Tenured Faculty Less Likely to Focus on Teaching

A study released at the American Educational Research Association's annual conference examines 'latent' faculty identities based on their scholarly activities. Researchers found that the few who focus primarily on teaching tend to share certain characteristics - including teaching without tenure.


John M. Braxton, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, and Toby J. Park, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt, recently completed a study on the scholarly habits of faculty at 4-year colleges and universities. The study is a follow-up to the influential research on scholarly behavior of Ernest L. Boyder, who published Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate in 1990. Boyer called for a revision of academic priorities, suggesting that the study of teaching methods should be as valuable as the pursuit of knowledge and the generation and testing of new theory.

Years later, Braxton and Park's research indicates that not much has changed - the scholars who focus primarily on pedagogy are in the minority, and they tend to stand apart from other faculty types.

The researchers drew on data from the Faculty Professional Performance Survey that Braxton performed with two other Vanderbilt doctoral students in 1999. The survey asked over 1,000 full-time faculty at 4-year institutions how often they engaged in a range of scholarly activities, such as publishing in an academic journal, experimenting with a new teaching method or being interviewed by local media. For the current study, Braxton and Park focused on professors who were either tenured or on the tenure-track and worked in one of the following academic disciplines: history, sociology, chemistry or biology.

Using a method known as 'cluster analysis,' Braxton and Park developed five distinct faculty types based on scholarly activities. Although nearly two-thirds of the survey participants engaged to some degree in all five types of scholarly activities, they found that the remaining third were distinct for their primary focus on one of two activities: Instructional practices or the use of scholarship to solve social problems.


Scholars of Pedagogical Practice

The types of activities that define these faculty members include developing new teaching methods and examination practices, constructing an approach to help students think and creating strategies for class management. They tend to work at liberal arts institutions and, of the four disciplines included in the current study, are most likely to be found in the history department. These scholars are also more likely to be white, less likely to be male, younger in their 'professional age' and significantly less likely to hold tenure.

The analysis only included professors who were at least on the tenure track, so these findings aren't necessarily related to studies of contingent faculty. Nevertheless, a pattern is emerging: Professors who focus primarily on teaching rarely have tenure. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), two-thirds of university professors in 2007 were teaching off the tenure track. This is only partially due to the fact that colleges and universities have started cutting budgets by eliminating tenured positions. The imbalance also appears to be caused by the choices made by individuals who are specifically interested in teaching: A recent study by the University of Michigan on the work experiences of non-tenure track faculty found that one of their most common reasons for entering the profession was 'a love of teaching.'

Some of the participants in the UMich study indicated that staying off the tenure track was a deliberate choice made to allow them to focus primarily on pedagogy, putting their own research behind instructional concerns. That singular focus on teaching seems to be shared by the 'scholars of pedagogical practice' in Braxton and Park's analysis. It sets these groups apart from other faculty, and also seems to make it harder to be successful on the tenure track.

Clearly not all tenured faculty are focused on research to the exclusion of pedagogy. Braxton and Park do caution that the majority of scholars engage in the activities of multiple clusters, including teaching. And there is something to be said for promoting well-rounded scholars through the tenure system. Nevertheless, academic culture seems to prioritize research over teaching. Graduate assistants teaching undergraduate classrooms with hundreds of students and infamous practices like 'publish or perish' all point to a system designed to sacrifice quality instruction for research pursuits. As Boyer argued back in 1990, academia and its students would be better served by treating instruction as an equally valuable pursuit.


Scholars of Engagement

Socially engaged faculty made up the other group of scholars in Braxton and Park's analysis who had a tendency to focus strongly on one cluster of activities. While they produce scholarship that is engaged in both theory and practice, they tend to be more engaged with the applications of their research: They're more likely to develop new technologies or publish research devoted to solving real-world problems. These faculty members primarily work in research and doctoral institutions, but tended to be evenly dispersed across disciplines. They're much more likely to be tenured than pedagogical scholars and tend to be more advanced in 'professional age.' Engaged scholars have a roughly average racial distribution and are more likely to be male.

The remaining clusters tend to attract faculty who are engaged to a greater or lesser extent in the full range of scholarly activities:

Immersed Scholars

Activities that define this group include lecturing at another college or university, publishing a journal article presenting new information, presenting a paper at an academic meeting, constructing a new examination method and publishing a 'refereed' journal article designed to apply research to the solution of a practical problem. These scholars mostly work in research and doctoral institutions and tend to be found in biology or chemistry. They're relatively young professionally, less likely to hold tenure, less likely to be white and more likely to be male.

Localized Scholars

These faculty tend to be very active in their local communities. They're more likely to give a public talk or conduct research for a local organization. They tend to work in liberal arts colleges and were found primarily in sociology. They tend to be average in professional age, more likely to hold tenure, less likely to be male and are significantly less white than other clusters.

Scholars of Dissemination

These faculty members have a strong interdisciplinary and experimental streak. They're likely to try publish an interdisciplinary literature review or publish a book chapter based on theory outside of their core discipline. They also tend to be active in instructional experimentation, developing and publishing new pedagogical methods. Scholars of dissemination are spread out across both institutional type and discipline. They tend to be above average in professional age and are more likely to hold tenure. They're also slightly less likely to be male and average in terms of racial composition.

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