I come from a family of teachers; the rhythms of the school year have always resonated in my awareness. At first, my family didn’t quite understand that at the university level, and especially in administration, summer isn’t nearly the vacation that it is to primary and secondary students and, to some extent, their teachers. At times, the calendar for legislative sittings has more influence over my week-to-week workload than the academic calendar. But, I still can’t help feeling excited about the impending “first day of school” as a special time of year: a new start, with new challenges.
Like newly matriculated students whose seasonal return to the classroom overlays a more fundamental change in responsibilities, the whole postsecondary system in Canada is entering a new phase. We’ve known this for a while now, in the way that high school graduates have known all summer long that they will have to hit the books harder than ever, come September. They already grasp the basics but university-calibre work demands a lot more from them, and they have to figure out how to get to the next level.
For us, as a system, the big “next level” demand will be in the area of productivity.
I believe that university faculties are already productive (of course, there’s always room for improvement). But evidence for that productivity is hard to find or interpret, and few transparent measures are accessible to external observers. And, the rising demand from governments for improved productivity shows that we have done a rather poor job of documenting and demonstrating the full range and scope of our contributions. Indeed, many people outside academia don’t have a good idea of precisely what university faculty are trying to do, much less whether they do it well or efficiently. In other words, we’re caught in a pattern that should be familiar to us as educators: a definitional gap.
Just what is “faculty productivity”? There’s no simultaneously easy and correct answer: quantitatively assessing a qualitative field like ours is fraught with methodological traps and potential mismeasurements and is vulnerable to unintended consequences and misplaced incentives. A worrisome prospect to many of us would be a scheme that fails to recognize the essential complementarity of an institution’s faculty as a collegial collective and instead tries to squeeze highly differentiated individual members into a generic framework of expectations.
We also need to do more to correct the reductive view of academics as a relatively coddled and overpaid class who, “as everyone knows,” only work eight months out of the year. The profession of the professoriate is not simply about teaching a few classes, and facile but accessible numbers like enrolments and student-faculty ratios tell only part of the story. Internally, the idea of a tripartite distribution of effort is common, but externally, the value of faculty service to local and global communities is ignored, or trivialized to the cliché of internal committee work. Meanwhile, the way we assess research is too focused on easily measured dollars.
We know ourselves that instructional productivity is about far more than easily measured “butts in seats”; proper measurement needs to account for mentoring, supervision, practicums, and the vast bundle of effort that falls under the label of “unassigned teaching.” Many activities, akin to an underground educational economy, generate much value but are not (yet) accounted for in the official “Gross Educational Product.”
But, just because it’s difficult to measure productivity well doesn’t mean we can avoid doing it at all. History is littered with professions and institutions that settled for the status quo and overlooked opportunities for self-improvement. And governments have shown no indication that they plan to treat universities as a special case in their overall drive toward more empirical and more fine-grained assessment policies. If accurate metrics are esoteric or opaque or unwieldy, simplistic but distorted ones will be employed instead.
Since we insist that quality is not just about quantity, then it’s up to us to propose measures that accurately reflect the challenges and rewards – the inputs and outputs – of the academic enterprise. We will be measured; that much is clear. Even if we don’t embrace the prospect of vastly increased external bureaucratic assessment, we need at least to engage with the process, because some form of it is unavoidable. Better that we try to influence how those measurements are taken, and guide them toward a more enlightened and equitable approach, than to retreat from the dialogue and hope to be saved by the bell. In my next column, I will suggest what some of those measures might look like.