Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Buying out of teaching - opinions?

This is a topic that comes up at many research universities, and I'd be curious for your opinions.  Some institutions formally allow researchers to "buy" out of teaching responsibilities.  Some places actively encourage this practice, as a way to try to boost research output and standing.  Does this work overall?  Faculty who spend all their time on research should generally be more research-productive, though it would be interesting to see quantitatively how much so.  Of course, undergraduate and graduate classroom education is also an essential part of university life, and often (though certainly not always) productive researchers are among the better teachers.  It's a fair question to ask whether teaching buyout is a net good for the university as a whole.  What do you think?


Alex said...

I know a lot of excellent researchers who also bring a lot of cleverness to their teaching. Buying out their load would increase their short-term productivity, but I think that their long-term creativity would suffer if they never taught. And, frankly, if you want to clarify your thinking about your subject, there's nothing like teaching an advanced course in your specialty or an adjacent specialty. It's even better than writing a review article.

OTOH, I'm not in a research university, and buying out a chunk of my 12 unit/quarter load would DEFINITELY boost my research productivity. Strangely enough, it would also improve my teaching, since the portion of my brain devoted to teaching would only have 1 class to focus on instead of 3-4.

Massimo said...

I am adamantly against allowing faculty to buy out their teaching. Many reasons, here the most important:
1) It's a university, not a national laboratory. Teaching is an integral part of the profession.
2) Research funding should be used to support students and postdocs and to buy equipment, not to hire some temp to do our teaching
3) We are not an ivory tower, we are embedded in a societal context. Find me a single person out there who won't go "huh ?" when they ask you what you are teaching this term and you tell them "eh, I am not teaching anything, screw that, I am buying myself out, hahaha".
4) There are fields where grants are bigger. Is it fair that those people get to teach less ?

OK, I do not have room for the remaining 3244 reasons...

Douglas Natelson said...

Massimo, you and I are on the same wavelength, generally speaking.... Moreover, as Alex points out, I think teaching stimulates my research to a degree. Of course, a super heavy teaching load slows down research progress, but there should be some middle ground. If we claim to value undergrad education, and we have the nerve to charge high tuition, then we have a responsibility to put our best teachers in the classroom. Given that research universities devalue teaching significantly, it's a foregone conclusion that the set of good teachers will significantly overlap with research active faculty.

Anonymous said...

I think it happens rarely enough to have a tiny effect on anything.

Anonymous said...

I don't see what the issue is if we're talking about buying out a single term every few years or so. Massimo suggests that research funds should always be used to hire personnel or buy equipment. But in some cases, wouldn't being able to spend more time with your group be more advantageous (both to your group and the research itself)? I would also argue that the training of graduate students is part of our educational mission as professors, hence buying out of teaching isn't necessarily a completely selfish act.

More generally, my experience is that research productivity and effort can vary considerably from faculty member to faculty member. Perhaps it isn't so crazy to imagine a system where faculty who are less engaged in research be asked to teach slightly more, thus allowing the occasional buyout by others in the department.

Massimo said...

Mmm... I was for some reason under the impression that Doug meant something like a permanent or semi-permanent buyout -- anything is allowed once in a while. But permanent buyouts are a different story.
The moment you allow a single faculty to buy himself out of the teaching all the time, how do you not allow everyone else to do the same, who has the means to do it (including faculty whose research record is not particularly impressive, but who happen to work in an area where funding is more abundant) ? Next thing you know, all of your first year classes are taught by TAs and/or part time lecturers. Is that a good thing ? Hell, no.

I think it happens rarely enough to have a tiny effect on anything.

I would be curious to know on what basis you would make such a statement. I have been at 5 different universities, and have witnessed many cases of professor not teaching at all thanks to buyout, including at teaching institutions. At some point in the mid 90s this became so pervasive a practice that even CBS "60 minutes" ran
a story about it.
Have things gotten much better since ?

Douglas Natelson said...

Just to clarify, Anon@11:33, I meant repeated buy-outs. I certainly know faculty here and elsewhere that raise enough research funding that they could credibly argue that they should be able to buy out of teaching quasi-continuously, if that were allowed. We all know people who virtually do this at some places (e.g., only teach a grad seminar course on exactly their research). Sure, the occasional semester off from teaching is not a bad thing. I'm more concerned with a system where research progress leads to teaching buy-outs, and feedback mechanisms tend to reinforce that (more productive researchers that have made buy-outs can continue to be more productive), while at the same time promotion and other advancement decisions hinge on research productivity.

Carl Brannen said...

I'm in favor of it. The teaching faculty does a better job and is more professional, so if a professor doesn't want to teach, he shouldn't have to.

One of the effects of having research profs teach 1st year grad courses is that the incoming students end up concluding that they're a combination of incompetent and uncaring. This is likely to get reversed when they teach in their discipline, but some students swear they'll never take another class from such professors.

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