by MERLIN CROSSLEY
When I was just finishing my doctorate in the early 90s a leading academic said to me – “focus on your research – university appointments, tenure decisions, and promotions, depend on research records, not teaching”.
I was surprised.
I had admired my own lecturers and I wanted to be like them.
I wanted to do good teaching as well as research. But I respected the advice and acted on it, while ensuring my teaching was always adequate (and as I enjoyed teaching, I hope it was sometimes better than just adequate!).
In the early 2000s several things locked in the dominance of individual research records in academic careers.
Research records became more quantifiable and visible. I vividly remember the first time I heard “H index,” and when the Web of Science made it possible to instantly identify anyone’s publications, citations, and H index – metrics! Academics were increasingly confident that if they were good at research, they would carry a visible record of undisputed achievement with them.
Then the sector-wide Research Assessment Exercises began (the RAE (later the REF) in the UK and ERA in Australia). Universities and academic disciplines were rated on their research achievements. New international league tables ranked universities on research. Not surprisingly, academics were urged to improve their research!
It was also a time when people were becoming aware of historic problems with nepotism and inbreeding. Universities welcomed apparently objective research metrics as a way of identifying new blood. And research disciplines were deepening. Sometimes not everyone on an appointment committee would understand every publication or have enough information to appreciate teaching quality. But everyone could discuss research metrics.
And university funding shifted. In the distant past universities relied on block grants for research. Now funding was increasingly project-based, and the block grants that persisted were allocated largely on research outputs. By appointing staff with good metrics and encouraging research, universities maximised the likelihood of securing funding that would support everyone’s futures.
It wasn’t that people didn’t care about teaching. It was that the developments in the sector meant that at the individual and whole university level prioritising research made sense. So, for most of my career I have seen many appointment, tenure and promotion decisions made primarily on the basis of individual research productivity.
I feel the world is changing again as digital technologies make teaching more visible. In my institution, UNSW, we are now appointing Education Focussed academics by considering their contributions to education and student support – even though we have fewer established metrics to look at.
And here’s a surprise. Yes, research metrics have been important, but it’s never been entirely about the metrics. Metrics have just been a way of identifying, or perhaps just avoiding arguments, about the energy of candidates for an academic job or for promotion.
Einstein told us that E=MC2. Energy and Mass are related. Energy and Metrics are often related too.
No one just looks at the numbers uncritically. But carefully interpreted Metrics can suggest that a candidate has Energy. This is true with publications, grants, conference presentations etc. Quality is important, sure. But above a threshold level of smartness quantity counts. Yes, the Metrics have biases, and one should discuss and correct for them. But one can get a feel for Energy – one can identify people who have had a goal and achieved it. This gives the committee confidence that the appointee will keep delivering on the ever-changing milestones of the university and the world.
So, here’s the thing. There now are a few visible Metrics around teaching. Developing them is important if we want to provide opportunities for great university teachers, invest in them, and bring in new blood.
In the Netflix show – The Chair – I was surprised that they talked about not only student feedback data but also the number of students attracted into classes. In our public university system having too few students is seldom a problem. But I can see that considering both student survey data and number of students is interesting – if one is careful to also check for bias and context (first year teachers often have more students and sometimes lower scores). I am impressed when I see academics take over classes and grow the enrolments. I’m also pleased when I see a preponderance of thoughtful and positive student comments in the surveys that show how much the teachers care.
As digitally supported education expands there will also be more information: on recorded classes, examples of innovations, shared ‘best practice’ at teaching conferences, awards, peer review of and professional development engagement in teaching, as well as more information on learning gain, attrition rates, student support, and student pathways. The list of visible measures that stick with Education Focussed academics throughout their careers will expand. It will be increasingly possible to identify the key characteristic – Energy – by looking at the Metrics.
But if E=MC2, what’s C?
It should be Collegiality. Or perhaps Community. One needs individual drive and dedication to focus the Energy, but one needs a community to share experiences and best practice. You also need a community to create a platform for esteem to match the prestige that exists in and drives achievements in the research communities.
If one can use emerging Metrics of teaching prowess and get a feel for Collegiality, the Energy of new academics will serve our students and our sector well in the future. Already universities are crammed with people who are driven to do research and can’t stop themselves. We also need to support those who have teaching and looking after the welfare of students in their DNA.
Professor Merlin Crossley
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life