Thoughts On Being a Faculty

To me, being a faculty involves many things.

First and foremost is being a teacher. To me, academia in its core is about providing an environment for the pursuit of knowledge and personal growth. Faculty, as teachers, can and should serve as guides to the students in this endeavor. As such, faculty should create an inclusive environment of mutual respect in which this growth can happen. Faculty need to challenge students to improve, while at the same time allowing them to fail as part of the process. Faculty need to also provide students with fair, impartial feedback on their progress.

In their capacity as teachers, faculty should also serve as mentors to students. This means that they should become involved in their students’ lives beyond the requirements within the classroom. They should advise students on questions about the students’ future and current work. They shall serve as role models not only in terms of professionalism, but also in terms of being engaged citizens.

A further part of being a faculty is a faculty’s own pursuit of knowledge through research. To me, faculty have the responsibility not only to convey current knowledge to whoever is interested, but rather also to further our knowledge as a society. In their pursuit of knowledge, faculty need to proceed with utmost integrity. It is a researcher’s responsibility to document and disseminate his or her approach and the results of the work. They are responsible for the safety and well-being of any human or animal subjects involved in their research. Furthermore, faculty need to consider the effect of their research on the environment.

The life of a faculty should also be a life of service, both to their universities as well as to society as a whole. This aspect should not end with the service as molders of young minds in the role of teacher, nor with the service to society that new discoveries can bring. Instead, faculty should also become involved within their community and help with creating a better, more inclusive society.

A University Teaching Everything (AUTE) – A Vision for Change in Higher Education

Throughout the last couple of weeks I have pondered back and forth on what would be required to “reboot” higher education without the problems we are currently facing. I have come to realize that it is impossible to solve one issue at the time, but rather the challenges call for a systematic reevaluation of the structure and purpose of higher education.

One of the criticisms heard often about higher education is that we apparently don’t prepare students for the complex world they are facing once they leave our hallowed halls behind. Our world calls for critical thinkers; for people who can communicate with people from around the globe, regardless of what discipline they identify with; for people who can connect ideas and solve issues that transcend disciplinary boundaries. And, personally, I think the critics are right. We do not prepare our students adequately.

Many people have provided us with different reasons for why this is the case. Some (rightfully) blame the focus on Standards of Learning (SOLs) that transform teaching about an issue into teaching for a test. Others blame a lack of technology use in the classrooms and the use of antiquated teaching approaches. Even others bemoan lack of funding for higher education.

However, I think the issue goes deeper than any of the above. I think it is a result of the underlying philosophy that we have adapted in Academia. It seems that our mission is to prepare students for the jobs that they will have, instead of teaching them to become life-long learners. Knowledge has much more utilitarian purposes today rather than being sought out for its own sake, as was more prevalent in the Renaissance era. Thus, universities have transformed from places of self-improvement and self-finding and personal growth to factories producing the workers of tomorrow.

Yet you might say “Peter, we do have to prepare students for the job market!” And I do not disagree with you on that point. However, how can we prepare students for jobs that didn’t exist the day they enrolled at our universities? How can we prepare students to address problems that transcend disciplinary boundaries if we only allow them to wear one hat? How can they be competitive on the job market, if the only skill that we have successfully taught them is rote memorization and regurgitation of unconnected facts? More so, at the time of their graduation, we oftentimes have even managed to beat their desire to learn and explore out of them! And in an ever-changing world, that is probably the worst of our sins.

How can we remedy this illness of higher education, then?

Honestly, I don’t have all the answers. I just have a vision that I want to share with you: a university teaching everything or AUTE (I chose that name as an homage to ACME from Looney Tunes). AUTE is a place where people come to learn what they want. To some degree, AUTE would be similar to the fictional South Harmon Institute of Technology from the movie “Accepted”.

In this movie with Justin Long and Jonah Hill, the main character gets rejected from every university he applies to and decides to create a fake university as to not disappoint his parents. This plan backfires as the fake website accepts any applicant who enters their data, resulting in a couple of thousand students enrolling. Thus, the main character leases and renovates an abandoned psychiatric hospital to serve as campus for the university. Since he has no faculty, he tells students to write down what they want to learn on an enormous whiteboard. From there on, the movie takes its predictable way, with the classic romantic side story and a challenge from the villainous establishment in the form of the dean of the adjacent (and real) Harmon Institute of Technology. However, the rest of the movie is not important.

While the rest of the movie is just a run-of-the-mill Hollywood comedy, the idea of letting students choose what they want to learn (combined with the fact that every student who applies is accepted) raises its status in my eyes to that of a social commentary. Although I certainly don’t think that a topic like “blowing sh*t up with my mind” is valid choice, the core of the idea strikes a chord with me. Giving students agency in the pursuit of what they are interested in while, at the same time, providing them with guidance and the resources they need for that pursuit could transform students from recipients of knowledge to seekers of knowledge. Of course, the problems that they pursue should be worth pursuing. However, in this day and age there are so many real-world problems that need addressing, providing an endless repository of topics students could pursue.

