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Changing the value of teaching in universities

We need to examine why, exactly, it is taken for granted that teaching work is less valued and less prestigious than research.

By MELONIE FULLICK | February 2, 2016

Last last year I wrote two posts, one about how teaching is treated as a “problem” by universities, and the other dealing with care work, in particular self-care, as gendered. When writing each of them, there was a question connecting both posts that I wanted to return to and explore more directly: if teaching is a major part of the university’s mission, why is it not valued as much as research? While I can’t say I have solid answers, I think this is an issue that still deserves attention—not least because of the role it could play in policy outcomes.

Much of the commentary on this topic takes for granted that teaching work is less valued and less prestigious than research, but the question of why this would be the case is usually left unanswered. While some critics place the blame on the “reward systems” in universities and in the academic profession in general, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: there are priorities that inform these systems, but academics also play a central role in perpetuating (or changing) how they work. Where does the problem begin?

If teaching is systemically undervalued in academe, then it isn’t just an issue of whether individual academics care about teaching quality, or whether some institutions have policies while others don’t. Is there something about the nature of teaching work that makes it inherently less appealing to engage in or less valuable to the institution? I suspect one reason is that teaching is local and personal (even while it has larger social benefits). While the prestige of research is international, mobile, recognizable at a distance as a signifier of one’s worth, teaching is a practice involving a certain kind of up-close relationship building; it’s inherently non-standard and also hard to evaluate effectively, particularly in quantitative ways.

An important, related issue is that teaching is also gendered—it’s a form of “care work” that involves emotional labour and tending to other people’s needs, which means it’s treated as “women’s work.” Teaching as a profession has long been devalued on these terms. Prestige is associated with work that men do, which is also assumed to be more valuable and difficult. As a profession comes to be dominated by women or “feminized” it tends to lose prestige, because women’s work is “worth” less; the work itself becomes associated with women’s supposed attributes, such as lower levels of competence and intelligence. Predictably, salaries in these professions are also lower, while the work may be considered a “labour of love.”

One historical side note here: in the U.S. the feminization of the teaching profession in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as mass primary and secondary schooling developed, is an example of this process at work. It’s interesting that in roughly the same period the research-centric German model of the university was being promoted and adopted in the U.S. The massification of universities in the second half of the 20th century echoed this earlier effect; it involved the scaling up of higher ed teaching, but it was accompanied by the expansion of an “underclass” of low-paid contingent faculty, predominantly comprising women—whilst research stardom was (and is) still dominated by men.

These developments are important to note because they reflect broader, gendered hierarchies of value in education that have persisted over generations. The more teaching-intensive the work is, the lower in the academic hierarchy, the lower the pay (women also continue to earn less than men overall, no matter what position they take). This set of hierarchies extends far beyond the university; for example, teaching young children is still seen by many as “easy” work (not “real” teaching) and thus not worthy of respect. It’s predominantly women who do this work. In K-12 education, high schools still tend to have a higher proportion of men teaching than at the “lower” levels. For university faculty, it’s more prestigious to teach grad students than undergrads, and the latter are more often taught by contract faculty.

Can we address these problems by adjusting a skewed academic reward system, as some have argued? In her 2011 dissertation, Pamela Gravestock addresses the assumption that teaching is less valued in the culture and in career progression, with an examination of tenure and promotion policies in Canadian universities. She concluded that while every institution had different policies, “teaching [was] clearly placed on equal footing with research and identified as a key institutional mission and a primary responsibility of all faculty members.” What wasn’t clear was whether there were resources in place to enable this, or whether it was supported by departmental and institutional cultures.

How does all this look in terms of the education of doctoral students, some of whom will become faculty later on? It’s important that we consider where academic careers are formed and how teaching is, or is not, built into and prioritized in that process. What kind of incentives are there on the academic career path? In other words, what kind of work is rewarded when competition for academic jobs gets fierce? I’ve heard the advice myself: “don’t worry about the teaching, just make sure you publish.”

Many PhDs who want to pursue academic careers still don’t receive explicit mentorship in teaching. While they may have worked as teaching assistants, and some have had the opportunity to teach a course, this access to experience is uneven at best. Too much is left to be “picked up” from observation or osmosis, without guidance (the latter issue arises in this report from HECQO). Prospective faculty are asked to outline a teaching philosophy in their job applications, but it’s clear that not all PhDs are encouraged to think about this philosophy in the long term. In terms of practice, most of the doctoral students I know (so, clearly not a representative sample) were not encouraged or supported by their supervisor, program, or institution to find ways of bringing research and teaching together—even though this will be a requirement if they end up working as tenure-stream faculty.

Is this an issue that could be addressed through university policy, as has been suggested (and attempted)? Teaching is already at the core of universities’ priorities—in mission statements, in requirements for hiring and promotion, and even in terms of resources available on campus. We have teaching and learning centres; we have a whole area of scholarship dedicated to teaching and learning in higher education, with attendant scholarly associations and events. In Canada we have a major national teaching award, and some of its past recipients penned a letter 25 years ago highlighting the issue I’m discussing in this post. So if it’s been on the table for so long and all these policies are already in place, why do so many academics still feel that teaching is undervalued? Is it simply that profs are trained to be researchers, even though the job they will end up doing comes with a teaching “load”? Or is this a culture shift that’s lagging behind policy?

This is an interesting contradiction that will only become more important in the context of policy change that focuses on students, including the proposed overhaul of Ontario’s university funding formula, and the “differentiation” of universities and academic work through the creation of teaching-focussed institutions and teaching-intensive faculty positions. It’s part of why I’ll be very interested to see how those things play out in the long run, and whether we can prevent the same old patterns from being duplicated.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Dr. James McNinch, Faculty of Education, University of Regina / February 3, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Ms Fullick provides a succinct historical summary and a striking argument. I would add that within the academy Faculties of Education, and their teaching and research are too often regarded as “light-weight”. That Faculties of Education have expertise in teaching and learning is often dismissed as merely a K-12 expertise and teacher “training”. Even within Faculties of Education the mentoring of pre-service students in school settings is seen as “beneath” the purview of tenured professors who have “better” things to do with their valuable time. Perhaps none of this should be surprising given that Faculties of Education originated in this country in “Normal Schools” and only transitioned to be part of the Academy after the Second World War.

  2. Glen R. Loppnow, Faculty of Science, University of Alberta / February 3, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    Wonderful post, Ms. Fullick. I think, though, that only the tip of the iceberg on the messaging of a research-first culture has been mentioned. In the sciences, graduate students are supported mainly by teaching assistantships, but can get relief if they win a scholarship. In fact, some agencies require teaching relief of their graduate student scholarship holders. Thus, the messages get conveyed early on in the culture. As Ms. Fullick conveyed well, this messaging continues throughout the graduate school experience. It is reinforced in the sciences during interviews for faculty positions, where teaching is rarely discussed and it is even rarer to have teaching form any part of the interview, especially at the larger universities. Finally, even the words we use, “teaching load” and “teaching relief” are not paralleled in research; i.e. there is no “research load” or “research relief”. All of these messages form the cultural norm around expectations, and ultimately success.

  3. Bill McKay, Dept of Anesthesia, University of Saskatchewan / February 4, 2016 at 3:26 pm

    Interesting and thoughtful essay. While feminization of jobs brought lower salaries, the converse is also true. Prior to the 20th century, most funeral preparation was conducted for free in the home by women in mostly-rural Canada and the US. Once it became a business, then a lucrative business, it was masculinized, and men were the well-paid funeral directors.

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