, ‘Oh, we’re going to pay you 40 percent to do something you’ve probably never done before, and we expect you to do it very well.”
Dr. Watters contrasted this with how early-career faculty, at least at research-intensive universities, are helped by the university to create a research development plan. “We say, ‘OK, we’re going to give you course relief in the first year, we’re going to give you start-up money and we’re going to make sure you’ve got a lab and share a couple of students. … There is a pattern there, and we all know what the career path is,” she said. “Expectations around teaching and teaching effectiveness are not as clear.”
But Dr. Watters doesn’t necessarily support course relief for teaching development. “Giving somebody simple course relief over a period of two or three years without having some kind of teaching development plan, to me, well, what’s the point really? If you’re not giving them the tools to actually become a better teacher, you might as well let them practise and maybe they’ll figure it out on their own. The idea of having a teaching development plan in the same way that we have a research development plan, to me, makes sense.”
And she would go even further. “What could possibly justify not having teaching development for all of our faculty? Not just for first year and second year, but the fifth year, the 10th year and the 20th year. Things change all the time. The way students were taught in 1975 is probably not the gold standard anymore. So I think it’s not a one-time shot.”
McGill’s Dr. Masi took a different tack: “The most important thing about being at a university is that research is the fundamental goal of the professoriate,” he said. “It is what defines the character of the university. It defines its reputation. It defines its outreach. But the second thing in the academic duties is of course the teaching, so we do need to keep those two things in mind. … The problem is that we have generally, at research-intensive universities, detached the research from the teaching.”
Dr. Masi observed that only about 30 percent of people who get PhDs go on to academic careers at universities, “so putting the emphasis on teaching at the PhD level might not be the most appropriate place for it … unless we think that learning something about learning is a useful life skill.”
McGill, he said, has taken very seriously the notion of preparing its grad students for teaching, despite the fact most won’t end up as university teachers. The university provides what it calls a “skills set” that is now mandatory for all students who become teaching assistants.
However, he said, “I don’t think it is appropriate or possible to develop a uniform policy for teaching release, but it is possible to develop a context within which it is expected that throughout the course of their career individuals will in fact take the time to improve their pedagogical skills, learn the new technologies and fundamentally think about their students.”
I didn’t hear any commitment from either provost about making it mandatory for early-career faculty to take some sort of teaching development course of the sort highlighted in the session. Of course, in an institution as large and complicated as a university, nothing is ever quite as simple as that. There are many convoluted considerations regarding disciplinary silos, workloads, collective agreements, and so on. Yet, I think there needs to be a clear message that universities must do a better job to develop excellent researchers into good teachers. How can it be possible that university faculty are expected to devote 40 percent of their time on an activity for which they may have had no training whatsoever?