University News

Teaching, research dominate professors’ time

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, October 24, 2011

Less than 50 percent of faculty members rank teaching as the most time-consuming part of their job, according to a poll conducted this fall by The Herald. The poll asked faculty members to rank the amount of time they spend teaching, conducting research, writing grant proposals, participating in University governance and advising students.

Though many professors are satisfied with the breakdown of tasks, some said they feel increased pressure to publish as the University seeks to expand its international research profile.

Forty-four percent of professors indicated teaching takes up the largest portion of their time, while 42.3 percent reported they spend the most time on research. Less than 11 percent of faculty ranked grant writing, governance or advising as the most time-consuming task. Poll respondents were given the option of assigning multiple tasks the same rank.

The administration has no explicit expectations for how professors should divide their time, said Kevin McLaughlin P’12, dean of the faculty. But teaching and research are weighted more heavily in annual faculty evaluations than service, a category that includes participation in faculty governance and on department committees, McLaughlin said.

Time priorities varied considerably across disciplines. While 67.8 percent of humanities faculty members listed teaching as most time-consuming, only 34.1 percent of social science and 31.5 percent of science professors did so.

This divide is not surprising, given the differences in professors’ course loads, McLaughlin said. Professors in the sciences are generally expected to teach two courses, as compared to four in the humanities and three or four in the social sciences, he said.

Though the University has increased its focus on teaching in recent years, McLaughlin said it is important for the administration to emphasize research productivity as well. “We don’t exist in a vacuum. We have peers, and these professions are all part of a broader market,” he said. “We couldn’t simply decide to diverge very far from the expectations across the whole spectrum. What we do is say that teaching matters to us.”

Eugene Charniak, professor of computer science, said he finds his various roles manageable and well-balanced. “I came here with roughly the priorities that were expected of me,” he said. “I mostly enjoy teaching because it allows me to learn new things, and the same with research.”

The lines between responsibilities are often blurred, especially when opportunities for student involvement in research abound, said Donald Forsyth, professor of geological sciences. “It’s very difficult to define where the boundary is between teaching and research,” he said. “It’s all totally integrated.”

Evelyn Lincoln, associate professor of history of art and architecture and Italian studies, said the intersections of various priorities make her job more enjoyable. “They feed from each other. I find that my research sometimes goes in unexpected directions because I might decide to teach a class in something that I wouldn’t otherwise have been interested in,” she said. “It can be a productive tension.”

But not all professors are satisfied with the University’s focus.

Since the administration adopted more stringent tenure standards last year, there has been a definite change in the way junior faculty members approach their work, said Harold Roth, professor of religious studies and East Asian studies and director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative. A member of the Faculty Executive Committee, he said it has been more difficult to get professors to serve in faculty governance.

Professors now feel more of a need to publish, he said. “I think it’s a direct result of the disrespect shown by some — not all, but only by some — members of the administration to faculty who don’t make research their number one priority,” he said.

Though Roth said he believes research is important and that teaching is valued at Brown, he said he is worried the University might be weakening its emphasis on undergraduate education, thereby undermining its defining strength. Though there used to be an equal emphasis on teaching and research, he said it now seems like there is more pressure on faculty members to be productive as researchers.

Yunan Ji ’14 said Brown’s commitment to strong teaching in conjunction with research distinguished it during her application process. “I like that we focus on undergraduate education because I think that’s what makes us unique,” she said.

For Charniak, the combination of undergraduate access to professors and cutting-edge research produced one of his most memorable students — John Hale ’98, now a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Cornell. “He came to Brown with the express intent of working with me because he had read a book I wrote,” Charniak said. Hale went on to concentrate in computer science and cognitive science, and his research with Charniak created a “big impact,” he said. “I think that’s a great Brown success story.”

 

Methodology

Online questionnaires were sent to personal accounts of 902 faculty Sept. 25 and advertised on the faculty Morning Mail Sept. 27, Oct. 4 and Oct. 7. The poll closed Oct. 8. Only faculty that “teach, advise or interact with undergraduate students” were invited to respond, and 174 responses were recorded. The poll has a 6.6 percent margin of error with 95 percent confidence. The margin of error is 11.3 percent for the subset of faculty focusing in the humanities, 10.5 percent for the subset of faculty focusing in science and 14 percent for the subset of faculty focusing in social science.

 

Find results of previous polls at thebdh.org/poll.