Tuesday, April 29, 2008

So you want to work with undergrads: I. Expectations

This post is partly inspired by a post in last month's Scientiae about doing research at small colleges. (And that post was partly inspired by a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece entitled Big Research, Small College.)

I've taught at two undergrad-only colleges: one private liberal arts college on the East Coast, and one public liberal arts college in the Rockies. (I was also a student at a private liberal arts college. That made me want to teach at one, but it didn't teach me much about surviving.) Everything I'm going to say is based on my experience. One person, limited in time and institutions. All schools have their quirks, and SLACs may have more than most. And institutions change through time - the expectations when I was hired had changed within seven years, in both places. But I'm teaching at one right now, and that gives me a different perspective from professors at research universities (who may have been students at SLACs, or who may have run away screaming after a temporary teaching position, or who may know of SLACs mostly via grad students who came from them).

Oh, and for non-USAians - I don't think this kind of institution exists outside the US. And these schools are different from community colleges, and from small universities with M.S. programs. I've never taught at either of those, so I don't know what the work is like.

So, with those caveats, I'm going to do three posts. The first is going to deal with expectations: what exactly is involved in teaching at a SLAC? The second is going to deal with getting a job, and the third is going to deal with getting tenure. (Or not.)

So. Expectations.


Umm. Kim? Shouldn't teaching be the first category? I mean, these are the jobs for people who love working with undergrads, right? I've read the catalogs. "Teaching is our mission." So what's the deal with research?

I'm putting research first for a reason. The Chronicle of Higher Ed piece makes it sound as if you can do research at an undergrad institution, but really, you must. Not as much as at a research university, it's true. But you have to do it. And it's hard to know exactly how much, and what quality. And the expectations may change.

There are a lot of good reasons for doing research at an undergrad institution. For one, it's a good way to stay in touch with the field - doing research also means writing grant proposals and knowing what topics are currently hot and reading the literature. For another, research experiences are good for students. Good undergrad research projects let students get a taste of how scientists work. And there's nothing like a research project to test a student's critical thinking skills.

And then there are other reasons. Scientific research means grants, and grants mean money (including indirect costs). With pressure to keep tuition down, and limited possibilities for state funding, grants look like a good source of money to public colleges, especially. And undergraduate research enhances the prestige of the institution. (I suspect this was important to the private SLACs in the late 80's/early 90's, when my Baby Bust generation was going to college, and the SLACs had to convince students that they were as good as Princeton or Stanford. Hey, it convinced me, at least.)

So you do research, and you publish papers. What kind depends on the institution. (How important is it to have undergrad co-authors on your papers? How important is it to get an equipment grant? How many papers, and in which journals? Do you need to be a first author for a paper to count? Does continuing your research from grad school/post-doc count? Do grants count? Do unsuccessful grant proposals count, as the Chronicle article implied? (Not in my experience, at least.) Do pedagogy grants and papers count?) I don't have a good answer - these are things that are different from institution to institution, and from administration to administration, and from candidate to candidate. (One paper in seven years probably is not enough, though it might still be at some institutions, for the right person. One paper a year is probably plenty. And between that... I don't know. I was denied tenure when I had four papers, one grey literature field trip guide, and a couple small grants; I got tenure when I had nothing but a pedagogy paper, a third-authored paper, and a co-PI'd NSF equipment grant... but that was in three years.)

But I know one thing: you can't publish too much.


You can't publish too much, but you can lose your job if your teaching isn't good enough. And you generally don't get out of teaching for doing research, unless you get a grant that pays your salary during the academic year.

How much teaching? It depends. At the private SLAC, I taught four to five courses per year, most with labs. (I also taught nine different courses - that's nine different preps - in my first four years. Eleven courses in seven years.) At my current public SLAC, I teach six courses a year, most with labs, plus I have taught summer field camp a few times. (But I've only taught seven different courses, including field camp. And I had taught versions of most of them before.) Other private colleges have smaller teaching loads, depending on how they give credit for labs. Some also give new faculty a break.

And how good do you have to be? Ah. That's the real question. Teaching evaluations can be brutal, especially at private colleges. And there aren't many ways to evaluate how well students learn, as opposed to how much they like their professors. At my first school, the sciences lost around one junior professor a year to bad reviews resulting from student teaching evaluations.

It's difficult to balance the need to challenge students, and support students, and get good teaching evaluations, and publish.

What about Service? Don't you have to do Service?

Oh, yeah, service. You know... service takes care of itself. You get assigned to a few committees, you go to meetings, you get credit for service. It's basically a box that needs to be checked off - unlike research and teaching, it doesn't have to be excellent. I haven't found committee work to be overwhelming - in fact, it lets me get to know people across campus.

So... would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I like teaching a broad range of subdisciplines. I like working with students one-on-one in lab. I like spending time in the field with each research student, brainstorming with them, trying to remember to make them say what they see before I tell them. I like watching students transform into independent scientists. I like mentoring.

(If I had to do it again, though, I would have left the first job after a year or two. There were warning signs that things weren't going well, and I would have saved myself a lot of grief if I had paid attention to them.)

(Geoscience grad students/post-docs: if you want a broader range of advice, check out On the Cutting Edge. Their workshops for this year are full, but they've got general advice on the website.)


Ron Schott said...

Aspiring geology teachers, take note. My experience is similar enough to Kim's (albeit primarily at regional state universities) that I can attest to how valuable this hard-earned knowledge is. Her advice is very sound - ignore it at your peril.

1&2 said...

I'm probably mistaken, being a puny 1st year undergraduate, but I thought most 4-year degrees in the States incorporated some sort of independent research dissertation? It's certainly the case here: in 4th year, I'll have to write a (10,000 word, I believe) research project, and do a big mapping exercise. Admittedly, I have very limited exposure to the small liberal-arts university, as I live in the UK; most degree courses I've encountered are very focused on one subject.

Kim said...

1&2 - the amount of independent research required for undergrads varies a lot from school to school. Some schools require a research-based senior thesis (usually not called a dissertation here - dissertations are for the PhD). Some require a year-long project; others require a semester project. Some allow students to do a project in order to graduate with honors, but don't require it for everyone.

Mapping exercises are usually part of a summer field camp, and are separate from the senior research. (A lot of private liberal arts college don't require field camp at all - it's optional, generally done at another institution, and recommended for students interested in graduate school.)

Tuff Cookie said...

Kim's right about the variation, 1&2 - my undergrad institution had no geology grad program, but we did have a senior thesis requirement. I ended up doing an honors thesis, which required comprehensive exams, a 40-minute presentation and a defense before a committee, and a poster presentation at a GSA meeting. (Not in the undergrad section, either.) Very few of my friends from other schools did any kind of senior project, however.

We ended up not having a longer, formal field camp, but a field methods class and a once-a-year, one to three week field course. I took several, and then ended up doing an REU that my advisor was sponsoring for my senior research, but I didn't go to another school's field camp until after I graduated (the CSAV program at U of Hawaii).