Most academics would gladly ditch the teaching

That’s my perception at least.

I would bet that if you asked a sample of research-active academics if they could give up undergraduate teaching and focus on research, the vast majority would do so in a heartbeat. I think that most academics see undergraduate teaching as a chore that they could do without.

The problem is that very few academics are natural teachers that are truly passionate about what they do. That’s hardly surprising because you get to be an academic largely on the basis of research achievement. Having to teach is the price you pay for being able to continue your research career. And most academics love doing research.

Many academics will claim to enjoy teaching and perhaps they would in an ideal world where teaching loads were light and the fatigue hadn’t set in. But the reality is that many have very high teaching loads leading to an element of burnout. Teaching, especially lecturing, is an almost uniquely draining activity (although nowhere near as much as secondary or primary teaching) – the exposure, the need to ‘perform’, the repetitive nature of it, the increased demands for supporting materials.

On the contrary, research is an extremely enjoyable activity even if there is an increasing amount of ‘hassle’ involved. It is a privilege to able to engage in bit of personal creativity and to be able to contribute to the sum of human knowledge. There is just something inherently satisfying about trying to make sense of a new set of data or of the results of a simulation. Research is also a very ego-driven process. Academics are, by nature, pretty competitive, and research gives us the opportunity to show our academic prowess to our peers. Universities are quite judgmental places and the way people are most judged is on the basis of their research output.

This preference for research pervades the entire academic system. It leads to a hierarchy of importance in the minds of managers and leads to staffing policies that in my view are simply unsustainable. Many of the senior managers in universities have a natural bias towards research achievement. The view seems to be that research performance is a much better marker of a person’s ‘management’ potential than is teaching. Perhaps it is; who really knows? So, in a time when universities are making ‘initiatives’ of all kinds, those with an excellent research track record are often dragged away to ‘head up’ all sorts of centres and institutes, not exactly ‘kicking and screaming’ in the process. And who can blame them really. There comes a time when people want new challenges and moving away from the teaching coal face is an entirely understandable and human response. The problem though is that the ‘secondment’ of such staff leaves large gaps behind, gaps that are not easily filled.

There are times when, I admit, I dread walking into a lecture. But it is often on those occasions that I am most upbeat afterwards. I suppose I realise after all of these years that no matter how much I might be dreading a lecture, there can be something curiously invigorating about lecturing or laboratory teaching. It is often on days when I am least expecting it that I leave a lecture in a state of mild elation. And so I largely keep the faith. But when I look into the future and see a third level system with decreasing core teaching staff, increasing teaching loads, increased student numbers and less time to indulge in a bit of research creativity, I just wonder what I would do if a new opportunity came my way. Would I happily ditch the teaching?


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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5 Responses to Most academics would gladly ditch the teaching

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Most academics would gladly ditch the teaching

  2. cormac says:

    I think you’d miss teaching more than you think. I had an entire year without teaching (at Harvard) some time ago – not that productive because It’s quite hard to be creative all day long. As long as teaching is varied, I quite enjoy it athough it does mean the research gets done in the evenings…how colleagues with young families manage I’ll never know

    • Greg Foley says:

      I agree and I wouldn’t like to do absolutely no teaching. But I’m finding that with staff embargoes, early retirements and – crucially – the tendency for good staff to be seconded into non-teaching activities, my load is going up all the time. And, it’s not just the number of hours, it’s the sheer variety of things I have to teach and the admin that goes with that. I think the quality of what I am delivering is declining. But there seems to be a view in the ‘system’ that teaching will always get by but real talent is needed to set up centres etc. My point was that a good number of academics are only too happy to move aside (and upwards) and leave the teaching behind. Maybe most would be happy to do a small amount of teaching but that’s not good enough – we need everyone to play a significant part in the teaching mission. I suppose the choice is now to do almost no teaching or do bucket loads of it and (I think) most academics will choose the former.

      PS Congrats on Einstein discovery!

  3. discard2014 says:

    Hi, I don’t think this is a fair reflection of the situation. I agree with the worry that increased teaching loads could crowd out research but the general premise that research is preferred over teaching is flawed imho. Those academics who are primarily research-focussed, or those who need to pull in grants to keep postdocs and phd students paid, find that research is highly stressful. Often they look at the stability of the teaching side of being a release. On the other hand, doing research is more enjoyable than teaching the same stuff again (which good academics don’t do anyway) but especially so when there are no negative implications from your research (other than promotion).

    In many cases I think it is a case of “far away hills are green”. The aim is to keep a balance. Teaching without research often leads to a stale environment, research without teaching is highly stressful and often isolationist as there is no-one to transfer the new knowledge to. Living in either extreme is difficult. What’s worse is that over a career, people tend to change emphasis between teaching and research based on career development, stage-of-life, success in grant proposals, etc.

    • Greg Foley says:

      I think the problem is that the academic career is becoming more and more polarised.- that’s my experience anyway, It seems to me that it’s getting harder and harder to do both teaching and research properly. And I’m convinced (but can’t prove this of course!) that most academics in the University sector who have a decent track record of research output would rather a research-driven career (stresses and all) than one dominated by teaching. I know of very few successful researchers (except perhaps those close to retirement) who have decided to chuck it all in to do bucket loads of teaching!

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