Archive for November 26, 2011

All You Who Sleep Tonight

Posted in Poetry with tags , on November 26, 2011 by telescoper

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –

Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

by Vikram Seth.

 

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The Unprofessional Professors

Posted in Education with tags , , , on November 26, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been so preoccupied with other things over the past week or so that I haven’t had time until now to comment on an article I saw in last week’s  Times Higher about the role of a Professor in a modern university; there’s also an accompanying editorial in the same issue although, as is usual for editorials in the Times Higher, it doesn’t actually say anything that adds to the original piece.

People outside academia probably wonder what makes a Professor different from a Lecturer or Reader, apart from being older and getting paid a bit more. Undergraduate students probably wonder even more because they don’t see any obvious evidence that Prof. X is any better at teaching than plain Dr. Y. Quite possibly the reverse, in fact.

If you look at the contract of a Professor you won’t find that helps much either. Mine just says words to the effect that I should do whatever the Head of School asks me to do. In my case I have no complaints. I do teaching (lecturing, project supervision, tutorials, exercise classes), administration (various committees, and Director of Postgraduate Studies) and research (including supervising PhD students and a PDRA, publishing papers, etc) and I also do a few things outside the University such as STFC panels. I’m not complaining at all about this workload, for which  consider myself to be quite well paid. What I find difficult is swapping between so many different tasks even during the course of a single day, and I am all too aware that things  do sometimes fall through the cracks.

The criteria for promotion to the rank of Professor (i.e. to a “Chair”)  operated by most universities generally state that a professor must excel at teaching, administration and research. This provides for even greater mystification when you look around the average department because you’ll find many – probably even a majority – who couldn’t administer the skin on a rice pudding, and who make only derisory attempts to teach. These are the ones who have done it all on research, which in reality easily trumps the other two. To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: there are teaching, administration and research but the greatest of these is research. In fact the others don’t matter much at all.

The point is, at least in physics, that current levels of funding for undergraduate teaching mean that departments are financially unviable if they rely on undergraduate teaching as their primary source of income. It’s therefore inevitable that the primary criterion for appointing and retaining staff is their ability to win research grants and be a star performer in the REF. Indeed, many promotions to Chair happen when a member of staff threatens to leave, and take  their research grants and publication statistics with them. Furious negotiations then take place, a promotion to Chair ensues, and more likely than not a reduced teaching and administration load for the newly minted Prof.  Of course this means the load for someone  else has to go up. And if they are given management tasks to do, the Prof will manage the workload by simply not doing it, letting everything fall to bits until the job is allocated to someone else. Likewise with teaching: if you do it so badly that the students fail their exams or complain that you’re useless, you’ll just find your courses are given to someone else and you have more time to indulge your research interests. Studied incompetence is the ally of selfishness. It actually pays to be bad.

This is such a successful strategy that many departments now have as many professors as other teaching staff, if not more, a significant fraction of whom shirk their adminstrative duties and make little effort to teach well. Why should they? They know that as long as they hold onto their research grants they are indispensible, no matter how much strain they put on their colleagues. You might argue that this is unprofessional conduct, but there’s no question that it works.

Given this state of affairs, it’s hardly surprising that junior staff complain that their professors don’t show sufficient leadership and don’t take an active role in mentoring younger staff.  Selfishness pays. How many leaders can a department sustain anyway? If 2/3 of the staff are professors can they all be leaders? Who will follow?

I’ll get into trouble if I name individuals in my department – they know who they are – but I’m sure people in other universities recognize the same thing in their own departments. The situation won’t change until a funding regime is put in place that requires departments to prove commitment to excellence in teaching in the same way that they do for research. Then promotions panels might actually start to follow  their own published criteria instead of doing what they do now, which is nothing short of systematic hypocrisy.