Furthermore, such an open-ended and problem-based approach could allow students to form groups where each student deals with a different aspect of the larger problem. Of course, this would do away with the concrete notions of disciplines. Students would learn the skills to solve specific problems, not a pre-determined set attributed to a specific discipline. Similarly, assessment of students could no longer be performed in a traditional way. Instead, students’ growth would need to be assessed based on their projects and in a much more qualitative rather than quantitative way. Instead of a transcript with a GPA, students would have a portfolio of documented projects and their teachers’ assessments when entering the job market.

Finally, I would love for AUTE to also be a place where people could go to learn any profession they want. I think the separation of “the educated” and “the working class” is not desirable for a society. If both academics and workers would have a joint place of learning, I think both sides would benefit from the potential exchange of ideas as well as from the increase in knowledge and appreciation of what the other is doing.

Tenure – Reflections and a Movie Review

I have finally found some time to reflect upon a question that has been floating around in my head for quite some time: Is teaching and a tenure-track position what I want to do in the future?

While I certainly haven’t found the answer quite yet, I want to reflect a bit on the process of tenure and why it doesn’t really seem that appealing to me. Incidentally, I watched the movie “Tenure” with Luke Wilson a couple of weeks back which actually proved helpful in a way (I provided the link to the movie’s IMDb page and embedded the review in a spoiler box so that I won’t spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you haven’t seen it yet). You don’t have to read the review to follow my thoughts on tenure, but it might prove helpful to you as well.

Review of Tenure (includes spoilers)

The movie takes place at a picturesque small New England College. The main character, Charlie Thurber (played by Luke Wilson), is an English professor on his third attempt to receive tenure from a university. This is mostly due to the fact that, while he is an outstanding teacher, his publication efforts are more than lacking. However, since he is the only candidate for the tenure spot in his department, it seems like smooth sailings for him. Enter Elaine Grasso (played by Gretchen Mol), a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed recent Yale graduate with a strong publication record. Suddenly, Charlie’s chances for tenure seem cloudy, as everyone in the tenure committee seems to favor her over him. Frantically, he tries to get one of his articles published before his upcoming tenure review and schmooze with all the members of the department. As his attempts seemingly fall short (his article being rejected and certain animosities between him and a female faculty member) he even sinks so low as to follow his friend Jay’s advice (played by David Koechner). Jay, an eccentric anthropology professor on the quest to find Bigfoot whose tenure was just denied, argues that the only way for Charlie to get tenure is by sabotaging Elaine’s footing in the department.

However, as Elaine comes to Charlie for advice, it is revealed that behind her impressive résumé Elaine is severely overwhelmed with her teaching assignment. As he helps her become a better teacher both characters start to develop mutual respect, causing Charlie to re-think the sabotage. Throughout Charlie’s struggles with the idea of losing the job he loves he finds unlikely support from his father William (played by Bob Gunton), a professor emeritus of English at a large, renown university that previously had often taken note about the fact that his son has not reached tenure yet. Through their conversations, William reveals to Charlie what Charlie cannot see for himself: that regardless of what happens in the future, Charlie will always be a teacher, as teaching is both his passion and part of his character. Yet in the middle this journey it is time for his tenure review. As he is called into the room where the entire tenure review committee is assembled, he is greeted by the dean of his college who reveals that, without his vote, the tenure committee is at a tie. Three people voted for Charlie’s tenure, and three against. However, the dean proceeds to tell Charlie that, while he wasn’t impressed with his publication record, his evaluations revealed that he was very well liked by his students. As such, the dean offers Charlie probational tenure, under the condition that Charlie focuses on his publication record and agrees to a largely reduced teaching load.

The movie closes with Charlie’s first day at a new job – as a high school English teacher. To the question why he gave up a career at the university in order to teach high school students, Charlie answers “because it is the only I’m good at”.

It may be best to start with why the tenure process does not seem appealing to me. Personally, I think that many schools put way too much emphasis on the importance of research as opposed to teaching. And the thing is, I do like both teaching and research, although I feel more rewarded through my interactions with students than through my research right now. Thus, a school with only a teaching focus would also not be appealing to me. However, my major concern about the tenure process is that  the most important measures for one’s evaluation is the number (and quality) of publications. While I know that it is not entirely “publish or perish”, it still comes close to that. The reason I find this to be a debatable indicator for the assessment of a faculty member is the fact that whether or not a paper is accepted is completely out of the writer’s hands. Add to that the quite hostile environment within Computer Science in terms of peer reviews, and it becomes even more likely that a paper with perfectly valid results may be rejected based on a reviewer’s disagreement with the approach used – even if that approach is valid as well.

Now, I know that peer review is not perfect and that this issue might be alleviated somewhat through Open Access (in fact, I will probably dedicate a future blog post to both issues). However, any hurdle to generating publications aside, the fact remains that the pressure to publish makes it harder to justify spending time on teaching and preparation for teaching rather than research. Thus it is not surprising to me that, in dialog with faculty, one can sometimes hear that someone is “buying out” of teaching by getting more grants. Why is it, then, that we cannot “buy out” of research in the same way? What makes research so much more important in the eyes of a university than the very reason why universities were established in the first place?

I don’t have answers for any of these questions. The only thing I know is that I am both a researcher and a teacher (and a developer, too, just to make things more interesting). In the end, my decision for or against academia will probably be based on whether I can find a place where I can pursue all of the things I love equally without having to sacrifice one for the other.



[1] Tenure on IMDb