Why good science teaching is stifled here

I’ve been reading the comments on the Yale Daily News editorial page concerning science education for non-science majors with considerable interest. I thought the lead editorial on this in Thursday’s April 17 issue was right on the mark (“Content over convenience in Group IV”), especially in regard to the necessity of building a new centrally located science teaching center. Like you, I do not think it is a good expenditure of University resources, and I do not think it is the best way to improve Group IV requirements for non-science majors.

Perhaps one of the best recent statements on what is required is the one by my colleague William Summers of the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Department in the letters section of the Yale Daily News on April 18 (“Teaching ‘science’ and the role of the Science Teaching Center,” 4/18). He says “most importantly, we need to find science teachers who intellectually respect non-majors, and who genuinely like to teach such students, not as a chore, not as second-best, but as the most rewarding sort of teaching.” I haven’t seen it stated any better, anywhere. And that’s where the money should be spent — not on new buildings, but on people who are interested in doing this type of teaching, and it should be spent on generating new ideas for doing this type of teaching.

How do you accomplish such a “teaching” goal at a university like Yale where the clearly-stated (by the president) primary mission of its faculty is research? For the faculty in the sciences this research translates into publications, international research recognition and large, and often multiple, research grants with their accompanying “overhead” funds. These overhead funds, which are to help cover the cost of doing research, are awarded to the university over and above the funds given to the faculty member for the direct costs of doing the research. They provide a substantial percentage of the University’s operating budget. It is almost impossible to exist as a faculty member in the sciences without such outside grant support. And getting tenure without grant support is almost an impossibility.

After 36 years of teaching cell biology at Yale I think I can say with some credibility that our new faculty are chosen almost entirely on the basis of their research accomplishments. Indeed, I have sat on search committee discussions where it was clearly stated that the person to whom the job was being offered would “probably never be an outstanding teacher.” I have often disagreed with this point of view but, inevitably, the ability to do research and attract large research grants, and support large laboratories with many graduate and postdoctoral students, is of prime importance at research universities. If the person happens, in addition, to be a good teacher, then that is good luck. And, thankfully, in many (although certainly not all) instances that turns out to be the case. One might ask if it isn’t possible to hire people who are as good at teaching as at research? The job market is such, that the answer is almost certainly “yes.” But, for the most part, it isn’t done: we look almost entirely at the prospects for international research recognition.

My advice to young nontenured faculty members who happen to have a particular flair for undergraduate teaching, both to science and non-science majors, is not to get too involved in their teaching — do a good job, but remembering if they want promotion to tenure, their research comes first.

I have seen many superb researchers who are average to good (and sometimes poor) teachers promoted to tenure; I have never seen a superb teacher (and we’ve had quite a few) whose research was not outstanding, promoted. As a result, any real innovation in teaching tends to come from older, tenured faculty members who now can spend the time on teaching without worry about their future. This, of course, means the enthusiasm and vitality of young professors does not translate into hours spent on innovative teaching.

What does one do about this predicament where the demands for research productivity supercede good and innovative teaching?

Suggestions:

1. Hire new faculty on the basis of both research and teaching abilities. Some universities require job candidates to teach an undergraduate class in addition to giving a research seminar during their campus visit.

2. Don’t promote to tenure even if research is superb if the teaching is sub-par. Give more weight in tenure decisions to innovative teaching, especially to non-science majors. (I don’t think this has much of a chance of seeing the light of day.)

3. Do not spend University resources on a new Science Teaching Center. Rather, put the bucks into hiring young people who show promise as good and innovative teachers, in addition to their research.

4. In addition to using local resources for innovative ideas on constructing courses for non-science majors (i.e., people like Summers and several others), find out what the nonmajor science courses at places like Amherst, Haverford, Reed and Pomona are like. The faculties there spend 80 percent of their time on undergraduate teaching, and I suspect they’re not only good at it, but have tried some interesting new ways of teaching science to nonmajors.



Joel L. Rosenbaum is a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

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